Lars Leafblad: The Power and Purpose of Connection

Long before he co-founded his executive search firm, Ballinger | Leafblad, Lars Leafblad had a passion for connection. From organizing a college alumni network to founding PollenMidwest, Lars has provided a guiding hand, bringing people together to make a difference in the world.
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Guest
Lars Leafblad

Father, business professional, people connector

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Highlights

Lars thought he wanted to be a doctor, but in college his passion for human connection guided him to a different path.

A chance encounter with a panelist at an event opened his eyes to the world of executive search.

He started a side-gig newsletter about job opportunities called the “Lars-O-Festo” that became so popular it evolved into a non-profit: PollenMidwest.

Lars has been open about struggles with anxiety and alcoholism, hoping to help others find healthy paths through their own challenges.

Transcript

Intro

IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at ten7.com

We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it to here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells the life stories of people from around the world… let’s listen!

Guest

Our story today is about Lars Leafblad, the original founder of Pollen Midwest, a media arts nonprofit working towards a society that is free, just and loving; co-founder of executive search firm Ballinger | Leafblad; and guiding hand, someone who brings people together to make a difference in the world. Let’s hear about Lars’ journey from wanting to be a doctor, to chance encounters that opened his eyes to executive search to his struggles with anxiety and alcoholism.

Interview

IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION, would you please introduce yourself.

LARS LEAFBLAD: Hi Ivan, thanks for having me on. My name is Lars Leafblad. I am joining you today from Shoreview, Minnesota, which is a suburb of the Twin Cities, northern suburb, and I’m excited to be with you here today on the first day of fall 2021.

IVAN: It’s exciting to have you on as well. What do you love to do? What keeps you busy during the day?

LARS: Oh boy, many things, you know, I think reflective of the moment we're in-in terms of at least the pandemic, what it has recalibrated for all of us the last eighteen months. My day is mix of co-parenting 4 kids from 3rd grade through 11th grade, who were in full distance learning from last March through April of this year, and then are back in class rooms. You know, they are with me every other week, 50% of my life I’m 100% care giver, and the additional energy when you are not in that moment, is as co-founder of Ballinger | Leafblad, which is a Twin Cities based executive search firm, that works primarily with, we use the term, civic sector, which is a broad category for non-profits, philanthropy, health care, member association and social enterprise clients doing executive searches. I have found my energy, especially the last 18 months, in terms of where it’s parceled out, between working with clients that we work with at Ballinger | Leafblad, being a co-parent, teacher assistant, and you know, taking it a day at a time, I think, really trying to take it a day at them these days.

IVAN: It’s certainly a full plate of things that you have, and it feels like everyone has these full plates and are just trying to do the best that they can with what they have right now.

LARS: Very much so, I think act the visual I have in my head of the spinning the plates, the visual of someone being asked to spin multiple plates at once, and at least as I have talked with friends, colleagues, family, I think, we’re all just being ok with plates dropping. It's just impossible to keep three to eight plates spinning in this moment, because not only are you trying to spin the plates but the floor underneath your feet are spinning this way and that and it will stop and reverse direction, so the footing that we all had been used to having somewhat stable as we tried to multitask, has certainly being doing a tilt-a-whirl of its own and trying to keep us all adjusting to the reality that we’re in.

IVAN: I totally see those spinning plates falling around me many times, and it's ok. They break and you get another plate, and you learn and you know how to spin in a different way, and that’s how we grow. One of the things you said to me in an email that really made me think is about the impermanence of being one in eight billion, one of eight billion on this planet. You said, we are temporary guests on Earth, and I thought that was just such a great perspective on one of eight billion. We’ve just changed our name, the podcast has a different name and I wanted to ask you about, how does it make you feel to be one of eight billion?

LARS: I love the name. I think it grounds us in the reality that like we were just talking about, the impermanence of the reality we had grown accustomed to in modern life kind of being flipped upside down thanks to a pandemic, and a reminder of inter connectedness a global pandemic makes you fully presence and aware of in the way that we are one of eight billion and viruses and ideas and content, you know, they don’t recognize human made boundaries or barriers in the way that we had anticipated, construct or hoped they work. I think in thinking about your invitation to join you, and the context of being one of 8 billion, it stuck them that we have reminded of and certainly reminded me both the humbling nature of a pandemic, despite the modern advances of medical technology and public health and communication advances and vaccines that we could develop quickly, it illuminates the temporary nature of human life. That we are here for some period of time and that we are guests. I think it struck me in thinking about your invitation today, we are here for a chapter in a much longer huge story. And whether that is for six days or 106 years or somewhere in-between we’re here temporarily and what, how do we choose to spend that time and again I think these last 18 months for many of us has challenged perhaps the assumptions we had about the life we were leading, the life we could lead, and prompt a lot of us to ask questions about when confronted with that the mortality or those choices we weren’t expecting to be making bout work life tradeoffs or health care tradeoffs, it just illuminate, that our choices aren’t made in a vacuum, they’re made in the context of one of eight billion. In this era of kind of self-determination and individualization in America, or at least western life, that it certainly has prompted me to become more aware and thinking through the ramifications of being a part of a much broader interconnected global community.

IVAN: It’s amazing that the pandemic has done this to us as humanity. It’s truly shown that it doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what your history is were all connected through this condition through humanity and the virus doesn’t care, why should we, right?

LARS: I remember seeing images just growing up, or in my education path way, and you see learning about history and seeing and thinking of these images of pandemics past, influenza, small pox, polio, and the black and white pictures of humans in masks, in these open air health care facilities, trying to tend their fellow humanity and thinking about the years of uncertainty and lack of knowledge or technology advance. They just got through it together, and here we are. The juxtaposition of instantaneous satisfaction and retail delivery tomorrow from across the four corners of the world and why can’t we just move through this latest health care bump in a week. And I think we are in it. We are in a whole different type of recalibration and readjustment that nature saw, brought into us, brought into the world and here we are.

IVAN: As a temporary guest on each, both you and I had a start somewhere. I would love to go back and hear about where your life started. Where were you born where did you grow up what did that look like?

LARS: So with a name like Lars Leafblad, but I was actually born in Texas. I was born in Houston, Texas. My father, at the time, was completing medical school at Baller University, and my mom was completing her undergraduate at University of Houston. I came along and was born in Houston, Texas and then we moved to the Twin Cities. My parents had met in college, here in Twin Cities, we moved back to Minneapolis when I think, I was about two and a half. Part of what brought them back to this part of the county was my dad was doing his residency at the University of Minnesota. In this current political moment, what’s going on in the world, I don’t put the Texas birth certificate out in front. But that’s where my story starts. Lars Leafblad, born in Houston, Texas and settled, my folks brought us back, my sister and I, to the Twin Cities, South Minneapolis, around 1980.

IVAN: And your sister was also born in Texas, so she also has that birth certificate.

LARS: I think, sorry Megan if you are listening to this, I think we moved back and Megan was born here in the Twin Cities I think the way our ages worked, they moved and had my sister here not long after we had settled back in the Twin Cities. So I do think I am the only one of my siblings that has the Texas birth certificate, in my own story in my origin story.

IVAN: Well if they aren’t teasing you enough about it then maybe they should.

LARS: That’s correct.

IVAN: So you have an upbringing that looks like a standard south Minneapolis upbringing. Is that where you went to school?

LARS: It’s a unique upbringing, I think everyone of ours, who are you where did you start what’s your story? We moved we settled my folks bought a home on the east side of Lake Hiawatha, not far from Roseville High School.

IVAN: I know that neighborhood.

LARS: We lived on a bike ride to Mellow Glazed Donuts was a high light of living in that neighborhood. We lived there until I was just under 6 and my sister maybe 4 and my parents divorced at that time. My mom moved to an apartment in Highland Park and my dad ended up moving to a home near Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis, that’s a big part of my story arch. That moment my sister and I went back and forth between my mom’s house and my dad’s house every other week. So we would be with mom for a week and then with dad, so I really grew up, from about age 6 to 18, during those years going back and forth every other week. My mom lived mostly in the Highland Park area in St. Paul, and my dad, who remarried eventually, my dad and step-mother lived in south Minneapolis, first Lake Nokomis and then Lake Harriet, water seemed to be part of where my family sought to raise my sister and I. Relative to school and that path, they found an intermediary spot that my sister and I ended up both attending Minnehaha Academy, located on River Road there next to the Mississippi. It was a convenient half-way spot for my mom living in Highland Park and my dad and stepmother’s family living in south Minneapolis. My sister and I went to middle school and high school there at Minnehaha Academy, long before its basketball dynasty, I’ll say that, what they’ve experienced in recent years, that was not part of my Minnehaha experience. But that’s where I grew up, and again, I consider myself, as an adult now, I'm grateful for having really equal time in the informative years in the St. Paul proper and Minneapolis proper, different experiences, different community, and meet in the middle for my school day for many years at Minnehaha.

IVAN: You grew up in a blended family. How’d you feel that influenced what you wanted to do growing up. You must have had an idea of what you wanted to be when you were a child. Do you think that had anything to do with it? Was it shaped by your blended family?

LARS: Yes, absolutely. As I look back at that experience, I noted that it was formative to have my family do a reorg, my family went through a reorg at age 6. My mom moves to Highland Park, my dad moves to south Minneapolis, my dad remarried two years later and he and step-mother had 2 boys together, so I am the oldest of four siblings, I have a sister whose a couple of years behind me and then two younger brothers that are 8 and ten years younger, and that experience of growing up, and I think of my step mother as a bonus mom, I was gifted to have three adults that cared for my sister and I with a lot of love and a lot of attention and a lot of support for our development. And growing up in two households you adapt to that, and I do think it informed as I look at it as an adult, how did it equip me, how did it shape me in a couple of ways. Just as the logistics of living in two homes and two bedrooms, where’s my home where at? And this was in 1980s and early 1990s, no mobile, you know, it was a lot of backpacking and making sure your things are between two houses and it was two very different, I noted, that they were both loving households and they both saw the world very differently. You know, different types of faith communities that I was invited to join as part of my dad’s house, and different at my mom’s. My mom was Episcopalian at the time and my dad and stepmother were Evangelical Baptists, and that certainly growing up between ages 6 and 18, with those types of different constructs of how the world is and how we can best show up in it informed who I am. It was taking lots of ideas and being exposed to a lot of different people certainly shaped how I’ve found my way through the world at that point. And with regards to who, I think you asked if I’m correct Ivan, did I hear what did I want to be when I grow up? Was that a question?

IVAN: Did you want to be an executive search?

LARS: No that’s a great question! I did not aspire to be an executive search person. I thought I wanted to go into medicine. My dad was an obstetrician, my stepmother was a nurse/midwife, my mother was an attorney. I was drawn to medicine, so I ended up going to St. Olaf College down in Northfield and was drawn there partially because of the strength of the pre-medical program, and I thought, my dad and stepmom appear to find meaning and purpose and joy in their medical careers, and I loved connecting with people and I loved biology. I got to St. Olaf and I learned that was not the ticket to get into pre-medical curriculum of calculus, physics, and chemistry, and I thought I don’t think this is the path. I think honestly, Ivan, when I think about where were the, you look back in your choose your own adventure story, where were the indicators that I might ever find my way into the people connecting business, and I honestly go back and look. I was in a move a few years ago I was looking through old journals from third grade, we kept a daily journal in 3rd grade, and I remember looking in the back of this journal and in the inside cover of that journal, I had segmented my classmates into 6 different tiers into how close of a friend they were to me. What third grader is that a recruiter mentality into thinking about how I segment people into groups of individualization and proximity to me, or the world, and no one told me that, no one taught me that. I just think, I look back and I do think I was innately curious about the individualization of people in my life, their story, who are they, what was their relationship to me how did I interact with them. But the earliest thoughts about what did I want to be when I grew ups was an eye towards medicine, and the liberal arts experience that St Olaf exposed to me early on helped me realize that was not a path I was not going to choose to follow. A lot of other things subsequently took place after that decision.

IVAN: What did you end up graduating with, because it wasn’t medicine, what did that end up switching to?

LARS: I had a wonderful first year economics course and had a great second semester of my first year, I had a wonderful economics class, I needed up being an economics major. I was intrigued by the choices that people make, tradeoffs, whether it’s behaviors in consumer behavior or economic policy, I was intrigued around understanding tradeoffs people are willing, think they are willing to make and in practice make. This first economics 101 course I had was a great, I loved it, I loved learning about it, I didn’t necessarily see myself as an economist, but st Olaf did not offer a general business degree, it was economics and a management studies subtract that I pursued. I think Ivan, this notion of looking back at how the dots connected, I think the under pinnings of finding myself 25 years later, into this career, the executive search, I look at the extra curricular I was involved with at St Olaf, outside of the classroom. That really where I see the foundational pillars of how I built a vocation in the human connecting business taking root.

IVAN: Do you think you could have noticed it earlier on? When did you figure out this is what you wanted to do?

LARS: Isn’t that fascinating, don’t you wish you could have that clarity at 18 or 23? I had that clarity, briefly, when I was at St. Olaf I started a couple different student organizations that were connected to networking, really out of my own self interest. I thought I love coming to this community, I would love to meet people that came here before me. St. Olaf, for those of you listeners who don't know, which is located in Northfield, which is an hour south of Minneapolis, it's not in the Twin Cities, in terms of proximity of running into alumni in the skyway or at a coffee shop or on the corner, you gotta track down to the corn fields around Northfield. I, at the time, started a student organization that connected, it was called SOAP, the St Olaf Alumni Partnership. Students self-organized, this was in, 1996-97, again this was pre-web, we would literally bus students into the Twin Cities to meet with alumni in different fields of interests, medicine, law, health care, business, entrepreneurial-ship, public affairs, no one told us to do it, no one told me, hey Lars you should start this alumni group, it will serve you well. Where you asked, maybe this was the first indicator I skipped past, I spent 100 of hours over my sophomore, junior, senior years building an organization to connect students to alumni, maybe there would be a career in that. That lightbulb did not fire until a decade later when I was working at Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. I was the Chief Development Officer at the time, raising resources for the Humphrey School. A panelist on a panel we hosted, Rebecca Yanish, at the time, now Rebecca Driscoll, she had been a Commissioner of Trade in Economic Development in the Governor Ventura Administration, and she was talking about her own career path. And someone asked what are you doing now that you left Governor Ventura’s administration, and she said I’m executive recruiter. I was curious, what is an executive recruiter, and so I went up to her after the panel, and just said, Rebecca, hi, I’m Lars, and introduced myself, and I asked her what was and executive recruiter. She said, I get paid to be a connector for my clients. I thought, that was the lightbulb moment for me honestly, Ivan, when I thought, this was 2007 or so, how do I find my way into this field where you get hired by client organizations to go out and connect on their behalf with really talented people, and introduce to them to opportunities. And I just thought that was not a carrier path I did not exist I did come up a traditional HR path I did not out of recruiting. It was just this lightbulb moment for me, hearing from someone who served public leadership, and who herself was an incredible connector, had the light bulb fired for me, by saying the essence, the distillation of what a great executive search consultant is, is a connector on behalf of a client organization or hiring executive to go out to connect with people. That really was the first seed, light bulb, in 2007 that lead into this current work 15 years later.

IVAN: What was the first step you took to be on your own to start a company, to maybe be with a partner, I know you have a partner in the firm you’re in?

LARS: Two parts to that, I think. I was invited, the short story of a longer story, I was invited by Rebecca eventually, Rebecca Yanish, following that we had a networking coffee she told me more about what it was like to be in the executive search business, mentioning I should really connect you with my three partners. So I met with her partners at the time, at a firm called Keystone Search. There were four partners, they all had the chance to meet with me the summer and fall of 2007, and tell me about why they were in this work, and I ended up joining that team in 2007 and loved it. Was there for almost 6 years working primarily with my co-founder Marsha Ballengier and Rebecca Yannish, in our non-profit practice. Working with civic clients, health care, nonprofit foundations, member association. I literally officed between the two fo them in an open office lay out for 6 years, and I just got to learn through osmosis and practice as second chair on a lot of these projects for 6 years, from two exceptional coaches and mentors. The notion fo starting my own thing, I didn’t really. I have a couple of answers for that, I loved being apart of a team, I loved being apart of this 5 person partnership at Keystone, was not looking to go out on my own or start a new thing. The short hand of it was that I had an opportunity to meet with Jennifer Forree, who had been named new president of the Bush Foundation in the summer of 2012. Jen and I had known each other for a number of years, and we had a coffee, that I thought might be, to discuss her vision for a leadership team that she would be creating as the new president of Bush Foundation. By the end of coffee she really planted a seed by saying, hey there is a new position that we are going to be opening up at the foundation to lead and work with our Bush fellows, and if you are interested would love for you to apply. Long story short, went back and shared with my partners, hey this is an opportunity Jen has encouraged me to look at, what do you y’all think. They were incredibly supportive, amazing partners, to say despite our own self-interest, we think it's a little hypocritical to explore opportunity that might be in front of you. I went through the Bush Foundation process, joined foundation in a role that led the Bush Fellowship for a couple of years. Again, I thought I would be there until I was no long able to work. I thought this is dream job I love working with the Bush Fellows, this is in philanthropy, you have the chance to invest resources and people with possibility and make amazing impact. The unexpected learnings that I had in that role, and working for someone like Jen of CEO, I was surrounded all day for 2 years by people who’re a taking risk, like I want to become. Bush Fellow, I want to apply to this $100,00 fellowship because I am willing to take steps forward in my growth as leader, as an entrepreneur, civic catalyst for good. It kept striking me that there was this restlessness in my own spirit, I always wanted to start something. I fed that spirt of wanting to start something, this is another story and side-bar, I had fed that spirit of wanting to create or be apart of creating through starting what’s now a non-profit organization, here in the Twin Cities, called Pollen. I had started Pollen as a joby-newsletter in 2008-09, that eventually became a full-time non-profit. That fed that part of my spirit of wanting to be apart of creating, growing. Once I got into this role of Bush Foundation, I remember meeting with Jen for my 1 year review, again, got asked that question when you work for great boss, what do you want to be when you grow up. There was no answer I was supposed to give, there was no trick question, it was sincerity of what what are you continually learn about yourself where do you want to go tin the world. Jen and I talked and I really, shared at some point, I would love to really start something. That turned into a longer conversation over a series of months, and ended up leaving the Bush Foundation to start Ballengier-Leafblad with Bush Foundation as our first client. That was in the summer of 2014, and my former partner at Keystone Search, Marsha Ballenginer and I, over the course of several months sat down and amicably figured out a way to leave from her current work at Keystone, and for me to leave the Bush Foundation. We started Ballenginer-Leafblad in that summer of 2014, through a mix of serendipity and vulnerability and life timing being such that we could try it on for size and to see how it fit how it worked. Here we are 7 years later, and it has just been amazing. So grateful to work with a co-founder like Marsha, and work with a large number of clients across the region. And, again, forever indebted to Bush Foundation and Jen Reedey being the angel client to encourage us leave the tree with at least half a wing flapping, flutter on to start this practice in 2014.

IVAN: Now I understand why you’re so vocal about the fellowships at the Bush Foundation. I’ve seen you talk about them, you’re so passionate about the Bush Foundation, and I never knew that this was as a result of your fellowship, your leadership, your work there, and now as apart of Ballengier-Leafblad. You seem to love to be able to put people together to network, and I did not know that you founded Pollen. Pollen Midwest is a wonderful organization, non-profit, I knew you were involved somehow, I didn’t realize you were the founder. Didn’t you start it basically in the economy that was in the tank? If I remember correctly, you basically started it right around the 2008 downturn when we had that market crash. Is that right?

LARS: That’s correct. Never waste a terrible recession to try something on. Yeah, let’s try this! Why not! It really, Ivan, you’re right it started in 2008, it's as an attempt, Pollen starting, I wish there was a vision that kind of had been from day one, crystallized this is what we’re going to create. At first it was a logistics issue that I had to try to solve. And the logistic issue was that my partners and I at the time, at 2008. were being inundated with requests, not just from strangers, friends, family, former work colleagues, clients, that were saying I am in job transition unexpectedly, or I anticipate being in job transition, can you help me find a job. As an executive search firm, we’re not on that side of the table. We’re not architected to be, we’re not an outplacement firm, we don’t find jobs for people, we find people for jobs. Yet, I wanted, as did my partners, like how can we be helpful to this massive disruption of people that are finding the tectonic plates shifted for all of us. So I started a newsletter, it was an email, it wasn’t a newsletter, it was an email, I called it the Lars-O-Festo, because, I don't why I did, I just did. I would take emails and every couple of weeks, I would say these 32 people have emailed me in the last couple of weeks and they are all looking for a new roll. I would include a link to their LinkedIn profile, I would say here are 6 organizations that aren’t in apposition to hire a recruiting firm, but they have some really cool jobs posted, and here are some jobs they asked us to spread the word around. I would include other opportunities to try to connect people. Networking events or speakers or articles or opportunities to collaborate, and it was this hodgepodge in effort to both connect people who were seeking, and people that were hiring, but didn’t have resources to try and find work with a retained recruiter. That email/newsletter, Lars-O-Festo kept getting forward to people, and at the end of 6 months there was 1,000 people on email list. One of those emails landed in inbox, at the time. the publisher and editor and founder of MinnPost, Joel Kramer. Joel said, this is kind of cool idea. It seems like you are doing this thing to help people and there is interesting content here, and let’s have lunch. Joel and I have lunch 2009 or so, and ended up inviting me to take, we rebranded Lars-O-Festo to Pollen. It was really this idea of, can we spread opportunity, can we cross pollinate to people to potential possibilities, how can we cross pollinate. So pollen was the term I came up with. MinnPost was catalyst, if you go back and google “MinPost Pollen,” it almost looks like column where I was sharing Pollen in a column format back in 2009-10-11, as a regular part of MinnPost, by that point we had several 1000 folks. I remember the team at MinnPost saying the average MinnPost story will get read for 38 seconds, or whatever the number was. When we link Pollen it gets read for 5-6 minutes, clearly people are reading this top to bottom. We just noodled on as a team, and by that team I mean, the current Executive Director Jamie Mallard, and her co-founder Megan Murphy, and this handful of other volunteers, that said hey, Lars we love this Pollen thing, you need a website. I’m not a tech guy, I was doing this on nights and weekends because I cared, not because it was money maker or for profit venture. This group of volunteers really put heart, soul, and sweat equity into creating what is now Pollen as stand alone non-profit around 2011-2012. That team has subsequently grown Pollen into this amazing entity, social enterprise. The Pollen story started in great downturn as a newsletter to try and be helpful, reflective of this place in the Twin Cities, in this community. Some hands went up to volunteer to try and be helpful, and the community responded this is a resource that is truly trying to help others. It just took on a life of its own and now exists really to amplify opportunity and stories of people making impact and opportunities to make impact for a more just and equitable, and possibility filled region in this moment we live.

IVAN: How did you feel when you realized you needed to leave Pollen in someone else’s hands?

LARS: That’s something as entrepreneurs when you create and start, I had no exit plan, this will be acquired, or this will be built to scale, it’s just we created this thing and all for sudden there is 12,000 people reading this thing every week. Who are you going to entrust to keep reading, or growing, leading this thing. I am so thankful to have worked with Jamie Mallard, in particular, that we sat down at Dunn Brothers, the Freight House Dunn Brothers I remember, around 2010, boy over a decade ago, and it really was this that moment of passing the baton, this mutual connection of trust and respect and just having to take a step into the unknown of saying I believe that this person, and what they aspire to continue to create is, I’m going to trust them. It’s hard to have, to find, the trust to believe in the trust, and then to steer clear. To not be hovering around as a former founder, and I’ll just keep editing, and there was some gentle and needed nudges along the way to keep me out of the work. And that was needed, and it helped that at the time we were going through that transition of Pollen, really as Lars volunteer editor to Jamie as full-time ED, I had joined staff of Bush Foundation. Subsequently before I joined the staff, stepped down, turned the baton over to Jamie, and kudos to her, she left her full time job to take on this thing that she wanted to create as non-profit, and ended up growing this thing. The joy and gratitude and pride you feel as someone that’s been founder or co-founder, and watching legacy of someone behind you take it to entirely new heights and impact ways is just, it’s incredible. That’s what they’ve certainly done. It’s the ripples of good that keep coming from it, as I’ve met people who found roles through Pollen, or had their stories highlighted by Pollen, and that lead to new funding for their non-profit or their own growth, it's just, what an annuity. It’s an annuity of good that you helped to create, and then a decade later you’re continuing to hear from people that you’ve impacted their lives in ways you had no idea that have happened as a result of what Pollen has brought to life. It’s been an incredible gift.

IVAN: It feels like a child that grew up and is now doing its own thing, and just bringing additional good to the world. You’ve kind of multiplied your own good and self-sustaining and it continues to gives back..

LARS: That’s wonderful to think of it. As I’m reminded daily in my efforts to be good a parent, the humbling that comes with it, is what you learn from your children. I have continued to be challenged by Pollen, and grow from Pollen and look into these leaders in their 20s, 30s, the groups behind, I’m 44, looking at folks that are 34 and 24, who see the work of Pollen and the changes that their trying to bring about in a systemic way relative to ways of transparency, of social justice and racial equity and a sustainable economy in a transformative way. It’s pushed me, like a child does. Wow, yeah, I really am going to think differently about that or challenge my assumptions or my actions. It’s just been a gift.

IVAN: I want to ask you a difficult question, I do not know if it’s difficult, but certainly it's a bit of change in mood. What has been your greatest struggle in life?

LARS: There are a couple of things. I think, the greatest struggle, I could give many examples of what have been struggles. I do think, they’re interconnected, but a couple of, I’ll give a concrete example and then the underpinnings for that. I think the greatest struggle has been, I have dealt with generalized anxiety my whole life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a pit in my stomach from anxiety. That was formative in my early years, as a young kid, always being worry wort, if you will, or the kid who was always nervous, or the kid who was always anxious, that was me. The first time I didn’t feel that worry and anxiety was when I had my first drink of alcohol when I was 18 at an open house party after high school had ended before heading to college. I had that drink, and I had that pit in my stomach go away, and it was this lightbulb went off that for the first time of my life that anxiety I had been feeling was gone. Subsequently, I’m an alcoholic. From age 1 to 33, again a whole other podcast topic, my journey from using alcohol, abusing alcohol, finding my way to be a high preforming alcoholic for a number of years for that first decade out of college, and really coming to terms. I call it my re-birthday, but my date of sobriety January 1, 2011, was really a pit and a moment in saying unless I get help I'm at risk of losing my family, my kids, myself, and called Hazelton. Ended up starting outpatient treatment for alcoholism, that’s early in that 2011. I mention them both, because I am in active recovery, I have been in recovery since January 1, 2011. Grateful to be sober, grateful to be living in Minnesober, this is a place that around the world people come to Hazelton, they come for the addiction treatment and recovery that this place provides to people from all over the world that come here. I get to live here and be apart of those recovery circles, recovery community. But that anxiety that underpinned my use of alcohol to mitigate the anxiety never went away. That’s still there. So when I think about what’s been my greatest struggle, I’ve gained new tools without alcohol in my life to deal with anxiety, whether that’s anti-anxiety medications, or health and wellness strategies around movement, diet and activity, being surrounded with love, and being of service to others, and yet, the anxiety is always still there. When I think about the struggle for me, that struggle with anxiety still remains, it’s still a part of who I am. I read, and perhaps as you’ve talked with other guests, around this notion of imposter syndrome, or self-doubt or lack of self-confidence. There are many times I’ve felt those things, I’ve felt like there’s a mask to put on to put on to be performative, and the challenge is how do I continue to find ways to be my full self, and true self, and work through those feelings, emotions and mental health issues around anxiety that still remain. That’s an ongoing struggle. I’m grateful for the question, because I think that’s unites us all as one of 8 billion are the struggles we share. In talking openly about the struggles doesn’t have us struggle in isolation, you realize, that as I’ve talked, what a privilege of being in the human interview business, where I get to spend my days talking with these leaders for these executive positions and leadership roles, and you get to hear their narratives and personal stories of career and life and struggles that they’ve faced. Some of those conversations you learn about how leaders have navigated their own issues of self-doubt, self-confidence or anxiety, depression. I think were in a moment as a community, as a country, as a world, where talking about those things that we didn’t used to talk about, what a gift. Want to know that for anyone, I’m in recovery, you deal with ongoing anxiety, and I have found that by being open about that, by sharing with others, it allows me to find inspiration, solidarity and connection with others who reach out and say, hey, I’m going through the same thing, or I’ve been through the same thing, or I think I’d love to talk further. Again, this annuity of good, by sharing ones struggles good continues to come your way, and trying to equip others from what you’ve learned or experienced is part of my ongoing way of dealing with that challenge in my life.

IVAN: Thank you or sharing that with us Lars. It’s so important and I’m so grateful that you being open and vulnerable and authentic with it. I agree that everybody has a struggle, I think it’s definitely something that unites us all in this condition of humanity that we experience. I wonder how our children and our youth, the next generation, how they’re experiencing anxiety, how they’re experiencing the things that we are dealing with now, as middle-aged men, as middle age human. What could we be doing in empowering them and to help them so that they can get to the space of openly talking and processing and getting mental health treatment sooner?

LARS: Absolutely, Ivan, we talked earlier in the conversation about this pandemic. I looked at my kids during, they were doing school from home, and this was as a second grader, 6th grader, 8th grader, and 10th grader, where you are home for 9 months kind of in a camera length from your classmates and teachers. The anxiety that manifests in ways that their personalities are different, but that shows up, are we going to be doing this again next year, and what does that mean if so. Masking as a society and vaccines, and then on top of that, the anxieties that are manifested as kids, in a way, again as thanks to social media, again, the array of tools that bring the opportunity for comparison or judgment, or on the flip side celebration and uniqueness, joy and acceptance, and you just want to figure. We didn’t have those tools in front of us or TikTok or Insta, or any of these things in our own. I look back at my own junior high years or high school, how do we as parents, as care givers, as advocates in our schools, in our health care systems think about mental health as a corner stone, just like we would a wellness visit vaccines for MMR, or their 12-year-old boosters, or small pox, or polio, not just Covid. We’ve normalized checks for how tall, your weight, your height, your shots. I agree with you, not waiting till you are 33 and Hazleton outpatient center thinking I have some issues here. I remember, and I think we’ve made great strides, and I want to continue to play whatever my part I can in this community, in this country, to say normalizing to talk with kids around feelings of being anxious, or sad, or scared. Let’s talk about those feelings, and let’s figure out how to move through them. Sometimes that’s through therapy, sometimes that’s through medication, and sometimes it’s through both and other times it’s behavior-based accommodations we make and communications things we can try. But I think, certainly no expert, but what I’ve read these troubling stats around the mental health challenges facing our high schoolers and college aged kids who feel these expectations of performance and perfection. How do we help them navigate that. because we want to be equipping, it’s smart, it’s the right thing to do. From that generational legacy of thinking about we’re temporary guests on this earth, how do we equip the guests behind us in line to say, I don’t want you to have to wait till you 28 to have the chance visit with a therapist and get recommended for Prozac or Citalopram. But if it’s at an age where you are both encouraged to ask for what you need, or are supported as you ask for help, or that as parents we can ask for guidance on how to best be supporting our kids in elementary, junior high, high school, college or whatever post high school life brings, to talk about that and support those folks. I do think we are making strides.

IVAN: I agree.

LARS: Much more work to be done. Certainly different from when you and I, in my life, certainly different then being a 12-year-old kid with a pit in your stomach, don’t bite your nails, stop being worry wort, from the system, is different then some of the tools and knowledge and self-awareness that exists out there in our daily lives now to help get kids that type of support early.

IVAN: I think I agree with you. I think it’s very different that when it was when you and I were in high school, so we’ve made strides but theres still work to be done.

LARS: Still work to be done.

IVAN: One final question for you Lars, what do you hope you’ll see in your lifetime in humanity that we haven’t seen yet?

LARS: What is one thing in humanity, boy that’s a wonderful question. From an applied wish, like how does it manifest, what is something I would love to see in our lifetime. It would be a breakthrough cure for a medical condition that affects across class, race, gender, making some profound advance in the cure for Alzheimer’s or Dementia or cancer. I think that type of breakthrough around, I think about what brought humanity together for our parents or grandparents, through global conflict and wars, and how do we get men, at the time, men on the moon, and what it spurred in terms of innovation race and through Cold War factors. How cool would it be, and maybe we got a taste of it with Covid. The world came together in record breaking speed to produce these vaccinations to give the human population the best chance to survive the latest pandemic that hit the population of Earth. How cool would it be to find, as we think about cancer or Dementia or Alzheimer’s, something act affects people all around the world, and is just some amazing break through in that ability through some amazingly thought of combination of shared research, or intellectual property, or cooperation vs completion, that comes up with some breakthrough. That would be awesome. To think about in our life time, loosing loved ones much earlier than an actuary might suggest would be lost, to cancer or early onset dementia, let alone those afflicted with those health conditions early in life. I think would be amazing. I think it’s attainable if we were to allocate resources and attentionality in new ways coming out of something like a global pandemic. That would be amazing. Then I think, I’m hopeful, as I talk with my kids, their awareness of the events of the interconnection orf the world is just so far beyond where I was at at 16, or 12 or 10, or 8, relative to things like climate change and thinking about the drought we are experiencing in Minnesota, it’s not just a dry year, understanding because they’ve seen videos, they’ve heard folks, social media, they’ve talked with other kids and heard from teachers. Their generation and those of us that are trying again, to be legacy stewards, how do we move this Earth, this actions we take on this Earth to put humans in a position to continue to be sustainable and thriving in the climate in which we live and that we affect. I would love to see in our lifetime, I’m a 44, and I’m hopeful I’m about the halfway point, so if I’m at the 9-hole mark of an 18-hole golf course, whatever analogy you want to use, like on the back 9, or the back half of my life to say amazing! The 30, 40, 50 something that are now in elected office are now leading in governance or founding capacities, I don’t know if we’ll ever get universal but there is 75% agreement on the direction we need to take to put Earth tin the best position to o sustain whether it’s 8 billion or 10 billion, or the next 12 bouillon of us that are going be on this planet, to be sustainable together. I think that’s going to take courage, lots of courage, and I think it's going to take leadership, and it’s going to take tradeoffs. I am hopeful that in our lifetime, Ivan, we’re going to see folks move through some of what have been barriers, to that type of shared re-imagination together out of necessity just based on where we are all at in a world we all occupy together.

IVAN: I am hopeful of that as well, Lars. I am also of the same age you are, and I think the back 9 are going to be the best 9 we’ve had.

LARS: Alright, I love it.

IVAN: Let’s do it.

LARS: Let’s do it. The back nine here we come. Here we come on the back nine.

IVAN: Thank you so much for your time today Lars. It’s precious, I’m so grateful for it, and thank you for being ONE OF 8 BILLION with me.

LARS: Thanks for having me Ivan, and I look forward to our next conversation, and we’ll see ya on the back nine.

IVAN: See ya on the back nine.

Preview

IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION… when we hear from Lindsi Gish:

LINDSI GISH: I love helping people who are deeply passionate about and interested in the thing that they're working on and just like freeing them up to do their work and focus on the things that like they want to be focusing on and not on the things that are, running social media or running email, website content, technical updates, whatever it is alleviating them from all of that.

I just love working with people like that. I'm so inspired by them.

Outro

IVAN: This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!

ONE OF 8 BILLION is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Find out more at ten7.com. I’m Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.

Credits

This is episode 129 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on September 1, 2021 and first published on March 16, 2020. Audio length is 51 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.

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