Why My Life's Work Is Serious Leisure
In wisdom traditions, seekers spent long stretches of time in caves to find themselves and awaken to their life’s purpose. Similarly but against my will, I found myself lying on the hardwood floor of my apartment and after many months, began to have life changing realizations of my own.
My suffering was not a straight descent, but a long winding journey. That’s what made it confusing. I had achieved nearly every goal I had set within a rapid timeframe at a young age. But I was left depleted, racked in inescapable, incessant pain. My external accomplishments failed to lead me to the internal satisfaction and validation I craved.
My path to my hermitage began 16 years ago as a competitive rower where I learned to ignore physical pain. It turned out that I excelled at it. Rowing despite a bulged disc in my back, I was recruited to Wharton undergrad. Shortly after arriving, I bulged a second disc, in my neck, and was told I would not be able to walk if I didn’t stop rowing. In the obstinacy of youth, I quit and half-heartedly did rehab. Two years later, I took my same penchant for denial and applied it to my emotions, as my father died of pancreatic cancer. We had a tumultuous relationship, marked by rebellion and fierce patriarchal pressure, but distance had just sparked the process of mending. Leaving that process unfinished would later haunt me. I put my head down and plowed on toward my degree, watching from afar while our family business crumbled during the great recession of ’08- ’09 and my Dad’s former right hand man pillaged its remains.
I was numb and grew skeptical of the future. Yet my dad’s passing provided a glimpse behind the veil of materialism. Money and power – the gods of Wharton business school - were rendered powerless against the vagaries of life. I saw firsthand that these trappings, which my father had accumulated earnestly, provided scant warmth on a deathbed. I questioned my career path in finance, where for many, enjoyment is deferred indefinitely in exchange for maximum monetary gain.
The carefully carved narrative of my life began to crumble. There was no future in the family business, no chance of rowing again, and I struggled to find purpose. I took a Zen Buddhism class my senior year and was at once enraptured and frightened by its teachings. I feared that the remaining vestiges of my precarious sense of self might fall away if I continued to follow its guidance. So I took a job in real estate private equity after graduation.
My life swelled with the dreary rhythms of meetings, conference calls, market discussions and business casual professionalism. Mid-college I had spent some time at home to be with my mom and attempted to stave off my crippling depression and regret by organizing a charitable event in my father’s honor. The benefit was a surprise success and I discovered I had a skill in bringing people together.
As I plugged away in the corporate world, the event became an annual gala called The San Francisco Social that raised tens, and later hundreds, of thousands for deserving Bay Area causes. It inspired me to start throwing other parties, which rapidly grew in scope and size. The dream of opening a restaurant later in life, once I had acquired suitable wealth, floated in my head. I devoured restaurant books, reviews and blogs. Between desk side naps and Google chats, I wrote a business plan for what would later become a tropical oasis called Palm House.
These forays into events finally gave me something to work toward. My passion and my career were at odds; I was at a crossroads. Do I surrender to the cubicle and continue to tread the sanctioned path of security and approbatory head nods? Or do I fucking rock and roll to pursue a future in hospitality?
I took a stage dive and launched a promotions company called Crossroads Nightlife with friends. Our mandate was to come up with as many ways to party as we could – we chartered a 747 to Vegas for New Year’s Eve, threw huge boat and pool parties, even took an entire hotel private. It was a hedonic pursuit of immediate gratification that I hoped would chase away my demons. Frequent and liberal dousings of alcohol helped me overcome my introverted nature and subdue my inquisitions. Unable to completely shake my Whartonite tendencies, I set the audacious goal of opening five venues in five years before leaving my job.
After a year of searching, I bought a failed nightclub with two partners. We signed a lease before we had inked a concept. It turned out to be two projects – a bar and a nightclub – as we bifurcated the building’s two stories into separate businesses; Audio and Bergerac. I followed that a year later with Palm House, and another restaurant called The Dorian, both with my co-founder and partner Benson Wang.
We created a formula that worked by focusing on the experience. Create fun, original concepts with uncompromising design, a playful epicurean vantage point and warm service – covering all the bases and keeping the ego out of things. None of this was rocket science, but success in hospitality comes down to execution.
All this growth and excitement kept me externally focused. I was under intense pressure and juggling a lot of responsibility, swelling from 0 to 120 employees in under four years. Revenue followed a similar trajectory; rising to $10 million by the time I turned 30. I offset the stress and punishing exertion with a rockstar’s lifestyle. I indulged in all the vices one might expect and with a voracious appetite. The discs I had ignored in my spine gave me increasing trouble and I normalized the pain. My entire body twisted to compensate for my injuries and my emotional health warped in tandem.
Then my reckoning came. My neck herniated, causing spinal fluid to explode outwards and pinch my nerve. Searing hot flashes shot through my right arm and immobilized my neck. I was an invalid at 32. Lying flat on the floor of my makeshift ashram was the closest I could get to relief. Unable to drive, read or watch TV and barely able to work, pain, which I had ignored for so long, became my greatest teacher.
Months of isolation dragged by and gave me the time to ask myself how I ended up in such a condition and to dig deep for the answers. I repeatedly re-examined my life. I learned to meditate. Eventually my mind quieted, and a satisfying stillness settled in. I started to live in the present, escaping the false importance of the past and future.
I realized that the body and mind weren’t separate and neither was work and life. What I had put myself through – the pursuit of immediate gratification and rapid career achievement - was neither sustainable nor healthy and resulted from my own feelings of inadequacy and void. My unsorted emotional baggage left me closed down, guarded and alone amidst a sea of people. I resolved to heal everything.
I tried many things, from the mundane to the mystical. Neurofeedback, dharma talks, breathwork, sound healing, Tibetan cranial sacral, integrated manual therapy, psychotherapy, acupuncture, chi gong, massage, various forms of yoga, chakra meditation, Egoscue, energy healing and visiting intuitives were all explored to various depths. I transformed the grief of my father’s passing after a powerful shamanic ceremony. I figured out why I used to misbehave so badly, falling foul of the law on numerous occasions. And most importantly, why I felt so alone despite having so much. I opened old childhood wounds and resealed them with compassion. I let go and I forgave, myself included.
As I began to come out the other side of this journey and heal the divisions within myself, change came naturally. I drank less, ate better, slept more. I avoided self-destructive tendencies and kicked the anti-depressants. I had experienced something akin to an awakening and my past motivations no longer served me. I now felt a deep sense of compassion and unity with the world that had always been absent.
The thing about suffering is, once you have gone through enough of it, you start to see it in others. And as I looked out upon the world with new vision, one forged in pain and stillness but tempered with the deep gratitude of recovery, I realized that the world needs healing.
I wanted to do things that inspired me and served others, and I found that I still loved hospitality, which was a good vessel for these goals if used appropriately. Few industries have the ability to deeply touch so many lives and bring people together. Yet the industry needs a fresh perspective.
Too often in this business we find ourselves serving others without serving ourselves. Mental health issues, stress, substance abuse – these things are disturbingly common. A world of increasing connective-ness and less connection has left us rudderless. Hospitality is uniquely positioned to help guide us back to one another and back to what matters. When we find true empathy with another human being, when we relax and be ourselves, and we engage our senses through touch, taste, smell, sight and sound, we find our connection back to life, one that is still abundant in beauty and meaning. The simple things – friendships, great meals, laughter, fun, community – are what really restore us.
As I came back to work, I decided to set my aspirations higher. The idea of ‘Serious Leisure’ as both the name and calling of our future businesses came in to focus. It will be a hot tub think tank of hospitality, dedicated to spreading good vibes and positive ideas. The name intentionally appears paradoxical at first; imparting us with a mindful pause before one realizes it’s about balance. To take leisure seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously. For in humility and humor we find the antidote to much of life’s travails and transgressions. True leisure, ‘Serious Leisure’ is restorative, it is a path to healing.
Walking this path as a business will not be as simple as one man’s renewal. We’ve got to think differently and ask ourselves open-ended questions. How do we combine work and life in a way so that each elevates the other? How do we create a form of leisure that’s restorative to not just ourselves and customers, but to our planet? Serious Leisure is a choice to live life on vacation, but with intention and consciousness. Like any good trip it will have its delays, bumpy rides and wrong turns, but it will be a vivid reminder that its great to be here nonetheless. This will be my life’s work. SLH is here to create better lives through better leisure.