Today is my last day of being bankrupt.
It’s ground zero. The beginning.
I learned a lot during these last nine months in bankruptcy (and in the years that led up to this happening), yet one lesson rises above all others.
First, a bit of background. In 2011, my net worth was somewhere around $1,000,000. I owned multiple rental properties, as well as a boutique real estate company in Victoria BC, and had just returned from a trip around the world throughout 2010. On that trip, I thought endlessly about my purpose. I felt clear that I was entering a new phase of my life, and was dead set on creating a life where I gave more than I took.
Throughout my trip, which spanned 15 countries on four continents, it became obvious to me that just being alive was taxing for the planet and for other people. In essence, living a normal life where one works, eats, raises a family, and even gives 10% of their income to charity, would leave the planet in a worse situation than it was before said person arrived.
I became obsessed with the question “how can I be of the most service humanly possible while I am here?” and dreamed of finding a way to combine my giving with my vocation.
In October 2011, the idea hit. I was at an event called ‘We Day’ in Vancouver. There were 10,000 youth watching speakers like Al Gore, the Dalai Lama, Richard Branson, and more. It was like a rock concert for social good. I sat in the back row, watching, basking in the energy, and decided I wanted to fund a schoolhouse through the hosting organization, which would cost $10,000.
I wanted to get my friends involved too (I knew they would love the feeling of giving if I could get them to do it.) I thought through the objections they might have to giving and what would inspire them to say yes. I started texting:
“Hey dude, I am putting together a group of our friends to build a school in Kenya. It’s going to educate hundreds of kids.:) We are all giving $3 a day for 3 months. I am making a website that will have your picture on it, and everyone gets tax receipts. You good to join the crew?”
I don’t need to go into too much detail here, but you can see that the wording was very thought out, and it worked. The responses came in: “yes,” “I am in,” “Well, I guess I would be a jerk if I didn’t do it, so count me in.”
Shortly following the first round of texts, I had commitments that put me well on track to bringing in enough for a school. Then came the hard part…collecting the money in a way that wouldn’t take me weeks and ton of hounding my friends for multiple payments. It had to be smoother, and the “$3 a day” thing meant I would need 37 friends to give. That needed to be cleaner too.
I remember sitting in a cafe after the event, fiddling on my calculator with different equations: “42 people x $4.20 a day x 42 days…”, “50 people x $2 a day x 50 days…”, and then it hit:
33 people x $3.33 a day x 3 months = $10,000”
It just felt right.
And that was it, the trajectory of my life was changed and a five-year journey began.
Soon after, my girlfriend at the time nominated me to do a TEDx talk. I told the organizer that I wanted to talk about this idea for funding schools, 33 people at a time. He said it was gimmicky and that he would only give me a spot if I spoke about success in entrepreneurship. I didn’t want to talk about entrepreneurship, but I knew I had to get on that stage and tell the world about this 333 idea, so I wrote out a speech on entrepreneurship, submitted it, and was confirmed to speak at the TEDx event coming up in March 2011.
Then, I promptly threw out the entrepreneurship talk, and began writing my speech “How to Build A School in 3 Hours,” instead, vowing that I would rather get pulled off the stage mid-talk (I gauged that risk as being highly unlikely), then hold my heart back from what it wanted to say.
After rehearsing the talk about 2 billion times (it was my first ever public speech and I was nervous AF) I went on stage with nervous blotchy skin, a dry mouth, and pit stains, and spoke from my Soul. I felt carried that day, like I wasn’t even the one talking. There wasn’t an ‘um’, a ‘but’, a ‘ya know’ or any filler words. The speech all just flowed out.
After I finished talking, in some miraculous fashion, the event MC was so excited that he got up on stage and asked how people could get involved. I told him the website we had bought (that only had a landing page because we hadn’t actually built the software for other people to run campaigns on yet) and somehow that little question made it into the final cut of the video before TEDx released it. That meant that everyone who watched to the end was prompted to go to our site (this is unheard of in TEDx talks).
When the talk came out, I dedicated time every day (lots of it) to spreading that talk. I saw it as a huge opportunity and wanted to ensure I did all I could to help it along. Of the 40,000 people that watched that talk, 2,000 of them went to the site and signed up to raise money 2,000…
Two thousand humans… my mind was absolutely blown.
I did the math and realized if 2,000 people raised $10,000 each, that would raise $20,000,000 and fund, of course, 2,000 schools for kids that lack access to basic education.
Soon after, I met with my real estate company business partners and told them I wanted to do “this charity thing” full-time. They gave me their sincere blessing, we worked out a fair purchase price for my remaining portion of the company, and I got paid out.
The next five years are somewhat of a blur. I remember in the beginning, going with my gut for everything, and just watching miracles happen left and right.
Like the time I got invited to attend a conference at Harvard University for three days, and only talked to one person the entire time because I felt inspired to talk to her. That one person ended up being the speaker organizer for the event. After watching my TEDx talk, she invited me to keynote the next year (How does that happen?! My second speaking invitation ever was to keynote Harvard’s biggest annual conference).
Or how I didn’t even get off the stage after doing that Harvard keynote and a woman came up and invited me to speak at the United Nations (speaking gig #3… addressing delegates from dozens of countries, at the UN… what!?).
Or, after having named the fundraising company ‘Change Heroes’ and trying like crazy to attain the domain changeheroes.com which ZERO luck because someone owned it and wouldn’t respond to our offers to buy it, I went to a tiny gathering in NY, told my story, and a woman in the small audience stood up and said “you don’t know me, and I don’t know you, and I have no idea how this happened, but you have been emailing me trying to buy a domain I own…I own changeheroes.com, and now that I have heard this story, I want to give it to you, for free.”
We also kept raising more and more money, funding 10… 50… 100… 150… 200 schools. It was incredible.
Those things happened one after the other. Things kept getting bigger and kept flowing faster.
Until they stopped.
Or it might be more accurate to say, “until I stopped going with my gut and listening to what the Universe wanted of me.”
In the summer of 2013, my co-founder and I were navigating a strong disagreement regarding what to use as our revenue model. Mine (making 5-10% of the funds that people raised) felt right. His (selling the technology we had built to nonprofits as a SaaS model) made more sense on paper. You can guess what happened next.
I put my heart/gut/guidance (whatever you would like to call it) on the shelf for a minute, promising I would come back for it because this new model “made sense.” We changed our revenue model, and the magic was soon replaced with grinding, hard work, and a foggy outlook to say it lightly.
By early 2015, things started to suck even more. We were close to missing paydays and had to do whatever we could to stay alive. All of it happened: the layoffs, the loans, me selling every property and investment I owned, racking up my personal credits cards, and taking out personal loans from the bank and a friend to float the company.
By the end of 2015, it was clear that the company wasn’t going to make it on its current path.
A long, arduous, horrendously hard year later, I decided there was no way for me to pay the $400,000 that I owed in personal loans I had used to fuel the company, and I declared bankruptcy.
It was crushing, to say the least, and I felt very sorry for myself. But that didn’t even compare to how badly I felt for the other people that had gone down with me. Forty wonderful people had invested in the company, dozens of employees had poured their hearts out and worked for next to nothing, nonprofits had trusted us to support them, and countless people had looked at Change Heroes as a beautiful movement that showed change was actually possible.
The way it all went down just made things worse. It got ugly. And…it was all a reflection of me. It was my fault. All of it.
Somehow, in the midst of everything falling down, I would get these glimpses of what I was meant to learn.
I intuitively knew that this was a rare and important opportunity to find out what true happiness is. To find a way to be grateful inside, regardless of what was happening on the outside. I knew deep down that if I could do that, then my happiness in the future, when things were brighter, would be true.
It didn’t happen overnight, but each day, I became more and more grateful for what I had, even while at “rock bottom.” It became clear that I am in charge of how I feel, and that I am a happy human being, no matter what.
Now, I am sitting here on the last day of my nine-month bankruptcy term. Tomorrow, I can do anything and create what I want. I can make as much or as little as I choose.
And here’s the thing…I don’t really care.
I don’t care what term is used for my financial situation.
I don’t care how someone looks at my particular moment in time.
I only care about how I feel inside, and I have reached a feeling of pure thriving, WHILE LEGALLY BANKRUPT.
That is the lesson I will have with me for the rest of my life. That is what sets me free.
To all of those that have been supporting me on this journey. To a friend of a friend who sent me $12 to buy a green juice (because I love my expensive green juices), to my buddy that spontaneously sent me $500 because he felt like I could use it (he was spot on there), to the people that showed me their true colors in my darkest hour, I am so grateful for every one of you. Thank you.
Tomorrow is a new day, a new beginning. I am excited for what is to come, and I am so happy to create all (and only) of what my heart, my Soul, my gut, my Universe tells me to create.
Thanks for reading! You can watch my new TEDx talk, ‘Reinventing Rock Bottom’ here.
Taylor Conroy’s first social enterprise, Change Heroes, funded and built 400 schools, libraries, water projects and more for 200,000 people in developing countries. He has lectured at Harvard, Princeton, Cornell and the United Nations on movement building and creating social change. He writes and speaks about being a millionaire, going bankrupt, building impact driven businesses and finding joy in all of life’s phases. You can more info on his site.
Image courtesy of lalesh aldarwish.