The person who I am today is a sum of my accomplishments and mistakes. The past 10 years of my career have catapulted me to success, have plunged me into failure, and have lifted me to success once again. This is the first post in a three-part series that shares my story of redefining my relationship to stress using yogic principles to redefine the American dream and to redefine my life. Read Part II and Part III.
From “Success” to Stress
In early 2006, I found myself working my way up the corporate ladder. The only things on my mind were money and status. I had graduated from a top business school and was primed to become rich and powerful. I was also well on my way to becoming an asshole.
I have always known that I was born to be a leader. By my early 20s, I also had the car, the beach apartment, the clothes and the attitude to prove it. I felt as if I were on the path to achieving everything I had ever wanted.
Before I knew it, I was drowning in ego, deadlines, meetings and material possessions. My role as a sales manager consumed me. I built my reputation on getting shit done, not empowering my employees. They hated me, and I did not care.
I did not realize at the time, but I was a ball of anger and frustration. My younger brother, who was living with me, confessed later that he used to call our dad with concern that there was something wrong with me. It was the most stress that I had ever endured, and I had no tools for managing it beyond exercise and alcohol.
Life is crafty, though. It has an artful way of serving us the lessons that we need when we least expect or want them.
Maybe I was asking the universe for help unconsciously. Or maybe I had to veer so far off track before I would embrace the twist waiting in my path. Who knows why, but an old college teammate asked me to go with him to a yoga class one day after lifting weights together, and I agreed.
I do not think that I even knew what yoga was. All I know is that I could barely reach past my knees and that it was one of the worst experiences of my life. But for the next year, I kept going back. I began to practice at least three times per week.
It took me years to understand how a former college basketball player and beer-slugging frat bro and then corporate manager could become so attracted to yoga. What I realized was that yoga was the only thing in my life that was relieving the pressure and anxiety that were asphyxiating me. Blossoming in their place was a sense of balance and happiness.
After six months on the mat, I felt as if I were coming into my own. I was less stressed and using my newfound yogic principles to become a softer and better manager. My employees began to like me. My company promoted me and enrolled me in an accelerator program that elevated me to the executive track.
I was just starting to feel OK when life slapped a second unwanted but essential lesson onto my plate. I unconsciously had embarked on a path that would get more difficult before it got any easier. A year into my yoga practice, life was testing what I had learned.
As my roommate and I strolled home drunk from a company Christmas party one rainy, winter night, our expensive clothes betrayed us. A car triggered an alarm in my gut as it passed us twice, then stopped. Three men exited the white, two-door vehicle and mugged us.
I still get the chills when I recall the shock and fear that electrified my system as I realized that I was being attacked for the first time in my life.
Life is a benevolent teacher, though. It never gives us lessons without equipping us to handle them. I drew on my size and the boxing lessons that my dad had given me as a kid. Fight or flight kicked in, and, in the end, I was chasing our attackers away.
My roommate and I were not seriously injured – physically. But our priorities were shattered. We woke up the next morning and knew that we were lucky to be alive. We also knew that our lives would never be the same.
Looking back, it was one of the most important events of my life. Something died that night: my illusion that I was on the right path. And I was given the chance to fight for my life – in more ways than one. My tenacious self-defense earned me not only the right to continue existing, but also the opportunity to define my existence for myself.
I took a week off from work. I tried to return to corporate life afterward, but my disillusionment followed me. I remember thinking: I could have died, and now I am sitting in an office doing something that I am not passionate about. Is this what I would have wanted my life to look like if it had ended?
Within a month of getting mugged, I quit my job, sold everything that I owned and moved to Thailand. I was searching for meaning in my life. I was determined to find it by leaving the American dream.
From “Freedom” to Failure
Living abroad was the most fun that I have ever had in my life. I was “free.”
I spent the following three years roaming from Thailand to South Korea to Mexico with less than $1,000 in my pocket at all times.
I learned about life without the filter of bosses, mentors or teachers. I practiced yoga on my own and, without a single hour of training, offered classes to my friends.
I met amazing people who prioritized community over money and things. They disarmed my suspicion of generosity as they gave to me without desiring anything in return.
But I took it too far. I turned freedom into a restriction: I confined my definition of money to mean dangerous. I limited my identity to having nothing and being a traveler.
I thought I was on this path of no possessions. But, in retrospect, I was running.
I began denying myself of success and happiness. Any time I tasted either, I ran away to a new country, a new job or a new fling. I was unaware that the heaviest possessions, I could not sell or escape. Because that baggage, I carried within me.
Two years into my quest, I began to get stuck. Ever feel as if you are banging your head against a wall in life? That is how I began to feel for a long, long time.
Even after I moved home one year later, I escaped frequently on trips to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, etc. I was a paradox: constantly running, yet perpetually frozen.
I taught English part time at a language school. I also deepened my yoga practice, which had been one magnet that had drawn me back to the San Francisco Bay Area. I even ended up completing a yoga teacher training.
But I could not stay put. Instead, I fled farther south on my next trip – to Colombia.
I traveled for several weeks until an extreme experience forced me to stop and to realize: I could no longer outrun myself.
The culmination of my four-year travelthon was a one-week jungle trek. It was so intense that my cousin got sick and had to be evacuated from the jungle on a donkey. I was so terrified one night by the snakes thudding onto our tin roof that I could not sleep.
For once, I could not escape. I finally had to work through the mental shit that I had been lugging with me around the world.
I faced my fear of money and relationships. I recognized that my inability to care for myself financially and emotionally was hurting myself and the people I loved. I admitted that I was lost and had had enough.
I remember emerging from the jungle at the end of the week and thinking: I just became a man.
As a man, I could no longer hide from myself. Or my bank account. I returned home without a dollar to my name. In fact, I was in debt to the family members who had financed my travels.
I went from sleeping in the jungle to sleeping on my mom’s couch. There were no snakes, but there were definitely demons.
It was enlightening that I did not die by having no money. But I was ashamed and embarrassed that I could not even buy myself food.
I can still remember when I hit my breaking point. It happened, as it usually does, when continuing to travel down the same road takes more effort and heartache than investigating an unknown one.
After a few weeks, my mom had had enough. One morning, she looked at me with the saddest expression I had ever seen her wear. “It’s time for me to go, isn’t it?” I asked her. She cried and shook her head yes.
It was the lowest moment of my life. I had gone from being a “success” at 25 to being lost, broke, alone and depressed at 28.
I had been determined to leave the American dream. But I had never anticipated being asked to leave anywhere, especially my own mother’s home. Writing about this moment almost evokes a tear in my eye.
The final stop on my free fall to failure was my father’s couch.
I looked for work, but my bullshit had burned a lot of connections. When I asked one of my best friends if he could hook me up, he scoffed: “Not a chance.” I had broken his trust in me.
I had broken my trust in myself too.
Slowly, though, I began to pull myself together, using one possession that I had never renounced: my positivity.
My superpower is that, no matter how bad things get, I never give up.
A Maur Unity collaboration, co-written and edited by Maura Bogue
Nick Palladino-King teaches students and clients how to reduce stress, to increase happiness and to elevate health through yoga, wellness coaching and strength training.