The wind at your back

I decided today was Take Your Bike To Work Day and got a lesson in momentum.

When I watch professional cycling, I am awed by how powerfully they ride their bicycles, especially in the final few miles of a race when. The pace accelerates. The riders stretch out into a long, skinny line. They seem to fly, barely anchored to the Earth by their skinny tires, slipping through the air, power oozing from their legs, pushing faster and faster to the finish.

As an amateur and a working professional, I am not delusional enough to think I could ride like a professional. I've stood on a bike-race sideline as the pros screamed by. I've officiated races on my motorcycle where I've had to rip out all the power my 1300 cc Yamaha could give me to stay ahead of the pros as they fought each other to be first through a decisive corner. I've witnessed pro-cyclist power up close and it's an experience beyond my own abilities. Except for very rare occasions when I am on a ride and feeling good and strong and get a glimpse.

Today was one of those occasions.

I brought my bike to work today and a gap in my schedule allowed me to take off for ninety minutes at noon. A solo lunch ride. From our office in Goodyear, there is a bumpy route that heads south for five miles then loops through a neighborhood.

The cycling gods immediately demanded I pay penance for my recent lack of commitment to cycling by boiling up a nasty headwind. It was a hard start but I persevered; my legs felt good. Still nothing like a pro experience, but manageable. I was but a humble servant of the cycling gods pedaling my route, getting in my miles.

Ten or so miles in, the route loops around a man-made lake then heads back north. As soon as I made that turn for home, the gods paid me back for my loyalty. The wind I'd fought for 40 minutes was now squarely at my back. The gradient was also tilted in my favor; one or two degrees downhill.

The result of these elements aligning was that I flew on my bicycle. My legs spun furiously. I was able to sit in my biggest gear, giving the bike all the power it needed to speed along close to thirty miles per hour. For a long, beautiful stretch, I felt like a pro heading for home, all power and push and speed. All hail the mighty tailwind!

A mile or so from the office (and the end of the ride) I slowed down and contemplated the incredible natural benefit of a tailwind. Were tailwinds just pure luck? Could I take credit for the speed at which I rode that back half of my ride? Did I ride that fast? Or does Mother Nature get the credit (and I an asterisk)? Could I truly be happy it gave me its advantage?

I had just about downplayed my role in the awesomeness of my ride when something clicked; this tailwind gave me the experience of a pro ride because I was ready to take advantage of it. It didn't just blow me home. I had to pedal. My heart had to pump. My lungs, my muscles, my blood, all had to do its work. That 30 miles-per-hour ride wasn't all me, but it wasn't all tailwind either.

In a way, it was a deserving push; a benefit I had to be prepared to take advantage of. I have been riding. I have been eating better. I have planned to take on new cycling challenges and working to prepare myself to be ready by summer. I soared today, not because of the tailwind, but because I and the tailwind came together and the perfect moment in time.

It was a reminder that tailwinds will come, but you can only ride them to the greatest experience on a bike if you're fit and ready to fly when they give you a boost.

What about you? Where are the tailwinds you could encounter in your life? And will you be ready to take advantage of them?


When Opportunity Knocks

Not an ideal way to start a ride.

Opportunity presents itself in many ways.

Today, the opportunity was a flat tire before I even made it to the start of the group ride. The opportunity was to get creative on how to solve this problem without supplies or tools on hand. It was to decide whether to give up before the ride started, or find a way to get my miles in. It was the opportunity to decide that my goal for the week was more powerful than this temporary setback. It was the opportunity to chase the group, no matter how far off in the distance they seemed, taking shortcuts and whatever I needed to connect with my friends.

Opportunity. Where is it in your life right now?


Inside the mind’s of the world’s elite mountaineers

Mark Synott’s The Impossible Climb is a testament to what a human being can achieve if he’s willing to allow his own vision, develop his natural talents and skills, and challenge himself to life-or-death risk. It’s about the small but focused group of people who rock climb the towering, seemingly impossible walls of rock that pepper this beautiful planet of ours. Specifically, the book tells the story of rock climbing as a sport, culminating in the now famous free climb (ropeless and without any mechanical or safety aids of any kind) up the Freerider route of El Capitan in Yosemite by Alex Hannond.

The route, laid down in the past few decades and achievable by only a handful of human beings with safety and climbing aids, had never been free climbed. Immortalized in the film Free Solo, the climb epitomizes the way that some human beings are able to perform extraordinary (almost otherworldly) physical and mental achievements. Unlike the film, Synott’s book is not solely focused on what people in the tight-knit climbing community call the greatest physical achievement of any human being ever - Hannond’s El Capitan free solo. The book instead pulls at multiple threads to help the reader fully understand Hannond’s accomplishment.

Synott, a long-time member of North Face’s elite climbing team and contributor to National Geographic magazine opens the book by bringing us along as he discovers climbing at a young age. He helps us understand some of the technical terms, such as the way a climbs difficulty is measured and rated. He teaches us the difference between top-roping (climbing with the protection of a rope in place), leading (climbing ahead of the rope and placing it into bolts [hooks] drilled into the rock by prior climbers along the way), on-sight climbing (leading a climb successfully without ever having seen it before), and free climbing (climbing with no aid). He shares how some of the pitches (most long climbs are broken into the named section about the length of one climbing rope; Freerider, for example, is thirty-five pitches and takes an average of four days to complete forcing climbers to sleep in hanging bivouacs on the side of the mountain).

Synott also carefully builds our understanding of the history of climbing in Yosemite park, from the early pioneers who mapped the first routes, to the scruffy gangs of climbing maniacs who scoured and scored new paths up every massive wall in the valley in the past five decades.

Synott also does an amazing job of bringing the reader inside the dynamics of the ultra-climbing community. We see competition among styles of climbing (European alpine climbing versus the technical free-climbing typical in the Yosemite-bred clans). We learn of the unwritten rules that climbers operate under (when Hannond is on Freerider, for example, there are numerous anchors and bolts he could have used to make his climb easier and safer, but he eschews them all for the noble pursuit of actually pitting his human self against the natural features of the mountain).

We also learn the risks. The book describes numerous accidents and death; friends and colleagues lost to the sport. The book also takes us inside the risk, reward, safety, and purity arguments climbers have. All this groundwork lays down a foundation of respect and tension for the challenge Hannond took on for himself.

The book is a great read. Peering into the minds of this group of exceptional human beings is a humbling experience for an average person like myself. And even though the ending (Synott’s witness of Hannond’s great climb and Hannond’s ultimate triumph) is no surprise, the journey the book takes you on to fully appreciate what you witness at the end is well worth it.


Fearlessness is not Courage

Lessons from Matt D'Avella's Ground Up Show

Episode 94 - Success Doesn't Equal Happiness

The Ground Up Show is a compelling interview podcast which features creative people (filmmakers, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs) sharing the story of how they are accomplishing their dreams. Created and Hosted by Matt D'Avella (the documentary filmmaker who is best known for Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things), The Ground Up Show is insightful and inspiring. I listen every week and always manage to take three of four practical lessons from each episode. 

In Episode 94 of Matt D'Avella's Ground Up Show, Matt has a conversation with Alex Banayan, author of The Third Door, a book of interviews with successful people on how they launched their careers.

Banayan is somewhat of a prodigy. He began his quest to meet high-profile business leaders at only eighteen-years old and scored sit-downs with people like Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, Steven Spielberg, and dozens more.

The name The Third Door is a reference to what Banayan says he learned is the true path to success, the key to breaking through all barriers to achieving big things in life. He explains the concept this way: "It doesn't matter if it was Maya Angelou for poetry, or Jane Goodall for science, or Quincy Jones. Every single person I interviewed treated life and business and success the exact same way. The analogy that came to me - because I was twenty-one at the time - was that it was sort of like getting into a nightclub."

In a nightclub, Banayan says, "There are always three ways in. There's the first door, the main entrance, where the line curves around the block, where ninety-nine percent of the people wait in line hoping to get in... The second door is the VIP entrance, where the billionaires and celebrities go through... School and society have this way of making us feel like those are the only two ways in; you either wait your turn, or you're born into it. But what I've learned is that there's always, always a third door. It's the entrance where you jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open a window, go through the kitchen - there's always a way in... It's a mindset. It's a way of viewing your problems. When you have a third-door mindset, really what it gives you is a sense of possibility that there's always a way."

Success doesn't automatically lead to happiness

The conversation delves into the subject of how we define success. Banayan recalls meeting with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers. "Fifteen minutes before the interview, I get a phone call from one of my best friends... He's like, Woz is great, but he peaked twenty years ago... Try to find out why he wasn't as successful as Steve Jobs.'"

During the interview, his friend's question on his mind, Banayan digs into Wozniak's personal belief about success. Wozniak, he learned, rejected Western society's prescription for success. "He told himself when he was young 'What would I truly want to do that would make me happy?' He decided it was two things. One, to make things with his bare hands that uses engineering that changes the world. And two, to have fun while doing it." And Wozniak did seem happy. "Within ten minutes, it's undeniable that Steve Wozniak is the happiest person I've ever met. it doesn't matter if he's talking about his dog, or his cars, or his wife. Everything he talks about, he has this exuberant joy."

Still, Banayan's friend's question persisted. Did Wozniak compare himself to Jobs in terms of success? Woz explained that his relationship with Steve Jobs was fortuitous and powerful, but Jobs had a material-success focus. Banayan gave the example of when employees at the nascent Apple Computer wanted shares in the company just before the company's IPO. Jobs flatly refused. "Wozniak did the only thing he could think of. He gave some of his personal shares to these early employees. To him, they were like family. And on the day of the IPO, they all became millionaires." When asked what leadership he role he wanted in the ever-growing business (and he was assured he could pick any), Wozniak asked that his role be capped at Engineer.

"Who's to say Steve Jobs was more successful?"

So should Wozniak be seen as successful in comparison to Jobs? Banayan said his takeaway from the interview was that Wozniak's pattern of decision making, which favored personal satisfaction and happiness over the material-wealth-at-all-costs dream we're spoon fed to desire, gave him a different form of success than his more-famous business partner. "I'm sitting back at this Chinese restaurant with Wozniak. He's sitting back on his chair. He's laughing. He's smiling... And again, the question my friend asks me pops into my head. And the only thing I can think is, who's to say Steve Jobs was more successful?"

The danger of over-persistence

During the podcast, Banayan said when he started out on his mission to interview the world's most successful business people, that Warren Buffet was his dream interview. He attacked the goal of meeting Buffet the way he believed he should; with relentless persistence, writing, emailing and calling Buffet's secretary repeatedly. "Every week, I would send him a new letter. And every Wednesday, I would call his assistant. After three months of being rejected, it really hurts. By month six, you're coughing up blood. I'm twenty years old at the time too, so my sense of identity is completely attached to this project and this mission. By month eight, I'm completely dejected."

In the meantime, he managed to secure an interview with Buffet ally Bill Gates. "The interview with Bill Gates went so well that at the end, Gates' office said 'Let us know how we can help.' I'm like, Well, you know, I could use some help with Warren Buffet." They told him it was an easy ask, that Gates and Buffet were best friends. But, "I get an email a couple of weeks later saying 'Please, no more messages to Warren's office.'"

"You can pound on a door so many times, that instead of knocking it down, they call the police on you."

Banayan says he learned a lesson that is not taught enough. "Every business book talks about the value of persistence. But no business book warns you about the dangers of over-persistence, where you can pound on a door so many times, that instead of knocking it down, they call the police on you. I had dug myself in such a deep hole, even Bill Gates couldn't pull me out."

The difference between courage and fearlessness

The conversation moves on to the subject of hustle culture, the pervasive idea that the winners in life are the ones who have outworked everyone else. Banayan shares a perspective on the root of this belief and challenges it.

"Many times when people try to out-grind or out-hustle, it comes from (our) original fear. Thich Nat Hanh, the really famous Zen monk, talks about original fear... The second you come out of the womb is the first time you ever experience fear, the fear of death... You were in this womb where everything was taken care of for you. You had this umbilical cord, you have the embryonic sack. You were, in many ways, in heaven... All of a sudden you're in a room with bright light. You have to start breathing. There's liquid in your throat, choking you. You come into this world choking and about to die... That's original fear; trying not to die."

"Fearlessness is jumping off a cliff and not thinking about it... Courage... is acknowledging your fears... and then deciding you care so much about it, you're still going to take one thoughtful step forward anyway."

That original fear, Banayan says, manifests itself throughout life; as fear of death in the form of failure, or fear of death in the form of living a life that didn't matter. "When I started working on the book, when I was eighteen, I was completely consumed by fear. So naturally, one of my biggest questions was how did all these other people, who achieved these monumental things, relate to their fear? I just assumed that Bill Gates or Elon Musk had to be fearless, or else how else would they do what they did?"

Banayan says he was surprised about the role of fear in his interview subject's lives. "Not only were these people scared, they were completely terrified... It wasn't fearlessness they achieved. It was courage. And while it sounds similar, the difference is critical... Fearlessness is jumping off a cliff and not thinking about it. That's idiotic. Courage, on the other hand, is acknowledging your fears, analyzing the consequences, and then deciding you care so much about it, you're still going to take one thoughtful step forward anyway."

Subscribe to The Ground Up Show on YouTube or Apple Podcasts. Matt D'Avella has a Patreon page if you want to support him directly as well.


Lessons from Matt D’Avella’s Ground Up Show

Episode 92 - Slow Fashion, with Dani Nagel

The Ground Up Show is a compelling interview podcast which features creative people (filmmakers, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs) sharing the story of how they are accomplishing their dreams. Created and Hosted by Matt D'Avella (the documentary filmmaker who is best known for Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things), The Ground Up Show is insightful and inspiring. I listen every week and always manage to take three of four practical lessons from each episode

In episode 92 of The Ground Up Show podcast, host and creator Matt D'Avella interviews Dani Nagel, founder of fashion brand Dazey L.A. Dazey is what Nagel calls slow fashion; the counterpoint to the high-volume, low-quality, disposable-clothing approach of the fast-fashion industry.
Nagel makes clothing only on demand, once it's ordered, with minimal inventory. She uses locally-sourced materials and manufacturing. And her designs speak to theme's she's passionate about (her current collection contains messaging around sisterhood and unity and the roles those themes play within feminism, for example).

Nagel came to the slow-fashion movement from within the fast-fashion industry. As a tee-shirt designer at Macy's, she says "I just remember walking out to the warehouse and seeing like 5,000 units of this tee shirt design I did. (It) was just a dumb design. And I was like, where is all this all gonna go?" She says she realized that these shirts were never meant to last, that she was contributing to what she says is the second-most polluting industry in the world (behind fossil-duels). She then discovered the documentary True Cost, which highlights the toxic downside to fast fashion.

Nagel's fascinating Ground Up story starts with a fashion degree, then takes off when she's fired from a job for working freelance gigs off the clock against company policy. Here are my main takeaways from the episode:

Sometimes we leap, sometimes we're pushed

Nagel told Matt that after she earned her fashion degree, rather than pursuing her own apparel business right away, she took jobs in the fast-fashion industry. "Every young fashion designer wants to have their own clothing line," she says. "It's not realistic though. So I put that dream in the back of my mind and got an internship with a tee-shirt company. It had never dawned on me that I could do art and design and fashion fused into one thing. After that internship, I decided I was going to be a tee-shirt designer."

The internship led to a job, based in San Diego. The job led to others. "I got a job with Macy's in L.A. Then I got a job at Urban Outfitters. I was a job hopper." But a job hopper with a solid work ethic. "I put my head down and worked. I was a design machine. I would sit there, all day, and pop out designs."

With the dream of her own line still buried in the back of her mind, she landed at Hot Topic, "Which had an awesome company environment. They treated their employees like family." That comfort led to complacency though. And the dream started to surface. "It was so cushy and nice (at Hot Topic) that I got bored. I started listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship. I started doing some secret freelance work on the clock. I started posting my work online."

The challenge she was about to encounter was that as a corporate designer, her employer owned the rights to all her work output. "They saw me posting stuff on Instagram and that was it. I was fired."

With a head full of entrepreneurship content, Nagel launched into freelancing. She had to admit failure just a few months later and went back to designing for someone else.

Prepare for what you can, accept what you can't

Nagel said she failed at her first attempt to build a freelance business because "I had no game plan. I just thought I was going to make it work. I was listening to these podcasts, to these entrepreneurs doing amazing things, and I ran out of the gate believing I was going to do this, that I'm awesome." Besides no game plan, Nagel says she also suffered because "I was so used to that corporate paycheck that I couldn't handle the stress in between freelance gigs."

She went to work for a startup, a move she credits as vital to her development. "I was able to do things I was not able to at the corporate company." She gained experience in marketing, social media, photography. "Working with a startup is an awesome way to dip your toe in and get that experience that you don't get with your (limited corporate) job."

As well as gaining valuable work experience to apply to her own business, Nagel used the time at the startup to ready herself for the challenges she knew she'd encounter when she next took the entrepreneurial leap. Risk-averse and conservative financially by nature, she had been saving money for some time. "I was able to save up money and have a freelance plan," she says. "Saving up gave me the freedom to start my own business. And building up a freelance base kept me afloat for the first six months of my brand. That was huge."

She also had a much better perspective of what could happen if she tried again, and still fell short of her goal. "People get so in their head imaging the worst-case scenario. Sometimes you have to sit down and be like, really, what is that worst-case scenario? And is it really that bad?" For Nagel, she knew she would have to go back to designing for a bigger company. "Is getting a job again that bad? I had a decent resume. It was a little embarrassing when I got fired, failed at freelancing, and had to get a job again. But I was fine."

Build the team that expands your possibilities

Nagel left the startup to launch Dazey L.A. in 2016. From there, her Ground Up lessons are about the journey of building and growing a sustainable creative business. The first was to invest more than just money into her business.

Nagel said at first, her business was the combination of all her passions in one. She was the designer, sourced the materials, took the photographs, built the marketing, and posted all social media. It was a grind at times, but she was doing all the things she loved. "I wanted to do it all. And I had the energy to do it all. I was just so excited." But, she says, she had set an unsustainable pace. "I was just working too damn hard." She needed help.

"It took me a while to hire my first employee," she admits. "Once I finally crossed that threshold and did it, I realized it opened up so much more time for me to make more money and spend time on marketing the brand."

Hiring allowed Nagel to focus on the things she was best at, the things that could grow her company and today, her small team handles the day-to-day operations. "I know what I'm good at. I'm good at creativity. I'm good at branding and marketing. I'm bad at logistics. I'm bad at software. So I found people who are good at that stuff, people who are way more organized and almost keep me on top of things. They give me the freedom to focus on being creative and focusing on social media and Instagram."

Let go of anything not moving you closer to your goals

As well as investing in building a team, Nagel's Ground Up journey led her to understand that to be successful, you have to be thoughtful about how you direct your company's energy and resources. Nagel now regularly takes stock of everything the company is doing and make smart decisions about what to let go of.

One example: "We were focusing on wholesale," she says. "We realized that wholesale was a fraction of the money we were making compared to direct-to-consumer sales and (sales from) our ambassador program, yet we were putting the same amount of effort into it. So we decided to put (wholesale) on the backburner and focus on the things that made us more money."

Another example was the company blog. "As much as I loved to blog about things, and share images and thoughts, it just wasn't getting the views that were worth the effort that I was putting into it. My time was becoming increasingly valuable." So instead of continuing to invest her time and energy into creating blog content, she found someone to take that task on.

Dazey L.A. is currently hard at work on their next collection (around themes of authenticity and vulnerability). Nagel also recently co-founded the female co-working space Biz Babez in downtown L.A.

Subscribe to The Ground Up Show on YouTube or Apple Podcasts. Matt also has a Patreon page if you want to support him directly as well.