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“Talk about it.” With Brent Robertson

It’s literally compromising the potential of humanity. The only way I can see that humanity will realize its potential is through a deeper connection to ourselves, each other, and a vision for the future bold enough to provoke us to reach beyond our abilities. When we are disconnected and out of relationship with each other […]

It’s literally compromising the potential of humanity. The only way I can see that humanity will realize its potential is through a deeper connection to ourselves, each other, and a vision for the future bold enough to provoke us to reach beyond our abilities. When we are disconnected and out of relationship with each other and our world, we squander our ability for greatness. It is felt at the business level by the catastrophic prevalence of employee disengagement, at the community level by the atrophy of religious institutions, and in our culture through political polarization, the rise of hate crimes and supremacist groups.


As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Brent Robertson.

Brent works with leaders to design futures worth believing in™. A partner at Fathom, he champions an approach to strategic planning, leadership development, talent engagement, and market differentiation that prioritizes people and relationships. As a result, his clients don’t simply plan their futures, they bring them to life through the energy of organization-wide involvement in, and commitment to, generating valuable businesses that matter.

In addition to his client work, Brent is an outspoken advocate for the Hartford region, and serves as an advisor to community, faith and business organizations who endeavor to create a better future for Connecticut. With a bias toward provoking new ways of seeing the world and taking action to change it, Brent is a sought-after keynote speaker and is regularly featured in regional and national publications.

Brent has oriented his life around helping people create conditions for their success. He is frequently invited to lecture on the topic of leadership and uses his personal transformation experience — going from overweight and out of shape middle-ager to ultra-distance athlete in under three years — as a place from which to mentor others through personal and professional change.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Brent! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

Ihave always been interested in what is, and what could be. In high-school and college I studied illustration, sculpture and art history, and at the same time, physics, astronomy and biology. My career began as a graphic designer for a direct marketing company. Before long I was leading the creative team. This propelled my next leap into website design, where I worked as the creative director for a leading agency that was pioneering the digital frontier. In the year 2000, I started my own digital and branding firm and grew it significantly over the next several years until merging it with my current business partner’s firm in 2005 to create Fathom, a strategic marketing and branding firm. We grew like crazy, and in 2009 — right at the peak of our success as an award-winning web design firm — decided to change directions. We didn’t want our future to be about compelling people to buy things they didn’t need.

We found that when we helped our clients find answers to big, dangerous questions like, “Why do you do what you do, and what is it in service to?” they wound up using the answers to shape their organizations in ways that allowed them to outperform or out maneuver change that would’ve threatened their enterprises. This drove Fathom to transform into a Future Design firm where we help our clients step into a future in which their businesses and organizations perform beyond what the benchmark says is possible, while their people feel more engaged in and satisfied with the difference they are making in the world. We discovered that the more humanity you have in the design of an organization, the better it performs. But more importantly, the more humanity an organization has, the more of humanity it serves.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have always been fascinated with the idea of transformation or having the experience of changing how we exist in the world. As my firm Fathom started its transformative journey, I knew I needed to get better equipped to traverse the new terrain opening up in front of us. I wanted to get good at the practice of ritual and discipline. One channel for that was running, or learning how to be a runner. So off I went in April of 2014, never before a runner, putting down miles. I was in terrible shape; a challenging divorce had taken its toll on my health, so it was tough going. About three months in, my friend reached out to me and asked about the last run I posted on Facebook which indicated my heart rate was around 235 beats per minute. I didn’t think anything was wrong with that, but they sure did. Turned out, I had a heart condition I was unaware of.

That didn’t stop me, of course, but I had to have a procedure to correct it. I ran all the way up until the morning of the surgery. Just three weeks after the surgery, I ran my first 10-mile race. That fall, I ran my first half marathon, and in 2015, I was invited to run the Boston Marathon, which I completed in 3:35. Seven marathons and three ultra-marathons later, I now live life as a runner. Which, as it turns out, saved my life.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

I assumed that when I launched my first company in 2000 that I would be solo for at least a year. Within three months I had three employees, and within six months, six — all while working out of my apartment. We would have client meetings on the dining room table and constantly ran out of toilet paper. I was recently engaged when all this took place, so it made for some interesting “conversations” between my fiancée and I as we were starting our lives together. This provoked me to secure official office space, and quick. Lesson learned: If you are dedicated, passionate and driven, expect growth to happen — and make sure your family is with you on the journey, not left behind.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I have partnered with Reverend Allen Hilton to take on a new workshop called Friends Matter — a workshop focused on how men can conquer loneliness through friendship. Our first event was facilitated in October, 2019, and met with incredible feedback. We intend to take the program nationally and are working with several organizations to build it in as required curriculum for early stage recovery programs, as well as leadership programs. Good Morning Connecticut interviewed me about this initiative.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

I’m not an authority on the loneliness epidemic. In fact, if working to solve the loneliness epidemic were a licensed field, I would be an uncertified practitioner fully exposed to malpractice, which I think is important to note. Those working within clinical fields like the medical and behavioral disciplines are so needed in this fight. However, this epidemic won’t be won in the doctor’s office. The change will take place in our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools, churches and places of business. The antidote to loneliness is a loving community. We are all fully qualified to create that!

My work at Fathom is all about creating powerful relationships. Particularly, helping people deepen the access they have to themselves and each other, and putting those relationships to work doing purposeful and powerful things in the world. This is the perspective I bring to this topic. If I am an authority on anything, it’s in the design and facilitation of conversations that reveal and provoke connections, discoveries and actions. In fact, my work has included the creation of some very powerful communities, one of which is centered on events called Sip Sessions which have a strong following that has been growing over the past 2 years since its inception. Each event focuses on a deep and complex societal or personal topic that attendees get to experiment with out in the open through experiences and conversations.

The Sip Sessions and other communities I have built led to the first ever summit on the loneliness epidemic I facilitated with Rev, Allen Hilton, PhD this October. In this workshop, we help men build a vocabulary to speak to and invite the kinds of friendships that are the antidote to loneliness. My commitment to this topic runs deep. It started when I was exposed to a ministry that focuses on providing a safe destination for women trying to find their way out of the sex trafficking industry. When I learned about the complexity, pervasiveness and cruelty of the industry, I was destroyed. Turns out, the leading consumer fueling the industry are white men 30–50 years old, which is also the same age group with the fastest rising suicide rates due to the effects of loneliness. So I committed to work with men and help create conditions that obviate the attraction to the sex trafficking industry.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

I am particularly interested in the unhealthy ways people suppress or attempt to satisfy the effects of loneliness, as well as the disastrous outcomes that loneliness leads to.

Depression and suicide

Loneliness can lead to depression and suicide because when we lose connection to others, we lose our relationship with why we matter. As human beings, meaning is everything. However, knowing what we mean and why we matter is almost always best understood and experienced through interactions with each other. I can only really know who I am to my world through how others know and appreciate me. When we lose that connection, it leads us down the dark road of losing a sense of anything mattering. At its worst, it opens up an internal dialogue that can make a compelling argument for us thinking we don’t matter. This can sure cause depression, but for those suffering depressions, it can cause us to act on harming ourselves, hence the significant rise in suicide among men 30–50 years old.

Sex trafficking

It’s no coincidence that the particularly lonely 30–50-year-old white men demographic is also the main funder of the sex trafficking industry in the United States. The need for human contact, both physical and emotional, is undeniable. When it is absent, our search for it can lead us down dark, or inappropriate paths. The sex trafficking industry (including pornography, strip clubs and prostitution) is perfectly designed not only to satisfy that need, but to put a person on a path to deeper and more unhealthy interactions and relationships. I have found the condition that is causing this symptom is disconnection and loneliness and I am working directly with men to create friendships and communities that supersede the interest or need for this devastating outlet for connection.

Addiction and consumption

When we are lonely, we don’t often attribute what we are feeling to disconnection. We pin it on stress at work, strife in our families, or other pressures working on us, and then we suppress it. The world today increasingly offers endless ways to consume and suppress as well as a societal message that consuming is actually rewarding yourself. Consumption and addiction are a health crisis of never before seen proportions in our country, and it’s largely fueled by loneliness. With the effects of loneliness becoming more understood, the symptoms it causes can be tied back to the right condition, and we can prioritize treating the condition, not just trying to alleviate, or more often, medicate the symptoms.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

It’s literally compromising the potential of humanity. The only way I can see that humanity will realize its potential is through a deeper connection to ourselves, each other, and a vision for the future bold enough to provoke us to reach beyond our abilities. When we are disconnected and out of relationship with each other and our world, we squander our ability for greatness. It is felt at the business level by the catastrophic prevalence of employee disengagement, at the community level by the atrophy of religious institutions, and in our culture through political polarization, the rise of hate crimes and supremacist groups.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

Isolation

Due to many factors, we live in a way that has us more isolated from each other than ever. For many, our houses are islands unto themselves, and have everything one might need never to leave home. We have specialized housing for different generations, so we don’t integrate families anymore. We have technology that gives us a false sense of connection, and our heads are down looking into our phones instead of each other’s eyes. Even when we do go out, are we interreacting in a high-quality way with people unlike us, or do we stay in our comfort zone with only those we know?

Consumption

With so many channels of content, options for entertainment, choices in dining and everything else we can possibly buy, consumption is a pervasive mask for loneliness. The “thrill” of buying things can artificially satiate our appetite for connection by giving us the much sought after boost of dopamine. Unfortunately, we know that this is temporary and only holds off the desire for connection. In fact, because we celebrate our binge watching over our binge conversations, all of this content is actually encouraging us to disconnect and tune out to each other.

Fear

We are in a time where the amplification of our differences is being used to separate us. This idea that our preferences, biases and proclivities are binary and as simple as one-way-or-the-other is not only absurd, but dangerous. My years of work bringing people together to have powerful conversations in spite of this fact is a testament to the fact that we really want to engage with each other, even if we don’t agree. What’s missing for most is a forum and a safe vocabulary to do so. The forums most commonly available are increasingly used in a divisive and destructive way, where people can simply rant and spread hate without having to bear any responsibly for the effect of their words.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

Prioritize friendships

Connection and community is the most powerful antidote to loneliness. However, maintaining our friendships tends not to be a major priority. This was proven out at the first-ever summit on loneliness Reverend Allen Hilton and I recently conducted. One of the theories we found was that the antidote to loneliness is not just any friendship, but friendships where the other person not only provides a space where it’s OK to be you, but also inspires you to grow into your ambitions. It’s not enough to have friends who love you just the way you are. You also need them to provoke you to develop and grow into the person you want to be. With this in mind, the first thing to do is assess how many friends you have that fit this description, and how many of your friends have the potential for this type of friendship. For the ones that fit into this category, it’s powerful to recognize that and share with them who they are for you and why that matters. For those that aren’t yet, make plans with them to close the gap to a more powerful friendship. Here’s how to do that.

Talk about it

One of the things that keeps this kind of friendship out of reach is having a vocabulary in which to discuss it. Our lack of vocabulary combined with the fear of being vulnerable enough to bring it up due to stigma keeps us from talking about it. And when we can’t talk about it, how can we recognize or invite friendships? The summit we conducted began to shape a vocabulary to be able not only to describe the kinds of friendships that alleviate the symptoms of loneliness, but also to lay out clearly what stands in the way.

Some of the attributes of ideal friendships included loyalty and commitment to the friendship, willingness to challenge without judgement, the ability to notice when we stray from integrity on our commitments and call one another out, shared values with different perspectives, an openness about the journey of life and how it affects us, and finally, trust — a relationship where there is no need to hide anything.

Some of the things that stood in the way included being too busy, fear of rejection, discomfort in being vulnerable, a sense that something is wrong with you because you need friends, your spouse or partner seeing friendship as a threat, and the notion that taking time for friends is selfish.

The best takeaway from the exercise is that everyone involved agreed with what’s above. Which means we, in large part, are all feeling similar things about this topic of friendship, which hopefully will take some fear away from acting to create and nurture critical friendships.

Know your neighborhood

I work with a community activist who operates in the lowest-income section of Hartford, Connecticut. His biggest complaint is that the police and other municipal workers don’t live in or understand the neighborhood. They don’t understand the relationships or the conditions of the residents. That lack of understanding leads them to be less compassionate and act in dangerous and destructive ways. We all have a neighborhood, whether it’s where we live, or where we work. If we take the time to know the neighbors close to us — what’s going on in their lives, how they are feeling or getting along — we can be there for them. I don’t suggest being nosey and poking into people’s business without permission. I mean simply making the effort to visit, get to know, or otherwise invite a neighbor to tea or dinner. My street hosts cocktail hours at a different house each month. This is one of the most cherished activities in our neighborhood because we get to see each other and catch up. The kids get to know each other, and when someone isn’t there, we can check in on them to make sure they are OK. This one little event has brought our neighborhood close to the point that we all support each other and often take on group projects at each other’s houses, or just simply make ourselves available to talk or drive someone to an important doctor’s appointment.

Know the symptoms

We’ve covered some of the symptoms that can be caused by loneliness including: Depression and suicide, sex trafficking, consumption and addiction. There are more, and there is plenty of research out there that paints a more complete picture. The more you are aware of the symptoms, the more you can be aware of who might be suffering from disconnection and loneliness. It seems everyone knows a person who spends the vast majority of their day watching the news. Research shows that the brain of someone watching a news broadcaster whom they agree with sends the same chemical response as if someone were in the room with them. It gives the illusion of not being alone, without any of the real health benefits of being with a friend. The more you know about the symptoms, the more you can call for what’s needed.

Ask questions

The last point, and maybe the simplest, is to ask questions of those you come into contact with. And when I say questions, I mean questions in the spirit of getting to know them better. We often ask questions on the surface of life — questions about the weather, favorite sports teams, the dinner they had the night before. I suggest we go deeper with our questions. I have been experimenting with this for some time with a group of friends. We actively challenge ourselves to “get to it” as we say, and surface the conversation we really want to have without wasting time. I do an enormous amount of executive coaching and mentoring. Early on in those sessions I will ask point blank, “What is your spiritual practice, your physical practice and your mental practice?” And if there isn’t one, I suggest if they are serious about their development, they start one. And if they have one started, then we include that in our work. What I and others have found so exciting, is that we are all, deep inside, dying to talk about these things. We want to talk about what really matters, but don’t often know how. Be the one who unlocks that ability in another. Ask them the questions you wish they would ask you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have committed to and begun starting just that! A movement called Humanity First. This movement is all about increasing the population of humanity who are prospering by serving humanity. Fathom’s work with organizations is adding to that population at the scale of the business community. Sip Sessions are provoking powerful conversations at an even greater scale — through community action. And my company Purpose Practiced is training a new generation of mentors and coaches that work with individuals and families based on the principals of Humanity First.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, Malcom Gladwell, James Carse, Simon Sinek, Ed Bastion, Steve Saffron.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

linkedin.com/brentrobertson

facebook.com/brent.robertson

instagram.com/brent.robertson

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

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