Episode 204 – Homeless and Broken! Lessons and Hope from The Other Side Academy
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Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today! This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we have an amazing guest with us today. He’s not only a dear friend, but he has had such a big impact on the world. He’s a four-time New York Times bestselling author and a world-renowned speaker. His work, created over the past 30 years, has been translated into 28 languages and available in 36 different countries – my guess is probably a lot more than that. I’m so excited to have him with us today. Welcome, Joseph Grenny!
Joseph Grenny: Thank you, Steve! It’s just an honor to be with you today!
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, yeah, same here! Well, let me just tell our listeners a little bit about you and your background. He is a four-time, as I said, New York Times bestselling author! I mean that is tough to do!
Joseph Grenny: It’s kind of tiring.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, he’s a dynamic keynote speaker – I’ve had the chance to listen to him and watch him. He’s a leading social scientist for business performance, and he’s just helped people all around. So I’m thrilled to have him here. He’s the coauthor – here are the books that he’s been able to work with and develop, I might add, that have been bestsellers with more than 4 million copies in print: “Crucial Conversations” – which is a hallmark book on how to have conversations, how to communicate, and listen; “Influencer”, “Crucial Accountability” and “Change Anything“. So, these are hallmark works, and we’re just going to go ahead and get right into it. I might add a little PostScript to this, that when I was first writing Becoming Your Best, had done 40 years of research and put all this together, I put it into a manuscript; Joseph and I had a common friend in Florida, who suggested I visit with Joseph. And so we went to lunch, and he just gave me invaluable help right from the get-go. In addition to that, we discovered we had a lot in common: we’re close to the same age, we actually lived in the same city – Vallejo, California.
Joseph Grenny: That’s right!
Steve Shallenberger: Well, he has been there to help me all the way along the way. So thank you, Joseph, for that.
Joseph Grenny: It’s been a pleasure to have a friendship with you and we could go on and on about the tremendous good you do in the world. Thanks for this chance to share what’s important to us!
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, you bet! Well, we could talk about a lot of things, but today, we wish to discuss something completely different – and it is how to take a passion, a feeling, to do something good and make it a reality. So, in addition to Joseph and VitalSmarts and all the things they’ve done there, Joseph has really gone beyond. And so perhaps we could start, Joseph, by just having you give a little background of yourself: where were you raised, and maybe some things that have had a big impact on you that has helped you be where you’re at today, and then let’s dive right into The Other Side Academy.
Joseph Grenny: Sure, yeah. Well, as you said, probably one of the most auspicious places that I was raised in was Vallejo, California. So I was born in Southern California, raised primarily in Northern California. But, as you asked that question, there were three pivotal events that come to mind. One was at age 15, I was caught hacking a computer, and that was a pivotal moment. So, this was 1975, before computers really were becoming broadly available. I was a 15-year-old, I had dropped out of high school, taken a GED, intended to go to college to try to finish four years of school before I would serve a mission for my church, and I just fell in love with computers. Girls weren’t really available -because I was 15 years old, and about half the height of everybody at the college – so I hung out in the computer lab and figured out how to hack into the school systems, and the school administrator happened to come at 11 o’clock at night to check on something. He discovered I was in the lab, he ran across the hall, immediately came and grabbed ahold of the papers that I had sitting next to me that had passwords that I had harvested from all of these secure systems and then he dragged me into his office, sat me in a chair and said, “I’m not sure whether I should call the police and have you arrested or offer you a job.” That was a pivotal point because he ended up opening some doors to me that caused me to feel like I could become an entrepreneur. I ended up getting a partnership in a small computer company that was just coming online as microcomputers were available in the Bay Area, and all those exciting things were happening. So that hacking incident was a door opener for me.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, my goodness, Joseph! I didn’t know that. How fun! What a great story! And then, of course, you got into this world of change and training, and you’ve had a great career, which continues today. One of the things that along the way Joseph has had the opportunity to do is found The Other Side Academy, and this is what I’d like to talk about today because I know Joseph and I know what a passion this is, an opportunity to serve and lift and help other people. And so, if you could tell what The Other Side Academy is, and just tell us about that group – what your vision and purpose is, the impact, and how does it work?
Joseph Grenny: Yeah, so The Other Side Academy, the briefest way of saying it, is a community that helps create profound human change. So The Other Side Academy is a two-year life skills Academy; it’s residential, it’s free, it’s entirely self-supporting and it’s primarily designed for people with the most broken lives of anyone in the world – people who are longtime criminals, drug addicts, homeless. And so, today, in Salt Lake City, our first campus – we have a second one in Denver, Colorado – there are 100 students who’ve been arrested on average 25 times, they come often with new charges. So if the students on campus were to serve the charges that they were currently facing, they’d be incarcerated for a total of about 600 years, costing the state about $30 million. But instead, they stay at this place for two years, learn to run businesses, learn to cooperate, learn to develop character and become a person they’ve never met before. And again, all at no expense to them, the government or anybody else. It’s entirely self-sustaining. So you and I, Steve, have spent our career studying and working in organizations. To me, this is one of the most remarkable organizations in the world because it’s run by some of the most broken people, but it operates at one of the highest service and quality ethics of any organization I’ve ever worked with. So it’s a pretty impressive place.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, and so how does somebody get into The Other Side Academy? How does that work?
Joseph Grenny: Well, there are two ways in. The first is if you’ve been arrested on new charges, and you’re sitting in jail, kind of working on your case, if you decide that rather than continuing the life you’ve had, you’d like to try a different approach, you write us a letter. One of our team – which is comprised of people just like you, so these are people that have been arrested themselves and have grown up through The Other Side Academy and have reinvented their lives – they come to the jail, they’ll interview you and it’s a very rigorous, in-your-face searching kind of interview and if they believe that you’re sincere, then you’re given an acceptance letter which you can take to the judge and if the judge agrees to suspend your current sentence and allow you to try this, then you arrive at our campus. So that’s entry point number one. Entry point number two is you can walk in. So we have folks who’ve been living homeless on the streets for years, who will walk in, sit on the bench – our bench is a symbolic place that really is where your life begins again – and after you sat there for a while to be sure that you’re serious about it, you’ll be brought in and a team of our older students in the house will interview you similarly.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, you must have guards standing all around to keep these people there.
Joseph Grenny: You know, you’re asking that for an important reason. I know you know the answer, Steve. The amazing thing is, in spite of the fact that we’ve got people who were committing crimes, who were hardcore drug addicts just the day before, number one, we’ve never had a single dirty drug test in the house from the Adult Probation & Parole that comes and supervises our students. Number two, we have no guards, no therapists, no professional staff. This is a peer-run community, and so students stay because that peer pressure there becomes so profound in their desire to be part of something that’s really new and significant in their lives, that they endure some of the greatest challenges for personal change of anybody I’ve ever seen.
Steve Shallenberger: It is an inspiring place! I’ve had the good fortune and honor of being able to visit several times and even speak to residents there. They’re flat out inspirational. It’s interesting to see, they have an annual meeting where they announce organizational changes and assignments and I happened to be there. They recognize their people and this is one of the most encouraging, hopeful types of meetings that you’d ever be at, especially knowing the background. But I will never forget, Joseph, that one fellow had just come in that morning or the day before. He looked like a ghost. He was drained of everything and I was trying to just imagine what was going on in his mind as he looked around at all of these people that were full of hope.
Joseph Grenny: Yeah. And it’s shocking to them. And in fact, for some, it’s terrifying because the possibility that you could be somebody so profoundly different than who you are, creates this sense of hope and then, rather than disappoint yourself, you’re often tempted to say, “Well, I’d rather just quit and leave now rather than risk being disappointed.” So it’s terrifying, it’s scary, you’re looking around, everybody’s smiling and they’re talking to each other and they’re connected and they’re enjoying each other. Christmas, for example, is one of the most uplifting experiences you could have with The Other Side Academy and you’ll look around the room as people are receiving gifts from one another and from a generous community here and you’ll see some people just dissolving in tears, but some just numb just not sure how to take this because they’ve never experienced anything like it in their lives. It’s a really remarkable place!
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, let’s just hit this other thing that you mentioned. These people do have a purpose, and you don’t receive funds from the government, from outside groups and you’re self-sustaining. How does that happen?
Joseph Grenny: Yeah, any of your listeners who would like an inspiring experience, they should go to either Yelp or Thumbtack or Home Advisor, and type in “The Other Side Movers” – they’re in for a mind-blowing experience! They will see the moving companies from Utah pulled up in order of customer preference, and The Other Side Movers is by far, far and above head and shoulders, the number one rated moving company in the entire state, run by a bunch of felons. I mean, imagine going to market and telling the marketplace, “Hey, we’re a bunch of felons. We’d like to come into your house and move your valuables. We’ve done it before, and now we’re going to do it again.” And the market, when the students first made this offer, was understandably nervous, but over the past four years, this service and quality ethic, professionalism, compassion, caring, it has been so sustainable, that it is now this incredibly high-performing organization that will bring in about $3.5 million between it and other related enterprises over the course of a year to completely support the house. Now, here’s the magic. The magic is that the funding process for this nonprofit, for The Other Side Academy, is the same as the therapeutic process. If you want to learn how to be a decent, caring, hardworking human being, the best way to do it is to just practice being a decent, hardworking, caring human being every day. And the best way to do that is in a house where everybody is responsible for being self-reliant. So they have to make these moves work because if they don’t, we don’t get revenue; if we don’t get revenue, we don’t get clothing and food, and we can’t pay for the house. And so, all of this works the way any normal family would, it’s just we happen to have 100 children in our house.
Joseph Grenny: So seeing what happens day after day, when people go out on moves, and you get a new freshman out for the first time, who isn’t quite believing all of this PR yet, and maybe is a little bit lazy or is a little bit grumpy or a little bit of a bad attitude, what’s remarkable is their mechanism in the house, where the older students out on that move will then give feedback to that peer, to that younger peer, in a way that he doesn’t want to hear ever again. It can be direct, it can be confrontational, it can be difficult, but they’re going to let him know exactly what they think about what he did, and how it affects the reputation of this organization. And it’s that peer feedback process that is so critical to them developing a conscience but also developing a work ethic and caring about how they affect our customers.
Steve Shallenberger: Wow, I’d love to talk more about it! Just a little question for you, from your experience, Joseph, what lessons can a parent learn, to help their children and family?
Joseph Grenny: That natural consequences are the most powerful form of influence. So, as parents, we’ll often invent things or we’ll often use our impatience or our power base as a parent to try to get the child’s attention or offer consequences and discipline to them. What works in this house is that you are relentlessly and consistently exposed to feedback from the people who you have affected. And they’re just letting them know how you affected them, “You put our moving company at risk”, or “You made my life a little bit more difficult” or “You hurt one of the other students when you did this”. And that feedback is what helps us learn to care about other human beings. Our students suffer from a lack of guilt sometimes before they come and have done many monstrous things prior to arriving, but now that they’re in a community where they have to listen to how they’ve affected others, they start to learn to care. And after a few months, there’s this moment in every student’s experience where suddenly they start realizing their legs are moving faster than they thought they should, under the circumstances because they care, because they’re trying to get something done for somebody, or they speak up or reach out or share in a way that they never would have before. So, as parents, what we’re often inclined to do is punish or discipline in a way that, you know, “I’m going to give you a timeout and you’re going to sit on a chair” or “You don’t get to play with your friends” or “I’m taking away your phone”. What works best in helping people to develop a social conscience is just a community of relentless and unbridled feedback where people let each other know how they feel about the effect they’re having on them.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you for adding that! And, in addition, I know that you do this, is that your residents just like a family, they also have a vision, and a purpose of why they’re there, that is so compelling, so emotional, so powerful, it gives them hope, and a reason to do that, a reason to take the feedback, so these things really work together. And I’m just so excited to see this and be part of it. Now, let’s shift gears a little bit because time goes so quickly. Let’s move back a few years before The Other Side Academy was even a reality. Would you mind sharing the backstory on this? How did the feeling come to you of this idea and how did you put it into action?
Joseph Grenny: Yeah, so it started with despair. I think it’s Hemingway who said that “Life breaks all of us and in the end, some are strong at the broken places.” We had two sons that got involved in drugs and were in and out of jail and it was heartbreaking to us and we spent these anxious nights wondering when we get that call that one of them was dead of an overdose. And as they started in and out of the judicial system, we saw firsthand how incredibly broken it was. And given that our sons weren’t so interested in our influence at the time, we made a decision. We said, “If you can’t help the people that you love most, there are others you can help. We can get busy, we can do something.” And I believe that what goes around comes around – you put more good in the world and then the things that you care about most will often get lifted in the transaction. And so, my wife and I committed to helping start this model that’s been around for decades but just has not been made available in most places in the world. We decided that we would help to start a prototype of this model, here in Utah, to serve people that we could reach out to, that wanted that kind of help. The good news is that little by little, as our sons started to turn around their lives, they started getting involved with The Other Side Academy, so it’s had an exalting influence not just on the students that arrived, but on our family as well.
Steve Shallenberger: Were there challenges and setbacks as you got it going?
Joseph Grenny: Oh, how long is the podcast? Oh my goodness! We had existential threats around every corner. So, the first was, whether or not anybody would trust us to release somebody from jail instead of sending them to jail or prison and let them live in this house and give it a shot. We had zoning challenges – who wants something like this in their backyard? We had licensing challenges – the state wanted to regulate us into oblivion. And so, one hurdle after another, we had to address many, many challenges in addition to the traditional just how do we get the startup funds to get the house going?
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, they’re endless. But you stayed with it didn’t you?
Joseph Grenny: We did! We were clear – and I hope this is okay to say on this podcast – that this was an assignment from God. This wasn’t something my wife and I fancifully invented. If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that when God wants something done, as long as you dress up, show up, and work hard, you’ll find solutions.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, amen to that! And just a reminder to our listeners, when you have a compelling vision that just burns deep in your gut, you want to do it, you see a reason for it, just like Joseph just mentioned, it gives you the staying power to work through these things. But that’s where it starts, with the idea. And you had the idea and then you put the plan together and went to work. So, let’s just think now about our listeners. Many of us, if not all, have an idea or an inspiration or a thought – sometimes it comes from above, we just know it – what can we do to make that a reality, Joseph? What’s your advice in that regard?
Joseph Grenny: Well, I think that first and foremost starts long before that, that organizing prompting, and that is life usually taps you on the shoulders with preparatory promptings. Somebody will offer an article or a book – and many of us get too busy and we don’t bother paying attention to it – that’s life trying to prepare you for something that sometimes it might be 10 years later. As I go back, before starting The Other Side Academy, there were things that had to be put in place, things I needed to learn, connections I needed to make 10 or 15 years in advance so that all of it could come together at the right time. So the first thing is, learn to honor those preparatory promptings. One category of them is study promptings – it is the articles, books and so forth, and reading them, marking them, storing it in a way that you can access it later. The second is networking promptings. Oftentimes somebody will say, “Hey here’s so and so and I think that’s somebody you ought to meet.” Go to lunch with them, connect with them. One of the best things that happened in my life was meeting you, Steve, and the conversations we’ve had, and the difference that you’ve made in helping our students become their best selves has been significant. We wouldn’t be where we were if it weren’t for so many people like you that had come into my life, and if I did anything right, it was just responding when that prompting came to connect with that person. And then, the third is really, go forward with faith. If we had waited until we had a buttoned-down polished plan, we’d still be waiting today, and there would be hundreds of students whose lives wouldn’t have been affected for the better if we had stalled. So, if you feel that this is a prompting, this is something that you’re supposed to go do and you’ve done the homework to prepare for it, just take the first step and then you’ll figure the next two out as you go.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, this is great advice. Thanks so much for these ideas! I know they’re going to be encouraging and inspirational for our listeners. And as we wrap up today, and as we’re just sitting back and thinking we’re talking here together, wouldn’t it be great just to have all of our listeners in the same room with us just knee to knee and being able to see them?
Joseph Grenny: Yes, it sure would! And I have a mental picture of them.
Steve Shallenberger: I do, too! So, any final tips that you would like to leave with our listeners today? We’re just sitting in the same room and we’re all trying to do better, all trying to become our best to make a difference in our organizations, in our own lives, in our relationships. What would you like to say, Joseph?
Joseph Grenny: Well, I made a passing reference to something that I’ll leave as my final tip. I talked about how at The Other Side Academy it’s so critical that you create communities where people can tell the truth to each other. I think that’s one of the things we suffer from the most in our families and in our organizations – we have a difficult time just expressing the truth. And if I’ve learned one thing at the Other Side Academy in the last four years, it’s that all lasting happiness in life is a function of our capacity for truth, love, and connection. It’s not just having loving, committed relationships, but it’s within those relationships, being truthful with one another, letting one another know how we feel, and how we think, and opening up honestly and vulnerably, and even when it’s difficult to do giving feedback to one another that others need to hear. That’s the way our souls grow. That’s the way that we learn to be better human beings. And if that’s done in the context of a relationship of commitment and love, then that’s where real connection happens. So I have seen this happen time and again with the most broken people in the world and it has blessed my life immensely to learn to be as honest as they are with one another.
Steve Shallenberger: If you don’t mind, Joseph, before we end our podcast today, when you have feedback to give, how can you successfully approach another person? How do you have the courage to go forth and say, “You know, here are some feelings I’ve had and I just want to share them with you and see if we can get to a better place.”
Joseph Grenny: Well, this will be a conversation for another day, but for me, the most important is coming from a place of emotional responsibility. So if I’ve got feelings I want to share with you, Steve, about how something you did affected me, it’s for me to, first of all, acknowledge, “This is my stuff! How it’s affecting me and how I feel is about me as much as it’s about you.” And to come from that place rather than want to blame and shame and attack and accusation. If I can learn to do that and just offer that up to you and let you know so that you can look at your piece of it, then people tend to be able to hear each other far more effectively, they feel a lot safer.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah. Okay, that’s great advice, no doubt. Okay, well, how can people find out about what you’re doing, learn more about The Other Side Academy and VitalSmarts, which is an amazing company?
Joseph Grenny: Oh, sure. And I hope while doing it, they’ll check out how to become your best self, too, that’s definitely on the reading list at The Other Side Academy. So, if people know people that ought to be at The Other Side Academy, people whose lives really are at the bottom and they need help changing and want to do it in a serious way, go to theothersideacademy.org and check it out; there’s lots of information there that will explain how it works and how to apply. Secondly, yeah, my VitalSmarts work, which really is the foundation of everything we do at The Other Side Academy, they can check us out at vitalsmarts.com, or they can go get a lot of wonderful free intellectual property at crucialskills.com.
Steve Shallenberger: Perfect! Well, thank you, Joseph, for being part of this show today!
Joseph Grenny: It’s delightful to be with you and I wish you all the best! Thanks for all the good you do in the world, Steve!
Steve Shallenberger: You bet! Well, what an inspirational visit this has been! And we share the same feelings for you, Joseph, as you’re going out and making a difference. And as each one of you work on becoming your best, you’re going to excel in work, in your relationships, and in your own life and your presence – so your accomplishments provide within you a greater capacity to realize your dreams to do these things we’ve been talking about. So we wish every one of you success with those desires as you make a difference for good, wherever you go. It’s been an honor being together with you today! This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day!