To my eight-year-old self, hopping along boulders in the whitewater behind our home in the mountains of North Carolina: You’ve discovered the flow state! Embrace this wonderfully present mindset peacefully while in a very risky environment. Pursuit of this epic feeling will guide your life for decades.
It begins, at age 13, when Uncle Doc takes you on your first whitewater trip with the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). You step into the Nantahala River and become forever hooked on whitewater kayaking. The experience also pulls you into the alternate universe of NOC. You’re captivated and inspired by the large community of guides living there, impressed by how responsibly they live in the wild. Though you don’t know it yet, this trip will guide you to a career using and building equipment for wilderness athletes. Enter with full abandon!
Of course, there will be a few curves in the river of life. In your teens, you move to Charlotte. The new environs awaken you to the beauty of cultural diversity, and you revel in the wild turbulence of youth. You’ll wander and thrash, and experiment and crash. While your soul craves a return to that flow state, this period kindles a deep appreciation for culture, commerce, and music—all of which will play critical roles later in life.
At 15, you get a job selling outdoor equipment at the SouthPark Mall. It’s a job you’ll hold—and love—through high school. You devour the latest product information and training offered by brands about how their technical gear is made and how it elevates people’s experiences in the great outdoors. Take note: Very few people buy climbing ropes. Most buy light hiking shoes, book bags, and a plastic sweater by Patagonia. (More on that company later.) What really moves consumers to buy are color, texture, surprising functions, and brand allure. Pay attention, kid. The details of which products sell are everything.
After high school, you spend 1990 living in that alternative flow state. (Today, people call this a gap year.) You take jobs guiding kayaks in the Caribbean and rafts on the Chattooga River. You spend your free time kayaking the Narrows of the Green in North Carolina, then considered the hardest section of whitewater in the country. You live in a van, become a vegan, and get into Zen meditation. Celebrate this short-lived period of minimalism, because your life is about to get a lot more complicated—in good ways. This is when you become acutely aware of the shortcomings in outdoor gear, especially lifejackets. A seed is planted.
Before that takes root, however, you enroll in the former Asheville Farm School, a.k.a. Warren Wilson College, to major in anthropology. Here, you develop a deep love for organic agriculture and cultural anthropology. Despite your father’s urging, you avoid taking business classes. I recommend you rethink that.
Three years later and with just $7,000 in funds, you launch your first business, Lotus Designs, making life jackets for kayakers. The office/factory/warehouse is your cramped basement apartment. Fortunately, you’re 22 and have the stamina to handle the endless days and nights a startup requires. Still, it’s hard work, the currents are swift, and there are unexpected dips and twists. But like any accomplished kayaker, you find a way to navigate the tumult. Within a couple of years, Lotus Designs grows exponentially, having moved out of your basement to a factory near Asheville, NC, with 50 employees! You’re now married and have had your first kid! Life is good! But slow down a bit.
In 1999, you sell Lotus Designs to Patagonia. You’re now free to wander. After a couple of months traveling, you settle down south of the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, where you discover the backcountry. It lights up your world. You fantasize about becoming a pool boy/snowboarder for the rest of your life. But hot tubs are gross, and the fertile soil of Appalachia beckons. You decide to go home and put that college degree to use by starting a farm!
You’re now 28, holding 80 acres with the intent to support your family the old-fashioned way. You dig deep into biodynamic farming principles and various cultivars of blueberries, leveraging hydraulic implements and tending Jersey cows. You love working outside—and the entrepreneurial challenge of filling a void in the market. Time spent on the farm teaches you huge lessons about the nature of nature. These will guide you through the next decades of your career, because as much as you love farming, it’s not what really gets your tractor humming.
In 2002, you make a family decision and launch Astral, an outdoor company committed to building the best-performing products for wilderness athletes in the least toxic, lowest-impact way. You love creating a company where cool, creative people work together to benefit soil and water. Astral grows rapidly and wins awards for our paradigm-changing footwear designs, including our Super Sticky G.ss outsoles, the stickiest-ever rubber for wet rocks. We’ve also basically eliminated toxic PVC foam from the life vest industry and invented breathable life jackets.
Seven years into this gig, you’re 35 years old and have moved well beyond another startup phase. Yet you’re still working 16-hour days, six days per week, which is no way to live. After reading lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss’ books, you decide, in 2009, to delegate everything and move to Vietnam! There, you open Astral’s product development and quality assurance office. Life is again very good. You love everything about living in Vietnam, except for the road level pollution.
Astral has come into its own as a quality brand with purpose. You adhere to the lessons learned during your retail days: The finer details of a product are what sells. So, stay the course—even during rough patches when you find yourself smoking ciggies every day and thinking you may have lost your mind. My advice, as your now 51-year-old self, is whenever you feel like that, get back to the river and rediscover that flow state.
See you on the river,