In September of 2016 I took a road trip to Washington, D.C., to attend a conference put on by Vox.com. It was one of those conferences where you had to essentially submit a policy paper to get in. Because I had spent some time that year speaking on the future of creative work I wrote mine on that topic and was excited that they extended an invite my way.
Beyond just being invited to the conference, though, this road trip meant a lot to me, largely because it was my first time to D.C. and I couldn’t wait to be a tourist.
It also meant a lot because I had a lot on my mind and I was looking forward to having almost four days of total drive-time to be alone with my thoughts.
At the time, I was running a marketing agency that I had helped start with some friends in 2011. I was still working with most of those friends six years later, we were growing at a steady clip, and I was feeling good about the direction of the company. But something just wasn’t sitting right and I wasn’t sure what it was. This was also peak election season, and the rhetoric and divisiveness was making my head spin — what used to be “national” quickly got personal in a way I hadn’t seen in my lifetime. So as I prepped for my road trip, I did what I always do when I travel and downloaded a bunch of new music, podcasts, and audiobooks. As soon as I got out of Travis County, TX, though, I realized I didn’t want to listen to anything, really. So I drove mostly in silence. 23 hours there. 23 hours back.
Then, in late-November, Amanda and I decided we wanted to head back to California for Thanksgiving. Amanda’s mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few years prior and had been in remission. But in late 2015, she was told that the cancer was back, and much worse, as stage four bone, lung, and liver cancer. She seemed to be doing really well all those months later after the initial diagnosis but we wanted to be safe, so we decided we needed to make the trek out (I’m glad we did, as my mother-in-law lost her battle with cancer in early December). But instead of flying we decided to load up our car and bring our lifelong friend Tim, his dog, Marla, and our dog, Max, along. Furry friends in tow, we pretty much listened to the Hamilton soundtrack there and back, Amanda performed it non-stop.
Finally, after the dust settled on the 2016 presidential election and its less-than-expected outcome, I ended up with another opportunity to get on the road. This time, a group focused on electing a new generation of leadership across the country called The Arena was hosting their first conference in Nashville, and some friends from Austin recommended that I go. So I asked my friend, Michael Henderson — maybe the most civic-minded, community-focused leader I know — to join me for another crazy road trip. In order to make it on time for the opening session at 7 p.m. in Nashville, we had to leave Austin at 3:30 a.m. on Friday. That meant two days of conferences on Friday and Saturday, driving home all day Sunday. We got in at 5 a.m. Monday, and went back to work like nothing happened on Monday morning. Our soundtrack for that trip was mostly A Tribe Called Quest and a ton of conversation.
Throughout the course of these drives I realized that the reason “the future of work,” policy, politics, American history, and running a business are interesting to me in the first place is this:
I really love people.
I think I had forgotten that over the last few years as I tried to grind it out and “make it.”
And now I had “made it” — at least in my own eyes and in the eyes of some people around me, to some degree—but I had lost what made me want that kind of leadership position in the first place, and was acting in ways that I knew were inconsistent with the kind of character standard I wanted to hold myself to.
So the reason I was so unsettled last year had little to do with the company I was running, or the election buzzing in the background.
Nobody was holding me back.
I had just been grinding for so long I hadn’t given myself the space to develop clarity around my own personal values. And I hadn’t given myself the permission to clarify them in case doing so meant I might have to step down from my position at Toi. I was comfortable. But as I started to spend more time thinking, learning, and in conversation with friends, leaders and mentors I respect, I realized I can sum up my personal values as such:
I want to know, serve, and love people.
I want to be in a state of constant learning.
And I want to live a life of integrity where I do what I say I’m going to do.
So my hunch turned out to be correct and, after really clarifying those values, I stepped down as CEO of Toi in June of this year.
Not because I couldn’t have lived out those values at Toi (I could have, and was in many respects), but because I felt strongly that I wanted to explore how I could apply those values elsewhere and holding the job of CEO meant I shouldn’t be focused on anything else.
Since then I’ve been consulting, focused on leadership and business development, marketing and messaging, working with larger companies, VC funds, startups, accelerators, and incubators in Austin and around the country. I’ve also been volunteering my time as often as possible, working with organizations like the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Austin Tech Alliance. I was recently elected to the Friends of Austin Neighborhoods’ board of directors, working to build strong neighborhoods and communities to make sure Austin can walk the line as a city that needs to balance growth and affordability; and asked to join Doing Whatever It Takes’ advisory board to help bring entrepreneurial thinking and opportunities to high school students all around the country.
In addition, earlier this year, I very seriously and quietly explored a run for office, but have decided to instead focus on helping elect smart, pragmatic, progressive leadership here in the state of Texas for now. So I’m working with Joseph Kopser to help retire thirty-ish year incumbent Lamar Smith in TX-21st district.
I’m also humbled to have been selected as part of 2018’s Leadership Austin Emerge class. Leadership Austin has been so influential in making sure Austin stays people, community, and leadership-focused as a city, and so many of the local leaders I look up to have gone through this program I’m excited to be challenged.
Lastly, I’ve simply been trying to spend time with my wife, family, friends and neighbors with no agenda whatsoever, other than to get to know them better.
If there’s one thing I know it’s that when I took that road trip in September of last year I knew something was going to change.
What I didn’t know was that the scope of that change wouldn’t just be focused on me. That everybody was feeling it. That our culture’s tone and rhetoric would continue careening so rapidly down a path of division and fear.
I realized on those drives from Austin to D.C., California, and Nashville, that while I often call for change in areas of life I have no control over and call for compassion for “the least of these” in cities all around this country, I’m not doing enough to love and serve my own neighbors.
That while I’m often very outspoken about a bill in the United States House of Representatives, I’m often unaware of what’s being considered down the street from me at Austin City Hall.
That while I would gladly get on a plane to fly to another country or another part of this country and help them rebuild after a natural disaster, I may not always be inclined to show up in my own city or state to help clean up a mess.
That while I will tweet and post on Facebook about today’s civil rights issues, I sometimes have a hard time just looking my African American, Latino, Muslim, gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors in the eye because there’s no way I can understand some of the pain they experience on a day to day basis.
That while I’ll show up and play Monopoly with refugees, I may never do so with my neighbors.
That while I preach reconciliation, I sometimes ignore opportunities to have real conversations with my own father because I don’t want to deal with the fact that we’ll likely not see eye to eye on something.
This aversion to each other has to change.
And we can change it.
We just have to really, really, really want it.
What’s next is that, for now, I’m just going to keep working and stay focused on loving people.