Angels in the (Out) Field

I’ve never really believed that there are angels out there. I also had this media-created view of angels as these soft fluffy things with wings.

1974, Fort Worth, Texas

I was a child, maybe 8 or 9. My mom was really starting to get sick and we had gone shopping in Fort Worth where we lived. In those days, you went to big “department stores”, which were often multiple floors and frankly a bit difficult to navigate. We had been visiting the old Monnig’s store.

Something happened in the store, and my Mom got really, really tired. This is before cell phones and easy access to quick communication. I remember sitting down with her in the elevator bank and she said, “I think we need to call your dad”. Literally, at that exact moment, her mom walked up who was also shopping in the store. She got home and to the doctor she needed.

In that moment, my Grandmother was the angel.

Was that just luck? Was it divine? I have no idea. What I do know is that time after time, people come into our lives at precisely the moments we need them. And we come into THEIR lives too.

How are you “feeling”?

Oh, just fine. I’m “great”, just awesome. Thank you so much for asking.

The question is genuine, but the answer isn’t. I’m not “great”, I’m something else which I can’t describe.

It’s been almost a year since I completed radiation treatment and the facts are, I am feeling anything but “great”.

I feel exhausted. It still takes alot of energy to do basic things. I still run out of gas in areas of my life that I used to be able to do alot more.

I feel guilty. Over the last few years, I’ve seen too many friends and colleagues suffer with this fucking disease. Why them? Why not me?

I feel pressure. I now know that every day is such an incredible gift that has so much value it’s impossible to even describe. I feel an overwhelming need to do something spectacular with this, but I have no idea what or how to even start.

I feel blessed. Sometimes the act of giving involves accepting the help of others. I am overwhelmingly blessed with resources, love and help.

I feel hope. I somehow know everthing will be OK. It’s not my job to have all the answers.

I think the answers may be simpler and easier than they seem. Maybe it’s just love. Giving, accepting and being OK with just “being”.

It’s 2:48 AM. I woke up with this on my heart. Going back to sleep now. Carry on.

“Fearing Not” – Easier said than done!

COVID 19 is in Dallas, Tarrant and Denton Counties, Texas. Schools are closed, grocery stores are out of meat, and toilet paper, restaurants are closed, Starbucks only allows drive-throughs and people are sick and dying. Businesses are going to close, jobs lost, the market is in freefall. This is the real deal.

In an attempt to stay normal, I took a run this morning down by the lake near our house. I saw ALOT of birds that didn’t seem worried and they seemed well-fed and healthy. One of them, a cardinal seemed to be following me, playfully. She reminded me of my favorite verse. I think now more than ever, we need to not be afraid.

Luke 12-22

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the birds: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn, yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?”

If I learned anything this last year, it’s learning to realize that we’re not in control. Life is a gift, we are only here today because He decided we would be.

Stay strong my friends. Together, we will be fine. It may suck for a while, but the earth WILL continue to rotate.

‘Alan, I’ll be in early to explain” What a smashed Galaga arcade machine taught me about empathic leadership.

2:39 AM MARCH 1983 Six Flags over Texas

Date is approximate, time of day and location is not

I heard the crash and immediately knew what had happened. I had ONE JOB, it was to deliver a precious, BRAND NEW Galaga machine worth approximately $2200 from one of the several arcades at Six Flags over Texas to our shop, behind Good Times Square. The route required me to go under a train bridge where the Six Flags train circled the park.

I was young and had “worked my way up the chain” at Six Flags to the coveted role of “Arcade Mechanic”, where my job was to fix arcade machines, trains, boats, dollar changers, ski ball machines, etc. I wore a radio on my belt and basically “roamed” the park looking for problems, but mostly talking to girls.

It was an awesome job.

The Awesome ARCADE Shop of the early 80s at Six Flags over Texas. From right to left, Alan, Steve and Charlie (me). Credit to Alan Kilpatrick for this photo

Occasionally, some tasks could only be done at night. Like moving a machine across the park. I regularly worked late at Six Flags, it was fun. It was a little creepy, but there was a surprising amount of activity in the park even at 2:30 AM.

Six Flags over Texas in the 80s.

I loaded the machine with one of the little golf carts we used to haul stuff around the park, I placed the machine upright on the back. And yep, drove under the train bridge.

BOOM

And there it was. This arcade machine is worth more than I would make in the whole summer, in what appeared to be 1000 parts spread across the concrete under the bridge.

I looked around. Good, no one saw. I quickly gathered the evidence and loaded it into our arcade shop. I knew Alan, my boss would be there at about 8 AM the next morning. I contemplated what to do. This is before cell phones, and anyway, it’s 2:39 AM.

I scribbled a pathetic note on the wreckage.

“Alan, I will be in early to explain”

And I went home ready to lose my job the next morning. I was set to work again at 2 PM the next day for a swing shift. I got up and came in early, getting there about 11 AM. Walking in, I was amazed to see that Alan had completely re-assembled the machine and other than a few scratches, it was fully functional.

He looked at me, I looked at him and we both busted out laughing. The Galaga machine is probably still in service somewhere.

Here’s the message here. I told the truth. He trusted me to not do anything until he heard the truth from me. To me this was one of my first lessons in leadership empathy.

Look, we all make mistakes. Sometimes they are really expensive, sometimes they are not. I have had employees over the years make mistakes that cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. Did I fire that employee? NO! But, we made sure we learned from the mistake and did everything we could to make sure NO ONE else made the same mistake.

OCTOBER 2002, 2 PM LONDON ENGLAND CUSTOMER’S EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS OFFICE

I had prepared exceedingly well. I knew exactly what this customer needed to do to solve their issues and get our software implemented. I had done dozens of successful software implementations. I KNEW what was needed and I was INTENT on explaining this to our customers’ CEO.

I was thrown out of the building.

Get the hell out of my office you SMUG American

In hindsight, of COURSE, I was thrown out of the building. He was the CEO, I was a vendor and I felt compelled to tell HIM why HE was the reason for OUR non-performance.

I was a dumbass. Period.

My boss, the owner of this company is a very successful software entrepreneur. I was fortunate to be working with him after my first startup had failed spectacularly. He had advised me that perhaps my messaging for that meeting was a bit “Inflammatory”. Nope, I’m doing this. I’m right.

He wanted to grab some drinks after work, which was his way of getting status from his executives. I came in, feeling quite low and had to explain that he was right and I was wrong and I had been thrown out of his customer’s office. His response still surprised me. “What did we learn?”. Well, for starters I learned not to be a dumbass.

Once again, I told the truth and as a leader, he chose to be empathetic and he chose to invest in me as his employee versus punish me.

Years later, I’ve been faced with countless situations where an employee “messed up”. And every time, the experience I had with these two leaders is now part of my DNA in decision making.

Now my default position is to trust the employee first, and look for the learning and grow from the experience.

Next time you are in a position to judge a mistake, stop and think about what we learned and make an investment in your employee.

It will pay dividends.

What I learned in one sentence from a grumpy, wise old man.

When Mentors Die

We had just unveiled our new corporate brand.   We had hired a professional marketing firm, done customer studies, acquired a domain, designed a logo and registered a trademark.   We thought it was the most important decision we had made.

We unveiled the name to our board.    “Tada”.

Silence.

One of our independent board members looked at me and simply said:

“Well, as long as it doesn’t mean f**king a goat in Portuguese, then I’m OK”.

Sam K in a board meeting

The facts are, the name we chose at that point in our company, was pretty much irrelevant.   What mattered was execution, something we were struggling with. He in a very powerful way slapped us back into reality.

Earlier in the venture, he had observed me running around our offices, often carrying a little notebook, taking notes, being busy, busy busy.    I was busy “helping” our team. I was busy “creating our plan”, our “vision”, keeping investors in-check, validating that what we were building was right.  Come on, I was IMPORTANT and being IMPORTANT means being BUSY.

He looked at me and simply said:

“Charlie, you will be more effective the less you do”.   

Sam K Smith speaking to Charlie Alsmiller in 2002

I was speechless.   I was an ex-consultant in a big firm.  My whole value was measured by how hard I worked, how much “value” I created TODAY.    This is counter-intuitive to me. “Do less”? What? How does that work? I didn’t get it.  

“Work on your business, not In your business”

A quote from just about every business book out there

We hear the words, “Work ON your business, not IN your business” all the time.  But, I’m here to tell you, truer words have never been spoken. See, we all have super-powers.  Mine was clearly articulated to me recently by a dear friend. He said, “You have the ability to create something from nothing, and energy shows up around it.   I’m in awe.”. And this from a guy who is a VERY senior and well known tech executive in Silicon Valley. I’ve always been in awe of HIM. But, what he admitted to me is he CAN’T create something from scratch.  I can, it’s my superpower. The facts are, I should ONLY spend time on MY superpower, not his or anyone else’s for that matter. I’ll be more effective the LESS I do. Boom.

Sam K was a fine man.   In Dallas, he was a legend. He ran Texas Instruments for many years.   For some reason he liked me. He was retired, but respect followed him everywhere he went.  He counseled countless young entrepreneurs like me, reminding us through his wisdom and that what we are doing is often way less important than we thought.  And his occasional “F-bomb” in the boardroom NEVER went unnoticed.

Sam died a few years ago.   I was unable to attend his funeral, but it hit me hard.  Not only because I missed him, but because I realized how linear our lives can be.    Looking around, I see the senior figures in my life retiring. Dying. I know it’s the natural order, and I realized that for every person like me that was helped by someone like Sam there’s someone I can help.  

This last year, I faced down cancer and won.  I was the lucky one.  

Many aren’t so lucky.  I have been given years now to give back.  Suddenly the fancy car, the ski-chalet the boat don’t seem so important.    What’s important is helping the next generation.   

And yes, I’m still looking, waiting patiently to repeat Sam’s words about that goat in a board meeting.   

Harvesting Crops During Cancer

Last year, I pretty much took six months “off” to get well. And guess what, my business actually “grew” during this time. I have been somewhat baffled by this phenomenon, as I have been pre-programmed to think that effort=results. Well, it turns out I was only partly right.

Over the years I seem to have developed a balance of seeding for the next season and harvesting from the previous season. I didn’t plan this, it just happened. Sometimes you spend more on seeds, sometimes you spend more time harvesting, but at the end of the day, you MUST do both. Constantly. Consistently.

When drought comes (and it will), you have last year’s harvest to sustain you. When good times come, save up for the next drought.

Relationships, competencies, processes take time to develop and perfect.

I see too many entrepreneurs starting businesses, refusing to plant seeds for the next season and being frustrated when the seeds planted in the ground don’t immediately bear fruit.

Building a business takes time. Don’t short cut it. Otherwise, you end up with short cut crops.

Being Kind (to Yourself)

Our friend is undergoing the early stages of radiation in Houston right now. The other night, just thinking about what she’s been through and what she’s about to go through got to me. But, I also realized what I’ve been through was getting to me too. While I want to be compassionate for her, I need to be compassionate to myself as well.

This feels selfish, but it’s not. Here’s why.

You simply cannot love others without loving yourself. That means taking all that negative talk out of your head and be compassionate with yourself. Right now.

High Standards Prevail, but in Context

I went back to the gym last week and I’ve never been the biggest/strongest guy there AT ALL, but I’ve traditionally been on the respectable side. Not now. Last week my trainer put up a tiny little set of weights and said go for it. I refused and wanted bigger ones, which we did. But, in this process I realized I simply had unrealistic expectations of myself. I would never expect one of my daughters, or Mary or really anyone else to try and bench press their body weight after 5 months off and radiation therapy.

What’s my problem? At that moment, my head started pounding and I just sat there feeling dazed. At that moment one of the really nice people at our gym just looked at me and said:

“Charlie, be compassionate with yourself”.

This really got me to thinking. WHY are we so hard on ourselves? One of my biggest mental struggles in this process is not feeling productive. I’m a serial entrepreneur, I own three separate businesses all of which have their own needs. But I’ve been careful to own them, and not operate them. They’ve been fine…they haven’t grown much in the last 5 months, but they haven’t shrunk either. So in that way, I accomplished EXACTLY what I wanted…a business that doesn’t really need me. But, it’s also unnerving.

Managing your mind is likely more important than managing any other part of your life.

I’ve been learning about “mindfulness”, which is basically taking the controls back of your mind. I am really bad about letting all the voices run wild in my head with worst case scenarios, whispering in my ear all kinds of crap. Meditation has helped this over time I have learned to slow down the mind and just “be”….and “be compassionate with yourself”.

Psychotherapist and wellness coach Megan Bruneau suggests practicing simple awareness of thoughts and feelings, particularly the “critical inner voice” — without trying to change anything. She helps her clients understand how their critical inner voice has been helpful in the past. “What or who was it protecting you from? How did it motivate or comfort you? Once you find understanding and compassion for the critical voice, you can thank it for the good intentions.”

Allison Abrams, Psychology Today

Why compassion is important, especially when you fail

I have a friend who is dealing with a very public business failure. I am not fully aware of everything, but I know he’s been hurting, re-evaluating his associations, values and other things. He shared his stories of panic attacks every time the phone rings, and waking up in the middle of the night with soaked sheets.

I’ve been there. So have others. It sucks. But in his case he seems to be close to forgiving himself, for allowing himself some compassion. In the long run, he’ll be the guy that conquered all that and went on to the next thing and he’ll be better for it. I’m proud for him crossing the chasm.

In my experience self compassion in that situation is super hard. That situation is harder than cancer. It’s harder because in your mind you created it and you have yourself to beat up for it. It’s also your professional reputation, which is fragile. With cancer, there’s nothing to blame yourself for with but when you fail in business, your blame is everywhere. At least that’s what you tell yourself. I am praying for his self-compassion soon, if it’s not already there.

God is compassionate, YOU can be compassionate too.

So to conclude, our small group last night we had a discussion about prayer and asking God for support, love and compassion. Why not? What’s holding us back? In the New Testament, stories abound about loving your neighbor as yourself, and so on.

So it seems to me that loving yourself fully is the first step to loving others and bringing good forward. Being compassionate with yourself and others is part of the plan.

Now, get out there and show some compassion, but start at home.

Managing your Mind During Radiation Treatment

So today marked the 12th radiation treatment. Up early, hit the road, get dressed, get strapped down, come home. Groundhog day.

I described this as the long-strides of the treatment. So far, I’ve had no meaningful side effects, but I am the lucky one. For now, I am enjoying contemplating how I can use the mask and surgical gown as a Halloween outfit.

I have been learning to meditate. It’s been incredibly effective in managing the effects of the strap down, can’t breathe, can’t move, hey I am being radiated feelings. I’ve only begun.

I’ve been using headspace, which is great – but there are tons of them out there.

Here’s the magic, you CAN control what you think and how you feel. As a result, you CAN control how you react to just about any situation.

Charlie Alsmiller
For me, I have chosen to view the “mask” as a sort of superhero mask, making me stronger. So when they strap it down, I choose to look at the pressure as sort of a comforting blanket rather than something choking me.

This is huge. The notion of managing your mind I believe is the very first step in taking control of your destiny.

Essential Economics 101 * Ray Dalio on how the economy actually works

I am constantly amazed at the differences in how different people can view and interpret the same experiences or facts. Clearly, as humans we tend to fit the available facts into our belief systems. Nowhere is is more apparent than Washington politics and an understanding of the economy and how it works. Conservatives have one operating model and set of beliefs and the left has their own. The facts are economists have some fairly good basic principles that are very consistent.

1. You get less of what you tax

2. You can overspend in the short term, but in the long run, even governments run out of runway

3. Bubbles happen, they will keep happening.

4. Risk and reward drives everything.

5. And the list could go on and on

I am certainly not qualified to debate these principles in theory from an economic perspective. However, I CAN say that I have seen these principles work and work consistently over and over again. I’m not saying they are good or bad, they just ARE.

One of the best resources I have found lately is Ray Dalio’s simple but not simplistic animation on how the economy works. This video is well worth your time of 30 minutes to watch and learn. He does a beautiful job of describing the economy as a machine.

In case you don’t know who Ray Dalio is, he’s just one of the most consistent and most successful investors in US history. Google him.