060. The Power of Worthiness from Within with Dr. James Kelley

Who is James Kelley? Well, his path is still being built brick by brick and the current brick is a book Crucible’s Gift: 5 Lessons from Authentic Leaders Who Thrive in Adversity. But what about all the previous bricks?

He was the youngest of 3 1/2  kids (long story – we get into it) in a traditional Irish Catholic family, which means loud, sarcastic, passive aggressive and a touch of physical discipline, minus the obligation of Mass. His parents did the best they could with what they knew. In the middle of his time at university when he took a break from school, one afternoon his life took a turn. After walking into his job selling used cars, two colleagues were lining up a white substance and rolling a dollar bill and asked him if he wanted to try. That sparked something in him, and four months later he was back at university full-time.

After completing his undergraduate degree, his life was a series of twists and turns, ups and downs and a few zigs and zags. The death of his father, an MBA, a year teaching English in Japan, a DUI, and three jobs later, he was a rudderless vessel at sea. However, one night on Portland State University’s campus, while attending an event for potential Peace Corps recruits, his life took an unsuspected turn. In one brief conversation with four Ph.D. students, James realized that I wasn’t the dumbest person in the room, and thought a Ph.D. was possible.

He got his Ph.D. in International Marketing at the University of Western Australia and ascended to higher education. His family moved to Philadelphia for a seven-year stint. Now, he lives just outside Dubai with his wife Mary and four kids. He teaches, runs a small consultancy, and works on writing and a new startup, called Q-Change.

It is James’ belief that his story is unique and one filled with failure, and consistent no’s. What he maintained through life is a sunny disposition that if you just work hard and be a good person you will end up on top. You won’t be able to help but feel James’ energy coming through as we get into the interview.

Key Points from the Episode with James Kelley:

  • James lives outside of Dubai with his family. They moved out there to get his family an experience outside of the US where they can get exposure to other cultures as one of the few rather than being part of the majority.
  • He was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, where he lived until he was 17. He left for college in Ohio, but decided to leave school after a year, and went home to be a used car salesman. One day in March, he went into the little office on the car lot to get out of the cold, and found two coworkers doing cocaine, who offered him some. He said, “No,” and immediately called his mother to tell her he wanted to go back to school.
  • During his third year of school, James’ father passed away. He described getting the news in detail. He remembered everything about the situation, and the words he heard, and then he couldn’t process anything. He found himself in the car going home an hour and a half later, telling jokes, which was just how his brain was processing it.
  • For the next few years, he felt cheated by the world. He was looking forward to the transition in his father-son relationship with his dad as he became an adult and could get closer to him in a different way, and that wasn’t going to happen. As a result, his behavior started to change as a result of emotional turmoil going on inside. He was drinking more, cheated on his girlfriend, and eventually got arrested for drunk driving (no one was hurt – he got caught driving recklessly, but there was no accident).
  • When the cops spotted him, he decided to try to race home before they caught up to him, which obviously failed, and he was arrested at his home with his mother watching.
  • As a result, he had to go to rehab, which he calls the single most impactful and positive impact in his life. He was able to look at this as happening for him, not to him, and put the work into himself with his counselor and group sessions. At 24 years old, that could have easily gone very differently, but he was willing to see how this could help him with the pain inside.
  • He saw that it was a choice, and whether we appreciate the optionality we have or not.
  • We started to talk about his book, The Crucibles Gift, which shares stories and lessons that inspire leadership. The drive to write it came from recognizing how adversity has given him growth moments.
  • The moment you move from “To me” to “For me” is very powerful. It’s not to say the moment of pain or sadness isn’t ok or necessary – it can help you move your life to the other side of the problem – but you can’t stay stuck in it.
  • The leaders he sees moving from the mourning process to this place of seeing how this tough situation can be an opportunity for you, it can be an instantaneous opening up.
  • We got into trust. He looks at it as needing to trust people right away and giving them opportunities to break your trust rather than waiting for them to earn it.
  • He talked about micro moments of meaning, a term he discusses in his book. In every interaction with people, no matter how long, his main goal is to leave them with a positive memory of that moment. Leaving someone with that moves them subconsciously to seek another positive moment. That can chain together and drive happiness, self-awareness and more.
  • The one must-have behind all of this is a growth mindset, which is the prerequisite to welcome the opportunity for growth in even the darkest moments.
  • No one is all growth or all fixed, we have moments of both. The idea is to recognize where we have growth thoughts and take advantage of them, and recognize where we are more fixed in our mindset, and see if we can open ourselves up to a more growth mindset in those moments.
  • One method is to see those fixed mindset moments, and see how it’s helping or harming you. For example, it may not always be bad, like a fixed mindset about not drinking, though perhaps how you’re doing that may be hurting you socially or professionally.
  • Self-awareness also seems to be a key differentiator in how people can grow. If we are more self-aware, we may see where we could do differently or recognize the opportunities for growth more readily than if we are less self-aware.
  • While he still teaches and has his show and book, James is launching a new company, called qChange, that uses bluetooth beacons and mobile phone notifications to bring mindfulness to behaviors to try to spark changes in our lives.


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