The year is 1992.
I'm not quite 18 when I travel from Olney, Maryland to Tempe, Arizona to start my freshman year at Arizona State University. Based entirely on my SAT scores (my high school GPA was underwhelming), I am admitted to the Honors College.
In those days, the Honors College had small classrooms and a dormitory in the center of campus. I elected not to live there, as I was not interested in sharing a cramped suite with three other young men. But I had made friends there, and I spent a fair amount of time there that first semester. Evenings were filled with study and socialization, with activities ranging from impromptu political campaigning for the Presidential election (Ross Perot was a particular favorite) to the discovery of a brilliant new television series on MTV called "Beavis and Butt-Head."
It was during one of those evenings that I met an extroverted Asian fellow (well, half-Asian; his mother was Korean). I naturally assumed he was a student at the college (I mean, Asians are all honors students, right?)
"No. I'm just here with a few friends. My dad's not the Asian one, so I didn't have that kind of pressure."
I don't really recall how or why we started hanging out after that. At some point, it occurred to both of us that we wanted someone to work out with at the gym, so we just started going. Then we realized we both rode motorcycles, so that's what we did on the weekends - mostly cruising Mill Avenue picking up chicks.
His name was Jim Welch. He was my best friend for nine years.
Your late teens and early 20's are when you're supposed to come of age. When you're supposed to figure it out. I'd like to believe that I figured a few things out, but in hindsight, I see an awful lot of screwing up.
I didn't finish college. Neither did Jim. I met a girl while I was in college (so did Jim). It didn't last (neither did Jim's). I hustled my way out of poverty (so did Jim). By our mid-20's, things had settled down. We both had good jobs, new cars, and were doing about as well as you could expect for pair of clowns whose college highlights included getting arrested for illegal rollerblading on campus and collecting speeding tickets for drag racing through Sky Harbor Airport.
(Truth is, I was the only one arrested for the rollerblading - because Jim was too fast for them to catch. And I had more speeding tickets... because Jim usually just outran the police. That's kind of how it was; Jim was just a little bit better at everything.)
He had more friends than I could keep track of. He'd invite me to parties where he'd know everyone, and I'd know almost no one. It didn't seem to matter. He was the one I called when shit went sideways for me in Tucson and I needed to get back to Phoenix. And I was the one he called when he got kicked out of the house by his dad, who was divorcing his mother. He was the rare sort of friend who would help you get rid of a body, but wasn't quite stupid enough to get in that much trouble in the first place.
It was nice. Like having a brother your own age that didn't live 1,000 miles away. The kind of friendship where you figure someday your kids are going to end up being friends, because you're still going to be hanging out 15 years later.
That was, until one evening in 1999.
I don't remember the exact date. It was at an intramural softball game. Jim just collapsed in the middle of the field. As he told me later, he remembered waking up in the ambulance, getting defibrillated. Doctors at the E.R. asked him if he had a drug or drinking problem. He was otherwise fit, and they couldn't figure why a 25 year old would suddenly drop nearly dead from a heart attack. They started testing for congenital defects.
What they found was worse.
They told me it was called Primary Cardiac Angiosarcoma. It was like winning the lottery for rare and terrible cancers. What it meant was that he had a tumor the size of a baseball on the wall of his heart. They'd have to remove as much of it as they could surgically, then hit him with chemo and radiation, because it would almost certainly enjoy a healthy blood supply and grow and spread quickly.
So, they cracked his ribcage open and cut out as much as they could. Recovery was long and arduous, because healing from open heart surgery while you're getting poisoned and irradiated sucks. It was months.
I visited him every day after work, and every weekend. His mother was the only one to see him as frequently during that time. His dad never did; he'd run off to somewhere in the Pacific Northwest to be with another woman.
By early 2000, he was finally ready to leave the hospital. He wasn't quite done, but he'd earned a break. I remember the day vividly. My wife asked me before I left for work if I'd be going to see him again. "Yes, he's getting out this evening. Cody and I are taking him to dinner." Cody was another friend of ours from the ASU days.
While we were at dinner, she called me on my cell phone to ask if I was still out with him. I told her I was.
"Well, good. Don't come home for a while. I'm moving out."
Jim just laughed.
It was exactly the right response.
At the time, I was devastated. Angry. How could she? Was she mad I wasn't spending enough time with her because I was helping my friend get through cancer?
It wasn't really that. She had far bigger demons to deal with, and I was nowhere near equipped to help her with them. In my rage, I cursed her, and told people that her reckless and stupid behavior would end up leaving her dead by 40.
She died a few years ago at 41 and I felt pretty shitty about that.
Karma eventually settled that debt for me. It took me a while to come to terms with that, but it made the hell that was my second marriage a little easier to accept.
But that is another story, for a much later time.
It was a few months of "normal" before Jim had to go back for more surgery. He'd been referred to a specialist at Cedars Sinai who wanted one more open-heart operation to remove the last of the cancer and repair the damage to his heart. Another round of chemo after that, and he should be in remission.
We traveled to L.A. a few days ahead of the surgery to take in the sights before he went under the knife. I remember renting a convertible and driving all over with the top down. The Real Slim Shady was on every radio station. I nearly barfed on the Goliath rollercoaster at Six Flags. We had booze and cigars on the beach at sunset.
The surgery went well. Chemo was handled at the hospital back in Phoenix as soon as he was healthy enough to travel back. And then, remission. Life could move on.
The problem with a year long fight with cancer is that it's tough to go back to your old job. Jim was in sales, and all of his accounts had been passed along to other reps. He'd have to start all over, and if he was going to do that, he might as well see if he could find a better gig.
He did. It was in Denver. He moved, and started a new life there.
I remained in Phoenix. It was a dark time.
A few months later, Jim called.
The cancer was back. He was going to be in a hospital in Denver.
I couldn't be there for him on a daily basis this time - I had a job in Phoenix, and remote work wasn't a thing back in those days.
The thing is, I never even went to Denver.
I just couldn't bring myself to do it.
Like maybe if I didn't see my friend in the hospital again, I wouldn't have to deal with it. I was trying to restart my own life. I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman that I was sure was the one. I wanted to make that work. I didn't want to go through 1999 again.
I made lots of excuses.
I regret every one of them.
But not as much as the mistake I made on June 21.
Jim was coming back to Phoenix.
The cancer was bad. It was in his spine now. Nothing was working to slow it down. He was bloated and almost unrecognizable from the steroids they were pumping him with.
He called me the afternoon of June 21 to tell me he was on his way back. He was in pain. I can still hear it in his voice. I told him I would try to come out to his place tomorrow to see him - it was a Thursday. I was working late. I had to work early the next day. I'd head out as soon as I could leave the office.
He died early in the morning of June 22.
That was twenty years ago today.
I have not gotten over it.
I have not forgiven myself for it.
I never will.
I saw his mother later that day. She wailed and cried and asked why I hadn't come to see him.
I did not have an answer for her.
I'm not writing this out of some need to process it.
I have processed it entirely over the last two decades. It remains a defining moment that I spent years wallowing in. Once I'd wasted a decade or so doing that, I decided to spend the rest of my life fighting it, just to make sure it never happens again.
Regret is a motherfucker, especially once people are dead and gone. There's no repairing the damage done. You're forever branded by it.
I'm writing this because, maybe, someone will avoid this mistake upon reading this.
And I'm writing because James Welch deserves to be remembered. Even if it's just by his lousy best friend.
I dropped out of college in the dead of winter.
Fortunately, I was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time.
Less fortunately, my only transportation was a motorcycle, and I had a thirty minute commute to my first full-time job.
And my shift started at 3 a.m.
It was still pretty cold.
I won't get into the details around my truncated college experience here, because that's a series of screw-ups that are better left for another time. This story begins with me going to a job fair for America Online one afternoon and demonstrating enough technical aptitude during the initial screening for them to offer me a job on the spot. It paid eight bucks an hour.
The minimum wage at the time was $4.25, so I felt like some kind of genius. I accepted the offer without every considering that I'd be working a graveyard shift (they didn't mention that until I was through orientation; shifts were re-assigned every six months, and you got to select your preference based on seniority).
I had also been hired shortly after they'd stopped offering stock to their employees - another kick in the ass that I didn't quite grasp at the time
Call center jobs are generally pretty terrible. And working a call center doing technical support for people who can't get their America Online service working in the wee hours of the morning has got to be close to the bottom of the spectrum. If you don't remember life before broadband, I'll explain: The internet was a primordial soup of what can only be described as chaotic garbage, and you paid by the minute for the privilege of wading into it. You had to dedicate your phone line to this process, which was a real inconvenience, as nobody really had mobile phones.
If you were fancy, you had a second landline installed at home. If you were wealthy or stupidly committed to the effort, you got ISDN (look it up, I'm not explaining it here, but, yes, I had it once). If you were normal, you told everyone in the house when you were about to get online so that they wouldn't pick up the phone while you were connected, because that would immediately cut you off. If you had caller ID on your line, you had to remember to disable it in your modem string.
And that was where I lived for eight months. Modem strings. The arcane codes you sent to your modem right before dialing the number to your ISP to ensure you had the most stable possible connection. AOL's software would try to automatically guess the best possible string, but when it missed, and people had bad connections, or couldn't connect at all, they called me.
If you bought a shitty computer, or installed a shitty modem in your computer, you'd have problems. Back in those days, a lot of shady companies sold 9600 bps modems with compression and labeled them at 14.4k bps (which was near top speed at the time). You needed a string that would tell the modem to behave at its real speed, because AOL already had compression running and would barf on the modem's sad attempt to do the same. People would get mad that AOL wouldn't give them the full 14.4k speed that they paid for. I learned a lot of very polite ways to tell people not to be cheapskates.
(Dial up modems would eventually top out at 56k. ISDN got you 128k. Imagine paying a fortune for garbage bandwidth like that... we did, and we liked it.)
For eight months, my life was 3 a.m. modem strings and generally surly insomniac AOL addicts. I saw things, man. I heard things. I had a bell on the top of my monitor that I would ring every time I heard a caller flush a toilet. You learn to find humor in the little things. But I finally quit after getting passed over for a promotion that would have taken me off the call center floor. I couldn't do it anymore. I was drinking a gallon of coffee a day and reciting modem strings in my sleep, according to my girlfriend at the time.
But I learned a thing or two along the way.
AOL was my first job, and at the time I was proud of it. It was a company that everyone had heard of, in an industry that was about to explode. I wanted to be awesome at it.
So I paid close attention during orientation. It was two weeks of technical and customer service training, but they also had us read a book.
It was called Raving Fans, and, to be honest, it was the 1990's equivalent of the Gumroad e-book grift where you pay $47 for a twelve page PDF. It was 150 pages of complete filler that could have been illustrated in a three-slide PowerPoint deck. But the premise stuck with me: A successful business doesn't need lukewarm customers. It needs enthusiastic ones.
This was the mission, according to CEO Steve Case. I took it very seriously.
Most of the middle management did not. Call center employees were expected to process calls in three minutes or less. From hello to resolution to goodbye in 180 seconds.
I was utterly terrible at this part of the job.
The best reps figured out how to just get people off the phone with half a solution in a hurry. Yes, you could get dinged for a customer that has to call back, but that was rare, and if you were punching out 20 calls an hour, nobody really cared anyway. I learned all the slick ways to do this from the old-timers who would talk shop during their smoke breaks.
(Lesson One: Take smoke breaks. Even if you don't smoke. The smokers all collaborate out there together, and you'll learn a lot faster. I'd go out with a cup of coffee just for the fresh air and made friends with all of the guys and gals who had the same break times. They were collectively the best reps on the floor for a reason - they all talked to each other. The guys taking breaks at their desk never learned anything.)
It wasn't uncommon to mock the relative stupidity of the average AOL tech support client, but I generally tried to forgive all but the most egregious examples. After all, my dad would call me all the time with some of the same questions, and he has a few PhD's. Not knowing computers doesn't make you stupid any more than not knowing how to change a transmission, but I.T. folks are stereotypically bad at understanding this.
I was patient, and my call times were terrible, because I was out there trying to make raving fans. It didn't get me promoted, but I learned what I was good at, and I came away with a few good stories to tell.
The best one was the woman who couldn't install the software at all.
She worked a graveyard shift as a nurse, and called me on her day off. She was already frustrated when I answered, curtly rattling off her name and phone number as if she'd done this a dozen times already.
"That's the fifth disk you guys have sent out, and it still doesn't work," she said.
I pulled up her information. She had no account with AOL, but she was still in our problem tracking system. This was now the fifth time she'd called. The notes from the previous techs all said the same thing. The floppy drive keeps reading an unformatted diskette. Suspect bad drive, or some kind of weird bug in the operating system wiping the disk.
"I took the computer in to have it looked at, and the guy at the shop says it's fine. He was able to use the disk drive with no problems," she continued.
Whoever this computer tech was, I wanted to punch him. He couldn't have just installed the AOL client for her while he had the PC? It's not likely that he didn't have a copy of it lying around. You have to understand - in the mid 90's, AOL floppies were a damned plague. They were EVERYWHERE. Every computer magazine had one stuffed in it. Every retail outlet had a stack of them on the counter for you to take. If we had your address and you weren't a customer already, we were mailing you one. We'd give your friends free time on AOL if they'd refer you (and give us your address to flood you with diskettes with). I knew guys who would request them deliberately, just to wipe them and use them as free blank diskettes. AOL floppies (and later, CD's) probably accounted for 83% of the e-waste in the world at the time.
But there was nothing I could do about idiot PC mechanic guy. I was surprised that this woman was even still trying to give us her money. Most clients would quit after one or two calls. But she really wanted this to work. Her son had referred her, and she wanted to use e-mail to keep in touch, since her work hours made phone calls difficult.
So, I started walking her through the process. We tried the disk she had. Sure enough, it was blank. Not just blank, but totally unformatted. I had her format it, just to be sure the drive worked (I didn't trust idiot PC mechanic guy). It did. She could even save a file to the disk, remove it from the drive, and then re-insert and retrieve it.
How did she end up with five bad disks?
Something had to be killing them along the way.
"Ma'am, the mailing address we have on file, is that your home?" I asked.
"Yes" she said.
"And does the mail get delivered in a box out front or in a slot in the door?"
"A mailbox at the end of the driveway" she said.
"OK, what time of day do you usually pick your mail up?" Maybe the disk was sitting in the sun too long? I was reaching.
"I wake up in the afternoon and usually grab it before I head to work. But I don't read it right away unless it's something urgent," she said.
"OK, so, you grab your mail from the box... say it's' not urgent, like an AOL disk, where do you keep it until you have time to open it?"
"On the fridge."
"You mean like on top of your fridge?"
"No, on the side. I have a big magnet that holds it there."
I muted my phone. I let out something between a laugh and a yell of triumph.
But I also heard my manager laughing hysterically three cubicles down. He was listening to the call.
I went back to the client. "OK, ma'am, that's probably the issue. Floppy diskettes are sensitive to magnetism. The large magnet on your fridge is erasing it every time you put your mail there. Let me send you one more disk, and just keep this one away from the magnet until you can use it."
When I got off the call, my manager called me into his office.
("Office" is a generous term. He had a cubicle with a slightly higher wall than the rest of us.)
He was a good dude. Retired Marine. Generally pretty patient with me, despite the fact that I had the worst call time on the team.
He had started listening in on the call when he noticed I'd been on the phone with the same customer for more than five minutes.
"That was a hell of a call you just had," he said.
"Yeah, can you believe it? Giant refrigerator magnet." I replied.
"Great job. But that took you twenty-five minutes. They aren't going to like you staying on the phone that long."
'They' were his bosses. He was expected to coach me into a three-minute call time, but he didn't have the heart to do it. I think now it was because he knew I was just trying to solve every problem that came my way, and that was more important to me than getting the client off the phone in a hurry. I like to believe it was for my own good, even though it kept me from getting promoted. I was better off in the long run not turning into a three-minute call monkey.
Aside from the smoke break hack, I learned a few things that have served me well since.
First, it really is important to have fanatically happy customers. They don't ALL have to be this way, but if you have enough of them that are insanely devoted to your brand, you'll always be able to turn a profit. And, like the book told me, often all it takes is that extra 1% effort.
Second, I figured out what my first real talent stack was (although it would be years before I could articulate it). I was technically sharp. I loved solving problems. And I was really good at not only explaining technical concepts to laypeople, but also translating their needs into technical solutions. After a while, I realized the combination of those skills was more valuable together than any one of them apart.
Real advancement isn't just about getting better at the one or two things you're already good at; it's about constantly refining, supplementing, and recombinating a unique talent stack to add value to any given situation. As Robert Heinlein said, "Specialization is for insects."
The Google Photos app has a feature where it regularly shows you a photo from the current date, several years ago. Yesterday, it showed me this one:
A rusty old squat rack in a dirt driveway. With a chicken photobombing it.
I decided it was time to tell the story.
If you didn't know me seven years ago, you really have no idea. That's deliberate. Redemption stories are great, but I personally hate mine. I told it anyway, in a series of tweets. (You can read the original tweet that started it here):
I'm 40 and fat
My 30s are over, and I can recall achieving nothing of note for an entire decade of my life
A corporate gig with no growth potential
A dying marriage
A home in the middle of nowhere
I've known for years I need to do something about it
Inertia is a bitch
You get into the rut
You stay just comfortable enough
And you wake up 10 years later wondering what it's going to take to crawl out
Or are you just going to keep digging?
Nobody wants to shame you anymore for that kind of mediocrity
Everyone was mostly content
Money was tight, but not a real problem
The job was a dead end, but the benefits were ok
I had a roof over our heads, cars in the driveway, and food on the table
No shame in that
My son's role model was a reliably mediocre dad
My daughter would grow to expect the same of a husband
In a few generations, I'd be forgotten, and my descendants would be equally unremarkable
This was my legacy
No one shamed me for it
So I started shaming myself
I read an article about that time
About Jared Lorenzen
A world-class talent who fell far short of his potential because he couldn't control his weight
You can still read it here:
Inside Jared Lorenzen's lifelong weight battleEx-NFL QB Jared Lorenzen still loves football. But what do you do when your appetite for food competes with your appetite for the game?https://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/11382220/ex-nfl-qb-jared-lorenzen-lifelong-battle-weight
The interviewer (also overweight) says:
"We see our futures, and they're not long ones. I'm 50, and I might feel it more deeply than he does. Nobody who's 65 looks like we do."
(Lorenzen would end up dead 5 years later. He was 38)
At that point, I figured I'd have to do something drastic, or I'd be dead before ever seeing a grandkid
So I hopped on an exercise bike I had
I looked at the label
MAX WEIGHT 250
Hilarious, if you think about it
So I did the next thing that came to mind
I started running
(If you could call it that)
Couldn't make it a quarter mile at first
But I kept going
I had miles of open farm roads in the middle of the desert
(This is an actual photo I took back then)
The only dietary change I made the first month was quitting Mountain Dew
(I used to drink a six pack a day)
That alone, along with all my stupid running, shaved 30 pounds off in that time
By November I was running 5k's
I'd also cleaned up the diet
Started counting calories
Annoyed the wife, who wanted nothing to do with it
As I said, the relationship was already dying
But this would end up killing it
By December I realize running sucks, and the easy weight is gone
So I decide I need to lift weights
Only gym I have is a small one at the office, and I live way too far from town to be a member anywhere
(I tried, it really doesn't work)
So I start looking for home equipment
Now, money's still a thing, so I'm stalking Craigslist for deals on used gear
By March of 2015, I get my first squat rack
This glorious bastard:
Yes, there's a free range chicken in the photo
My wife liked having a hobby farm full of pets
And a garage full of crap that looked like an episode of Hoarders
So I lifted weights in the sun
It was exactly what I needed
By 2017, I've moved out
The next year and a half basically sucks as I deal with the divorce, sale of the house, and a doozy of a custody battle
Zeroed out, financially
Took months to even get to a point where my kids would talk to me
And it was all worth it
But none of it should have been necessary
Truth is, I knew better all along
I was in fantastic shape in my 20's
Had a brilliant career trajectory
And I let a few bad breaks knock me off target
I didn't figure out anything "new" the last 7 years
I just returned to form
Whether this applies to you or not doesn't really matter
You already know damned well whether or not you're on target
And if you're not, you know why
And your scared
And you're lazy
Fitness. Relationships. Career. Whatever.
If you're not maxing out your potential
If you're not pursuing hyperambitious plans
What are you waiting for?
The next decade?
The next life?
This is it. You could be dead tomorrow.
Do that hard shit that you're scared of, because it's in the way of your path to greatness
I dropped that thread at 1:20 a.m. Arizona time, thinking nothing of it. It was more than what I wanted to say, but I said it anyway, and went to bed.
I woke up to over a thousand notifications.
Thankfully, most of them were not congratulatory. They were people sharing it so that others might get the message. Which is about as much as I'd want from it.
Do not fucking congratulate me for this.
It never should have been necessary, and it's a sad state of affairs when we go around patting each other on the back for merely not being terrible.
If you're a recovering addict, or reformed convict, or renewed degenerate in any way, good. That's better than your previous awful condition, but you do not get style points for screwing up in the first place, and then taking the reasonable corrective action.
That's why I haven't told the story.
I had no excuses. I was not a victim.
I had a few bad breaks in my late 20s, nothing worse than what anyone else deals with in life, and under those conditions I was not resilient. I made bad decisions. I spent years just living with them. And then I finally stopped.
That's the message.
That's the point.
It's far, far better to not screw up in the first place. Because you never get those years back
And if you are in a situation like that, stop.
Turn the corner.
Make the hard decisions and take the effortful actions to correct course.
It will suck. It will probably hurt people.
And everyone involved will be better for it in the long run.
Obviously this story resonated with a lot of you. If you want more like it, let me know. If you have questions, reach out. Join the newsletter and you'll have my e-mail address. I read all of it.
Online communities have become a hip new trend. Places to find like-minded people focused on common goals in a space that is not as threatened by censorship or moderation that will deplatform you for wrongthink.
(This is why I've re-emphasized work on my website and mailing list lately)
I have harbored tremendous skepticism towards such communities for a long time.
Why should I pay to join?
What do they really have to offer?
How is this any different from an open community on Twitter or Facebook?
I will be honest, even after joining FoE, I held these concerns. It took a while to see the value. Because there's a lot of men in there that are struggling, and you'll see that. And you'll wonder, especially if you're not struggling, why you're there.
What's in it for you?
I began to realize that there were a lot of successful, exceptional men there. Including many of those who were struggling with certain aspects of their lives. They weren't broken men. They were men who were smart enough to ask for help in the few areas they needed to improve.
And the network has paid HUGE dividends for me. Unquestionably so. I have been able to generate new business ideas, cultivate new job leads, and learn skills from experts that I otherwise would not have access to.
I want more of you to join me there. My reasons are entirely selfish. Partly because I'm about to drop an affiliate link, but mostly because the more experts I get there, the more talent I have access to.
Doors are open on a limited basis. This window closes on Thursday, March 18, 2021. I have no idea when it will be open again.
Our beloved President has referred to certain constituents as "Neanderthals" of late, and I, for one, appreciate the compliment.
Homo neanderthalensis was likely smarter and stronger than his cousin, Homo Sapiens.
His only real problem was he was kind of anti-social, and unpopular with the rest of the bipeds of the era.
If you're inclined, I've designed a few t-shirts and such. Shop at your leisure:
Winston Churchill habitually started each day with a glass of scotch before he even got out of bed. From his early 20's, his consumption was legendary, and in addition to the booze, he routinely smoked ten cigars a day. For those of you unfamiliar with the habit, a "Churchill" length cigar takes a good 45 minutes to burn, if you're really dragging on it, so it stands to reason that the man spent nearly every waking moment with a cigar in his mouth.
Churchill had a 62-year political career, and was easily the most illustrious and influential British statesman of the 20th century. He authored over a dozen books and countless articles for periodicals, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I don't think he attended a single Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Despite his seemingly unhealthy habits, he lived to the age of 90, and remains a legend.
Churchill didn't identify as an addict. He didn't use it as an excuse for any lack of achievement. He didn't bother trying to quit. In those days, the only men who did were the ones who couldn't hold their liquor.
Nobody cares if you're drunk or sober. Your output is all that matters. Make that your identity, and the rest will take care of itself.