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AJ Leon
1,240 followers -
I nomad around the world and make things happen.
I nomad around the world and make things happen.

1,240 followers
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What we call our destiny is truly our character and that character can be altered. The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it also means that we are free to change this destiny.”
– Anaïs Nin
 

And there I sat.

More isolated and hopeless than I had ever felt in all of my days.

Incarcerated in a prison cell of my very own making. Except this one was locked from the inside and I was the one holding the key.

You see, my boss had just called me into his office and verbally confirmed that I was getting that promotion we had always talked about. And that I was going to be taking over the managing of an entire fund in the firm. And that he was grooming me for great things.

This wasn’t news to me, of course. These were all things I knew were in the works. But with each word that dripped from his mouth about this fantastic opportunity I was about to embark upon, I could viscerally feel the last vestiges of my soul departing from me.

I was going to be one of them.

And any idea, any dream I had of living a life of intention, of purpose, of meaning, of adventure was gone forever.

I had basically already relinquished myself to this fate. I was a closet manic depressive, who used money as a way to anesthetize the fact that he didn’t have the courage to do anything other than to live the life that was expected of him. I wasn’t greedy. I was simply a coward who had quiet convictions, but no potency to act upon them.

But the next thing he said to me was the most defeating.

- See more at: http://aj-leon.com/pursuitofeverything/the-very-last-inch-or-death-by-a-thousand-cuts/#sthash.BI6H0hZa.dpuf

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Here’s something you may or may not know about me. The first company I ever started was in 2001. It was called Lancaster Acting Company. We were a professional Shakespearean theatre company. Our vision was to democratize Shakespeare. To bring Shakespeare “down” as it were, back to the groundlings, where I felt he could still lift people up.

I fell in love with Shakespeare when Mr. Spee introduced me to Prince Hal in 11th Grade. I was just some punk kid, who thought he was a badass because he could put a 9 inch ball in an 18 inch hoop.

I remember Mr Spee throwing me a copy of Henry V, and telling me I didn’t “have the balls” to get on a stage. I’ve never much liked when people tell me what I can’t do. I acted in the damn play.

I still remember our very first practice. Knowing that none of us knew shit about Shakespeare, Mr Spee popped in Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V. I will never forget the goosebumps that rushed down my arm when Henry, outnumbered and outgunned, delivers the St Crispin’s Day speech … we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….  I remember when the Herald came one last time admonishing Henry to pay tribute to the Constable of France, promising they’d let them out alive. Henry glares back  … Come thou no more for ransom, gentle Herald: They shall have none, I swear, but these my joints; WHICH if they have as I will leave ‘em them, Shall yield them little …

I remember thinking, “How the f*ck did I ever think this was boring”.

I remember back in 2003, when my friends and I rented out an empty warehouse bay in a very sketchy area. We spent one entire month building a 16 foot high Roman structure inside, with $100,000 of lights and sound equipment and special effects geared up everywhere. Our makeshift “theatre” only sat 75 people. There was no separation. There was no “you” the audience and “we” the actors. You were invited into a world that our young minds had created from scratch. You were not a spectator. It was a completely amorphous theatrical experience, which was the whole point. We funded the whole operation by performing children’s theatre in the mornings. Melissa wrote an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that included a leprechaun named Cornelius (don’t ask). We worked 18 hour days. We never had a solitary day off. And I loved every single last f*cking second of it.

I remember the day we realized we couldn’t do this anymore without going bankrupt. I remember our last performance. I remember the emptiness I felt a few hours after that last show, standing alone on my barren, callow stage when I realized my life would never be “Shakespearean” again.

I remember the day I got a real job. I remember being really good at something I hated, which made me hate it even more. I remember missing Shakespeare, missing poetry, missing things that actually mattered.

I remember one sunny day in December, I grabbed my lunch at Cafe Metro and went down to Battery Park. I sat there on a chilly day in the tall grass with a cold turkey sandwich and a tepid cup of chicken noodle soup. I remember just reciting my Shakespeare in my head. Closing my eyes and trying to remember my old theatre. To remember what it was like to make things. To cast people. To take risks. To dream. To build. To tear down. Take a deep breath. Then do it again the next night. I remember trying to remember what it felt like to be counted. What it felt like to have no money, but have more than anyone else I knew.

I remember sometime around 3pm waking from the nostalgic remnants of a life that could have been, and taking a very long and very solemn walk back to my building. I got off the elevator at the 28th floor. Took the long way back to my office, closed the door, sat at my desk and just began to cry. I finally knew what Caliban meant, and then in dreaming, the clouds methought would open, and show riches ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.

Ninety-six hours later, in one brief moment of audacity, I left a successful career to start living a story that I would actually want to read.

What’s the point of this article? Nothing really. Except this. Let everything in. Shakespeare has had a profound impact on the trajectory of my life. I thank God for the day that Mr Spee threw that tattered copy of Henry V at the 16 year old version of me. I still have it in a box back at my apartment in the Lower East Side. The great poets and artists and muses of this beautiful world have been imbued with the power to lift hearts and steel spirits. Blog posts and e-newsletters and Seth Godin books are awesome, but there is nothing like getting lost in some Shakespeare.

- See more at: http://aj-leon.com/pursuitofeverything/when-i-waked-i-cried-to-dream-again-2/#sthash.7KfyqjxJ.dpuf

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Acquaint yourself with your own ignorance. – Isaac Watts 

Much is made of the tale of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the Sun. But very few know about his cousin, Perdix.

When Perdix was a young boy, he showed great promise as a student of the mechanical arts. His mother, desiring only the best for her luminous child, sent him to study under his Uncle Daedalus (the father of the fallen Icarus). Under his Uncle’s auspices, Perdix began to thrive. With his insatiable curiosity, he invented the first saw by notching and imitating the spine of a fish, and the first compass by fashioning two pieces of scrap metal with a spare rivet.

As it became apparent that student would soon surpass teacher, Daedalus, instead of being proud, grew absurdly envious of his nephew.

One day, Daedalus invites Perdix on a walk of the heights of Athens. After much strolling and chatting, Uncle and Nephew end up atop the Acropolis, where Daedalus takes the opportunity to toss Perdix over the edge hurling to his death.

Thankfully the goddess, Athena, a great lover of ingenuity, decides to step in and just before Perdix hits the pavement turns him into a bird to save himself.

Although Perdix indeed survives, he does not do so unscathed.

Athena turned the boy into a partridge. One of the few birds on earth that “does not build its nest in the trees, nor take lofty flights, but nestles in the hedges, and mindful of his fall, avoids high places.”

In other words, he was turned into a creature that knows how to conform, or more colloquially, shut the f*ck up and keep its head down.

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But who is this fool, Daedalus?

When given the opportunity to prepare someone to soar, he fails miserably by giving them faulty equipment and when having the privilege to teach a student who might surpass him, relegates them to an existence of aversion to any heights.

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A couple weeks ago, we were in my beloved little town of Fargo planning the Second Annual Misfit Con. While there, I had the great pleasure of sharing a coffee with Simone Wai and Joe Burgam, a brilliant young couple who remind me a great deal of Melissa and I when we were younger.

About 9 months ago, Joe (at the age of 19) decided to forgo a traditional education and apply instead to the Experience Institute (the brainchild of my dear friend Victor Saad), a post-industrial age learning experience designed specifically for people who were meant to change the world.

There I sat sipping my coffee at Nichole’s, hearing story after story of the remarkable people he had met, and the prodigious lessons he had gleaned and the life altering experiences he had absorbed. The next day, this Fargo-boy was off to Los Angeles for an apprenticeship at a world renowned creative agency.

And I just thought to myself.

My God, I wish this would have been around when I was a kid. 

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I don’t know about you, but when I was in school at every level, I encountered many a Daedalus.

The sad truth is that Seth is right, the factory system of education is in the business of fostering compliance, not originality. The procrustean bed of the modern day university, many times, either outright rejects or simply obstructs the rebellious, the unusual, the misfit, in hopes of manufacturing a series of perfect little underachieving Perdix’s, building their homes far from the trees, intimidated into believing they shouldn’t ever soar too high lest they be tossed back to earth.

But you and I can do something.

We can support people like Victor, who are changing everything and risking greatly to do so.

I am hysterically proud to be an Advisor of the Experience Institute, and to have Misfit Incorporated as a company whom potential EI students can apprentice at next year.

Would you take 4 seconds out of your day to help my friend Victor share his vision?

It would mean the wide world to me.

- See more at: http://aj-leon.com/pursuitofeverything/learning-everything-except-the-art-of-learning/#sthash.3DjWT7ry.dpuf

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eave a mark that can’t erase neither space nor time. So when the director yells cut, I’ll be fine, I’m forever young. – Shawn Carter, Forever Young 2009 AD.

Who can go up to heaven? Only the gods dwell forever. Men number their days. But even if I fall I will win fame. And fame lasts forever. – Gilgamesh, King of Uruk 2700 BC. 

To be a king in 18th Century BC Mesopotamia was to live in a perennial state of cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, the Sumerian King List stipulated that Kingship had descended from the heavens, thereby promulgating a deeply held belief amongst your subjects that you, the King, would live forever.

Yet on the other.

With each passing year, each passing decade, you would have had the empirical evidence that you were indeed getting older – you were a bit slower, a bit grayer, a bit more irritable – and you would have known with acute certainty that irrespective of religious dogma or cultural notion, regardless of what the people believed or what the priests testified, that you were, in fact, not immortal. That you were just like everyone else.

And that this life.

Was your one and only.

One of the oldest surviving works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh tells a tale of a king wrestling tremendously with the excruciating weight of his own mortality.

Two entire books of the narrative are dedicated to Gilgamesh’s insatiable quest to find the source of eternal life, a fool’s errand leading to the elusive immortality that a stone tablet had promised him as a boy.

But there is no wonder why he would dedicate his life to such a pursuit.

After all, the Sumerian afterlife was a wretched place. An underground dystopian land which was neither fully bright nor completely dark, where food was tasteless, water was fragile and the people, fully naked, meandered aimlessly and somber for the whole of eternity. So horrifically Kafkaesque was the thought of this cavernous joint that when Gilgamesh’s best friend Enkidu died, he refused to bury him for seven days – until the burial became compulsory.

For six days and seven nights I wept over him, I did not allow him to be buried, until a worm came out of his nose. 

Soon after the death of his friend, Gilgamesh comes to terms with the fact that his days are indeed numbered and turns his attention instead to acquiring Fame, and so embarks on a variety of dangerous conquests, including challenging the Giant Hugeness to a battle because, in his own words…

even if I fall I will win fame. And fame lasts forever.

Not so different a sentiment was uttered by a different sort of king, Shawn Carter (aka Jay Z), 4,700 years later in the lyrics of his song Forever Young.

Leave a mark that can’t erase neither space nor time. So when the director yells cut, I’ll be fine, I’m forever young.

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Six years ago, standing in a corner office overlooking the Manhattan skyline, with a promotion just offered me in hand, I decided in one brief moment of audacity to leave my career and everything I had ever known to pursue a life of adventure and purpose, to pursue my everything.

I often get asked how I could have possibly done that four days before my wedding with only two thousand dollars in savings.

You want to know the truth?

It was the moment that I caught myself mourning the glory of a Life that could have been.

It was the second that the universe whispered in my ear.

This is Not your practice Life. 

And when that sentiment ceased to be esoteric bullsh*t, when the poetry of that statement dissolved into the full weight of its truth and practicality, I began to make wildly different decisions.

I began to recognize that living for tomorrow is nowhere near as potent as living for right here and right now.

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In many ways, to me at least, Gilgamesh is a tragic hero, who fleetingly dedicates his one and only life to seeking immortality only to recognize the immutable truth that every beating heart has ever known since time immemorial.

Nothing lasts forever.

But what can we do with this?

Well, in a world that beckons us to either comply and live in the shadows or like Gilgamesh seek to live a life centrifuged around a bankrupt idea of  ”living forever” through accumulation or exaltation, maybe we can do something different.

Maybe you and I can live for today.

And decide, once and for all, not to be governed by Fear nor entranced by Fame.

Maybe you can make each and everyday flamboyantly your own.

And recognize that this Life is yours. And that it is your one and only.

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Oscar Wilde once penned,

To live is the rarest thing in the world, most people exist, that is all.

It’s true, there are certainly those among us who simply exist, who daily sacrifice their lives to a system they cannot seem to free themselves from. But equally, there are those among us who simply want to be remembered, who squander their days in an absurdist pursuit of some vapid postmortem glory.

I don’t know about you, but I just want to Live.

Today.

Deliberately. Intentionally. Wildly.
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Conformity is certainly an enemy, that’s for sure.

But so is the hubris of shaping the contours of your one and only Life around the insentient notion that somehow you will only be valid if people whom you will never meet 100 years hence, know of you.

Look around you.

There are people that need you right now.

There is sunset or a sunrise that you are missing right now.

There is a long list of generous writing or art or innovative projects that are in your Moleskine waiting for you right now.

The cold pressed truth is that you only live this one time, but if you do right, one time may just be enough.

- See more at: http://aj-leon.com/pursuitofeverything/this-is-not-your-practice-life/#sthash.hXVf3kuF.dpuf

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A few months ago, Melissa and I decided to plant ourselves in the very misfit town of Asheville in North Carolina.

As we nomad around the world in 1,880 days, the sceneries and seasons and cultures and people change, but one constant that we always maintain is our standing morning coffee date at the best café we can find in town (wherever that may be).

The decision on which café to endow as our pop-up Misfit HQ is something we take very seriously. Research always commences prior to arriving in a town, and sometimes deliberations go on for ages while there.

In Asheville, the first café we walked into was called High Five, a delightful and spacious café with lovely outside seating. But to coffee geeks like us, of course, the critical issue is the actual coffee.

I usually order an espresso, but on this fine sunny day I decided to sample their cold brew.

I walked up to the counter, the barista took my money, and handed me a plastic cup brimming with caffeinated nectar. A good cold brew is not simply hot coffee that has been tossed in a refrigerator. It is an artisan’s enterprise, which involves steeping coffee grounds in room temperature for hours.

And this one was good. Real good.

A couple hours later, I decided to order another one as it looked like we might be there for a while.

I walk up to the counter, and order another cold brew from a new barista.

But this time.

This new barista tells me, with a big grin on her face, that she’ll bring it out to me. We were in no rush so that was absolutely fine. But I remember thinking. It’s cold brew. It’s already prepared. You just grab one of those plastic cups, pour it in and hand it to me like the last dude did. 

I walk back to my seat, and get back to my sketching.

A few minutes later, this new cheery barista walks over my cold brew in a beer mug. A frosted beer mug.

Same exact coffee. But laced in an experience that was insatiably memorable.

It was what my friend Srini would call, unmistakable.

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When my dear friend David Baeza took the stage at Misfit Con last year, he told the story about how much he loves breakfast, but f*cking hates toast. He has vivid memories of going to local diners as a kid and receiving a delicious piece of toasted bread only to find that the hasty line cook had plopped a heap of butter in the middle so that by the time he got to the edges, the delectable mushy buttery goodness was gone.

David went on to say,

The only reason people order buttered toast is because of that [bleep] center! So why not butter it to the edges! It makes no sense. If you’re going to take the time to make someone something, why not take the time to make it with love. At least then they’ll remember it. 

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It’s hard to define what making something with love means, but we all recognize it immediately when we are the recipient of it.

It’s the unexpected footer art, the handwritten card, the completely ridiculous product packaging, the unexpected birthday surprise for a conference attendee, the latte art, the cold brew in the frosty mug.

It’s the thing that doesn’t make you a solitary extra dollar for doing it.

It’s the thing that transmogrifies a relationship from the mere transactional to the emotional.

In a world that worships at the altar of infinite scalability, it doesn’t take that much effort to surprise people. You and I can be different if we want to be. We can inculcate beauty and love and delight into our work even if it doesn’t make us a dollar extra. Even if every six sigma debutante tells us that it’s a waste of our time or energy or resources.

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Someone asked me the other day why I thought people around the world had such a strong reaction to our work at Misfit.

I pondered over that for a while. Then replied.

Since day one of Misfit (when it was just Melissa and I trading web sites for bagels), I decided that I would rather our work be cherished by few than simply consumed by many.

That precept guides everything we do.

And anyone that attends a Misfit conference, or reads a Misfit publication, or receives a Misfit product - feels the full weight of that early decision to build a business that butters all the way to the edges.

Your work may never be universal, but it can certainly be treasured.

That choice, my friend, is entirely up to you.

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Cannot express just how much fun I had spending time with and being interviewed by +Berni Xiong and +Phil Gerbyshak on Tuesday. Here is the live recording of our #misfit  tour stop in Milwaukee. In it, I share about the art of reinventing yourself, the days +Melissa Leon and I spent happily sleeping under bus benches and the process of building a very misfit publishing company. Enjoy!

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Most people in this world think in a very linear fashion. They believe that not only must they get from point A to point B, but that they can only do so by drawing the straightest line possible.

But any true adventurer or seasoned entrepreneur or conditioned artist knows that any fool can draw a straight line.

The genius lies in being able to see the dots first, then connect them (no matter how jagged) between where you are now and where you want to be then.

You can wait for the stars to align your whole life, and maybe they will.

Or you can recognize that without the imperceptible lines of human creativity, Orion is just another clump of stars in a chaotic sky.

Remember, my friend, no matter how desperate the situation may appear right now, there is always another way.

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Cities are the baggage of the industrial era.

George Gilder (famously prophesying the death of cities)

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In the late 19th century, Alfred Marshall, one of the fathers of modern economics, hypothesized that the reason Victorian furniture makers always set up shop near one another is because, as he put it, Proximity creates ‘something in the air’. 

He continued,

if one man starts a new idea, it will be taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas. 

By simply being in geographical proximity to one another, completely independent businesses (who in all likelihood may be in direct competition) can inadvertently propel an entire industry further by facilitating knowledge spillover, the exchange of ideas that foment improvements in a neighbor’s work through the progress in one’s own.

The most poignant (and possibly least interesting) example of this in our lifetime is probably Silicon Valley, where the headquarters of every major (and most minor) tech firms are within just a few miles of each other.

But as I nomad around the planet, I have witnessed dozens of examples of Marshallian “Proximity” at work.

Some of the more intriguing are areas like Dumbo, where my dear friend Emily helps foster “spillover” amongst a burgeoning class of entrepreneurs who proudly proclaim that creativity doesn’t cease at the outer fringe of the FDR.

Of course, this style of creative assimilation doesn’t refrain with commerce alone.

While I was in Miami recently, I spent most of my time at the Wynwood Arts District, an area spanning a hearty 10 blocks that has evolved into an oasis of inventive expression for a group of absurdly creative artists.

And then there is my favorite example of the little town of Fargo, who has become home to artists and makers and creatives of all denominations. Whenever I’m there, I can see these individuals nourishing one another (certainly without even intending to), corporately developing what I am sure in 10 years time will be a beacon of imagination and inventiveness in the Midwest.

One can even witness this phenomenon of human dynamic at work at a micro level in modern day conferences and events.

Sure, most events are still just industry bullsh*t, but there are plenty that have grown out of the sheer desire of individuals in a community to feel connected to a greater whole, thereby enhancing the possibility of spillover.

The entire reason we launched Misfit Con (and Misfit Suppers) last year is because we felt compelled, almost responsible, to facilitate this sort of hybrid vigor amongst the Misfit community.

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But what does this have to do with us?

As this new year winds up, I would encourage you to actively seek out opportunities to be amongst those who are in a plight to change the world just like you are.

It may be hard, and there will surely be some investment of time or resources involved.

But there is simply no exchange, no equivalent for the creative refinement that occurs when you dwell amongst your people.

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Good Enough is never the right decision.

Ever.

Produce your best work every single time. Or produce nothing. Anything in the middle is a waste of your time and our attention.

The cold pressed truth that you and I both know is that no one gives a shit about B+ work.

And more importantly, it is below you.

If you’ve been given the opportunity to live in a time and in a place where survival is not your biggest obstacle. Where you can create. Where you can imagine things and actually make them. Then it seems like a squandered opportunity to do anything other than your absolute finest.

So when you finally do hit the publish button or walk the latte over to the table or send the script off to your editor or submit the collateral for the new campaign or stand up to deliver the presentation at the next meeting just make sure that every last ounce of your sweat and DNA is in it. Stay up all night. Work until it’s pixel perfect. Do it like the world depends on it.

We will cherish it.

We will tell the world about it.

And, most importantly, we will expect more of it.

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