This Is My Story, but it Ain’t About Me (Part 1)

My late great grandmother, Grandma Maude, stood over 6 feet tall. She was a strong woman and spent a lot of her early life picking cotton on plantations in the delta, between Mississippi and Arkansas. Unfortunately, I don’t know much else of her story, but I will learn it.

My great grandmother, Grandma Maude

My great grandmother Maude raised an incredibly strong woman as well – my Grandma Noonie. Grandma Noonie raised 7 kids in McGehee, Arkansas, as a single mother, and my dad is the oldest. They grew up dirt poor – literally with dirt floors in the kitchen, in a southern town with a history of racism and a population of ~4,000 people. My Dad was the first black kid on the McGehee high school football team, and he was recruited to play football at Ole Miss – an ironically appropriate name for Mississippi’s largest state university.

Actually, Grandma Noonie was a cook for one of the Ole Miss athletic director type personnel, and she was told that if my Dad did not play football there, then she would lose her job. I can’t imagine the pressure that my dad felt by this ultimatum, not to mention, what about where he wanted to play football?

Me, Jason (bro), Grandma Noonie at Jason’s college signing day

My dad was a great football player, and I know that because I see the trophies, but he doesn’t ever talk about his time at Ole Miss, or playing football in general. He did not complete his “education” at Ole Miss. Actually, I was the first person in all of my family to obtain a college degree. For many people, hearing that probably isn’t a big deal. It’s only when I think about it in the context of my family history that it means a lot to me that I accomplished that.

After a couple years of dating in secret, when my mom and dad were finally ready to tie the knot, the story goes that my [white, jewish] grandfather, who I love dearly, told my [red haired, freckled] mom, “If you decide to marry a black man, it’s going to be hard on your kids.” He wasn’t so wrong. My dad’s mom, Grandma Noonie (pictured above), who was present for what was essentially a group meeting or some form of pre-marital counseling, replied, “Trust me – I wish your daughter was black”.

Lots of foreshadowing with the Zebras

It isn’t fair to state the above without providing context on my mom’s family history. The truth is, my Jewish grandparents were always fond of my father, and they respected my mom following her heart, but they were familiar with oppression after the events of WWII, where they both lost members of their nuclear and extended family due to the attempted extermination of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. They actually understood, and they didn’t want me, their future grandchild, to go through anything like what their family went through – systemic oppression on the grounds of race.

I could write a novel on all of this (now there’s a thought), so for the sake of readability, let’s call this “Part One”. To be continued very soon…

Extra credit: a brief history lesson

The Black Panther Party, originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was a revolutionary socialist political organization founded by college students. The party’s core practice was its open carry armed citizens’ patrols (“copwatching”) to monitor the behavior of officers of the Oakland Police Department and challenge police brutality in the city. In 1969, the party initiated social programs including free breakfast for children and community health and education clinics. In 1967, California (Ronald Regan, huge thanks to he and Nancy for all their great work /s) established strict gun laws that stripped legal ownership of firearms from Black Panther members and prevented all citizens from carrying in public. In 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. The black panther party was the most influential black movement organization of the civil rights era, and the “strongest link between the domestic black liberation struggle and the global opponents of American imperialism.”

Isn’t it interesting the difference in perspective of when black people carry firearms to protect their second amendment right vs. when white people do the same?

Black Panther Party | History, Ideology, & Facts | Britannica

Remember. A violent Malcolm X being assassinated is one thing. A peace-preaching pastor, Dr. King, initiating change through promoting non-violence and civil discourse being assassinated is another. Yet, nothing has changed. An officer had his KNEE on another human being’s KNECK for NINE MINUTES, TWO OF WHICH HE WAS LIFELESS, while feeling ZERO remorse or regard, and KNOWING (believing*) that he would be PROTECTED by his BADGE OF SERVICE. THAT IS A REOCCURRING SYMPTOM OF SYSTEMIC RACISM AND CAN BE EXTRAPOLATED TO REFLECT THE FEAR FELT BY BLACK PEOPLE IN THE PRESENCE OF POLICE. IT WAS NOT A ONE OFF. IT HAPPENS OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER AGAIN. I AM SICK OF IT. I AM DONE.

You think this video is hard to watch? The video is only forty fucking seconds long. Try watching it twelve times for NINE MINUTES.

#7 – Face Your Fears

APRIL 2020 — I’m above the clouds right now. It was a surprisingly rough ascent out of Charlotte heading back to Little Rock. On the way up to +40,000 ft., we experienced heavy turbulence and at one point, a sudden and unexpected drop in altitude. I watched the eyes of the other passengers widen and everybody looked at each other for assurance.

“It’s fine”, one of them said. And that was the assurance.

The rest of the flight was smooth. 

I always wonder when I fly – if one or both of the engine(s) were to fail, how would different people react? Would anybody be calm? Who would panic? Who would pray? Who would turn to action and try to help? What would everybody’s individual fear look like?

The Hierarchy of Fear

Franklin D. Roosevelt is the greatest U.S. president to ever live. He is the only (first and last) president to serve four terms, and he pretty much saved the United States as commander in chief three different times. True story. In Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech he famously said:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

FDR, 1933

What is fear? Fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychological, real or imagined. Fear is one of the seven universal emotions, meaning if you show me someone who has never been afraid, I’ll show you a liar. Fear doesn’t always look like fear. Sometimes it looks like trying to “keep up with the Joneses”. Sometimes it looks like marrying the wrong person. Sometimes it looks like doing nothing at all. Whether it’s fear of heights, being ashamed, feeling guilty, feeling jealous, fear of intimacy (“fear of commitment”), fear of public speaking, or fear of spiders — these are all variations of basic fear; most of which I have personally experienced.

Fear is also a survival instinct. We may fear something dangerous because it threatens our existence or because we have learned from it. Fear can mobilize us and tell us to “fight or flight”, but ironically, it can also do the opposite. Fear can prevent action when our senses become overwhelmed, such as described by the phrase, “deer in headlights”. Hence, fear can be immobilizing.

It’s hard to talk about fear without talking about fear of failure. Have you ever been so afraid at failing something that you decided not to try it at all? We forget that everybody who’s ever been great at something probably sucked at some point, but they overcame fear of failure in order to get better.

The human brain avoids discomfort. When fear sets in, it’s hard to overcome because our mind has a tactical advantage over us. Our mind knows what we’re good at, what we’re bad at, and what we fear… and we can’t lie to it. Without preparation, our mind will always be two steps ahead of us. Our mind would rather be comfortable, and making excuses is an example of the brain’s preference for comfort.

Do you think growth is supposed to be comfortable? Will you risk failing in order to achieve your dreams? Think about the amount of justification we allow ourselves in order to avoid challenges that would get us closer to our goals. Excuses are an attempt to cover up our fears.

What is your biggest fear? What are you really afraid of?

What keeps me up at night is the fear of being normal. I look around and I see so many people being just – I don’t know… normal. Talking about things that we want to do, but we can’t for whatever reason we tell ourselves. Being stuck in toxic relationships because we fear what people will think when it doesn’t work out. Watching other people’s lives on TV or listening to news that doesn’t effect us at all. Living in fear.

My biggest fear is sitting in a rocking chair at 85 years old and looking back on my life, wondering what coulda, woulda, shoulda been different. Tony Robbins calls this the Rocking Chair Method.

I should have quit that job. I should have started that company. I should have moved out of Arkansas. I should have said yes. I should have said no. I should have asked the pretty girl out.

I should have majored in film in college, but I feared what my parents would think. True story.

I should have done it when I had the chance.

That absolutely terrifies me; settling for less than I deserve, compromising my aspirations for comfort or security. I have been blessed with a healthy body and an able mind. What a disservice it would be to allow myself to be anything less than my greatest potential. The more I accept that failure is a necessary part of “growing up”, the less I fear failing on my way to greatness.

This dad decided the view was worth more than his fear of heights. RESPECT!

My fear = my potential ability minus my actual ability. What’s left over is my wasted capacity; laziness, procrastination, self-sabatoging fear. That is how I’ve learned to use my fear. My fear of regret later in life, coupled with my fear of normalcy far outweighs my fear of failing in a given instance.

My fear = my potential ability minus my actual ability

Kobe Bryant skipped college and went straight from high school to the NBA at 18 years old. We all know the star that he became, but it was not without its hurdles. His rookie season was not impressive, and in the very last game that year, Kobe decided it was his time to shine. He thought he would single-handedly beat the Utah Jazz and take the Lakers to the playoffs. What a tremendous amount of pressure on an 18 year old. You won’t believe what happened…

Tied at 89-89 with under a minute left in the game. Kobe Bryant took four shots that would have won the game. Four shots. He. Air-balled. Every. Single. Shot.

Kobe Bryant Airball Party (rookie season)

Consider the amount courage it took after the first airball, as an 18-year old rookie, to win the game, to shoot the second shot. And then a third? A stunning fourth airball in under five minutes with tens of thousands of people cheering against him, and the biggest game of his life at the time on the line. The Lakers lost, and Kobe walked off the court with his head hanging low.

That night, when he returned to LA, Bryant worked on his shot “until the sun came up.” He spent the rest of his offseason repeating that routine every day.

Kobe defined it as, “an early turning point in being able to deal with adversity, public scrutiny, and self-doubt“, and the very first game of the next season, the Lakers played the Jazz. He got his revenge.

The general manager of the Lakers at the time, Jerry West, described the situation. “He was fearless. I think that’s one of the things that spurred him to greatness. He wasn’t going to allow himself to fail.”

“It may be the most classic Kobe story”, said Tim Klein.

Failure is inevitable so embrace it.

One of the best commercials of all time

Entrepreneurs are by definition people who generally lose more than they win; and they are glorified for it because they represent resilience. 90% of startups fail – do you think each billionaire got it right the first time?

  • Warren Buffet was rejected by Harvard University.
  • Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs dropped out of school.
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
  • MacKenzie Scott Bezos divorced Jeff. haha, just kidding (but she did).

It would take you roughly 30 years to count to a billion.

The only way to defeat an enemy as powerful as fear is to know it well. To be the best version of ourselves, we can’t be immobilized by fear, and the only way to overcome it is to acknowledge it. The next step is being able to recognize it in real time, and being able to choose to move through it.

So – when you’re 85 years old, sitting in your rocking chair, looking back on your life, what is it that you will regret not doing. What are you waiting for?

#6 – Life is Short vs. Life is Long

January 2020 — The world lost one of the greatest and most influential competitors that we’ve ever witnessed today. Kobe Bryant was an athlete, a family man, and an inspiration to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people around the world.

Although it felt like we all knew Kobe, it isn’t the fact that we won’t get to see him compete anymore that made his untimely death so shocking. I was suddenly reminded that even the people who seem to be immortal have to face mortality at some point.

Over the last few years, and somewhat in response to the “YOLO” movement, I’d gotten into the habit of saying, “Life is Long”. It was a means for me to practice patience, go slow, and attempt to get away from instant gratification. For example, “Don’t get worked up about it right now, life is long”. In American culture, we are so fixated on feeling good all the time that we sometimes forget that there are more important things in the world than being happy or entertained right now.

Yet, events like the one this week make me reconsider. In this 16 second clip from 2008, Kobe says, “Enjoy Life. Life is too short to get bogged down or be discouraged..”

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that life is short and life is long.

When I was six years old and found out my mom was 33 years old, I was certain that she was one of the oldest people on earth. Ten years later, when I was 16, I was a rebellious teenager, in part because I didn’t think I would make it to the age of 21. It just seemed so far away. When I was 21… well, I was 21, so I was an idiot, but what I’m getting at is that 8 years after turning 21, I’m still here today (and it’s still somewhat of a surprise).

  • GK
  • AN
  • KG
  • EE
  • AM
  • DA
  • LC
  • AS
  • LH

Each pair of initials above belongs to a friend of mine who passed away before the age of 30. Four of them before the age of 21. My eyes tear up thinking about the holes left by them and the impact it had (and still has) on their families.

It would be naive to think that friends dying at an early age didn’t impact my views on mortality, or their families’ views on mortality. After losing someone young, does a family feel like “life is short”? Or does the hurt that they experience make life seem long and dragged out? Or Both? Does their understanding of mortality make them live more or less in the moment than someone who hasn’t experienced such tragedy? In my case, peers leaving earth before their 21st birthday encouraged my own thinking that I would never be an old man.

But that thinking wasn’t conducive to me at that time – it created a “go fast and do everything now” attitude, and it prevented me from taking my time with life. That attitude prevented me from paying it forward with hard work to reap the rewards later on. You live enough in the now, and there is inevitably a moment that you are stuck wondering why you didn’t prepare better for the future.

What if you found out today that you only have one year to live? I would probably adopt a mindset similar to the one I had when I was 16 – “I am bulletproof. Go fast and do everything now.”

On the other hand, what if you found out today that you’ll follow the average life expectancy for a person living in the U.S. and live until the age of 75 or 80? Would I live my life differently in this scenario than in the one with only a year left? Of course, I would. I would invest in my health, my relationships, and my future.

Rome wasn’t built in a day...”

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but guess what? Every single day, Rome was being built. And therein lies the juxtaposition. Every single day that we live is just as important, and has the potential to be just as impactful, as the sum of all of our days.

I was too harsh on the “YOLO” movement – we don’t have to all live fast and adopt the motto, “life is short”, but we do only have one life to live. I admire Kobe Bryant because he lived his one life with passion, and in doing so, he acknowledged the conflict between “Life is Short” and “Life is Long”. That is so clearly reflected in his legacy.

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check out this 2015 film, The Muse, on Kobe’s life, growing up in Italy before being drafted (right out of high school!) into the NBA, and the challenges and achievements of his career.

RIP Kobe. Mamba Mentality

#5 – East Africa, A Part of Me

Instagram changed the way people interact, but it also changed how we capture the world around us. Today I stumbled across photos that I took while working in East Africa. Seeing them brought on nostalgia, and no “blog” could represent me well without them. A lot of these photos were taken pre-Instagram so they’ve been buried by time.

Most of these were captured with my iPhone.

This lady approached my car window during a stop at the local market
Ruaha National Park, Iringa, Tanzania
Jumamos, coffee farmer, Tanzania
Brothers
Masai warriors as security guards in Zanzibar
My neighbors. Lucy is on the left
The best coffee in the region took about two hours of driving up crazy steep terrain to get to from my home
I lived in the small home with the water tank in the lower right corner of this photo. Running up that mountain was my “gym” everyday after work
16 of these coffee bags = 1 metric ton, or 2,204.6 lbs.
In awe, on a safari
My parents, on a safari while visiting
Cows on the beach?
Hubert Mtui and I surveying coffee trees
Different day, same team
Coffee farmer, home brew
Lake Matema, Malawi
Notice the scars. If you’ve been to my home, you may recognize this one
Motorcycle polo on the weekends
Neighborhood cleanup
Deep in Masai territory
Coffee cupping in Rwanda with Rwanda Trading Company
Working with a group of farmers to build a coffee processing facility in their village
typical lunch at the office

#4 – Stop Saying “Sorry”

I’m done saying sorry for shit that I’m not really sorry for. I’m done apologizing for being myself.

As a very flawed human, I’ve been wrong many times in my life. I’ve lied, cheated, and stolen, but I’ve taken responsibility for all of those instances. That’s not really what I’m talking about.

I’m talking more about the slip of tongue that’s followed by a, “…Just kidding”, or backtracking after speaking a hard-to-swallow truth with a regretful, “I shouldn’t have said that”.

Or even that awkward moment where you’re in someone’s line of walking and you say “sorry [for being in your way],” and do the stutter step thing until each person decides which side to walk on (Hint: in America, you always go right).

To be the frankest of frank, over apologizing makes you seem like a huge pussy. It’s like over complimenting – you think you’re being nice, but it looks more like a lack of confidence and may actually be counterproductive. Similar to cursing, apologizing too much makes a true apology feel less sincere, like the boy who cries wolf… but in this case you’re just the boy who cries all the time, no wolf needed. Saying sorry too much ironically reflects a fear or rejection of who you are. That doesn’t sound very cool does it?

Let’s say a guy or girl asks you out on a date. Maybe you just got out of a relationship, maybe you’re just content right now and don’t want your boat rocked, or maybe you’re just not that into it.

I’m sorry Jonathon, but I can’t go out with you”.

In this instance, there’s no reason that this person needs my forgiveness for not wanting to go out with me. While I’d argue that this person would ultimately feel sorry in the future (lol), there’s no reason for this person to feel “sorry” for telling me how she feels, or for being at a comfortable place in her life.

Choosing not to apologize can also have positive psychological benefits, according to The European Journal of Social Psychology.

Researchers found that participants who refused to express remorse showed signs of “greater self-esteem, increased feelings of power (or control) and integrity.”

You can still be polite without apologizing. It begins with awareness. Once you notice the habit you can start working to change it.

How to apologize less:

  • Replace “I’m sorry” with “Thank you”
    • “Sorry I’m late” turns into “Thanks for waiting on me” = power move
    • If someone I work with points out an error in one of my projects, instead of saying, “Sorry for my error” say, “Thanks for catching that” = power move
  • Know what to apologize for
    • If its out of your control or if its an honest mistake, there’s probably no need to apologize
    • If you were at fault, own it and move on. This isn’t easy, but your vulnerability and emotional intelligence will be appreciated. Understand that not everything can be forgiven
  • Embrace silence
    • Let’s say you’re negotiating and the other party asks too much. “Sorry, but….” diminishes whatever you’re about to say. Instead, use the power of a pause, and ask definitively for what you want
  • Learn how to say “No”
    • You are not responsible for other people’s feelings
    • “I can’t make it, maybe next time”
    • “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, but [now is not a good time for me], etc.”

I have more respect for people who own their personality – flaws included – and are true to themselves than I do for people who are always nice but come off as fake or people pleasing.

Even if it offends someone, this is who I am, and this is how I think.

Never apologize for who you are.

Unless you’re a like a pedophile.

#3 – Outer Space Perspective

Once upon a time, I heard that we look at the stars and feel an existential curiosity about who we are because we are, at least to a degree, made up of actual stardust. Everything in the universe contains traces of cosmic explosions, and being these conscious creatures, we feel a physiological connection when we look into outer space (of course, there are other, more popular theories about where we came from and how we got here too).

“Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today.”

Living With The Stars by Karel & Iris Schrijver

When is the last time you were able to see the night sky without light pollution? Most of us live in urban areas, which makes it difficult to get the full effect, but if I’m ever lucky enough to be outside at night where there is low artificial lighting, I make it a point to spend some time looking up.

Two galaxies, captured by an expensive piece of equipment

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.”
-Neil Armstrong

The mystery and the magnitude of space are a humbling reminder that a lot of my day to day concerns aren’t that big of a deal. In other words, when I think about outer space, it ironically brings me back down to earth. Not only do my problems get smaller, but my achievements do too (it’s weird how it works both ways like that). This perspective helps me get back on the horse when I fall off, but it also helps me stay focused and keep grinding when I catch a Win. That’s what I mean by “outer space is humbling” – it keeps me centered, and thats how I want to live.

If 85% of the things that we worry about never happen, then why do we spend so much time and energy worrying about things?

I can relate to the first British person in space, Helen Sharman, who said that her “One true love is mountains. Something about their grandeur makes my life and its problems insignificant”. My first time going to Colorado to visit the college campus was the first time I ever saw real mountains. It blew my mind that such large pieces of the earth can slam together violently and create a beautiful range of massive land-waves.

Being in space taught me that it’s people, not material goods, which truly matter. Up there we had all we needed to survive: the right temperature, food and drink, safety. I gave no thought to the physical items I owned on earth Earth. When we flew over specific parts of the globe, it was always our loved ones we thought of down below us.

Helen Sharman, January 2020

Next time you find yourself overthinking or feeling stressed, try to remember just how small we actually are. Looking up at the sky makes it easier. This series of images that begin with a 1970’s Steve Irwin lookin’-dude (RIP) does a good job at illustrating our size relative to the universe.

Chicago?
Chicago!


This picture (below) represents 1 light year – the distance that would take 1 year to cover while traveling at the maximum speed of light. How big do you feel?

We’re about to leave the Milky Way Galaxy
Our solar system and all of other planetary systems in our galaxy are technically visible in this photo.

The above photographs are stills from a short film named The Powers of Ten (1977). Directed by Charles and Ray Eames

A few cool links

  • This guy posts sick space photos on instagram that he takes with his own equipment
  • This is an animated representation of all the multi-planet systems discovered in the Milky Way galaxy by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope as of Oct. 30, 2018
  • This book, written by an Astrophysicist and his wife, who is a pathology professor at Stanford University describe how the human body is connected to the life cycles of the Earth, planets, and stars
  • Helen Sharman interview via The Guardian

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