How getting it wrong made everything right
Last year I accidentally found a picture from 2010. I don’t remember being like that. I was shocked to see how much my body had changed in 10 years. On Facebook people said I looked younger at 51 than I did a decade ago. What had I done? A lot. Yet looking back, it wasn’t only my body that changed, my entire life had been transformed.
Here is a deconstruction of a life transformed… in 3 Acts
ACT I — The Demise
It all begins with impending collapse.
Let’s rewind the clock to September 2017, a week before my 49th birthday.
It was 4:14 in the morning. Venice was asleep, the streets were deserted. After a night of celebrating, my team and I were still in party mode. We dragged an aluminum table to the middle of the Piazza San Marco, popped our Prosecco corks, opened pizzas and toasted to our many successes.
The scene was surreal. We had the glory of one of Europe’s most spectacular plazas to ourselves. It felt as if the gods had gifted us this magical place so we could celebrate our accomplishments at Future Lighthouse, an immensely talented VR storytelling studio I co-Founded in 2016.
We had just presented three of our VR experiences at the 74th Venice Film Festival. Yet, we weren’t just celebrating an impressive presence at the most prestigious film competition in the world. 2017 was an unbelievable year. The studio grew 1,400 percent. We accumulated over 40 festival selections and awards. We were the first VR studio ever selected for the TribecaX awards. Variety called our original production Melita ‘breathtaking’ and an example of what VR storytelling should be. I even flew the infamous Robert Englund (aka Freddy Kreuger) to Spain to shoot the most ambitious VR horror production ever undertaken.
We felt unstoppable in our growth trajectory. We were steps away from securing our Series A financing that would stabilize the company and allow us to develop truly innovative immersive technologies. Future Lighthouse could become one of the leading VR studios in the world.
Sitting that balmy pre-dawn morning in the Piazza San Marco, I felt like a Titan — invincible! All the hard work was paying off. I was so proud and excited for the bright future we had created for our amazing company. The sky wasn’t even the limit. It was all too good to be true… and it was.
Upon returning to Madrid, many of the lead horses for our Series A vanished. Everybody loved us, but not enough to give us money. We were full throttle on five productions but running out of cash. It was clear that we would not be able to pay salaries, vendors and perhaps fulfill our contractual obligations. We were facing a financial meltdown, possible legal repercussions and our reputation, which had been so solidly built, was about to crumble.
We had to face the inevitable truth of closing down the studio. In my leadership position, I had to show strength, but deep down I was exhausted, fearful, beaten and sad. I had no idea how we would get through this.
Things were churning inside. Five years earlier, I had a massive business failure which led to depression. In moments of deep darkness, fleeting thoughts of jumping over the balcony appeared in my head. That surprised me. Where did that come from? I knew I would never leave a widowed wife and fatherless son. Being deep in the abyss scared me. Swallowing my angst, containing my tears, I just kept plugging ahead hoping things would get better.
Hopefully Future Lighthouse would not be an echo. I could not go through the darkness again. Yet there I was face to face with another impending ‘failure’. This time, the abyss could be deeper and I wasn’t sure I would survive it. Being a year away from turning 50, restarting seemed daunting. I now had a wife and two kids to support and could no longer justify start-up risk to build a future. It was too late to go back into a decent paying corporate job; if there was one to be had. There were no easy options.
I knew my past approach to business would not serve me in the future. Something had to change. Yet, I was too stuck in my own thinking to see a way forward. I desperately needed some fresh air.
ACT II — The Discovery
Of all random things, something nudged me to go on a 5-Day Wim Hof Method winter expedition in Poland to climb a frozen mountain in shorts. I had been a Wim Hof Method fan for a few years with great results, but had let the practice fall away. Perhaps some renewed Wim Hof work with the man himself could help shift me.
During the first three days of the winter retreat we went deep into the method. I never had such intense experiences by changing my breathing and certainly had never been in water so cold where holding back screams of pain was impossible. Practicing the method at home was like taking aspirin, but doing the Wim Hof Method in Poland with Wim was like taking ecstasy.
After just a few days something was changing. The stress of Future Lighthouse’s impending demise dissipated. I felt relaxed. Laughter flowed spontaneously. An unfamiliar zest for life was emerging. A deep and unfamiliar, yet lighthearted, human connection was growing with my fellow adventurers from sharing such extreme experiences. I started to realize how anesthetized and off-track my life was.
Finally, on the fourth day, we put our training to the test and went to summit Mt. Sniezka. The shared feeling of nerves and excitement was palpable as we started the trek in total silence. Anyone witnessing the scene would have thought we were crazy; a long line of 60 half-naked souls silently walking through a winter wonderland with ominous grey clouds ahead…
After a few hours we reached the summit. The wind was howling. It was fucking cold. Yet there I was half-naked in shorts at -25 C in the middle of a snow storm. I was not cold at all! I felt warm inside. How could it be? Then the big A-HA hit. I realized while cold was a physical reality, ‘feeling cold’ was created in the brain. Wim and the team trained us to overcome the cold shock response in the body. We transmuted fear into excitement and discovered the true power we had inside. It was mind blowing to realize that cold was more of an idea and I could change how my mind and body reacted to it… all within reason of course.
I was exhilarated. If this was true with the cold, could it be applicable to more useful aspects of life? Could it help me with the shut down of Future Lighthouse? Could I apply this learning to chart an entirely new path for my life?
My gut was screaming, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Standing on top of that mountain, energized by the experience, I made a bold decision: reframe what ‘failure’ meant in my life and wind down Future Lighthouse as a ‘success’.
I returned to Madrid highly motivated and ready to take on anything the world would throw at me. Shutting down the company was not going to be easy, but I committed to an elegant and honorable closure. In the end, we fulfilled all of our production commitments, placed most of the talent in new jobs and settled as best we could with vendors. Oddly enough we had good fun in the process. I recall how openly everyone accepted their termination dates. It was as if their love for our crazy VR journey, and giving it our best, overshadowed the sadness of it all ending. To this day, the core team is still great friends.
It was bittersweet to close the best company I ever started, but I was proud of how we did it. ‘Failure’ had been turned into ‘success’ in Madrid just as ‘cold’ turned into ‘warm’ in Poland. Deep down I knew there was profound wisdom in Mt. Sniezka’s teachings and it would help me pave a path forward.
Had I not made this shift, darkness could have filled my soul again and ‘failure’ would have simply become a fate I would accept in life. The abyss would have been my new home and the balcony could have been calling stronger. Instead I experienced a powerful ‘midlife rebirth’. Although I had no idea what the future would offer, I was not fearful. I was thrilled and excited by the possibilities of what I could create.
Impacted by the success of my mental reframes and hungry to learn more, I embarked on a learning journey. My objective was to find the best ways to upgrade my mind, body and soul for the next 50 years of life. It was like going back to college, but this time for a degree on how to live a better life.
30 years had passed since I earned my Ivy League diploma and life had not turned out the way I wanted. If I could do a total reset at 50, I would have the same amount of time from now until 80 for another go. I was deeply motivated by the second chance and this time with more experience, wisdom, network and capital.
My transformation journey had formally begun… by accident, because my business was failing, was totally lost and decided to climb a snowy mountain half-naked… not an obvious way to solve my situation. Life can be strange.
ACT III — The Rebirth
Fast forward and over the past few years, I’ve discovered an incredible amount of powerful tools and techniques for life transformation at a mental, physical and emotional level. I’ve delved deep into over a 100 different approaches and methodologies to upgrade every single aspect of life. All of them are very accessible and in many cases science-based. The lessons have been deep with profound impact. I only wonder what I could have accomplished if I had known about these techniques in my 20s. Fortunately, I had a second chance to try it all out.
As a ‘graduation’ test for all my upgrading, in March 2019, I brought together the core team from my Poland experience for a massive mental and physical challenge: summit Kilimanjaro in less than 48 hours… bare-chested of course.
Most people do the famed ‘Coca-Cola’ route (Marangu Route) in five or six days and even then, less than 50 percent make the summit. Our plan was to go fast, half-naked and not give time for our bodies to acclimate to the altitude.
The mountain was a metaphor for my future life. If I could do this, I could set any objective, train my physical, mental and emotional state and accomplish more than I thought possible. It was a massive challenge, but Poland taught me that much was in the mind.
A little before 9 AM on March 3rd, we walked through the Marangu Gate and started our adventure. By noon the next day we had trekked 30 kilometers and ascended over 3,000 meters. The scenery was awe inspiring. I was so captivated by the wonders of the mountain. In a little over a day, it felt like I had crossed three continents, from the Lara Croft jungle-like environment of the foothills, to the Scottish-like moorlands of the mid-mountain and finally, the seemingly endless volcanic desert of ‘The Saddle’. Our arrival destination was Kibo Hut at the base of the volcanic cone. This would be our starting point for the final summit ascent into the snow-filled Alpine landscape.
Up 4.7 kilometers in the sky at Kibo Hut, the altitude was apparent and the air certainly thin, yet my body and mind were holding strong. I was even tempted to join three of the most experienced mountaineers that decided to head straight up to the summit after lunch. There were only six hours of trekking left to the summit. It seemed doable, but this was still the toughest part of the trek and where most are beaten by the mountain and give up.
I had never been at this altitude, and despite feeling strong, it was more prudent to rest. We would have plenty of time to gather our strength and go for the summit attempt starting at midnight. The 48 hour goal was still attainable… we had a nine hour window for the six hour summit trek. Yet things change fast on a mountain.
By 7:30 PM, it was pitch black and a blizzard had come in. I was anxious that our teammates were not back. They were stuck in the snowstorm. At this point, I didn’t really care about meeting the 48-hour goal. I couldn’t think of anything scarier than being trapped high in a mountain with no visibility during a snowstorm… and they were there at night. Suddenly I felt like a character in a mountain adventure book trying to determine if a rescue operation was in order.
Fortunately two hours later the snow let up and we could see headlamps high up on the crater’s edge. At least they were alive and moving. A support team of guides was dispatched to help the climbers. They made it back safe, but clearly were shaken from facing the toughest ordeal of their lives. This put a chill in the air for the rest of us… the difficulty and potential danger of what we were doing was clear and present.
With my teammates safe, my attention returned to the summit attempt. The snow had picked up again making a midnight departure impossible… we might have to abandon our 48 hour goal. I could not sleep. I was still shaken by my fellow trekkers’ experience and wondered if we would be able to summit at all. Every 30 minutes I would go outside to see if the snow had stopped, yet it persisted.
At 1:30 AM I could not believe my eyes. It was the most beautiful star-filled night I had ever seen. The mountain was giving us permission to summit. Like an excited little boy ready to open gifts on Christmas morning, I woke up the guides and teammates and prepared for our final ascent. Although we could push for our 48 hour goal, we decided to take it a bit slower and ascend together.
At 11:11 AM on March 5th, 50.5 hours after starting the trek with only four hours of total sleep, I stood triumphant on the summit of Kilimanjaro with NO Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms at all. It was -10 C, yet the sun was beating so hard on our skin that we joked about being on Kili Beach and danced as if we were partying in Ibiza… but this time on Africa’s rooftop. This was the most epic moment of my life. I had ‘graduated’ with high honors.
Like on Mt. Sniezka, something happened on Kilimanjaro. I realized that for nearly 50 years, I felt a victim of circumstance. External context was always the barometer for measuring things. From professional opportunity to the next, recognition and financial success was the end goal. When things worked out, I would celebrate and when they ‘failed’, I would withdraw and wallow in my own inadequacy while trying to smile on the outside.
Yet, deep inside I was never satisfied. I was always missing something to commit to that had greater meaning. Metaphorically I called it my ‘purple frog’; the near extinct Amazon critter I was supposed to save that would give reason to my existence. It never appeared. Yet, high above the African clouds, it jumped straight onto my face. Kilimanjaro revealed that my purple frog was inside me all the time. All I had to do was set it free, which I did.
It became plainly evident that WE ALL have innate neurological and physiological capabilities that allow us to accomplish way more than we think possible. And this is not about surmounting massive physical challenges, we are simply not aware of how much we limit our own possibilities.
In the standard course of living, these mind and body abilities lie dormant because we never learn they exist nor how to unleash their potential. By gaining mastery over our mental, physical and emotional states, we tap into tremendous power and can face adversity with excitement leading to a life of much greater impact and fulfillment. This should be mandatory education early on. It would have really helped me. Not nurturing these innate skills wastes the most valuable resource on the planet… our human potential. I wasted decades of my life but now have a second chance. If I can do it, anybody can.
So this now is my purpose: Help leaders tap innate functions to become masters of their mental, physical and emotional states. The end goal is increased clarity, energy, and passion for a life of greater impact and fulfillment.
I call this Resilient Leadership… It’s about mastering the ‘mountain’ inside.
So where to from here?
A lot has changed since I was sitting in the Piazza San Marco celebrating ‘success’. Facing hardship made me realize ‘failure’ doesn’t exist. There are only lessons to be learned. That is the true pathway to ‘success’. Challenges are there to grow us, if we let them.
I am no longer the person I used to be and that is why there is such a stark difference in the picture at the beginning of the article. I am now the person I want to be and creator of the life I want. Nothing stands my my way except me.
I have a clear purpose, a compelling vision for the life I want and, more importantly, what I want it to feel like. Clearly, there will be challenges, but that is part of the game. There are always storms on the mountain and you have to know how to negotiate them.
I am now deeply grateful for all my ‘failures’ for they have been my teachers. Without them, I would have never found my pathway to ‘success’. I had to get it wrong to make right in the end. The transformation journey is now a way of life. It’s a constant adventure with a simple goal that I am committed to share: to live life as the best possible version of oneself.
I am now guided by a new side-by-side picture… two versions of Future Me.
The one on the RIGHT understands that it’s the values, belief systems and habits of thought and action that will determine the course of my life. They are under my control and are trainable skills. If I choose wisely, I will get what I want.
The one on the LEFT fails to implement the lessons of the journey… to him, his life will be one of regret… of what could have been, but wasn’t; a victim of circumstance.
I choose the RIGHT one and that will make all the difference.
Enjoy your journey and choose wisely.