I'm often asked, 'how did you get into ice cream?'
The most accurate answer is 'because a manager I hardly knew didn't consider me for a promotion'.
But that's never the answer I've given. Until now.
At first glance, my foray into ice cream might seem like a no-brainer. My Dad worked his whole career in the dairy field. He and my Mom built and operated a couple of successful ice cream shops back when I was in my twenties and thirties. In business school, I even wrote a business plan about a small ice cream shop. But I was an engineer. I had an undergraduate degree in engineering, along with a similar engineering master's degree and an MBA. I'd been working at the prestigious Bell Laboratories for over a decade. Heck, I'd just gotten my third week of vacation and had a nice 401K and pension. The work was fairly interesting and the company had treated me well. But I felt stuck. There had to be more to (work) life. I wasn't unhappy. I just wasn't excited about the work and the predictable life I'd built around it. Unfortunately, I wasn't unhappy enough to do anything about it.
That all changed one otherwise unremarkable Tuesday in April. I had heard through the grapevine that I wasn't a candidate for a promotion that I felt extremely qualified. The hiring manager, at the advice of her boss, wasn't even considering me for the job. The truth was this blackballing boss barely knew me. I'd become a victim of office politics. That was it for me. The next day, I uploaded my resume to monster.com. Within a week, I got a call from a promising tech startup. Within another few weeks, I would leave that big, safe company life for a risky new start-up, full of scary smart people with what seemed like a really good idea.
I think you can probably guess how the start-up experience went. It was really fun and exciting at first, full of promise and big paychecks. The ride was fast and stressful and was over in a little more than a year. I'd given up security and comfort for risk and excitement, and it landed me on the unemployment line. I learned a lot at that start-up and enjoyed the experience, but the day I remember most is the last one.
This is how it replays in my mind..
It was more than a decade ago when I found myself walking on a beach in southern New Hampshire in the middle of the day on a Friday. I skipped stones on the water and contemplated the events that had unfolded so unexpectedly an hour before. What had started as an innocent meeting after lunch with my boss saying, ‘follow me’, had become a moment that would completely change the direction of my life. As soon as I walked into that conference room and saw my human resource director sitting on the other side of the big oak table, I knew what was about to happen. I remember that feeling of shock and utter helplessness as he explained the terms of our breakup. As I walked on that beach that day, filled with rejection and anger at not having seen it coming, I made a vow to myself.
I will someday look back at this day and be able to say was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Sitting here now, in the middle of my little ice cream venture in the coolest little town on the planet, I can wholeheartedly say it truly was the best thing that ever happened to me. And by 'it', I mean not getting that promotion.
'It' made room for nearly two years of amazing travel, the conception and birth of the business I always wanted, and a new way of life, free of the creative confines of a factory floor and a claustrophobic cubicle.
The first part of my ‘life after layoff’ involved driving cross-country in my little Acura Integra. I bought an oversized road atlas at WalMart. (think: pre-GPS, pre-Iphone days). I excitedly highlighted a route from Boston to California and back. Into my trunk went a tent, a sleeping bag, a handful of t-shirts and shorts, some camping gear, a laptop, a camera, and my trusty journal.
It was a morning in May that I pointed my car in the direction of the left coast and began what would become a nearly three thousand mile adventure, taking me to thirty-eight states including Alaska, fifteen national parks, countless friends’ couches, seedy campgrounds, and Motel 6’s. It was a summer of the road, just my thoughts and me. I had no timetable. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, who I wanted to visit, and what I wanted to see, but after working ‘for the man’ for fifteen years, I was determined to let this summer be about just ‘going with the flow’.
What followed was an amazing, spiritual, eye-opening, cleansing journey that took me to the best places our country has to offer, from the Badlands to Grand Canyon to Telluride to Mitchell’s Corn Palace. I met many interesting people and reconnected with distant friends and family. I took thousands of pictures. I ate incredible amounts of bad food. I survived a dust storm in Utah that made driving through a New England blizzard feel like a walk on a tropical beach. I mountain biked with bald eagles in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska and drank 25 cent cups of coffee at the infamously tacky Wall Drug tourist respite. Cathartic is the best word I can think of to describe it.
And it was where ‘Hand-me-downs’ was born.
If you haven’t leafed through the ice cream-tattered copy on the counter of my ice cream shop, 'Hand-me-downs: Some little used tips on life for my little brother', is a coffee table book I created right around the time I opened the shop. I was inspired to write it by my little brother. Not one of my own little brothers, although neither is little anymore, but my ‘little’ from the Big Brother program. His name is Ted, and we have been buddies since we were introduced through the program when he was eight. His parents were heroin addicts, and he, along with his four brothers and two sisters, were raised by his saint-like grandparents. Despite all the adolescent challenges that go along with growing up in such a high risk situation, he turned out to be an amazing person. My role in that was simply to spend some time with him every week and try to be a good role model for him.
I can say without hesitation being a Big Brother for Ted and my association with that program has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. I’ve gotten as much, if not more, out of that experience than my buddy Ted. In the spirit of that feeling, I wanted to create something that might serve to continue that role after our lives began to head off in other directions. Hand-me-downs began during those long rides across Kansas and Nebraska. I asked myself, ‘if I was sitting with Ted on the night before he graduated high school and about to start his life in ‘the real world’, what kind of advice would I give him?’ What are the lessons I’ve learned along my journey that might be helpful to him. What observations could I ‘hand down’ to him that might help him direct his life and his decisions in the future?
With that thought in mind, I began to write down one-liners into a notebook. ‘Be aggressive.’ ‘There are plenty of unhappy people in big houses.’ ‘See the world.’ At first, the pen couldn’t capture my thoughts fast enough. I went inward to retrieve all the life lessons buried inside. I read inspiring books and articles on-line to lubricate the process. I looked for signs along my cross-country journey. I took pictures that would eventually become part of the presentation of my ideas. That process continued for the four months I spent living out of my gold semi-sports car.
When I finally got weary of the road and traded in my tent for the comfort of my own bed, I opened up that notebook full of thoughts, affirmations, and inspirations and began to fill in the details. I recalled and wrote about moments in my life that taught or reinforced these beliefs I wanted to share with my little brother. It was a long, slow process, but one I recall as fondly as my cross-country adventure and the Australia/New Zealand backpacking trip I took shortly after my return from my trek across America. The process of capturing ‘the world according to me’ was not only satisfying for its original purpose but helped me visualize the kind of life I wanted going forward. I knew my life would never read as perfectly as my thirty-eight little lessons with accompanying photographs, but each were and still remain helpful reminders when my life gets bogged down in the mundanes of daily life.
It was nearly ten years ago when I gave the one hardcover copy of Hand-me-downs to high school graduate little brother Ted. I look back on that day with pride and satisfaction. I felt like I had offered Ted and the world something of value. A tiny voice born out of the experiences and observations of my life. I don’t know if Ted has picked up that book since that day. I hope he has, but that’s out of my control now. It was the process that brought me joy - the struggles of channeling my thoughts into a form that could be used again by someone else. By me. It was immensely satisfying, and I still get a charge out of seeing a customer leafing through the tattered copy while they eat a cone of cookie dough. I smile every time someone buys one for themselves or for a graduation gift. I guess it’s a validation that my words mean something and that my images bring them pleasure. I don’t make any money when I sell one, but that doesn’t matter. It’s never been about the money. Aside from having enough to pay the bills and feed your family, I've always believed it should never be about the money anyway.
It occurs to me that the life I had leading up to that day I shared the book with Ted barely resembles the life that followed. I completely reinvented my life to the point of being unrecognizable from the one I enjoyed all those years before it. I left the confines and comfort of corporate life for the challenges and insecurity of small business ownership. It’s been a wild ride of learning, trying things, and constantly adjusting the sail. Starting something new puts you out of your comfort zone. It’s scary and uncertain, the prospect of success or failure hinging on the decisions you make and the way you direct your efforts. It’s also immensely satisfying and rewarding. Creating something from nothing. My baby.
During my annual winter break this year, I took a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Located five hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, this ring of tiny islands is both breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating. Teeming with wildlife that harbor little fear of humans, these underdeveloped volcanic islands provide a rare opportunity to see and interact with marine life. Sea lions lounge on park benches. Marine iguanas scurry about on the beach. Playful baby sea lions swim along with the adventurous snorkeler in a lagoon. Giant hundred year old tortoises lumber along the side of a dirt road. It’s a natural habitat unblemished by the progress of human civilization.
It’s also the birthplace of evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin visited Galapagos in 1835. It was here he noticed the subtle variations in similar species from island to island, particularly the beaks of finches. Darwin collected massive amounts of samples and data. This data would eventually become the basis for his landmark thesis, ‘The Origin of Species’. He observed that in just a few short generations, the beaks of finches had changed to be better suited to the unique environments of their island home.
That’s where it hit me. Isn’t that what life is all about? Evolving. Darwin called it natural selection. Whether it be on a soccer field or the thoughts in your mind or in a bird's beak. We are constantly evolving. I’m not the same person I was ten years ago, and neither are you. My basic philosophies may be similar, but life has molded me into something different. Our cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. Life’s experiences teach us lessons, point us in new directions, and show us what works and what doesn’t. A decade ago, I steered my life onto a new path, and that’s brought me new lessons and experiences. New teachers have come into my life. I’ve made some of the same mistakes but I've tried to learn from them. In a word, I've evolved.
The day I decided to leave the big company job was the beginning of my evolution.
Forcing myself out of my comfort zone was the game-changer for me. It changed everything. I may or may not know you. You may or may not be itching to shake up your life right now. If you are, I hope my story might in some small way convince you consider the possibility. You can do this. Time goes by fast, best get to it. I find it hard to believe it's been ten years since I peeked at my future through the window of 34 Cottage Street. It's been a great ride so far. I thank you for listening and for allowing me to continue to do what I do. The pleasure and honor is mine. Truly.
Stayed tuned for the long-promised follow-up to 'Hand-me-downs - Some Slightly Used Tips on Life', 'Ice Cream Parlor Wisdom', due to be completed sometime during the summer of 2014.
And I hope you can stop by on Saturday (May 10th) to help us celebrate as my baby turns 10.