I learned that social mobility is what gives us hope. It is an opportunity to collectively pick ourselves up, create things that make the world better, learn lessons from real world experiences, and build better lives for ourselves. This is what gives meaning to life.
Life is a draft process.
Table of Contents
- Reconnecting Humanity
- Becoming a University Instructor
- Building an Agency
- Standing Still
- Knowledge Dump
- Nudging a Market to Emerge
- Ecosystem Design
- Scaling from Princeton, NJ to Washington, DC
- Phase I: Humanity
- Phase II: Community
- Phase III: Incubation
- Lessons Learned
I am grateful for the people who have taken an interest in my success. To be mentored by nationally recognized academics known for education reform and social entrepreneurship enabled me to create a unique approach to life, work, and learning.
Today, my learning happens everywhere.
I live with intention, extract insights from my experiences, and use the insights to improve my approach on the next iteration. I think for myself, I weigh my options, I make decisions, and I self-direct my life’s design with intention. I was not always like this, though. I wasn’t born on third base. I wasn’t prepared for college. I never took my SATs. I did not apply to college while in high school.
Eventually, I grew tired of allowing a circumstance to define my life. I was tired of allowing my environment to control the way I felt about myself. I was tired of allowing the way I felt about myself to control the decisions I made in life. I was tired of allowing those decisions to determine the results of which determined the environment of which I found myself. It is a vicious cycle.
I learned that social mobility is what gives us hope. It is an opportunity to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, work hard, learn lessons from real world experiences, and build better lives for ourselves. This is what makes this nation the land of opportunity. This is the American Dream.
I got into a lot of trouble as a kid. Trouble with my parents. Trouble at school. Trouble with the law. My journey reached a pivotal moment which you will read about in the following paragraphs. I only began to somewhat slowdown when my epilepsy became a health hazard. I had to stop partying which was difficult as a college student. I had to develop a regular sleep schedule which, if you know me, is not the easiest task for me to accomplish.
Out of all the people with epilepsy, most of them are born with it. However, I have a more rare diagnosis. I grew into my epilepsy around age 16. It is called Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy. I have grand mal seizures which means I black out before, during, and after the episode. I have heard that it is quite scary to witness one of these. I say, “Thank you,” to my friends and family who have endured watching me have a seizure. From what I understand, it is not the most pleasant experience. Having epilepsy seems like a bad thing. However, it has had more of a positive impact on my life than when I did not have it.
I would go on to earn a 3.1 GPA for my first semester of college. It felt good to do well in school. I felt as if I accomplished something. I had something of which to be proud when I talked about what I was doing with my life.
The only excuses I would have now were about why I didn’t do better.
I leveraged the grades from my first semester to transfer to a private university in Massachusetts for my second semester. I moved into a dorm. I had a meal plan. I went to college parties with my classmates. I took 18 credits. I worked two jobs. I had a great time.
At the end of semester, I went back to New Jersey for the summer. My mother stopped me in the kitchen, “Dan, you made the dean’s list?!” I said, “I did!?” I hadn’t actually calculated the GPA at the end of the semester, but I looked at the paper in my mother’s hands that said 3.5 GPA.
That summer, my sister had graduated college. I was talking with my father and uncle at her graduation party about my most recent semester.
My father was the academic advisor for the Notre Dame football team for about 15 years. He redesigned the Notre Dame student athlete academic advising program and is credited for the university’s highest academic output from the athletes, ever. It is no wonder, then, how I would go on to build my own postsecondary education program.
My uncle was a priest at Notre Dame for over 50 years. He was the academic advisor for the Notre Dame football team before my father took over the position.
It might not have been possible to achieve my lifelong dream of attending Notre Dame right after high school, but I had now created a foundation to give it a shot.
Before I got too comfortable with the recent Dean’s List accomplishment, my father and uncle pushed me to take a summer course at Notre Dame. I was hesitant to leave my friends and transfer out of the school I just invested the last semester making friends, learning to navigate the campus, and feeling as if I was a member of the community – not an outsider. It’s not easy to start over in new places. However, I understood that the risk would be worth the reward.
I registered for a Calculus course that summer at the University of Notre Dame.
Calculus was not exactly the course I would have chosen for myself, especially if I wanted to earn high grades. My father explained the importance of continuing to push myself. He recommended that I go out to South Bend to show the Notre Dame administration that I can compete while taking their most challenging undergraduate subject matter. He also recommended that I do this for myself. To show myself I am equal to the smartest in the country.
I developed a good routine. I exercised everyday. My father set me up with the same program as the Notre Dame student athletes. I went to my tutor every morning before Calculus, and every afternoon after the class. It was, and still is to this day, the most challenging course I would ever take.
I earned a 4.0 GPA in the Calculus class.
I applied for full-time admission to Notre Dame as a transfer student for the upcoming fall semester. I was denied. I continued to push forward. This felt like a speed bump, and the momentum I had built up from the summer program allowed me to shrug it off. Determined to get into Notre Dame, I stayed in South Bend, Indiana. I enrolled in Indiana University as a full-time student that fall.
I applied to Notre Dame three times, and would be denied three times.
Frustrated with feelings of failure and inadequacy, I was ready to go back to New Jersey. Looking back on the experience, I am sure there were things I could have done differently. It is a good feeling to know I was able to hang with the best of them. I learned a lot from being around my father at work as well.
I took a semester off, and then applied to Rutgers for the spring semester of 2005. There I was, starting over at another university. Now, for the fifth time.
At this point, I lost the drive I initially had during the first two years of college. I will admit, I slacked off a bit. Near the end, I had 118 credits and was one class away from completing my undergraduate degree.
As I began applying for jobs, it quickly became apparent that I was applying for the same jobs as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of my peers. I had a few interviews, but no traction. There I was, standing at the end of a hallway asking myself, “What now?” I had no safety net, and would need to figure out ways to support myself. What was the purpose of the last four years? I decided it would be a better decision to save money by not paying another dollar to university.
I dropped out for the next 18 months.
In 2009, I smartened up and decided it was time to take the last class and get my diploma. I registered for a summer course – it would be the fastest way to get it over with.
I went online to find a course to take, and randomly selected the shortest class I could find. It was two weeks, Monday to Friday, 9am to 3pm. I looked forward to finding a seat in the back of the classroom where I could sleep through the two weeks. However, upon entering the room on the first day, I was greeted by a surprise.
There were no desks. The chairs were organized in a circle. There were cameras in the corners of the room, facing the circle of chairs. I knew, then, that I would not be sleeping through the class.
Little did I know, the last class I enrolled in to complete my undergraduate degree in Sociology from Rutgers University would change my life, forever.
Somehow, I registered for a pilot class that had just been invented by the ED of the Writing Program. The class was sponsored by Apple, we had an Emmy Award Winning backpack video journalist train us during the second week, and the participants of the cohort each received a backpack with a Macbook Pro, external hard drive, and video camera.
I learned how to use the internet for something other than a distraction. I knew, on the first day, this was the moment I had been waiting for. I immediately knew that I had finally found what I was missing.
Through this immersive academic experience I learned how to analyze complex social problems using new media. I did not even know what “analyzing complexity” meant before this class. Fortunately, I learned what it meant because it may be the key to a door that leads to an opportunistic future for humankind.
This class reconnected me with my humanity. The pursuit of profit had led me to compete with my neighbor when I may have needed them the most. Humans probably did not evolve by fighting saber tooth tigers with only one human versus one tiger. To overcome such obstacles we had to organize in order to realize our full strength.
I spent the next three years working one-on-one with the professor who invented the course I mentioned above. I did not know what the purpose of education was until I had the privilege to be taught by Dr. Richard E. Miller.
The fortune he bestowed upon me is priceless.
Empowered with the ability to design my own future, I was now ready to take on the world.
I continued to refine my craft through an immersive studio mentorship. Simultaneously, I sewed myself into the cultural fabric of my local community. The first community I would be introduced to was a local activist group. I attended biweekly New Brunswick City Council meetings, and the Middlesex County Board of Education on a monthly basis.
Through the community members I met during the two to three months I documented the above movement, I met another group of people from my local community. I began to host art and cultural events in my home.
I discovered various vibrant communities from the many diverse pockets within my city. My camera was always by side. I fell in love with telling the story of the people within my city.
After producing five or six short films that told the story about the government, education, culture, and technology components of my city I was nudged by one of my studio mentors to start a blog or website that would act as a platform for my videos. I didn’t know how to start a blog or build a website, but I went home that night and typed into Google, “How to build a website”. I was up and running within a few days.
This would become my first project that would evolve into a business.
While immersed in the local community, I interviewed residents, business owners, commercial real estate developers, university leadership, and local city government officials. In doing so, I noticed friction between the various people and groups and institutions of the city. It seemed as if the people didn’t get along with one another based on the fact that they were from a different group. I may have once been like that as well, however, I began to cultivate a deep sense of empathy for humans, in general, while I listened to the various people tell their stories.
I learned that the world is not black or white, red or blue, democrat or republic. The world is gray. It is messy. It is complex and ambiguous.
I decided to leverage my new website as a platform to provide access to information for the people of the city to learn about the challenges and triumphs of the other people who lived in the same city. Beautiful things took place throughout the city, yet, so many had no idea.
My website became a hyperlocal internet newspaper. The goal of the platform was to bridge the gap between the residents and the students of the university. The university invested in this project. They provided me with a private multimedia studio and lab, eight student employees, and a small stipend for myself. We generated some revenue through advertising local businesses on the newspaper, but I did not have a business mind just yet
Becoming a University Instructor
Within 90 days of the last class, I was invited to design the curriculum for, and teach, my own undergraduate course under the supervision of the previous Chair of the Rutgers English Department. In January 2010, I would design my first syllabus and run my own new media composition course offered to undergraduate students enrolled in Rutgers University.
This evolved into running workshops and co-designing curriculum with about 10 different departments and administrators within Rutgers. I facilitated workshops in new media composition and entrepreneurship. To name a few of the administrators who hired me: the Dean of the Honors College, the Executive Director of the Eagleton Program on Immigration and Democracy, the Chair of the English Department, the Executive Director of the Plangere Culture Lab, the Executive Director of the Rutgers Future Scholars Program, and various professors from throughout the university.
Building an Agency
While working within the university in the capacity of an innovation partner, I was able to simultaneously cultivate relationships within the local community surrounding my university. This would eventually lead to the establishment of my marketing and design agency. In 2010, I founded a boutique internet marketing company which was also invested in similar fashion by the university. I was able to generate about $175,000 in 18 months while creating a path to employment for undergraduate students. This gave me more of the business experience I was lacking in the first project.
One of the more exciting initiatives was when I turned an on-campus abandoned building into Rutgers’ first innovation lab.
I built a pathway to employment for undergraduates by developing them as employees of my agency and nurturing them into the corporations that paid me as agency clients. Students began as interns earning three credits towards graduation, and a select few were offered paid apprenticeship positions to continue working as part-time employees. This model spread like wildfire across the university.
Another exciting project was when I was hired to document a three-campus initiative known as, Citizenship Rutgers. This initiative provided free legal services to individuals requiring assistance with the naturalization process. It was spearhead by the Executive Director of The Eagleton Program on Immigration and Democracy.
Annie E. Casey Foundation would be among the next to hire me to produce my unique style of visual essays and new media compositions to establish a brand footprint that would inform and influence public policy around topics of disconnected youth, aging out of the foster care system, and paid family leave.
By 2012, one of my clients offered to pay me approximately $100,000 to shut down my agency and merge with his new startup, as a full-time employee. I took the deal. Within one year, I left his company. At which point, I had no clients, no opportunities, and no idea what the future was going to look like.
In 2013, I spent a lot of time writing. I had a few clients on the side so I could pay the bills doing design work, marketing services, video editing, and business development. However, I felt confused about the world. I was at a standstill. I knew how to make money with my skills. I wrote this ebook.
I knew how to break free from the 40 hour work week. I accomplished exciting feats, but I was not fulfilled by the work. What is the point of working only a few hours per week if I am not adding value back into society? I had become a society-sucking leech. Disconnected from the community. Working my own hours, sometimes in my pajamas, and removed from the standard 9-5 struggle. I was only taking from society, and not contributing anything.
On Saturday, October 11, 2014 I began to write. For 23 days straight. I wrote 12 hours each day. By the end, I had written over 100,000 words. Most of the content never saw the light of day, but there were quite a few gems.
As I wrote about my life experiences, I actively reflected. I wrote through my college experience and the impact of the professor who nurtured me through my first personal transformation in 2009. As I reflected on the following three years (2009-2012) the idea popped off the page at me. I thought to myself, “The experiences I went through from 2009-2012 brought me from a low socioeconomic status to a higher class. I went from lead to gold.
What if I were to turn my three years into a program or series of projects that would empower others from low socioeconomic status to pick themselves up by their bootstraps to build a better life for themselves?” I wasn’t quite sure what this might look like yet, but I knew I had come to a powerful realization.
At the end of the knowledge dump, I sat down to write an outline. Without needing to think twice, I quickly recalled the sequence of the topics I had just spent three weeks writing about. It began with the meaning of life. “Eudaimonia, sometimes anglicized as eudaemonia or eudemonia, is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, “human flourishing or prosperity” has been proposed as a more accurate translation.” -Wikipedia
The writing journeyed the reader through a scaffolded process that would empower them with an understanding and unique tool set for transforming one’s meaning of life into the work they do for the rest of their life. It focused on the impact one might have in the world. The theory was built on my life experiences, and became the foundation for my life’s work. I looked at the world and noticed we had the same unsolved social problems for centuries. I thought, “If businesses solve problems, perhaps there is a way to use business to solve social problems”. Thinking back to 2009, my first business existed to serve unmet needs in my local community.
The pieces began to align.
Nudging a Market to Emerge
As I continued to scan the economic climate, analyzing the complexities of the way sectors interacted with one another, I was able to see that social entrepreneurship was beginning to bubble just a bit. Not only did my mentor tell me in 2009 that I was destined for social entrepreneurship, but I could now see that social entrepreneurship was beginning to emerge. Rather, it was beginning to merge at the center of several other new markets emerging.
It seemed as if higher education, municipalities, corporations, and the social sector were being drawn to this concept of purpose, meaning, and it was likely driven by the people’s yearning for a more fulfilling life. Perhaps this is a result of the human race evolving into a more sophisticated species.
There was also a rise in published research about global problems humanity faces. World Economic Forum pushed a lot of this content out, and just a few years ago the United Nations came forward with their 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Once the SDGs hit the market it became more clear that society was beginning to move in a certain direction. Coincidentally, it was a similar direction of which I began in 2009.
As I looked at the United Nation’s Sustainable Developments Goals I wondered how I might approach the challenge from a local level. The United Nation’s SDGs suggests that the globe is facing these challenges. It’s up to us to think big, and act local.
If the above items are currently problems that require solutions, it would make sense to think of those problems more like outcomes or symptoms.
In order to produce new outcomes, we simply would require a new set of initiatives that would produce the outcomes as set forth by the UN. This process is known as ecosystem design. Ecosystem design is a concept that’s becoming more commonly used today.
My vision is to live in a world where government, education, business, and technology work cooperatively in the community to design a sustainable way of life.
I had an idea as to how I might be able to do my part at the local level. It took me a few weeks to tease out the first few blog posts to share with the internet. The first would be a post that would suggest a new way of thinking about business, education, technology, and the way we leverage those things to solve social and environmental problems: Build a startup that solves a social problem.
Below are a few of the sketches and designs I worked through in order to come up with the Social Enterprise Methodology.
The more refined, scaleable methodology…
Each of the above phases would become a community organization, meetups, conferences, postsecondary education, hyperlocal ecommerce, etc that were designed as individual components of a healthier ecosystem that would empower a city to influence the inception of ideas for humans to cultivate a deep sense of empathy for one another.
Global social problems can be boiled down to the individual behavioral choices we make as humans. This would influence their behavior moving forward in life to act from a place of empathy and compassion and collaboration rather than competition. Just as it happened to me beginning with my first personal transformation in 2009.
The outline for the plan looked something like this:
1. Social Capital: Develop meaningful relationships with residents, business owners, government officials, educators, and technologists to listen, observe, and understand what their lives are like and what might be missing
2. Vision Validation: Inspire a community of cross-sector sector stakeholders into action by getting buy-in on a new shared vision
3. Cross-Sector Stakeholder Conference: Create a platform for cross-sector stakeholders to share their stories, and gain an empathetic understanding of who the individuals are that represent their city
4. Mentor Network: Based on the investment in social capital in stages 1, 2, and 3 we now have a mentor network of established community members ready to connect with the pipeline of youth. Practitioners standby to provide various skills training at the different phases of the pipeline to empower emerging entrepreneurs with the tools to germinate their own purpose-driven projects into profitable organizations
5. Pre-incubation Pipeline: Through partnerships with institutions like Rutgers University, undergraduates have an opportunity to learn new media and technology skills through real world application as they work on various service projects in the local community – typically with social sector orgs first, and businesses inline with their passion second, and, finally, the opportunity to pursue their own project along with a team of peers who share the same values
On March 25th, 2015 I began to roll out a series of initiatives. As mentioned in the above outline, one of the components of the social enterprise ecosystem is the establishment of a mentor network so that we might have individuals to connect with the pipeline of early-stage innovators.
I translated the methodology into a scaffolded four phases and curated speakers from the community events and meetups I was organizing to share their stories based on where they were in the phases of this journey. I said, “We should have a conference.” I coached the community members one-on-one for four weeks to prepare them to share their story in a 20 minute spot of the conference, Cooperative Impact.
Here’s a two minute video from New Jersey’s first-ever social innovation conference which took place in Princeton.
I rolled out each organization – one by one – each designed specifically to meet the needs of the social enterprise ecosystem (with the desired outcome of growing more entrepreneurs who focused on building businesses that served human needs).
In the words of Princeton community member, Gery Juleff, “Mr. D’Alonzo was inspired by a local luminary (Albert Einstein) who once said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Daniel decided that it was time to take action in his own community…Daniel realized that we face today a combination of challenges that is unprecedented, including climate change, growing inequality and a world that is defined by change, not repetition. The old “jobs for life” structure is gone. The younger generation will move from job to job and will often create their own jobs – enabled by new technology.”
Here are a few links to get caught up: a press release about the holistic social enterprise mindset I worked diligently to spread, written by a community member, a write-up from Mercer County news source, MercerMe, and here’s a write-up from Philadelphia-based social impact news source, Generocity.
On June 16th, 2016, I moved to Washington, D.C. so that I could scale my model to a city where I might have an opportunity to work directly with the U.S. federal government as collaborators, partners, and friends.
Scaling from Princeton, NJ to Washington, D.C.
I remember like it was yesterday. My two dogs and I boarded an Uber on June 16th, 2016. We went from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. to embark on a journey to bring my innovation ecosystem from Princeton to the nation’s capital.
I had zero expectations. I was well aware that making this move would be the start of a process, and it wasn’t a guarantee that anything magical would happen. It was the next chapter. The continuation of my lifelong journey to leave this place in better condition than how I found it. First, I would need to find the others.
I went online and found a Meetup group called “D.C. Social Entrepreneurs & Change Makers”. The group had a few hundred members, but not many of them were turning out for the events. Within a few weeks, I received notice from Meetup that the group’s leader stepped down. I saw it as an opportunity to take a leadership role while working within the existing infrastructure built by others. Now that I had administrator access to the group, I refreshed the brand, gave it a new name, designed a simple logo, and updated the description.
As you can see, I slightly modified the Princeton Impact Project logo.
I hoped this would signal to the existing members that I took it seriously. I wanted them to know I would design a nice experience for them. In July, within a few weeks of my arrival, I hosted my first event. Keep in mind, I am working from my four phase methodology:
Phase I: Humanity
I wasn’t sure, exactly, how things would evolve, if at all. I knew the general direction I wanted to walk, and that was enough to start. I was hesitant to host the event on a Saturday. It seemed like everyone in D.C. worked a lot, and they took their jobs seriously. I couldn’t imagine people showing up during the week. Would the weekend be any different? There was only one way to find out.
I learned a few important lessons from hosting this event. To start, there were a lot of individuals in D.C. working on various impact projects. I learned these people cared enough about their work that they were willing to show up for a stranger (me) on a Saturday afternoon. Their attendance taught me that “impact” and “change” was not a luxury, rather, it was how they identified themselves.
Perhaps the most important insight I gained from this event was that these change-agents were looking for human connection. I assumed that if they had already known of a place to count on to acquire this connection then they wouldn’t have shown up. I planned my next steps based on this assumption.
Phase II: Community
I invested the next six months immersing myself in the local community to (1) sew myself into the cultural fabric, and (2) invest adequate time doing the ethnographic research necessary to influence social change.
I wanted it to be clear that I was in D.C. not for fame and fortune, but to serve the people. I was willing to play the long-game to figure out how to best serve their unique needs. I built relationships across the sectors.
I scheduled 100+ coffee meetings. I did a lot of listening. I attended events, participated in the activities of others, and observed. I leveraged this time to build social capital, identify people who shared my values, and begin to formulate a plan.
I reached out to relevant coworking spaces like ImpactHub to see if they might be interested to work together, and/or host the Cooperative Impact conference.
I kept my head down, and continued to sew myself into the cultural fabric of the local community until I felt confident to emerge with my next event.
Phase III: Incubation
As I did in Princeton, I looked to the public library as the place to establish a centralized convening space.
I hosted the second Side Project Saturday one week later. Consistency is important.
The library was good for us to start with, but D.C. had a different vibe than Princeton. There already were many coworking spaces, hubs, and people were working together in new ways. It was validating to have people express interest in the first two meetups and show up in-person. However, moving forward, I was hoping to establish a more modern and hip spot.
WeWork is hands-down the place I wanted to cultivate this community. It’s where these types of things belong. I wasn’t as much of a fan of the K Street location, but I did enjoy the WeWork Chinatown spot. I made friends with the WeWork teams who ran both locations just to keep my options open. FYI when you’re ready to host an event you should approach WeWork – they do a nice job of making it easy. No gatekeeper complex at all.
Community is WeWork’s thang.
A few days after the second Side Project Saturdays, I received a message from a global professional development company who was interested in hosting our next Side Project Saturdays at their DC headquarters.
I would prepare to host the next event with my new friends over at WeWork Chinatown, but at the same time I was working in the background with GA to get logistics squared away.
One of my objectives for this next event at WeWork was to evoke a deep emotional response from the participants. I wanted the people to feel something powerful enough that they couldn’t help but talk about it. I wanted them to feel connected to one another. As I say in my methodology, I would now attempt to create the conditions for the people to reconnect with their humanity. I had an idea on how I would go about doing it. Several years ago, I learned of an old Chinese Proverb known as the Thin Red Thread while watching a TV series on FOX starring Kiefer Sutherland.
I remember back then thinking to myself how awesome it would be to use this Proverb to inspire my team (which did not exist yet), and mobilize them into action. I imagined what it might feel like to be on a team with a leader who was that motivated to let us know how special and important we are to him. Well, years later, the time had come for me to pull this Chinese Proverb out of my bag of tricks.
I hired a photographer, Anne, to document this event. We met twice before the event to plan and practice the strategy. I wanted to have a photostory to publish online after the event. I mapped out the journey I planned for the attendees, and indicated to Anne which moments were important to capture for the story.
Upon entering the event, attendees were greeted by a table which held a pile of hand-made envelopes. I purchased a role of brown paperbag style paper and crafted each envelope myself. Given the proverb was about a red thread, I thought it was most appropriate to include in each guest’s invitation.
Next event, Side Project Sunday, in partnership with General Assembly @ 1776.
This event was awesome.
Continuing to pick up momentum, I met with a few of the regulars to map out the strategy to install the ecosystem methodology into D.C.
Later that evening, I had a meeting scheduled with one of the workshop attendees at General Assembly.
The next day, I was on my way to a whiteboarding session to help a previously incarcerated entrepreneur whiteboard through some business challenges. I hit a roadblock.
While crossing the street, I was struck by a motor vehicle going 45 mph. I can hear the noise of the van crushing my hip. I can hear people scream as my body rolled through the air. I can hear my body slam down on the pavement. I can hear the strain of my voice as I began to scream.
In the ambulance, I had brief moments of clarity when they shot me up with some narcotic. It gave me just enough time to cancel the five meetings I had lined up. One of which, was a first date.
I assumed my arrival to the hospital meant good things. Greeted by a young surgeon with a power drill in his hands, I soon realized this nightmare had only just begun. After attaching a 12-inch long drill bit to the power tool, the surgeon let me know he was going to drill a hole, one-inch in diameter, through my knee, from the left-side to right-side, all the way through.
My requests for a second opinion were denied.
Four men surrounded my stretcher to restrain the quarters of body as the surgeon placed the sharp tip of the cold drill bit on the left side of my knee.
Bone dust filled the air.
My screams reached a new level of desperation. I was sure someone would come to my rescue soon.
I noticed a man walk up to the side of my stretcher. I thought, “Finally, someone had come to tell the others to stop the torture.” As my vision focused on the man’s face, I realized it was the driver who hit me. He stood two feet from my side, watched me scream until the drilling ended, and then walked away. I would never see or hear from him again.
The surgeon returned to my stretcher. This time, with a steel bar in hand. I assumed it was for another construction project he was working on. To my surprise, the four men returned to restrain the quarters of my body so the surgeon could slide the steel bar in the freshly bore hole. The steel bar would be connected to cables on either side. which were pulled down by balancing weights. The medieval apparatus held my leg suspended in the air for the next five days. This marked the crescendo of my painful symphony.
To say these experiences contributed to the development of inherent distrust would be an understatement. I don’t remember much from the first two weeks. I do, however, remember screaming in pain for extended periods of time. I would scream myself unconscious.
I woke up from one of these episodes, opened my eyes, and noticed my father sitting across from me. It looked as if he had been watching, waiting for me to come out of it. This was the first time I saw my father in seven years. My mother walked in the room, saw my father, and sat down next to him. “I don’t have a memory with all of us together. Thank you for being here. Thank you for doing this for me.” I said, gratefully.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring the people you love back into your life.
The 40 nights I spent in the D.C. hospital felt a little longer without the company of Asia, my service dog for epilepsy.
At first, she made her way into the hospital to be with me. The nurses were nice enough to take her outside for walks. She would sleep under my hospital bed. I sensed that the sudden nature of the traumatic life events were a bit shocking for her. Asia got sick after the first few days. By the time I returned from my second surgery, she had been put to sleep.
At this point, there would only be one path into the ambiguous future. What I made of myself from here would be completely on me.
My body had grown weak from laying down with no physical movement for a few weeks. I tried refusing the catheter, but after making a mess I realized I had no choice. If I had to go number two, they rolled me over until I finished.
The dignity of cleaning our own bodies and caring for our basic needs are easily taken for granted.
After three weeks of no movement, they told me I had to try to sit up straight on my own. I couldn’t just lay down in bed all day and night. Using all my strength, baring the shock of the pains that rushed through my body, I pushed myself to sit up straight.
Sit up straight, complete.
It took a few days before I could bring myself six-feet across my hospital room. I remember how scared I felt to embark on the journey across my room. It seemed like a mile to get from the edge of my bed to the door. It wasn’t just the distance to the door. If I made it to the door, that meant I had to make it all the way back to my bed.
10 steps using my walker, complete.
The hospital was quiet at night. I knew I could get a quick chat with the night nurse at the desk down the hall from my room. I crawled to the edge of my hospital bed, pulled myself into my walker, and began the night’s journey. As my strength improved, I inched beyond the nurse’s desk. Taking my wide u-turn at the end of the hallway felt like I was taking my victory lap. Cheers from the crowd inspired me with the adrenaline I would need to make it back down the hall.
100 steps using my walker, complete.
In search of motivation to push further, I looked online for quotes, speeches, songs, and movies that moved me. I have Al Pacino and Eye of the Tiger to the thank for getting me through the last few weeks.
The few elements of my life I could control were food, exercise, and attitude. The hospital let me custom order my meals: eggs for breakfast, and spinach leaves, vegetables, and chicken breast for lunch and dinner.
Eventually, it was time to leave the hospital. I would require a considerable amount of physical, mental, and emotional rehabilitation.
On March 26th, 2017 I was shipped back to New Jersey in a six-hour ambulance ride to stay with my mother. There were many unknowns. Would I ever walk again? Would I ever live on my own again? Would I ever shower on my own? Tie my shoes? I didn’t know, but I was going to show up to find out.
Wake up everyday, push harder than the day before, and believe in a process that wouldn’t show results for months.
100 steps turned into 200 steps. 200 into 500. 500 into two miles.
I recently ran seven miles.
I never imagined an opportunity to live a pain-free life, on my own two feet, and able to care for myself.
It is easy to forget how beautiful life can be, and how fast it can all be taken away.
I found it challenging to lean into my work again. Inspiration to participate in an activity or attend an event with nice people or create a new project to help someone were quickly shut down by the defense mechanism that said, “What’s the point of even trying, Daniel? You’re just going to end up with nothing all over again.” This evolved into an intractable roadblock that consumed me.
Consumed by the roadblock by perpetuating its existence on a daily basis made it nearly impossible to reflect objectively.
When you’re in the business of helping people, it can sometimes feel like pushing a giant boulder up a steep hill. As my defense mechanism would say, “Why bother? You’re just going to get hit by a car again.”
That wasn’t a life I wanted to experience. I would have to figure out how to become aware of the self-imposed glass-ceiling my mind had architected to protect me.
It is now over two years after the accident as I write these words for you.
It’s time to pick up where I left off.
Lessons Learned as of 2017
I have learned that the first step is always about creating community. It is an abstract, intangible concept that is hard to see, but is always there. The culture of an organization and the ecosystem responsible for its germination is a direct reflection of the community – the people – the relationships between those people. Social capital. It’s one of the only things that has kept this type of work under the radar for far too long. VCs and startup leaders assume money is the answer, but without focusing on the right steps the money simply perpetuates the existence of the same problems we set out to solve.
I learned that education innovation is not about technology and laptops in the classroom. It is about preparing a generation of American youth to think for themselves, weigh their own options, learn how to make decisions, and self-direct their life’s design rather than blindly choosing an occupation just to follow the sequential steps to get there.
I learned that the powerful tool that rests in my pocket, known as the smartphone, has become the sledgehammer I use to shatter the ceilings above. Social mobility no longer depends on where we come from. It comes from how creatively we can push our imaginations, and how hard we’re willing to work.
I continue to invest tens of thousands of hours in my craft. If you were to ask me what, specifically, my craft is, I would have a difficult time providing an answer. I am a problem-solver. A storyteller. I do this through the lens of immersive, exploratory, and ethnographic new media composition. I produce professional videos, I design revenue generating websites, I implement strategy with organizational leadership, and I have learned to do these things simply because of my curiosity and self-motivated desire to learn more each day. I also teach everything I know.
Two decades later, I have come full circle with my experiences. I am here to do good. I do it in my own unique way. I offer a unique value to my customers, and my community. The experiences I mention above, along with many others not listed, have resulted in feeling that my work serves a purpose. That’s what is most important to me. I feel purposeful. A purpose-driven career is something I am proud to pursue.
I have both failed and succeeded at building businesses. What I learned from that is, I enjoy building businesses.
When I talk about Prethinc, unlocking mergers and acquisitions pipelines, and bringing together large corporations with early stage innovators, I’m talking about myself – the model I’ve implemented since 2009 and continue to bring with me into cities, communities, and neighborhoods. These aren’t new ideas – they aren’t necessarily original – it’s a reflection of what I already have done.
I went through some difficult times in the last two decades, and still deal with adversity daily. I think more people do than we are led to believe. It matters to just keep showing up.
What gets me through the day is knowing if I keep doing the right thing, eventually, the tides turn.
If you face adversity, I want to remind you of those brief moments of relief when you get to say to yourself, “Oh my gosh, it’s over! I can’t believe I just went through that!”
As we gasp deep breaths from the butterflies in our stomach we prepare for the next adventure.