The Power of Choice: A Boy Named Smoke

“Well my daddy left home when I was three And he didn’t leave much to Ma and me Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze Now, I don’t blame him ’cause he run and hid But the meanest thing that he ever did Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue”” – Johnny Cash “A Boy Named Sue”

My whole life I’ve been asked if Smoke is my real name. Born John Smoke Wallin, I’ve been Smoke since memory. This might seem a trivial question, but explaining my name has been a reality for me since as long as I can remember. I attended a Young Presidents Organization (YPO) event last night in West Hollywood and met another member with an equally unique name. We connected on the issue of growing up with an unusual name and the challenges that presented each of us. He explained his story of growing up hating his name, wishing to change it, and then being given a choice by his family. He was offered a color TV or name change and picked the TV. He went on to describe the pivot that happened for him when he chose not to change his name and owning the decision for the rest of his life. “The day after my choice, someone called me a name and we fought. I stood my ground. From that moment on, I owned my name and it empowered me.”

I immediately realized he described my own experience. Growing up in multiple towns, from Hoboken, Boston, Siesta Key and ultimately Longboat Key. I changed schools and moved 4 and 5 times before entering high school. Each move provided the usual challenges of meeting new kids, introducing myself and getting asked (aka challenged) about my name. Kids generally want to be liked and fit in. Having a weird name always came with this challenge up front. As I’ve described it many times, kids can be very mean and I remember this being very upsetting. I can remember coming home in tears. I always felt like an outsider.

I entered yet another school for 7th grade and declared to my mom, “I’m sick and tired of getting made fun of, I am going to use my given first name at my new school”. Declaring that, and having mom’s full support, I entered Sugg Middle School in Bradenton, FL as John Wallin. The first day of school and throughout my 2 years there I quickly realized 2 things: 1. I did not respond to the name John. 2. There were 7-10 John’s in every class. No one made fun of me and I fit right in and yet realized I did not feel like me.

As I prepared to enter Bayshore High School I declared to my mom, “ok, I’m going back to my real name, Smoke”. I’ve owned my decision ever since. Having a unique name from HS through college through my business career is now a source of strength. I embraced the unique gift my parents gave me at birth. Proudly explain my American Indian heritage (very small) and my likely semi-hippie parents at the time. Everyone remembers my name and me. It is a part of what makes me me.

The power of choice in our lives is all powerful. Deciding something for oneself means you own the decision. The greatest gift my mom gave me was to let me choose.

If you are facing a challenge or problem great or small, think about the choices you have made to be in your situation. Realizing that there are many things outside our control, think about the choices you can make going forward that you do control. Worrying about things outside your control adds no value. Remember, once we have identified a problem or issue we all have these choices: to change it, to solve it or to live with it. Doing nothing is a choice. Once you realize this, you empower yourself and own the decision. No one can take it away from you.

By A Boy Named Smoke.

Finish What You Started

It was the Summer before my senior year in High School when I ran into my Scout Master. He was also our neighbor in the small fishing village of Longboat Key, FL, where I grew up. “Smoke, good to see you. You going to finish what you started?” he asked. Of course, I knew exactly what he was referring to. You see, a few short years before, I was one of the founding scouts of Troop 44 on Longboat Key. As a new troop, I had the opportunity to immediately become a leader. It didn’t take long for a rapid ascent through the ranks; from Scout, to Tenderfoot, to 2nd Class, to 1st Class, to Star, and on to Life Scout by age 16. I only had a few more requirements to achieve my goal of becoming an Eagle Scout, the Boy Scouts highest rank. While Scouting and camping remained something I cared about, sports, school and social activities had begun to take most of my time.

On that hot Summer day while on my way to catch some Mullet with my cast net, Mr. Carmen reminded me, “Smoke, you know that only 4% of boys who start scouting ever achieve the rank of Eagle?”. This had been grilled into us from the first days of scouting. He was reminding me, that in less than a year I would turn 18 and no longer be eligible for advancement. He also knew there was a very good chance I would not finish as he’d seen this happen to many scouts over the years. Wrestling was my priority and I was about to head to Dan Gable’s 28 Day Intensive Training Camp in Iowa. Once the season started, this meant 3 hour practices, 5 days a week and meets and matches on many weekends. Juggling this with school work and applying to colleges would be a challenge as it was, add on all the social distractions that come with senior year in high school and it would be a real challenge to put the necessary time into Scouts. It was a moment of truth. Do I make the commitment to finish what I set out to do or do I take the much easier path and let other things take priority? I remember looking myself in the mirror and asking, “What matters to me?” I decided then and there that I would not let anything get in the way of my goal of Eagle. Looking back, I had no idea of the impact the answer to that question would have on my life.

Eleven months later, I completed my Eagle project. We cleaned up part of the beaches on Longboat Key and built a small foot bridge at the LBK Youth Center. I finished right before my 18th birthday. My brother Clay followed suit, earning his Eagle rank a short time later (but also right under the wire). In the end, it was up to me to do the hard work and complete the requirements. I never would have made it without the support and encouragement of my family and the adult leaders in the Troop, when I needed it most.

Today, I reflect on this story to share one of the many lessons I have learned: finish what you start.

Building the internal fortitude to bear down is hard when there are many other distractions. This is something you cannot teach, but rather one must learn from experience. Looking back on my years since, finishing my Eagle changed my whole life.

The willingness to step up and complete what one begins is an essential element for success in business, industry and community activities. I moved to Indianapolis upon graduating from Cornell University and read about an Eagle Scout leadership dinner in town. This is where I met some of the community’s biggest business and community leaders at the time, including then Senator Richard Lugar. At 22 years old, I was networking with a Senator and CEOs of some of the biggest businesses in a town. Prior to this, I only knew a handful of people in Indianapolis. Being an Eagle Scout has opened many doors for me along my personal journey. A few years later, when I was in position to hire talent for my businesses, a candidate with Eagle Scout on their resume would always make my interview list regardless of other experience. It’s the one thing from childhood that has come up time and again throughout my adult life. This would not have happened had I not finished. No one recognizes a Life Scout.

When my two sons Skye and Cameron joined Scouting, I told them this story. We had many adventures in Scouting together including hiking on the Appalachian Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Philmont Scout Ranch and the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. As they got older, when time was running out for their Eagle, I had to remind them of it. There was a good chance they would not finish, but fortunately there were many adults and fellow scouts who helped push them when they needed it most. (Scoutmaster Clifton, Mr. B, the Johnsons, the Stewarts, and other parents, in particular Diana Church). When one starts anything new, it is easy to say, “I’ll finish and reach my goal.” It is a lot harder to actually do it. I’m proud that both sons also went on to earn their Eagle rank.

Throughout my career in business as a serial entrepreneur, I’ve encountered many setbacks and roadblocks to achieving my goals. It is how one responds to adversity that determines success. There is a confidence one develops knowing whatever it takes and no matter how difficult the situation one can persevere.

When you have the opportunity to give an extra push or words of encouragement to someone you know who is struggling or has lost sight of their goal, do it, even if it is not what they want to hear. Your encouragement could be the thing that gets them over the top to rededicate themselves to achieve their potential. It takes caring people to bring out the best in each of us. Sometimes, one person asking, “are you going to finish what you started?” is the final catalyst needed for action.

At the end of the day it is up to the individual to do what it takes. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. When you feel most like giving up, that is the time to bear down and do what it takes to finish what you started.

If you enjoyed this read, please follow me on twitter @smokewallin or on https://www.linkedin.com/in/smokewallin and you can read more on my personal website drinktechnology.com. If you know someone how needs to hear this message, please share.

Giving Thanks

Giving thanks to all my family and friends. Cheers to all.

Morning Prayer

Let me awaken every morning and be thankful for what God has brought me.

Let me awaken every morning knowing things are as they are meant to be.

Let me awaken every morning knowing life is a journey and I am just a part.

Let me awaken every morning knowing the day will
bring challenges, opportunities and learning experiences.

Let me awaken every morning with self-love and self-acceptance, so I may be more tolerant of myself and others.

Let me awaken every morning with an open heart, so love may rush in and out like the tide of the mighty ocean.

Thrive Under Pressure

Thrive on Pressure

I’ve been thinking about the concept of pressure after a conversation I had with several recent college graduates who are at the beginning of their careers. What is pressure and how do I handle it when I feel it? When I think about this topic, I immediately think about sports and how the great competitors face incredible pressure at specific moments. Yesterday’s PGA as Jason Day closed in on his first major win with Jordan Spieth on the hunt. Day has had so many near misses, putting those nagging doubts out of his head and playing strong for a record breaking 20 under major was incredible to watch. How does one do that and what can the rest of us learn from it?

jason day pga

I decided to go back to a classic and highly motivational book I have gone to since my days of Cornell wrestling, The Edge, by Howard E. Ferguson, 1982. Here is the legendary coach of one of wrestling’s greatest high schools, St. Edward of Lakewood, Ohio take on pressure:

“Time’s running out. Your team trails by one basket. The noise of the crowd is deafening.

What do you do? Do you hide, or do you break from your opponent and come out to get the ball for the last shot?

If you’ve prepared mentally and physically as we have mapped out, you’ll never need to worry about pressure; in fact, you’ll go out of your way to put yourself in pressure situations. You’ll be the type of athlete who thrives on a close game, a tight match. Pressure is something you put on yourself when you’re not prepared. If you don’t have faith in what you are doing and you fear the unexpected, then its something for which you didn’t properly prepare. All pressure is self-inflicted and, like anything else in life, you can look at it in several ways. You can look forward to it or you can cringe in front of it. … If you welcome pressure, you’ll be amazed at how successful you’ll be. When the situation gets tight, you’ll have the edge because you’ll know: 1. There’s just as much pressure on your opponent, 2. Exactly how to handle it, and 3. Chances are he(she) won’t.

No matter how confident you are though, sometimes you’ll find yourself caught up in a pressure situation and little doubts of your ability will creep into your mind. No need to panic, no need ot think its unnatural. Even the great ones have moments of fear. The secret to their success is that they know exactly how to handle these moments – they know they can’t avoid them, so when the pop up, they don’t lose it – they handle them. They slow it down a little, they go back to their very fundamentals of their particular sport and they concentrate. Slow it down. Get your confidence back. Get your edge back. Then face the pressure head-on.”

In business, just as in sports, you make a choice in a “pressure” situation. You can either embrace it with the confidence of preparation and a belief in your ability and your content or your can let it get to you. I’ve probably given 1,000s of presentations or speeches over the years to important audiences, customers, and business leaders. In every one of these situations, even early on, I felt the pressure in the form of adrenalin.   I grew to feed on these situations. I embraced them. Even early on, these were the situations I sought and thrived on. Whether it was getting a meeting with Walmart’s Sam’s Club at 23 years old and traveling to Bentonville, AK to present on my own, taking the lead on presentations to our major suppliers or going out to the investment community and raising $100s of millions while still in my twenties, I put myself in “pressure” situations. While there were always ways in which I could have improved or done better and each of these experiences could have been terribly nerve racking, but instead they where incredible learning experiences in which I thrived.

As a person starting out in the business world, you will have opportunities presented to you to take a lead on a project or to represent your company in a meeting. Take them and embrace them. These are the moments that separate the performers from the rest. These are the moments that enable one to stand out from the crowd. Feeling it is natural, even with proper preparation.

Smoke with Kyle Dake - Cornell Wrestling 2013  kyle Dake

“Pressure is something you really put on yourself. If its not real, why put it on yourself?” -Kyle Dake

Kyle Dake is an American former collegiate wrestler at Cornell University. He won four NCAA Division I national tittles in four different weight classes. With his fourth title in 2013, he joined Cael Sanderson and Pat Smith as the only four-time NCAA champions.

larry bird

As NBA legend, Larry Bird put it back in his playing days, “In the closing seconds of every game, I want the ball in my hands for that last shot – not in anybody else’s, not in anybody else’s hands in the world.”  I look at business situations similarly.

While no one expects a new entrant to the workforce to excel in every situation right from the start, you will have opportunities to put yourself into a “pressure situation”. Seek these out. Always be the one who raises their hand and steps up. Don’t fear failure. Take the chance and be willing to put yourself into these situations. You may not realize it at the time, but your boss and other senior people in your organization will notice. More importantly, you will gain experience and confidence by going through these experiences. The more you do this, the more you will have confidence and never get rattled.

“Courage is grace under pressure.” Ernest Hemingway

 

My YPO Graduation Remarks – Giving Thanks

YPO Graduation - J Smoke Wallin

Last week, I chose to graduate a bit early from YPO “Young Presidents Organization” into WPO “World Presidents Organization” its sister organization for the over 49 crowd.  While I will remain active in WPO and the Food & Beverage Network and Deal Network in particular, the past twelve years in YPO have enriched my life greatly and its a good moment to reflect on that. Also I’d like to give special thanks to Todd Maurer for his remarks introducing me.  These are my remarks giving thanks at the graduation ceremony.

Todd Maurer giving remarks on Smoke Wallin at YPO graduation 2015

YPO GRADUATION – J. Smoke Wallin

Thanks Todd, I really appreciate your kind words!  Speaking of giving thanks, today is the anniversary of DDay 1944.

In 2003 when I joined YPO and “Forum Unplugged” my kids were 13, 11, 8 and 3, today they are 26, 24, 21 and 16… wow nothing like kids to express the passing of time.

Since then I’ve been blessed with a lifetimes worth of experiences professionally and personally as a direct result of YPO.   This was not an accident.  It did not just happen to me.  You see, I don’t believe in doing things part way.  Either you commit or you do not.  When I joined YPO I made a commitment to give and get as much as I possibly could.

Henry David Thoreau said “True friendship can afford true knowledge. It does not depend on darkness and ignorance.”  This is YPO.

From Australia to India to the UK to cities throughout the US, YPO members have been welcoming and helpful to my family and me.  I know this because I dined at their homes, visited their businesses, attended their events and engaged with them in business.  I know the last 12 years of my life have been greatly enhanced by this commitment.

I will express my gratitude by sharing a couple of stories and mention a few people.

First, I met my wife Anitra on a YPO trip and that changed my life forever.  Thanks Darling.

YPO George HW Bush Event - Smoke & Anitra 2004

YPO George HW Bush Event – Smoke & Anitra 2004

I could stop there, but I won’t.

I joined Forum Unplugged and have had 12 years of deep relationships, friendships and confidences with 22 Forum mates.  They include:

  • Scott Webber
  • Don Palmer
  • Brent Eckhart
  • Mark Jackson
  • Bill McCarthy
  • Allen Furrer
  • Dan Horner
  • Chris Hilger
  • Richard Horn
  • Mike Bosway
  • Matthew Claymon
  • Gregg Schorr
  • Nelson Reyes
  • Jim Rapp
  • Brian Acton
  • Kent Morris
  • Todd Maurer
  • Anthony Brown
  • John Ryan
  • Bryan Brenner
  • Dave Foellinger
  • Dan Filby
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YPO Forum Unplugged

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Aspen_-_YPO

These are some of the finest individuals I’ve ever come to know and I am grateful for all they have done for me in my journey.

Some of our very best friends today are members we met through YPO including Bryan and Lara Sperber in Phoenix and Lesley Berglund in Napa

Through Networks, I’ve expanded my industry network tenfold.  Engagement in networks has been the single most important business and professional development aspect of YPO for me.  Fortunately, I’m excited to be able to continue through WPO as I Chair the 2016 Food & Beverage Roundtable in Napa, CA.

Looking back, I’ve lived so much life over the past 12 years it’s hard to summarize in a couple of minutes.   I’m not alone when I say it has come with great successes and great loss.  I’ve lost partners, friends and employees to both accidents and suicide.  I’ve had incredible business ups and downs and started numerous new ones along the way.  Throughout all of it, I’ve had YPO people to help me be better or simply to be there when I have needed it most.

To all of us, but especially those newer members… I’d like to remind you of some things that did not exist when I joined:

  • starting in my industry – there are 1,000s of new breweries, wineries and spirits brands available today that did not exist
  • There was no iPod or iPhone or iPad
  • There was no Facebook or Twitter
  • No AirBnB or Uber
  • no Freedom Tower
  • no Lucas Oil Stadium

All of these things that are now a part of the world and our every day lives.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

– A. Einstein

Looking forward, what will the next 12 years bring?  I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s next in brands, but I won’t try and answer that question here.  There is one thing that I do know…. I am confident many YPO people will be involved in changing both the world and my life for the better.

Thanks for everything you have given me.

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