Feel Your Way to Freedom: Growing Up Fatherless, Becoming a Father, and Winning a Super Bowl Along the Way

Aaron Taylor

August 5, 2022
“Never rob a man of his pain or his gold because both will serve him equally well.” Super Bowl champion Aaron Taylor reflects on a journey to emotional freedom that continues far beyond his accomplished career in the NFL. For every feeling he'd been pushing away, Aaron came to find that “on the other side is infinite possibility.”

pisode intro:

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we do. It’s about who and what we become in that process.

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I’m Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson.

Welcome to the show, everybody. Today I am really excited about our guest. Today’s guest is Aaron Taylor. Aaron played professional football as an offensive guard for the Green Bay Packers and the San Diego Chargers, playing in two Superbowls and one of them they won. He is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and is now a speaker on teamwork and performance, and there are a bunch of other things I saw on Wikipedia about you. There is a teamwork award you founded. I am also familiar with that you work with the Mankind Project, and you do a lot of other work in self development and personal development. Anything you would like to add?

Aaron: I won the spelling bee in 4th grade. That’s often overlooked but one of the crown jewels of my achievement catalog.

Brett: Wonderful. We’ve been talking a little bit over the past couple of years, just every now and again we have a catch up after having met. Last time we talked, about a week ago, when we were planning this podcast, you said a phrase about your journey that I really loved, which was feel your way to freedom. I couldn’t even think of a better way to describe even the work that it is that we do with this podcast and with our courses. I would love to just hear more about your story and how you learned this practice, whatever it is that you refer to when you say feel your way to freedom.

Aaron: I appreciate that, Brett. Just for the record, that is trademarked. In all seriousness, when I look back on my own life, everything that has gotten in the way that has been an inefficient way to create the outcomes I want has been my desire to not feel. Whether I use emotion, whether I use alcohol, whether I use money, power or control, all of those things were utilized by me to try to elicit something that I wanted, which often involved not feeling.

That was a phrase that came up organically with a buddy of mine who is a pretty esteemed coach in his own right and is teaching me how to ask the right questions and be a more in tuned listener. I think at the core of all of our journeys is this process of liberating ourselves from ourselves. Feeling my way to freedom to me is always the access, the portal to a brighter future if you will.

Brett: I can imagine that being very important on the field. If you are overthinking what you are doing, you are just not going to be there where the ball is going or where the players are moving. How did you learn this? Was this something you were just born with and you were like I got this, check it out people? I’m feeling my way to freedom.

Aaron: It was basically the only thing left. I tried all the other shit, and it just didn’t work. I very reluctantly started that journey, Brett. You bring up football, and that’s one of the interesting things. The locker room is a sacred place, but it’s not a safe place. Feelings weren’t welcome. You didn’t want to walk into the locker room and say hey guys, my self esteem is down today. My girlfriend broke up with me. At the core of my being, I don’t feel like I am matter or I am enough. Anybody want to talk about that? Those things didn’t tend to come up, so instead, I put on my helmet and my shoulder pads and put my mouthpiece in and tried to knock the clock off somebody. That’s the way I got to release a lot of my emotion.

I think for me and a lot of us, you work, and you play hard. Alcohol was my -ism of choice, and I took heart in those libations liberally. As it turns out, I was allergic. Every time I drank, I broke out in rashes of very bad judgment. I had to hang those cleats up about 20 years ago.

Again, this whole notion of doing this thing that I felt like I was born to do but feeling like a fraud the entire time. Somebody recently asked me when I felt most self-confident, and I am in the College Football Hall of Fame, I’ve won a Superbowl, I won the Lombardi in college as the most outstanding offensive lineman, but football, I never felt confident, ever.  In my marriage, no, not really. How about as a father? No. Employee at CBS? Ah. You know what? I feel confident in circle. I feel confident in circle, meaning when I am in spaces where I feel permission to be my authentic self.

One of the things I’ve learned about me is for me to feel safe, there has to be this kind of emotional game of you show me yours and I will show you mine, but I go first. What I am finding is when I can share and express who I am fully, there is nothing to hide. When there is nothing to hide, there’s nothing to hide. That’s why I feel confident and whole in that space, and that’s really what’s drawing me to this work that brought us here together on this podcast.

Joe: I coached a guy who was the CEO of this startup, and he played basketball for Princeton, I think it was, in college. He played college ball. I have another guy that I coach who was a track star. What I notice in that work is that there is this moment where it clicks where they have a body and an emotional intelligence they can access the same way they would access it on the court or on the field, and when they can access it that way, in business it is a superpower that gets unlocked for them. I’m wondering if that journey resonates with you at all in your experience. Was there that moment of understanding that there is a way you can access your body in the circle or on CBS in the same way you could in the field, and it allowed you to increase your capacity in that experience?

Aaron: That’s a great question, Joe. I’d love to answer that and say yes. Part of my truth is that I never was able to access my full emotional self while I played, and really in my career, which is going into year 15. In case my bosses are listening, I really love working at CBS sports because we are in the middle of a contract negotiation right now. I had this incredible moment last year that may underscore what it is you are talking about. I got a call from my boss indicating that somebody on our team had gotten COVID. The question was if I would be interested in calling my first ever NFL game, and I was like heck yeah. Are you kidding me?

I was so excited about the opportunity. I ran downstairs and told my wife. She screamed and gave me this big hug. This is the opportunity everybody in our business wants, and here it was in my lap. I was getting my shot. After being a little misty eyed, she said this is so great, baby. I looked, kissed my fingers, gave her the peace sign and said I will see you next Sunday, meaning I am about to go into the bunker, to study, to watch film, to call everybody I ever knew and to do the history of both of these teams going back to 1911. It was all of this research, and that's part of my makeup. I am over over-prepared guy, which creates anxiety.

This went on for a couple of days, and my wife in all of her infinite wisdom looks at me, raises her hand, and says are you open to some feedback. I thought oh damn. Every time she asks me that, I know. A fast ball of truth is about to be thrown over the plate. Then she hits me with the follow up of permission to speak freely. I thought damn, this is a biggy. I said yes.

She said I’m a little worried that you are so excited about this that you are going to squeeze it so tightly that you are going to fumble this opportunity. She said I would offer you this. Every time that you are nervous or want to do something or are thinking about how you are going to do X, Y, or Z, instead of thinking about what it is you want to do, think about how it is you want to feel after the event is over. I want you to close your eyes when the anxiety comes up and imagine putting your computer and your game board, which is what every announcer uses to call games. When you look over, what’s the look on your partner’s face when you guys high five? What’s the last thing the producer says as you take your headset off and go down underneath the stadium to the TV trucks? Who is texting you? What are they saying? As you go to bed and put your head on the pillow, what’s the predominant feeling? Is it pride? Is it relief? Is it gratitude? Play it all the way out.

Fellows, you want to talk about a superpower. That was the best game I’ve ever called on the biggest stage in my biggest moment. I’m in the College Football Hall of Fame. I’ve been on TV for 14 years, but that was the only time I never had performance anxiety and wasn’t worried about what I was going to do because I shifted my focus from what I feared to what I wanted to feel. When we talk about feeling your way to freedom, that’s another way it can look. It led not only to the best game I’ve ever called, it is the best season I’ve ever had in television.

Joe: The amazing thing is even in your wife’s description of it, she said don’t squeeze it too lightly. She described it to you in physical terms. She said you might fumble. When you were describing your wife’s words to me, I thought I could feel that in my body. She was talking to your body. That’s pretty cool.

Aaron: She is a pretty accomplished athlete in her own right, a two-time Olympian in beach volleyball. I am that smart that I can choose well. That’s the best spectator sport ever. I just want to throw that in there. She understands what being a good teammate is like. She understands what pressure feels like, being on the Olympic stage and growing up in Communist Bulgaria and having that being the only avenue, the only way out is through sports, and all the pressure she felt. I really appreciated that, and I talk about it a lot because it really was a defining moment in my life. I wish I had known that at 18.

One of the phrases somebody shared with me recently that just blew me away because it hit me right between the eyes was fear is a misuse of the imagination. The flipside of that is what I did. I focused on how I wanted to feel and the positive outcome, and to the brain, it didn’t know the difference. All of a sudden, it starts dropping dopamine, oxytocin and all of these feel-good chemicals.

My experience was different. How that translated on game day when it mattered was I wasn’t worried about the words I was going to say during the opening or how I was going to telestrate or who I wanted to put in my telestrator tool that I thought were going to be there that has this cool effect that I like. I didn’t get caught up in all that. I was present. To me, presence is the portal to a better outcome and reality. That’s what focusing on my feelings afterwards allowed me to do in the moment because there was no downside as far as I was aware.

Brett: It sounds like what was happening there was your fear was transmuting into excitement. You weren’t focusing on the things you were afraid of in a way that was stuck. The fears might be there, but you continued to intend towards what you wanted. I think there is a lot of freedom that happens when you reach this impartiality of being able to be in acceptance of all outcomes and continuing to intend in the direction that you want. With that maximum freedom in both of those directions, then you have full freedom to be authentically yourself and call the shots exactly as they are coming to mind, as you did.

Aaron: One of my best friends from my NFL days, this guy Roman Fort was my center here in San Diego with the Chargers. He was a Christian, a born again Christian, but he was a very approachable Christian. It wasn’t thrown in your face. It was a faith of attraction rather than promotion. He had little baby curses that he would throw in there, but he was a super funny storyteller. We were room dogs, which meant on the road we would room together the night before the game. Everybody would pair up, and since we played next to each other, we could talk strategy, but as you would expect, it often got a little deeper at times.

Let’s just say I wasn’t very Christian-like at 25, 26, 27 years old, but I was Christian curious. I was faith-curious because Roman had something that resonated with me. There was an underlying confidence and joy I think I saw in him that I didn’t necessarily feel myself. I asked him about it and how he could have such faith, and he said man, AT, imagine playing a football game that you know you are going to win no matter what, but the score at the end of the first half is 58 to nothing and you are losing. He said but you know for a fact that at the end of the game you somehow win. He said what’s your demeanor going to be like at halftime. Are you throwing your helmet? Are you super sullen? Are you excited, thinking holy shit, how are we going to pull this off? We win this deal. Oh my God, I can’t wait to see how this thing plays itself out. He said that’s what my faith is. He said for me I know I win the game at the end of the day, so I don’t ever care what the score is.

Brett: It reminds me of a thing I’ve heard Joe say before, which is when someone is stuck in a question or in a binary, what do I do, this or that, a question I’ve heard Joe ask is what you would do if you knew you would be happy either way. From that place, how do you actually approach your problems if you don’t make them responsible for your happiness, if you don’t make the outcome responsible for your joy.

Aaron: It’s challenging.

Joe: I have a question for you. I don’t know where you are, still Christian curious or that whole thing, but how does faith register with you now? The deeper part of that question for me is there are a lot of folks out there who believe that faith is something for the religious. My experience is that you can have a deep faith without being religious, and so I am wondering how faith interacts with your system now. What does that mean to you today? How has it grown since that time hearing that story in the hotel room?

Aaron: I’ll answer that question with another story that I heard in the rooms of recovery about a guy going to the circus. He looks up and sees the guy on the high wire. He sees them up there, and he is walking across. He has got the big stick and he makes it across. He believes he is going to be able to make it because this is a traveling circus, and if it was really that dangerous, they probably wouldn’t let him do it because they would have to keep going through these guys.

But then the guy comes out with a wheelbarrow. He has got sacks of sand and he is pushing this thing across. It is a little bit more hairy, but the guy still believes, in the audience, that this high wire walker is going to be able to make it from one end to the other. He said faith, though, is getting out of the stands, climbing up the ladder and getting inside the wheelbarrow, and that’s a whole lot easier to talk about than it is to do.

I want to think my faith is strong, but when push comes to serve, I want to sit in the stands, and I want a big ass net. I try to create certainty. That’s literally at the core of what my dance is through life is to figure out, to take those leaps of faith. When I look back on everything that’s been good in my life, it is when I was willing to go where I was afraid or unwilling prior to. That’s where the goal in our lives lies. That’s one of my anchor statements is the goal in our lives lies just beyond where we are afraid or unwilling to go. It’s those leaps of faith, and when I have done that, poof, they disappear.

Your question of what I would do if I was happy, and it worked out either way removes that element of fear. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? I would probably do this. Then, go do that. Wait! We talk ourselves out of the richness of life’s possibilities when we let fear into the picture, but that’s the game. It’s the game I believe for all of us in our own ways, with our own actors, our own sets, our own time periods, our own wardrobes. It all looks different, but it is all the same deal.

Joe: That leads me to a second question. There are moments where I’ve done that, gotten in the wheelbarrow and fallen, only to find out that the destruction that happens is a destruction of a part of myself that can be destroyed, leaving with me with the part of myself that can’t be destroyed, meaning maybe it hurts, maybe it sucks for a good long while, but at the end of the day I’m refined. Purified is not the right word but refined. There is a part of me that wasn’t real that’s lost.

I’m wondering if you have a story like that where you have faith. The idea was going to go one way. It went disastrously wrong, but at the end of the day, you are better for it. The faith still was a good bet even though there was a bump or two on the way.

Aaron: Yeah, man. That false self, I’ve been going through this phase where the idea of myself. What’s that phrase? Narcissists don’t fall in love with themselves. They fall in love with the idea of themselves.

Joe: I love that one. That’s good.

Aaron: The idea of myself has been meeting my actual self on a profound level over the last couple weeks, and it is not going so well. It is like a blind date from hell in certain respects. I think part of my origin story is parents divorced at two and I got sent back to Indiana to live with my father and his family. While there, an older, adult male family member molested me. There was some physical abuse that took place. I came back to California. My dad was supposed to show up one day and didn’t. That’s the wounding that happened to me early on. Then we moved every two years, so I was always the new kid in school. Just for shits and giggles, I am biracial so I never felt white enough, never felt black enough, always felt too black, too white and never really knew where I fit in.

But dad was the critical piece for me. I used to fantasize about whether or not if he was around, he could teach me to fight, to make bird houses, to use power tools and do all of the dad stuff, like fish. I had this picture of him working on a door that got sent at some point when I was seven or eight. I think that’s where a lot of that stuff comes from.

After that day at eight when I sat on the couch from 8 am to midnight waiting for him to come, my mom knew right away he wasn’t coming but I refused to move. That’s part of when my light went out. Through the rational mind of an 8-year-old, I must not be good enough to love. I must not matter. I must not be good enough to show up on time for, boom, and go to sleep. That’s a story I’ve been trying to unwind.

Fast forward many, many years and probably a story that could be a podcast in and of itself, I got reconnected with my father. The moment I will never forget is him sitting with his new wife on his couch in tears in my living room, me sitting on the other couch, across from him, next to my wife with me in tears. Both of us crying about the fact of how hard it was to grow up without a healthy father, that’s how we connected. We resonated with our shared experience in that moment, and what I learned very shortly thereafter is how freaking lucky I was that he wasn’t around.

He was admittedly in his own words a disaster at that time. When I wanted him to be there, my life would be so different if just my dad would there, and it felt like I fell out of the wheelbarrow and part of my died, but what I learned in that moment, Joe, was that thank God God didn’t give me what I wanted because I would have been selling myself short. God doesn’t do things to us. He does them for us. He was actually protecting me. It is like the old footprints over people’s toilets in their bathrooms, that old poem about when the adversity hits, there is only one set of footprints. How could you abandon me? Obviously, Jesus or God says that’s when I carried you. Those were my footprints.

That’s what my relationship with faith is. When I get what I want, I am selling myself short. It has been the adversity. It has been the strife. It has been the challenge. It has been the loss where I have grown the most, and on the other side of that is this almost infinite amount of possibility. That’s why I am drawn to the things I am afraid to do because I kind of know that behind there, there are some riches that are just waiting to be unearthed. Then my kids don’t brush their teeth, and then I get all pissed off and throw that shit out the window.

Brett: Back in my day, I didn’t have a father to tell me to brush my teeth.

Aaron: Check this out. Let’s bring this full circle because that’s a really good point. I know you are saying it in jest. They are really accomplished water polo players. They are 13 and 12, each individually good. They are yin and yang. One is really good offensively, and one is really good defensively. They are balancing out their skill sets. They have gotten an incredible coach. The parents are great. It is like a case study in youth sports, and it crushes me that they don’t listen to all of the Ted Talks on success, resilience, teamwork, and the win one for the Gipper speeches I try to firehose them with. I didn’t have a dad, and you guys don’t listen. I get paid to talk, and you guys don’t want to listen to me.

The reality is you don’t know what is going to work and what’s going to be there, and I have to laugh at myself in those moments because it is like what are you doing, dude. They are perfect. My mom didn’t even play hopscotch, let alone play sports, and I got exactly what I needed at the right time in the right way. How about just listening, accepting, admiring and cheering your kids on and stop trying to be what you wished you had when you were freaking 13?

Brett: Bravo.

Aaron: I’ll let you know how that goes. To be continued.

Brett: We are going to do an update podcast in six months, six to ten years maybe.

Aaron: A work in progress.

Brett: How did you end up going from the life you started with, not having your father, having the abuse? Having had this moment where you learned, you believe, you took on this belief that you just weren’t worthy, and then found yourself winning Super Bowls and feeling your way to freedom, what was that path between then and now that opened you up to this?

Aaron: I’d say equal parts serendipity, divine intervention and hard work. I got kicked out of the house at 14 because I was a D and F student. My mom who was a pediatric ICU nurse at Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

Joe: Hold on second. What years was your mom a nurse?

Aaron: From ’72 to probably ’83 or ’84.

Joe: My mom worked at Children’s Hospital in Oakland from ’82 to ’86 or ’87.

Aaron: We will have to do a little research and put it in the show notes about whether there was crossover or not. I spent a lot of afternoons there.

Joe: It was a horrible neighborhood back then. I remember that. My mom did the dietetics part of the hospital. Sorry, Oakland.

Aaron: Small world getting smaller. That’s a heck of a coincidence there. She was out of answers and kicked me out. I spent a week sleeping on my buddy’s floor, using his socks and underwear as a pillow. I thought this probably isn’t a good long-term strategy, so unbeknownst to me, my mom was talking to his mom every day and getting updates. Do you want to come back home and have a chat? Of course, I said yes. She basically walked me back from what it is I wanted to do. I said I want to play pro football. She asked how I could do that. I said you just play in college and get drafted. Oh, you just get drafted. Does everybody get drafted? No, just the better guys. When I was in college, you had to have good grades. Do you have to have good grades to play football? I said yes, you have to have a 2.0 at least.

I got college. How do you get there? You have got to play high school football and they just give you a scholarship. Oh, they just give you a scholarship. She was walking me all the way back. The punch line was every time you smoke weed or cut school or fail a class, what you are really saying is you don’t want to be a pro football player. I don’t even really know I wanted to be a pro football player. I just kind of blurted out, but what I did get in that moment was the connection between my choices, actions and consequences. Who and what I wanted to become was being directly impacted by my actions in the moment. I had never really pieced that together.

Once I named that out loud, that’s when the invisible doors started opening. The divinity and serendipity came in. There was a show on that night that talked about the School de la Salle in the East Bay that had this 44-game win streak, and the coach was talking about how his players aren’t it. They are part of it. There is this higher standard. I said to my mom that that was the sort of place I would like to go. Within the course of two weeks, somebody comes into work, and they have got a house to rent right down the street from the school. She gets a job offer that pays her almost twice as much money, so she is able to leave Children’s Hospital in that moment and move to Concord. The rest was history.

There are some really good moments in there where I came up against that fear and came to the Y in the road, but it was that over and over and over. The harder I worked, the better I got. Everybody worked hard, but they got an inch better and I got a foot better. That was the God given genetics I had, which is really odd because neither of my parents had any sort of athleticism whatsoever. That was the story, and that led to a full scholarship at Notre Dame and getting drafted in the first round in Green Bay.

I think for me growing up without a dad what my driver was was good job, good play, good read, good recovery, good boy. These older adult male role models as my coaches started to serve unbeknownst to them and to me the role of my father. They gave me the wisdom, the pats on the butt, the kicks in the ass, sometimes both at the same time. I was drawn to that, but I was also a people pleaser and a coach pleaser, so that drove me to work hard and to grind. I think the combination of serendipity, divinity and hard work led to a pretty good football career.

Joe: It’s interesting. Something that just clicked for me was you were saying earlier on about having that full sense of confidence in football, at CBS or with your marriage, and it seems like what you just said really illuminates that in the fact that probably in circles the only time it is not about somebody’s else patting you on the butt. It is not about somebody else telling you that you did a good job, which also to me relates to what you were saying about your kids. For me, the whole thing about being a parent of teenagers is to have them learn to hear their own voice of good job and to allow them to listen to themselves in their truth and have that move them instead of my good job or my bad job, whatever it is that I want to criticize or not criticize. That’s the thing that you have in the circle is that it is just your truth that you are dealing with, and you are not looking for anybody’s approval in those rooms.

Aaron: I appreciate that, Joe. Just last night, my kids are 13 and 12 and still want me to come in and read and just sit and talk. We do that. They will be 33 and I will do it if they keep asking me. I don’t give a dang. But I started another Ted Talk last night, and it was about details being the difference. I am trying to teach you the skills to be disciplined about the things that don’t matter to you so that when it comes to the things that do, it becomes automatic. I know you don’t care about making your bed and brushing your teeth, but you do care about water polo and your friends. I try to make those connections.

I just stopped because he gave me the huh huh, yeah, okay, and that’s his all right, dad, time out, I’ve had enough. I just stopped and I said being a dad is hard, buddy. I really struggle with knowing how much to give you and to try to motivate you, and to just love on you for the amazing kid that you are no matter what you do. I’ve written my sport’s story. I could give a shit if you do anything successful in sports, and I mean that wholeheartedly, but I know it is important to you, so I want to give you all these things. That’s a very gray area for me, and I don’t think I walk it really well sometimes. I wanted to acknowledge that out loud and say you can tell me what it is you need because what’s more important to me is that you have what you need and I support you in the way that serves you, not me. He said okay. Even when we lose as fathers, we win, I guess. It’s a really good point.

Joe: That story is not over. I guarantee you that story is not over. There will be a moment when that comes back, and you will find out he was listening and that it hit him and all he could say was okay. If we ever have another podcast, I will have to follow up. What happened there?

Aaron: You will have him on, and he will give you the real skinny about his dad.

Brett: My moment of transformation…

Aaron: Transformation, let me tell you about who my dad really is.

Brett: A lot of what tends to drive us to excellence is often like you described, people pleasing and wanting to be something because that’s what is going to get us love or affirmation from the outside. Then on our journey, we find we never needed the outside affirmation. It was actually just our own that we needed. Then you have kids and you think what worked for me, and then you have got to go back and correct. What worked for me, while it drove me, it also became a trap that I put myself in that I needed to find freedom from. What do I actually do now for my kids because what worked for me isn't necessarily the thing I want to bring them through as well?

Aaron: Yeah, and these poor dudes are growing up in a world we didn’t grow up in. The amount of pressure and the freaking meat grinder of the last three years, it is ongoing. Social media. We live in a broadcast world. Everything is coming at us, very little in between us. The interpersonal communication, learning to talk with our tongues and our mouths instead of our thumbs, that’s something this generation doesn’t have much experience with.

I got a brutal look into that with one of my sons who had gotten into a little bit of trouble at school. He was going to miss practice, and I made him pick the phone up to call his coach to tell him he wasn’t going to be at practice, why and what the expected consequence was going to be. He started to text, and I said no, you pick the phone, call him and tell him what it is you did. What do I say? You tell him what you just told me. But what words? I said what do you mean, what words? Do you need a script? He slowly nodded his head yeah.

I see you nodding your head. That was the moment where I thought he does not know how to use the phone and call to talk to somebody and certainly about hard things. I don’t know if I would have known how to do that at 12 or 13, but I had to call up Abdul’s parents to see if Abdul was there so he could spend the night. We had to do that, but these kids aren’t growing up with that. I’m worried about the wrong stuff. I’ve got to work on his communication skills and all of these basic things that you sometimes overlook.

With my national team water polo playing son that’s all As and Bs and I am worried about this stuff over here and there are these basic necessities these children need that is our job and responsibility to provide because the world they are growing up in is not easy. It is very different from the one we were in, and I don’t know how we are doing. I don’t know how you ever know what you are doing, but you do the best you can. I do honor their walk and the difficulty of the environment they are coming up in because stuff is coming at them fast.  Damn, silence. I love it.

Brett: I’m here trying to relate. I don’t have any kids. I’m still trying to raise myself. The world just keeps changing every minute. I can’t even imagine trying to unfilter this world for a child right now, but I see people do it.

Joe: My eldest found herself naturally gravitating towards meditation when she was younger, and she asked if she could do a silent retreat with me. I said yes but then nobody would take a nine-year-old for a silent meditation in this country, but we found a place and did this three-day thing. She was so happy at the end of it, and it was so her scene. About three months later, I asked her what she thought about meditation. She said I really like it, but I can’t do that again for a while. I asked her why not. She said it made her too different than my peers. I can’t relate to them, and I need to be able to relate to them to manage. She didn’t say it like that, but that was the deal.

Recently she has been interested in going back into that world again, but it was this interesting thing of teenagers and all of us on some level are negotiating our own development and the environment we are given. It is more important to your son to learn how to text and be able to get that skill than make the phone at this part of his life. It is a fascinating thing, parenting.

Aaron: It has been the toughest and most rewarding job I’ve ever done. Playing football was a layup compared to this. Good lord.

Joe: I’ve got to tell you this story. At the end of the silent retreat, I looked at my daughter and asked what her favorite thing about it was. She said it was the fact that you couldn’t tell me what to do for three and a half days.

Brett: Wait! You didn’t install a voice in her head.

Joe: I thought yeah, fair. Fair enough.

Aaron: I will say this, Joe. That, to me, is a little peek into the job that you are doing as a parent because she felt empowered and had the capacity to share her truth about what she felt with this big meaningful person in her life. If she could do that with you, she will be able to do that with boyfriends, bosses and her community. Again, sometimes when we lose, we win as fathers.

Joe: We laughed. Absolutely. Thank you for seeing that.

Aaron: I want to flip this a little bit. The Art of Accomplishment. Somebody asked me recently about my definition of success, and I didn’t really know if I had one. My question to both of you is what’s the relationship and the context from which this podcast arose between accomplishment and success.

Brett: A thing that comes up for me is if you live your life as art and not as something to get right or wrong and high pressure, then what do you end up accomplishing? Then, accomplishing being what is actually authentic for you, what is most enjoyable for you, what is most truly what you do in this world and how you express yourself. I see that being somewhat different from a lot of framings of success or accomplishment. I like having that twist on it.

Joe: For me, success is a criterion of accomplishment, meaning that if we are going to accomplish something that at the end of the day, at the end of our life we think that feels good and are proud of that thing. It is not going to be dollars in the bank account or number of cars or anything like that though that might be part of it. It could be. What it is going to be is something that is something that was deeply aligned with you. It was how you did it as much as what you did. Success isn’t the end. I think a lot of people think success is the end goal. To me success is just something that has to be met to get to a place of accomplishment. The how is more important than the what.

Aaron: Yeah. It is interesting. Starting first with you, Brett, and bringing art into it, there is a quote somebody shared once that I loved that I am wondering if it applies here. I feel like it does. There is no good or bad art. There is art you like and art you don’t like. Art is in the eye of the beholder, that whole vein of thinking.

With respect to what you shared, Joe, I created a website called Mental Health Best Practices. It is an agnostic aggregation of all these things I’ve used that have helped me on my own journey around my special sort of special. There is a quote on there that I am going to butcher my own quote. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we do. It is about who and what we become in that process. As I am in the College Football Hall of Fame and have a Superbowl ring, I am a father, an employer and have all these accolades on Wikipedia…

Joe: Don’t forget the spelling bee.

Aaron: Minus the fourth-grade spelling bee.

Brett: I’ll make that edit on Wikipedia for you.

Aaron: None of that stuff matters. We have a story about what that moment was like when you got that. I am 49, so I am probably on the back nine or at least around second base. The first part of my life was about being, doing, having, becoming, getting, and amassing, and around second base or approaching the T box, if you will, on the back nine, my life is really becoming about what it is I can allow. That assumption is everything I need for these last nine holes is already there. The key is for me to get out of the way. I don’t have to make it. I just have to allow it, to get out of the way and allow what’s already there to come up. That’s a very different but very important distinction on how I am approaching life now at this age that was very different from an era that was contrary but also led to a lot of accomplishment. That’s why I am interested in this framing and how we think about it.

Joe: I am curious about something. My guess is if I was to meet your sons, they are already far more towards the way you are looking at life on the back nine than you were even six or seven years ago. Do you know what I am saying? To some degree, your kids are already allowing it to come to them. They are doing the work, but their attitude and perspective isn’t I have to prove myself as much as it is I’m letting this come to me. This is me being me and this is what happens when I am me. My question is: How much of that lesson because you learnt it your kids inherit?

Aaron: Some. I guess we could probably measure by the amount of flicker when their eyes roll into the back of their heads when I talk to them about this stuff. They have certainly heard it. I’ve certainly modeled how to make amends perfectly. They have got that down. They are pretty driven right now, which is interesting.

Joe: Is that not true for you though? I don’t see an unambitious, undriven man.

Aaron: No.

Joe: When I heard your approach on the back nine, I didn’t hear that you had lost your ambition.

Aaron: You have got to let go to take control. You have got to hit your knees to finally stand up. It is this oxymoronical that we are talking about.

Joe: That’s my question. I am going to push here just a little bit. Isn’t that what your kids already kind of get?

Aaron: I’m sure hoping so, buddy. That’s the goal. I think that’s why I am pushing so hard and trying to insert my viewpoint so they don’t, in air quotes, make the same mistakes I made and can advance the story from a much earlier age. I’ve got to value their walk. Never rob a man of his pain or his gold because both serve him equally well. At 14 years old, my mom wasn’t saying that’s my boy. He is on his way. D and F student, look at him. But I was on my way, and that was a critical and necessary part. Again, maybe with my 13- and 12-year-old who are really accomplished in what it is they do and both very good students I don’t have to worry about them quite as much as my mom worried about me and just do the best I can, trust the process and let them find their own way down the mountain.

I love to snowboard, and I love to bomb it. My wife goes really slowly. I used to get really frustrated with her. We figured let’s ride up together. I’m going to bomb it, and I am going to bomb it again. I’m going to meet you and then we are going to ride up together. Let her take her own way, pick her own line down the mountain and don’t try to make her do what I want to do because that’s the way I do it. Respect her journey.

I’ll share this story with you guys. One of the defining moments of my life was at 15, moved to Concord, entered de la Salle, mom switched jobs, she quit her job of 20 years. We found a new house. There was a ton of change, and she was really, really supportive in this process that started to unfold that involved me playing football at de la Salle high school that had that long win streak.

Joe: Did you play at the Oakland Coliseum for the finals?

Aaron: NCS, yeap, against Granada.

Joe: Granada was my high school.

Aaron: No way. Thanks guys. I appreciate you.

Joe: The amazing thing is they all went there oh yeah, and we are going to lose. You guys were the best back then.

Aaron: Oh man, we certainly were. I called it right. All of that was really close to never becoming because I had worked out in the summer, and we had gotten ready. It was day one of full pads and practice. I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast. My mom drops me off. I get dropped off by somebody else’s parents at the end of the day. My mom walked into the house. Hey honey, how did it go? I don’t say a word and I slam the door, into my room. She waited probably 10 minutes. I am sobbing, sobbing, sobbing. She walks in and asks what happened. I said everything happened. Nothing happened. I couldn’t do anything right. The play was going left, and I was going right. The player was going right, and I went left. They just kept yelling at me and telling me I couldn’t do it. I need to break bad habits, and we don’t do things like this here. Mom, I am so sorry we moved here. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. She just let me go on and on. I was so broken, so defeated and so scared.

After I got down, I looked up at her. She said you have got to figure out if what you want is worth the price you may have to pay to get it. She said it doesn’t matter to me whether or not you play football, but tomorrow morning I’ll have breakfast ready for you. If you get up, I will know the decision you made. If you sleep in, I will also know the decision you made, but either way, I won’t say a word to you. She shut the door. There I was sitting on the edge of the bed sobbing, in tears with this internal angst of what I was going to do, how I could go back. There is no way I could endure what I had just endured the previous day again.

But somehow, somehow I got up and I went back to practice. I got my ass chewed again, but I made a block or two. I went back the next day, got my ass chewed again, but I made a couple more blocks and then I made a couple more blocks and a couple more. As it turned out, I was pretty damned good at football. I just didn’t know it yet. I think about that moment, and every time I tell this story, I get emotional because everything that came after that was so close to never becoming.

I don’t know what it was in me that got me up that next morning, but that resilience, that gift that my higher power has given me, somehow, some way, that no matter what, just find a way to show up, to get back up, to go to the huddle, to get the play, to break it, to walk to the line of scrimmage, to put your hand in the hurt, and to give it your all. That’s been something that’s been given to me. It is one of my superpowers, and that was a time it was tested. I think about Notre Dame and the friendships there, the surrogate mom that I met there. Green Bay, the Superbowl, the financial freedom that’s allowed me to do what I do for a living now to enjoy more freedom, talking about sports on television, meeting my wife, my children, all of that, poof, disappears. That’s why I firmly believe that the goal in our life lies just behind where we are afraid and unwilling to go, and that was the most impactful and meaningful way that I ever experienced that. Everything that has happened since has been an incredible, incredible gift.

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