Ask a five-year-old what they want to be when they grow up and their answers are limitless and untethered. Ask a forty-year-old what they want to be when they grow up and you’re likely to hear a far more constricted answer. As Theroux puts it, perhaps even a note of quiet desperation.
Welcome to Author Hour. Today, I’m talking to Curt Mercadante, author of Five Pillars of the Freedom Lifestyle: How to Escape Your Comfort Zone of Misery. In this episode, Curt reminds listeners that their lives are something they can build to look how they want them to and he provides some practical steps for beginning to make this life a reality.
Spoiler alert, this practical advice doesn’t include “quit your job tomorrow.” Curt talks about how we can make immediate and everyday changes that can help lead us toward breaking away from apathy and conformity, and toward living a life that fulfills our unique purpose. Most of all, Curt reminds us that it’s never too late to start asking ourselves what we want to be when we grow up and it’s never too late to start doing exactly that.
Nikki Van Noy: Curt, tell me what led you to the mission of saving the world by helping people fight for their lives of freedom and fulfillment?
Curt Mercandante: I was kind of an only child, I had half brothers and sisters, and my parents both were married before, and the closest in age to me was nine years older than me. I have a brother who is twenty-plus years older than me. I was kind of raised as an only child, and I did a lot of self-play, a lot of superhero play, and watched a lot of movies, those types of things.
At the same time, my dad was a real-life superhero. To me, but I think in general, he was like a real-life Tony Stark. He worked on the space program designing fighter jets, and he led the team that designed all the electronic switches on the Boeing 777.
I had this feeling from a young age that I was supposed to save the world. That feeling was always with me, but like a lot of us, when you’re young, people ask you on a regular basis, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My eight-year-old son recently said, “I want to be a movie director and a spy.”
You kind of laugh, but it’s that sense of wonder and excitement that kids have. Often, we lose that sense somewhere along the way, and we stop asking ourselves what we want to be when we grow up. We stop asking other people, and other people stop asking us that question. I had stopped asking myself that question. In high school, I wanted to save the world, I wanted to be in politics, and then I drifted into public relations and advertising.
I started a successful agency, and I scaled it for over thirteen years. About five years into it, I was having some productivity problems, and I fixed those, and I became free. But my dad, my hero, passed away in 2012, and we were at his wake and there were these grown men in tears. All the things that I mentioned about my dad’s incredible career and not one person mentioned his career. It was about what kind of husband he was, father, volunteer in the community, reading audiobooks for the blind, volunteering at our church, he was president of the local University of the Notre Dame club.
It dawned on me, here was my hero, my mentor, my superhero, and he had set this example for me that I was not following. I was putting everything into the agency, we were making a ton of money. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do, I was a paycheck provider, I was the man, I was the breadwinner. I was having anxiety attacks–I had been on, for a long time, a number of prescription drugs to help with cholesterol and anxiety and I was probably about 45 pounds heavier than I am now.
I felt guilty that I wanted something different because I was taught, not necessarily by my parents–they weren’t like this, but by society, by teachers, by bosses. This is what you do. You sacrifice, you put your head down, who cares about how miserable you are, you’re cashing that paycheck, that’s what you have to do.
When my father passed away and there was that example that was there, I said that’s it. I have freedom in terms of financial freedom, and in terms of productivity, but I didn’t have fulfillment. That started a journey that led to a couple of years ago when it was a Thanksgiving week, it was that Tuesday morning, and it was my week off. I had clients that felt that they owned me, and I had let them own me. They were calling me. “Hop on this conference call, this is email, can you get us that report?” even though it was my week off.
I woke up one morning and I said, “That’s it.” I went to my wife, I said, “Honey, I’m shutting it down. I can’t do it anymore.” She looked at me and said, “It’s about time.” I had been coaching for a while and in my mind, I had a four-year plan to ramp down my agency and ramp up coaching. If I had just kept it at that four-year plan, four years would have turned into eight years, would have turned into twelve years–it’s that comfort zone of misery. “I’m making money, I can do this for a while regardless of the anxiety attacks, the mental, physical health. I can put up with it a while because I can tough it out.”
I decided enough was enough. So that four-year plan turned into a four-week plan, and I began coaching, speaking, and training full-time. The reason I do what I do is because I want to help folks who are going through the same thing that I went through so that it doesn’t take them eight to ten, or fifteen years to break out of that comfort zone of misery–to help them build a runway, so they don’t have to do what I did, which was jump in the ocean without a life preserver. There are benefits to that, but you don’t have to do that.
Nikki Van Noy: You know Curt, what really strikes me about you, and I spend a lot of time listening to people, and you have this note of legitimate happiness in your voice that I hear very rarely.
Curt Mercandante: I appreciate that. In my book, I quote Thomas Heath who is a local personal branding coach here in Charleston. Last year, I said, “How are you doing Thomas?” We co-hosted an event, and we’re on a photo shoot and I said, “How are you doing?” He said, “You know what? I’m fulfilled. I’m not very happy right now but I’m fulfilled.” And he was in a sad state because his mother was in ill health, and she ended up passing not long after that.
There were some other things going on in his life and he said, “I can be happy and fulfilled, I can be sad and fulfilled.” What I like to caution people is that happiness shouldn’t be the goal. Fulfillment should be the goal. There were those years when I was unfulfilled. When I was with my wife, my kids, certainly, I felt happy. Now that I’m fulfilled, certainly there are times when stuff happens, people die, people get sick, and there are times when I’m sad. But if you’re fulfilled, it means you have that meaning in your life. That when life hits you across the face with a 2×4, it hurts, and it sucks, but at least you’re fulfilled. You keep moving forward and the sting of getting hit goes away a lot quicker than if you’re unfulfilled.
The Comfort Zone of Misery
Nikki Van Noy: I can’t help but notice some of the language you use that is jarring. You use the words that we have to fight for living lives of freedom and fulfillment, and you talk about the comfort zone of misery.
Can you talk to me about how we get in that position as human beings, where this becomes our norm?
Curt Mercandante: If you look at the threats that we know are coming or threats that may come in the future, I think the two greatest threats to humanity are apathy and conformity. It starts when we’re young, we come out of the womb with a sense of wonder and excitement. Somewhere that gets squeezed out. You have kindergartens now canceling theater programs because they’re not college and career ready enough.
You have kids now that are so overly structured. We used to have a lot more free play when we were kids. We would go out and play dodge ball. Now dodge ball is banned because it’s too violent and someone might get hurt, and you know, litigation concerns. My kids got chased down from climbing trees in a city park. Everything has to be structured.
It has to be the school football team, it has to be about extracurricular activities because those extracurricular activities will help you get into college and my goodness, that’s the end-all, be-all. Dr. Peter Grey writes about this, that there’s an increase in anxiety and a loss of sense of control amongst seventeen and eighteen-year-olds.
From ages four through eighteen, they never have to make a decision, they never have to make a choice, their parents are going to drive them to this practice, you have to do this practice because it’s all about college. They get to seventeen or eighteen and it’s like “All right, now make the biggest decision of your life, what’s your college major, because that’s the most important thing for the rest of your life,” and they freeze, they can’t do it.
What do they do? “Why did you choose to major in finance?” “Because dad said that’s what’s going to get me a good job.” Now, I work with a lot of people who hit forty or forty-five, and they’re like, “This sucks. I hate finance, I never wanted to do this.” Again, it goes back to that question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And we get on this treadmill when we’re age four, that everything is planned out for us. We stop having to think for ourselves, we have a school system now where it’s basically sit down, shut up, memorize, standardize, and if you don’t do that, we’re going to put you in the corner, we’re going to label you with some sort of disorder, we are probably going to recommend drugs for you.
Thomas Edison, when he was eight-years-old, his teacher said, “Well, he’s got an adult brain, there’s something wrong with him,” and his mom said, “Nope.” She took him out and she home-schooled him, and the rest is history. Now, we would have drugged Thomas Edison. I think this leads to conformity, apathy, and standardization. It starts when we’re young, it starts in the schooling system. It bleeds over into parents letting that schooling system raise their kids, it’s all about getting into college, and it’s all about that conformity. On my podcast, I interviewed Anthony Iannarino, who is a sales guru, sales expert, and multi-bestselling author. He called it The Drift.
It’s like you’re drifting along and it’s comfortable, you may be cashing that paycheck, and you feel guilty if you even want to think about something being wrong. By the time you realize it, you’re 700 miles offshore. It’s been this slow drip. I call it the comfort zone of misery. Henry David Theroux said that the mass of men–now, he said “men,” but it applies to women as well– “Lead lives of quiet desperation.”
I think that the quiet nature of it is more dangerous than loud desperation. Because it’s quiet, so we can kind of tune it out. We can tune it out and say, “Well, I’m making good money, we’ll go on vacation, I’ll forget all about it. I hate my commute, I hate my job, I’m not fulfilled. But you know what? I’m comfortable right now.” It becomes that comfort zone.
You might be miserable, but when it becomes so loud that you have to deal with it as it did for me, you get back into a corner, and it is fight or flight. I fought back and then I dove into the ocean. But when it’s quiet, when it’s that comfort zone of misery, you can go on for years, for decades, and a lot of people go on ‘till they’re sixty-five or seventy.
Gratitude and Purpose
Nikki Van Noy: It’s terrifying. Quiet desperation is precisely the correct phrase for it because it seems like such a mundane thing that you can talk yourself out of on a day-to-day basis, and meanwhile, years are passing by.
Curt Mercandante: I talk about work-life balance in the book and one of the five pillars of the freedom lifestyle is alignment. A lot of people look at work-life balance and they say “Okay, well, I have this project, I’m going to put my head down on this project, and I’m going to ignore my relationships, my self-care, for the next two weeks and then when the project’s over, I’ll pull my head up, maybe I’ll come home early from work, and maybe I’ll go on a date,” whatever it is.
If that even happens, often that two weeks turns into a couple of months, which turns into a few years, which turns into what I call the sixty-five-year plan that so many people have, which is, “Well, if I can just make it to sixty-five, then I’m going to retire, then we’re going to enjoy life, we’re going to travel the world, and we’re going to do all these things.” And just in my family, stroke, heart attack, prostate cancer, a knee replacement, the list goes on, and all those plans that you had– you spent your entire life waiting instead of living. The key isn’t work-life balance. It’s alignment.
Right now, build the life that aligns the three facets of your life–relationships, self, and work in a way that works for you.
Nikki Van Noy: What are some of the most common excuses that you hear people give for why they can’t do this right now.
Curt Mercandante: You hear a lot about gratitude and the importance of gratitude. The problem is, way too many people bastardize that term and use gratitude as an excuse for guilt and stagnation. There’s a lot of, what I like to call, scarcity pimps. We either have an abundance mindset or a scarcity mindset. A scarcity mindset says there are not enough resources to go around, whether you want to talk economically and wealth in the world or you look at other people who are doing well and you say things like, “Must be nice, they must be privileged. They must have had it all handed to them.”
An abundance mindset says, “Hey, they’re doing pretty well, you know what? I’m going to do even better.” That gratitude can get in the way if we don’t take it in an abundance manner, as “I should just be happy with what I have.” This is how I felt, and this are a lot of people who come to me, this is what they feel.
You know, “I’m making good money, hell, my dad, and my grandpa worked in the coal mines, what do I have to feel guilty about?” I urge people, every morning, to pair gratitude with a sense of forward-looking purpose. First thing, ask yourself two questions when you wake up. The first question is, “What’s awesome about today?” That’s the gratitude. The second question is, “What will make today even more awesome?”
It’s a way of looking at the world. You may be used to waking up and thinking, “I have got that damn conference call, I got lunch meeting with that moron that I can’t stand at work. I have that commute.” Turn it around–what’s awesome about today? Start with the fact that you are above ground, instead of six feet under. Start with the fact that the sun is shining, the world didn’t end overnight, start with the fact that perhaps you’re waking up in bed next to someone you love, or you’re going to spend some time that day with someone you like or love.
Then look at what could make today even more awesome. Instead of telling yourself, “Well, that commute really sucks,” you could say, “All right, you know what? I’m going to use that two-hour commute to listen to a new podcast for some self-development.” Or you can tell yourself, “You know what can make today even more awesome? This is only the 20th time I’m ever going to do this commute because I’m committing right now to get into a new job, a new career, in a new industry.”
Pairing gratitude with a sense of forward-looking purpose helps you combat the scarcity pimps and cultivate an abundance mindset on a daily basis.
Nikki Van Noy: There is a place for gratitude, and it can be a superpower in life, but it does have to be balanced or we can be led into complacency.
Curt Mercandante: Yeah, I get a lot of push back when I bring this up. I do a lot of videos on LinkedIn, and in my podcast, and I talk a lot about helping people build the lives that they want. A part of that can be business success, and I talked about the fact that I built three successful businesses and the first two, they were successful financially, but I ended up hating them. I got out of them, and invariably, there’s always people who come forward with, “Well, you could at least acknowledge your privilege.”
I look at these folks and to a person, the people who are bringing this up are not impoverished people, they’re not in the inner city, they’re not in Africa, usually, they’re middle-aged white people. It’s interesting. I look at some of their content and in many cases, they’re angry because they haven’t done it themselves. So, they want to inflict the scarcity on other people, and a lot of people, it becomes a scarcity virus where they call it gratitude, but it’s something else.
They call it gratitude, but it’s that you should just be happy with what you have and that you shouldn’t want more. When I say more, they also confuse that with just money, to have money or vanity awards. No, the more is freedom and fulfillment, whatever that means for you. If that means moving to the mountains and living like a monk, fine. If that means building a business to impact in the world, that’s great too.
I used to make a lot more money than I did now. I love money, I’m a free-market capitalist, but I look at it a lot differently than I used to. I look at it as a tool to be able to travel with my family. I look at it as a tool to be able to reach more people and have an impact on the world.
You Can Do What You Love
Nikki Van Noy: I think that for a lot of people, especially people who are responsible for supporting a family or other people, the money part of it can start to feel like a trap. Do you have any words of advice for people who are really struggling with how to make a change, but know that they still have to provide X amount?
Curt Mercandante: Yeah, I think a lot of folks will come to me and they have good salaries, but they have allowed their expenses to rise to the level of their income. So, they’ve made lifestyle choices that keep them in a hole no matter what their income is. So, I ask them that question, “What is holding you back?” And they throw out a dollar amount, “$250,000.”
“Okay, so you need to make $250,000. How much do you want for your wife?”
“Yeah, you want $250,000 for your wife?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What is the bounty you are putting on your marriage?”
“Why do you say that?”
I say, “Well, you are making $250,000 now, your relationship sucks, your mental and your physical health sucks, and you don’t have a good relationship with your kids. So, you are making $250,000 now and that hasn’t made a difference in your life. You are going to lose your wife, you are going to lose your kids, and your health is poor.” They have this aha moment.
They start realizing that they’ve made lifestyle choices. Their freedom, that they thought they tied to their income, but in the end, they have given up their lives for that income. The amount of money you need to make to survive doesn’t have to hold you back. The amount of income you make is not in direct correlation to how free you are in the world. Again, this is coming from someone who is a free-market capitalist.
You can do what you love, and you can build a life of fulfillment. Heck, there is a guy out there I recently ran across who made a million dollars over six months teaching people to do handstands over the internet. So, if you think that you can’t turn what you love or what fulfills you into financial freedom, I will point you to that person.
Nikki Van Noy: Seriously, that’s amazing.
Curt Mercandante: Yes.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that. So, in your own work with people are there any stories that just really stand out in your mind as inspirational, or someone that you saw truly gets from this place of quiet desperation to a feeling of expansive freedom?
Curt Mercandante: A lot of people ask me, “Well, do I have to quit my job?” And they think maybe the problem is their job. I have a client who came to me and he had significant health problems. He was having some relationship problems, and he actually came to me for my personal branding course. I start from personal branding at a different place than many people start.
I start with, who are you, who fundamentally are you? And people usually answer, “Well I am VP of Sales,” When you came out of the womb, did you have a nametag on that said, “I’m Jim. I am the VP of Sales.” So, we start by asking who are you?
One of the five pillars of the freedom lifestyle is defining a clear life vision. Your vision statement that pairs your purpose for living with the impact you want to make in the world, and that is part of building a personal brand.
You can’t truly build an authentic personal brand if you don’t know who you are authentically. So, this particular client realized, “Wow, before I build my personal brand, I have no idea who the hell I am.” So, he started working with me. Fast forward and it’s even become more than that now. He lost about 100 pounds. He had a goal of dunking a basketball by age forty and did it. His relationships are great.
You know what? He is still in that same job because it turned out it wasn’t necessarily the job. It was the rest of his life where he was lacking fulfillment. That’s where I come back to alignment. He became what I like to call radically outcomes-focused, which is another pillar of the freedom lifestyle, where he started setting these goals. Man, he wanted to dunk that basketball, so he set those outcomes.
He reversed engineered them to get there. His marriage is excellent. His relationship with his kids is excellent. He’s actually carved out an entire pro-bono practice where he works, so he loves what he does for work. He came into alignment, and he’s becoming radically outcomes-focused. He is unleashing his superpowers every day. He has a clear life vision. He kept his job and he kept his income. He’s actually increased his income and now he’s fulfilled.
I love that because a lot of people are scared to talk to me because they think I am going to tell them to quit their job right away, and that is not what I do. Fulfillment doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to your current or your future job. It might, but you can live a life of fulfillment within your career, within your relationships, within where you live right now. It really depends on each and every person. It is different what works for them.
Nikki Van Noy: I am wondering if you have any advice with parents in terms of giving our kids more freedom to start to figure out what their superpowers are, what their purpose is, so that hopefully, they don’t get stuck in this comfort zone of misery that a lot of us have found ourselves in.
Curt Mercandante: That is a great question. You know my wife and I homeschool. We actually un-school our kids. We have chosen incredible freedom in self-directed education. Not everyone wants to homeschool or un-school or can afford to send their kids to private schools, or whatever. I think allowing your children to have more freedom to choose what they want, not reverse engineering an outcome, such as getting into college.
I think a lot of this is going to happen whether they like it or not because I think, financially, there is a bubble with higher education that’s going to pop and I think that it is going to make the economic recession of ’07-’08 look like a candy store. Financial institutions have their fingers in the student loan debt crisis. I think it is going to pop and it is going to affect things. But beyond that, the future of work is automation. I think if we keep training humans to be bots, or to compete with the bots, it ain’t going to happen.
The future of work in our world is going to be the folks who can reason, who can problem-solve, and folks who are creative. You look at the Avengers, when they fought the bots, Tony Stark was a smart guy but, in the end, he was a creative person. We’re going to need people who are going to know how to shut the switch off and be creative.
Let’s start asking, instead of making the end all be all–get a good job, reverse engineer, get into college, reverse engineer, extracurricular activities. Reverse engineer a life of meaning, what does that look like? Give your kids the freedom to help, to start directing where they go in life. You know, I am a Gallup certified strengths coach, when you talk about unleashing your superpowers. Gallup has its strengths discovery. Get into that for teens, it starts with ten years old.
We have done it with our kids. Look at what those strengths are. They are innate talents. You know poets don’t have to be math whizzes and math wizzes don’t have to be poets, and I think in this world, there is going to be a lot more specialization. That is not to say you can’t be well-rounded, but never stop asking your kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up? What excites you?” Let’s stop force-feeding them the round peg and the square hole and saying, “You have got to major in finance because that’s what it takes to get a good job.”
I think we are seeing the tail end of that and it just doesn’t work. I think it is leading to this loss of sense of control. I speak from a man’s point of view. There are a lot of men who were told that the key to life is to get a good job. Forty-five to fifty-four-year-old-men account for the most suicides in America right now, and number two, I think, is eighty-five-year-old men. Women suffer depression more, but they seek help. Men get stuck in this comfort zone of misery where they feel guilty about even admitting it.
They are living this life that they thought they were supposed to live and that was set out for them when they were ten-years-old. They get to forty-five-years-old and they say, “I can’t talk to anyone about it. I am not tough if I talk about it, and so I am just going to try to internalize it,” and it’s a major problem.
Nikki Van Noy: I’ve been thinking since we started talking, what a magical place the world would be if we didn’t lose that mindset of what we can be when we grow up.
Curt Mercandante: It would, and I really think that people need to start thinking for themselves and really plotting the life that they actually want to live, instead of feeling they have to live a life by default. They have to realize that it takes an abundance mindset. I work with some folks right now who are doing incredible things, and who still feel they can’t start their own business.
I have one client right now who lost 160 pounds. He is getting all of these followers on Instagram, and they are so motivated, and yet he’s like, “No one is going to like me. No one is going to pay me to do this business.” I said, “Just start charging them now. They will throw money at you.” He has limiting beliefs that go back to scarcity. Heck, he’s even got some people in his life and in his family, who are saying, “Well, you got that college degree for nothing? Because now you are going to help people get in shape?” Again, they’re those scarcity pimps and it is easy to infect our brains.
Nikki Van Noy: It sounds to me like in order to find this freedom there is a combination of a shift in mindset and a shift in practice. It’s two-tiered. Is that right?
Curt Mercandante: Absolutely. I have on my podcast episode tomorrow an economist that talks about everything in the world that is getting better. If you just watch the news or your Facebook feed, you’d think poverty was increasing. You’d think violence was increasing. It is not true. You’d think the environment was getting worse. In fact, everything over the past fifty years has been getting better.
Poverty is plummeting, and violence is plummeting. The environment is even getting better, and actually, everyone is getting wealthier. Some people might be getting wealthier quicker than others, but if you focus on everyone getting better, and if you focus on the world getting to be a better place, that is a key to improving your mindset on a daily basis. That is when you cultivate abundance. That is when you start to think, “Listen, life has smacked me around, maybe I am in a career for the past ten years I don’t like, but damn it, I can create whatever life I want because I am an autonomous human being.”
It is that mindset when you start to realize “Listen, money is not hard to renew, and money is renewable. Time is not renewable.” Yeah, we are all going to die. Some are going to die tomorrow–some may die later today. Ask yourself if you die in twenty minutes or in twenty years are you happy with how it all turned out? That is the mindset part.
The process part is summed up in the book, in the five pillars. Unleashing your superpowers, defining your clear vision, building, defining and living a life of alignment instead of balance, and becoming radically outcomes-focused. So, you reverse engineer that vision. Every year, every month, every week, every day you know those three outcomes that you need to achieve to win every day, every week, every month, every year.
The last pillar is flow, and it is the accumulative effect of the first four pillars. It is where you’re not grinding through life. A lot of people do what I call the hustle and grind, you know they’re out there saying, “You know you have got to grind. Sleep when you are dead. It is all about brute strength.” They’re wrong and when people listen to them, a lot of those people fit two hours of work into a fourteen-hour day. The key is flowing, not grinding, and when you work with your superpowers on you know what it takes to achieve and to win the day when you have those clear goals.
They’re not just long-term goals, they are short-term goals. When you do that, you get in that state of flow. Those are the five pillars, and that’s the process. You can use it on a regular basis to more easily and step-by-step build that life of freedom for yourself.
Questions to Ask Yourself
Nikki Van Noy: So, for listeners who are really resonating with what you are talking about here, what’s the one little thing they can do right now after they finish this podcast to start bringing some of this into action?
Curt Mercandante: First of all, you can pick up my book, or sign up to get a free chapter of my book at fivepillarsoffreedom.com. We leave the roadmap, and, in the book, I actually share stories of folks I have interviewed on my podcast, folks who made the conscious decision to take massive action.
In your life, I think the two things I ask people to do right off the bat starting tomorrow morning is ask yourself, “What’s awesome about today?” And the second thing, “What would make today even more awesome?” It’s about cultivating that mindset. You start doing that for two weeks, and you write it down. It’s amazing how it will just transform your world because you won’t be as upset when you get up in the morning. You won’t feel as rushed, and you won’t hate that commute in the morning. Your interactions with others will be better.
Instead of saying, “Gosh I have got that god-awful meeting” you might say, “Well how could that meeting provide value for the two of us?” It is just a mindset shift and it is such a vital precursor to start getting down the road to realizing that your life is something that you can actually build, not something you’re confined to by default.
People who are listening who are stuck in a rut and in that scarcity mindset–listen I’ve had it, and I’ve got to combat it every day. It is hard to see much further out of the rut that you are stuck in and I know it is hard to believe, that’s why I urge people to start, just again, with those two questions every day. Start cultivating, start small, then branch out from there.