The One You Feed

I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my career. For over two decades, I’ve been working with and consulting senior executives at some of the world’s most well known companies. I’ve spent a lot of time in the boardroom. I love it.

And almost every time I sit at a boardroom table, take off my suit jacket and roll up my sleeves, there’s a slight moment of silence. Because under my shirt, I have a full sleeve (a tattoo from shoulder to wrist).

It’s one of many tattoos I have. You would likely classify me as someone who is heavily inked. I have the one I mentioned above, a significant amount of ink on my other arm, a cuff around my wrist, a piece on my chest and other small less visible tattoos on the rest of my body.

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In most cases, I find people lean in when they see that under the well tailored suit, there’s a ton of ink. I think it makes me intriguing to some. Others…not so much. I get that it’s surprising.

Despite how common tattoos are today, no one expects a company’s senior executive to be sporting some serious tats.

Unfortunately, some mindsets are still stuck with the idea that tattoos are for bikers (although I do have a motorcycle), sailors, gang bangers and deviants in general. I don’t fit that profile. At least I hope I don’t. But when people see me for the first time, I think they’re quick to make snap judgements.

I’ve heard it before. I’m crazy. Why would I do that to my body? Don’t I care what people think of me? Aren’t I worried about the message I’m sending to the world? Seriously??? No, no no no and just to be clear….no!

I’ve been getting ink since I was 16. I got my first tattoo to impress a girl I had a mad crush on. We went to the tattoo parlor together on a whim and before I knew it, she picked some flash off the wall and was in the chair. I had no choice…I had to follow through or forever be a pussy in her eyes….so I ended up with a four leaf clover on my hip that for the most part meant absolutely nothing to me. Today, it serves as a reminder of one thing only; her (and my first broken heart). That said, I would still never remove it.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not an advocate of impulsive tattoos, or getting them when you’re only 16 (most credible artists wouldn’t tattoo a 16 year old). My kids know that they are not allowed to get any ink until they are in their twenties. But I was a rebellious kid looking to find myself (I’m still rebellious) and nobody could tell me what to do.

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My second tattoo was of a Siamese fighting fish called a betta (those colorful fish you usually see in the whisky glasses – isolated on account of their inability to play nicely with their own species – no connection there). The betta is unique in that they have an organ known as the labyrinth organ which allows them to breathe air at the water’s surface from the depths of their murky bowls. At 18, I could relate. Metaphorically of course. That’s the meaning behind this tattoo.

I don’t really talk about the significance of the rest of my ink. I find tattoos very personal, at least for me they are. My tattoos tell a story, a personal one, of my life. Some of my tattoos have obvious meaning, like my children’s names, or a dead relative’s portrait, but some are more about marking a specific time in my life – as opposed to a literal representation.

My body is my journal – my tattoos, the entries and each its own chapter in my book of life.

Here’s the thing. I don’t care if people think I’m crazy. I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve been answering questions about my ink for most of my life…they come with the territory. And if you’re thinking about asking me a question, I’ll bet it’s one of these:

Does it hurt?

For me, tattoos don’t hurt. That said, pain thresholds are personal and different from one individual to the next. I happen to have a very high tolerance to pain (I take no freezing at the dentist, remove my own stitches and have broken bones and not known for several days). Yes, there are parts of the body that are more sensitive than others (elbow, chest, ankles, ribs, wrists), but for the most part I rather enjoy the feeling (no, I’m not a masochist). I’ve witnessed mothers and grandmothers get tattooed and remain stoic and strong. I’ve also witnessed a big biker dude whining like a toddler from a tattoo on his arm. Everyone reacts differently.

But in my opinion, here’s what the question really means: Am I strong enough to ever endure getting a tattoo if I someday had the balls to do it?

What does your wife think?

That’s a stupid question. My wife thinks I’m hot. She also has some ink of her own so she’s certainly biased.

Here’s what the question really means: I find it repulsive and would never sleep with you.

What do your kids think?

My kids think I’m the coolest dad in the world. And that has nothing to do with my ink. For as long as they’ve been alive I’ve had tattoos and so to them, they are just a part of me. Asking this question is like someone asking you what your kids think about the clothes you wear. They don’t care about these kinds of things…only people who have a preconception of what tattoos represent will care. Not kids. Certainly not mine.

I’ve taught my kids not to judge a book by its cover; not to give into stereotypes or think badly of people who aren’t “typical”. Hopefully you’re doing the same with your kids.

What this one really means is: what a horrible parent you must be (or what a horrible example you’re setting for your kids).

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What’s going to happen when you get old?

First of all, how many 85 year olds do you see walking around with their clothes off? Not many – and so the people who will see my tattoos will already know they are there. By the time I’m that age, hopefully i’ll have zero fucks to give. When I’m “old”, I will have more important things to worry about than my ink. I am quite sure I’ll be pre-occupied with a failing bladder or developing cancer than I will about my tattoos. In fact, I will likely draw comfort from my tattoos as I age. They will act as a reminder for me of my youth, my life, and my family. That will come in very handy once dementia kicks in and I don’t know who I am anymore (click here for a great story).

The real meaning behind this question is: one day when you grow up and act and think like an adult, you’ll regret having done this to your body. Or…you’ll be very unattractive with saggy skin and tattoos that will likely not stand the test of time. Ewwww.

What do people at work think?

Hopefully they think I’m a smart guy who knows his shit and is good at what he does. I’d like to think they see me as a leader. The opposite of a ‘yes man’. Someone who is creative, bold, brave and a non-conformist. I like to think that they see me as disruptive. It’s kind of what I do.

The real meaning here is; I would never hire you or you look very unprofessional.

Will you get more?

Yes. I will. The day I stop getting ink will be the day I stop making memories and cease to be inspired by life. I hope that day never comes.

Meaning; stop already, it’s enough. You’re going to end up looking like a freak.

So what’s the takeaway?

The only thing I know how to be is me. I want my kids to grow up that way too. Don’t pretend to be something you aren’t. Don’t do things to please others if it means compromising your own happiness. Don’t give a shit about what people think of you (within reason) and don’t allow yourself to be a sheep who simply follows the flock. Be a wolf – lead the pack – be someone not to be messed with. People take advantage of sheep.

My next tattoo, which I will be working on over the next six months (it’s a big back piece) is inspired by this:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Which wolf are you feeding?

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