Finding my feet
I’m really excited. I’m jumping around backstage, loosening up. I’ve got to pee, I think. I’m thirsty, but drinking now will guarantee I have to pee while on stage. The volunteers are smiling and trying to help me relax, but I’m not interested in relaxing, I’m on the Hillary Step and about to plant my flag.
It’s difficult to imagine right now, but two years prior, I was contemplating speeding my car towards an oak tree at the bend on the A59.
I landed in England back in 2005 at the height of the last big boom in the economy. Full of hope and optimism, I quickly got to work building something from nothing. I raised millions for various social impact ventures, including my own venture, Shine (a 40,000 sqft hive).
I won awards. I was on TV and in the papers. I was invited to No. 10 Downing Street where I had a private meeting in the famous Queen’s Room. Hell, I met the Prime Minister when he visited our business two times over 3 years.
Don’t let the party favours fool you. It wasn’t all rosy; there were many, many obstacles and missteps along the way. But, my trajectory was mainly upward.
In 2007, when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, I took up running to support her and feel some connection while she suffered on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. I told my mum, “I’m running to feel the pain with you.” Ridiculous, I know. I ran a marathon in 2008. This unleashed a 7 year obsession with running. This included insane amounts of miles across the trails in the Yorkshire countryside. My mum is a survivor. And in a much, much smaller way, so am I. Running was the perfect drug for me. The footpaths in the countryside fed my curiosity while the remote quietness calmed my brain.
Seven years into this entrepreneurial gig, and 5 years after I started Shine, I left my role as leader of Shine in 2012.
I spent the next 2 years picking up consulting gigs and wondering what to do next. Despite making lots of money during this period, I found the whole idea of leaving something I started, well, gut wrenching.
To make matters worse, I had no clue what to do next. The idea machine inside my brain was malfunctioning. So I doubled down on plowing ahead. I didn’t question what I should do, or why I should be doing it. I figured I could just bulldoze my way to another success.
Without a clue about my direction of travel, I began to walk in circles. I became lost. And this was exacerbated by living in one of the least creative corners of the world.
You see, this corner of the world, northern England, is industrious. It’s beautiful. It has heart. Does it value and cultivate creativity? Not really.
Add to this reality a cynical English attitude that pervades the business culture, and you can begin to imagine the toll it might take on creative, optimistic people building businesses in England.
It had always bugged me, the lack of optimism, but I had never really stopped long enough to think about it. I had never fully considered what it meant to get up everyday and bring my authentic self to a culture that simultaneously heralded and disparaged my spirit.
It was a dark shadow almost always hanging over me. But, I wasn’t fighting anyone. There wasn’t an enemy to overcome, because most people this side of the pond are lovely. Cynical, pessimistic, and cautious, but lovely. That’s probably why I hadn’t realised the seriousness of my situation until that dark day in August 2014 when I sat on my bed and cried like a baby.
It suddenly occurred to me that I was lonely. I had stopped meeting people. I had stopped exploring. I’d built a wall around myself since leaving Shine. I hadn’t seen my family in the USA for several years. My marriage was a battlefield. In four words: I didn’t fit in.
It turns out, I was a wreck. And I was the last to know.
This emotional breakdown probably saved my life. I realised why I felt compelled to drive my speeding car towards that tree on the A59. Before, it just felt like it was maybe the right thing to do. Because I now understood why I felt that way, I felt I could solve the problem, solve me.
A lifetime of positivity also played a role in saving my life, because I just couldn’t see me until I broke. I needed to apply the same attention to my heart that I had paid to building businesses and running.
The climb back was interesting, if not surprising. I started to get in front of people again, to really connect and work with people. I was looking for my mojo.
Luckily, this thing—the crying, the break, the realisation, or whatever you’d like to call it—saved my marriage as well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it took the brutal honesty of the situation to force us to wipe away the destructive behaviour and recapture that spirit which had brought us together over a decade prior.
And so my partner supported me as I climbed back out of my hole.
And who should I meet just as I peaked over the edge? A lovely chap called Ned. A tower of a man who exudes empathy and expertise in equal parts. Imagine a great teacher, and you’re half way there.
We danced around a few ideas after meeting up while on a joint assignment, but it wasn’t long before we we took a walk in the park on a hot sunny day in late spring and literally agreed to start something together. That something would become what we now call daCunha.
The summer wore on and, that winter, I was lucky enough to meet a real life Hollywood actor. Dominic was as nice a person as you could ever hope to meet. He was with a troupe of other amazing actors who unknowingly gave me quite the boost as I continued to find my feet.
The following summer, in 2015, I got an email from the fabulous Cristina. She wanted to translate my writing into Spanish for Medium Espanol. Shortly thereafter we Skyped. My first questions, “Why me, why my writing?”
I was meeting people again, finding my feet and feeling the love.
It was awesome.
Later that summer, I happened upon a hilarious piece of writing about old people in the olympics. It had me in stitches and soon after I was connecting with the author, the lovely Veronica.
It was Veronica’s generosity of spirit and refreshingly direct manner that blew me away. By this time my writing was stalling and I was struggling to create. Veronica told me to have the courage to write about myself. She said, “Get off the sidelines and tell us what you think, not what we should think.”
Fast forward nearly 18 months…
My first rehearsal is atop an office building on a sunny, windy spring day in York. Dominic, that former Hollywood actor, is taking me through my paces, but it’s the advice he gives me that changes everything. The kind of advice that transforms a presentation into a performance. Dominic said to me, “Don’t memorise your lines, live your story.”
From that day, I never looked at the script again.
Twenty-seven rehearsals later and two hours before I’m about to take the stage, Ned’s still finding the energy to support and listen to me. His encouragement and ability to be a critical friend make my forthcoming talk into a story. Not present in the green room, but ever present in the way I’ve written the story I’m about to perform is Veronica. I was about to tell people what I thought.
Later that morning, following a few more jumping jacks backstage, I’m introduced to the audience of 300 people by the producer of the TEDx, Cristina. Yes, that Cristina.
It was a tough climb, getting up on that stage earlier this year. Once I was up there, I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m thankful for the team effort that made it happen. I’m grateful for the friends who pulled me along.
Here’s what we created…enjoy!
And this was only the beginning….
In my next missive, I’ll be pulling back the curtains to have a closer look at the foundations of my house as I explore what part love plays in my business? And I’m not talking about wedding dresses.
But, before we get all cozy, what do you think about curiosity as a superpower? Why does so much creativity arise from so much turmoil? Or maybe you think that’s just folklore?
I’d love to hear your thoughts…
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