At the end of July, I participated in a two-day workshop in San Francisco called Tide Turners. This is the story of what I discovered there.

I first met Joe Hudson, the creator and leader of the program, at a Consciousness Hacking meetup dedicated to building products that contribute to self-awareness and sustainability. He led a short conversation at the end of the evening with the few people that stuck around, and I was impressed by his presence and vulnerability.

Joe doesn’t have the typical background of a self-help guru. He is the founder and managing director of One Earth Capital, a boutique venture capital firm that invests in early-stage companies developing “decentralized, game-changing technologies in transformative personal development.” This includes businesses working in executive coaching, sustainable agriculture, and financial services.

As his website explains, his teacher and mentor was Cees De Bruin, a Dutch investor and entrepreneur who had a way of asking questions and getting to the root cause of the challenges that people faced in their lives and businesses. Joe describes his initial fascination at watching how De Bruin combined deep empathy and compassion for people, with an uncanny salesmanship ability:

“One day, I watched Cees, a quirky guy from Amsterdam, talk to an American farmer. He sat and asked questions and at the end of their conversation, the farmer wanted to buy the product that Cees was selling. Cees never tried to convince him into anything. The sale was a natural progression of events that stemmed from their conversation that led the farmer to realize things about himself he hadn’t before. Once the connection was made, the sale was done. This progression fascinated me and I wanted to learn more. Over my time spent with Cees, I saw this gift over and over again.”

His time with De Bruin was part of Joe’s 20-year spiritual odyssey through meditation, Eastern philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and purpose-driven business. Tide Turners and his other courses are his attempt to integrate and teach what he has learned to leaders and founders doing important work.

Beginning the journey

A few weeks later, a friend told me he had completed the Tide Turners workshop just a few months before. As I waffled and wavered over whether I would take the plunge, he leaned over, looked me straight in the eye, and told me decisively that I needed to do it. He recommended it as the most impactful personal growth experience of his life, and had the results to match. I decided to enroll then and there.

From the very beginning, Tide Turners was unlike any other “self-development program” I’d ever experienced. Typically, workshops are held in corporate-looking office spaces or hotel convention rooms. Our course was held in a beautiful mansion at the edge of Alamo Square in the hills of San Francisco, with modern, clean interior decoration and lots of light.

There were no sign-in forms, introductory videos, or seating arrangements. It felt more like going to a dinner party at a friend’s house. About 25 people showed up, and we sat in chairs arranged in a single large circle in the living room of the house. The participants were of different ages and backgrounds, but there was a solid majority of young, Silicon Valley tech workers and founders. What they seemed to have in common as we shared our goals for the weekend was a big vision for something they wanted to create in the world, and a track record of using personal development as a path to get there.

My goals for the workshop, scrawled hastily in my notebook in the minutes before we got started, were simple:

  1. Discover my next area for growth as a leader
  2. Usher in the next stage of evolution of Forte Labs
  3. Found Building a Second Brain as a movement

In other words, my priorities were myself, then my business, then my work. During the weekend I would discover just how many layers there were to these seemingly simple goals.

The official learning objective of the workshop is straightforward and practical:

“Bringing awareness to how our consciousness affects our communication and learning techniques to become more effective in the following areas: fundraising and sales, product development, customer service, attracting great talent, and managing teams.”

But there is a deeper, more intriguing story to Joe’s work. One of the most fundamental assumptions in modern society is: that you can either be spiritual and have inner peace, OR live a successful life with material rewards. But not both.

Joe is seeking to show that the most worldly experiences, such as in business, can fuel profound spiritual awakenings. That what we think of as competing priorities can actually be complements.

Paraphrasing from the Tide Turners website, Joe believes that the experience of oneness with the universe that is the goal of so many spiritual traditions is not an endpoint, but a starting point. From there, we naturally ask how we can work from that place of oneness, start and grow businesses from oneness, have relationships in oneness, create community in oneness, and parent from oneness. His intention is to discover how the journey of self-realization can be one and the same as the journey of living an effective, successful life.

These intentions resonated deeply with me. It is very much the same thing that I am seeking in my work, except not stated so explicitly. As we finished our brief introductions and began the exercises that would take up most of the weekend, I began to sense that I was going to uncover something very profound and powerful in this course. I decided to maintain as open a mind as possible toward what that might be

The basic methodology that Joe teaches is called VIEW, which stands for Vulnerability, Impartiality, Empathy, and Wonder. But like all frameworks, the power is not in the framework, but in how each of these “modes of being” are embodied. The weekend was dedicated to experimenting for ourselves what it meant to stay “within the VIEW”, spread out over two days of conversations, exercises, and activities.

Vulnerability: the courage to question what keeps you separate from others

The first exercise was in pairs, each person sitting in a chair facing their partner knee-to-knee. It was an eye-gazing exercise, designed to break the ice and help us begin letting our guards down. Sitting face-to-face with a stranger, I felt a slight twinge of anxiety as I stared into the eyes of a stranger that I knew was about to see behind the curtains of my well-ordered life.

For the second exercise, they asked one partner to stay silent, while the other verbalized the emotions or impressions that they felt they were receiving as they locked eyes.

In conversation, I usually try to stay fairly impassive and “neutral,” not wanting to react prematurely or give away what I’m thinking. I’ve always thought that this made me a “good listener,” so I was shocked to hear the unfiltered stream of impressions of me from my partner: frustrated, annoyed, angry, bored, judgmental, distracted.

I learned in this exercise that I put a tremendous amount of energy into not “giving anything away,” but that this just makes me come across as withdrawn and uninterested, if not outright hostile. I think I’m being stoic, when in fact I’m being cold. Then when they react negatively to this coldness, my story that people aren’t interested in me or what I’m doing is confirmed. A self-fulfilling prophecy, like all stories.

Through these simple exercises I began to learn what was meant by the V for Vulnerability in the VIEW framework. I had understood vulnerability as something akin to embarrassment, a collapsed definition that I suspect has roots in my conservative Northern Italian (by way of Brazil) upbringing. I had a trick for being vulnerable when I wanted to be – just say something embarrassing – but this was a poor substitute for the real thing, and often backfired for obvious reasons.

On day 1 I learned that vulnerability is more like a growth edge, one that is unique for every person and constantly shifting from moment to moment. A topic or conversation that is vulnerable in one context may not be vulnerable at all in a different context. Your growth edge is whatever is on the edge of comfort for you in a given moment. You can’t identify it using a checklist or algorithm, because by the time you do, the moment will have passed. You can only sense it, like a shifting chasm you are trying to communicate across. And you only have a split second to decide whether to jump, before the moment passes.

For the third exercise, we got into pairs again, this time to trigger each other on purpose. A collective groan of discomfort passed through the room as we were instructed to ask our partner what they least wanted to hear in the world, and then to say it to them to their face: “You’re not good enough”; “You’re not going to make it”; “You are ugly”; “Your business is never going to succeed”; “You’ll always be alone.”

The purpose of this exercise was to begin practicing the core technique of the VIEW framework: How/What questions. On the surface, this is very simple: ask questions of your conversation partner that begin with “How…?” and “What…?” That is, questions that invite open-ended, constructive answers, rather than “Why…?” questions that demand justifications or “Do you…?” questions with yes/no answers.

  • Instead of “Do you love your partner?” you ask “What would it look like for your relationship to thrive?”
  • Instead of “Why do you want to quit your job?” you ask “How could your job satisfy all your needs?”
  • Instead of “Which one do you care about more?” you ask “How could you have both?”

The purpose of asking questions in the first place is to help your partner access their innate curiosity and intelligence in resolving their own problems. Instead of giving advice or proposing solutions, which always encounters resistance, you invite them to tell the truth to themselves about the situation they’re facing. Once they’re able to do so in a spirit of generosity and self-love, the path forward becomes easily illuminated. And they’re able to walk it because the answer came from themselves, and strengthened their own agency, instead of arriving from an external source.

I learned another lesson about vulnerability through this exercise: it takes real vulnerability to ask the question that pierces the heart of the matter. They might react badly. They might think you’re being nosy or insensitive. They could very well tell you something that is hard to handle. But this vulnerability is essential to the art of asking questions. Unless you’re in the whirlpool with them, feeling the same fear and uncertainty, asking questions amounts to nothing more than an interrogation. Only a question asked with vulnerability can evoke a vulnerable answer.

Impartiality: taking as a starting point that the person in front of you is already perfect in every way

The second element in the VIEW is I for Impartiality.

Instead of leading the conversation to a predetermined outcome of your own choosing, you hold no preference for where it ends up. Instead of being attached to a goal, outcome, breakthrough, or resolution for this person and their problem, you allow them to lead the conversation where it needs to go.

When we talk with people who are dealing with challenging circumstances, we often think we know what’s right for them: take this course, try this product, implement this method, choose this option. We’re uncomfortable just being with their pain. We’re scared to hear what it’s really like for them, and to have to carry that weight. So we hear one thing that kind of reminds us of one thing that worked that one time and…poof, we offer some advice.

But the arrogance of believing that we know what’s right for someone after 15 minutes of conversation is staggering. Impartiality invites you to consider that they are the genius of their own life. They know what’s best for them – the best you can hope for is to reflect some of that wisdom back to them, providing access to the truths they already know.

This guidance was, of course, the hardest one for me to truly swallow. Joe sat next to me in my partner conversations, calling out “partial!” every time I asked a question that was stealthily leading my partner in a certain direction.

Me: “How do you think it makes people feel when you do that?”
Joe: “Partial”
Me: “How do you feel when that happens?”

Me: “Why do you want to sell your business?”
Joe: “Partial”
Me: “What benefits do you think selling your business will bring you?”

Me: “Do you value integrity?”
Joe: “Partial!”
Me: “How could you have integrity in this situation?”

It took quite some time for me to wrap my head around what true impartiality looks like. It represents a radical level of open-mindedness, an open-ended exploration leaving all my own opinions and judgments aside. It is so difficult, when hearing about a problem that I am certain I know how to solve, to instead ask “What benefit would that bring you?” or “How do you see that action relating to the situation you’re facing?”

But the more I do it, the more I am shocked by how different other people’s thinking is from my own. The more I hear about what motivates or interests others about a given path of action, the less I recommend my own solutions. I’ve come to understand that the answers I’ve found only apply to a narrow slice of life, for a narrow slice of the population.

Joe explained that, when we are afraid and our amygdala is engaged, we tend to look at things as black or white. Our only options seem to lie at the extremes: break up or stay together; sell the business or keep it; take the job or don’t; move to a new city or stay put. But this is rarely the best way to look at things, because it conceals a vast spectrum of options in between. There are always degrees of freedom, hidden alternatives, and subtle options available. But it is difficult to even see them when acting from a place of panic and fear.

The fear of being alone

It was toward the end of day 1 that I had my first major breakthrough. As usual, it came from the most unexpected direction.

Skirting the edges of my comfort zone, I came face to face with the fear of being alone. The first few years of my business had been some of the loneliest of my life, toiling for week after week on my computer trying to make something happen, trying to keep my momentum and my spirits high. I’ve thankfully moved on from that time, but had never realized that that experience had left a wound. I had decided at some point that I was never going to experience that kind of loneliness ever again.

Fast forward to 2018, and it would seem that my current situation couldn’t be further from loneliness. I am working with 7 close collaborators on a range of interesting projects. I have a support team of contractors supporting me with bookkeeping, tax preparation, legal services, and marketing. I have a strong network of customers and advocates constantly telling me how much they appreciate me and my work.

But the numbers tell a different story. After peaking in February with the relaunch of my online course, revenue had been falling month after month. Expenses rose steadily as I hired more people on more projects. I spent money as fast as I could to “buy growth,” yet found that none of our offerings scaled as quickly as we needed to cover expenses.

I began to tell the truth to myself on day 1 of Tide Turners: that I was so afraid of being alone again, that I was making business decisions with the goal of keeping people around. But I didn’t know how to manage so many people, or make a business of that size profitable. The only thing I knew how to do was hunker down and produce things. So I ignored the emails and phone calls from my team asking for direction, and instead powered through a string of solo achievements, trying to show that I was making something happen.

The irony is that this whole situation gave me the very isolation I was so desperate to avoid in the first place. I was sacrificing my business to create a sense of belonging. Yet without a business, there was no team to belong to.

Empathy: allowing their experience in, without falling into it

On day 2 we began exploring E for Empathy. It was like wading through a soup of existing preconceptions and associations with this most overused word.

For the fourth exercise, we began exploring our relationship to the voice in our own heads. It turns out that this is where empathy has to begin – with ourselves. It is impossible to have real empathy for others unless we first have empathy for ourselves.

Each partner was instructed to vocalize their inner dialogue out loud to their partner, unleashing the torrent of doubts, worries, fears, speculations, and musings we usually keep to ourselves. This part was easy.

The second part of the exercise was harder: we had to turn on a dime and tell our partner our gifts. It was like a locomotive screeching to a halt, the judgmental mind suddenly reversing course to become an appreciative mind. I noticed how much more difficult it was to see the good in myself, to look inside and find something to praise. I’m always on the lookout for a problem to solve, and will find one on the inside if I need to.

We began to ask ourselves, “What evidence do we have that the voice in our heads helps us?” It’s an intriguing question considering how much we revere the advice it gives us. The voice is so often speaking from the neediest, most fearful, most lonely parts of us. As Joe says, “The voice in your head is the unloved bits of previous generations.”

Throughout the weekend, Joe conducted “interviews” to help us better understand each letter in the VIEW framework.  He would sit face to face with a participant, as the rest of the group sat on the floor and observed. He demonstrated the How/What question-asking, keeping his interviewee in “the VIEW” of vulnerability, impartiality, empathy, and wonder.

The most fascinating thing was that each person’s situation was completely different, yet the same process of asking questions always managed to lead them to a place of authenticity and healing.

One particular interview showed us the tremendous power of curious questions.

A woman recalled the memories of a traumatic early experience that had led her to a series of disappointing romantic relationships, in which she couldn’t bring herself to open up to her partner. Within 10 minutes of gentle, curious questions, Joe was holding two thick cushions in front of him, and she was taking out her bottled rage in a ferocious barrage of kicks, punches, and screams. When she was finally spent, she sat down with a satisfied “thank you.”

Joe explained why having access to all one’s emotions is so critical: “Joy is the matriarch of all emotions – she won’t enter a house where her children are not welcome.” In other words, if you cut off access to any emotion – fear, disappointment, love, anger – you also lose joy in the process.

This is most evident when it comes to anger, the most taboo of all emotions in modern society. We learn ways of shutting down our anger at a very young age, because the consequences for letting it out are so severe. But anger, Joe told us, is a form of surrender. Without it, all our other emotions are throttled.

Anger is like a hose running through us from top to bottom. If it gets kinked one way, we get an explosive temper. If it’s kinked another way, we get passive aggression. But if it becomes unkinked, you get pure determination, the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi had.

Wonder: leaving the door open to the possibility that anything could happen

As we began the interviews ourselves, my newly trained partner began asking me a series of questions about my work and my life, for example:

  • “What is the biggest barrier to your freedom?”
  • “How would you frame the problem?”
  • “What excites you about that prospect?”
  • “How could you have both?”
  • “What does success look like for you?”
  • “What are you afraid might happen?”
  • “What would life look like if that intention was fulfilled?”
  • “What hasn’t been working for you?”
  • “How would you approach that if money wasn’t an issue?”
  • “What would your business look like if it was thriving?”

And a cascade of insights began: I realized that I felt an immense obligation to fulfill my potential. As a heavy burden, not an inspiring journey. I felt that I had to repay an enormous debt that I felt I owed everyone who had ever invested in me.

I broke down in tears as I thought about generations of my ancestors, who had sacrificed and struggled so that I could have a better life. I thought of my parents and grandparents, who had spent so many years teaching me everything they knew. I thought of the countless teachers, coaches, mentors, managers, friends, and romantic partners it had taken to make me the person I am today.

I had never realized what a crushing burden I felt at the impossibility of ever paying back the love and care that all these people had given me. My source of motivation for many years had been the desire to pay off the debts of my privilege. That fuel had served me well, but I saw that it had finally exhausted itself. I had exhausted myself. I was done with the endless task of proving that I was good enough, capable enough, successful enough to deserve what I had been given.

As I talked through these realizations with the group, Joe looked at me and asked, “What is a different interpretation for all that?” I responded almost instantly: “That they chose to sacrifice because they loved me, and all they ever wanted was for me to be free.” I didn’t need to pay anything back. I didn’t need to prove that I deserved the privilege I had. It is a privilege to do meaningful work that has a positive impact on people’s lives. But I have the privilege of doing that work out of gratitude and joy, not out of obligation.

As the burden of obligation lifted from my shoulders, I had a ground shaking breakthrough: I had no desire to build a large business. This thought stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the unthinkable thought I hadn’t allowed myself to consider.

I had been working for years with the unstated assumption that I had to build the biggest possible business as fast as possible. I leapt at every opportunity to grow or gain exposure, even if it made me miserable. I spent lavishly on anything that would help me go bigger or move faster. I took on projects or clients out of obligation, as if I had no choice in the matter. Perhaps influenced by the tech startups I was surrounded with in Silicon Valley, I thought hypergrowth was the only path forward.

The outcome was that I had an unprofitable company bleeding cash, a team of contractors I didn’t know how to put to use effectively, a range of projects and responsibilities I had no desire to pursue, and no time left over for the open-ended thinking and writing I loved so much. Pushing hard against what reality was trying to tell me, I found reality pushed back even harder.

When I really got to the bottom of what I wanted, digging down beneath layers of “shoulds” and “ought tos,” I found that what I really desired were very simple things: more time with my family, a small circle of smart friends and collaborators, time to think and travel and explore new things, interesting projects that made a real difference, health and peace of mind. I’d placed all these things on the far side of building a massive company, telling myself I couldn’t indulge until I’d done it. But what my partner’s questions revealed is that they had always been there for the taking.

Wonder is the final element in the VIEW framework, and the most mysterious. It asks us to question whether we know where all this is going. It asks us to stand in awe of the complexity and ineffability of the human experience. It has the questioner not try to find a problem and solve it, but to always remain curious as to how the human being in front of them works, and why.

Remaining within the VIEW is really just a checklist for unconditional love. You can cycle through each element as you are asking questions, asking yourself which one is missing, which one you’re withholding. Vulnerability asks you to constantly turn toward what you’re protecting, what keeps you separated, and have the courage to question it. Impartiality has you take as a starting point that the person in front of you is already perfect in every way. Empathy has you allow their experience in, without falling into it. And Wonder leaves the door open to the possibility that many things can happen not covered in any framework or checklist.

Aftermath

On Sunday evening we walked back out into the world, charged with the homework of using our new question-asking powers and VIEW framework to produce new connection and intimacy in the relationships that matter most to us.

It’s easy to undergo a unique experience like this one, and to walk right back into the same patterns and habits that had you dissatisfied in the first place. It is the practice that makes the difference. New practices take practice.

I’ve waited a few months since completing the Tide Turners workshop before writing this account. I wanted to see if I would be able to put these breakthroughs to use in the “real world.” I’ve found that they are incredibly effective in a wide range of situations. I’ve used the tools I learned there to help a friend see that his career was a completely wrong fit for him, and to begin the transition to something else. I’ve used them in my coaching, helping my clients to see the deeper layers of narratives driving their “bad” habits (and even questioning the labels of “good” and “bad” that keep those habits locked in place). I’ve used it with my family members, facilitating incredible breakthroughs in their relationships and careers. And I’ve used it on myself, bringing curiosity to situations that before I would have felt only self-criticism.

The VIEW and How/What questions have been among the simplest and most effective tools I’ve encountered. I believe that Tide Turners is part of a new generation of personal development programs, adapting to modern ways of communicating and relating while also addressing some of the traditional pitfalls of the self-help industry.

The self-help industry often treats the mind and body as enemies to be beaten into submission. Instead of adding yet another strategy or technique, burying your true self under yet another layer of obligation, it focuses instead on unwinding the negative patterns that keep us from accepting and loving ourselves.

Joe said something that has really stuck with me, and that I’m only just beginning to understand: that you have to allow your heart to break a little to increase your capacity to love. I interpret this to mean that it is only when we expose our hearts enough to allow them to be broken, that we have a chance to expand our heart’s capacity. And it is our heart’s capacity, not our intellectual capacity, that is the bottleneck to the change we want to see in ourselves and the world.

I went into the workshop seeking to grow my self, my business, and my work. For myself, I discovered that my growth edge is my heart – connecting to my desires, my dreams, my emotions, and my body and aligning all of them with what I do every day.

For my business, the growth edge is fundamentals. Profitability, financial solvency, systems and routines needed to even out fluctuations in revenue and help me make better decisions. I’m using You Need a Budget to start budgeting seriously, and Profit First to bring my business finances under control.

And for my work, I think the growth edge is to give it away. I’ve been at the center of everything, the source of everything for long enough. In writing the Building a Second Brain book, my intention is to write simply and clearly enough that anyone can benefit from it. This is some of the hardest writing, to separate my ego and my opinions from the essence of methods that just work. It is only by surrendering control of what these ideas could become that they have a chance of growing beyond my reach.

There are no more Tide Turners workshops scheduled for this year, but you can sign up for their newsletter at the bottom of this page to receive updates on future courses. You can also follow Joe on his Facebook page, where he posts short videos. I’ll leave you with the testimonial video I made on the final day about my experience:

Thanks to Daniel Thomason, Vita Benes, and Massimo Curatella for their comments and feedback.


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