Last week I took part in an international study on poverty and perception. By that I mean I attended the weeklong TED Summit in Banff where I rubbed elbows with CEOs, venture capitalists and young tech-savvy entrepreneurs wearing $300 jeans.
I wasn’t aware that I was participating in this study for the first couple of days. All I knew was that I felt very out of place for reasons I couldn’t identify. Was it the casual confidence of everyone around me that I was sensing? Was it connected to the wave of anxiety I felt every time someone asked me “what I did”? I thought maybe it had something to do with everyone’s impressive bio. What the hell is a digital visionary? And what exactly do you do if you’re on the board of Synthetic Genomics? I lived in LA for a year. Can I call myself a Megacities Expert? I tell you what, I have no idea what Innovation Strategist pays but I’m pretty sure it’s more than I make now so I’m going to look into it as soon as I find some free wifi.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that I finally figured it out what I was feeling. I was taking a workshop on Adverse Childhood Trauma when the teacher asked everyone in the class to stand in a circle and step forward if we had ever experienced certain types of trauma. She asked if anyone had had a parent die or go to prison. A few of us stepped forward. She asked if anyone had witnessed their mother suffer physical abuse from a husband or boyfriend. Seven or eight people stepped forward. Had anyone grown up with a parent who drank too much or used street drugs? A bunch of people stepped forward. Then she asked if anyone had experienced poverty. Only two people out of the twenty people there stepped forward. I was on of those people and to cover up my surprise and embarrassment I blurted out, “No way! Seriously? Just me and her?!?!” The other woman and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and stepped back into the outer circle.
And that was what I had been sensing all week. Almost no one at that conference had ever wondered how they were going to pay the rent. They never had to wash up in a Burger King bathroom. TANFF, WIC and Section 8 are terms they’ve never had attached to their identity. I’m not saying their lives were sunshine and stardust. Everyone in that class had lived through some rough stuff but because they had never felt the embarrassment of being homeless or standing in line to collect food stamps they all had that good-things-are-just-around-the-corner look in their eyes that I’ve never had. Each trauma you experience leaves its own special mark. Poverty’s gift is that you tend to believe that success is for other people, especially when it comes to money. Where they see possibilities I see consequences.
When you’ve spent the majority of your life hoping the tires hold out until your tax refund comes in you don’t hope that things get better. You hope things don’t get worse. When your kid has toys most people would consider garbage you don’t hope for a better day you just pray you can get through this day. After a while this seems normal. It seems foolish to believe anything else.
But here’s the thing. Deep down I want the hope those people have. I want the kind of confidence that encourages me to take risks. There’s no reason that I shouldn’t have it. In many ways I’ve been blessed. Neither of my parents went to prison or used street drugs. I was never sexually abused. My dad never laid a hand on my mom. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood but nothing compared to what I could have grown up in if we’d lived somewhere else.
So what’s the deal with my poverty mindset? (yeah, that’s a phrase I learned from one my of fellow students when she followed me outside after class to see how I was doing) Everyone at the TED conference treated me like the successful, upper-class white guy I look like. In one afternoon I talked to:
1. A doctor who owned a Tesla (at first I thought he was talking about the 80s hair-metal band)
2. A guy who minutes earlier just received $2.5 million from a venture capitalist for investment in his startup (I laughed and told him that just by sitting next to me his net worth dropped by 30%)
3. A former princess from the Middle East who works to bring technology to the field of mental health. (She and her husband look like they just stepped off a red carpet somewhere. If there’s such a thing as a TED power couple it’s them. The fact that they were both enrolled in a class called Tackling Trauma gives me hope for the human race)
Each one of those people treated me as a peer. They had no idea I had breakfast sausages from the buffet stuffed in my backpack for later. The Tesla guy asked me what kind of range I got with my own vehicle. I told him about 250 miles, carefully avoiding mentioning that I was talking about my 26-year-old Toyota Corolla. He didn’t need to know that the cruise control doesn’t work when the headlights are on or that I can turn up the radio by stepping on the gas.
The startup guy gave me his card when he found out I was a storyteller and might want to be listed in his database of professional speakers. I carefully avoided telling him that a lot of my stories have car thieves, prostitutes and corpses in them.
The former Middle East princess asked if I’d be interested in helping her on some upcoming speeches. I told her I’d be happy to help her and that I would do it for free because she was trying to help people with mental health issues. I don’t know why she chose that topic to focus on I’m just grateful she’s doing that instead of sipping cocktails on a yacht somewhere.
Every single person I met at the TED Summit treated me like I deserved to be there. Like my opinions mattered. The only person in the room who didn’t think I had anything to offer was me.
After my class, and an inspiring talk with a women from the UK who understood what I was going through, I decided to try to at least pretend like I belonged at this conference with these people. I spent most of my childhood sitting in empty auditoriums watching my mom rehearsing onstage so I channeled my inner Al Pacino and started acting like I belonged there.
Somehow, instead of getting caught up in my usual spiral of unworthiness I managed to steer conversations into areas that I had experience in. The next day at dinner I met a super cool entrepreneur from Australia who said he never got enough sleep because he couldn’t stop checking his iPhone in bed. Just like me! We bonded over our shared struggle against the digital undertow.
The next day I high-fived an amazing woman from Shanghai who admitted she had worked her way into the 1% but couldn’t enjoy it because she felt guilty. Irrational sense of guilt and shame? I totally get that! I wanted to chest bump her but she was pretty slight and I probably would have knocked her right out of the dining tent.
My journey to the Land of TED and back was longer than I planned. It was 700 miles as the crow flies but 30 years as the heart flies. I ended up going back over my life and searching for all the alleys and side streets I’d gone down on my way to where I am today. It forced me to question my perception of the world and my place in it.
My next journey is probably going to be a slow one. MapQuest isn’t very helpful when your destination is a state of grace. One thing I’m going to make sure I do is forgive myself when I veer off into spiritual dead-ends and emotional roundabouts. I’ve been to those places before and I’ve always made it out. There’s no reason to think I won’t be able to again.
And that’s the theme for this month show. Journeys – Stories of how you got here.
Remember to keep it clean, practice out loud on friends or pets, and keep it under 8 minutes.
The updated rules for stories are below but you know the kind we’re looking for: true stories that happened to you that still mean something to you days, months or years later.
I hope to see you at our next show on Thursday, July 28, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.