Hey Happiness Squad, it's great to have you with Ashish and me as we host guests who are industry leaders helping individuals and organizations unlock inner happiness and flourishing.
Have you ever imagined your child as your teacher? Our next guest shares his beautiful story that I imagine will resonate with each of you.and authentic leadership. In: nd meaningful lives. With the:
Nick is the co-founder of Mirrorbox Leadership Lab, an executive coaching and leadership development consulting firm. Utilizing individuals' real-life experiences, Mirrorbox's goal is to help senior-level leaders and executive teams bring about meaningful change in service of their personal and organizational growth.
During this heartfelt and inspiring episode, Ashish, Nick, and I delve into the journey that led Nick on his mission to help those that typically turn inwards into despair after a tragedy or breakdown in their life. Nick shares several lessons that he's learned from William as well as how to jumpstart your life again through love, community, intention, and gratitude.
Stay tuned till the end where Nick shares his definition of happiness following this tragedy as well as so much more, and learn about the “William Be Yourself Challenge”. We hope the tips and practices that we share can help you as a parent and non-parent equally because it was truly eye-opening for me. Join Ashish and me as we welcome Nick to the Happiness Squad Podcast.
Ashish, Nick, it is an absolute pleasure to be here. Nick, I've not met you properly and I know Ashish and you have spoken before this, but when I was looking into your story, it really touched my heart. I just want to start out with that because as we share the first question with our listeners, Nick, I'd love for you to start by telling us a bit about your background and what prompted you to write your book, "My Teacher, My Son."
Sure. First off, I'm very happy to be here with you guys. I'm really looking forward to our conversation.
My background, in my day job, so to speak, is that I'm an executive coach and a co-founder of a leadership development company called Mirrorbox Leadership Lab. I work with executives and teams to help them be more effective and better leaders.
Why I wrote this book: This book spawned from a tragedy. Just over almost five years ago now, while on a ski vacation in Big Sky, Montana, my nine-year-old son, William, died in a tragic ski accident. This sent my family and me into a spiral of uncertainty and chaos. Our world was shattered.
As I was going into the depths of grief, I had an instinct to try to figure out how I could make meaning out of this situation, this event that seemed so random and senseless. That drove me to use this experience as a way of learning how I could live my life differently.
As I captured my thoughts and feelings, I felt I needed to share them with the world. From my experience as a coach, I've coached many people who are, what I call, being on autopilot or just floating through life, not as fulfilled or as happy as they could be. I thought the lessons that I learned could help people find more meaning in their lives, so why not share that with the world?
Thank you, Nick. Your book, “My Teacher, My Son,” has a title that, as you and I were sharing, resonates deeply with me as I call my son my biggest teacher. There is so much that we can learn from our children.
When you sent me a copy, I couldn't stop reading it because it pulled on so many strings and also grounded me in the journey that you were on. It gave conviction around the work we're doing at Happiness Squad because a lot of people think about happiness as just an emotion, what you feel when you get what you want, or sometimes when you get something unexpectedly good. But they don't often think about happiness as a core way of being, these practices that help you be happier but also more adaptable and resilient.
Often, we don't start to learn these things until we face a tragedy. We don't turn inwards until then. So, the question I have for you is, as you describe in your book, bring to life for our listeners your own journey, Nick, from that tragic day. How were you able to cope with it?
So many families break apart, and individuals never recover from such losses. But you were able to move through that and actually grow from it. You tell the story about your son Bodhi in the book. So, talk to us a little bit about what helped you really cope with such a tragic loss and overcome that pain and sadness.
Yeah, there were a couple of factors. Initially, in the days, weeks, and even early months after something like this happens, you go to pretty dark places. I was cracked open, meaning all aspects of who I was were just raw and exposed. When that happens, your initial reaction is to want no part of that.
It's scary to delve into aspects of yourself that you've either buried or are negative. Initially, you look away, and the more you push something away, the harder it comes back at you. The more you fight it, the darker and deeper into despair you go.
I remember being in a particularly dark moment, not knowing how I would get through this. My head went to some pretty dark places. But then, something more hopeful started to emerge for me, maybe from my subconscious. This mantra came to me: What would William want? What would William want for me? For our family? Would he want me to cause more suffering for myself or my family? Would he want us to be in total despair for the rest of our lives? Would he want our family to break apart or his younger brother, Kai, to suffer even more? The answer is a resounding no.
Having a mantra, a purpose, something to look towards, helped pull me out of it. I realized the only way I could honor William was by doing the work, by facing those aspects of myself that I didn't want to look at head-on.
Another piece that helped me was my profession as a coach. Being more knowledgeable in aspects of human behavior and practices around resilience was beneficial. I was also a meditator and a journalist at different periods of my life. So those things all helped me process everything.
Yeah. I loved the chapter where you discuss "What would William want?" It is so powerful and it spoke to me, Nick, for a couple of reasons. First, when anybody goes through something as tragic as what you went through, or even something not so tragic, the focus becomes so much on oneself.
What do I want? It's about the suffering, my loss, and it's so much focused inward. In that moment, when you are turned inward, it's hard. You're going through a hard time, a dark period. People can become victims, feeling helpless, hopeless, wondering if they will ever get through this.
But what was beautiful in what you said is that you shifted from "What do I want?" to "What would William want?" Absolutely. That shift was also about finding meaning in life. What would he want me to be? What would he want our family to be? It’s so beautiful because it orients us to something bigger.
Yes, that’s a beautiful synthesis. I never thought about it that way, taking the focus off of myself. Of course, in those early days, there was a victim mindset, but focusing on something bigger was key. For me, bigger was how do I honor William? And how do I help my family pull through intact?
Yeah. You also talk about how it crystallized your purpose in life: to learn so you can teach. That's really profound. As I heard your first part, we had very similar journeys. Your father was a McKinsey senior partner, and I'm very familiar with the McKinsey life. The first half of your life, you spent training other McKinsey people in your old job. We've walked a similar path, you know, I gained 30 pounds, and went through all that craziness.
So, talk to us a little bit about how this event shattered everything, your identity, what you were doing, and forced you to redefine your life, to define that purpose: to learn so you can teach. Tell us more about that.
One of the biggest lessons I've taken from this is how fragile life can be. When William died, he was here one second, gone the next. It can happen in a blink of an eye and it gives you a real appreciation that this is the one life we have to live.
We need to be more intentional with how we're going to live it. A big part of that, and I see too few people doing this in our society, is just pausing, slowing down, taking stock of what's going on, checking in with yourself. Are you happy? That's a question too many people don't ask themselves until it's too late.
For me, this notion of pausing was necessary. I had to take a six-month leave of absence. I had no choice but to pause, and it was extremely uncomfortable at first because I had been so used to the fast-paced life.
But in that pause, by asking these important questions, by looking at who you are, what you're about, what you aspire to be, and what your purpose is, that is the recipe to find meaning. More people need to learn how to do that. It doesn't mean you have to take six months off, but you can have micro pauses throughout your days, weeks, and months.
Absolutely, and this is why this work is so resonant. When I read your book, I was struck by how many of these concepts you tuned into and embodied, like the notion of how fragile life can be.
How many of us, if you're listening, think about this: How many of you spend most of your time planning for the future or living in the past, versus in the moment? Some of us do it by saying, "I'm going to work really hard, I'll take a vacation two years from now," but just need to work through right now. Or it might even be a daily thing, like putting off a workout tomorrow.
We live in this illusion that we have timeless lives. We don't know, we could lose in a moment what we have in a day. This notion of living in the present moment, treating every moment as if it is our last, and as if it's someone else's last, is crucial.
I'm reminded of a story I read, set in World War II, about a Jewish girl and her younger brother who were about to be put on a train to one of the concentration camps. They had lost their parents and were very young. The boy was playing on the platform, unaware of the horrors he was about to face.
When they got on the train, he had forgotten his shoes in the dead of winter, and his sister scolded him for being irresponsible. She survived the camps, but he didn't, and she reflected that her last exchange with her brother wasn't an exchange of love but of chastisement. That story is a reminder of the importance of being present in every moment, as if it's the last. Let's not push things out. We just don't know.
And it's a beautiful story, unfortunate but beautiful, that you just shared. That's one of the reasons I decided to write this book. When I lost William, as a parent, I imagine this is common, you try to put yourself in their shoes.
What was it like in that split second before it happened? It causes you to question, what was it like for him? And what will it be like for me? I started thinking, what was he thinking in that minute, second, whatever, before he died?
He had just skied on the top of the mountain, and had the run of his life. He was doing it with his father, who he loved and looked up to. I'm almost positive he was happy. Whatever that last thought, he was happy.
When I think about the things I used to think about for way too much of my time, I wonder what my last thought will be like. I realized that if left to chance, my last thought might not be like William's. It would be worrying about something completely trivial, irrelevant.
And that's tragic, for that to be the last thing you might experience in your life. We can't know, so we can't control it entirely, but I think if we have practices to be more mindful, more present, it at least gives us a shot at having a more hopeful last thought.
Reflecting as I listen to both of you, both of you are fathers, and I'm not. I am a son. Ashish and I, Nick, had a conversation back in April of this year. Ashish mentioned that we're doing a lot of work around happiness and how people can integrate their lives. But there are times that aren't so happy, when the universe doesn't seem to work for people, especially when it comes to the loss of a child.
I still remember where I was sitting, Ashish, during that conversation. What Ashish opened up in my eyes was that it's not what you do that defines who you are, but what you do after the moment. If you give me permission, I'd love to read the poem you wrote in your book to your son, Nick, for our listeners.
"My teacher, my son, at birth, you taught me to live my truth. In life, you taught me the beauty of imperfection, in death, you taught me the power of love."
I share that with the listeners for a couple of reasons, but the main one is that life is fragile. In moments of despair, whether you're a father, mother, parent, or not, these are moments to give yourself the space to reflect, to build that resilience, the ability to bounce back. That's a choice you have. It may take work, it won't come easy. The lesson you learned and the way you shared that was beautiful.
And when I think about how you honor him and teach others on the back of that, there are a couple of areas. There's your family, Nick, leaders you're working with, and also a foundation you started.
I'd love to understand, Nick, after the passing of William, with your other two sons and your wife, how were you able to help pull each other through? How were each of you able to support each other during this moment and bounce back, not only you as a father, but your wife as a mother and your sons as children, to not only honor William's memory but come back together as a stronger family unit?
In the earliest moments after this happened, my wife and I were resolute in the fact that we would not let this destroy our family. We looked each other in the eye, and when she first found out, her reaction was one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced.
In the clinic, after I had found out about William's death before she did, I waited for her. When I told her, she initially had an emotional reaction, breaking down. But when she composed herself, the first words she said to me were, "It's not your fault."
That set the tone for how we were going to survive and endure as a family. She knew how hard I would be on myself since I was with William when he died, and she knew what I needed to hear.
From that moment on, we had to fight for our relationship, for Kai, and eventually for Bodhi when he joined us. We set the intention that we were going to pull through for our family, because it's what William would have wanted.
Grief is intensely personal and unique for every different person, which meant that my wife and I grieved differently. My wife is an extrovert, I'm an introvert; she was more emotive than I was, but there was never any judgment about that. We gave each other the space to grieve in the way we needed to. There was never a question of "why aren't you this way?"
With respect to my younger son, Kai, who was six at the time, if this was going to happen, being six years old was a perfect time because he was old enough to remember his brother, but not old enough to really understand what was going on. He looked at it from a naive, but resilient way. He modeled for us many times the importance of being resilient through this awful situation that happened to us.
Nick, as we were exchanging, you shared this insight, the nine practices. My book is a how-to, but you lived through them. I could feel it through the stories and how all of these came to life for you and helped you.
But this particular one, when I read it, I had a chill. I can imagine what you must have been feeling in that moment, the complexity of emotions going through you when she walked in and you knew. We can talk cognitively, but talk about your feelings when her act was that of forgiveness and saying, "It's not your fault."
The first emotion I had was relief. I was scared to death as I was waiting for her, realizing I was going to have to break the news. Since I was with William, I was envisioning all the worst possible things. She's going to hate me, divorce me, everything, along with profound guilt. It was tearing me apart.
So in that moment, when she said that, it was a tremendous relief. You go through so much with something like this, any little thing can push you over the edge. If she had had a different reaction, which would have been understandable, I don't know what it would have done. It just gave me a little bit more breathing room to make it through.
And that was the choice. I can't wait to meet her, and I know we will. We get a chance to do that. I was reflecting, would I be able to do that? Something that she just did at the moment? You know, afterwards we're like, "Yeah, yeah," but at that moment. I have so much respect for her and also admiration for the bond of love and the foundation that you must have in place with her all the way through it.
Absolutely. Those are micro moments, right? And that was a micro moment that had a massive impact on our ability to heal and to come through this as a family.
Yeah, and you end that chapter with your learning, your insight, which is to choose love and self-love. Because even if she didn't say it's not your fault, we know internally what stories keep coming up, and the second one is to choose forgiveness for self and the other, because forgiveness is critical towards healing.
It's the only way forward, to be honest with you, and it's about being more compassionate with others and ourselves. One of your practices is to fuel up with compassion. I had to build that muscle in this process.
Historically, I have not been the most self-compassionate person. I'm my own worst enemy, as many people are. If I had gone down that road, things would have been different. Self-compassion, getting to that point because it's what William would have wanted, helped me pull through.
It's really beautiful. The other story that spoke to me, Nick, was the power of community. Talk a little bit about that because you had built it, consciously or unconsciously. You talk about digging your well before you get thirsty. So talk about the role the community played for you in all of you coming forward.
Sure. The experience of how the community rallied around us was a thing of beauty. I got to experience one of the most beautiful aspects of humanity I’ve ever experienced. I grew up in New York City, where community was not something I grew up with. You live in apartments, the world is shut out, and you're in your own bubble. So I'd never experienced a community like that.
We live in a small town of 5,000 people, and the nexus of the town is the school. Most people in that town had children. How would they look at us, a family who lost a child? Many might want to look away because it's uncomfortable. But the Carlock community did the opposite. They embraced us, did everything to make us feel less alone, like doing our laundry, making meals, and taking care of details around planning William's funeral. It was beautiful.
Reflecting on writing this book, each chapter starts with a poem. The first poem I wrote was "Love Manifest," inspired by the love of the community, which allowed me to tap into a side of myself I hadn't explored before. The community's love was the impetus for this book.
Would you read that for us? I have it in front of me, but I'd love to hear it in your voice.
Love is small green ribbons affixed around town.
Love is a community enveloping a grieving family.
Love is travelers near and far coming to pay their respects.
Love is a moment of lucidity amidst the fog.
Love is connecting in a way you haven't before.
Love is a wife being strong when her husband is falling apart.
Love is a smile on a six-year-old's face as he sees a picture of his brother.
Love is the pain I feel in my heart.
Love is the gift my son gave to the world.
Just listening to that, I have to say to both of you, we've gone off script for the listeners. What's beautiful about this conversation is it's not a head conversation. It's a truly heart-led conversation. What you just shared there, Nick, is beautiful and powerful. For one's loss, to not only build a community, bring that community together, but to unlock things in you that you didn't even truly realize.
And back to your point of what would William want? He would want this, he would want that community to come together, he would want you to be one with them and for them to be part of you. I would love for you to share with us a little bit about how you are leveraging the power of 'what if'.
Before you go there, can I just read a little bit on the Love Manifest? It's the last part of Nick's book and it deeply touched me. I think it's a reminder of the day-to-day moments that we forget. We think about love on Valentine's day, birthdays, anniversaries, but we don't really talk about love in workplaces or everyday interactions. I wanted to read this because it deeply touched me.
"Love, which is such a deep part of our humanity, doesn't have to be reserved exclusively for the most sensational moments of our lives. It can thrive beyond the magnificent and the tragic if we allow it to.
Love can flourish in our everyday interactions and our mundane moments. We are bound together by our shared humanity. The problem is that we forget it sometimes. We forget that inside of us is a longing to love and be loved. We let our ego-driven fears determine how we see others, often subsuming or diminishing their humanity.
And you invite us, right, to remind ourselves, when we are engaging with another, remember that there stands another human being. Someone just like me. Someone who likely shares the same basic needs that I do. Someone who will be filled with happiness when something great happens and someone who will be devastated by a tragic loss. If you could remember this, and open ourselves to others, acts of love and kindness will abound."
I wanted to read this because it's so beautifully put and it's an important reminder of the power of love and also connects deeply to the present moment conversation we had earlier.
Sometimes the word love almost does a disservice to love because we tend to frame it as something big, but it is just about connecting one human to another. It's about seeing, understanding, empathizing, being with another, especially now with the horrible atrocities around the world.
It's because we don't see another human being, we just see another. If we can remember that even my worst enemy would feel the exact same thing I did if he lost his child because we're both human. But we forget that because of our fears, our ego, self-preservation. If we could bring more of that into this world, the world would be a better place.
It comes up for me, even if we shift a little bit and think about the Middle East. We can talk about this as a conflict, the atrocities that Hamas did, but at this moment, there are so many parents who lost their children in Israel, and in Palestine. There is so much tragedy happening right now. It doesn't matter who you are, the pain is the same. Both are, and love is as hard in those moments.
Absolutely. That's where we have to find a way to not let our egos, our fears get in the way of our capacity to love.
Back to what Shauna Shapiro shared with us about how it took her time to be able to say out loud to herself, "Good morning, Sean. I love you." It's so easy for us to use vulgarity.
How quick are we to raise our middle finger if something rubs us the wrong way? Why is it so difficult for us to say "Love" or "I love you" and be intentional about it? It costs us nothing. Yet, it takes a tragedy sometimes for people to appreciate and to be able to say such things. How can integrating that type of self-compassion, kindness, gratitude start to permeate daily without needing a tragedy?
My next question for you, Nick, is about the power of 'what if.' How can our listeners start to imagine a change they can make in their own life or in the lives of others to come out of that pain stronger, with more kindness, more love, rather than more despair, more hate, and more fear?
Especially when looking forward, because looking back, the past is the past.
It is about leaving the past in the past. To do that, you have to accept what happened and accept what is. This took me a long time to get to in my journey of grief and processing and making meaning. Only when we accept what is can we actually move forward.
I was fighting what is, not accepting it, bitter about it, a victim of what happened to William and our family. The only way forward is to get to that place of acceptance. It doesn't mean you have to be happy or that you can't be upset, but the more you fight it, the more you take yourself out of the present moment and even the possibility to think about the what ifs for the future.
Don't try to get there too quickly because it's a process. At some point, if you have any hopes of making that shift, that moving forward type of way, you have to get to acceptance.
Especially both reconciling, accepting, surrendering, you have a chapter on letting go. Really surrendering to what is, because there is no what if anymore in the past. You can ask questions all day about what if and why, but they don't really go anywhere. What if is such a powerful question because it opens up a range of possibilities that you get to choose from. It's so important for leaders. We don't dream enough, we don't ask that question enough. We like to tell people what to do.
We put our blinders on, get stuck on how it's been done. We look to the past to inform how we should be in the now or in the future, closing off possibilities. That's the power of what if, it dares you to think out of the proverbial box and explore new possibilities. What if and why are the two most powerful coaching questions.
And the other part of this, which is also powerful with the what if, reminds us that we think we are in control, but we're not. That's part of the reason we don't want to ask what if, thinking something could happen that we didn't consider. But we are not in control.
From my experience, we are absolutely not in control. I replayed the day of the incident many times to see if I would have done anything differently. There's nothing I would have done differently. A random series of events came together and caused what happened, and there is nothing I could do to prevent it. We are not in control, and the sooner we can accept that, then possibility can emerge.
Yes, we can move with that. And by the way, it is also not about... So we're not in control, everything is random, and hence I should do nothing. That is also not what you should take away from this. So talk to us a little bit about that, Nick.
To just throw caution to the wind is not a wise strategy either. It's about being more intentional with how we choose to live our lives, which does not mean you become a control freak. Just being more intentional about the choices we make can create more hopeful what-if scenarios for our future. But we don't just throw caution to the wind because then we give up.
But ground yourself in this recognition that you're not in control of the outcomes. You do not control what you get. But you 100 percent control what you give. That, you are in control of.
You control what you give, how you show up, what your attitude is towards whatever happened. That's the only thing we can control.
And that is the way forward, right? What meaning do we make from what happens? We don't control what happens to us. We can control what meaning we give it. That's like timeless wisdom.
One of the main messages from the Gita is that you should focus on your actions, but not worry about the outcomes. Choose your actions and focus on them.
Ashish and I had a conversation about the universe. For those of our listeners that listened to the episode with Shrikumar Rao, the universe truly is our friend. Sometimes it's not about asking what's being done to me, but what's being done for me or for others. Nick, you're an amazing example of that.
We always start our recordings with a podcast asking what is your definition of happiness and how has it changed since your younger years? For you, Nick, how has this event in your life changed how you define happiness?
Before we lost William, happiness was a thing to achieve, a goal, a milestone. Now, happiness is moment to moment experiences. We can't hold on to them too tightly because they pass.
Life is a series of peaks and valleys, so if we hold on too tight to the peaks, we'll be miserable in the valleys. Happiness is moment to moment and when we have it, we should be grateful. When it's not here, focus on what is here.
And on that, you've done something beautiful in William's honor and memory, you started a foundation to help children grow their awareness. I love that because awareness is at the center and at the heart of our nine practices. Could you share the purpose behind the foundation and what you are looking to achieve?
The foundation is called the “William’s Be Yourself Challenge”. Let me tell a quick story about why we have to be yourself because it's an important part of the story. When William was just shy of 8 years old, my wife took our boys to a Unitarian Church in our town and they have this great programming for kids, and he did an exercise, asking the kids to come up with a mantra for their coming year.
And William had grappled with anxiety, he was in therapy. And not even 8 years old, but William wrote down, as his mantra in bright red marker on a note card, which we still have, "be yourself."
People always said he was an old soul, and for not even an eight-year-old to declare that, and not only declare but live it. He lived it in his eighth year, he was starting to come into his own and really embrace it.
So we thought, what better way to honor William than to name this foundation in honor of him and his mantra, and also to help other kids find the courage to be themselves? Because we see it in the news, there’s a lot of tragedy that happens because people aren’t afforded the right, the luxury to be themselves, however that unfolds for them.
We're giving kids the courage to do that and embrace others who are being themselves. How do we get to a place where we can have more love? Well, you got to start with the kids. You have to teach them to be themselves, but not only be themselves, but embrace others who are being themselves. So that’s why we started this non-profit.
Right now it's more of a local community thing, and our aspiration is to grow it beyond Carlisle, beyond Massachusetts, and get it into the world someday.
Being yourself requires knowing yourself. We'd love to help support and partner with you to make a difference and honor William's life. The three elements of knowledge, community, and movement are part of what you're trying to teach and make happen.
The power of this for teenage mental health is immense, as they're trying to be someone else to be more accepted, more famous, more popular. The challenge of just being yourself is critical.
There's a big need for it. We hope to help out with that.
Anil, do you want to bring us home with the rapid fire?
I will, but there's one thing I have to say. William and I are soul brothers. Before I met Ashish, my hashtag was actually "know you to be you." For him to figure that out at that age took me 40 years.
If we can help the youth learn that much earlier, the what-if and looking forward is incredibly bright and beautiful. So, Nick, what is your favorite song that you like to play when you want to turn your frown upside down?
I'm a big fan of the Lumineers, particularly the song "Ho Hey." It's a song that we would sing as a family and it always brought a smile to our faces.
What's the activity that you love to do with Kai, Bodhi, and Susie?
We love spending time at the beach, paddleboarding, and really anything outdoors like hiking, biking, paddleboarding, being at the beach. Connecting with nature is important for us.
What is your favorite book?
"The Prophet" by Khalil Gibran. It's a series of poems that have lessons in them and inspired me to write my own book.
Love it. Love it. It's a really important thing to do. And the last one, Nick is. What is your favorite book?
As you can see, I have a lot of books behind me. I'll pick one. It's a book that inspired me to write my own book. My book started as poems and the book that inspired me was "The Prophet" by Khalil Gibran. It's a series of poems that have lessons in them. That's what inspired me to write poems and turn them into lessons.
Beautiful. To our listeners, if you've not had a chance, "My Teacher, My Son," I highly recommend it. We're going to share more about the foundation of "Be Yourself." Nick, thank you for coming on and sharing your story. Through tragedy, you've created something incredibly beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with myself, Ashish, and our listeners. Thank you, my brother.