Guest blogger: Eze Redwood
My Why is a series of Lean Lab stakeholders who we feature as guest bloggers. They describe their "why," or inspiration, for becoming involved in social change and reform. We hope you find similar inspiration in their stories.
In thinking about my path in entrepreneurship and youth development, there are two factors that I, like many other innovators, have had to come to terms with. At certain points when all looks grim, you find yourself soul-searching to examine…and then re-examine… 1) your motivation, especially as it relates to why you care about what you're doing in the first place, and 2) the feasibility of your goals and whether you can actually accomplish what others have tried (and failed) or not even attempted. Whereas one of these answers is usually logical and rooted in personal convictions and sound reasoning, the other is highly emotional and anything but clear cut. One is usually based on past experiences and the other speaks more to personality and beliefs about the future. I’ll attempt to tackle my “why” for both below.
As a builder you get a high when you’re solving problems, and in doing so, changing society—or a sector of society—for the better. In tech we call it disruption; in politics we call it reform. I’ve come to the conclusion that the people who are willing to forego stability, comfort and normalcy in exchange for making a lasting impact on the world around them (myself included) are driven by that high we get when we prove to the world that the answers do exist. I see these highs coming in three progressively alluring stages:
I would describe the other half of my motivation as coming from my upbringing. Growing up, I lived in a lot of places — from Torrington/Waterbury, Connecticut, to St. Paul, Minnesota; Shreveport, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Los Angeles, California. Seeing the vast cultural differences made me understand that regions of the U.S. were more like united countries than united states. There were vast differences in diet, social norms, socioeconomics, attitudes, views on family, dating, mindset, and most importantly, opportunities. Where one grew up directly impacted what education they were going to get, how soon they got married, and what careers they were even going to know about! As an example, in Little Rock even students bright enough to have gotten accepted into Harvard had never even heard the terms “investment banker, management consultant, or business analyst” and never had the notion of becoming curators or blog editors put in front of them in a meaningful way even if they excelled in the arts or writing.
What bothered me the most was that these educational differences could even be seen in socioeconomic and location-based layers within the same cities. Having attended schools in Los Angeles where many students were gang-affiliated, and then attending other schools in Louisiana where my friends had celebrities coming over to their houses, I got to see first-hand how equally-smart students were set up to have drastically different success curves by virtue of factors completely out of their control. I vowed that if I was ever in a position to do something about it, I would work to fill in the gaps and change what I saw as a flawed educational construct. I guess what drives me is the thought of the other Eze’s that didn’t get lucky and have that exposure to the same opportunities. Sometimes a few numbers in an address determine if you’re poised to be an asset to society, or deemed a liability.
*Bathroom Break & Intermission*
As far as the feelings of whether these things we pour our hearts and souls into will actually be successful, and the self-doubt that ensues, I have a slightly different take.
Early in my career, under the heavy shadow of the financial crisis, I was informed that my fairly well-paying job, as I knew it, was not going to exist the next day. In fact, the company had already negotiated out of their lease and the lights in the office were scheduled to be cut off the next day as well. With limited options and lots of the expenses that come with being young and having a decently-high paying job, I eventually started selling oil changes door-to-door in a profit-sharing situation with a major oil change company. A few weeks later my engine headgasket blew and I spent what money I had saved up to fix it. When that car—who we’ll call Bertha—got fixed, I spent hours with it that evening detailing every spot with the same care that a loved one is shown after you’ve paid the hospital bill but are just happy to have them home. That is…until I came outside the next morning to find that Bertha, who had just had her insurance downgraded to liability the day before, had been kidnapped.
As I stared at the broken shards of glass in my downtown KCMO parking lot, wondering how I was going to get to my job downtown or my newest job in Olathe, it began to snow - the first flakes of a winter that saw two snowpocalypses and consistently single and low double-digit temperatures. I eventually got a call that the car I just rebuilt an engine in days before had been found non-operational with too many things wrong for them to name on the phone. To make life even better, the police force that did such a great job finding Bertha, did not do such a great job calling me before they had it towed, thus incurring a few hundred dollars in tow expenses. Little did I know, there were many other equally amazing days to come—all of which I had time to ponder as I walked through 2-3 feet of snow and ice during my morning commute.
The month or so of comparable experiences following this ”awesome” start have long since had their edge worn off, but have played a key role in shaping who I am today. Among other lessons, it taught me the importance of always living below your means, and really savoring the successes while remaining hungry for more.
I have a theory that success is a mindset, and optimism, especially while still being pragmatic, is a key component of that successful mindset. Thus if someone has that mindset, no matter how low they are, with the right people around them, they will eventually rise up to be amazing.
In my humble opinion (again), it’s easiest to be optimistic when you’ve either 1) been fortunate enough to have almost always been in a good situation due to an impeccable chain of decisions made by you (or your parents) and a little bit of luck OR 2) because at some point your world has fallen apart, it has seemed like everything around you was crumbling, going up in flames or fading to black.
At that point where you feel most alone, when all seems impossible, that's when you discover the bottom. But if you climb out of that hole, your worldview shifts and nothing really seems that bad or unmanageable anymore. Because at the end of the day, winners always find a way to win. And as someone who’s been through it I believe it’s my job as a friend, if I’m able, to support them and make sure they make it to the end of the day without being derailed. The same thing applies to the general entrepreneurial community, which is why my work with Twenty30CEO is so important to me. This measured optimism due to the realities of life and/or the realities of trying to build something is what I would say drives the belief in the feasibility of attaining my personal goals. So for me, I would have to say that acknowledgement and optimism are my drivers and my “why.”
P.S. if you’ve made it through all of this we’re pretty much friends. Feel free to connect with me on Twitter @Ezeredwood