The last 2 years have been staggering and transformational. Looking back, it’s hard to believe I was living out of my car less than 2 years ago. Getting to that point, and from that point, has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences. To explain, I’ll give some context first.
Where I’m From
I was born in Springfield, Tn, a small town in Tennessee that I loath. I was born into a poor family with an abusive alcoholic drug addict manic depressant paranoid schizophrenic father. The setup for a childhood that has events I can only describe as horrific. A life that leads to you living in police protection because your father is trying to kill you. Luckily, we moved away from Springfield, and him, when I was 10. From there, my mother worked her ass off to raise my sister and I without even having a high school diploma. (My mom taught me how to hustle and I love her for it.)
Over the next four years I discovered computers, the internet, mathematics, and science. I was good at them. No, I was damn good at them. This was going to be the way I would dramatically change the lot life had handed me.
Life is Looking Up
By 2004, I had graduated from one of the top high schools in the US (#24 at the time to be exact), with test scores that placed me in the top 2% in the nation, a 4.0 GPA, and a full ride to study Biomedical Engineering. I was fully set on earning both a M.D. and Ph. D. At 16, I was doing pharmacology research at Vanderbilt University on platelet aggregation and at 19 I was doing neurological research on frogs. At 18, I was taking a 300 level college mathematics course in differential equations and earned perfect 100 grades in statics and dynamics engineering courses. I ended my 2nd year in college with a 3.8 in engineering. I was on track to achieve everything I had ever wanted.
But, I’m a college drop out.
Destroying it All
By 2009, I found myself 100 lbs heavier, homeless, unemployed, and in the middle of a failing 6.5 year long relationship. I was miserable. A long chain of crazy personal / family matters led to me being very unhappy. It’s hard to escape your family and your past. I didn’t like engineering anymore. I was trying to pull myself through school, disappointed in myself, and feeling like I was letting everyone down. And honestly, people were disappointed. I had a lot of potential.
Something had to change.
Putting it Back Together
Then one day I had realized 4 things.
- I felt as if I had failed, but I had only failed at my own expectations for myself.
- If I changed my expectations for myself, I could overcome this mental block that was holding me back.
- I needed to stop doing things that weren’t making me happy any more, even if that meant being criticized by everyone I knew.
- I had hit rock bottom and I was still here. I had the freedom to bet big, play hard, and take massive risks. Even if I failed at my next endeavor, I knew I could survive it.
I loved SEO. I came up in SEO learning from and respecting people like Rand Fishkin. I told myself, I want to do THAT. I left school to do exactly that.
I made the choice to drop out of college and move back to Nashville. A scary choice, since doing so came with next to no support from my family. I ended up back in Nashville, with everything to my name crammed into my 1990 Toyota Corolla with 207,000 miles on it. Luckily, a good friend let me sleep on an air mattress on his floor at night and I could leech free wifi from Panera Bread during the day.
When I left Knoxville and moved to Nashville, I made three “goals” for myself. These goals weren’t so much the “end” I was looking to achieve, but indicators I had “made it” to where I wanted. It’s funny to admit them publicly, but they were:
- Work with SEOmoz.
- Have Rand know who you are on a first name basis.
- Speak at SMX Advanced.
I set myself down a relentless path to put my life back, chase my dream, and become successful in SEO.
Doing What It Takes
There is one thing about leaving school, your home, and your job to chase a dream – failure is not an option. If you want to succeed at something, give yourself no other choice.
In 2009, Marketing Pilgrim posted the SEM Scholarship Contest. A contest that would send you to SMX East and Pubcon. A contest judged by quite a few huge names in the industry.
- Danny Sullivan
- Rand Fishkin
- Jill Whalen
- Michael Gray
- Barry Schwartz
- Todd Friesen
- Vanessa Fox
- Joost de Valk
I had set in my mind that THIS was how I was going to make it, but at the time I was actually living out of my car. I wrote that blog post at Panera Bread, while all my belongings sat baking in the sun in my car in the parking lot. During the contest, I’d work till closing to promote my post.
Then I managed to score my first SEO job as the SEO Manager at an online marketing agency. I used my first paycheck to get an apartment. I had just enough money to pay deposits, rent, utility hook up, and internet. I had no furniture. I slept on the floor for a while.
Then I saw that I had won Marketing Pilgrim’s contest. I cried. The overwhelming stress of the last several months came crumbling down on me. For the first time, in a long time, life was looking up. I flew out to New York for SMX East. I flew out to Vegas for Pubcon. These were amazing experiences for me. I grew up poor, so I had only flown on a plane once. I was in awe of a city as big as New York. This opportunity put me in touch with some big names for the first time. The conference experience helped confirmed to myself that I knew SEO. I’ll always owe Andy Beal for hosting that contest, because it really did change my life.
A Bunch of Hiccups
So just when you think life is going well, it surprises you.
The weekend I returned from Pubcon, my girlfriend of 6.5 years moved out. I don’t blame her, she met me when I was 18 and had nothing but potential ahead of me. I ended up dragging her through several years of crap. It’s hard to say I was surprised, but this hit me hard. Really hard. I pushed forward.
Actually, now that I was single and not tied to Nashville, I took a chance and asked Rand (of SEOmoz) for a job in November 2009. Rand’s response was super nice, but no go on my interest in working with SEOmoz. It was a little discouraging.
My progress slowed over the next several months after my life got turned upside down. I drove myself back into my work. I tried to move up at my work, started speaking, and improving my skills. However, I became unhappy, because I felt my professional progress had slowed. I wasn’t moving up like I wanted. I didn’t have the success I was looking for. I quit my job.
Some people think I’m too ambitious, that I expect growth on too short of a timeframe.
Sorry, but I have some goals to achieve.
Taking a Leap
Late 2010, Rand tweeted that Distilled was hiring. This was it. Distilled was one of the best agencies in the industry and they worked closely with SEOmoz. I knew it was a longshot, but this was what I wanted.
In September 2010, I landed in Seattle, Wa. I had never been here before (not even for the interview), I had given my car to my sister, was still paying off a lease in Nashville, had no place to live, and only had two suitecases to my name (this is starting to sound familiar). I stayed in an extended stay hotel until I made it through my first month at Distilled, then I got an apartment. I moved across the country, once again throwing everything to the wind – failure wasn’t an option.
I was finally doing EXACTLY what I wanted. From here on out, I was going to do what I loved. Moving to Seattle changed my life.
When I moved to Seattle, I made a rule to never say no. This was a once in a life time chance for me, a poor kid from Springfield, TN, to move to the west coast and consult for some of the biggest brands in the world at one of the coolest companies in one of the coolest cities in the US. I was going to enjoy it.
So yeah, this rule is a bit like the movie Yes Man. If you’ve ever seen it and the number of crazy situations it resulted in, then I’d like to tell you it was just like that.
- I dated a girl I met at a film festival my 3rd week in Seattle.
- I woke up one morning to find a picture of myself hugging a Yeti on my phone.
- Three strangers walked pass me and asked me if I wanted to grab a drink with them. Several hours later, I was playing night time frisbee with 15 new people I just met.
- While waiting on a table at an Indian restaurant, I offered to share a table with two strangers. They ended up being astronomers in town for a conference and I spent lunch learning about stars.
- I hung out with Bruce Campbell for five hours. I even made sure nobody bothered him while he went to the restroom.
- I met George Romero.
- I helped break a world record.
- I dated a girl who looks exactly like Zooey DesChanel (lol, seriously). She turned out to be a bit crazy.
- I stood on top of a hill at a park with 20 hipsters I didn’t know and we all sang in the New Year together.
Its been great.
A Lifestyle Change
This increased activity from saying yes came with a few other major lifestyle changes.
- I got rid of my car when I moved to Seattle.
- I quit playing video games.
- I decided to not have a TV.
- I decided to not have internet at my apartment.
As a result, I get out a lot more. I do things. I meet people. I walk a lot.
I started losing the weight I had gained.
I’m down 3 pants sizes and down a shirt size.
Hustle for All I’m Worth
I made a pretty big jump when I moved to Seattle to work for Distilled. I decided early on that I was going to give it everything I had. I knew that SEOmoz and Distilled presented an opportunity for me to prove what I know and to prove to myself my potential hadn’t be lost.
You can ask Joanna how many times she found me in the office late, working weekends, and almost living in the office. I wasn’t being over worked by Distilled (they’re great about work / life balance). I was spending 25 hours writing posts on Mormon SEO or another 25 hours on my competitive backlink analysis post. It was the hours and hours I spent on my SMX West, Wordcamp, and Pro SEO Boston presentations. I wanted to make a dent in this industry. I wanted to teach people something new. I wanted to give back to the industry everything blogs like SEOmoz had given me.
If you remember, I had 3 goals to achieve. In March, I presented at SMX West for the first time. I presented at Wordcamp Seattle and my name ended up trending in Seattle on Twitter. In May, I presented alongside the likes of Rand, Will, Tom, and Dharmesh at Pro SEO Boston, where I managed to earn the highest audience feedback score out of all presenters. In June, I presented at SMX Advance. This month, I kicked off a consulting project with SEOmoz.
Woah. The last four months have been a blur.
Although I take great pride in my work, I’m humbled by the opportunity to have the experiences SEO has given me in the last two years. I’ve consulted for Fortune 500 companies, worked on SEO for some of the largest brands online, spoken to crowds of hundreds of people, and traveled to cities all over the US. I’ve regained my health, had great experiences, met awesome people, and made amazing friends.
I think the hustle, passion, and tenacity I’ve applied to chasing success and happiness has changed my life.
So now I look toward figuring out my next set of goals. I have a lot of ideas, lots of questions to answer, but nothing firm enough to put down here yet. I know I’ll keep pushing myself to do what I love, to try new things, and forcing myself to make drastic changes to pursue the things that make me happy. It’s been a hell of a time over the last two years and I’m looking to see what the next two bring.