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No Barriers Podcast Episode 152: Mindsets with Matt Lewis, Navy Seal and COO



The most recent census reported 7% of the US population are veterans. That’s about 18 million people who served in the active military, naval, or air service at some point and have since been discharged. “transitioning to civilian life” is a common topic for veterans when leaving the military. We get into that with our guest today, Matt Lewis. Matt is the chief operating officer of a spatial data company valued at almost a half a billion dollars. Matt is also a Navy Seal with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt.
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Matt changed his entire mindset as part of his transition to civilian life. We’ll hear about this journey and the importance of seeking challenges in life; including some of his own. Along the way he’s discovered that happiness comes through experiencing discomfort; that juxtaposition is key he says. Matt’s a deep thinker and the insights he shared are applicable to not only veterans, but people from all walks of life.

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Episode Transcript

Matt Lewis:
You're changing your entire mindset. I think being in a military unit that is any chance to go into war or has been in war, you have to take yourself into a combat mindset that protects you. You're there thinking that you might die, you're there ready to do violent things to other people. You're there just living in this place that's quite severe. I remember starting to actually come out of the combat mindset where all of a sudden I was like, "It seems really dangerous and scary just to go run into some bad person's house that has a gun trying to shoot you." Whereas, before that was a non-issue to me. I realized that moment that the work that was happening at the individual level was starting to process what you were before in order to survive. And how you navigated from that way point to the next way point up the mountain, that was coming out of that to see the world in a different way so that you could start to integrate into civilian life.

Eric Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Eric Weihenmayer, I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means and part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Didrik Johnck:
The most recent census reported 7% of the US population are veterans. That's about 18 million people who served in the active military, naval or air service at some point and have since been discharged. Transitioning to civilian life is a common topic for veterans when leaving the military. We get into that today with our guest, Matt Lewis. Matt is the chief operating officer of a spatial data company valued at almost a half a billion dollars. Matt is also a Navy Seal with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt. As you heard in the opening, Matt changed his entire mindset as part of his transition to civilian life. We'll hear about this journey and the importance of seeking challenges in life, including some of his own. Along the way, he's discovered that happiness comes through experiencing discomfort, that juxtaposition is key, he says. Matt's a deep thinker and I found the insights he shared are applicable to not only veterans, but people from all walks of life. I hope you enjoy this conversation between Eric Weihenmayer and Matt Lewis. I'm producer Didrik Johnck, and this is the No Barriers podcast.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Hey, everyone, welcome to the No Barriers podcast. It's Eric Weihenmayer and I'm going solo today. I'm interviewing Matt today. Hey Matt, good morning. You and I met at a HOVER conference, that's the company you work at and I'm just flying right in here. You were a Navy Seal and now you're an executive at HOVER. We had a great conversation and so I thought you'd be a perfect candidate to interview today because you have a lot of great insights on other topics, but in particular, just the difficult transition from military to corporate life. You've lived that experience and I even asked you, I said, "What was that transition like?" And you said, "It was really hard." That just got me thinking, our community needs to hear from you and some of your thoughts and opinions and so forth. Good morning, thanks for joining us.

Matt Lewis:
Thanks for having me, Eric. I'm really honored to be here and talking with you today.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah, awesome. You just got back from jiu-jitsu, huh?

Matt Lewis:
That's right.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Now that your life isn't as physical, being a Navy Seal, which I can't imagine, it's a very physical thing you're doing every day. Now you're a corporate guy and you're sitting on your butt more. How do you blow off steam? What's your hobbies to stay physical and have goals beyond the corporate world?

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, it's a great question. I found myself post military, you feel like when you get in the corporate world you're a little bit behind and you're trying to play catch up. I thought that the ticket to success was just to work all the time. I was working on the weekends, I was working 12 hour days, if not longer, just to prove that I belonged and trying to catch up. I was in terrible shape and I remember at one point from sitting down just all my muscles are starting to go, my back was really bothering me. I went to the doctor and they were like, "Hey, from your time in the military and all the sports you've done in your life, it looks like your vertebrae are worn out and you're probably going to need to get back surgery."

Matt Lewis:
I remember I walked by Ralph Gracie's Jiu-jitsu in San Francisco every day on the way to work. It's all windows, it's on Howard Street and they were just always fogged out. You could just kind of see through the glass people sparring and wrestling with each other. I remember thinking, "Man, that looks really hard and really fun." I had not done jiu-jitsu before that. It wasn't really in the military, they had different types of combatives there. But instead of getting surgery, I decided to just go the opposite direction. I was like, "Maybe I just need to get stronger and this sport looks really hard. Hey, if I have to get surgery anyways, why not try it?"

Matt Lewis:
I walked in and I met the head instructor, Kurt Osiander, who's a bit of a legend and also has been really active in the veteran community. I told him I was in the military, I'd never trained and from that day on, I've been addicted to it. I think that in a good way, I think that it provides not only physical activity to blow off stress, but in a short period of time, you get a community. I work in tech, so my bubble is tech, but I get a cross section in jiu-jitsu of all kinds of people. You get-

Eric Weihenmayer:
You didn't come in there like Jean-Claude Van Damme and kicking butt with your military experience?

Matt Lewis:
I was aggressive, but I quickly learned that is not what wins in jiu-jitsu, it's a lot more technique. I mean, the whole sport was developed by a gentleman, Brazilian jiu-jitsu specifically, who was pretty small and figured out ways to use leverage against larger opponents. Yeah, I walked in there and quickly learned the value of humility. But I've been doing it ever since and to finish the thought on it, I mean, it was community and there's a mastery of a craft.

Matt Lewis:
I think that's an important thing too, that when you're in the military you are in a craft and you do that in work to some extent too, but physical activity, community, exercise and then also this mastering of a craft, which takes you into this meditative state. You can't think about anything when you're doing jiu-jitsu, you can only think about that moment. I think that's a theme for me in a lot of the things I do. I surf, jiu-jitsu, I play chess; timed chess or blitz chess. It's just a way to break my mind away from the stress of everyday life.

Eric Weihenmayer:
And you do some fun experiences each summer with your Navy Seal friends. You guys go hiking and camping and you guys are even talking, I think, about doing the Baja 1000, or is that a secret? Sorry.

Matt Lewis:
Well, we got to [crosstalk 00:08:07].

Eric Weihenmayer:
Now it's not a secret, Matt. Sorry.

Matt Lewis:
We got to talk to the wives about it, but yeah, it's out now, I guess. We're trying to find reasons to get back together and I think the bonds of military run deep and they're strong and they're important to nurture them as well. I think a lot of times you'll hear about people getting out and losing touch with folks. I would encourage other veterans to try to keep the networks there and the connections there that are really important. We get together and it's funny, we literally tell the same 25 stories over and over again, but they're as funny every time we tell them. But we do something every year that usually is incredibly challenging for a novice and we're usually novices in those things. So the Baja 1000 is an example where none of us have raced trucks in the desert, but the idea of being a beginner in that, and the amount of work that would go into planning and preparing it gives you purpose, it connects you. I think there's something really hard about it as well.

Matt Lewis:
We did ice climbing in Rainier, I was talking about that before the show and also something that none of us are really experienced in ice climbing specifically, we had done some dabbling in climbing. But the idea is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I have a belief that ultimately happiness comes from experiencing discomfort, it's the juxtaposition of discomfort and you need to keep challenging yourself. Especially when you've been in the military, if you were there seeking challenge and adventure and service, finding those opportunities to recreate that outside are hard. But I think putting yourself in challenging situations is part of it.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Awesome. Maybe this isn't the best thing to start with, because I don't want this to be negative at all. But you just mentioned you hang out with these buddies and you guys have this incredible connection that most people don't experience, so it's easy and comfortable and you can read each other's thoughts a little bit and so forth. Now, talking to civilians and trying to communicate with civilians, are there things that are difficult, where you have to speak differently? Or maybe even things that irritate you where you're like, "You just don't get it, man." Are there situations in that way?

Matt Lewis:
It's so interesting. I think there were in the initial part of getting out, there was a lot of that and I can explain why. Part of the success of any team is having a shared mental model of the world. The Seal teams, their core thesis is that we can be a small group as a fighting force and be very effective because we're going to be the best team. With that, you don't really need to say things. You can just know what people are thinking, how they're going to react to situations, because part of its training and part of its culture. You get into this mental model that's so different than what the civilian world lives in every day. When you get out, you're talking to people and you're like, "This person sounds like an alien." But they're just a normal person on the street.

Matt Lewis:
Because you're so ingrained in this unit that's job is to be an effective fighting force in a war. You're going to Starbucks, you're talking to someone and they're just having conversation with you and you're just looking at them like, "What are you talking about?" Then as you start to transition out, you start to realize that that is a perspective and a shared mental model that you held, but your mental model will start to change about how you see the world as you move forward.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Interesting. Again, I'm assuming here because I don't know, but some of the discussions that you might have with civilians, you might think like, "God, this is frivolous. This doesn't seem that important."

Matt Lewis:
That's right.

Eric Weihenmayer:
The problems that people are experiencing and so forth. I didn't get my latte hot enough, or.

Matt Lewis:
That's right. The best I've ever seen it captured, I can't remember the movie. I'm drawing a blank on it now. It's about the EOD gentleman over in the Middle East and the whole movie is him in the Middle East in war. I can't remember the name right now, but the story is more important. You're watching him through this world of trying to disarm bombs overseas and in really intense environments and... Hurt Locker, Hurt Locker.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah, The Hurt Locker. I was trying to remember it as well, alongside you. I was going to say the meat locker or something. Hurt Locker, right.

Matt Lewis:
That's right. The whole movie is him in the Middle East in war. The struggles, the stress, just the grittiness of that and then it just clicks over to him in a grocery store, walking through the aisle, looking at cereal and the consumerism of it and the juxtaposition of what you've just watched, I thought was such a really powerful way to capture that experience of exactly what you're saying. It's like I'm thinking about life or death and my friends' life or death and now there's this other world of folks thinking about what's my Starbucks latte going to have, whip or no whip today? Just seems silly.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Tell me about your role at HOVER. What do you do? I think you're the COO, right? Give us the little elevator pitch of HOVER, because you guys are a fascinating company doing a really important job.

Matt Lewis:
Well, the company I'll start there. It is a fascinating company. We founded an application for computer vision that's taking photos and reconstructing some a digital twin of that. You can take out your phone, you can take eight photos of any property, your house, a building, and we will generate an accurate, interactive 3D model with structured data, that's all the measurements of the property. You can think about from that two real applications. I want to do a home improvement project and I want to see what it's going to look like. I can use HOVER, scan my home and then actually start manipulating it and see what it would look like with accurate measurements. With that data, then you can run that into getting a cost so you can actually understand what it costs and why. We think about when a homeowner's looking to do projects, if you're a homeowner you'll know, what's this going to look like when it's done and then how much is it going to cost? We're using this computer vision technology to create this structured data that then allows both of those things to unlock.

Matt Lewis:
We're scanning a home every three seconds in the United States right now, homeowners and professionals. Whether it be home improvement professionals or insurance carriers, scanning a home every three seconds. We're growing really fast right now. We're based in San Francisco, but we have offices in New York and little hubs in Nashville and Austin, Texas, and all over now with the remote work thing. I'm the COO so I oversee pretty much all of the business functions, so everything that's not engineering, product or design. All the ways in which we basically make money. I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. I think in the tech space, it's really good exercise of leadership and strategy and systems thinking.

Eric Weihenmayer:
We'll focus on some of the differences and so forth. But when I hear you describe that, at least from an outside perspective, it sounds wildly different from what I would imagine life as a Navy Seal. But are there overlaps, are there things that do translate really well?

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, it's interesting. Coming out of the Seal teams, I remember I was interviewing with people and they were asking me, "What's your view on leadership," and all these basic questions. I just remember sitting there, I had no idea what I was talking about and it wasn't because I didn't know anything about leadership or teams. It was that I hadn't really reflected on what was I doing in the teams that was so special and unique. It's funny, as I get more senior in organizations, I see the connection points and I see the importance of some of the things I learned there. I think at the start of it, I'll save the team thing for a second here, but startups were interesting in that their culture actually was somewhat similar to the Seal teams.

Matt Lewis:
This might come off the wrong way, but Seals were a specific unit in the military that was supposed to be counter to big military. They're a small team, they need people to be free thinkers. They actually didn't want people to join who were previously in the military because the tops down nature of those things, there's a free thinking element they want you to have. They want people to come right in and they want to build and mold them right from there. The whole idea is think unconventional, if you're not cheating, you're not trying, there are no rules. You have to be creative to win and a lot of the [crosstalk 00:17:09].

Eric Weihenmayer:
I'll interrupt because by the way, I climbed with this friend of mine who was in Special Forces, he's a Marine, he's a badass ice climber. And he said in the Marines same thing. Him and all his friends in his unit had beards and long hair and they were the cool guys. They felt a little bit separate from the other Marines.

Matt Lewis:
That's right and that's intentional. They want them to feel a little bit separate. I think part of it is you have to be creative to win in those situations when your small groups. The military's got an interesting thing. I don't know if people know about this, but the Seal teams did a great job marketing themselves in the '80s, but they weren't winning all the best missions in even the early 2000s. In fact, the military is mostly run in land wars by the Marines and mostly the army. They're like, "Why are we going to let the Seals come in here? These guys, they're supposed to be on shifts. Why are they here?" The seals were like, "Well, we want to help out too." It actually became a competitive thing and they would look at mission statistics, they would look at success rates, just all kinds of different data points to see who would actually be given top tier missions. So the Seals by nature were looking for creative people to build into that. I think from that, you have long hair and the beards, they wear civilian clothing.

Matt Lewis:
Then you think about startup land, a lot of these companies were founded and they're like, "We're not your mom and dad's General Electric. We're going to do things different. We're going to wear whatever we want to work. We're going to have beer and alcohol in here. We're going to let people think more freely. They have 10% time to do whatever they want. You're not the company man or woman, you're a free thinker." So I was drawn to Silicon Valley because I saw a parallel there just at that cultural level of just feeling like we have to be different to win because if we're not different, we're not going to be the people that do everything the same way.

Matt Lewis:
That was interesting to me and then I think another element to it was just startups are really hard and there's a shifting landscape of macro environments right now. There's a tech crash happening and that's a totally different landscape I hadn't been through before. It's been very interesting to be on the inside of that at an executive level. There's competition, there's resource decisions you have to make. I felt like being on a small team that was trying to figure out how to win in a mission, but where everything was changing around you and there was a very dynamic environment, as a leader would translate really well in Silicon Valley. I think it has in the tech in general.

Matt Lewis:
There's a lot of chaos and creating clarity from ambiguity is a pretty important thing that I do every day here. It was a really natural thing that you started to learn as a Seal. Okay, this is a messy situation. There's all these things that just happened in this mission. How do we problem solve around it? There was that movie, Zero Dark 30, that showed the Bin Laden raid and everyone was like, "Was it really that messy?" It's like, "That wasn't actually that bad." These missions, everyone's got a plan until you get punched in the face, as Mike Tyson always says. That dynamic ability to change and think on your feet, I think is a big part of what it takes to be successful in a tech company.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Fascinating. What was your life like? What did the daily life of a Navy Seal look like for you before you joined HOVER? I mean, the stuff you can talk about comfortably.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, all the secret things, we'll leave out now. I think it's interesting. When you think about Navy Seals, it stands for sea, air, land, that's the acronym. And you're jumping out of planes, you're diving, you're going through mountains and stuff. But I think a lot of times people focus on like, oh, there was a raid, they went into a house, they got a bad guy. They saved a hostage, they took out some pirates on a ship. But the reality is, 98% of every mission is getting there safely. Sometimes that can be really hard and that's why the sea, air, land part comes into play. We spend a ton of time just practicing getting there and a lot of time in the actual action of the mission, but a lot of the work mirrored that. We would do trainings all over the US, the world for that matter, practicing diving, practicing long range navigation, practicing driving Humvees for hundreds of miles and stalking up on people and things like that.

Matt Lewis:
It's interesting just that it wasn't as action packed as you think, in terms of just running around shooting guns all the time. Jumping out of planes, I forgot that, you're spending a lot of your time practicing getting there safely. A lot of it was training. You were traveling 300 days a year basically, really hard life to have a family. Then that was pre-deployment and then you would deploy and we'd do six, seven month deployments. I was in during the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war and spent most of my time in the Middle East during those periods of time. You come back and you're back to training again, or trying to go on trips and go back out in theater.

Eric Weihenmayer:
The training part makes so much sense. I mean, as a climber, yeah. I mean, you got to practice this stuff till it's built into your nervous system because you're trying to reduce conscious thought when you're in the-

Matt Lewis:
That's right, that's right.

Eric Weihenmayer:
You're in this serious situation.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, you're only going to do what you've been trained to do. Muscle memory will take over everything. The whole idea of people running around, shooting guns with each arm sideways and stuff, it's not real. It's not real.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Why did you join? What was your motivation? As a little kid, did you dream about being in the military, or?

Matt Lewis:
No, I didn't. I think about this a lot. I don't know if there's an exact answer. I think that part of it was I was trying to prove to myself that I had what it took to be a Navy Seal because I just by nature I'm a person that seeks out challenges and finding ways to put myself in really, really hard situations to have a sense of accomplishment. I think part of it was my dad had a pretty hard upbringing and he was a great father, but I always felt like I never really measured up to him in some ways because of how hard his upbringing was. It was important to me to prove that I was tough like he was. I think another part of it was just the draw of the team and the adventure.

Matt Lewis:
I was looking at my options when I was graduating college, getting out and I'd actually done an internship with a guy who I didn't know was a Navy Seal at the time. And at the end of the internship, he asked me, "What are you thinking about doing?" I'm like, "Well, this is a great job, obviously, but I've also been looking at the military." He's like, "Oh, what are you looking at in the military?" I'm like, "I always thought it'd be cool to be a Navy Seal and I swam in college. Maybe I can be good at the swimming part of it, which would give me a leg up." He was like, "I was a Navy Seal." Like, "No." Like, "Yeah," so we ended the conversation about work and we talked more about that and he told me just the stories of the camaraderie and lessons he had learned and how it helped him now in the work environment. I was like, "I'm sold, I'm doing this."

Eric Weihenmayer:
Well, I think all that's fascinating, but really interesting the dynamic with your family. I mean, maybe dad says like, "Hey, you're not tough enough." Or, "Hey, you're not going to amount to anything." I'm not saying that's what your dad said, but it gives you this fire inside to hey, I want to find out whether I can surpass that, I guess.

Matt Lewis:
That's right. That's exactly right. It was-

Eric Weihenmayer:
I mean, I've heard that story before from vets that we work with at No Barriers, that the motivation came at a young age with their family. Like, "Can I stack up with the toughest job on earth?" Interesting. When you got into the military and you became a Seal, was it your job to stay there as a career or were you planning to get out? What were your goals during and then after?

Matt Lewis:
I had a rough plan. I thought when I got in that I wouldn't stay forever. And the reason I had decided that before I even got in was just the intensity of the job. And my nature is to try as many things as I possibly can in life before I die. I felt like this would be an incredible experience, a hyper charged life experience, but it wasn't the final stop for me. But at the same time, I live by the principles of OODA looping, which comes from the Top Gun pilot organization. Everyone was practicing formations in flight and they were doing their observe, orient, decide and act, which is basically just react to the opponent and react to the situation.

Matt Lewis:
I think there's a lot there. You can set plans and have a vision that you're working towards and that's really important, but sometimes you have to OODA loop. There's new information, there's new situations that present themselves and you have to react. I was like, "Yeah, probably not going to stay in, but hey, if this is the thing for me, I'm not discounting that." But I got in, I experienced what I wanted to experience. I felt like I was in for six years that it was time to start the next chapter of my life. But it was an absolutely just tremendous experience in the most positive way.

Eric Weihenmayer:
When you decided to get out, just focus on your emotional state. What was your emotional state? I mean, not the intellectual thoughts and the plans, but what were you feeling at that time? Was it overwhelming or were you feeling pretty secure?

Matt Lewis:
There's actually a nuance to the story, but it's a fun one to tell. Getting out, myself and two friends convinced some people to give us some money to do some real estate house flipping during the height of the market before the '09 crash. We were flipping some homes, making a bunch of money, so I got out feeling pretty good. I'm like, "I'm working with my buddies. I got a bunch of money, we're flipping homes, we're making money," and then we promptly lost every single dollar, everything. Then I was like, "Oh, I have no money. I'm out of a job," and I remember going around trying to convince people in real estate to give me a job. Look, I just did that, I raised this money. I was just flipping these houses. They're like, "Dude, I don't even know if I'm going to have a job tomorrow," just corporate commercial real estate companies. I'm like, "Okay, this is really scary." Lonely, scared, overwhelmed, it's just a completely different environment and-

Eric Weihenmayer:
Were you married at that point or were you still single?

Matt Lewis:
I met my wife, my last deployment I got hurt, had to come back, get surgery. Met her at a New Year's party. We kept in touch, as I was getting out, we were still together and I was doing the house flipping thing and then that crashed and she ended up letting me move in with her. She's probably like, "Oh, what have I done? This guy is such a loser. No money, just living off me right now. Is he going to get a job? What's going on here?" You had this blanket in the military, no matter how bad things got in your team and now I didn't have a team anymore except for really her. She was my-

Eric Weihenmayer:
That must have been hard on her, actually.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, it was really hard. We weren't married yet either. I guess she just saw something and was like, "I know this guy's in a rough spot right now, but I'm going to stick with him on this and see if we can get through this," and she helped me. We were in the Washington DC area and she helped me network to get my first job.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Oh, wow. That's awesome.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, it was. I remember, it was an important decision in my life. There was a lot of opportunities to go and do defense contracting. This is when the Black Water type companies were paying people a thousand dollars a day to go do mercenary work. You have no money, you're wondering what you're going to do with your career and those jobs are coming at you left and right. I remember thinking, "I can't. I can't go this path. It's not the right path. I need to go back and I'd rather start from the bottom somewhere else than go and jump into one of those jobs."

Matt Lewis:
I ended up starting in a small company called Acumen Solutions in DC. I was starting next to new grads, which isn't the first time I started a company next to new grads, even after having an MBA, that's a whole nother story. But I was starting with new grads, I was the same level as them and I bet on myself. I said, "This is a business, they're in the business of making money, not shooting guns. I can bet on myself here to find a way to be successful." It was the best decision I ever made, not going the other path.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Is that business still happening, or?

Matt Lewis:
Acumen Solutions?

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yes.

Matt Lewis:
It is, yeah. It was a good lesson for me in company culture. They had a great culture. They were a consulting company in DC, competing against the big ones like Accenture and Deloitte, but they were small. They were growing fast though because they were able to get great people to join and they just got purchased by Salesforce. It's the only services company Salesforce has ever purchased. They had a whole thing for many years, they didn't want to purchase companies that installed their software. They were like, "Hey, we're not a services business. Let these other companies do our software implementations." But they bought them and I think a big part of that was their culture, I think they just said a great company culture.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Cool. Matt, tell me, when we're talking about the community of veterans and again, I know it's not one single kind of person, but the veteran community transitioning into the corporate world, not going back into defense contracting or the stuff you talked about, would you call it a mild problem? A crisis? Where is it? How are we doing?

Matt Lewis:
In just helping veterans transition, how are we doing?

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah, how well is it happening? Do you see a lot of veterans in executive positions in corporate America? Is there networking or do you go, "Wow, why aren't there more of me out there making this transition?"

Matt Lewis:
I think it's getting a lot better. I don't think we're there yet. Here's what I'm seeing. This has been the evolution in this and it's a personal topic for me, so try to hold it together on this one. But when I got out, there actually wasn't even a lot of awareness about Navy Seals. I think since then a lot of guys written books, there's been movies about it, but that was just one dimension of it. Just in general, the military, I think there was just entirely some preconceived notions and there weren't the right avenues. I think they started with a lot of structural stuff initially. They're like, "Hey, we need to have veteran programs. Help veterans get in veteran career days."

Matt Lewis:
I've heard this concept of thinking about human systems and people through the I, the we, the it. The I is the individual the we is the team, shared mental model beliefs and then the it is structural stuff. Everything was it stuff. Was like, "How do we help you with your resume? How do we help you with a career fair," and things like that. Then these programs started popping up to help and they were great and that was step one. Then it was like, "Okay, we have this structural stuff in place, but we need to actually talk to these guys about how they interact with other people and get them to understand that there's a different language that people are using and the way that these people are interacting is different." It was very we, how do they all fit into this system?

Matt Lewis:
That was, I think, a big unlock in this whole path of transitioning veterans. But they were still missing the most important part and that was the I part, the individual. I think now they're starting to dig in deep into purpose and core values and who you are. And that work is really hard, it's really hard and going on it alone is a very lonely process. They're doing a much better job now of getting veterans connected to people, even in these programs that are focused on transitioning, to start thinking about themselves. That for me, I would want to impress upon anyone listening to this, that a veteran transitioning or thinking about transitioning is a really hard, long process. I talk about it in the lens of you're changing your entire mindset.

Matt Lewis:
I think being in a military unit that is any chance of going to war, or has been in war, you have to take yourself into a combat mindset that protects you. I believe it's an evolutionary place that we can go because that is how we have been a successful species against other tribes and people and also the elements. You're there thinking that you might die, you're there ready to do violent things to other people. You're there just living in this place that's quite severe. I didn't know I was there. I remember one time, some friends that were civilians were asking me what was next for me in the military and I was like, "I hope I go back to the Middle East." They're like, "Wait, what do you mean? You want to go back to war?" I'm like, "Yeah, of course."

Matt Lewis:
It was a non thing to me that your brain would be in a state where you didn't want to go. That was just a natural thing. I remember, actually my first job in tech outside of consulting was at Pinterest, the app where you save-

Eric Weihenmayer:
Fantastic company.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah. Yeah, it was a great company. That's where I met you, Eric, you spoke there.

Eric Weihenmayer:
I remember.

Matt Lewis:
Had a profound impact on my life. But I remember finding success there early, but starting to actually come out of the combat mindset where all of a sudden I was like, "It seems really dangerous and scary just to go run into some bad person's house that has a gun trying to shoot you." Whereas, before that was a non-issue to me. I realized at that moment that the work that was happening at the individual level was starting to process what you were before, in order to survive. And how you navigated from that way point to the next way point up the mountain, that was coming out of that to see the world in a different way so that you could start to integrate into civilian life.

Matt Lewis:
That was really all about an individual transformation. Recognizing what that is, naming it and saying, "Okay, that is something." That's part of I think why staying connected with veterans is important too, because when you get past that barrier on the other side to that next way point where you're living a life where you're not worried about dying and going to do violent things and all this stuff, you know that you can go back with them and you can acknowledge that place existed and it was okay. Because a lot of people struggle with the guilt from that place. They're like, "I can't believe those things I thought about doing or did or whatever," but you were in a different place there as a way to survive in a really intense situation. It's hard to reconcile that when you get to the other side and you're like, "Oh my gosh, why was I thinking like that?" You need people that you can go back with and talk about it to normalize that situation to some extent, because there's many, many generations of people that have had to go through that, and it's really, really freaking hard.

Matt Lewis:
But I think that what I'm seeing, to answer your question directly here and I'll wrap up on it is, what I'm seeing now is a focus on the individual to help these transitions, not just resumes and how to work in groups of people that are civilians and write emails. It's about you leaving a place that you were at that was a place you were there from a situation of survival to a new world and the work that comes with that as an individual, it's really hard.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Wow. I mean, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but what I'm hearing is a little bit like when you talk about survival thinking. It sounds like there's, I don't want to say trauma, but it's a traumatic thing where you're in survival mode and you have to come out of that into expanding your perspective in some way?

Matt Lewis:
Yeah.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Okay.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, that's right. I mean, I think-

Eric Weihenmayer:
And to understand that the way you saw the world was a lens, even though you had to see the world that way to survive. But now you have to expand and see it from a different perspective.

Matt Lewis:
That's exactly right and I think you have to acknowledge that. I don't know if this is a scientific thing or if this is the right way to articulate it, but I believe that in extended periods of time living in that mindset, it creates scar tissue. Maybe it's trauma scar tissue, I don't know. But you have to be able to work through it, to see that other perspective. But at the same time, you have to acknowledge that existed. You can't run away from it. You can't be ashamed of it. You have to just own that that was a part of you. Take that part of you and integrate it to the next part and move on. I think a lot of times people hide from it, they run from it, they just want to compartmentalize it. That, in my experience with other veterans and talking to them, becomes a dangerous thing. You have to address it, you have to face it and you have to then figure out a way to take those things, integrate them into your life of things that you learned over there.

Eric Weihenmayer:
That's fascinating.

Matt Lewis:
Find that new perspective.

Eric Weihenmayer:
I mean, I'm relating to what you're talking about, even as a civilian, because my dad's really sick right now. He broke his hip and he's not doing too well. I was talking to my friend how hard it is to see him in pain. I said, "In a way you have to compartmentalize to survive." And my friend said, "Well, you either part compartmentalize or you lean into it more." That's what I think I'm hearing you say. Of course, we all survive with some compartmentalizing, but really a healthier state is to lean into it and put it in its place.

Matt Lewis:
That's right. Some of that leaning into it, it sounds aggressive, but sometimes it's just talking about it.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Right, yeah.

Matt Lewis:
It's just finding the space to talk about it.

Eric Weihenmayer:
What about the purpose piece you just mentioned? When you're in the military, I can imagine that you have a really clear sense of purpose. And then when you go into this civilian world, the purpose is fuzzier. You had mentioned purpose, is that an important piece of the equation?

Matt Lewis:
It's so important. Eric, I don't know what your purpose is, but I think you've accomplished some tremendous things and are finding ways to bring other tremendous stories to light, to give people inspiration. I imagine to some extent your purpose is within that and actually made me a little nervous coming on here, because it's a powerful purpose. I think everyone wants to live for a purpose that's meaningful. In the military, it's a purpose that you're bought into, but might not actually be your life's purpose. It's like, "We have a mission and we have other sub purposes around making sure that my team survives this and we do good for the world." I think it's a unavoidable purpose that exists there and it's more mission than even purpose in some ways.

Matt Lewis:
But it's just so clear, it's so easy to just be like, "Okay, well, this is it. We don't die, win the mission. Don't let any of your friends die." That's the deal and it's easy to rally around that. I think you can see in a lot of stressful situations when people have that innate external factors, creating purpose, there's a lot of amazing things that happen. But then you get out, you're like, "Wait, what's my purpose? Just to make money to survive? I guess that could be a purpose." But you'll find that becomes a little shallow and you're starting to look for things that really drive you. I think that's an important journey that you need to go on as you transition. I think it's not just for veterans, I think there's a lot of people in the world that don't know what their purpose is.

Matt Lewis:
I had a really close friend who also works at HOVER, Ali. He shared something with me that I thought was really, really interesting. It was a different paradigm shift about thinking about purpose and I'm sharing it because it helped me start to discover my purpose, which I think can also change. Honestly, can evolve over time. But he said, "The purpose is the thing in your life that creates the most energy and drive for you. But a lot of times people assume that purpose has to be this noble, selfless thing that you're doing. But it actually is something typically that you selfishly get a lot of enjoyment out of, that selflessly helps other people." It was this light bulb moment for me where I thought like, "Oh, if you have a purpose, it needs to be something noble, all about service and giving yourself up to something."

Matt Lewis:
But the reality is, there are things that I love doing that also help other people and I could do them all day. I think for me, coaching and mentoring people at work and jiu-jitsu, wherever. I get lots of energy out of that and I could do it all the time. People hit me up on LinkedIn that have been in the military and I will take every single phone call selfishly, because I get energy out of helping them. It was an interesting way to start vectoring in on a sense of purpose. I think sometimes people manufacture a purpose they think feels right and it creates a servitude to people, but it's not something they actually get a lot of energy out of and thus, it doesn't stick.

Matt Lewis:
I don't know. I think that purpose is probably one of those things that I would caution people is hard to get to the right answer on. It takes some time. It might take some testing, iterating on in your own life of like, "What's giving me energy that I can just do? I can just do this forever." Sometimes people get lucky, their purpose is creating music and enjoyment for people and they've found this trade and craft that they can also make a lot of money on. Sometimes it's the opposite way where the purpose is something you love, but you'll never be able to make a lot of money on it. But something within that, I think that driving factor is a really important thing to find in yourself. It will help you become a lot better person and much more happy.

Eric Weihenmayer:
I imagine you see this a lot. I feel like you touched on something that is not just your experience, but a lot of people because I've heard this with our community. We had one soldier and I connected him with a company, an association that does electrical stuff and they offered him a job. He was like, "But I don't want to build electrical lines and fix electric lines. I don't want to do that." His experience was so intense and charged with purpose that he really struggled. Like, "Wait, now I'm going to make toilet paper?" You know what I mean? But isn't it partly a perspective thing where I've spoken at companies that make toilet paper and hey, we all use toilet paper. There's purpose in that too. In a way, it's trying to figure out how to feel that purpose in what you're doing.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, that's a really interesting thing I have some thoughts on, Eric. This could be controversial here, but-

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah, go for it.

Matt Lewis:
I've really spent time with the people now transitioning and then other folks that work for me that have sought purpose in the nature of the company they're working at. I don't think that's a bad thing, but I've never seen it work out the way that people hoped it would. What I mean by that is what inevitably become more important than if the company's doing some noble cause to save the world is, what is the culture of the team? What are the people that you're working with like? And is purpose really at the level of toilet paper or is purpose something that comes from within you that you're trying to create? I feel that a lot of people probably can actually live their purpose in any company if they truly know what their purpose is and they start digging into it.

Matt Lewis:
If it really is a specific cause, great. But I think that sometimes people try to tie their purpose to the nature of a company. And unless you're really saying like, you had AJ on and I'm sure he was talking about bringing people over from Afghanistan. That can be a really unique purpose that's a nature of something. But aside from that type of stuff, I think it's very hard to find purpose through the nature of a company. I've seen a lot of people chase it and I just haven't seen the success there because I think part of it's so much from within you, not from the nature of the work at a company. Which you'll find out there's just all kinds of things inside of it that you didn't want to know that you thought were noble on the outside, but actually aren't on the inside. And all of a sudden, now your identity is tied to this thing that's a house of cards. I don't know if that makes sense, but-

Eric Weihenmayer:
Matt, I'm so glad you said that, I'm so glad you discussed that because I agree 100%. I think that's really true and authentic. Talk about some more of the differences. Leading some of these, what we call warrior programs at No Barriers in the early days, I remember working with the soldiers. When I say soldiers, I mean all the branches and we got in big trouble as civilians. It was funny, not funny, hilarious, like interesting funny where for instance, we're going to go climb a peak and we're leaving at 4:00 in the morning and so we all get in different cars and we're heading to the mountain and we do a loose roll call. And one of our soldiers really freaked out on us. He's like, "You guys are idiots. You do this loose roll call. It's 4:00 in the morning, it's totally dark. Somebody could have fallen in a ditch and they could be dead and bleeding right now and you guys don't even know who's in your cars."

Eric Weihenmayer:
Or another guy who was like, "No, no. I don't put my belt on my backpack because you need to keep the belt off so that you can get to your pack quickly." I'm like, "No, no. You're going to kill your back, dude, if you don't put the waist belt on." He is like, "No, no. We don't do it like that in the military." I imagine there's a thousand examples like that where it's just little things, but become huge barriers in that transition. Do you have some examples of that or thoughts on that?

Matt Lewis:
Well, the one funny thing that comes to mind around that is that if you've ever spent time with anyone in the military and for folks in the military, I know this will resonate. But where you sit in a restaurant, have you ever seen this before?

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah.

Matt Lewis:
I really get uncomfortable if I'm facing a wall, my back is facing the rest of the people. I have to find the corner table, sit against the wall, looking out into the restaurant. I still do it. I said this a little bit earlier, I think that some of that stuff is okay. It's okay to integrate that into your life and it becomes almost like a token of, I don't know, maybe a memento of what you used to do and who you are as a person. I have pride in that. I have pride in it.

Matt Lewis:
I think that a barrier part of it there's a lot. I think there's a certain level of vigilance that can be very helpful in the military, that can also become on the verge of paranoia in the civilian world. That's one of those things too, that I think is a psychological journey that you have to go on to figure out how to... Again, it's not about compartmentalizing or getting rid of it. It's about integrating a balanced version of vigilance into your life, such that you can live without being paranoid at every corner of something terrible happening. It's hard, but you can do it and you just have to work on it and talk about it and create the right constructs in your mind.

Matt Lewis:
I encourage people to chat with professionals, therapists, but that is something I think I've seen a number of times and it's especially raw in the people getting out recently. I talk to a lot of people about that, it's one of the things I say. I say, "Listen. Yeah, I could give you all the rah-rah speeches and tell you about how to talk to someone in the interview. But let me just tell you that when you get in the work environment, things are going to seem strange to you because you're unfamiliar with them. In the world that you come from, strange things in combat mean put your sensors up and get ready to defend. You need to just understand that not everyone's trying to attack you at work. You might have to just tell yourself that over and over again, as you work through things and try to find the true sense for what they're asking versus assuming that you're being attacked."

Matt Lewis:
I think that happens a lot and I've heard some people come back to me and say, "That was really good advice," because you come in, you read an email one way. We see this as civilians, and you're like, "What is this?" But imagine being on heightened sense of vigilance and reading some of the stuff that comes through and not knowing what it really means and creating your own version of that story and trying to get into defensive posture in your own brain about how you're going to navigate through all this? And meanwhile, this person's just sending a nice email to you. You're just not aware of, you don't realize it. I don't know if that makes sense, but-

Eric Weihenmayer:
It makes 100% sense.

Matt Lewis:
I've seen it.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Do you have to find new ways of connecting with people as well? One of the reasons we started No Barriers was to say like, "Look, I mean, you may be a vet and you may be a foster care kid. You may be a person with a physical challenge. You may be a first generation American. But challenge is challenge, we're all connected and we have to find those connection points." Do you have to work to find new connection points? For instance, I've heard people say when you transition out of the military, the adversities are no longer bullets flying at you, it's can I get my kid to soccer practice on time and can I get home for that dance recital? Maybe somebody had a tough childhood of their own, but in a totally different way. Do you have to work to do that?

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, you do. I think just to reframe it for a second, I think that a lot of the military is about removing emotions from work. You're doing the vehicle check-ins that you were just talking about and everyone's on there, airplane pilots just checking in on the vehicles, you're going to do stuff. Things were blowing up around you and it still sounds like the airplane pilot, totally cool, calm and collected. I remember one of my first jobs as a manager, there was someone that got separated from the company, let go. And the next day, the team, they're much younger, recently out of school was like, "What happened to so and so?" I'm like, "Yeah, they got fired," and it wasn't someone I fired, it was someone on another team. I remember this, they looked at me with horror. They were mortified because it was so emotionless and it was just a very cold thing to say.

Matt Lewis:
But for me again, in a wartime environment, you're losing people and it's just like you have to move on quickly. That's the mindset I was in, which just totally sounds totally morbid right now saying that. But I remember reflecting on it and being like, "Oh, I have removed emotion from my being and that is actually now becoming a barrier to connecting with other people in an authentic way." Part of this whole journey too has been, and I still work on this a lot, and I talk to my team about it openly, and I've gotten the point where I can at least express to them that like, "Hey, listen, I'm trying to connect with you by being a more authentic version of myself at work, which is really hard for me because I spent many years killing any emotional side."

Matt Lewis:
The connection in the military is really powerful through struggle and suffering and yes, you have a beer after something tragic happened and you hug each other. But most of the time it's a very intense vibe that you don't have in the corporate world. You asked the question about connection, and I think it's like bringing yourself and your emotional self into the equation to meet them where they are. And finding that again is actually really hard and it's very uncomfortable. I remember trying to show vulnerability with my team. Like, "Hey, I made a mistake and here's how I feel." That's something you need to do to build trust on teams, it's really important. But I felt like it was something I was taking crazy pills for. [crosstalk 00:56:20] be very vulnerable with my team here, which just not something I'd really ever done before.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, I don't know if that gets to what you're asking. I think the connection [crosstalk 00:56:30] comes from bringing yourself and emotions back into the conversation with people because civilians interact in that way. They expect work to have some element of realness to it.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah. You mentor other vets and so forth, you take a lot of phone calls. If somebody's struggling with this process that you've experienced, where do you think they go? Are there resource, or are there some good places they can go, some things they can reach out to, people they can reach out to? What's your advice there?

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, it depends on the nature of the struggle, obviously. That's a pretty multidimensional [crosstalk 00:57:08].

Eric Weihenmayer:
Yeah, you're right. That's too broad of a question, isn't it?

Matt Lewis:
I think people looking to transition, there's a bunch of great programs that start to introduce you to the corporate element. One group that we work with closely here is called Break Line. They don't just help veterans, they help underrepresented groups and veterans and they're just fantastic. There's been a lot of groups that have popped up like that. But for me, what I see with them are people that are extremely passionate and they are living their purpose in that organization. They work so hard to help people break through barriers, it really is a barrier thing.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Well, Matt, thank you so much, man. Honestly, I mean, I know it's not a competition, but this has been one of our best No Barriers podcasts. It's been a totally fascinating discussion. Thank you for being so open and honest and articulate discussing really your personal journey. I've learned a lot, a ton personally, and I know our community is going to learn a lot as well. It's going to help a lot of people. So thanks for the last hour.

Matt Lewis:
Yeah, thanks for letting me come on and share. The transition from the military is a really hard thing. I don't know, just grateful to be able to share some of my story if it can help other people. Honored to be here with you and all the things that you've accomplished. It's just tremendously inspiring for me, back from the first time I heard you talk when I was at Pinterest, to the time in HOVEAR. Yeah, I feel like I'm standing amongst some giants here, so thank you for that.

Eric Weihenmayer:
Matt, thank you so much and good luck on the Baja 1000. Hopefully, maybe when I'm in the Bay Area, we can get together, go to the rock gym, do something fun together, all right?

Matt Lewis:
Sounds like a plan.

Eric Weihenmayer:
All right, thanks friend. And no barriers to everyone, I hope everyone will come to our August No Barriers Summit, www.nobarriersusa.org. Come check out our two amazing events this summer. See you guys.

Didrik Johnck:
The production team behind this podcast includes producer, Didrik Johnck, that's me. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman, marketing and graphic support from Stone Lord and web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our entrance song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoyed this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show or any ideas you've got it all. Thanks so much and have a great day.



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