For years I lived the California dream. I was that guy surfing the waves in the Pacific and pedaling my road bike through 150 miles of Los Angeles hillside every week. Running, hiking — if it involved motion, I was game.
I joined mission-driven media company GOOD Worldwide in June of 2008 and rose through the ranks by overseeing development and execution of custom-branded work for clients including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, and Starbucks. Overseeing the company’s video and production channel growth was also under my purview. I flew coast to coast regularly to manage teams in New York.
But in May of 2011, my energy level unexpectedly plummeted. By August, I was basically housebound. I could barely walk my dogs. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t even lift a pan or muster up the energy for a video call. My whole identity, built around hard work and hard play, was shattered in the space of three months. I had to take a medical leave from GOOD. No longer an athlete or production head, I lost my sense of self. And maybe worst of all, I had no idea why. Scarily, neither did my doctors.
In California, they insisted nothing was wrong and sent me home. But my gut wasn’t buying it. I flew to New York seeking answers. I was just 38-years old and my wife had to wheel me through airports.
After being dragged from doctor to doctor, I finally got a diagnosis: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME). I was told that it’s not fully understood and that there’s no cure. “This will be the rest of your life,” said my doctors. “Stop working.”
It wasn’t easy being diagnosed with an illness that was greatly misunderstood. More than 2.5 million Americans suffer from CFS and are routinely told by doctors to rest. But with CFS, you don’t actually sleep. You simply have no energy. My furnace wasn’t running. My brain was mush. I could not even see straight.
Every day was like pushing a boulder up a hill, but I wasn’t ready to call it quits.
The whole team at GOOD was incredibly supportive. After three months off, I went back to work part-time. It wasn’t easy. I tried to work full-time. It was a disaster. I was soon back on medical leave. No matter what the doctors threw at me – drugs, acupuncture, injections, supplements, IV drips – I wasn’t getting better. And I was beginning to realize that maybe I never would.
I moved back to New York. Just shy of 40, my wife and I were light-years from the City of Angels. We moved in with my parents and I relied on everyone for everything.
Dejected after multiple doctors were unable to provide any help, I was guided to a pair of specialists at
New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center whose program challenged conventional treatment. While their prescription for my recovery differed from anything I was previously told, I was desperate and willing to try anything. I was put on a strict regimen of supplements with a high-fat, high-protein, and low-carb diet. I was given a walking regimen on a treadmill, which at the time seemed insane to me. But my doctors assured me that with hard work and time, I would eventually get better.
I wasn’t optimistic, but I bought a treadmill. I took the supplements. I changed my diet. For weeks I pushed myself to walk further, to rest less. They were dark days. But my wife pushed me every day to just stay on the program, and I am forever grateful for her support. And then, slowly over time, my brain fog began to clear. I could cook again and walk my dogs. As seemingly mundane tasks became easier, I began to entertain working again.
I knew going to an office daily was out of the question. I began volunteering with local nonprofits, because if I was going to re-enter the working world, I was going to enter it with purpose. If my illness put anything into perspective, it was that I was going to spend my energy doing things of value.
At that time, my fellow GOOD alum Mark Barker was facing difficulties of his own. He lost his father and found himself the sole caregiver for his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. We started working together, and out of the ashes of our two life-changing events, Craft & Commerce was born.
We built our company from scratch, recruiting clients through a process I knew well from my recovery journey — a combination of hustle and good fortune. One of our first clients found us accidentally through a mistyped Google search. We took it as a sign and haven’t looked back.
Everything we do is purposeful, from how we manage staffers to the work we create for clients including Bright Pink, Autism Speaks, and multiple foundations and progressive advocacy campaigns. Our employees are encouraged to integrate life and work in ways that are meaningful to them. Although our central headquarters are in New York, we know that sometimes HQ is where the heart is. For me, that is often the garden of my Pennsylvania farm. For our creative director, it’s Oregon.
Our digital-media strategies are, in part, built off my recovery playbook. We trust our gut, adapt, and find what resonates. We test, assess, re-evaluate and optimize, making quick decisions in real-time. We’re lean and scrappy, utilizing the often-undersized budgets of nonprofits and advocacy groups to outsized advantage through digital platforms.
When you come out the other end of a very long illness, you have to not only deal with the physical rehabilitation, but you also have to overcome the mental safety nets you’ve strung up for self-preservation. It took nerves of steel for me to get back on an airplane and climb the steep steps in Penn Station. It took those same nerves to establish a business, pitch clients, and develop the new skill sets needed in the constantly changing world of digital advertising.
I’m not who I was, but my new normal is working for me and our clients. I can’t surf or run, ride my bike, or even lift heavy objects. I won’t put a glossy spin on things and pretend my illness taught me to love life. I was quite happy before I got sick. But I can walk around the city, travel, even carry my own suitcase. I’ve built a whole new self, just as Mark and I have built a whole new company together out of the ashes of adversity, one that’s worthy of our precious time. I have a very beautiful life, albeit different from the one I imagined.
Life is tough, just like business. By constantly pushing my personal boundaries, I’ve reached higher professional heights. In our disparate world, bringing like-minded people together for causes that count is harder than ever. But as my illness taught me, small wins ladder up to great results. And, in the social-good space, every win counts.