Unpacking my Unpacking – A Thanks to Joe

Chris Mittelstaedt

Founder & CEO, The FruitGuys

Joe Motz’s talk at Tugboat Institute Summit 2018, “Finding the Joy in Unpacking,” had me in tears by the end of his presentation. He said something that was earthshaking for me: “We pack for our fears.”

Joe’s talk came at an important time. Two of my teenage kids have been wrestling with unexplained medical maladies. While it has been determined that Lyme and a number of other underlying infections are the root cause, the path to cure is not necessarily clear.

In business, I have often felt like I don’t know enough, leading me to feel like a fraud. I’m competitive, and in my worst moments this seeps into feeling comparative with others. This makes me feel both guilty and like a jerk. On this family-business journey, I’ve often felt the extreme swings of experience: terrified and excited; creative and unsure; energized and exhausted all at once. But in these situations, as stressful and uncertain as they can be, I generally feel like I have some ability to affect change. Even in the worst times I’ve been able to make decisions and have some impact—good or bad. The illness that has beset our family recently is something new. For the past two years, as we have traveled this path of discovery, I have instinctively packed on whatever I could to defend against losing control to something unknown.

In the midst of one of the darkest months of my kids’ medical challenges, when strange neuro-muscular motor issues sent doctors searching for signs of potential stroke or the beginnings of MS in our daughter, one of our strategic partners casually approached us to sell the business. While my partners and I decided it wasn’t who we were to do so, in looking back, I’m amazed by the timing of this temptation. It couldn’t have come at a lower point for me personally. The financial and psychological strain that our family was going through had put me in a place where I was terrified and exhausted. I had been packing my bag with my fears, and it felt heavy. I imagined that perhaps it would be lighter to just take the whole thing off and leave it behind rather than dig into the hard work of unpacking what I had built up as a defense. I believed, or hoped, that money and the shedding of responsibility would somehow heal my family. What I have learned, and what Joe described so eloquently, is that I actually needed to become comfortable with accepting a wide horizon, often filled with suffering, without a clearly established end.

Shortly after this, my daughter found an acupuncturist who truly began to help her manage her symptoms. As her symptoms improved, she noticed me gain weight and heard me bump around the house at 4 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep. She kindly suggested that I come with her to meet her acupuncturist.

The acupuncturist has treated many well-known business people from Silicon Valley and beyond. She knows the driven, controlling, type-A mentality well. She said recently to me: “Ambition can make us sick or well. Ambition in the form of determination alone makes us sick. Ambition that comes from inspiration brings us joy and is healing.” One evening, when my daughter Fiona and I were driving home from acupuncture, she said to me, “maybe I needed to get sick so our family could get well.”

I came to Tugboat Institute Summit this year expecting to find business learning and instead found learning about the alchemy of living a family-business life that was deeply moving. Joe’s thoughts were inspiring, and I find myself more conscious of the moments of inspiration and joy that fuel my work and my life and recognizing when the determined, paranoid and pack-filling-survivalist in me is poking around for attention. I was reminded again and again that many of us in the private and family business world face daunting personal as well as business challenges and find ways through them. I am deeply thankful and inspired by the members of Tugboat Institute for their wisdom and openness. Thank you, Joe, and the entire Tugboat community.