(Here at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit trying to get some leadership tips for Operation Christmas Child)
I have to ask what it feels like to be invisible. At the end of the day I feel like I’ve lived my life being invisible. The TV show is just a mechanism for me to communicate what noone else is saying and a mechanism to convey that things can be done the right way. Most people come to these events thinking I will teach them how to make more money. I don’t really care that much about money.
The real message I have is how to understand yourself better. For me, that was the biggest challenge. To understand how people are motivated you have to understand their back story. I’m 43 years old. I used to have a lot of hair; I used to be thinner. Take yourself back to the summer of 1987. I was lying on a sidewalk at 11:30 at night; I was wearing a black garbage bag; I was a foot away from cars and thought it was the end of my life. I had developed a terrible eating disorder (bulimia) that still haunts me today. How does a boy who was adopted into a wonderful life complain about things. In those first 13 years I went through a lot. I was molested by a family member, I attempted suicide twice, I was unhappy. I was suffering from an identity crisis. Something in my brain caused me to want to solve all those problems. My parents were older parents. The suicide piece could be the most embarrassing thing I’ll talk about. My parents didn’t know about a lot of my struggles. I had a special relationship with my mother who was my mentor. I got up from that sidewalk. My all-boys Catholic high school and my faith were a retreat for me. I went to Marquette—an all Catholic college and was working on pursuing my faith. I was still alone all the time. I couldn’t connect with people my own age. I went to school in Milwaukee (from Miami) because I needed a fresh start. Here’s what I learned…
All those problems found me. I went through college and became a bartender. I made a lot of money but I was still lonely. I lived by myself. I sat by myself. I think in life, particularly in faith, you have this moment that something happens and you understand yourself better. I got a call from the Registrar’s Office the summer before my senior year and told me I couldn’t graduate because I didn’t take a language in my freshman year. They said I could take advanced Spanish every day at 8:00 every morning. I was friends with the priest who was the head of the school and so I went to the teacher and said, “You’re going to pass me, I’m not going to show up, and I’m going to get you tenure.” The teacher didn’t buy it. I went to the head of the school and said I couldn’t go to meetings at night because I have to go to class at 8:00 in the morning. I didn’t go to Spanish class—I passed—and the University did not get what it wanted.
I realized what I ultimately wanted to do in life was to put people together and solve problems but I realized I didn’t need to do it in a dirty way. When I try to be funny it helps me forget about painful things in my life. I want you to think about the things that have happened in your life. I have a theory about business that’s different from everyone else’s. The Shark Tank attempts to make people’s dreams come true in 15 minutes and will break them down to their core.
I believe business (and life) is about making connections. I have hearts on my shoes and people laugh at that. The most important thing for me in life is being vulnerable and transparent. When I go into a new business I tell them about my life so they are comfortable discussing their issues. When you earn someone’s trust you can navigate anything together. If someone’s not honest you can’t do business with them.
I believe vulnerability is something that’s very difficult to unleash. If you’re the owner of a business and there’s someone that works for you that you wish didn’t work there I’d like you to stand. Ask yourself if you’re still sitting—is there anybody who works with you or for you that you wish didn’t work there. As leaders it is our responsibility to be stewards of our people.
I need three mothers to come up. – (Converation with a son and mother when the son has a classmate he doesn’t want to be friends with because he is different and doesn’t smell good ) Trying to discuss this makes us laugh. We don’t want our children to think this way so why is it okay to think that way in other circumstances. If you have someone on your team it’s your duty to help them.
Where my faith and business intersect is in the area of tolerance. We tolerate differences. The best leaders are ones that are race blind and even aptitude blind. My challenge is – what is your purpose and what is your role in that purpose?
8-10 years ago my mom came to Chicago. I picked her up; she got in the car and didn’t say much at all to me. I took her home, she put her stuff away, she pulled out a chair and said “you need to sit down.” She said, “I don’t know where you came from or who you think you are, but when I picked you up out of a box I had a purpose and my purpose was for you to do great things. I don’t know if you think living in a fancy house is a big accomplishment. I don’t care. You know what—you were fat because you ate too many Doritos and I let you. I take responsibility. When I brought you home I had the vision you would be a leader. I picked you to do good things and to take all those bad experiences and do something with them. I don’t care about your car. We’re selling your house. We’re selling your car—you don’t need a $100,000 car. I’m not impressed; I’m depressed. We’re gonna sit in this house all weekend until we figure out what your purpose is in life.”
The 2008-2009 downturn happened. I own 100 businesses but my primary one is the RV business. I thought I would lose everything. I felt I’d lose what I had built and I was responsible for thousands of people. I was watching TV and watching the stock market crash. I felt the world had sensationalized what was happening in the marketplace and I asked myself this question: I always felt like an underdog. How do I take what I have and find other people who are like me to help them? Not just with my words or my money but with my hands. I decided to get involved in changing the platform for small business in America. It’s not the greatest investment on paper but it’s the best investment for me. I could influence people on how to trust the process. The main reason I do the show is because I felt I needed to answer my mother’s question. My purpose is to help those who don’t have the same opportunity. I thought this awkward kid could help awkward people. I’m investing in people like me. I say ‘awkward’ because we’re not conformists. Leadership is about taking a chance on yourself, first, and putting yourself in harm’s way.
I was able to build a network of friends and family by helping people. I wake up every day realizing I don’t have a choice about working with people I don’t like. I bare my own soul so people understand I’m willing to walk a day in their shoes and I hope over time I’m creating people who will help other people.
The most fulfilling thing that’s happened to me is the change in the underbelly with young kids today. I was somewhere with Justin Bieber and was shocked by the number of young teens who didn’t want to talk to him but wanted to talk to me. It was a tipping point moment that the youth of this country has a platform to think differently about themselves.
When I leave here today I ask just one thing from you. Give a fat kid who attempted suicide who was molested a chance—even if you don’t know their story. Because that story may turn out to be something great. And that soul-fulfilling experience will replace all the money you every dreamed of.