Grow Up, But Not Too Much.

I have a tendency to be too serious. It’s not always easy for me to relax and just lay around. When I take time to reflect why, it’s likely because keeping busy and being productive is what has helped me be somewhat successful to date. I’ve also always lived with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. This may be because of where I came from, but it could also be some deep-rooted insecurity making me want to outwork everyone or prove everyone wrong. I don’t even know who “everyone” is. Weird, huh?

A few weeks ago, after I put out a blog post, my wife told me to lighten up. She said the posts don’t always need to be so serious and I should make sure I show the side of me that still knows how to have fun. She’s probably right. Don’t tell her I said that. Sometimes I get so caught up in providing a life lesson, I don’t share the side of me that’s still a kid at heart.

Much of the fun-loving person I can be says completely inappropriate things I don’t necessarily need to share in writing, but the part I do love to share is my affinity of putting together a good costume. Fortunately for me, my wife has the same affinity. And no, for those of you that just had your mind wander to a freaky place, I’m really talking about costumes.

Since I was in college, I’ve always been down for a good costume party. Be it for Halloween, a Christmas party, or one of the greatest spectacles in the world, Bay to Breakers in San Francisco, people could count on me to show up ready to roll. Yes, I have looked and behaved like a total maniac at times, but I don’t care. It’s worth it.

So the point of this post is pretty simple. I grew up having fun being a kid and playing sports. Competitive athletics (not beer leagues) ended with my last football game in college against Central Michigan University. Just because I don’t get to be a kid anymore or play kid games on a daily basis, doesn’t mean I don’t get to have fun. So the next time there’s a costume party and you don’t feel like dressing up, remember, it’s not everyday you can still be a kid, so don’t squander the opportunity.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Buddy the Elf Circa 2007
Dress Like Your Favorite Reindeer – Holiday Party 2013
Hamburglers – Bay to Breakers
Three's Company
Three’s Company – Halloween 2013
B2B 2011
Bay to Breakers – 2011 (The cop didn’t think my fake mustard was nearly as funny as I did)
Ace Ventura, Snowflake and Ray Finkle – 2015 (Bringing James into the mix)
Grandma Got Run Over
Grandma Got Run Over – Holiday Party 2012

It Ain’t Over…You Know the Rest.

The irony of Yogi Berra passing away nearly a month before Michigan lost the way they did to Michigan State is almost poetic. The dust has settled now, more games have gone by, but the wounds are still deep.

yogi-berra1One of the greatest baseball players of all time had a way with words and they were never truer than they were on a cool night in mid-October, 2015.

“It Ain’t Over, Til It’s Over” ~ Yogi Berra

I love college football more than I can convey in a blog post. I love the time of year. I love College Gameday on ESPN. I love the build up to the big games. I love how it’s on from early morning until late at night every single Saturday. There’s not much I don’t love about college football, less the fact I still have a hard time getting out of bed due to a back injury I sustained while playing it. I can go on for days.

The game teaches us about life in hidden ways, but also in blatant, cold ways. It was like getting hit with a brick when Michigan had the game “won” with 10 seconds left on the clock. All they needed to do was get a routine play off and the game was theirs, but it exploded like the Hindenburg. Suddenly, MSU had a convoy of players in a sea of white running the other way toward the end zone. Everyone watching the event live, or viewing the highlight later, couldn’t believe what they saw. I’ve been around football my entire life and seen a lot of craziness, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite like what happened that night. MSU won the game as the clock struck 0:00. Then, it was over, for real.

With 10 seconds to go, my wife, who graduated from MSU and bleeds green, was already in the kitchen cleaning up, disgusted at the performance of her beloved Spartans. She had given up on the game. My brother-in-law (a Michigan die-hard fan) and sister-in-law were getting ready to head back to their place for the night and I, holding onto my son in front of the TV, have to admit, even thought it was over. Then, lightning in a bottle.

Many people have been armchair quarterbacks and second-guessed the decision of the Great Jim Harbaugh not to run another play and possibly get a first down. I’ve seen several of the pundits’ comments; many have never put on a pair of shoulder pads. The fact is that the game wasn’t lost on the final play. It’s just the play everyone will remember for years to come. People have forgotten the punter had an 80-yard punt earlier in the game and gave MSU a long field most of the night. Sure, he made a mistake, but without him, MSU may have been ahead. Who knows? Connor Cook threw for over 300 yards against the best pass defense in the country. It’s a good thing they had a long field all night.

People on Twitter bashing the young man for “losing the game” have major issues and likely don’t know much about what it takes to strap on a helmet. Sure, you never want to leave your destiny in the hands of a kicker or punter, but there’s more to the game than the final play.

Stating the lesson here would be too obvious. Yogi already took care of that. I’ve had many conversations throughout the week and can still hardly believe what happened. The word WOW is representative and the one I’ve seen and heard most. The end of that game is just another example of why I, and so many other people in this country, love college football. It’s more than a game; it’s a reflection of life. Thanks for the reminder, Yogi!

Master Your Role and Opportunities Will Follow

As standout athletes come up through the ranks, from little league through college, and possibly the pros, it’s not difficult to see how entitled behavior can form. Many times we were the recipients of a free pass whereas a non-athlete may not have been so fortunate. We may have gotten the benefit of the doubt on an assignment that was subpar or had a police officer look the other way when they realized they pulled over the star of the football team after he was going 80 in a 55. None of these things ever happened to me, I was perfect. See what I did there? 🙂

If you’re not aware, I’ll share a secret. When sports end, what will make you successful in life and your career is the same thing that made you successful on the athletic field: hard work, talent and making the right decision when it counts. Talent may actually be a distant third. Employers will not care that you played athletics. Don’t go into a new job or position with the idea it will be easy or you will be promoted in two years because that’s how it “should work.” I’ve seen really talented people get caught up in focusing so much on getting where they want to be, they forgot to focus on where they were. Then, two years went by and they ended up frustrated because they didn’t get the promotion or the responsibility they believe they deserved. Don’t get me wrong, being ambitious is something I absolutely recommend. But unless you become a master at your craft, no one will care about your potential or where you think you should be. You’re not “special” any more.

During my senior year at Western, after I realized I wasn’t going to be playing football any longer, I was getting ready to start my new job and career. I had an internship the previous summer for Philip Morris U.S.A. and was fortunate enough to have been offered a full-time position once my final year of school was over. From the time I finished my internship until the time I started the following year, the manager that offered me the position retired. A brand new manager had taken over, so I decided to go meet her and say hello to the team before my start date. When I arrived at the office, the new manager only had a few moments to meet me in passing. I came to find out later, she wasn’t very impressed. As a new manager, she wanted to build her own team, not be stuck with the previous manager’s hire, and quite possibly, a big dumb football player. This is similar to a regime change in college athletics. People want to select their own players. It’s no different in the business world. Luckily my new manager didn’t decide to retract my offer and I went to work shortly thereafter, right after graduation.

I approached the business world and this new role the exact same way I lunch-pail-and-thermosapproached athletics. I busted my ass, learned everything I could about the industry, sought help from people better than me and never, ever showed up late or unprepared for anything. I worked hard to gain the trust of not only my new manager and company, but my customers. Both knew they could count on me to follow though if I told them I was going to get something done. It was that behavior, and because I didn’t focus on being promoted more than becoming a master at my current role, I was able to earn a promotion in about two years.

Not only did I work hard, but I also made the right decision to relocate when the opportunity to get promoted arose. Side note: When you tell the people interviewing you you’re willing to relocate anywhere, you will definitely be considered for more opportunities than if you’re not willing to relocate, but you better be willing to stand behind your word. I was willing and ended up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I’m not knocking Sioux Falls. I loved it there. I’m just saying, not everyone can take their promotion and move to downtown Chicago or San Francisco. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you have to take a detour to reach your ultimate goal.  

One of my pet peeves as a manager is how some high potential employees focus so much on the fact someone told them they would be promoted in (insert time frame here), they never focused on becoming the best they could be at their current role. Then, frustration begins to set in and they either leave or get dismissed from the company. The potential, and time, has been wasted.

My main advice of this post for those athletes, and non-athletes for that matter, striving to be successful after they leave the field or classroom for the final time is: bust your ass in your current role. Learn as much as you can. Lean on smart people and be smart enough yourself to pounce on opportunities when they present themselves, because they will, if you’ve done what you need to do. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my college football coach always said, “If you do something well enough for long enough, it doesn’t matter where you are, people will find you.”

ps~ The aforementioned boss of mine from Philip Morris that could have done without me when she met me, she’s one of my favorite people in the world to this day. I can’t guarantee it, but I think she would say something similar about me. 

Where You’re From Matters and Production Counts

THE REGION. If I’m going to write about my experiences, there’s no better place to start than where I grew up. For those unfamiliar, the Region is the Northwest corner of Indiana, just South of Chicago. It’s a place very well described The Regionby one word: grit, both literally and figuratively. Literally because it’s a region of the country with a history of significant steel production; figuratively because it’s deeply instilled in the people from there. Because of that, I was very proud when we, in our company, decided to have the term grit included in one of our core values. It’s a value that can take you a long way in life; and something we look for in every person we hire.

Example conversation from the Region link above: Arlington Heights, IL kid to a Region kid (Hammond, IN) at Indiana University

Arlington Heights Kid: Where you from?

Hammond Kid: Chicago

Arlington Heights Kid: Oh yeah me too, where near Chicago?

Hammond Kid: The Region

Arlington Heights Kid: What? Wait, that’s in Indiana, you can’t say you’re from Chicago.

Hammond Kid: Look motherfucker, if the Chicago Tribune says I’m from Chicago, I’m from Chicago!

Mine is a tale of two cities in the Region. I spent the first thirteen years of my life in Hammond, Indiana, an urban suburb of Chicago, where many people I grew up around were tied directly to the mills or the trades associated. Hammond was a microcosm of the country. There were haves and have nots, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian people, along with every religion imaginable. I loved growing up in Hammond. It was there where my sports obsession began. Being so close to Chicago and growing up during the time of the ’85 Bears, Ditka, and the Jordan era, what sports-infatuated kid wouldn’t have loved it?

When I was midway through my eighth grade school year, my parents decided to move South about 25 miles to Lowell, Indiana. It was still a part of the Region, but couldn’t have been more different than Hammond. Everyone was just like me. There were White, middle class nuclear families in a town where people generally left their doors unlocked. The house we bought was on 10 acres of land. There was a farm across the street and I had to ride a bus to school. Needless to say this was a bit of a shock to a kid that had only ever been on a bus for field trips because I could walk to school my whole life. Interestingly enough, although it couldn’t have been more different, I loved Lowell too. The people there were very welcoming to a kid from Hammond some may not have been too sure about. It certainly didn’t hurt being a decent three-sport athlete in a town that loved to root on their Red Devils. I like to say I was raised in Hammond, grew up in Lowell, but am from the Region.

I’m so fond of where I’m from that when people ask me, I wear it as a badge of honor, “A place called the Region, near Chicago” is where I typically start. By living in both Hammond and Lowell, I was fortunate to learn about different types of people from a variety of social classes and backgrounds. That childhood experience accelerated my ability to adapt in both my collegiate and professional career with a sense of toughness, tolerance and understanding I couldn’t possibly have gotten by only living in only one place or the other. I have to thank my parents for that one. They were  unaware at the time, but both places had a significant impact on me.

Enough about me. The point of this post is where you’re from plays an important role in the person you become. Next to your parents, it may be the single largest influence on who you are and what you’re made of. But at some point, you’re on your own and have to produce. Whether the place you’re from is desirable or not is irrelevant. Whether you grew up with people that looked different than you, or the same, doesn’t really matter any longer. That goes for whether you played sports or not, if you went to Harvard or not. Your background matters to an extent and it may help you land an interview for your first job, but in the end your production counts.

My college football coach said something all the time that sticks with me to this day. He said, “No matter where you are, if you do something well enough for long enough, people will find you.” You have to continually produce. How else can we explain someone from West Texas earning a scholarship to Ohio State and never seeing the field; or someone from Nowheresville, Idaho showing up on campus at Oregon as a walk-on and earning a scholarship? People care about production. Of course there may be politics involved at some level and many people love to make excuses and use the phrase, “they play favorites.” One of my coaches had the best reply to that statement. He’d say, “Damn right I play favorites. My favorites are the best players.”

In sports, corporate America and startups, background matters somewhat. But give me someone that’s smart, went to a local State school and is willing to bust their ass, try new things, fail, learn and try again, and I’ll hire them all day over someone who’s entitled from the “right side of the tracks” and not willing to work hard.

My two business partners and I are all from blue collar families from the Midwest and went to State schools (Michigan and Western Michigan). We’ve seen a lot of people come and go in the startup game over the last five years. It’s a tough game and we’re certainly not guaranteed to be “successful” yet, but I sometimes wonder: Would I have seen some of the other startups come and go so quickly if they had more people from the Region, with a little more grit?

It’s Go Time! Life After the Lights Begins Today.

My name is Jake Gasaway. That’s me in the above photo, the little face in the middle of an empty Waldo Stadium. If you’ve ever sat in an empty stadium as an athlete, or even if you weren’t an athlete, you’ve likely dreamt about playing in front of a huge crowd that cheered you on for the game winner. What most of us never gave much thought to was that one day we’d actually have to go to work and the cheers would come to an end. Is that a sad thought? Maybe, but it’s reality.

As an athlete you know all too well about reality. You win some. You lose some. You learn. You work your ass off and keep moving forward. There’s no time to rest on that last victory or sulk about the most recent defeat. That’s one of the best recipes for life one could concoct.

Until I was 23 years old, my entire life revolved around athletics. I was fortunate enough to earn a D-1 football scholarship (less than 2% of high school football players earn an athletic scholarship of any kind) to Western Michigan University

Western at Michigan - 2002
Western at Michigan – 2002

where my athletic compulsion continued, and perhaps even worsened. Then one day my senior year ended and it was all over, just like that. In 2002, the lights went out in the stadium for good.

Even though I was a Senior Captain and Center on the football team, I had a decent idea I wouldn’t go pro since only 1.6% of college football players get drafted; not to mention I was undersized and slow as hell. Luckily I focused enough on my schoolwork and preparing between games, practices and workouts to secure a great job right out of school with a Fortune 500 company (Philip Morris U.S.A.). Since joining Philip Morris, earning my M.B.A and co-founding a startup, I’ve acquired a real education about corporate America, startups, and now fatherhood.

I’m a long way from the locker room and wish I knew then what I know now. Don’t get me wrong, I wish we could all play forever, but the fact is, no matter which level you make it to in athletics, it will come to an end. Thinking about that a little bit can go a long way, which is the purpose of this blog. I want to share my unique perspective as a former athlete that has been successful in corporate America as well as my own startup (Stitch Labs) in Silicon Valley. I’m still new to this fatherhood thing, but hopefully I’ll do ok there, too. What makes me qualified to write about this topic? Subscribe and hopefully you’ll find out soon enough.

Everyone should have a resource to be able to ask questions about how life will change when athletics are in the rear view, and the web makes it easier than ever to do so. Please join the discussion as I talk about everything from the early, and sometimes privileged life of an athlete, to getting that first job, to knowing when to take a risk. I don’t know it all, so feel free to jump in and help me out….even if that means babysitting. This kid is tougher than football ever was. 🙂

Life is pretty busy at the moment with a startup, marriage and fatherhood, so I won’t be writing every day, but I’m committing to this because I see a need in the athletic community for perspective about life after the lights. If there’s something you’re interested in reading about, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll get back at you. Thanks for reading this first post and I hope to see you again on the interwebs.