When I grow up, I want to think like Jon Mertz!
Last year, I discovered Jon through his incredible website – ThinDifference.com. I was attracted to his mission – bringing the generations together in the workplace. His attitude regarding my generation (Millennials) was so positive and empowering; I instantly resonated with the content I read on the site. Since then, I’ve been privileged to share my writing on ThinDifference.com, including posts about leading those older than you, what I learned on my way from intern to the executive team, and the danger of entitlement.
Jon graciously accepted my request for an interview as a part of our Overcoming Fear series. To check past interviews in this series, click here.
Scott: Jon, thanks so much for taking time to share with us. We all wrestle with fear in our lives and we know what it sounds like in our individual battles. But, how about you? What does fear most often look or sound like in your life?
Jon: Scott, thank your for this opportunity as well. I am grateful our paths crossed and I appreciate your insights on Thin Difference.
One of my fears today looks like my sons. My fear is the answers to the questions: Did I do a good enough job as a father? Will they live a fulfilling life and do work that matters to them and their community?
The reality is I cannot affect either of those answers too much anymore. I can coach and guide as much as they listen. What they do with their lives and how they live rests with them and the people they surround themselves with. Fear is like taking the training wheels off and giving them that final push, hoping they keep their balance and drive.
The other fear turns to me. Did I do enough? Will anything I did be pulled forward and improved upon?
I was watching Mr. Holland’s Opus recently, and it shows how the unexpected will always happen. How we work through the unexpected matters, yet we wonder if what we do really does matter. In the end, will we be able to fill an auditorium with people in which our work made a difference in their lives?
My fear looks like my sons and sounds like Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Scott: Jon, thank you so much for bringing up that movie. I had totally forgotten about it! What a great film! I need to see if I can add that to my Netflix or Amazon queue. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch!)
Let’s look backwards for a moment, Jon. What has fear kept you from doing in the past? Was there a defining moment when you let fear hold you back?
Jon: My life has had many fearless moments. Moving from growing up on a farm to working in the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building next to The White House, I navigated opportunities. Leaving DC, returning to college full-time, and earning an MBA, I faced the fear of being out of work and taking on more debt. We all face certain fears in our careers, yet we take them on. Youth has a great sense of fearlessness.
Fear played its worst in my life when it stoked impatience. The fear of not gaining enough progress fast enough can be very distracting. This happened to me.
I really loved politics, and I thought I would return to my home state and run for office. Whether or not I would have won is irrelevant. I got caught up more in where I was and what move I should make next rather than focusing on the patient steps to understand my purpose and focus on the work to empower it.
When fear incites impatience, be aware. Slow down to define purpose and undertake the work required to embrace it. Understanding this came as a rear-view defining moment for me.
Scott: Wow, John. Those are incredible insights. I saved a few thoughts to tweet and process on my own. Let’s change gears. You’ve done a lot of different things, even changed careers. Amidst all of that, what helped you become courageous in the face of fear?
Jon: Grounding. I am not sure of a better way to describe it. I am a farmer’s son. What I learned by being a farmer’s son are several things important to be courageous.
Farmers control very little when you think about it. They can choose the crops they plant, and they can mostly choose when they plant. Care for the land is essential as well. Beyond this, what happens is uncontrollable.
Weather brings bounty or wreaks havoc. Farmers have no control, yet they plant seeds each year.
Farmers have a steely faith. This is a faith in what is possible, along with a faith in overcoming obstacles. Farmers pray. Farmers give. Farmers plant for growth.
What helps me gain courage is to remember what farmers do every day. A farmer’s faith comes from within and ignited with a strong sense of a higher cause.
Scott: As you think about your past, was there an inflection point where something flipped and you became much more courageous and aggressive?
Jon: In some ways, this inflection point may be ahead! As the songs or passages state, there is a season for many things. My first season was focused on growth and achievement. Being a husband and father was my next season, focused on stability and tending to our family spirit. Our nest is almost empty now, so a third season enters by supporting their unfolding talents and gifts. Where does this now leave me in this fourth season?
The inflection point I feel is one of stepping up boldly in some new way. Writing Activate Leadership and guiding the Thin Difference community, I feel a new groundwork emerging from which to spring again.
Herein may be the key. Having this understanding of the seasons of our lives is vital. Also essential is community, family, and faith that surrounds us. These elements provide the foundation from which we can launch just about any awe-inspiring initiative.
We need to remember to care for our foundation and do the work to continue to build, grow, and advance the place from which we live and thrive.
Scott: Jon, it’s pretty incredible how engaged you still are after so long. How do you stay hopeful? Are there disciplines you regularly engage which help you?
Jon: I stay hopeful by remembering the expansive prairies from which I began. In nature, we understand there is something much greater than us. We get a sense for a higher purpose, a higher presence. Within both, an endless hope springs or, at least, gets refreshed.
The discipline of hiking, going to a national park, or just getting outside to explore renews my hope.
Other disciplines play a role, but nature is where I can recalibrate.
Scott: Jon, this has been great. Final question for you. There are some people who will read this interview who are in the throes of a great battle with fear and they’re losing! What would you say to encourage readers who are right there?
Jon: You are not alone! When fear gets the best of us, we feel alone. However, we should not. We need to find a supporting community. Saying there are no communities is an excuse or a rationalization to not doing anything. From churches to Meetup groups to social cause organizations, many welcoming communities exist, and we gain strength by participating and being open with them.
My other encouragement would be to go for a hike. Get out into nature. Nature faces many uncontrollable dangers, yet nature is resilient. Soak in what nature offers, and an inner strength will take hold as you take on your urban challenges and opportunities.
Jon, thank you so much for sharing such richness with us. If you want to learn more about Jon or connect with him below, please check out his information below, including his book Activate Leadership, his website and social media channels.
More on Jon Mertz…
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and was recently highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. On ThinDifference.com, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders. Follow him on Twitter (@ThinDifference) or Facebook.