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CEO David Howitt and the Journey for Purpose and Meaning

by Eric Meltzer
creativity, featured

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David Howitt is engaged with the stuff that’s hard to pin down. The Founder and CEO of Meriwether Group, a private equity, business accelerator, and advisory firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon, is known for helping brands such as Stumptown Coffee, Pendleton Woolen Mills, adidas, and Salomon evolve and prosper while maintaining the values that made them successful in the first place.

That’s no simple feat. It takes knowledge and skill to address strategic, operational, and organizational challenges. On paper, David’s got those qualities. He’s an entrepreneur with decades of experience providing business strategy and counsel to companies ranging from global Fortune 100s to early stage start-ups. He also co-founded (and sold) the popular brand Oregon Chai with his wife, Heather Howitt.

But there’s something else, too. David looks at things differently. He takes a holistic approach to business, removing whatever walls might stand between commerce and human values. He encourages entrepreneurs to “fulfill their journey,” using Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth as a foundational narrative to guide others to bring new things into the world, to live a life that is natural and authentic, not artificial or contrived. Where you can have value and meaning. Success and positive social impact. An integrated personal and professional life. For David, there’s no such thing as a work-life balance, just life, and so we must engage with it as powerfully, intentionally, and creatively as possible.

Of course, fulfillment and purpose are not quite the dominant discourse of modern global business culture, but these values are gaining traction. Looking out from our Creative Jobs Report to the rise in B Corporations, there’s something afoot, something that could lead to new models of work that fit our new, broader definitions of success.

In early 2014, Simon & Schuster, Inc., published David’s debut book, Heed Your Call: Integrating Myth, Science, Spirituality, and Business. A kind of blueprint, business book, manifesto, memoir, and toolbox, it pushes others to find their purpose.

David met with us to offer his unique perspective on creativity at Meriwether Group’s headquarters.

What was your first creative moment?
The first creative moment I remember would be probably as a five year old. It would have been emotional creativity as opposed to…my immediate response is that it’s emotional creativity and not a physical creation, like a piece of art or sculpture or something I brought home from school to give to my parents. You know, there were those things, but when you asked that question, the first thing that comes to my mind was my parents. They were very young when I was born. They were in an unhappy marriage. I was the oldest. My brother was born a year after me and I had to invoke emotional creativity in order to deal with the known world, the world I was born into. Insofar as I felt I needed to create some stability for myself, for my infant baby brother, and to try to create some sort of calm in the home. So I used creativity to do that.

And I did so through a variety of tactics and a variety of creative output around things like filling the room with the color of gold when my parents were arguing, like literally imagining the room filled with golden light. I did it through things like match my breath to the breath of my Mom’s when she was yelling or upset or scared to try to create alignment in our breathing patterns because that seemed to calm her down. I did it myself through creating a kind of imaginary fun in situations, and laughter and jokes, to create an environment that felt safe and secure. So my earliest creative memories are emotional creativity to try to create security, calm, comfort, and love in a world that was devoid of a lot of that.

How do you prepare to be creative? From starting with nothing, what’s your first move?
I think the way that I prepared to have a life where I could embrace creativity and I could embrace the ability to manifest…you know, when I think of the word creativity, what I think of is the base word: create. And create, to me, means to manifest, to have a role in the divinity of what it is that is the tapestry of your life. And so I approach my life from the perspective that I am a co-creator in my life. In the sculpture that is me. In the painting that is the roadmap of my life.

How did I prepare to approach life that way and how do I? I think there are a few things. One, understanding that I am not alone. That I am connected innately. To everyone else and to the world. I like to think of it this way: I’m a wave in the ocean. Meaning, yes, I am a wave and my wave is unique and different from the wave that is next to me, behind me, or beside of me, but ultimately, we all come from and return to the same ocean. So that wave is individualistic, but it also is connected. So the first way that I approach creativity is from that, understanding that I am a creator. I am part of a large whole. I have individualism and I have connection.

From there, I move to empathy. Empathy means I am allowed to and am able to actually feel what those other waves feel. By the pure nature of being part of that shared whole of that ocean, I can tap in and actually know what there is to feel their waveness. From my ability to empathize with those around me, and I would say deeply empathize with those around, I have the ability to understand, to internalize, and to feel the needs, wants, fears, and loves of others.

So connection, empathy, and then the final piece is surrender. So you surrender to that, and from there flows creativity. I look at my life as art. So when I think of creativity, I don’t think of it so much as “What is this new product I am going to create?” or this beautiful sculpture or painting or piece of fabric art. My life is my canvas.

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How do you practice? What does your daily pattern look like?
For me it’s a “Power of AND” thing. There’s an aspect of my life that’s very organized, that has to it purpose, that has to it a linear quality. So I balance my checkbook, I fill my tank up with gas, I have a to-do list, I keep an Outlook calendar. I also have a part of my life that is very much about flow and embracing synchronicity and about watching for connection between beauty and purpose and commerce. So how I sort of legislate my day, is a weaving together of a free flowing openness to chance and being in the moment, commingled with a Outlook calendar, lawyered approach to structure. As an example, I wake up and do my best each day to have a seated meditation practice. In my practice, I have tools. Certain mantras, certain training that I can utilize. I also have an altar and on my altar I have things that are important to me, that I feel vibration from, that instill in me a sense of being alive and being connected. Some of those might be deities, and I’m an equal opportunity deity person, so I have a framed picture of Jesus, I have a Buddha, I have number of examples from different spiritual and religious beliefs. I have pictures of my children, I have artifacts that I’ve found or that have found me from different periods and times in my life. A shell, a particular stone, a dried flower, some of those types of things that have been instrumental in my journey. I then move into my day and my day at the office and I think, you know, we’re sitting here now, it’s an office that is very purposefully decorated as a blend of whatever you’d want to call it: ying yang, east meets west, left brain vs. right brain. We have all of tools necessary to actually conduct business, to create commerce, to move the economic needle, to achieve goals, whatever language you’d want to use. But we also have, very thoughtfully and purposefully, created a color palette and have furnishings and art and plants and flowers that are very zen, are very calming, comforting, and nurturing, because it is our belief that the Power of And, that combining of east and west, the ashram and the office, is the union, the integration that allows us to be whole.

What distracts you?
Fear distracts me. Anxiety distracts me. To me, depression is worrying about things that happened in the past and anxiety is about things that could happen in the future. So my distractions are depression and anxiety, on any given day plus or minus. They distract me from being in the only place that’s real, which is right now. This breath. This inhale, this exhale. So to me, a distraction is anything that pulls me away from that place, because there is no other place. That is the only place from which we can live.

How do you deal with that?
Sometimes well, sometimes poorly. I look at it this way: I have a toolbox for which I have tools that I can utilize to deal with those distractions. In that toolbox, I want to have and will and do work to achieve a variety of tools available to me. I think for a lot of us, we have a hammer in our toolbox. And when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For me, I want to have a variety of tools because sometimes it’s a nail and sometimes it’s a bolt. You don’t want to use a hammer to try and screw in a bolt. So I read, I understand myth, I meet mentors and guides. In my toolbox is nature, is exercise, is friends, is solitude, is Buddhism, is Christianity, is Judaism, is elders, is a bottle of wine, a [Portland Trail]Blazers game. I will try to mindfully open my toolbox and discern which of those tools at this particular moment in time are going to help me with my distractions.

Applying that to your book, were you concerned with or afraid of how Heed Your Call might be received out in the world?
I was, and still am, afraid, happy, nervous, and elated about my book. I have the highest hope that it will be helpful for people, that it will provoke them to be able to approach some of the constructs in a way that helps them and the world. But I fear that I didn’t adequately express these things in a way that could be accessed by people, so I feel I failed. I fear that people will judge me “not like them” or “easy for you to say” or any number of other things. So there is ego here for me. I want to feel like it was helpful and successful and that people respect and admire. I fear that people will not find it helpful and they will not respect and admire me. It’s a constant process, for me, of breathing in and out of that. What I will say is, for the most part, I am in a place of neutrality around the book. I really feel like I did not write the book, that it was…there’s this poem by the Sufi master, Hafiz: “I am just a hole in a flute through which the breath of the universe flows, listen to the music.” Meaning I was a conduit or a hole in a flute for these messages that are not mine, but messages that I have great gratitude to be able to have flow through me and my life experience. And that as a conduit, who am I to accept praise or judgment for the message? You wouldn’t blame the flute if somehow the music missed the mark. So I’m the flute and when I live my life from the place of the flute, I then don’t grapple with as much of that concern.

What’s in it for you?
What’s in it for me, and the only thing that’s in it for me is to live a life that is in alignment with my authentic heart and soul. Where I am awake, or at least awake most of the time. Where I am walking my path in a way that is in alignment with my connected, higher self. And really, there isn’t anything for me other than that because I truly believe that when we live from that place of authenticity, of alignment with self, we are doing our purpose. We are doing what in the Judaic liturgy would be ruach elohim, from the breath of God that is in all of us. And as the liturgy says, when you live from a place of ruach elohim, you create tikkun olam, which means to repair the world. So it’s simply that I believe at every fiber of my body that our sole purpose in life is to live from that place of connected divineness and in doing so we help to repair the world.

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What if others wanted to be like you?  
It’s a really interesting question, the way you phrased that, and my immediate reaction would be to say “you don’t want to be like me.” But what I want to do is think past that ego reaction to if the question was “how does someone live a life that’s a bit more awake, that’s a bit more in an effort to try to be aligned to their true connected self, their divine connections, what kinds of things can they do?” Well — shameless plug — I think the first they should do is go buy a copy of Heed Your Call because I tried to really disseminate and share in a very personal and honest way the answer to that question. And what I’ll say in summary is it means being open to leaving your known world, the pre-determined life you were born into. Your parents, your school, your neighborhood, the expectations of you. Be open to stepping afoot. Be open to taking a call from the universe from your soul around what it is that really brings you joy, that that makes you feel alive. Be open to that.

Now that doesn’t mean quit your job and go move to India and join an ashram. It means being open to making subtle shifts into your life that brings more of that in.

Meditate. Whether that means spending time in nature or a seated practice, whether it means closing your eyes and listening to classical music, unplug and give yourself time each day where you open yourself up to yourself.

Next, realize that you are not your thoughts. You are the observer of your thoughts. So if there is a part of you that can actually observe your thinking, what is that part? That is you. You are not your thoughts, you are the part of you that observes your thinking. Once you make that recognition, you will start to shift. Subtly but powerfully. Where you will now find yourself at work, with your children, in your marriage, with a friend, shifting from living from a place of ego or “the thought,” to a place of the neutral, witnessing observer, which is that holistic, neutral, guided, witnessing connected self. If you do those things, my experience, and the experience of those I’ve had the pleasure of working with, guiding, and advising, shows me that your life will be richer, you will have abundance, you will have purpose and meaning, and in doing so, you’ll really help to create a better world.

[You can watch David discussing his book over some bacon on Good Morning America.]

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Eric Meltzer

Eric Meltzer is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.