Welcome Back, Swagger

There was a time in my life when I had swagger.

I was never the most popular or athletic kid in school, but for a while there, I was a really good baseball player. I could hit. I could field. And, boy, could I pitch. Some of the most “over” kids in high school would come up to the plate, and I could buckle their knees with a curveball or blow a fastball by them after setting them up with a changeup on the pitch before.

I was never the most talented kid out there. But I was the smartest. I knew everything there was to know about how to play baseball right, knew where to be whenever and wherever the ball was hit, could tell you exactly what I needed to do before any of a thousand situations occurred.

Being good never changed me, but it did give me confidence — swagger, if you will. And I admit it: I liked — loved — being good.

Then I hurt my elbow, and no amount of physical therapy, baseball IQ or preparation could overcome my diminished physical skills.

So I started writing about baseball, and, in that, I also was good. I had swagger. I was the 16-year-old who was going to Yankee Stadium, not as a fan, but as a journalist, the kid who was interviewing New York Knicks rookie Greg Anthony while John Starks and Kiki Vandeweghe worked out in the weight room and Patrick Ewing sat there in nothing but his jock strap and knee pads. I was the high school, data-driven journalist who was writing the enterprise piece on how the “best” team in baseball rarely wins the World Series and who used that analysis to predict the Cincinnati Reds upset of the mighty Oakland A’s (they of the Bash Brothers) in the 1990 World Series. I was the kid who took on the school administration when it attempted to censor my right to publish a story about a player on our basketball team who flipped out in the middle of a game, yelling at his coach and throwing a chair across the court while the game was still going on — and the kid who, with the assistance of a loyal faculty advisor who put his ass on the line for me, won the battle.

I became the youngest sports editor ever of my college’s newspaper, helped break a recruiting scandal with our basketball team, mixed it up with presidential hopefuls in the run-up to the 1996 election.

I was the editor of a weekly newspaper at age 22, publisher of a successful weekly that saw revenue and circulation growth while the industry was collapsing at age 26, editor of a daily paper at age 33.

I was good. And I had swagger.

And then it all just sort of disappeared. The success. The swagger. Me.

I’d like to think I was born too late, that had I come of age in an era in which newspapers were a cornerstone of American life instead of one in which the industry was crushed by the internet shortly after my college graduation, I would have been someone who made a difference, someone who could have used his talents to make life better by being the watchdog journalist or compassionate storyteller.

Alas, you don’t get to choose when you’re born.

And so I made the jump to marketing and communications, and in that I was good, too — right from the start. I learned how to use a variety of media to tell people about electricity and benefits and the stories of children from right here in St. Louis or brought here from halfway around the world to undergo life-changing orthopedic surgeries. Yeah, I was good, but the swagger was gone, and in losing that swagger I became awfully good at doing really stupid things — things that fucked up my career opportunities and personal life.

I’m not sure where that swagger went, but in looking back, I’m pretty sure it disappeared the day my newspaper career ended, and it was not even a memory by the time I was forced to push back hard against a religious denomination in the Thing That Cannot Be Discussed, as a promising start marketing health insurance and retirement benefits exploded.

It’s not just my career swagger that disappeared. My entire life lost its swagger. I’m not sure if people’s work swagger and home swagger should be linked, but mine certainly was. Being good at work gave me confidence, and that confidence carried over into all facets of my life — husbanding, parenting, volunteering. This isn’t to say my life was a confidence-fest. Far, far from it. I’ve been plagued by insecurities and doubts about my abilities, looks and usefulness since I was, oh, perhaps 4? Maybe sooner? That’s a topic for another day.

The fact is, though, I was once one confident SOB who took life by the balls and made shit happen, professionally and personally. And then I wasn’t. And I haven’t been. For a long, long time.

Earlier this week, I noticed something. I’m starting to feel some of that swagger again. Not surprisingly (to me, anyway), it started with work. Last year, I orchestrated a major career shift to put myself in the best place to be successful and enjoy the rest of my working life, however long it lasts. It was a slow, difficult, stressful process in which I had to thread an incredibly small needle to have things happen exactly as they needed to. And I did it. But I still didn’t feel all that great about it.

I have talked and wrote about how to run a business, how to motivate employees, how to operate a marketing department, how to deal with problem staffers, for a long time. My beliefs have been shaped much more by being a fly on the wall as others have done all this stuff wrong than by being around inspirational mentors who did it right. Then, in August, I suddenly found myself in place in which I could — had to — put my theories about marketing into practice.

And let me tell you, I was terrified. It’s one thing to talk about and write about how things should be done; it’s something else entirely to actually do the stuff and be forced to wait for it to take root to see if it actually works. So I did that. And I waited. And lo and behold, it’s working. All of it. Amazingly.

I find myself now just outside the top echelon of leadership in my company but seen as a go-to guy when it comes to everything from, yes, marketing, but also to team dynamics and operational strategy and human resources and more. I have the CEO’s ear, and he values and encourages my input and advice. I’ve not only handled the marketing stuff but also the employee recruitment strategy, and I found myself yesterday working on what I think ultimately will become something of a mission-and-values proposition for us going forward.

It’s been hard, but it’s been fun.

This newfound swagger also has started to spill over into my personal life. Now, to be honest, that didn’t just happen randomly. I have been working extremely hard since, oh, about August or September to deal with some of the most difficult things in my past, things I’ve ignored for decades that, as I’ve discovered, truly are at the center of a lot of the problems I’ve faced and/or created. In doing the hard work, my personal life has been chaotic as hell. When you poke a really big bear that’s been asleep for a really long time, well, he wakes up really, really grumpy. He fights back hard, and he doesn’t fight clean.

Put another way, you don’t come out of a one-hour counseling session in which you’re talking about some really ugly stuff from the past — really ugly stuff — and then, snap, find yourself in this great place until next week’s session. One-hour sessions go by very fast, and sometimes I’ve been left bruised, battered, raw and exposed by the stuff that’s come up. Thankfully, my counselor is amazeballs and makes himself available to me via chat just about 24/7. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Never underestimate the value of a good therapist and never stop looking until you find The One.

Whether it’s the hard work in counseling paying off or spillover swagger from realizing just how good I am at work (it’s likely a combination of both), I suddenly have more confidence in my personal life, as well. Listen, I’ve done some really stupid shit this past decade-plus, and I have spent a lot of time hating myself because of it. But now? Now I’m starting to feel that I’m actually a pretty damn good husband, a pretty damn good father, a pretty damn good person who has a lot to offer and who knows his shit and who has every reason to be confident, to speak his truth, to stand up for himself in the face of adversity, to lead with grace and confidence.

Suddenly, I can look at those stupid things I’ve done and say with much more confidence that those are things that happened and aren’t things that are happening or that will happen again. Similarly, I’ve realized I don’t need to take all the blame for those things having happened and heap it on my own shoulders as the thing I alone must carry. It was me, but it wasn’t only me in any of those situations, and the fact that great people whom I love and admire messed up too makes me feel a little less alone in the category of “occasional fuck-up.” And besides, isn’t it time we all put this shit down? I mean, after all, why carry a heavy load you don’t have to carry?

So what does this all mean for the future? That’s the scary part. I know I’ve had moments kinda sorta like this in the past, moments of clarity and belief in myself. Something has always happened that makes those feelings of positivity implode. So I’m wary about writing this, wary about saying it too strongly or without enough qualifiers or conditions that need to exist for it to stick.

That said, things seem different this time, more genuine and believable and all-encompassing and internally created, not just the result of someone saying something nice or thinking of me in a certain way. No, this time, I’m the one saying this stuff about me, I’m the one feeling this about myself, and I find that I’m giving fewer fucks about what others think about me. Am I happy that people who matter to me seem to think highly of me, personally and professionally? Sure I am. Who wouldn’t be? But if they didn’t, would I still feel this way about myself?

It seems that is quite possible — maybe even likely.

Hello swagger, my old friend. It’s nice to see you again.

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