Watching him succeed is the best return on investment. (Here he is in American Idiot at Arts West in Seattle.) Photograph by Michael Brunk.
A little over a year ago, maybe a little longer, one of our members brought her little brother into the gym, much like a mama cat might drag a kitten and deposit it at your feet. By the scruff. “We need to fix him.” We’d met him before. Before college, he spent several months working out with us, and we loved him in that way you love a kid with all the potential in the world. You love the present and the future at the same time. Love does that, it warps and combines time that way, but it still somehow feels naturally linear.
But time had passed, and he was a different person. Time hadn’t been kind. He was gaunt, skinny, weak and devoid of the glimmer we’d once seen in his eye. He had been injured, and was now addicted to pain-killers. He was broke, rudderless and 2 days sober with a long road ahead of him. And he was in our gym because, for whatever reason, he and his sister thought that we could help.
We asked no questions, just told him to warm up. Welcomed him home.
We’ve both been around this block before. Between us, we’ve faced addiction from several angles. We’ve had people believe in us and give us chances. We’ve loved and had faith that didn’t seem logical to others. And our life is full, because of, not in spite of, it.
He came in a few times before we finally sat down and figured out what he needed. He did need to be here. He needed to be working out, to be connected to a community that cared and understood him. He didn’t have the money to be a member.
So we bartered. Based on the $20 an hour minimum that we pay employees as their starting wage, we figured out how many hours a month he needed to work. And he exceeded that, lovingly. He tore down walls, painted, took out trash, whatever needed doing, he did it. He also got some glimmer back. Some color. Strength and energy. He got healthy.
To be around him is to love him. He was killing it in workouts. Rising to the top of all our leaderboards, having a blast in local competitions…..
But that wasn’t enough. There was more. This kid was, clear as day, destined to be a star. His love is opera and musical theater. He can’t not sing and dance. Any room he’s in is filled with joyful theatricality. He will win a Tony some day, I am sure of it. So stalling him out in some gym couldn’t be the goal. We needed to do more than get him healthy, we wanted to help him find his voice, his path, his purpose.
In him, we saw a future on big stages. But we saw, in the present, a great coach. And that coaching, in and of itself, might help him find focus, power, feel that feeling of being one who has the power to change lives.
He wanted it. But he didn’t have the money to pay for that. So we did.
We don’t do that. Yes, we will pay for continuing education for our primary coaches, without hesitation. But your basic credentials are a thing we expect you to invest in. But, now a few months sober, he didn’t have the means, but we did. So we did.
People told us not to. That we would be taken advantage of, that he’d leave us soon because his heart was in theater, he was only 24, so he’d never be dependable.
Blah blah blah blah blah. Blah.
We paid for his coaching course and credentials, assuming he’d fill in as needed, and structuring a way for him to work off the “debt.” At the same time, he started going to auditions, and would tell us how they went. We cheered and hoped, as if he were our own son.
And then our head coach moved across the country, and ……. Is he ready? We think he is. He had been coaching now and then, getting rave reviews. People love him.
So boom, he’s our head morning coach. That starts, literally, the same week that he starts rehearsals for his first show. Big week in the life of our boy. This scraggly kid we invested in. In whom we saw so much potential, as a coach, a performer and a human.
About 7 weeks later, it happens. He lands another show, in another city. 7 weeks or so in, and he’ll be gone for 8 weeks.
I hear all the voices telling us that we shouldn’t invest in him. That he’ll take advantage and then be gone. That it’ll never last.
And all I can think is, “I hope so.” I hope he goes far away. I hope he does things that make our gym look so tiny compared to the stages that he shines on.
I’m trying really hard to see where the problem is. Sure, I have to scramble to fill coaching shifts for 8 weeks, and then he’ll be back (for a little while anyway.) But where is the problem?
Where was it wrong for us to believe in this kid and invest time, money and love to help him become who he is meant to be?
Look what it did for him. How on earth can I look at his progress, his turn around and feel like it was a bad investment? I wouldn’t have given him all that if I didn’t want him to take advantage of it! What if he turned down this great opportunity because he felt he owed us something, what would that say about me? About us?
We knew what we were doing. We were giving him love, support, structure, duty, a chance to succeed. Success is him leaving us. We didn’t help him so we could claim him, we helped him so he could claim himself.
And what did we get for it? A community that was inspired by his energy. That is excited about his progress. That will come together to go to his shows together. A unifying positive energy that, when you get right down to it, cost us the cash we would spend throwing a big party. And it gave us way more bonding and excitement than any single event ever could.
When I’m sitting in the audience as he gets his Tony – and damn it, I will be – I won’t be doing a mental calculation of all the fees he never paid as a member, or the money I spent on his training, or…. But when it does cross my mind, I think, “that was some of the best money I ever spent. Fantastic return on investment.”
It won’t show on a balance sheet, I get that. But I firmly believe that my highest duty as a human is to help other humans become the best humans they can be. Leave them better than I found them. People pass through. Some for mere moments, some for years, most for something in between. And when I can look back and know that I made their day better, or their life better, then I know it was worth it. I know that, in my own way, I made the world a better place. When I invest in people, it’s not a down payment on owning them, it’s a down payment on making the world a better place. I don’t own him. I owe him to all of you.
But it’s actually even bigger than that. He knows what he was given. Without any of us ever discussing it. And years down the road, when he’s in a position to do the same for someone, he’ll do it. I know he will. And thus the virtuous cycle grows and together we remove more obstacles from the gravitational pull of human potential. We believe that this is how we make the world a better place.
And that’s actually how I look at all our members. No matter what you bring into me – childhood baggage, or a shitty day at the office – I want you to leave better, stronger, happier than you came in. When our members leave us, for any reason, it makes me sad and I miss them. But I hope that they leave better than they came in. It’s the bare minimum, and highest duty, of what I have to offer the world.
It’ll be a long 7 or 8 weeks without him. (Though I will be infinitely grateful not to have to work out to show tunes.) And I can hear all the voices saying “we told you he’d leave you.”
And I am so proud that he did.
That was always the point.
Best. Investment. Ever.