The Night I Found Myself in the Basement at 3 A.M.
October 05, 2016
What you believe in and value may be all you have to cling to when you’re trying to pick yourself back up. And it’ll be the foundation on which you’ll build whatever comes next in your life.
Thanks, Saleem, for that warm introduction. And thanks to you and Shawn (Butler) for the invitation to be here today.
So, first of all, as Saleem mentioned, I’ve got this long title, right? At my company, I’m Vice President and Director of a bunch of communications stuff. Sounds important. My mom tells people I’m THE Vice President of PNC Bank. But, really, I tend to think of myself primarily as a speechwriter.
I mention that to point out that I am NOT a professional speechMAKER. So, being here today takes me a bit outside my comfort zone. I’m really honored, though, to have this opportunity because I have such tremendous respect for the Pittsburgh Promise and its mission.
Now, before I dive in here, I want to acknowledge what it means that all of you Promise scholars are here today. It’s the middle of summer, and so many of your peers are not doing anything today to better themselves or their circumstances. They’re sitting in front of the TV or chasing Pokemons with their phones.
But here you all are, taking meaningful action in pursuit of a brighter future for yourselves. And you deserve to be applauded for that.
Let’s also give a hand to the Promise team that put this event together … what a terrific opportunity this is for these eager and talented young people to hear from and connect with so many employers.
It takes a lot to organize an event like this and for so many folks to take a full day to be here, but they do it because they believe in you and your future.
Now, I’m going to spend the next 20 minutes or so sharing my story with you.
And I’m going to tell you the unvarnished truth … not just the version of me you get if you look me up on LinkedIn or follow me on Facebook.
We spend so much time crafting the image we project to the world, but if I’m going to say anything meaningful in the little time I have with you today, then what I share with you has to be real.
See, if you ask most people who know me professionally “What’s the story on Shawn?” they’ll tell you about the things you’d find on my resume: where I went to school, where I’ve worked, who I’ve written for.
Because it seems a bit glamorous, they might tell you that through my work I’ve gotten to spend time with some incredible people—business leaders, politicians, celebrities and athletes.
Maybe they’d tell you that the President of the United States has spoken words that I’ve written, or that I’ve had lunch with Sidney Crosby and got to introduce my dad to Arnold Palmer.
That’s all true, and it’s cool, but none of that is what makes my story matter.
So, I’m going to spend some time telling you where I come from … the reason my story matters is that it starts like many of yours.
I’m going to share with you a bit about my faith—not because you have to believe what I believe, but because of the way it’s served me when I’ve had to make hard decisions or overcome difficult circumstances.
And I want to talk just a bit about opportunity because your education will open a lot of doors for you, but success will never be just handed to you, and it isn’t guaranteed.
So … Saleem mentioned that I got my degree from Carnegie Mellon. That’s money, right? But growing up, I was never on the fast track to a top-25 university.
When I was a kid, we lived in a house sandwiched between two railroad tracks on the edge of Esplen, overlooking West Carson Street.
I was too young to know we were pretty poor, and I thought that place was a palace. I mean, we had a big yard, and from our front porch we had a terrific view of the Ohio River all the way down to the Point.
But the house shook like an earthquake every time a train rolled by. When it rained, the river would rise and the sewers would flood, and our unfinished basement was overrun by river rats. And I have a distinct memory of police combing our property for drugs and weapons that a pair of criminals had ditched after a high-speed chase that ended just feet from our front door.
My parents worked multiple jobs but never made much money, and feeding and clothing three growing boys was not cheap. They were under tremendous stress, and by the time I was four, they’d divorced.
Compared to other kids, though, we were lucky. My parents remained totally committed to co-parenting my brothers and I. They both showed up for every school function, every baseball game. And they sacrificed to see that we never went without.
I’ve got memories of great Christmases and birthdays with lots of presents and joy … but I also remember my dad eating ketchup sandwiches and my mother crying because whatever beater she was using to get to and from work at the time had broken down again.
But my brothers and I were lucky because my parents remained friends for us … because we were loved despite their struggles. And they did struggle.
When I was seven years old, after our home had been recently burglarized and my parents had filed for bankruptcy, we lost the house on Carson Street and moved into a small apartment in Elliott.
Anybody here from Elliott? I know there’s been a lot of work done to improve things at the Overlook and to make it a safer place to raise children, but in the early 80s, this was not an upgrade for us in terms of location.
Instead of a yard, we played in an alley. Our next door neighbor was a gun store.
We saw crime and violence every day and were victims of it on more than one occasion … sometimes even in our own home.
My parents were doing the best they could by us, but it was hard. My father lived in another part of town and only had custody of us a couple days a week. My mother tended bar almost every afternoon and evening. So, most days we got off school and my older brother—six years my senior—was saddled with the task of watching my younger brother and I.
Scott’s an awesome guy, I love him, and I should say up front that I have no animosity toward him today for anything I’m about to share with you. But as a teenager, he wasn’t ready for the responsibility that was thrust upon him.
Frankly, he had his own issues … a lot of anger over my parents’ divorce, over losing the home that he loved, over the burden of being forced to babysit two younger brothers who did not want to listen. And he didn’t know how to manage that anger, let alone a defiant younger brother, except with brute force.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there have been a lot of years since then, and time plays some strange tricks on our memories. But my recollection is that I got the holy hell beaten out of me pretty much every day for a bunch of years there.
I couldn’t match up with Scott physically at that age, but I was resilient and fiercely independent even at seven or eight years old. And it was not in my makeup to let him dominate me. So, he’d tell me to do something, I’d question him or mouth off, he’d use his fists to try to impose his will on me, and I’d just keep coming no matter how severe the beating.
I considered it a victory when we’d fought and fought for so long that he finally realized I was never going to quit unless he killed me, and out of frustration or exhaustion he’d retreat to his room, lock the door and give up the whole idea of being the boss on a given day.
It’s crazy to think back on it. I wasn’t yet 10 years old, and I’d let go of my fear of death because I’d rather die than lose a fight. Looking back … especially as a father now myself … that’s pretty messed up.
Despite all of that, though, I did really well in school. To some extent, I guess it was my refuge. I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who offered me an escape.
Things changed when I was about 11. My mom got a job with the Post Office that paid her pretty well, and she rented a house for us in Crafton. Things at home became a bit more stable, and life should have been on a real upswing as we settled into the suburbs.
Honestly, though … I hated it. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t fit in there.
I could feel the gap between my family—which was still far from well-to-do—and the kids I went to school with. My life experience seemed completely different.
These kids lived in homes with both their parents. I thought that only happened on TV.
They were almost all white. I’d come from a school where my best friends were a Korean kid, a white kid and two black kids, and I’d never really thought about that until I enrolled in a school with so little diversity.
The kids I went to school with there never thought seriously about their safety or worried about anybody stealing all their stuff. They’d never eaten government cheese.
I was used to wearing K-Mart jeans and playing pick-up football games on a gravel parking lot; meanwhile, they wore brand name everything and played soccer on beautiful grass fields.
They went on family vacations each summer … VACATIONS!
And whether it was true or just some manifestation of my own insecurities, I was sure they all believed they were better than me.
I played sports but lost interest because I didn’t want to play with them. And I went from being a straight-A student in the city to skipping more than 50 days of class during my eighth grade year because I’d given up on even trying to fit in in the suburbs.
I was at real risk, and what’s worse, I was pretty sure the teachers and administrators at Carlynton had given up on me.
Thankfully, we moved back to the city, to Sheraden, before I began high school. I started ninth grade at Langley, and it took me just a few weeks to feel like I was back where I belonged.
Of course, by any objective measure, it was a far worse location—less safe, more crime and poverty.
A conversation I had over lunch with my in-laws a couple of years ago summed it up well.
Now, my wife grew up in a fairly affluent part of New Jersey. Her family is very down to earth; they’re wonderful people. But her dad was an executive at AT&T, and they lived in an area where a number of pharmaceutical companies were headquartered, so it was not what you and I would ever think of as “the hood.”
As we ate, my father-in-law was reminiscing about the kids Erin went to high school with, and he was explaining that he remembered them by the cars that they owned.
So-and-so had a Saab. This kid drove an Audi.
I guess it took me a bit by surprise when he asked, “Shawn, what kind of car did you have in high school?”
I’d never talked much with him about how or where I’d grown up, but I said to him, “Bob, if you had a car of your own at my high school, that meant you stole a car.”
Still, Langley felt like home to me. It definitely wasn’t a better school in terms of the quality of the education. But, thankfully, there were teachers there who took an interest in me, encouraged me, nurtured my talents, took chances on me, and helped me to believe in myself and my ability to create the future that I wanted.
By the time I applied to colleges, I’d developed a strong sense that regardless of where I’d come from, there was nothing out of reach if I had the will to work for it.
I got into Carnegie Mellon despite the fact that my parents had no way to pay my tuition. I earned a few scholarships, took out a bunch of loans, and took a job as a bill collector for Mellon Bank to pay my way.
After school every day I’d go spend hours sitting in the basement of the Union Trust Building, calling people to ask about their missed car loan or mortgage payments. I was studying Creative Writing at CMU, and in a funny way, collections work made me a better writer because it taught me so much about people.
Sometimes, in the midst of very colorful tirades built on a foundation of four-letter words, customers would invite me to come collect their payments personally so they could throw me down their stairs. That was an actual threat that I heard more often than you’d imagine.
But other times they opened up about the very real, very painful struggles of their lives and why they’d fallen behind. I soaked it all in.
Eventually, I was offered a job in Mellon’s Corporate Communications department, writing the employee newsletter. It was a very junior position—I was also the backup secretary—but it was a foot in the door where I could write and learn from other people who were making their careers as writers, and I dove into it.
A year or so later, the company parted ways with the CEO’s speechwriter, and I basically fell into the role because I was the only one on our team who could write a speech that actually sounded like something he’d say.
I never made much money there. The fact that they already had me for peanuts probably played a role in the decision to not hire a new speechwriter from outside. But I recognized the value of the experience.
I was in my early 20s, and I had unfettered access to the company’s executives. I even traveled with them sometimes on a private jet. I was learning so much, and I knew that the sacrifices I was making financially would pay off in the long run.
Besides, I really didn’t define myself by the career I was building. Not long after college, I’d married my high school sweetheart, and, for better or worse, I measured my self-worth entirely by the happiness in our relationship.
That made it especially devastating for me when I was 27 and she filed for divorce.
Everything I believed about myself was shaken. It was the first time in my life I couldn’t fix a problem through sheer force of will. I was broken and lost and in more pain than I ever experienced taking those beatings when I was younger. It quite literally almost killed me.
I’ve never talked about this publicly before, but I hit my lowest point during our divorce the night I found myself in the basement at 3 a.m.
I was bawling my eyes out and staring at a noose I’d tied to the rafters … begging God for the strength to climb the two stairs of a step stool and end my suffering. It was so quiet … I was so alone. I wanted it all to be over.
But instead, I was overcome with this powerful certainty that, though I might have to suffer for a time, God had better things planned for me. It hit me like a wave, and rather than climb the step stool to do what I’d gone down to the basement to do, I dropped to my knees and asked Him just to lead me through whatever I needed to go through to become the man He intended me to be.
People are welcome to believe whatever they like about what I experienced that night, but it was in my darkest hour that I found my faith, and it was amazing how that changed me.
For a lot of years, I’d been fueled in many ways by the giant chip I didn’t even know was on my shoulder. I’d achieved a lot, but I was full of anger and resentment over what I’d had to go through to do it.
Through my faith, I came to understand the power of forgiveness. Anger, bitterness, despair, hatred and resentment are poisons to the soul, and there was incredible freedom that came from letting it all go.
I found myself elevated by community with friends and family that I’d kept at arm’s length for years because I’d become so guarded. I began to discover what’s possible when we allow ourselves to ask for help and become more generous with our own hearts toward others.
Now, I’m not telling you this to indoctrinate you. I tell you this to encourage you to figure out what you believe in sooner than later.
Find what speaks to you and what you value at your core because life is going to knock you down, and when you’re down it’s going to kick you in the teeth. What you believe in and value may be all you have to cling to when you’re trying to pick yourself back up. And it’ll be the foundation on which you’ll build whatever comes next in your life.
In my case, it turned out that my divorce opened up a whole world of opportunities for me. And, guided by my faith and my values, I began saying yes to almost all of them.
I started trusting that there were bigger and better things for me to take on in the world. And, having survived the end of my marriage, I knew that if I tried something and failed, I’d find my way again.
Sometimes, that meant saying yes to pretty dramatic change … like when I decided to leave Mellon after 11 years to take a job with a regional non-profit, the Allegheny Conference.
At the time, I remember a corporate headhunter telling me I was sinking my career. Turned out to be the best move I ever could have made.
Same thing when I left the Conference to work on the G-20 Summit and launch my own consulting practice. It was 2009 and literally the worst time in almost 100 years to try to start a new business. But I was sure that was what I was supposed to do at that time in my life, and that bet paid off, too.
Other times, it meant saying no when everyone told me to say yes, occasionally turning down job offers that others thought were perfect and walking away from money even when friends and bill collectors were telling me that more money would be the answer to all my troubles.
I had to believe in myself … I had to pray on these things and trust what my heart was telling me. And I’ll tell you, that approach has led to great things in my professional life … opportunities to do some really cool and exciting things.
It’s also led me to make some great decisions in my personal life … like the decision to fight to make a long-distance relationship work with the beautiful woman I’m married to today and the choice to keep seeking out other opinions and treatments when highly regarded specialists told us we’d never have a child.
We’d been trying for a long time to get pregnant; we’d seen lots of specialists and exhausted all of our savings. But we knew deep down that God intended for us to be parents, so we pressed on, and our faith was rewarded.
Our son, Clark, is 19 months old now, and being his dad is by far the best job I’ve ever had.
As a speechwriter, I’ve learned that the way to change people’s minds is to first change their hearts. We often know in our hearts the right thing to do before we settle on it in our heads.
That’s why I say you’ve got to figure out what you believe … what resonates in your heart. It doesn’t necessarily mean you chase after everything your heart desires … but knowing yourself and understanding what you believe in so well that your heart can guide you even when the road isn’t otherwise clear will lead you to make decisions you never have to regret.
So, you got some great advice earlier about developing your resumes, interviewing skills and careers you ought to consider. If I can just offer a little more counsel before I wrap up, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned over time that the panelists you heard from today didn’t cover.
These are ideas that I hope will help you to become successful professionals, but that I know will help you to be successful people.
First, always aim to do the right thing rather than the easy thing, even when you look around and see others getting ahead by taking shortcuts. I promise you, the long road is more rewarding.
Second, no matter what you achieve in life, be good to others. You never know what someone else has been through … what they’re going through … and it doesn’t cost you anything to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
Third, find your faith or whatever you believe in, and instead of scrambling to find something new to grab onto when life gets tough, double down on what you already know in your heart to be true.
Fourth, bet on yourself … take risks, and learn to build from your failures as well as your successes.
And, lastly, appreciate—and make the most of—your opportunities … including the opportunity to take part in this event today.
I’m really honored to be here because I know how I struggled to get an education and how it’s opened up opportunities for me.
I saw how many of my friends never had those opportunities because they couldn’t find a way to pay for school or because nobody cared enough to ever tell them they were good enough to go to college.
I’m thrilled to know there exists today a program like the Promise to help all of you overcome the challenges you’ve faced in your lives, to rise above your circumstances, and to help you make a better life for yourselves and your families.
Speaking of families, how many of you are the first in your family to go to or graduate college?
Me too. Congratulations.