How My Decision Engine Was Formed

Photo Credit: Peter Hellberg

To quote one of my all-time favorite lines from any song ever:

"What a long, strange trip it's been"

I strongly believe that we as humans are all little decision engines where our choices and actions are completely based on our past interactions and memories.

Based on that belief, I know that I am a compilation of all the little things that happened to me along the way -- every little awkward childhood moment, every environmental influence, every success and every failure. It has made me who I am today and formed my decision engine.

This timeline attempts to explain how we arrived at this intersection of startups, business development, nutrition, personal development, and classical piano jazz.

The Wonder Years: Athlete meets Nerd

According to the back of my baseball card, I was 9 years old, 4'7" tall, 80 lbs and liked the Minnesota Twins. I'm not buying it.

According to the back of my baseball card, I was 9 years old, 4'7" tall, 80 lbs and liked the Minnesota Twins. I'm not buying it.

I grew up in what I now consider to be a perfect childhood. It never seemed that way growing up, but I look back and realize how good I had it. I have an amazing, supportive family whom I love more than life itself. I was able to watch and learn from my father as he ran his own business as a general contractor building homes. My father's business had a lot of ups and downs, but, combined with my mother's steady income, it allowed us to have so many amazing experiences. Even so, it always seemed like a bit of a struggle. It was perfect for me.

As a kid, I did every activity under the sun: soccer, baseball, basketball, surfing, snowboarding, Tae Kwon Do, building forts and tree houses in the woods, building homes with my father, sailing, volleyball, and even deep sea fishing.

I also did a lot of nerd things that involved hiding from the sun for as long as possible: the high school bowling and chess teams, never ending video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, playing the piano and clarinet, and obsessing about Warcraft well before it became popular.

I was quite a diverse little person, but then something really shitty happened.

High School: Most Difficult Challenge of My Life

I was just a tiny, little fella

I was just a tiny, little fella

As a freshman in high school, I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease. I spent weeks at a time in the hospital. At one point, I was taking over 50 pills a day. I had such a restricted diet that there were times where I was living on ice pops and soup broth. As a 5'11" high school junior, I weighed 115 lbs. I missed 53 days of school one year. Yes, my female friends were jealous that my wrists were skinnier than theirs.

Those were really tough days. Crohn's Disease is something I would never wish on my worst enemy. They said it's incurable and that it will be with me for the rest of my life. They also said that some people go into remission and never have to deal with it again, so I became determined to make myself better.

And then one day my senior year of high school, I just felt better... or decided I was better... or just started telling people I was feeling better so often that it just happened. I stopped taking all of my medicine, because I didn't need it any more -- my doctors hated that but it didn't matter because I was no longer sick. And for close to 15 years, Crohn's Disease has never come back to bother me again.

The College Years: Trust me; I'm an Engineer

This sums up so much of college

This sums up so much of college

Throughout my childhood, it became apparent that I was destined to become an engineer because I was really good at math and science and liked building things and solving problems. I applied to Stevens Institute of Technology which has a historic engineering program, and they let me in because I brought their average SAT scores up.

I went to Stevens as a Computer Engineering major, realized that I hated C++, and instead graduated Stevens with a degree in Engineering Management, a graduate certificate in Project Management and a minor in Economics. I also had more work experience than anyone I knew having joined the Co-op program and worked full time for 5 semesters at companies like Johnson & Johnson and Turner Construction.

I was now ready for the 3 scariest words a college student will ever hear: "the real world."

The Real World: The 1st and Last Job I'd Ever Have

Our parties were pretty wild and yes my hair was ridiculously long

Our parties were pretty wild and yes my hair was ridiculously long

I don't know why, but it felt like Wall St. was my only real choice at the time. I could have worked in construction or pharmaceuticals like many of my college friends, but Wall St. was the "fulfilling" life I was meant to lead.

I joined the Wealth Management division of UBS which meant that we were responsible for making rich people richer. The only problem was that I wasn't involved with the rich people or making them richer. I was in Operations because that's where UBS hired engineers like me.

I certainly made the best of it though. I became a go-to problem solver for some of the biggest failing projects in the firm. I led and managed teams and we fixed things, big things, the most critical things during what would become known as the financial crisis. Let's just say that I had a front row seat to watch the proverbial "shit hit the fan" and it was quite a sight to be seen.

As I started thinking about a career move, I met with a branch manager of the flagship branch of UBS that managed billions and billions of dollars of client assets. He made me promise to do one thing -- read the book "Awaken the Giant Within." That book changed my life and set me on a path of personal development and continuous improvement. From that moment on, I knew I was meant to start my own business.

UBS was an amazing learning experience that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world, but I knew that it wasn't my calling. I left UBS and the last job I would ever have.

The Wandering Entrepreneur

This was me building my network

This was me building my network

My first instinct for a new career path was to use what I learned at UBS and become a financial advisor. I found a company to sponsor me and pay for me to go through their extensive sales training program. Know this... you have no idea what rejection is until you go door-to-door in Hoboken, New Jersey to try to sell someone a tax-free municipal bond.

As you can imagine, I quickly realized that this company wasn't the right place for me but still wasn't done with the financial advisor route. I thought it would be smart to start my own company, Petersen Wealth Management, and show the world that I knew what I was doing. Well, I didn't and I spent more time setting up the company that I ever did trying to grow the business.

There were two critically important things that happened during my tenure as CEO of Petersen Wealth Management: (1) I realized that I was done with the world of finance (2) I had discovered the world of technology startups.

Finding my Place in the World

Quieting the crowd for the best wedding intro ever

Quieting the crowd for the best wedding intro ever

On a random night at a random event, I watched a tech startup company demo a product that 3 months earlier didn't exist. From that moment on, I knew I was hooked. If other people could do that, so could I. And besides, I had a million ideas. This was my calling.

I started learning everything I could about startups and technology companies. I taught myself the basics of coding, built out a few real shitty prototypes, created NY Tech Day and grew it into the largest single day startup event in the world,  spent time with DigitalOcean out in TechStars Boulder who has gone on to do some amazing things, and founded the NYC Dev Shop.

My entire journey has been one, constant discovery process and here's what I've learned:

  • I passionately enjoy learning and personal development and spent every day of my life trying to make myself better in some capacity than I was the day before
  • I am super addicted to nutrition and fitness for so many reasons, but mostly because it allows me to have unlimited energy to chase down my dreams
  • I really like building things, and the best way to develop a tech startup for our clients is with a laser focused, experienced two-person team. That's why we started Firehawk Creative
  • I love solving problems. I've wired my brain to look at the world in terms of problems and opportunities. That's why I have an ever growing list of startup ideas that I'd love to see built. Maybe one day soon, I'll start building them myself.
  • I have found that the way to get the most value out of life is to create value for others, and it's very possible to create immense value out of nothing
  • I love that life is a series of ups and downs. That's what makes life worth living. Through it all though, you always have to be able to find your happy place -- here's mine:
My Happy Place

My Happy Place