Fate, Serendipity, Happiness, and Listening For Patterns

Fate, Serendipity, Happiness, and Looking For Patterns - Brass Tack Thinking

Today’s guest post is from Matt Ridings, my business partner at SideraWorks and a frequent contributor here at BTT. This is an incredibly personal, inspiring story and I really wanted all of you to read it. Thanks to Matt for sharing, and to you for reading.

The Beginning

I’m sitting on a plane in yet another of the innumerable delays that make up the life of a traveler.  I open my phone and start trying to catch up on emails while we’re sitting on the tarmac.  Sitting in my inbox is an email from Louis C.K. the comedian.  Now normally this is the kind of email I would just delete, but when Louis sends out a mass email it’s one you want to read (trust me on this) so I opened it up and began reading.

It was long, like really long.  What followed was a story not about Louis, but about a female comic named Tig Nataro.  Specifically, about his chance run-in with Tig the night she went onto stage to tell an audience that she had just found out she had cancer.  That it was bad and the doctors didn’t think the prognosis looked good.  She was likely facing death.  For good measure she added that her mother had slipped and fell a few weeks before and hit her head…and died.  Tig had decided she was going to write some of it down on paper and by god she was going to walk on stage…a COMEDY stage…and talk about it.  That’s bravery, some might say comedic suicide.

What followed was a masterful set of comedy. Of humanity.  Of a diverse set of emotions that has likely never been a part of any crowd attending a comedy show.  People cried, laughed, felt sorrow and pain and inspiration all within the spans of moments and often simultaneously.  Long story short, it happened that the club owner had taped it and Louis wanted to make it available to the world while putting some money in Tig’s pocket as well as charity.  (Tig has had a double mastectomy now and is doing great by the way).  You can buy it here.

I’m sitting in my confining straightjacket called an airplane seat reading this and weeping. Literally.  For lots of reasons, some very personal due to the recent impacts of cancer around the lives of people I love and some due simply to the humanity of Louis’ writing.

It was embarrassing, and naturally for the first time in my life I’ve been seated beside this amazingly beautiful, chatty woman…so it’s doubly so.  Therefore instead of planning my strategic movements for the inevitable ‘armrest war’ that is about to happen (if you fly, you know what I’m talking about) I’m trying to hide the tears streaming down my face by looking out the window and acting as if I’m expecting an amazing view to appear at any moment…while we sit motionless on the tarmac with the only view being that of a blast fence and concrete.

I then forwarded that email to a few close friends who would appreciate it, I made a note in my reminders to buy the Tig Nataro set, I wiped my eyes, and I moved on to other things.  I told you that story, so I could tell you this one.  (WHAT! You made me sit here and read all of that and that’s not even the main story? Damn you!)

The Middle

Fast forward 36 hours.  I haven’t yet bought the comedy set, but I open Facebook and utterly randomly (and for the first time I can ever recall) someone posts a link to the local NPR radio station.  Why I even stopped to read it I have no idea, but it said that Tig Nataro was going to be the guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross at noon and that Louis would be calling in as well to talk about that email and the story it contained.

Stunned by the coincidence, and not wanting to miss it, I turned on the radio around 11:30 and let it play in the background while I was working.  There was a local interview taking place with a guy, Dave Corthwaite, who had just climbed out of the Mississippi River at the St. Louis Arch after having swam over 1000 miles down the Missouri River during the course of almost two months.  Let me repeat that, he SWAM while towing a small raft of his stuff behind him, for over 1000 miles.  Dave has set a target for himself to do 25 different 1000+ mile non motorized adventures, this was number seven. “Wow”, I thought, that’s amazing, and it’s really cool that he ended it here in St. Louis. Then of course I just went back to work.

My attention kept being drawn back to the interview however, there was something about this guy that I couldn’t put my finger on.  You ever hear a person give a speech, or a talk on the radio or TV, and just know that ‘this is someone I connect with, this is someone I share a life philosophy with‘?.  I don’t mean ‘we agree on a subject’, I mean something much deeper.  Of course you do, but then you think about how it’d be cool if you could meet them one day to find out for sure and you just move on.  But what charity is he doing this for?  Wait for it…a breast cancer awareness charity of course.

Well whatever that gene is that stops us from taking action at that point and making ourselves look like a crazy stalker in those instances, I don’t have it.  I track down an email, a phone number, a friend of a friend, whatever it takes and I find a way to make that connection.  I had only one agenda, ‘this is someone at a personal level I should know‘.  That’s it.  Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it turns out the connection between us isn’t there, sometimes it is.

All I knew is that he was in my town, and I knew he was at the radio station.  Knowing a couple people at the station I requested to get his contact information and to pass it along.  I fired off an email which said little more than the fact he and I should have dinner or drinks, and then gave him the names of a few people he should get to know who could benefit his efforts.

There were a few other emails I sent behind the scenes to friends to hopefully help support what he was doing, and those great, amazing, generous friends came through with funding charitable donations and some other materials to help out but that was all them, not me. (In particular I’d like to thank Chris Sommers of Pi, and Chris Reimer of Falk/Harrison for their efforts.  If there’s something you can do to bring more press coverage to this guys amazing achievement, which in turn will raise more money for a breast cancer awareness charity, then by all means contact me)

The End (for now)

Shortly thereafter, Dave and I scheduled a dinner that same night.  I won’t go into all the details of that dinner, much of it was personal, a great deal of it was philosophical, all of it was meaningful.  We shared things with each other that frankly we’ve told no one else on this planet, things that require an incredible amount of trust to expose yet seemed effortless after the 3 hours we spent chatting.  That doesn’t happen every day, sometimes it never happens in our lifetimes.

Dave has nothing to offer me in the typical professional sense, there’s no network contact I need, no job he can offer me, he’ll never be a client, and he’s not really connected to the kinds of people I do business with…and yet that conversation will garner me more happiness in my life, new approaches to my business, new angles and perspectives on my view of the world, and more importantly a person to share those things with.

So why Dave?  Why do I seek out those people breaking the mold?  For one, they simply fascinate me personally, I’m jealous of the bravery it takes to make these kinds of leaps.  What drives them?  Are they running away from something or running towards something? Does that matter to them?  How do they balance the selfish aspects of what they do with that of the feelings of others who care about them.  How do they cope with being oddities in a society which says conformity is the only way?

But most importantly to me, I think we need to honor these people and their actions.  Not because they have courage, or take on daunting challenges (both valid reasons) but because we need relatable stories. Lance Armstrong is inspiring, but he’s a unique specimen.  We don’t have bodies like him, we don’t have the insane obsessive training schedule or the will that he has, it isolates us from thinking that we can accomplish what he can.  We need examples of people we can relate to. Those that shake us out of the daydream that somehow this 9-5 ritualistic lifestyle we lead is what’s ‘normal’ and that what Dave does is ‘crazy’.  We need to know that *we* in our normal bodies, in our normal lives, can accomplish something profound.  Think about that for a moment.

Since the industrial revolution we are taught that ‘normal’ is finding a “good job’.  A good job is not defined by what you love to do, but rather how much you can make at it, perhaps how much vacation time you can get.  ’Normal’ is buying a house, because it’s the guaranteed investment that will always go up in value (how’s that working out?).  ’Normal’ is finding a comfortable pattern of life to repeat day after day that either just suffices, or that we complain about.  ’Normal’ is pushing our children into the fields of study that show the best promise of high paying jobs.  In short, ‘Normal’ is the acquisition of stuff that we can use to demonstrate to *other people* that we are successful.  Because somewhere along the way we became convinced that success is the same thing as happiness.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  What is ‘normal’ about waking up depressed that you can’t hit the snooze button one more time before dragging yourself into an office you hate, to do work you hate, in a field which you hate?  Even worse, is doing work that you don’t hate…but just ‘is’.  It’s good enough, it’s safe, it has a low chance of changing so you can count on it and not fear it.

Dave, and those like him, experience happiness we can only dream of.  Yet he has no ‘stuff’, there are no material objects as markers to show other people how successful he is.  He walked into a nice restaurant with me last night in shorts and a hoody, with an overgrown beard.  It’s all he had.  The day before this guy had just accomplished something no one else in the world had done and went from being ‘that unique amazing adventurer’ on the news to probably garnering a few strange looks during dinner as some oddball off the street.  THAT is our world of ‘normal’.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any desire to be in that world.  Dave travels more than you, he experiences more than you, he has more joy in his life than you, he accomplishes more than you, he impacts more lives than you…and at the moment he is living with a grand total amount of ‘stuff’ that fits into a single small dry bag.  The other thing he feels?  More secure than you.  There is no pressure that if things got worse he has a giant mortgage hanging over his head, there is no BMW waiting to be repossessed, there are no debtors calling every day.

So which one of you is crazy and which one is normal?  Which one of you is happier?

I realize just how difficult it is to live outside of the ‘normal’ society, I did it for 14 months while traveling around this country.  People think you’re crazy.  Where do you get your mail if you don’t have a permanent home?  What state do you pay your taxes in?  How do you get a phone without an address?  Where do you renew a drivers license?  How can you get credit?  Trust me, the paradox is that it’s not simple to start living simply.  And yet, when people meet me today they invariably want to talk about THAT experience more than anything to do in my professional life because they secretly crave the notion of it, the freedom of it, the idea that it might just be possible for them to do….if they could only break free of all these tethers holding them back.

Here’s the secret though, those tethers are yours.  You made them, you can unmake them.  Yes, things get much more complicated when there is a wife, or kids involved.  But there is always a way. Always.

I asked Dave how he trained for many of these adventures and the answer was both surprising, and heartening.  He basically doesn’t in any formal way.  He said something that struck me; “I knew I could swim 10 meters, and if I can swim 10 meters I know I can swim 1000 miles, even if it had to be 10 meters at a time”.  A lesson for all of us who let those seemingly daunting things stand in our way by overwhelming us.  It’s what I’ve always called the ‘complexity of simple

I don’t really believe in fate, nor things that are ‘meant to be’.  My theory instead is that some people learn how to discern, filter, and listen to and recognize the patterns of life around them. I’m learning.  And when those patterns jump out at you, you take advantage of them whatever they are.  It’s your minds way of telling you that the culmination of your life’s experiences to date will be enhanced by this pattern if you’ll only listen to it.  So thank you Louis C.K. and Tig Nataro, thank you NPR, and thank you Dave for becoming a part of my life for what I’m sure will be a very, very long time.

And for the rest of you, I hope you find your happiness.


Matt Ridings - @techguerilla

For more on the CoppaFeel charity and to donate please go to www.coppafeel.org

  • Kelly M. Rivard

    I can’t tell you how fantastic I find this. I have these people in my life; sometimes, they are the atypical folks doing massive things like this. Sometimes, though, they aren’t. They’re average everyday people. Oftentimes, their acts of bravery are small in comparison and unsung, yet exemplify what I love about human nature. Ordinary, extraordinary people. They challenge me to do better for myself, my community, my world, and beyond.

    I love this post. Find the people who know your soul, even before they know you. Those people are the ones who will bring out the best in you!

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      Some of the most extraordinary people in my life would be perceived as quite ‘ordinary’ to most others. Being extraordinary isn’t about what you can demonstrate to someone else, it’s about what you are.

      Thanks for the comment

  • http://www.davedelaney.me/ Dave Delaney

    I love this post, Matt.

    I can’t remember if I told you how I met my amazing wife and best friend, Heather. I was backpacking in 1998 in Galway, Ireland. This is why I always tell people to MOVE and travel. Especially while they are young. Life is too short not to get up and go.

    These stories all inspire me. If you aren’t already subscribed, I really recommend the following podcasts for more inspiration:


    Do you listen to these already?

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      You have Dave and it was a wonderful, reaffirming story indeed. I listen to This American Life, I haven’t the others so thank you for the pointers.

      • http://www.davedelaney.me/ Dave Delaney

        Thank you, Matt. I loved this post!

  • http://twitter.com/MarketingProfs Ann Handley

    What is crazy and what is normal? (I love that line — paraphrased here!)

    I think the real crazy comes from not doing what fills your soul — whether that involves a raft and some swimmies or a 9-5 day job (because maybe that is what fills some souls — and who am I to argue?) In other words, do what you love — whatever that love may be.

    Thank you Louis C.K. and Tig Nataro and NPR and Dave. And thank you, too, Matt Ridings.

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      I think there’s an important point there that I muddied in my post. Dave and I actually talked about the notion about how we also need those people who revel in that 9-5 and are completely fulfilled by it. The world won’t turn without it.

      But there’s also that 70% who are sitting there grinding it out every day without any idea *why* they are following that path.

      Thank you for your point, xo

  • http://twitter.com/MattTGrant Matthew T. Grant

    Thanks for being crazy, Matt. Isn’t it crazy that people think it’s crazy to decide to talk to somebody you’ve never met and then actually do it?

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      I’m always treated with shock when people find out. “You just picked up the phone and called who???”. And yet…

  • Patrick Albert

    I met Dave last year and was there when he finished the swim. I know exactly what you mean. Dave is a person you want to know.

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      Most definitely. Glad to see you here and thanks for commenting.

  • http://twitter.com/YukariP Yukari Peerless

    Love, loved this post. I see Matt as someone who is incredibly smart and to be perfectly honest, I sometimes feel intimidated by it. As if I’m not smart enough for him. This post was so human and beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes, because, you articulated the feeling I often feel when I see someone/something that is absolutely amazing. I know what you mean, very much. Thank you.

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      I can’t tell you how many people told me they cried when they read it. DM’s, texts, emails. I”ve never had a reaction quite like that. I don’t know how to respond to that. It makes me uncomfortable. What do you say? “Thanks? Glad you liked it?” It just seems so inadequate for the emotions expressed.

      It’s odd Yukari, I sent this off to Amber this morning because I was questioning posting it. Well, to be truly honest I wasn’t going to post it. I would have spent the next 5 minutes talking myself out of it and then just filing it away like I do so many of my posts. Amber just said (paraphrasing) “I posted it, it’s done, because I knew you’d chicken out”.

      These things are intensely personal to me, and while I want to share them, there’s a vulnerability to it that is difficult for me if that makes any sense.

      Thanks for the other compliments, but for gods sake don’t you dare avoid engaging with me out of some form of ‘intimidation’. I’m just bumbling through this world like the rest of us, and without other voices adding to the conversation you can never find a harmony.



      • liz froment

        I work with Dave, and I wish more people could experience what you have from meeting him. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.knealemann.com Kneale Mann

    Wow on more levels that I can explain or digest. I will be re-reading this on a regular basis. Thanks Matt! Thanks Amber!

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      So glad it clicked with you Kneale

  • http://twitter.com/SusanGiurleo Susan Giurleo

    Loved this. Thank you.

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      You’re more than welcome

  • http://www.misadventureswithandi.com Andi Fisher

    An incredible post that completely made my day. The capability of inspiration from small acts astounds me on a regular basis.

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      What still astounds *me* is that some words I toss out into the ether can make an impact on someone. Thanks for making *my* day.

  • sera

    Wow. It’s so nice to continue to get to know you better, Matt, even now that I’m no longer a local in STL. This is a great piece.

    I read the comments below, and if anything – you’ve done an amazing service to us all to capture this very thought we all carry around daily -if not moment to moment- that often goes left unsaid because of how rampant this is in our world, in our culture… in our hearts.

    To speak such truth takes deep courage, and I thank you for this; it kind of made my day!

  • Judith

    You make me realize why I am (my choice) psychologically unemployable. Your story so resonates with my life story. Cheers!

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      Perhaps it’s not that you’re psychologically unemployable, but that your definition of being ‘employed’ needs to change :) As they say, if you don’t like the box you’re in…make a new box. Thanks for the comment Judith!

  • http://twitter.com/jessicabybike Jessica Giard

    Thanks for bringing up the point about the 9-5ers. I’ve thought that recently, especially of my co-workers who keep the ship moving while I bounce around the universe.

    I met Dave when he started the swim in Chamberlain, SD. Chasing his adventure has opened some doors, led to me to new ideas and now I’m retooling my life toward what it should be. I won’t call him a catalyst; more like a conduit.

    Good for you in following that speck of an idea, “I should meet this guy” and finding an applicable lesson and some big ideas that we can all achieve in our own fashions.

  • http://www.mynotetakingnerd.com/blog Lewis LaLanne – NoteTakingNerd

    I love the point you make Matt about “normal” people needing examples of people we can relate to.

    A lot of the time when you see profiles of successful people in any niche, the attention is focused on where they are now and what they’re doing now and like you said about Lance, we see the regimen and we are blown out of the water before we can even begin.

    Knowing what an incredible super star is doing now is important if I’m one level below them. But if this person is Louis CK, and I’m me, I’m way more than one level below him comedy writing and performing wise.

    This means that while there is something to be learned from what he’s doing now that’s universally applicable to anyone aspiring to be a comedian, what he was doing at my level that was the spring board for him to move up to the next level is more important for me to know.

    And this is why I LOVE biographies of super successful people. The good ones read like stories that reveal what people’s defining moments were at each level. The actions these people took when they were nobodies in order to become somebodies are pure gold in my eyes.

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      Stories drive everything, many of them unconsciously. Relatable stories drive action, those that aren’t can be inspirational but are much less effective. Glad you enjoyed the piece.


  • http://www.facebook.com/yvonne.sing.73 Yvonne Sing

    Hi Matt,
    I’m a few days late on catching up on Amber’s blog but I’m glad I took the time to read your post. I agree that life is too short to sleepwalk through it. I thought I would share a little bit of what I experienced recently as I learned about looking for those patterns in my own life.
    I received an opportunity to help a non-profit who is assisting those with a criminal background clear up the issues with their record, become certified as rehabilitated, analyze them for their best fit in terms of employment and get back to the workforce. I never imagined I would be involved in such an effort because my career has always taken me around the “for-profit” part of the business world.
    It turns out that my background and experience is what they need to help the organization grow as they take on more clients and assist more people. The folks running this organization are good people doing good work. The second I said “yes” to getting involved, I could see all the differences between the work we’re told we “should” do to be successful and the work we do to serve others…and that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

  • mijhuwi

    My name is Mi’Jhu’Wi of the Omaha Indian Tribe of Nebraska and I enjoyed hosting Dave and the team Swim 1000 at the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center just like our Tribe did when Lewis and Clark came by on the Missouri River.

    • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

      Sorry I’m just now seeing this. I absolutely love the Lewis & Clark association, particularly since I’m a bit of a Lewis & Clark nut (well, the expedition portion anyway). Thank you so much for commenting.