Cordell Carter, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute, discusses the importance of finding joy in your life and work, lessons learned from his family growing up in Virginia and from his daughter. He also reveals the power of mastering your personal narrative and the qualities that are necessary for success.
Speaker 1: Welcome to Hidden Human, the podcast where we explore the stories behind the business leader. Get ready to hear insights from business leaders speaking candidly about how they became who they are today and the lessons they learned along the way. And now, here’s your host, leadership coach and speaker, Kelly Meerbott.
Kelly Meerbott: Welcome to the space where we reveal our personal humanity to reconnect with our shared humanity. It is my true, true pleasure to welcome my friend and colleague Cordell Carter, director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute.
Hello Cordell. I have been waiting for this interview forever. How are you my love?
Cordell Carter: Good, how are you, Kelly?
Kelly Meerbott: Good. Now I know you’re a jet setter and a traveler and a world changer. Where are you now?
Cordell Carter: Today I am in the scenic city of Chattanooga, Tennessee where we’re launching the American Values Seminar as part of Chattanooga’s public assembling gathering this weekend. We’re very, very excited to work with a group of leaders, interrogating. Founders intent on these great documents that we think we all know. So it’s gonna be an exciting time this weekend.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, so okay. Cordell, for those of us that don’t know can you explain in a way that we can all understand. I usually say if I was a six year old child, what the Socrates program is and as an extension of that what the Aspen Institute is?
Cordell Carter: Great. I actually start in reverse because Aspen … everything in Aspen comes from one great conversation in a bar called the Hotel Jerome in 1949. And founders of the Institute, the Paecke family, were talking with a great statesman, [inaudible] about how they can change the world for the better. You know the country was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II. There was genuine concern that World War III was on the horizon and they said, “We can’t keep doing this. We have to do something different.” And so as these great business people of their day they said, “We’re gonna create a place where men could come together and learn from the ancients.” And they were talking about the ancients of Western civilization.
And so they bought the town of Aspen. They created the Aspen Institute for humanistic ideas, and they started with these great book seminars. Two, three weeks at a time, CEOs would come and for 30, 40 years this was a great, kind of hidden jewel that this closed group of CEOs who felt that they had a greater obligation to the greater good, would do. But in the ’80s and ’90s it was really clear that the world was changing quickly and we needed something that better reflected our time. So CEOs can’t just leave for two and three weeks anymore. Time was speeding up, new technology was changing things. You were always on, regardless, because you had cell phones and all these things.
So in ’96 a trusty, [inaudible] Lauder and his family, Gary and Laura Lauder, they created the Socrates Program which is a derivative of the original executive seminar that now is just three days. So it started with President’s Day weekend, 1996, and it was Dilemmas of the Digital Age. And so all of these young professionals were venture capitalists and technologists, after this thing called the internet.
And so what are the moral implications of creating a space where we’re all connected? And they were asking these questions on that ski weekend in 1996. And from that has birthed this 22 year old program more than 6000 leaders have benefited from.
And so Socrates is a global education forum for emerging leaders. And really emerging is a term that I let people define as they wish. I much prefer the term perineal. ‘Cause perineal means that you never stop learning. And emerging is –
Kelly Meerbott: Oh, I love that. I love that.
Cordell Carter: Yeah, it’s age based. Like what does that mean? You could be three but stop learning or 93 and learning evermore. So I like perineal and at some point we will change the branding away from emerging to perineal but for right now we’re still saying emerging. But we introduced them to values and ethics based Socratic dialogue on contemporary issues.
And so we really wrestle with the issues of our day. Whether it’s social media. Whether it’s foreign policy. Whether it’s economic development in low income areas. And we get experts in those fields to come help us wrestle. And so we still use this axiom. And the axiom is, what’s the difference between personal success and significance? Like that permeates everything that we do. And so you think it’s a surface level question but it’s actually getting deeper. Because you can’t really interrogate texts without interrogating yourself and what you believe and what you’re about.
And so that is our method. We’ve grown tremendously. We’ve done this now. We have three major seminars in Aspen you do in the Fall, the winter and the summer. This summer we have six seminars coming up and then the Fall we do a wilderness seminar where you hike in the woods and reading folks like John Muir and some Indigenous artists. People that are connected to nature, trying to really investigate and interrogate man’s connection with nature. And frankly the smallness of man in comparison to nature.
Kelly Meerbott: Sure. Oh my gosh, yeah. And I think going back to your point of the … let’s call it the invasion of the smartphone. You know you kind of think that the whole world centers around you but when you step out into nature you’re quickly reminded that you’re very insignificant in size compared to what’s around you.
Cordell Carter: Absolutely. There’s a reason that we love Alaska shows, you know? It’s like you see just a beauty and the immensity of nature and how these little people are seeking to conquer a tiny bit of it just to survive and it’s amazing. It’s an amazing human feat. And we have great responsibility.
So anyhow … And Aspen is a fantastic place to have that conversation. You have what? Three, fourteen thousands foot peaks right in the city. In the winter we ski in the morning and then we do the seminar in the afternoon, and in the evening we come back together for dinner. In the summer we do a seminar in the morning and then we go off and do personal reflection time in the afternoon. You can fly fish, you can hike. You can do yoga and meditation, whatever you … You just want to walk in nature you can do that. And then we come back together in the afternoon, we have more substantial conversation over dinner with just amazing people.
And so the product is really the people. [crosstalk].
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, absolutely. So speaking of people and speaking of the human behind the driving of the Aspen Institute, and I know there’s a lot of people but since we’re talking to you Cordell, what was it about this program that drew you to it? You know on a soul level, what was it that said to you, this is where I need to do my next iteration of work?
Cordell Carter: Back in 2012 I was introduced to the Institute, the Socrates Program and I was lobbying for a business association at the time and I was brought in to do education work which was with my field, education reform. But at that time in our congressional history, partisanship was at a [inaudible]. Well it’s past that now but at the time we thought it was really rare. And the only talk was about corporate tax reform.
And so here I am at this Aspen Institute event, talking about what I believe and this notion of contributing to the greater good, and a colleague across the table said, “Excuse me, Cordell. You’ve been talking quite a bit about this contribution to the greater good and this notion of significance. But aren’t you part of the problem? Aren’t you gumming up the system? You’re a lobbyist, for a business association.” And I was stung. Now I said something clever and I worked my way out of it but I was clearly stung. And within three months –
Kelly Meerbott: What was your response and what was the thought that was going through your mind in contrast to that?
Cordell Carter: My response was, “You need people like me on the inside to impact a much better, more equitable solution.” What was going on inside my head was, “He’s exactly right. This doesn’t feel good. I don’t like what I do but it looks good on Linkedin so I gotta …” “They pay well, I gotta do it. People respect me differently when they see my business card, so I gotta keep doing it. This is why I’m first in my family to go to college. This is why mom and dad saved so much to make sure that I had opportunity. I’m doing this so I can send them on that cruise every year. That’s why I’m doing it.” And that’s a valid reason, right?
And so –
Kelly Meerbott: It is a valid reason.
Cordell Carter: In my mind it was but in my heart I knew I was wrong. So that’s that internal dialogue but I knew I was at a crisis point. I was having all this anxiety related illnesses that were just very weird and I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t know that I was stressed. Didn’t know I was depressed and that felt like the walls were closing in on me. Doing something every day that you don’t believe in. When you’re out of equilibrium between your values and your time, it’s just you can’t be comfortable in that space. And I don’t want to learn to be comfortable in that space.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, and I think you and I had that discussion because I was out of alignment before I became a coach in 2009 where I didn’t realize. It was the same situation. I was making a ton of money for a Fortune 500 company but I thought throwing up every day before work was normal. And you get down in the weeds and you get into those moments. Like you were saying, it’s a very valid reason to want to send your family on a cruise. It was a very valid reason for me to want to buy something for my husband who served in the military, you know?
But now, from this vantage point, it’s a very different view, isn’t it?
Cordell Carter: It is. And frankly I call that my weekend of transformation. Because that’s when I decided that there is no such thing as career in [inaudible]. It drives you to do different things. Like, “Oh, these things just happen organically.” They do not. They happen because you want them to happen. And so frankly, not to get too new agey on you, is what I really harness my own destiny and say that I get to decide what good is. And I get to decide how I spend my time. And you know what? I deserve to be paid a marketable wage for doing good and the ways of doing it. And I didn’t know of that before going on this path that I went back to education after three months and took this huge pay cut and then had some other experiences at the highest levels with education foundations that were not positive at all.
But you learn so much from it and here we are, what four years later, and the very people that were part of the negativity are now saying, “Cordell, tell me … I need your help.” And I thought … when I imagined this confrontation I imagined me eating grapes, kicking people in the head, it’s not that at all. It’s all love. And it’s all care. And frankly I didn’t know … This is not what I expected. I expected venom. I wanted payback and that’s not what it’s about at all because I learned that the journey is so beautiful. The ducks, the turns, the overturned cars, the almost accidents, is a beautiful thing. And that beauty is more important than me getting back at something that happened 15 miles ago. It’s over [crosstalk].
Kelly Meerbott: And Cordell, I’m wondering, I’m curious because you probably get this too. I get a lot of people who were working with me in that organization that will come back to me and say the same thing. “Please help me.” And “You look so happy.” And it’s like, oh my gosh I’m so … For my first thought is, my heart squeezes because it’s like, why aren’t you happy? And why aren’t you making choices that are bringing you joy? And yes sometimes joy shows up and manifests itself as bloody knees and overturned cars and exploding buildings but it’s all part of that journey. So I’m just wondering if that’s sort of the thing you’re hearing as well.
Cordell Carter: Oh my gosh. Literally … and it’s weird. We in our … We have some notion of what success looks like, we all do, right? And it generally is this … someone that is paid a lot of money that has this great profile that manages a lot of people and we never take into account how that person feels in that space. Like true happiness is you to saying, I have time for the things that matter to me. And we’re not all work, right? In America, we really define ourselves by what we do and for whom we do it. And you look at my … I travel a lot so I talk to folks all over the world. Talking to leaders big and small, and they … Other folks have figured out how to live.
And I think the fact that I have a non-American in my home who does not care. She can give two flying pigs about work. It’s all about our daughter and our daughter’s experience and the time that we spend together and those moments when you’re reading the stories and you’re laughing about something you saw on Nickelodeon. And that for her is living. It’s really helped calm me down and refocus on just the beauty of these little insignificant things. And so I’m thinking I needed … for them to be happy I needed all of this great Linkedin stuff, right? The personal success, the money and all that. But all they want is my time, that’s it. They want my time.
Kelly Meerbott: Which is the most precious gift one human can give to another, you know what I mean? Even –
Cordell Carter: Because it’s a non-renewable. Once that moment is gone, it’s gone.
Kelly Meerbott: It is, it is. And it’s … I always tell the leaders that I coach, the executives I coach, you’ve gotta think of it as currency and how are you spending that time?
So let’s … Since we’ve briefly talked about your mom and dad and your family, I would love to dive into a little bit of that if that’s okay with you.
Cordell Carter: Sure, sure.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, so you were talking about how the Aspen Institute changes the world. How young were you when you first changed the world and we’re looking between the ages of eight and fourteen.
Cordell Carter: Wow. I remember … I was eight, no nine, and my cousins and I, my parents … This is in 1984 and my parents give me a grand total of 10 dollars to go and see a movie and have I think a cheeseburger with my cousins at Tower Mall in Portsmouth, Virginia. And they let us get on the city bus by ourselves. This is a big time day, right? And so we went to the city bus, we get to the mall, and for the first time I recognized there were people in the mall that kinda just … they were homeless. And I didn’t understand what that was. And my cousins, a little older than me, they were making fun of the guy. They were throwing things at him, french fries. And he was just taking it. Like kind of gathering the fries to himself. And I felt horrible.
So I got up, and I gave him my meal and I just pat him on the shoulder and I went back to my cousins. And they were stunned. They said, “Why’d you do that?” And I said, “Well he looked hungry. Let’s go see a movie.” And I sat in the movie theater and I cried. And thankfully, it was The Color Purple and so –
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my God, are you kidding me right now?
Cordell Carter: I kid you nought. I kid you nought. And so they were a few scenes in The Color Purple you can get away with crying. I was emoting because that guy, that older gentleman, he just seemed like he was having a really difficult time. And –
Kelly Meerbott: And look at what you did. That small gesture of kindness. You don’t know what that meant to him and the fact that … That doesn’t surprise me because you were talking about your head space versus your heart space earlier when you were working as a lobbyist and it seems to me that you’ve had this really strong anchor of kind of defaulting to your heart space to guide you through your life and it’s … I mean it’s illustrated in the story that you’re telling right now.
Cordell Carter: Yeah. Well my parents … my dad was military, mom was [crosstalk].
Kelly Meerbott: What branch?
Cordell Carter: Army.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay.
Cordell Carter: But he also … well he switched to Reserves when I was elementary school and was a civilian employee of the Navy. So he worked for the Navy during the day and one weekend a month he went out, Hooah in the Army.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s right, Drill Sergeant.
Cordell Carter: Yeah, he was Drill Sergeant so he used to love working with these young men. And I didn’t know what it meant to not have a father, because I had one, right? And all of these young men, still to this day … I literally just received a text from a colleague who had just made Colonel in the US Army. My father’s been mentoring him since he was 17 years old. The first insane jealous moment that I had was when men like this guy would come to the house and send my dad letters and call him dad. He would let people call him dad. Because they didn’t have fathers. And I would [inaudible], “You my daddy. You mine.” And I remember when I was little they would come over for dinner after church on Sunday and I was like, “That’s my daddy.” And I would run up my room.
And my mom would say, “Hey,” … They call me Cory. “Hey, Cory, your dad know that he’s your dad. You’re his only son. But there are people that don’t have what you have. And just for this day, you’ve gotta share. You gotta share today, okay?”
Kelly Meerbott: What did mom do?
Cordell Carter: Mom was a nurse.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay.
Cordell Carter: She still is a nurse. She has one more year. She’s still a nurse. So she’s a gruffier version of my father. So we sell, we say woof tickets. Mom sells a lot of woof tickets. And she’s gonna bark but there’s no bite. And we call her Mother Dear and in the African American community that’s an elevated … that’s a form of praise. You just don’t say mom. You say Mother Dear. And she’s elevated to Mother Dear now. She’s 64 so she’s Mother Dear.
And I married a woman much like her. I didn’t know that I was doing that and I certainly didn’t think they made women like that in France but they did and I married one that’s much like my mother. And the way that we play off each other in terms of personality are very similar to the way my mother, my father play off each other. My dad is an extrovert, probably overly generous and my mother’s more introverted and reserved but very perceptive. So she’s reading people all the time. My wife is the same way. Probably a little more introverted than my mother but far more perceptive. So she’s … and when I actually decide to listen, which has been a great innovation of mine in the last 10 years.
I met her in graduate school. She was top of our class. Perhaps she has something to say of significance. And so now I run things by her. I want to get her read on things and it’s really … It’s brought us closer and frankly she’s saved me a lot of heartache and there are things, especially in the last three years, that she told me about five years ago that I wish I would’ve listened about people. And I didn’t think that people would disappoint me the way she said they would and they did. And you know I’m dealing with that. It is what it is. And some people are not … they’re not as evolved. That we’re … a [inaudible] more Confucius thought in that they’re on their way. They’re on their way to goodness.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. A lot of my coaches and teachers on my way to be an executive coach say that. You can’t … Well Byron Katie always says, “Don’t wake the baby.” Which she means, if somebody’s asleep to their behavior or to their mindset it’s not your job to wake them up. They’ll come. Because sometimes when you wake a baby, what happens?
Cordell Carter: They shriek.
Kelly Meerbott: So it’s their job to kind of wake up and evolve into whatever they’re going to do and it’s our job to just love them.
So let’s talk about your daughter. How young is she and what’s her name?
Cordell Carter: Her name is [Myalya] and she’s 11 years old. Her name is [Myalya] [Clare] and she … her middle name is from my mother’s mother, my grandmother. And my grandmother is facsimile … my mother’s a facsimile of her mother. And [Clarine] was her name. [Clarine] Hutchinson Jones. This amazing life story. Whenever I think I’m having a tough time I think about grandma [Clarine] and –
Kelly Meerbott: Tell me about her.
Cordell Carter: Well she was born in 1920 and the way the black middle class was created in America was through Army recruiting. And so in the late ’30s, early ’40s the Military recruiters would go out in the share cropper fields and talk to the young men and say, “Hey, if you fight for Uncle Sam you’ll get $25 a month. If you’re married you get $50 a month. If you’re married with a child you get $75 a month.” So you know exactly what happened. Everybody got married and tried to get pregnant immediately.
So on both sides of my family my father and my mother, that’s exactly what happened with their parents. Yes, and so both my grandfathers World War II. My grandfather came back from World War II a very different person. He, I should say, didn’t have the greatest experience in Europe. He just could not understand why he was fighting for freedom for others but had to go back to a place that wasn’t free for himself. He could never compartmentalize it and just find some sense of happiness and hope in the US when he came back. And he turned to alcoholism and it was pretty bad. I mean he actually died of sorosis when I was seven years old. But what I didn’t know, and I didn’t learn frankly until I was preparing to get married 21 years later, is that he was physically abusive.
Now all these things happened when you’re a child right? Like all of my younger uncles, I have family photos of them when I was like two or three years old. And I don’t know why my uncle Derek or my uncle Dean was in a photo with me, but they were my mom’s youngest brothers and they were the last ones at the house when everyone else left. It was a family of six. And they … When their dad would come home drunk and beating on grandma, they would jump on him and say, “You’re not gonna beat our mother.” He says, “Well you can’t stay. You’re not gonna beat me in my house.” And so they would beat their dad up and have to go live with their older siblings. And so that’s why I have all these family photos of my uncles in them.
But my grandmother was devoted to that man, but she developed some incredible defense mechanisms. So there’s a group called the Order of the Tents. It’s an old … It’s a group of African American women that would get together, typically older women mentoring younger women. It was almost like a sorority but there was no pledging or anything. Basically they invited you in. And family is a dying organization. It’s just people are highly mobile so they’re not stuck in communities anymore. But these women used to help the young women deal with domestic violence. Show them how to use makeup. Show them how to spike drinks so their husbands go to sleep. Like I had no idea that domestic violence was such a big issue in the African American community and it impacted my life so greatly. But you’re a child so you don’t see these things.
And so my grandmother told me this story. I gave her champagne at my wedding, I got married in France. And my grandmother does not drink typically but she partake and she got really loose with her tongue on the train, right? And she started telling me about Pop pop, my grandfather. I was like, “Grandma you know I have very little memory of grandad. Tell me more about him.” And at the wedding we were singing out some [inaudible] Cole songs and she would tell me about the letter he would write her from Europe and how sweet they were and how he would talk about their life and what it was gonna be and how he would sing to her on the phone in front of his buddies. He wasn’t ashamed. And then he came back a different guy and so he would just get really drunk and he would get so drunk that the barkeeps would … He would ask, “How much do I owe you?” And they would say, “You owe me a hundred dollars.” He would just pay them. And it was like, “Hey, you’ve got six kids at the house. What are you doing?”
And so she had to take over the money. And then she stopped letting him go to the bar. She says, “I will buy you whatever you drink and make the drinks for you at the house.” And so I don’t have a memory of him going to bars. I remember my grandma making him drinks and going to the liquor store with her. I remember that. But he would also, when he would go out occasionally, get raging drunk, come home wanting to fight. And so the ladies at the Order of the Tent told her about equilibrium and how drunk people have difficulty being past their waist.
So as soon as he comes in, she said you grab a skillet, put it on the table. You run to the other end of the table. You run under the table. He’s gonna try to chase you, which he does. But he’s sluggish ’cause he’s off. And she says, “Then he comes on that side, pop that sucka on the head with the skillet.” And I’m like, “What about concussions?” She said, “We didn’t know anything about concussions, baby. We just pop them on the head with a skillet and he would just sleep.” You know? I’m like, “How often does this happen?” She’s, “Oh about once, twice a year. You know twice a year. Just knock him out, he wakes up embarrassed on the table, he doesn’t know why he’s there. He’d say oh, I’m sorry. The kids are eating breakfast around him, he wakes up, he sees people’s legs and they’re like, oh daddy got drunk again.”
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my God, Cordell. I can’t even.
Cordell Carter: So that’s a [Clarine] story. But one of the most … I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Richard Wright, read any of his book. He wrote –
Kelly Meerbott: Yes, I love his work.
Cordell Carter: I was talking about him to an artist last night. I believe it was the book Native Son where he was talking about an ancestor that was dying and this was an ancestor, he didn’t really like this older person’s family. He worked as a domestic servant and he thought this guy was just a sell out, uncle Tom. And the guy in the death row screams out, “Yes, ma’am him to death. Yes, serve him to death.” And then he dies. And so Richard Wright is trying to figure out what the heck did that mean? Like what was that, right?
And so my grandmother, the only job she could have she was a domestic servant for Miss Gertrude for years. I mean Miss Gertrude was a young woman, about the same age as my grandmother, had about four kids. My grandmother had six. So she would clean and cook for Miss Gertrude’s house and then catch the bus back to her house and take care of her kids after work. And seemingly, when you compare the two families, you would think that Miss Gertrude’s kids would do better. Well they all got on heroine and Miss Gertrude died young, broken heart. She was a widow, she died. Everything fell apart for that family. But grandma became a friend to them and to this day, you’ll see some … Well my grandmother’s no longer living but up to five years ago when she was still living she would still meet these really scraggly looking people that we didn’t know, and they were Miss Gertrude’s grandchildren. [crosstalk] as an extension to their grandmother.
And so I think about that Richard Wright, “Yes ma’am them to death. Yes sir them to death.” I don’t know what he meant there and I certainly don’t understand what my grandmother’s relationship with Miss Gertrude was. I see it as something different. But she was a very complex woman. But last story I gave about [Clarine], I’m three years old and my dad is often … it’s a Military thing, assignment. Little sister is one and a half. My older sister is seven. My grandmother’s cutting the grass ’cause she was very … my grandfather was drunk all the time so she cut the grass, she did the painting. She was very industrious. She had tool belts, all that stuff right? And I’m watching her cut the grass at our little town home in Portsmouth, and she runs over a frog, cuts him in half.
And I was like, “Grandma, you killed the frog. What’s wrong …” And she says, “Well he saw me cutting the grass.” That’s [Clarine] and that fire, when I saw [inaudible] being so active in utero and literally at her baby shower she decides to perform a modern dance inside her mom’s stomach and she’s moving and just saw in my wife, she’s very uncomfortable. She’s like, “Well she’s dancing right now.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s Clare. That’s Clare right there.” So I [inaudible] Clare.
Kelly Meerbott: So Cordell, tell me about the moment when they put your daughter in your arms for the very first time and you looked down at her face and you realized that it’s no longer just your wife and you, you’re now parents and it’s three.
Cordell Carter: Yeah, the craziest thing. I was telling to the person about having a child. I was like, “You go to the hospital and it’s two of you all. And two days later, you look in the back seat you’re like, who is that?” It’s the craziest thing, right? [inaudible] forever.
And so I remember, [inaudible] had a really pleasant pregnancy experience and she started getting … I think her water broke at 6AM. She waited until 8:30 to wake me up –
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my God.
Cordell Carter: Yeah. I was in third year law school. I remember that. And she … and I knew it could happen. We were about 10 days within her due date and she wakes me up, she says, “Honey, you’re gonna be a father today.” I said, “Huh? What?” She said, “My water broke.” I went, “Oh, oh.” And I just jump out and I run right into a wall, Bap. And she’s like, “Hey, you calm down. I’m having contractions, so you need to calm down, okay?” And I was like, “Okay, I’m sorry. Where’s the bag?” Okay of course we forgot the bag. And then she started having those very serious contractions where she’s talking and she stops and then she has to vomit and it’s just really … it’s terrifying. Because it’s a beautiful thing and between the breaths she’s like, “Oh this is fantastic, it’s happening but Lord knows this hurts like you know what.”
So we finally get to the hospital. My tax professor’s wife was delivering the baby. I had an exam that day. I’ll never forget, he gave me dispensation for two days, by the way. And I said, “Doctor, look, I’ve had a baby.” He says, “Cordell, this is Notre Dame. We’re a Catholic institution. Everybody has babies. I will see you tomorrow.” But he says, “We will say a prayer for you. We will say a prayer.”
So anyhow, [Myayla] was ready to come out. I had talked to her the night before in her stomach. We put headphones on, I would talk through the headphones and stomach. I said, “Why don’t you come out and play with me. Your mother’s sick of being pregnant. And so come out and see me. I want to see you.” And literally four hours later the water breaks. It’s crazy.
So I remember just when she comes out, it’s like she’s shocked and glazed look on her face and she’s like gray and she’s making, [inaudible]. It’s not even a real cry ’cause she’s just opening her mouth like what is going on? And they put her on the heat lamp and that’s when and they give her that Vitamin K shot and I’m looking at her and I’m rubbing her head. And that’s when I knew that I would literally walk through hell for this child. That was gonna be the very best person that I could be for this human, that one right there.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my God, Cordell.
Cordell Carter: And that is … I was hooked from day one. I mean the first look, I was like, “Yeah, that’s …” my destiny was to bring this one to this Earth and everything around us, everything that got us to that point mattered. Everything mattered. And frankly, everything after that’s mattered too. So it was tremendous. It’s something I wish everyone could share. That feeling of the worldliness and like you get your place in the universe when you see that little person and they’re looking at you and they’re terrified and you’re rubbing their head and you’re saying, “It’s gonna be okay.” You know it’s gonna be okay it’s just it’s a beautiful thing.
Kelly Meerbott: Uh, Cordell. You’re just making my heart felt. I can’t even with you.
Okay, so you’ve … let me pull it together. You’ve shared a lot of powerful stories and experiences with us today which I’m so grateful to you for that because I know how busy you are. How do you leverage your collective experience in the work that you do today at the Aspen Institute?
Cordell Carter: You know I have an opportunity to spend time with leaders pretty much every day. I’m talking to minimum four people a day. And I have had such an amazing experience over the last 18 years of working that you’re not gonna be able to throw a situation at me that I can’t interpret for you. Like I’m beginning to think that predictive analysis is really just people that have lived something. And because you’ve lived and because you study humans you can tell what’s likely to happen. Like there’s no algorithm here. The algorithm is just like, “Hey, bro, I’ve been there done that.” Right? But I get people to really focus on what is … I understand that there’s things happening around you and you think that you’re impacted by it but what is the story you’re telling yourself? That story is the most important one.
Kelly Meerbott: Yes. Yes it is.
Cordell Carter: This notion of mastering your narrative, of [inaudible] your own race. Like we had this false assumption that we are competing with others. No, you’re competing with yourself, okay? So if you decide that this is a sprint, guess what? It’s a sprint. If you decide this is a ultra marathon, guess what? It’s a ultra marathon of just your pace. And I tell stories about some massive failures on my part. Some parts where I really messed up. And certainly you can recover from these things but you gotta maintain your confidence. You gotta understand what your North Star is. And you gotta be truthful with yourself and others. You have to ask forgiveness and another shot.
Kelly Meerbott: You know that’s really why I love Byron Katie’s work and I think we talked about it a little bit in our initial conversation. You know you can check her out at thework.com. But she always talks about questioning your stressful thoughts and beliefs and the stories that we build up in our heads so I love that you’re really kind of letting people know that they’re in charge of their own narrative. It’s a choice how you react to it and I think that everything that you’re doing with holding the space at the Socrates Program and the Aspen Institute is really what’s gonna change the world. Because the conversations in the levels that you’re having with the leaders at the levels that you’re having are really impactful and are gonna make a positive impact on the world and I know they already have. So I mean just … you’re an amazing human and I feel grateful every time I get somebody like … I mean every guest is fantastic but just today I feel really, really blessed to be able to have this dialogue with you because you’ve changed me in two conversations.
Cordell Carter: Awe, I appreciate that. And you … I tell you, the more I talk about life’s journey, the tastier it gets.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, right? Isn’t it great?
Cordell Carter: There’s something amazing about conversation.
Kelly Meerbott: And the flavor of life.
Cordell Carter: Oh my goodness, the flavors come out and then you see colors you didn’t see before and so this notion that I’m … I’m guarding it and I’m running the ball and everybody’s trying to tackle, is not the case at all. You know, just open up and … And Aspen, it’s about values base leadership and civil discourse and I mean that is how we’re gonna change the world, one conversation at a time.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my God. My tagline when I first started my business was one conversation can change your life.
Cordell Carter: Oh, wow. It’s true.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah it’s really true. So we’re at the end but I always like to end with four rapid fire questions for fun. So are you ready?
Cordell Carter: Yes, I’m ready.
Kelly Meerbott: What’s your favorite comfort food?
Cordell Carter: Grits.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. What books are on your night stand?
Cordell Carter: Edward Murals, Teddy Roosevelt, and what’s that guy? The Shape, Your Best shape. What’s his name? Oh Gosh. I’ll just go with Teddy Roosevelt. I can’t think of any other.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. What songs are on your playlist?
Cordell Carter: Bring It On, Seal.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, anything else?
Cordell Carter: Oh yeah, Donnie Hathaway, Song for You. And Alanis Morissette, Thank you.
Kelly Meerbott: Oh my God, I love those songs, Cordell. Okay, last question. What are you most grateful for in this moment right now?
Cordell Carter: Life.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah.
Cordell Carter: Yeah.
Kelly Meerbott: Me too.
Cordell Carter: It’s a beautiful thing.
Kelly Meerbott: So if somebody was interesting in getting … either taking a course or getting involved or making a donation to the Aspen Institute, how do they do that? What’s the best way to get information on the organization?
Cordell Carter: Our website is … if you Google Aspen Institute Socrates Program you will see our website. We do 20 to 25 seminars all around the world. I always tell folks, no matter what continent you’re on I will probably see you so …
Kelly Meerbott: I know and I get to see you next week which I’m so excited about.
Cordell Carter: Yes, in Philadelphia absolutely.
Kelly Meerbott: Yes. So Cordell, thank you so much for getting real with us and being so authentic and of course it’s our intention that Hidden Human inspires our listeners to go out and have authentic conversations to deepen the connections in their lives and I hope we served as an example today.
Cordell Carter: Absolutely.
Kelly Meerbott: Thank you so much and –
Cordell Carter: Thank you.
Kelly Meerbott: … make it a great day.
Cordell Carter: You too.
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