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Two Truths and a Lie

You’re about to hear a story of secrets and lies, and spaces I’ve longed to bridge.

My two truths and a lie:

  1. I miss writing about my life and business in a public space.
  2. 2023 was the best year of my professional life.
  3. My estranged father passed away last year and forever changed the way I communicate.

Yes, I miss writing in this format. That is absolutely true.

Storytelling is core to who I am. Despite spinning yarns for my entire life, I only started writing after I turned 30, and I did it live in front of everyone. I bought a domain, and began publishing posts a few days later, despite never having written before.

I met Dave two weeks after that. My first blog got a lot of traffic, so I learned to write for attention fast. I also learned to build lists and then to convert those lists. But traffic, conversion, and consulting stopped being fun about a minute and a half after I realized that Kindle would be mainstreaming soon, and that self-publishing would be quickly evolving from boxes of books in the garage to digital uploads. I wanted to be ready for that transition.

Adios clients, fiction here I come. Sterling & Stone was born.

A few months later, Johnny sent me an email pitching a podcast that changed both of our lives for the better, and Dave’s too, because I bring that dude everywhere. I was burned to ashes on emails and blog copy, but a podcast, for one hour a week, TALKING — that was an easy yes.

The Self Publishing Podcast was the most fun I had ever had building an audience online. My all-time favorite. I would fall asleep laughing at our antics and your comments on the SPP site.

The next seven years were a renaissance of the spirit for me. Sterling & Stone, with the Smarter Artist brand in the background, solidified who I am as a thinker and a creator, while also helping to clarify who I wanted to be.

So much of the best stuff in my life has come from that audience.

S&S hosted a Summer Camp for our 30+ storytellers last July, and the realities of what we’re doing here were never more obvious. Cindy cooked lunch and dinner for everyone on Saturday. While driving home that night, she said, “I am in awe of how you guys brought so many amazing people together.”

Me too. But literally all of that brilliance came from our storytelling audience. And as much as I’ve wanted to reach out, it’s hard, when by its very nature, Sterling & Stone is often in the business of secrets due to clients, partners, NDAs, and plans for another industry disruption.

A thousand percent yes — this was, by far, the best year of my professional life.

It was also the hardest. Every year since I made that first blog post 15 years ago has had some significant highs, and a few lows, but this was the year where a decade of rubber finally met the road of some seriously diligent efforts.

We onboarded a ridiculous amount of talent into the studio, figured out exactly how to play the Hollywood IP game, launched new storytelling initiatives, and streamlined internal production and publication processes so we can naturally scale this business to bring even more storytellers into our family. We hired a Head of Books and a Marketing Director, working to further develop the brand and maximize attention across our entire catalogue.

But we also juggled the Writer’s Strike that pressed pause on all of our hard-won projects just two weeks before a massive calamity where our biggest ghostwriting client declared bankruptcy and defaulted on a substantial sum owed for work that had already been delivered, with our writers already paid. After some really difficult decisions had to be made, that shake up was the catalyzing event that brought everyone in the studio together and made us stronger than ever before.

Amid those thorns bloomed our biggest accomplishments, more fragrant and gorgeous for the weather endured. (My flower metaphors are here to stay, growing up in the flower business will do that to you). Because we were able to grow in soil rich from the nutrients of intelligence and experience, the studio can now draw a well-deserved breath and exhale some of our lived-in learning with you.

If my missing you and this being the best year of my professional life are both true, then surely that last fact about my old man must be a lie, right?

Wrong. This is an admittedly weird and very personal thing to tell you, but I prefer writing from the heart, and I rarely open doors without walking through them.

Yes, my estranged father passed away last year and forever changed the way I communicate.

An encounter with my father redrew the map of my world and the language I use to navigate it. The catalyst came a few years ago, when I attended an event where I participated in a transformative exercise.

A line of masking tape running down a long corridor divided 150 entrepreneurs into two groups on opposite sides of the tape. For two hours, we were asked to either take a step forward or a step back based on our answers to simple questions like:

  • I was read to as a child.
  • I believe that the rules do not apply to me.
  • I made the worst mistake of my life before my twentieth birthday.

Hundreds of questions. The exercise was conducted by an entrepreneur working to reduce the recidivism rate in American prisons (from 94% in Kern County to less than 7% among graduates of this program). A few months later, I joined a group of entrepreneurs helping to fund the program with their visit to the Kern County Correctional Facility.

I did that exercise again, this time with inmates on one side of the line and entrepreneurs on the other. What I had already learned the first time became even clearer.

I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who loved me. We were far from wealthy, but we never had to worry about where our next meal was coming from. I look white enough, and the Ramos branch is on my mother’s side of the family tree. I went to decent schools, even if the education system itself failed me in fundamental ways. My few pirouettes with the law never amounted to anything more than a slap on the wrist. Like the time a Cheech and Chong-style fog rolled out of my open window and right into a police officer’s face when I got pulled over shortly after I turned eighteen — he confiscated my weed and let me go with a wink.

I had never asked myself who I would have become if things could have been different before, but after sitting in prison all day the thought became a splinter in my mind. Entrepreneurs are smart and full of hustle, exactly the kind of people who might think to sell Garbage Pail Kids and mutant G.I. Joes on the fifth grade playground.

We think that most rules don’t apply to us, because we spend our lives wiggling around them.

What if I hadn’t had any Garbage Pail Kids to sell? And what if my parents left me alone for days at a time? What if I was a teenage father — would I have sold drugs to feed my family?

Probably. Almost for sure.

That trip changed me, and then it changed everything for me.

Standing up for what I believe in and doing what I think is right with clear communication were already driving forces in my life. Except when it came to my family. And it was finally time for me to change that.

I am a unique breed of peacemaker. While generally affable and averse to conflict, once pushed to the point where it becomes necessary to progress, conflict is non-negotiable. Emotional exchanges lead to catharsis and permanent evolution, and are a prerequisite (when necessary) to a life full of healthy relationships.

I must understand myself better before I can improve life for the people around me. Being anything less than the best of myself dilutes my own life and the lives of the people I touch. I don’t believe in holding onto your trauma or passing it on to someone else. Therapy doesn’t have to happen on a couch.

I write every day to understand myself better.
The better I understand myself, the happier I am.
The happier I am, the more joy I can offer the people around me.

But my father lived on the opposite side of that tape.

He taught me (through his behavior) that all secrets aren’t evil, but the ones told by liars are dangerous.

Liars convince themselves that they’re getting away with it, that the recipient of their deception couldn’t possibly know. But they usually do, even if that knowledge only lives in the gut. It’s just that the injured party is often willing to look the other way because it hurts too much for them to do anything else. Secrets steal from a family and limit how close they can be.

So I wrote Pop a letter telling him that I would no longer be a keeper of his secrets. He shunned me as a result. And when I asked him if we could please have a healthy conversation and move forward he said, “The only way we’ll ever more forward is if you shut your fucking mouth and forget about it.”

Then he stormed out of the restaurant.

Those were the last words my father ever spoke to me.

Over the next two years I sent him 141 texts, sharing news and pictures of his grandchildren and short reviews of movies I thought he would like or songs he’d love hearing. All of them went unanswered, including the last one, where I simply wrote I love you before finally letting it go.

Less than a year later, Pop was dying in the hospital and I flew out to California to say goodbye. I’m 50-50 on whether he could hear a single word I said while kissing his forehead and thanking him for all of the ways he helped me to become a better man, instilling me with a beat the sun to the day every goddamned morning work ethic that’s been feeding my own ambitions alongside the dreams for an entire studio of artists for a while now.

I promised you two truths and a lie, but I bent the rules (subverted those tropes) and delivered a trio of truths laid bare instead.

But now we’re on the same page.

I don’t do lies. I do clear communication.

I’ve wanted to start writing out loud for a while, but I didn’t know how, and there have been a lot of reasons not to while we were heads down and doing the deep work of turning this studio into a sustainable business.

The longer I stayed silent, the weirder it felt.

The time is right. Not for education, because that’s still a never again thing. At least not in any way that can be packaged or sold. But I strongly believe in teaching through story and example, like we did in the glory days of our podcast. And I love championing the remarkable storytellers in our studio.

The world of storytelling is changing incredibly fast. Due to the hard work of more than a decade, Sterling & Stone is uniquely positioned to experience these changes from multiple angles. As a studio, we constantly discuss this stuff, and it is absurdly exciting.

We live in a world of NDAs, and one of the reasons that it’s taken so long for me to start writing in public again is because there are a lot of legitimate secrets around here that are too early in their life cycles to discuss, plus all the stuff that’s locked in a vault by nature of our contracts. That was miserable for both our audience and us toward the end of our podcast, when we couldn’t really talk about stuff and failed to include you in the journey as a result.

I won’t be making that mistake again. But I’m rich with stories and insights from our ongoing adventures, proud of the work we’re doing, and looking forward to sharing some of those stories with you.