Finding my place in the world
I’ve felt out of place my entire life.
My mother is an Israeli immigrant. My father was an African American man from Louisiana who left me and my mom when I was just a baby. Through his actions, my dad, in effect, told me that I did not belong.
After I was born, my mother’s parents—my grandparents—asked her only one question.
They didn’t ask, “Is he happy?”
They didn’t ask, “Is he healthy?”
They asked, “What is he?”
My mom said, “He is Jewish . . . and Black.”
My grandparents immediately hung up the phone and disowned us both. From that day to their death, I never met them. I never even spoke to them. They made it clear that I didn’t belong.
From that point on, it was just the two of us trying to make it on our own.
When I was growing up, my mom made it clear that no matter what anyone else said or thought about us we always had each other. When I was with her, I belonged.
But as I got older, I began to notice all the ways that I didn’t fit in and all the people who didn’t accept me. The people who asked my mother if I was adopted while I was standing right there. The middle school teachers who blamed me for fights at school that I had nothing to do with. The high school administrators who came down hard on me and some other kids of color when we shared the ways that the school’s curriculum made us feel unwelcome.
The more out of place I felt, the more I craved a genuine sense of belonging in the larger world.
That’s why I moved to New York City—one of the most diverse cities in the world, a city where a biracial kid like me would have as good a shot as anybody at feeling at home and gaining a sense of belonging.
But as I became accustomed to New York, I realized that where I lived was only part of it. Yes, I had found my city, but I still felt like I needed to find my place.
After college, I tried management consulting, finance, government, education, and various romantic relationships. No matter what I did, though, something was still missing. I was always running, looking to the future for the feeling of belonging that kept eluding me in the present.
Your place in the world is sometimes an actual physical place: a home, a neighborhood, or a city. But it can also be something that speaks to your sense of purpose in life: a job, a community, a relationship. Your place is wherever you feel fulfilled, alive, and at peace.
For me, the answer turned out to be finding my personal mission in life (which I’ll share more about later in the book) and a partner for life who accepted me completely: my wife, Benís.
I believe that to be your best self you have to be your authentic self.
And you can’t be your authentic self until you find your place in the world.
The only Black kid at the synagogueAdapt like water and you’ll be unstoppable
I was the only Black kid in my synagogue—but when I was with the other Black kids from school, I didn’t fit in easily either, since I was mixed and Jewish.
People didn’t know what to do with me, how to talk to me, what to say to me.
My being different made many people uncomfortable—even when they were well-meaning.
Since there was no community that I belonged to without question, I was never able to let down my guard and just be me. I had to do the work of figuring out everyone else around me all the time, and I got very good at adapting myself to make other people comfortable. I had to learn, on my own, how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
I learned to talk to White people and Black people.
Wall Street types and nonprofit types.
Kids whose parents had no idea how to play the game and kids whose parents practically invented the game.
I learned how to set different kinds of people at ease. I watched their faces closely when I spoke to them to see which things connected and which things did not—then repeated the things that clicked in other conversations.
I’ve had to study people with the kind of focus and care that other people study books with.
It’s certainly not fair that some people can be themselves and others need to constantly present different parts of themselves in different situations in order to make others comfortable. When I was younger, I wished that I could be the one to be made comfortable sometimes rather than always doing that for others.
But I’ve made the personal choice not to focus on the unfairness. Instead of getting angry, I became determined to go further. I focused my energy on learning to adapt and adjust to more and more situations.
Being extremely adaptable is a hugely valuable skill.
It transforms every interaction into an opportunity.
These days, I might talk to an investor in Asia, a software engineer in Seattle, a newly hired real estate agent in Miami, my eldest daughter Raia on FaceTime, a junior marketing designer in New York, and a reporter from the Wall Street Journal—all in a single hour. And for each conversation, I adapt.
People throughout my life have made me feel like I don’t belong. But I haven’t listened. Being able to adapt to anything made me feel that I was never out of place and that no one could ever “put me in my place.”
A mentor once said that I was like water: no matter what you set in its way, water finds a way to keep moving. It changes form, it tunnels deeply, it discovers a path around whatever obstacle it comes across on its journey. And slowly but surely, water wears away the obstacles that try to contain it, carving new paths that are easier to follow in the future.
I don’t blame my father for what he did, but I do blame his egoDon’t underestimate the damage that ego can do
You might think that I learned about the dangers of selfish, hypercompetitive behavior by running up against some massive egos from high-flying executives in $5,000 suits in New York and Washington, DC. After all, I worked on Wall Street with investment bankers and alongside powerful politicians in the White House.
But I actually learned about the dangers of ego on the other side of the country as the child of an absent, abusive father who suffered from a heroin addiction. Not exactly the picture of a high-ego individual.
What I saw was that your ego can crush you as easily as it allows you to trample others.