OTR - We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming...

Two years ago, I was flailing, somewhat, in figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I'm still figuring that out, but with less flailing now. Progress.

I decided to enroll in the altMBA, a month-long intensive learning program developed by Seth Godin. It changed my life. Two months ago, I (and all the other altMBA alumni) learned that altMBA was shutting down after one last cohort. With some finagling, we managed to get Audra into that final cohort. I'm thrilled she was able to experience such a momentous program in my life and very sad that the program has shut its doors. But every project has a lifespan, and altMBA did the Work.

I've been up at the lake and so didn't put out your regularly scheduled OTR on Saturday. I'm going to be back at Denison for a reunion next weekend. So I thought we'd do something a little bit different this time around. altMBA was composed of 13 prompts, which you worked in small groups to think through, and then were individually responsible for posting your work on that prompt. This is one of my prompt responses, to Prompt 11, which was titled "Everything costs something."

I went off script and produced something very different from everybody else in my cohort. Some of this may not make sense to those who haven't done altMBA – or, honestly, to anyone who wasn't in my cohort – but there's some good stuff in here.

Let's keep this one within the newsletter. I won't be posting the link to this one on LinkedIn. I'm happy to discuss, if you'd like: please email me at iam@owenmcgrann.com. And now for something completely different!


We all owe death a life

  1. On making choices

Time is zero-sum.

During the third week of February 2018, my younger sister gave birth to a miracle baby. She was told three years prior that she’d entered early menopause and could not have another natural child. She was devastated. So when two years later she found herself getting weird food cravings and the smell of bacon drove her straight out of a Waffle House, she was incredibly surprised and elated to learn she was pregnant with her second.

My parents, over the moon that at least one of their four children was giving them grandchildren, drove out to Indianapolis to be there for the birth of their second grandchild.

The same day my sister welcomed Helena into the world, I began vomiting blood and took an Uber to the emergency room. It turns out that vomiting blood is a bad sign.

After some inconclusive overnight tests, the doctors discovered that a blood vessel burst through an ulcer just south of my duodenum, flooding my stomach with blood. The first few treatments and a minor procedure failed to stop the bleeding. The next step was a highly risky IR procedure that had about a 10% chance of succeeding.

My then-fiancee and now-wife called my parents and apprised them of the situation. How about this as an example of opportunity cost: you can choose to be there to celebrate the birth of your second miracle grandchild and potentially miss the last moments of your son’s life, or you can get in the car, drive six hours back to Pittsburgh to be there for your son and miss out on the precious first moments of the life of your miracle grandchild.

Reader, my parents made different decisions.  (And not in a you take one and I’ve got the other kind of way.) We needn’t get into the fallout of that little mindfuck, but let it be said my mother’s decision has subtly altered our relationship–not on my end, but from a guilt she carries for not coming back.

  1. On intentionality and consciousness

In November, I applied for the altMBA seeking discomfort, a fresh wound. There are many reasons as to why altMBA: just as I was a terrible employee, I was a terrible student. When I fell in love with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I taught myself Middle English and nearly failed Early British Literature because I wrote my final paper in Middle English. I am easily bored by repetition and will create fresh ways of doing the same task just to entertain myself, which, truth be told, is more enjoyable for me than for a boss trying to parse through different memo formats each time I turned them in. In altMBA, I was seeking a community of misfits.

What I did not expect to find was kin. People I would get in my car and drive across the country to go help if they but asked. “Strangers” I would end up crying in front of and with.

I love the word “conscious” because it reveals so much. The Latin root is con-scio: to know with. To be conscious is to know with another person. To be human is to be in a community. And, I would argue, it follows that different communities of knowing-with engenders new and different consciousnesses. Camus once said that to learn a second language was to grow a second soul. To grow in consciousness with a community of fellow-seekers is to learn a new vocabulary and to sense a different grammar through which we can organize and talk about the world.

In this, I recognize now that but for this communal journey, this open-ended, “Great, and what else?” I would not have developed the capacity to write this post.

  1. On stories and hiding in plain sight

I tell a lot of stories. I have an analogic mind–everything reminds me of something else and I find that instead of telling someone directly what I think, I tell stories that circle what I mean. Metaphor and gesturing toward the Thing Itself leaves just enough work for the person on the other end for it to be more memorable, if that person has any idea what inane thing I’m going on about is.

I’ve been telling myself a lot of stories about what I want and why I can or cannot get it. In Prompt 1 I laid out four goals. Three of them were extrapolations of the quarterly goals for the firm and one of them was to start working more consistently on my writing.

The goals were neat and tidy, the very definition of smart goals. They were also stories I was telling myself to provide myself the illusion that I was moving forward toward what I want: here are four actionable goals, check the boxes, Owen!

The nine prompts that followed helped clarify and deconstruct those goals, the firm’s purpose, what I want to do with the book. All of that was good and I gave my best effort to go all-in on the work. And all of the work was, it turns out, just glancing at the surface.

Stories are wonderful explorations and invite other people into the journey, but they can also be a place to hide. And sometimes, the story isn’t enough. It’s not the work. Sometimes you just have to say the fucking thing.

  1. The fucking thing

A few weeks ago, my wife and I learned that our second round of IVF again failed to yield any viable embryos. Yesterday morning we learned from additional genetic testing that I am almost certainly unable to have biological children. Some combination of my illness and my transplant has made having children with my genetic makeup next to impossible.

Oooooooooof.

There’s nothing wrong with the four goals I outlined in Prompt 1, but they didn’t answer the right question. The question those goals addressed was tactical: here are some steps to take to move toward some things I’d like to do. There’s a place for that, but the story I was telling, perhaps deliberately, gracefully danced around the fear.

That’s not why we’re here, though, is it–to dance around the fear? We, people like us, people who have developed this consciousness, we’re supposed to use a different preposition in that phrase. We dance with the fear.

Here’s the fucking thing: what I’ve been chasing from the moment I woke up alive from my transplant is a notion of legacy. I distinctly remember thinking as I was confidently-but-shitting-myself talking with the surgeon in the operating room that I hadn’t even begun doing my work, that if I didn’t make it, I was leaving nothing of meaning. Just before the anesthesia took me I recognized that I wasn’t afraid of dying but that I was very afraid of not having lived.

  1. On legacies and the monkey mind

It’s funny what evolution teaches us; or rather, what story we take from evolution. For instance, one lesson biological evolution wants to instill is: “have lots of offspring.” What we’ve heard is, “have lots of sex.” Our species evolved an instinct to fear risk–it’s hardwired into our brains, and our amygdala can preempt any rational response. That worked great when we were hunters and gathers: that sense of immediate foreboding kept the species going. Now we call it anxiety, and it cripples many of us.

Intellectually, I know that it’s wired into my limbic system to want to have children, to pass along my DNA. It’s a hardwired biological form of legacy. And yet I am shocked by how disappointed I am.

There are other kinds of legacies. Perhaps it’s the news that my wife and I received the past two weeks that pushed this recognition, and perhaps I am shoehorning my experience into what we’re doing here in altMBA. But I don’t think so. The natural progression of these prompts is designed to invite me to go as far as I can, then show me that I’ve been withholding.

Try again. Give more. Rinse, repeat–until there’s no more story, no narrative to shield me from the unyielding gaze of the fucking thing. What is a legacy but a primal need to say I WAS HERE?

  1. What am I supposed to be doing for this prompt, again?

This. Whatever this is.

  1. On risks known and unknown

When I was in graduate school, I dated a lovely young woman. She was smart (if incurious) and brought a sense of playful danger into every room she entered. After we had been dating for a few months, she invited me to her parents’ house for dinner. And I, 23 and dumb, thought this was no big deal–parents love me! Easy.

So I show up at the “house.” Except it’s a mansion hidden in the hills of upstate New York. I park the 1997 Maxima I bought from my parents behind a 1956 Mercedes Gullwing in the circular drive. Her mother greeted me at the door and warmly welcomed me into the house. I grew up fairly privileged and had been in several very nice homes, but this was something of a different order–they were all houses in the same way as a chihuahua and an Irish Wolfhound are both dogs.

We walk into one of the drawing rooms and sit down to talk. My girlfriend, her mom, and younger brother banter about Borat (which had just been released) and I notice a really nice Picasso print on the wall. I mention the quality of the print. The mother, embarrassed for me, kindly informed me that it was in fact an original Picasso.

Shortly after this, my girlfriend’s father walked into the room, wearing a stained chef’s apron and, barely acknowledging my presence, announced dinner was about ready. As I walked down the hallway to the kitchen I began smelling scents that were entirely foreign to me. Spices wafting toward me that I’d never come across before.

“I hope you like Armenian food, Owen! I made a feast for you!” Her father was wielding a knife as he pointed toward a mountain of food. “Maritza told me you like good wine. I had a few Bordeauxs pulled from the cellar.”

The food was astonishingly good, to this day perhaps the best meal I’ve ever had. That wine? Two bottles of Château Petrus. We drank over $15,000 worth of wine that dinner.

Everybody was just stupidly kind and interesting. As I was driving home, I thought to myself that I was going to marry that girl.

A few weeks later, I learned that my girlfriend’s father was, with his brother, the world’s largest arms dealer. That Mercedes Gullwing? A gift from the King of Jordan. The Picasso? That one was from Saddam Hussein.

I let her break up with me.

Every day we have on earth is like dating the daughter of the world’s largest arms dealer.

  1. On doing the work

The goals I set in Prompt 1 and modified in Prompt 9 are fine. They are the tactics that enact the work. I now recognize that the work is leaving a legacy of work and impact. Of not leaving the world as I found it. Of becoming conscious with fellow travelers. Of writing from a perspective and experience that only I have.

Is it a coincidence that my law firm is focused on helping people build legacies and then protect those legacies? Is it a coincidence that I think of my writing as a potentially lasting mark of this mind, this quirky impossible thinking box?

I’ve been focused on the firm because it’s a problem I can solve, and my monkey mind likes problem-solving. The work the firm does is important, especially to our clients. The work of building the firm is a creative endeavor and it’s important to me.

But it’s not work that only I can do. There are lots of law firms that do wonderful work. Maybe not work with my personality, and maybe not with as much antipathy for the way law firms typically operate. But good work.

The only person who can write my books is me. That work is not fungible and as such, that work requires more of my attention. Not to the exclusion of the firm, by any means, but it’s time for me to stop running from the work. It’s time to write.

Because time is zero-sum.

Get the latest episodes directly in your inbox

{{#if @member}} {{/if}}