the truth punctuates
You shouldn’t take advice from someone you don’t really know,who hasn’t dreamed big, or suffered for a spell. Or with whom you haven’texperienced at least one major religious holiday. The Sessions that await youabound with righteous persuasions and advice. Thus, you and I should get a bitmore acquainted. So before you get to the business of soulunfurling and ambition refining, andtaking my word on any of it, allow me to introduce myself by way of a verydefining moment in my life.
We had the corner table at JJ Bean Café on Commercial Drive andSixth. There were loan documents, term sheets, and talking points piled next tomy peppermint tea. I was looking to Lance, my investor and mentor, to give mesome straight-up sage advice. My company was being torn apart by a clash ofwills and motives. It was wretched. Everything was on the line: hundreds ofthousands of dollars, five years of full-tilt labor and love, long-termrelationships, reputations—a very big dream. I had a lawyer (two of them). Ihad a business coach. I had a Buddhist shrink. What I needed was a friend withhard-core business acumen—someone who knew the ropes and who knew me.
I had that desperate “Whatshould I do?” crease across my forehead. I was pushing hard for answers,somersaulting over Scenario A or B or . . . Z. Lance made it clear, with his eyes twinkling.He said:
You must be kidding me. Free? I’d never feltso trapped in my life. The pressure was a whole new phenomenon in my nervoussystem. Bankers were calling my cell phone, investors were having clandestinemeetings without me, and my once beloved business partner and I hadn’t spokento each other in months. . . .
trial by fire: how I got here
I have a degree in faking it till you make it. I earned it, andthen I burned it. In 2000, I was wearing a black suit and loafers, with astraight bob haircut. As executive director of a Washington, D.C.–based thinktank of world-class futurists, I shopped white papers to the Pentagon and theWorld Bank. I wrangled an incredible team of quirky, Mensa-level thinkers tosurmise and analyze potential outcomes for the AIDS epidemic in Africa,possible global water shortages, chaotic social meltdowns . . . and stuff likethat. In terms of think tanks, it was Candy Land. Smart, fast-moving, andfunded. Almost daily I was asked where I went to college (I didn’t), and tosign yet another nondisclosure agreement (which I did). From nine to five, Iread about weapons of mass destruction and scenario planning; on weekends, itwas Rilke’s poetry, Jiddu Krishnamurti’s theology, and the latest Rolling Stone.
James Carville said that “D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people.” Thinktanks are a bit glam in the Capitol. But behind my title and White Housesecurity pass, I was managing a raging impostor complex. I craved pop cultureand mysticism. My, uh, progressive attitudeclashed with the policies and posturing that is the fabric of the politicalscene. In my first month in town, I showed up to a White House meeting withpurple streaks in my hair. I may as well have flashed a KGB badge when I pulledup to the table. The meeting chair took me aside afterward. “You’re not fromhere, are you?” he said with a wink.
I was learning a lot, but mostlyI was wilting inside. Eventually I resigned. More accurately, I fled, back tomy homeland, burned out and confused. I looked at my loafers and thought, “Whothe hell bought those?” I schlepped my suits to the consignment store,dyed my hair bright red, pierced my nose, and got some new tattoos. Naturally.
Then came the inevitable identity crisis and searching. There was asojourn to India for a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, time in ashrams andretreat centers, tea with Eckhart Tolle. In order to make the rent I revived myold communications and publicity agency “for visionary people and projects,”and I did what I swore I’d never do again: hustled other people’s ideas tojaded television producers and radio show hosts. Meanwhile, some friends and Iwere plotting to raise a million bucks to open an urban spa-meets-yoga-studio-meets-community-center-meets-organic- restaurant-meets-boutique (and we could franchise!). Then I woke up to the obviousfact that I didn’t want to do anything that involved having a set of masterkeys or giving staff performance reviews. I tried to get into art school. Istill have that rejection letter.
And then a new opportunity presented itself. After months of wanderingand awkward networking, I joined forces with a hardworking friend who had agood idea. She had the inspired concept, I had the brains for getting stuff outthe door, and we both had a lotta style. We quickly and successfully launchedwhat could most simply be called an image consultancy company . . . with soul.
This was a quantum leap toward my truer calling. I was wearinglinen tunics and twisted my hair into dreadlocks. We raised hundreds ofthousands of dollars in investment capital and hired a hotshot CEO to run theshow. I wrote our flagship book, and my partner Art directed it. The OprahShow, producers called. Magazines flew in photographers to take ourpicture. Major TV networks romanced us. Our site traffic climbed exponentially—justwhat we desired. We were headed to what we wanted to be: rich ’n’ famous, andfast. But profit and status began to lead the charge, and our slogan, “inspireauthenticity,” became tragically . . . inauthentic.
Every day before I walked into our stylin’ studio office with itsglossy white walls and big abstract art, I had to psych myself up for thecreative tension that awaited me, the strife that would eventually flatten ourlittle empire. A sunny Monday morning. My hand on the doorknob next to a plaquewith my name on it. I took a deep breath before I opened the door. You can do this, I said to myself. Quickly followed by thethought, This is so utterly fucked. Apply a smile andenter stage left: “Good morning, everybody.” This grin ’n’ bear it entry intothe day got to be a habit.
I became increasingly quiet as more opinions about how we shouldgrow the company got added to the mix. There was a lot of money on the line fora lot of people, like the friends who had chipped in a month’s salary to becomeinvestors, and the various venture capitalists who wrote six-figure checks. Thedream was big, and I wasn’t going to sound the alarms with my abstract andunquantifiable concerns that things just didn’t feel right. I didn’t think that lack of laughter in the officewould be considered a key data point for the investors. The day I gave oversigning authority on the company bank account, I wanted to scream, “This iswrong! Very, very wrong. May the Goddess of Creative Justice enforce her wrath,thereby righting this perturbation in the very depths of my soul!” But thatwould have been so, you know, dramatic. Instead, I saidnothing. We had obligations now, and I was going to be democratic, responsible,shrewd, and all kinds of flexible in order to make good on those promises.
Shortly before it all imploded my business partner and I did avideo interview with a high-profile business website. We lied like rugs. “Yes,thank you, it is so great to inspire thousands of womenevery week to live more authentically.” Then I think we threw in some bullshitabout the thrill of being entrepreneurs and how we wouldn’t have it any otherway. When we wrapped the segment, I raced to unclip my mic like I was shaking asnake off my neck.
The next day the program tech called with profuse apologies. “I’mso sorry. This has never happened before, but the video file got corruptedsomehow. We’re so embarrassed with the technical snafu. Can we please set upfor a reshoot?” he pleaded. There is a God, I sighed. Iwas so relieved that my lying ass wasn’t going to be immortalized on YouTube. Isuggested to the producer that we refilm in a few months. I was just buyingtime. I could feel something coming. The following week, it would all be overfor me.
Our CEO took us to the cornercafé for one of our regular check- in meetings. But this meeting was going to be extraspecial, because it would bethe last time I’d ever see him. Apparently it had been decided (I say apparently because neither my cofounder nor I was involvedin the decision) that a new business model would be more beneficial for thecompany. It sounded something like this:
I was given the option to take a small percentage of my salary(woo!) and to write a blog post or two a week—from home (fun!). I didn’t needto be told that the business owned all of my stuff. I’d made myself an employeeof the company—which was not my company anymore. Every photograph of me thatwas ever taken, every single article I posted, royalties on the book I wrote,intellectual property from the consulting service—even my Twitter identity—allof it, not owned by me. It didn’t matter that my name was on the door or in thedot-com. Clearly, I was dismissed. My partner was made a similar kind of offer,which I guess she went for. (I say guess because atabout that point, after talking almost daily for years, we stopped speaking.)
As the news was being delivered, I didn’t flinch. My body was soflooded with endorphins of rage that my freeze instinct kicked in and preventedme from shaking uncontrollably or lunging across the table. I vaguely rememberwondering if there was a sharp object within reach. I clenched my jaw and fixedmy gaze. I consciously slowed down my breathing to cool the boiling I feltbehind my face and in my chest. I delivered my parting words from the café withsteely calm: “Thanks for the information. I know all that I need to know.” Istormed back to the studio, folded up my laptop, and burned rubber out of myparking space. Driving home that day, I screamed so loud in the car that myvoice was hoarse by the time I walked in the door, my face mascara streaked, mybody trembling.
And yet . . . even through thenoise of shock and brokenheartedess, I could hear a still and present voicewithin my being, and it was saying, “Yes. Finally.”
your body knows
I’ve heard of a Japanese mogul who lets his meal choices guide hisbusiness decisions. While he’s eating dinner he thinks about or discusses thebusiness proposition of the day. If he digests it well, he takes positiveaction. If the meal doesn’t go down well, then the deal doesn’t go down,either.
My stomach was throwing me cues along the way. The truth was in thebreath I held back with my opinions. But I ignored the persistent pinch of rawnerves and regular heavy-headedness. I struck bargains with my resentment andlongings. And in doing so, I betrayed myself. The theatrical deception of myfellow actors was a manifestation of that. Thank the Lord that it was all overin one fell swoop. No matter how long coming, emancipation feels swift and mercifulwhen she shows up.
Which brings us back to the corner table at JJ Bean’s Café withpeppermint tea and Lance on a rescue mission. . . .
“Look, you’re in the jungle. So just play by the rules of thejungle.” Lance leaned in. “It’s time for you to take care of yourself,Danielle. You got yourself into this mess because you gave away your power.This is your chance to get the lesson. I want you to get this one so you neverrepeat it again. Jungle rules. Power rules.” You know, those pesky, repeatinglessons.
Got it. Free. In the jungle. Merowww. Thislesson was deeper for me than angel mentor man could have known.
“I get it. I do,” I said. “I get that there're some boguspropositions on the table. They’re trying to bully me. This is jungle shit andit’s piled high, I know, I know.” I pressed on. The furrow in my brow was goingto need Botox soon. “But, if I exercise my legal rights—and I know I’m onseriously solid ground here—if I decide to get all kung fu on this, then somepeople could lose their houses and have their credit trashed. I know playing‘fair’ will cost me a lot of money—money that I don’t have. Yet.” I doodlednothingness on the paper in front of me. I continued, “They can kiss my ass onMain Street, but I don’t want to wreck any lives here. There’s gotta be a way . . .” My voicetrailed off. I looked out the window and saw a smiling Rasta dude riding by ona bicycle. I wonder if that guy has the answer, Ithought.
And then my mentor broke the silence and said it—gently, butemphatically. Kindly, but deadly serious: “Are you anentrepreneur, or what?”
It was question, not a criticism. And it hung in the air like asword over a sacrificial altar. I think I heard tribal drums b-b-beatingin the background. It was a test. Door #1: Self-respect. Self-reliance. Definemyself on my own terms. Door #2: Keep the respect of the very rich, highlyintelligent, truly helpful investor guy. And very rich, highly intelligent,truly helpful investor guys are not the kinds of people you want to burnbridges with. And besides, I was adoringly grateful to him for everything. Iwas rather compelled to get the answer to his question right.
Jungle rules. Eat or be eaten. Bite back. Take no prisoners.
My career flashed through my mind like freeway exits zipping by.Lemonade stand at age eight—profitable; lobbied to sell tickets to the schoolcarnival (Parents should pay double); talked bankersinto better rates and investors into investing (We’re the nextbig thing); major magazine spreads and thousands of click-throughs;hired, fired, and then hired some more; IP, CEO, COO; worked miracles by COB toget a ROI. Of course I’m an . . . entrepreneur. Oram I?
I am not the person who is singing
I am the silent one inside. . . .
I am not my house, my car, my songs
They are only stops along my way. . . .
—Paula Cole, “Me”
And then I got it. This wasn’t my definition of me—not entirely.I took a deep breath and let the pause gestate. I was prepared for Lance toleave the table, to tell me I was a hopeless romantic, unfit to rule anydynasty. Nice knowing you, softy. My truth had occurredto me, finally, undeniably.
So I admitted it: “I’m a humanitarian.” And then Iput a fine point on it: “Who happens to be an entrepreneur.” And then I reallydeclared it. “And I think I can protect myself without fucking anyone elseover.”
Relief. In that moment, I was okay if Lance walked out on me,because something inside me had clicked into its rightful place: ruthlesscompassion. Yes, I was done suffering fools. No, I would not make pretty,spiritualized excuses for anyone’s bad behavior anymore—mine included. Iwould put on my own oxygen mask first. I would stand in my very immense power.And I would aim to do it free of vengeance, free of resentment, grateful forall that I had. Inside, I was purring like a panther in her tree. Smiling.