On Purpose: Learning To Fly

“Am I Becoming Peter Banning?”

That was the title of my journal entry written on December 7, 2016, exactly four years ago. I wish I could say I asked the question in jest, but no, those words — that question — struck at the very core of who I was, at least the person I wanted to be. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Hook, it’s about a work-obsessed corporate lawyer — Peter Banning — who has grown up and forgotten he is the Peter Pan. It takes his kids being kidnapped by Captain Hook and his return to Neverland in order to rediscover who he is.

I can tell you after decades of watching the inspirational sequel to Peter Pan, I never fathomed that my life would have led me to ask that question of myself — to ask whether I had chosen work over family.

As a boy, my feet would literally lift off the ground as I watched Peter take flight filling my mind with happy thoughts and dreams of the future. I would spread my arms out wide flying around the house pretending to be in Neverland fighting off pirates with the lost boys. I dreamt of Peter coming to my window at night, sprinkling fairy dust atop my reddish brown hair, and off I would fly, to join Peter and the lost boys and embark on another adventure where time stood still.

But unfortunately, Peter never did come to my window and time did not stop for me. I passed through my otherwise happy and fulfilling childhood, and as I grew older, and the thought of living with ten-year olds on an island laden with pirates no longer topped my list of life goals, I still kept coming back to this movie. Rather than envisioning a life in the land of make believe, I now wondered how I too could embrace my own inner Peter and bring a little magic to this world; a world that too often could be dark, unwelcoming and cold. To light up children’s eyes, to fill their minds with dreams and possibilities, to make them believe in all the good and wonder that was possible if they just kept their eyes on the stars.

In my youth, the highlight of the year was without fail my parents bringing my sister, brother and me to Orlando where we would be enveloped in the world Walt Disney brought to life. As I aged and no longer waited for hours to get my autograph book signed by all four Ninja Turtles (a feat I am still proud of to this day), I still was filled with awe; not from the characters and thrilling rides, but rather awe from the complete and overwhelming joy and wonder one man brought to this world through his story telling, his vision, and his drive. “What a way to spend a life,” I thought with partial envy, but more so full of hope of the opportunities that lied ahead; opportunities that I too may bring a little joy and wonder to this world.

Disney provided the spark of what was possible with a life well-lived, and based on his model, I thought entrepreneurship was the road to salvation. I started in college with an idea called KEYS (keeping and ensuring your safety) a dorm mate and I cooked up to shuttle students back and forth from off-campus bars and restaurants back to campus. I spent all summer thinking about this idea, writing business plan after business plan, trying to figure out how to build a website for the first time, and making up numbers the college would pay for the service. When we returned for the Fall semester, I brazenly sent an email directly to the President of the college pitching the idea. He, to his credit, responded with very sensible questions, “how do you plan to pay for the vehicles? do you have insurance? do your drivers have commercial licenses? do you have a business entity formed?” Basic questions my nineteen-year old mind had not gotten around to after three months of work, and the questions were a wakeup call that revealed my ignorance to the real world. They intimidated me and scared me back into my place. I thanked him for his response, kicked myself for my foolishness and never spoke of the idea again.

For the first time, I noticed my own reserve of fairy dust — my belief in myself and my dreams for this life — started to dwindle.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this would be the beginning of a decades long routine of throwing myself at an idea all through law school and business school, and then in my early years as a lawyer. I would strive tirelessly with a friend or my wife, talking, discussing, drafting, turning an idea over and over again, continuously refining the concept until we had something that we thought truly added value. But, despite the laundry list of domains and half built websites to my name, the progress always, always remained in the abstract; it was never tangible, never interacting with actual or even prospective customers, never making the full jump from my mind to this world to see if it could fly. I can’t overstate the thousands upon thousands of hours, late nights, weekends, I spent trying to breathe life into idea after idea, only for all of them to end in failure.

Now, with that entrepreneurial dream all but shattered on the floor, along with any belief that I was capable of following in Disney’s shoes and bring a small dose of wonder and joy to this world, I now only had one option. My “temporary” gig as a corporate lawyer, my backup plan, had now become, at least from my seat at the time, my one and only alternative to continue to provide food and home for my growing family.

At the time I asked whether I had become Peter Banning in my journal four years ago, I was in my fourth year as an M&A and capital markets lawyer at a large law firm helping clients buy and sell companies and raise capital for their businesses. I had thrown all of myself into the fast-paced, intellectually stimulating role as an advocate for my clients and the role was not without perks — high compensation, mentally vigorous, and incredibly talented and driven colleagues. But, this high-flying act also came with a catch: my time.

For years, I had been working long hours, on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the time demands complemented with the high-stress environment pushed my mental strength to the brink. The clients and partners expected we would deliver the highest quality of work as quickly as humanly possible. This shot clock to deliver perfection created the environment where my work must supersede all else — sleep, personal matters, anniversaries, vacations, health goals, date nights, happy hours, and anything else of significance in my life. And, the clock never stopped. I couldn’t turn it off. Even when I was physically present with my family or friends, my mind obsessed over the “ping” coming from my cell phone with the next email, the next assignment, the next project. I could hear the ticking of the clock; I could hear the disappointed questions from my partners asking why this request was taking so long; I could hear time itself, my one chance at this life, passing me by.

Without the time or the discipline to nurture my budding entrepreneurial dream, those seeds died a torturous death as each new idea I nurtured was blown aside by the hail force winds of life as a corporate lawyer. My new goal was survival, and that goal in and of itself would not only exhaust all of my mental capacity, but also challenge me physically. My dentist recommended I wear a mouthguard at night because I had recently developed the habit of grinding my teeth, doing irreparable damage. I broke out with a bad case of shingles brought on by the stress at work. I went to the ER due to the feeling of rushing water in my head for days on end. The doctor asked if I was feeling stressed. Stressed? No! I don’t get stressed. I am always calm. Always collected. I lied to myself and the doctor.

It was in that mental and physical state I found myself four years ago reflecting on Peter Banning’s life and seeing far too many similarities to my own. As I sat in my sixth-floor office staring out into the night sky on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows, long past any chance of seeing my family that evening, I could no longer escape the verdict. The journal entry provided the evidence that sealed my fate before I could even mount my mental defense:

“I billed 95 hours last week, missed my sister’s 31st birthday, and did not make it home in time for dinner / bedtime with my family once during the entire week. On the weekend, I worked two 12 hour days, couldn’t help around the house, and my unbelievably patient wife was left to fend for herself as she cleaned the house, cooked meals, and took care of everything, all the while trying to prepare for her own full week of work as a teacher. I don’t know where this path leads, but I don’t want to find out.”

I castigated myself, “What happened? How did this go so wrong? Where did I go? How could I do this not only to myself but to the wife I love? What happened to the person who wanted to spend his life building and bringing joy and wonder to this world? To the guy who would wake up with the sunrise and chase his dreams to the horizon? Who was this person staring back at me in this reflection?” I was unrecognizable to myself.

Pan had become Banning.

Somewhere along this road of life, I had completely forgotten who I was and the person I wanted to be. My magic, my belief in myself and and all that was possible, had run out. I had lost my ability to fly.

Some of these long nights were the darkest memories I have. I was long past mentally and physically exhausted, using every ounce of strength I possessed to brace myself for wave after wave of new corporate deals that would throw me back under water unable to breathe, unable to escape. I blamed the work. I blamed the clients. I blamed my partners. But in my rare moments of reflection where I found some self-awareness, I knew deep down I only had myself to blame.

No one forced me to go to law school. No one had forced me become an M&A lawyer at an international law firm. No one had forced me want to bill more hours than my colleagues as a way to prove to myself and others that I could compete with the best. I chose this life. And as much as I hated to admit it, as much as I saw the damage being done to my wife and family, I also knew there was a reckless, practical side of me that simply accepted the carnage as the cost of “making it” in this world. Without a doubt, a purpose in my life was to provide for my family. To put food on the table. To give them a home in a safe neighborhood. To pay for my children’s education. To show them the world and travel to distant places. But that purpose provided the varnish to cover up a more sinister aspect of my character: I was drawn to the money; I was drawn to the wealth; I was drawn to the prestige; I was drawn to the respect; I was drawn to the influence and power this life as a corporate lawyer could lead to.

The Pan-inspired metric of bringing joy and wonder to this world that I had hoped to use to judge my life’s worth had disappeared and replaced with a new measurement system; one not provided by me but by society, other people telling me how I was supposed to live, defining success on my behalf; and these new metrics driven solely by material gains became the yardstick for my life. Wealth or Impact? Wealth. Serve or be served? Be served. Prestige or fulfillment? Prestige. Security or adventure? Security. The front pages were not covered with stories of good husbands and great dads, they were stories about business titans and high-powered politicians who are running this world and setting the ground rules for the rest of us. We were told that was the highest form of accomplishment we mortals could set for ourselves, and the boundless ambition inside of me wanted to prove I could reach that mountaintop as well.

Beneath it all, I wanted to matter. I wanted to live a life of significance, a life other people accepted as important or meaningful, and this desire for societal acceptance came with great costs.

While I was doing my best to keep my head above water, my wife Marena and I were also embarking on this new life as a married couple. We bought a house, made it our home, and then welcomed a baby boy into our family earlier that year. Witnessing the birth of my child, feeling his hands, hearing the cries of life, life my wife and I had created, transformed my life and my world. Those sights and sounds filled me with a new purpose. The purpose of protecting, providing, and loving that tiny soul in our arms. The transition to becoming a father is indescribable. You walk into a hospital as a family of two, to seeing your wife give birth to a child, your child, and you walk out with all memories of your former self erased as you can’t possibly envision you had a life without this child that was now your entire world.

But after we left the hospital and my paternity leave ended, as much as my heart was full, this new passion for raising a family ran headfirst into the requirements to be a competent and successful corporate lawyer, and my job did not bend for personal obligations. My life quickly returned to the ebb and flow of life as a corporate lawyer completely dictated by my work, and now, I was not only missing time with my wife, but also with my newborn son.

But something had changed inside of me. The birth of my child had laid bare the fault lines of the life I had chosen. This new passion for love and creating a just and gentle world for my child, one full of wonder, took hold, and began to fight back against my worldly ambitions of wealth, respect and acceptance; the fight for the wheel that steered my life.

I would love to tell you my transformation took only three days like the change from Peter Banning back to Peter Pan, but that’s not how life works in the world beyond Neverland. I stayed in my role for another fifteen months after I had asked that question of myself. I missed nearly two years of my first born’s life and the start of his younger brother’s, who had also joined our family during this trying time, before I finally gained the courage, confidence and strength to take the jump. I unfortunately did not have a fairy to whack me in the head with a newspaper and steal me off to Neverland to complete this transformation and remind me of who I was.

But, what I did have in common with Banning was the undying love for my children would remind me how to fly.

Though it took some time to remember, I had found my purpose in life, my happy thought — my boys — and with that purpose clearly defined and taking control of the wheel, the dust began to fall from the wings I had long since forgotten. Each life moment missed no longer dragged me deeper into the abyss; it spurred me on, it provided motivation to climb my way out of this cavernous pit trapped in a pirate’s hold. To keep jumping off higher and higher rocks and picking myself up each time I fell. I could now see the bright light ahead. I knew where I was meant to go, and when I heard the pitter patter of my children’s feet race to greet me at the door, I could feel the wind at my back pointing in one direction, upward, toward the stars.

So when the chance came to leave and join a promising startup that would provide significantly more time with my wife and my two boys, leaving behind a life driven solely by societal metrics, I spread my arms out wide and jumped off the cliff. And, when I did, I took flight.

I felt the air beneath my arms as the pain of the stress and exhaustion began to fade. I felt the clouds wrap me in a warm embrace as I hugged my children before bed each night. I felt the heat of the stars as my heart filled with joy wrestling with my own lost boys until they tackled me to the ground, laughing and dancing over their victory.

I had finally, through my children, remembered how to fly. Remembered to choose love over all else. Remembered to believe in myself and all that is possible in this world. Remembered to spend my life filling this place with wonder. Remembered how to teach my children they too can fly to the stars. All they need is a happy thought.

Last night, as the credits were playing and I sat on the floor with my arms wrapped tightly around my four-year old son, he turned to me, and I could see the magic in his eyes. His face full of wonder from the lost boys and Peter Pan, he asked “Dad, does Peter Pan exist in our world?

I paused for a moment. Maybe he doesn’t literally fly, or wield a sword or fight pirates, but, for my boys, “Yes, Peter Pan does exist in our world.

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M. Wood

M. Wood

Husband. Father. Lawyer. Founder at heart. Writes about family, faith, country, and finding purpose in this life.