Clay’s Journey Towards Physical & Emotional Wellbeing
Author: Shamis Pitts
06th Feb 2020
In this interview, Clay talks about his challenge with physical wellbeing and how his commitment to his health impacts him as a leader. He also touches on the connection between his physical health with his emotional wellbeing. Clay works at a Silicon Valley-based Fortune 500 software company.
If you prefer to read, here is the transcript.
Shamis: Hi, I’m Shamis Pitts. This is my inaugural “Let’s Live in the AND” Wellbeing campaign discussion. I’m here with my buddy, Clay, who I’ve known for 20 some odd years, and he was gracious enough to share his time to talk about his journey, his leadership and wellbeing journey. And so with that I will introduce Clay who works at a Fortune 500 software company in the Bay area. Welcome, Clay.
Clay: Thank you. Thank you. Good to be here. And you said 20 somewhat years of knowing each other, that made me go, wow, that’s going back a bit. So. Yeah, but we have known each other for quite some time and our journeys have absolutely intersected over that time as well.
Shamis: Yes, they have.
Clay: Glad to help out.
Shamis: So tell me what wellbeing domain you would like to talk about today.
Clay: I think the domain will probably focus a lot on physical wellbeing, but the reality is that they overlap. But what I’ve come to find is that as I think about how I am progressing and growing from a physical wellbeing perspective, I definitely see it intersect with a number of other places. So, I think it’s going to overlap in a lot of different spaces. So, we’ll definitely hear more about that as we continue the conversation.
Shamis: Okay, wonderful. So what challenge do you want to explore? What do you want folks to know that… ?
Clay: So the challenge just to clarify, the challenge is all about physical, it’s all about me kind of getting back to being more whole. And this all came about as a result of dealing with some physical, I would call it ailments for lack of a better term, a couple of years back. It was shortly after my dad passed away back in March of 2017. During that summer I remember my blood pressure spiked randomly and I wasn’t really clear what was driving it, and it was definitely unusual for me. Had a bout with rushing to the hospital that day, doctors looked at all of the different signs, took all the measurements. What’s your blood pressure? What’s the EKG saying? Is there any stress in your head? Whatever is going on.
Clay: Found absolutely nothing. Six months later, the same thing happens again. I’m driving back from work and I’m on the road and I just start feeling lightheaded. I started feeling my blood pressure spiking. I was like, “Oh my God, this is not good.” I basically call my wife and say, “Hey, something’s up. I’m about to drive directly to the hospital and have them take a look and see what’s going on.” The second time around, they kept me overnight. So, they kept me for a couple of days. They wanted me to stay so they could run a number of different tests. They did a, I forget what they call it, the angiogram to see if anything’s going on with my heart, whatever it may be.
Clay: And for me, a lot of it kind of came up around the health piece of it because I knew there were different health issues within my own family. And it was the moment of okay, you really need to get some things in order. Again, they found nothing. I had to ask myself, okay, well if you’re finding nothing but these things keep happening, what’s the deal? So I knew at that point I had been a bit overweight. I’d been a lot overweight, let’s go with that. Some of it was also stemming from putting on a lot of weight when I worked in another industry that was definitely high stress, long hours, bad diet, all of it.
Clay: And I think it all caught up to me after that point in time. That night in the hospital, I remember thinking I’m going to get it together. I saw my doctor the following month, I was like, “Hey, this isn’t good. They can’t track anything. They can’t find anything.” You know? And even between the first incident in July, the second incident in December, I was going to the cardiologist because they were like, “Oh, well maybe there’s something going on with your heart. You need to go get this checked out.” Found nothing. They were like, “Yeah, everything is within the range. So nothing crazy.” But something crazy was clearly going on for me, and I think my body was carrying on both extra weight and extra stress.
Clay: And so I wanted to make a really concerted effort to make some changes diet wise. One of my really close friends from college, a mutual friend of ours, he came out to visit and he literally put it on the table, he was like, “I got to get it together myself. I’ve been overweight for a very long time and I don’t want to be.” And it’s funny because at that same time that he mentioned that, I said, “Yeah, I think it’s time to do something different.” Whatever this something different is, like I was going to the gym, I was thinking, as long as I go to the gym, I’m healthy. But the reality is, it was much more to that.
Shamis: So, you were in a gym practice at that time?
Clay: I was, which was crazy. Yeah. I was in a gym practice, I was playing basketball. I was doing a number of the things that I was doing that I do now, but still there was something going on. And so that’s what made it even more alarming because I was taking the time to be active. I wasn’t out at the bar, hanging out with my friends, drinking alcohol all the time, things of that nature. But something was still happening. And so, the other piece of it is that I am on blood pressure medication in addition to being active, in addition to all the other things that I do to try to keep myself in order, so to speak. And the reality is that, yeah, those things still happen. They changed my medication and it happened again.
Clay: It was just like something’s up. Right. And that’s when I just really made a real commitment to just saying, “You know what, maybe it’s just that I carry too much weight. Maybe that’s the cause.” I was playing sports at that weight, but I was probably heavy. Heavy for my frame. Right. And when my buddy came out and we were just chatting about life and talking about things like yeah, I want to be here for a long time for my kids. And for me. Part of the wellbeing piece of it all, a big part of it is, is just being able to be here for my children, being here to be here for my wife, my family, my friends. Those things are important to me. And I was just trying to figure out like, well how can I get it together?
Clay: And that was the opportunity. When my buddy came out here, we talked about what he was going to do. He’s like, “Hey, I’m about to take a look at this diet to help really start to strip back a lot of the weight that I have.” I said, “You know what, I’m going to join you in that. I may not go as extreme as what you’re doing because I don’t think I can do all of those pieces, but I think there’s some things I can really focus on and change.”
Shamis: Why do you think he appeared at that moment?
Clay: Yeah. I think because it was one of those, it was time. It was like, I had already started thinking about these things. It was almost like being called into the universe a bit. Right? That’s the thought of, I want to make a different kind of commitment to myself, to my family, et cetera. And a part of that is me getting my health to a place where I know that I’m doing the right things. I’m carrying the right lifestyle from a perspective of improving my wellbeing in that space. And then funny enough, he was coming out here for his birthday, so I was like, yeah, he’s going to come out here. His wife planned a surprise visit to California, and came out. And then we’re sitting here eating dinner, and just kind of catching up and this happens.
Clay: And we always typically have some interesting kind of conversations about life and being back in New York and when we were roommates and things of the like, but it was interesting because I saw a different delivery from him when it came to this topic specifically. We talked about this weight many times in the past, but that moment was more of like, uh-uh, this is what I’m doing. And it was clear. It was like, he had committed to it and I said, “I’m going to join you in that commitment because it’s something I wanted to commit to as well.” And so I think that’s why he showed up. It was funny because I had my conversation with the doctor in December. He comes in and visited that first week in January. And I was like, Hmm. Funny how those things kind of happen.
Shamis: So what action did you take after that and how long did it take you to be in that action?
Clay: Yeah. I mean, immediately after I would say I started saying, “What are the things I’m going to cut out?” Diet wise. I will be the first to say doing diets don’t really work for me personally. I don’t do the crash diet thing, which is why I said, “I will join you, but I’m not going to go all the way extreme because I don’t think I can maintain the extreme.” That’s the problem with diets to me, they’re always fairly extreme and something always comes up that it doesn’t work. So I said, “Let me try these first few things.” I said, “I’ll cut out bread, I’ll cut out sugar and I’m not going to have alcohol this month and let’s just see what happens.”
Clay: I’m going to go very heavy vegetables and really skew that way and let’s just see what happens. The first month I was like, Oh, that’s interesting. A couple pounds, I can deal with that. That’s cool. Whatever. And then literally, it was the next month, like February, I go back into work and someone looks at me, and is like, “Did you lose weight?” And it was random because I didn’t really see it. I was like, “Maybe?” And then there’s a scale at work at the gym and so I always go in and I stepped on it. It’s like, Oh. Oh. Oh, that’s interesting. I guess that’s why he asked the question. I had lost 10 pounds at that point. And I had already told my doctor, “I’m going to plan on losing 15 pounds total.” And this was February. And it’s like, Oh okay. March hits, another 10 pounds. I was like, wait, okay.
Clay: In addition to all the other stuff. So in addition to still working out, it wasn’t like diet was the only thing. I continued with working out and kind of staying in that. But I also then really took on more, funny enough, I started really being very consistent in doing yoga. And that’s why I said it also is part of not only just the physical but the emotional.
Shamis: When did you introduce that practice?
Clay: I started it the year before. I stayed much more committed to it in 2018. Where every Monday, at work we have an hour yoga session during lunchtime and so, every Monday I blocked that Monday out. If people try to schedule my Monday, I’m particularly irritable, so I would say, “Are there no other times that you can schedule this meeting?” “Oh, there’s a block at two o’clock.” “I’ll see you at two, but you’re not doing my lunchtime.” Right. I’m pretty vigilant about keeping that Monday session as the intro to my week. That’s the moment where I get to go in and be settled in my space. Especially if anything kind of crazy is going on at the office early on, I’m like, this hour is my recharge and refocus hour.
Shamis: How do you feel after it’s over?
Clay: Oh, it’s great. It’s great. It’s great.
Shamis: Well, what does great mean? Give me a feeling word, Clay.
Clay: A feeling word. It is truly just revitalizing. Sometimes look, I still wrestle with some of the, like I have the blood pressure thing, so sometimes I wrestle with it a little bit, less of my blood pressure spiking. But sometimes when I can feel the stress coming on, I’m just like, Oh, is that my blood pressure or am I just stressed? Is it work? What have you. Yoga is the perfect equalizer, it just hits. And I won’t say it removes all stress, but it absolutely ratchets it back down to a place where I can get really clear as to how the rest of my day is going to go.
Clay: And it just is such a meditative state that I come out of after doing yoga that the rest of that day is usually smooth sailing, and then typically the rest of my week is pretty smooth. Because I’m able to just really be wrapped and be balanced. There’s also a Wednesday session where we have yoga and I interchange that. I go sometimes and sometimes I don’t because her yoga practice is a little different. The one on Monday is definitely much more, I feel like I get very grounded. The one on Wednesday is much more of a, she’s much more like active yoga.
Shamis: Help the viewers understand the distinction that you’re making with those two spaces and talking about the grounding that you feel in that Monday class. What does that mean?
Clay: Yeah, the grounding. When I come into the class, we usually start out where we are just very much getting in touch with our breathing, and so we’re spending a lot of time just getting into the rhythm and getting your breathing into a certain rhythm. Over time, the practice, he’s walking you through various poses or various positions and things of like, funny enough, a few weeks back I did a position I probably shouldn’t have and I strained my knee, but that’s a whole other story. He helps you to just think about ways in which you could move your body and get your body to help your mind get quiet, which is obviously for a person whose mind is always thinking. That is the one time where I can completely just shut it down in a sense, because I’m listening to the practice and I’m letting the practice kind of help recenter me.
Shamis: Based on your view for you, what does a quiet mind look like? Feel like?
Clay: I’ll give you the opposite and that will tell you exactly what it feels like. Usually I am actively thinking about something all the time. Hey, what am I going to do next? What work do I have coming up? Oh, what are my kids doing? Oh, what am I going to prepare for dinner? Oh Hey, I’m still writing that book. Okay. Hey, do I need to go to the gym today? It’s just like click, click, click, click, click all day long. Right. And in that moment during yoga it’s really like, Hmm, I’m just being one with myself. And the chatter’s not happening. Which I think is interesting. And I’ve talked to a lot of people about doing yoga and they’re like, “Why do you do it?”
Clay: I’m like, “Honestly, because sometimes I just don’t want my mind to be chattering.” And when my mind’s not chattering is when I could definitely tell then I’m not feeling stress, because the chatter I think also leads to stress. And so, I’m always constantly looking to that moment and looking to that practice and that time to really just eliminate the chatter, because that’s why when I come out of the practice I’m all good, because the chatter is not happening the whole practice. It’s an hour of just being in a rhythm and being in tune with the instructors practice, and allowing me to just kind of focus there. And a lot of times he’s talking about use your breath to help to settle your mind. Right? And it’s like, yeah. And a lot of it has to do with just the meditative aspect of it all.
Shamis: So you talk about chatter and then you introduce the word focus. When you’re in a practice, in your practice. What are you learning in that space when you’re moving about? What are you learning about yourself when you’re moving from the chatter to the focus?
Clay: There’s a couple of things. I learn it can be done. For a long time when I looked at yoga, I was like, Oh there’s a lot of movement and stretching. Right. But the part about the quiet and the removal of chatter, I never really thought about it from that angle, in part because I just didn’t understand the practice well enough.
Clay: Now I’ve gotten a little bit, granted I am far from being a Yogi, I am a person who does yoga on Mondays and potentially on Wednesdays. There are people who are Yogi people, they bring their mats. They have yoga gear. I’m not that guy.
Shamis: Why can’t you be an emerging Yogi?
Clay: We can get there.
Shamis: Why can’t there be a continuum of yogi-ness?
Clay: Let’s go with that. That’s possible. I’m just saying today, I’m not the guy who has yoga pants on and all of that stuff.
Shamis: I hope not.
Clay: But there’s some guys who are like that-
Shamis: I’m joking, I’m joking.
Clay: But that’s their practice. Fair. But they’re deeper in their practice. Right. And so I definitely see the evolution. Initially when I first did it, I was like, all right, I’m going to use this to really… It’s funny enough, when I first started doing yoga, it was much more of I’m doing yoga to improve my flexibility. Because I was like, hey I play basketball and I don’t want to randomly hear anything and I’m in the gym, and I just want to be more flexible. Right. And that was really my initial thing, flexible, try something different, et cetera. Over time that started to evolve to okay, I’m clearly becoming more flexible because I’ve done this, there’s a repetition and rhythm of doing the practice more often. And it adds this other benefit of quiet and focus and relaxation and relieving stress and all those things.
Clay: That’s why I said when I first started it, I used to go once in a while because it was a different, I think there was a different objective. And then over time, a part of it was like as I started to see my weight shift and then the flexibility increased and then, Oh, there’s more to the practice than just being flexible, right? It’s like, Oh, there’s a practice of being flexible and coming to a state that just gives you an opportunity to be quiet and still, and just in a sense enjoying the journey so to speak rather than thinking of different things for the journey to be.
Shamis: Yeah. That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. That’s very clear about how you move forward. Yeah.
Clay: Yeah, definitely.
Shamis: Your perspective and what you are gaining from being in that practice.
Shamis: I’m curious. So as this is emerging and your weight is continuing to drop, where are you with the food thing?
Clay: Yeah. So, this is why I talk about diet. The food thing, like I don’t add sugar to a lot of things. I mean, 95% of the things I eat, they don’t have sugar. One of the biggest sources of where the sugar would pop up was in coffee. I would always have flavored creamer and I drink like two or three cups of coffee a day. And so that was an easy way to gain sugar. Trail mix, another easy way to gain sugar, right? There’s candy in the office, so of course you’re like, Oh I will have just one piece, which then turns into five.
Clay: And so the sugar part actually has been the easiest piece for me. Just taking that out of the mix. Now, I will say the alcohol part is interesting because you have to really be vigilant about balancing. Right? I used to watch a game and have a drink. Right? Because I’m watching the basketball game in the background, now it’s like the game’s on, I’m like, I may have a drink. Probably not. Probably not. Usually if I’m having a drink, it’s like, my wife and I are here and it’s been a long couple of weeks and we’re like, “Let’s just have a glass of wine.” Or we’re going to a friend’s house and they’re having some celebration, so we have some drinks.
Clay: But funny enough, we have a wine bar. And I looked over there, I was like, this barely gets used anymore, right. With the exception of when people come over to visit. The bread piece, I don’t really eat bread like that. Not a ton. Again, much more sporadic than before where it’s like, Oh yeah, it was kind of part of a lot of different things…. So, the diet piece of it, it could hold up, but that’s why I thought of it much more from a lifestyle change of the exercise needs to kind of fit with where you’re trying to go. What you’re eating needs to fit where you’re trying to go and what you’re really hoping to gain out of it. It’s a journey. It’s a journey. And the part that is also the piece that I’m particularly keen on is that you can’t do this food change and just assume that you’re going to be hardcore sticking to it.
Clay: It will fall apart. Funny enough, part of the other support mechanisms, like a lot of guys that I go to the gym with, we also talk a lot about diets and how do we eat and what do we do? There’s a guy who I play basketball with, who’s in the same yoga class that I do on Mondays, right? So we talk about, Hey, so when we do yoga then we’ll go play basketball like Wednesday or whatever, or Thursday or whatever. And then, there’s like a community there, there’s a community of people I know who do yoga, and I talk to those folks all the time. And then there’s other guys who I circulate with, especially older gentleman, kind of in their 50s, I’m always constantly picking their brains.
Clay: So, one of the first guys who was like, “Hey, you lost a lot of weight.” I was like, “So how did you do it?” Because he was in his mid 50s, and is just in really good shape. And I was like, “So how did you do it?” And he was like, “It’s all my diet. Every thing I hoped to gain came out of me being very diligent about what I put into my body.” And that was another piece too. Right? That’s why I think even losing weight and doing yoga and exercising and the diet or what have you, it’s all about what you put into your body. Right? And so, that’s why I think it’s physical, but it’s also emotional because I think parts of even me maintaining stress and weight and all of those things, was the emotional piece of it all.
Clay: So it’s like, what am I digesting emotionally? There was at one point, I had a lot of people pass in my family. So I’m digesting stress and grief all the time. Right. And then in addition, I’m digesting foods that may or may not be great for me. And then once I started getting to a place where I felt like I can start turning the corner away from, that’s not the only thing going on in your life. And also you want to make changes to your life so that you could be around, as you’ve seen so many people in your family pass away. It became, I was just digesting something different. Right. And so, that got really clear.
Shamis: Yeah. Thank you for that Clay.
Clay: Yeah, no worries.
Shamis: So before we go, I want to make sure we touch on then, how did this shift in your physical wellbeing impact you as a leader with your family, at work, out in the world?
Clay: Yeah, it’s funny, there was a confidence piece to it, right? I think at one point, I remember being in the gym doing all these things and kind of thinking like, yeah, my weight’s still up there though. For whatever it’s worth, I would argue a piece of it was slightly some vanity, but a piece of it was also more of I physically don’t feel great, right? I felt heavy, I felt like I was carrying something. And then over time as I started to feel better, right, my body was starting to come into a place that I wanted it to be. The kinds of foods I was eating actually allowed… I felt cleaner eating, just generally speaking, albeit I mean, I have a beer or two, those aren’t killing me.
Clay: And once those things started to change, I felt like that’s where it really started to come off for me. Being a leader at that point, there was a point where I was like, there’s a confidence thing of not feeling like I was being present as a leader. And I wasn’t being the leader I wanted to be. And it’s funny, as these things started to happen, I said, “Yeah, you know what? If I really put and make this commitment to myself, these things do happen.” So now, there are other places where I can use that same kind of practice in other spaces. And that practice of, making a commitment to being a better leader, making a commitment to showing up a certain way. Right. I did coaching in the last couple of months, the last six months.
Clay: Right. Part of that was, because you want to commit to being better. Personally, figuring out what better means, but a better leader, a stronger leader, a more present leader, a person that inspires others. I was looking for that and it was something that I kept drumming up for me throughout the last couple of years at the company. And last year as I was doing coaching and I kind of felt like I came into a better place physically. I said, “Okay, so now how will that manifest itself elsewhere?” It’s been huge as a leader. I mean, I know that I physically feel better, so I feel like I’m physically showing up differently and that allows me to also show up as a leader in a certain way and have a certain presence in the room. Which I felt was the thing that I ultimately wanted to have happen.
Clay: It’s like, getting to better shape important, but also showing up a certain way. Right? Like I want to show up a certain way for my children. There were times when I was carrying the extra weight and things of the like, and honestly I was just constantly feeling pain, not feeling strong to do things with them, and just always feeling kind of sluggish and tired and things of the like. Now, I can show up for my kids. To me that’s huge, right? They want to go do things in the park. I’m like, all right, let’s go. Throw the bikes in the trunk, let’s be out, and we can just go. But there was a point before where I used to just feel the stress and that meant the blood pressure and headaches were kicking in and I was just kind of like, I don’t even have the fortitude to do things with them the way I wanted to. And now it’s like, yeah, if they want to go do stuff, yeah, let’s go do it. Whatever you feel like doing is fine.
Shamis: And how does that feel to be able to be in that commitment to them?
Clay: Oh, it’s awesome. I mean, my dad when I was much younger, he ended up being disabled, started to lose his sight. Come to find out, he had diabetes. And funny enough, no one knew in his family because his mom had passed away so long ago. But then over exploring, come to find out, Oh yes, she had diabetes too. So clearly it was a family thing, which also kind of rose the red flag for me when all this stuff was happening, because I had to ask my doctor, “So is diabetes something I should also be worried about?” Which, then also drag to cut the sugar out. That’s an easy solve for a couple of minutes.
Clay: But I remember early on when I was younger, my dad would do some things with me, but then he became disabled and he couldn’t do anything, he just couldn’t see, his vision was cloudy. He wasn’t able to do all the things that he probably would’ve wanted to, and I mean, he’s old school, West Indian too. Let’s be clear. When I had to ask him like, we have this boy scout, father scout, weekend trip, camping in the woods. That’s not something he would have been doing. Let’s be clear. But he did it right. He was like, “Well, my son wants to do this thing. I’m going to go do that.” Right. And I remember thinking, wow, yeah, we did it. It was massively cold outside. And I remember I looked at him and I said, “I don’t think we’re ever going to do this again.”
Clay: And he was kind of like, “Yeah, we’re not doing this again.” But that was that. I mean, that was the thing I remember being a kid, I was like, my dad would do these things. He put my bike together so I can go ride. And my mom would be out and about helping him with stuff like that, and making sure that I had a childhood that I can do things. And then, he got sick and then I knew just the dynamic had completely changed. I had to be much more self-sufficient. Things that I wanted to kind of do, I would either do on my own, I had older brothers, they would occasionally take me to stuff, but it was me and then my mom doing things. And then me and my friends doing other things. And I remember thinking, I’m sure he probably wanted to… He never got to see me play football. His vision was gone by that point.
Clay: And I’ve always said like, when I have children I want to be able to be present and be active. That’s super important to me. In part because my dad wasn’t able to do that for me. No fault of his own. I mean, things happen. But also, I remember just thinking about, I would have loved to have had him see me do certain things. Right. He was present. He was physically there. He came to my graduation in college and in business school, right. He’s never seen me play sports. He never saw me do gymnastics, which is weird because I was kind of a heavyset little chubby kid trying flip around, but that was a whole other thing.
Clay: But I wanted to make sure that I keep my health in order the best I can, so that I can be present for my children, I can be present for my family and friends and things of the like. And I know that’s something honestly, he was a very quiet man, he didn’t say a ton, which is so opposite of me. But when we did speak, I could easily see that he would not overtly say it, but he would imply like, I really wish that these things hadn’t had happened. That I didn’t lose my sight, that we had gotten…. And just in the context of trying to pick up on how he felt about things. That’s something that was there. And so, I’ve always just said, “I’m going to do the best I can to really manage my health and do all of those things,” so that honestly, hopefully to avoid that, I mean we can’t predict the future, but I’m going to try the best I can in the present to try to create that future.
Shamis: Wonderful. Wonderful. Thank you, Clay. That was such an honest, real relatable share. So I’m grateful that you were willing to be with me here today.
Clay: Oh, absolutely. Anytime.
Shamis: I might take you up on that. So to my viewers, thanks so much for joining us today for the first installment of “Let’s Live in the AND”, and in this wellbeing campaign as we talk about leadership and wellbeing. So follow me, subscribe to my newsletter, shamis2020.com. That’s S-H-A-M-I-S-2-0-2-0.com. I would love to hear from you so I can amplify your voice as well. Take care and see you next time. Bye.