Think about a mistake you’ve made. Maybe it was a joke you said to a friend not realizing at the time you were being offensive. Or a social media rant where you pressed publish before realizing how insensitive you were being. Now imagine if that mistake was published, scrutinized and became how you are judged and labeled for the next few years of your life.
I don’t have to imagine it, this has been my reality for the last few years. And while I’m not seeking pity, I want to express what this experience has taught me, and cost me.
Our story starts 3 years ago when I made a HUGE mistake — I wrote a jarringly insensitive post about drug dealers, homeless and mentally ill in San Francisco. It was the worst mistake of my life.
“I listened until I thought I understood. And then I listened some more.”
And to be honest, it wasn’t just the words that got me in trouble. My comments showed deeper character flaws that stemmed from a lack of understanding for impoverished communities. I knew nothing of the struggles of the homeless community. I knew nothing of mental illness or drug addiction. And in turn I made a lot of cruel generalizations.
And for that, I apologize. I apologize for not being more mature at the time. I apologize for speaking in a childlike manner about very adult things.
No one should ever speak like that. No one should ever be spoken to like that… No one should probably even think those thoughts… I get it.
I didn’t always get it, but I get it now.
I worked hard to grow from this experience. I listened to every article and comment that people wrote about me. I listened to people talk about me with rhetoric much stronger and demeaning than the words I used. I listened to people’s pain. I engaged with those who would let me. I listened until I thought I understood. And then I listened some more. And then when I felt like I “got it” I decided I would see what I could do to make things better.
I started by trying to make amends with people I had attacked. I learned everything I could about homelessness so I could try to make a positive impact in the space. I was lucky that a lot of homeless non-profit leaders took me under their wing and showed me things most never get exposed to. I got to sleep in homeless encampments, get mentored by national leaders in the space, meet with civic leaders and organize city-wide events on solving homelessness. It was awesome.
“Things were going great. It felt like we were making real impact in the space.”
Then when I thought I learned enough, it was time to act. I took a crack at building my own solutions — putting WiFi in homeless shelters (Shelter Tech), helping bring peer based workforce empowerment programs to San Francisco (Downtown Streets Team), and creating disruptive housing solutions that would bring a complete end to homelessness for less than what cities currently spend today (Transition Centers and Regional Housing Solutions).
<< Don’t take my word for it — hear how my journey has effected others in SF’s homeless industry. Kara Zordel, Executive Direction of Project Homeless Connect’s “My Journey to Compassion” and Eileen Richardson, Executive Director of Downtown Streets Team, “My Greg Gopman Story” >>
I should also mention all the above solutions were a team effort. I worked with Darcel Jackson to build ShelterTech, I worked closely with Camp Unity Eastside to build Transition Centers and with my team at A Better San Francisco in all the efforts.
Things were going great. It felt like we were making real impact in the space.
But then something I didn’t expect happened. The city I was working hard to help was working even harder to stop me. They didn’t like someone with my history proposing solutions. They didn’t want things to ‘change.’ They didn’t want me to try to ‘solve things.’
So I stopped.
When it became public that the head of San Francisco’s homeless programs was referring to me as the “bane of his existence,” I threw in the towel.
I took some time off to figure out what I should do with my life. I traveled. I considered changing cities, maybe changing countries. From a life perspective I was back at square one. I followed my heart, which brought me back to San Francisco. Back to startups. Back to the life I had been wanting to build for my entire adult life.
“I’m not proud of my mistakes, but I’m proud of the things they’ve taught me and the person they’ve made me.”
I started working in a new industry (VR) and worked my way up pretty quickly to be a leader in the space. In just 10 months I had met most of the major players and secured a leadership position managing VR initiatives for one of the most well known tech companies around. I was the happiset I’ve been in years.
Which brings us to last week when a writer decided it would be fun to drudge up my past and shame Twitter for hiring me. I was fired almost immediately.
Not for my performance. Not because of any issues I had at the company. I was fired because this writer decided it was time to take me down again.
So I ask you, when is enough enough?
There was a time not too long ago when I had to learn to trust myself again. To trust this whole thing wasn’t going to happen again. I needed to learn something important before I could allow myself to move on.
For me that was realizing that I couldn’t beat myself up forever over making a mistake…Mistakes happen to us all.
The important thing was that I learned from my mistake and made sure they didn’t happen again. It sounds cliche, but that’s a mantra I live with everyday.
Ultimately what I learned is that mistakes help us grow. Mistakes show us our flaws. They can be a foundation for shame or a source for empowerment.
I’m not proud of my mistakes, but I am proud of the places they’ve taken me and the things they’ve taught me.
I’ll continue to work hard to be a better man; to be worthy of the support of family and friends and the community that I hurt in the past. Not because someone is watching, but because that’s the person I strive to be.
My only hope is those hurt by my statements will start to see me for who I am. And not a shadow of who I was.