Sowing The Seeds Of Flow With Alex Woodard
In a world where we are taught that there are certain metrics to success, it can be so easy to lose sight of our gifts and authentic selves trying to fit in. This episode’s guest has learned that life is often not that linear, and our paths to success are winding and can never be the same as everyone else. All we need is to flow. Author and singer-songwriter Alex Woodard is back on the show to talk about how we can sow the seeds of flow, believing that opening up into the flow of life can lead us to the path that is most authentic to us. He shares his thoughts on finding our gifts, having success by living a balanced life, and listening to intuition versus instinct. Giving us a peek into his upcoming book, Ordinary Soil, Alex takes us into his foray into the “faction” genre to tell the story of a multi-generational family farming in Oklahoma Panhandle. From songwriting to book writing, Alex shows us how he surfs through life flowing into his passions. Find inspiration from his journey and the lessons that flowed along the way.
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Sowing The Seeds Of Flow With Alex Woodard
Trust, Authenticity & Choice In The Ecosystem Of Life
We have the song called Open Up from the album titled Black Eyed Blue by my good friend and guest Alex Woodard. In this episode, Alex and I are going to talk about how we can all open up to the flow of life, trusting ourselves to find the path that is most authentic to us. Let me tell you a little bit more about Alex. As an author and singer-songwriter, Alex has toured nationally behind several well-received albums earning prestigious nods while sharing the stage with some of his heroes.
His For The Sender book album and concert series garnered some serious public praise but as you will hear, Alex doesn’t do this for the praise. He follows his heart and intuition. He uses his gifts for joy and service. We spoke on the show a few years ago. In this episode, we pick right back up where we left off and explore his latest venture into a fictional novel that has a much deeper message for us all.
Alex’s Writing Journey
If you want to follow your authentic path, Alex is a great person to light the way. His humor and depth shine bright in his writing and in the way that he shows up in his life. If you like what you read, you can find more from Alex in our conversation from June of 2021 but now, let’s move to the present moment and the wisdom of Alex Woodard.
Alex, it is so nice to be with you again. We’ve known each other for a while because you came to the CMO Summit. Do you remember what year that was?
I want to say it was in ’16 or ’17 maybe.
It was something around that time.
Maybe it was even earlier. It might have been in 2015.
We talked about all the strange commonalities we have in our lives. It’s a pleasure to be with you. A lot of people reading this won’t know that we had a part one, which was a few years ago, we did an episode. We had such a great conversation. I loved every minute of it. This is part two but for people reading for the first time, it’s a part one for them. It’s important that we reground our readers on you.
Every time I ask people about their origin story, I realize, “How do you tell the story of your life and all these amazing things that have happened to you in a quick synopsis?” You can’t do that. As we get into the conversation, we’ll get into the juicy middle of all this. To reground our readers on who you are beyond your bio, give us a little bit of a summary of your journey. We’ll talk more about what you’re doing currently but start us off there.
The short fifteen-second version is I grew up in Long Beach, California. I did some acting as a kid in commercials and TV movies. I did that until I didn’t want to do it anymore. My mom and dad let me write a letter to my agent. I was nine and I wanted to play in the alley after school and drive up to Burbank.
It was like with my son at the age of nine. He said, “I’m retiring from baseball.”
I had a pretty good childhood. I went to UCLA. When I got out of school, I went East to Boston. I worked in the financial services industry for about a minute and realized it wasn’t my thing. I’d always been an artistic kid and my family was very conservative. That was never an option as a career but once I got to be 21 or 22, I started being influenced by other artists and started reading different things. I read Growing Up and decided to make a change.
I pursued music and I was a singer-songwriter. I moved back out West. I made a living as a singer-songwriter for years and that opened up the door to being an author like a writer of prose. One thing seamlessly transitioned to the other. When you and I met, that was probably starting to kick in a lot more. I had a project called For The Sender where I took people’s letters with friends of mine and turned them into songs and then I’d wrap back stories through.
That was how I got introduced to the writing world because I put together this package of a CD and the backstories, the lyrics, and all that stuff woven in. It was like a CD book package. I don’t even know what to call it but it was more a thank you to folks for giving me their letters. One thing led to another and that fell into this guy’s hands named Wayne Dyer who was an influential figure in the self-improvement world. That book ended up inspiring what would be his last book. He took me on the road with him.
In the last three years of his life, I was around him quite a bit. He got me this book deal. I put three Forbes Center books out into the world with albums and it was a crazy time. That’s when you and I first met. Since then, I’ve always been weaving music in with pros and finding ways to tell a story using both at the same time. We’ll talk about it but another book does that also. I made that move from a more corporate environment to the creative arts. It has always been a 2-step up 1-step back kind of thing but always moving forward. That’s why we’re talking and why we’re here.
I do think that’s how it works. We take a couple of steps forward and sometimes we have to step back. Sometimes life makes us step back. Sometimes we choose to regroup but I don’t think it’s ever a straight line. It’s always a bit of a zig-zag and a winding path. We talked in the last interview about so many life lessons that you’ve had on your journey and how you can’t even try to tell your kids about these things because we all have to live our learned experiences.
It’s because when it’s visceral and we experience it, it’s so very different. Before we started, we were talking about your writing. I want to punctuate this for our readers that you are an exquisite writer. You have an amazing way of using words that can create both humor and depth. You toggle between all these different emotions and you do it beautifully. It’s like a dance when you read your book.
Before The Sender Series and then a couple of other books that I want to talk about before we get to Ordinary Soil, you started with the dream of wanting to be a performer. It took an entirely different direction over time to use what your true gifts are, which is to be an amazing writer and performer. You wrote two books.
Open Up was about a year ago when it came out and then Living Halfway was two years ago because when we spoke last time, Living Halfway had just come out. Those were books where you explored our light and our dark, our bitter angels versus our better angels. Can you tell me a little bit about what the journey of those two books was for you?
Coming out of the For The Sender project, those books were on Hay House, which is a huge inspirational or self-improvement type publisher. As a result, I was on the road with Wayne a lot and doing a lot of those events. You can call it self-help but a lot of it isn’t when you get deep into it. It’s like anything. When you see what’s going on behind the curtain, it sometimes ends up being a little different.
Coming out of that experience, I’m trying to think of when it happened. I was in Nashville and we had done an event. There was a very famous self-help person who would remain unnamed but she was backstage throwing a fit about stuff like makeup and mirrors. It was one of those things where you’re like, “What?” She was talking about numbers. It was not exactly what you think of when you would think of the self-help kind of thing.
This phrase in my head came up. It was more selfish help than self-help. That’s what I thought I was surrounded by. Coming out of that experience, I wanted to do something different that is reflective of what I’d seen in the self-help world. That’s what Living Halfway was. It was written under a different title and a pseudonym originally because it was so far off of what I had been writing about before. I wanted it to be a different voice. It was still me. It was my voice but it was very different.
I eventually put it out under the title Living Halfway in my name once it became a little more successful. That book as you referred to was reflective of my bitter angel, which is somebody who’s moving through life, trying to do the right thing, and seeing all that’s wrong out there. The book opens up with me walking through this estuary near the house and seeing a bag of dog poop on the side of the trail which happens a lot. You wonder, “What the heck?” These people think somebody else is going to come and take the bag. They leave it there.
That’s where it starts but every single one of these true stories, there’s a little nugget in there. There’s a lesson. It’s like an Easter egg that you can find. I did that book first and there’s some cynicism in there but it’s all coming from a good heart. It’s someone who’s so fed up with what they see around them. That was one of my voices but that’s not the only one. I thought it would be cool to do the same day told through my other voice, which is a little bit more optimistic and saying a little bit more of the positive things. It’s the same day though.
Between those two books, those two characters and voices end up meeting at the end. It’s the same person. Both those books were very memoir-oriented as I was processing where I was in my life. I was in my 40s by then. I had it figured out but I was trying to be more settled with where I was in my life. Your 40s are a very interesting time depending on your family dynamic and what you have going on at home but it’s when you start to be more allowed to be who you are.
Your twenties are spent searching so hard. You’re 30s are spent trying to do a lot of times either the right thing for your family or what other people think you should be doing and going after that career thing. By the time you get to your 40s, you’re like, “Did any of that matter?” You settle into who you are. That’s what those books were about. Open Up was a few years ago. After that, I transitioned into this other book that we’ll be talking about.
That was the genesis of those two. They were signposts of where I was on this road. I wanted to have a record of where I was. Oftentimes, writers should write about what they know. I knew myself by then. Those books are very short. It’s a single read on purpose to try to bring you in. I also felt that a lot of people were in the same position at that stage in their lives. I wanted to give a voice to them too because things are very polarized but they’ve always been pretty polarized. We hear about it more. I wanted to give a voice to the folks that are in the middle somewhere, not politically but in life. That’s where I was.
What I appreciate about you Alex is you’re very open and vulnerable with your journey. Some of your stories, including the ones from childhood, and some of the things that you share are hilarious but you go from laughing out loud reading a story and then there is this incredibly soulful wise lesson that comes out of this. It’s so awesome. I love both books. I would encourage everyone to pick them up because there’s so much in them that you can gain from.
Surrendering To Destiny: Flow Into Life
However, there was something we talked about before that stuck with me after all these years when I reflect on all the different conversations I get to have on this show because this is a learning experience for me. We’re co-creating. We’re in this dance together to talk about what we’re learning and the zigzag journey that we’re on. You shared a story before that I call Rory’s Creed or falling into flow.
In the Compassion Lab, we talk a lot about how we are managing our lives. How resilient are we? How much can we surrender? How much can we flow with what’s going on? You had some pretty powerful lessons about surrendering to destiny and what will be. Can you revisit it a little bit and share a little bit about that? I thought it was so valuable.
There is so much and part of this comes from being raised in a pretty conservative family. 1 plus 1 equals 2 and there’s a path that you get on. I was supposed to go to college which I did and then work a couple years, go to business school, and then get a job. It was a very linear path. I remember I was in Seattle two years after graduating from UCLA. I was working for an internet software company where I started as a temp. They ended up being the company that developed the streaming technology that even we use with video and audio.
My first day was walking into this group huddled around a computer listening to a Seattle Mariners game. It sounded like crap. It was like a super bad AM radio but they were all excited. The internet was just being born it felt like at that point. I barely knew what email was. I was like, “What is this?” It ended up being the first live broadcast of anything over the internet and it was using their technology. In retrospect, it was a huge moment but that’s where I was working.
I had taken the GMAT and done all my applications for business school. At lunch, I went with a friend of mine. Her name was Heidi. I can’t remember her last name but we were very close on this journey. She went with me to the mailbox at lunchtime to mail my applications. I went physically to the mailbox. It’s on Union in Seattle near Pioneer Square. I remember I opened up the drawer thing and I had three applications. It was Stanford, Duke, and the University of Washington.
I had them in my hand and the door of the drawer open. I closed the drawer. Heidi looked at me and was like, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m not doing this.” I went back. I had been a good student. In high school and college, I was okay but I had smoked the GMAT. I had done well. I felt like I could get in where I wanted to go but I never sent the applications.
I took them home, saved them for a while as a reminder, and then ended up throwing them away. I’m telling you that story because you were speaking about the path that ends up being more winding than the linear path. That was one example of me early in my life listening to my gut or following my heart and going in a different direction. That speaks to your question. It’s very difficult especially when you’re raised that way to get off that linear path and go with the flow as you’re referring to, especially in an industry like the creative arts where there’s no rhyme or reason to it.
You can put a lot of work in and be good and still be slaying shots at Starbucks and working in a bar at night for a long time. There’s a big survivor scope. My buddy has won a couple of Grammys and he is a very talented artist. He suffered from this crazy survivor’s guilt for quite a long time because he sold over a million records by the time he was 21 and was killing it but he had friends who he thought were more talented than him that hadn’t gotten the break. It’s true.
I put this in the book. “It’s not the harder you work the luckier you get,” especially in the creative arts. It doesn’t go like that. You have to have a different reason for doing it. That was a big surrender for me, especially when I hit my early 30s. I had to let go of the idea of tying either success financially or these different metrics. I had to let go of tying that to however positively I was looking at my work and what I was putting out there.
I had to develop a different set of metrics as to why I was doing what I was doing because you certainly can’t look at it in book sales. When you’re selling a million books, that’s when it’s easy to do that kind of thing but when you’re not doing that, you have to have these other reasons to keep on going. That is the definition of falling into the flow. You’re creating. This sounds a little laissez-faire but you have to let it go.
When you put it out there in the world, there’s no amount of Amazon ad targeting that you’re going to do that’s going to move the needle in the right way. In the book, maybe you’ll get an Amazon bestseller for a couple of days. Maybe that’ll happen but for the right thing to happen for you in whatever industry you’re in, you have to have a different set of metrics. That’s hard in the world that we live in to not be equating achievement with a certain set of metrics but you have to do it. I’m saying you got to do it.
If you want to find a certain degree of peace, happiness, and flow in your life, it can’t be about the numbers. It’s easy to make it about the numbers when you’ve got twenty million views on YouTube. It’s easy to talk about it but there’s a whole lot of us that aren’t there and that are trying to figure out if what we are doing matters. My whole career, especially with the For The Sender project, which is when things took off, I was trying to figure out how I could make a difference or how I could matter.
It’s because nobody wanted to listen to me singing about my latest breakup. Nobody cares about that. You have a bigger reason to be doing what you’re doing because everybody’s got the gift. Everybody listening to this has something that they do in a unique way that’s somehow better than the way anybody else does it. Everybody’s got that and it’s a matter of discovering, finding, and putting it to good use.Everybody has a gift, something that they do in a unique way that’s somehow better than the way anybody else does. It's just a matter of discovering and finding it and then putting it to good use. Click To Tweet
It’s the ultimate treasure hunt to find that gift within yourself and use it. It’s very hard. We are conditioned by the likes and the metrics that you talked about but I do think it comes back to intention. With your art or whatever you do in the world that’s unique to you, your intention is to be of service, help, and do it out of joy. It needs to be out of joy because you can sense the difference when someone’s doing something out of joy versus allocation, metrics, or anything else. It’s going back to that self-help tour and seeing that person get caught up with numbers, images, and all the things that it’s not about.
I love that message that you’re telling everyone because it’s one of the common messages in the Lab. First of all, remember your power. There are so many people telling themselves that they’re not worthy and not enough but we all are. We all have an important part to play in the world. You’ve been a wonderful guide through much of your work. You are taking us along with you on your ride when you realize, “This isn’t it. Maybe this is it. What am I learning along the way? How am I surrendering into what is?” It’s fantastic how you keep doing that.
Having Success By Living A Balanced Life
I share the story because I feel like there are so many other people that are on the same path but they just don’t have a voice. Another thing I should mention is that it doesn’t have to be your job. What you and I are talking about here as far as a gift, how you’re contributing to the world, and what you’re putting out there doesn’t have to be a paycheck. You can have a day job or whatever you want to call it, the ones paying the bills, but also be using and developing your gift on your own in another way.
A lot of people think that they’ve got to make this their life. You don’t have to. That’s so much pressure you are putting on yourself. That’s crazy. I remember when I told my dad I was quitting my job to do this music thing. We were working on something and he stopped doing whatever he was doing for a breath. I didn’t know what he was going to say, if he was going to yell, or what he was going to do. He goes, “Good luck,” That was it. He went back to doing what he was doing. It gave me permission to go after it.
With that said, I also had this awareness that I needed to pay the bills and take care of myself. I needed to be independent. Early on, I made that call for myself that I had to have something else going on to pay the bills and still keep doing this. I’ve heard people say that there can’t be a plan B. You have to go at creative arts, for example, with everything you have no matter what. I don’t buy it. I haven’t lived it and I know that’s not true.
You can have success by living a more balanced life, which for me was important. I’m a homebody. I like my dogs and horses. It was never in the cards for me to be on the road 300 days a year. You can do both but I did want to mention that. It’s important that people know. You have to pay the bills and keep doing it but you also have this other gift that you can discover, develop, and use. In my mind, that’s more like you start living your deepest life.You can have success by living a more balanced life. Click To Tweet
Steering Life From A Place Of Greater Intuition
It’s so interesting going back to that moment in Seattle when you put the applications in the drawer. You were tuned in at a young age. The last interview I did was with Ben Nemtin. I don’t know if you know Ben but he’s all about living this expansive life, this bucket list, and the buried life. One of the stats he talks about all the time is some crazy number like 76% to 80% of people who on their deathbed, their number one regret is that they did not live their life for themselves, for what their true passions or callings are. They lived it for the voices of others.
You were tuned in at a young age to that. I’m curious about your comments on this. As I’ve gotten to know you, you are living your life but observing your life at the same time that you’re living it. You’re an observer of circumstances. Even as you talk about the two books, “Here’s a day looking at my life from this vantage point. Here’s another day looking at a different vantage point,” that’s a unique gift that you have. How can people cultivate that at a deeper level so that they can steer their lives from a place of greater intuition?
One thing to do is to trust your intuition. That’s the first thing. A lot of us don’t trust that instinct. They don’t trust the little voice that they’re hearing. Those two books you’re talking about, Living Halfway and Open Up, are both little voices on my shoulder. It’s this bitter angel and better angel. They’re both right. I’m listening to both of them. The first thing is to try to start cultivating that trust and instinct. The way that you do that in my opinion is when you hear that voice, follow it and see what happens. Give it a minute and see what happens that day.
We’re so conditioned to not listen to that little voice. That’s part of it. That’s the biggest initial step. The other thing is you have to get to this place where you’re okay with whatever happens. I’ll tell you a quick story about Wayne Dyer. This is a good example. He was a legendary speaker. He made most of his living with these three-hour talks he would give. One night, I went up to see him and he was in his underwear watching the Miami Heat game in his hotel room. He was that guy.
He had seen me earlier that day doing my For The Sender thing. Something had gone wrong with the AV, the audio-visual thing. The sound system had gone out so my mic, the guitar, and everything wasn’t working. What I did was go down into the audience and it was like 3,500 or probably 3,000 people. I did the whole thing in the audience acapella. He had said to me that when he saw that, he knew that I’d be all right on the performance side of things.
His strongest approach that he didn’t think enough people used was that when he would go on stage for these huge three-hour talks, he didn’t know what he was going to say. He called them flags. He had these 4 or 5 flags that he wanted to get to. He would have visualized himself planting them on the stage. He was like, “These flags were planted on the stage.” He would go up there and start talking like whatever happened to him on the way here in the car or whatever would be.
He knew that he had to get to those five flags and over the course of a few hours, he would do it. He would figure it out and get there. Those loose ends would get there. With folks looking at their lives, that’s a powerful metaphor. What you need are those 4 or 5 flags that you believe in, that are the core of your character, and that you feel strongly about, whatever those things are.
As you live your life, all that matters is getting to those things. It means using them. If gratitude is important to you, that’s one of the flags up there on the stage that you always have to get back to. That is a helpful metaphor for surrendering too because all the steps you’re taking to get to that flag doesn’t matter. It’s getting to the flag. There’s a certain trust there. What I’m getting at here by suggesting you trust your instinct and plant these flags in your life that you get back to is a big letting go. That’s the biggest part of it.
I’m not trained to do that. You’re not trained to do that. None of us are conditioned to let go but you have to have this faith. I’m not a religious person but as long as you’re doing things for the right reason for those flags, the right thing is going to happen. It’s this detachment. If I could pick one lesson that I’ve learned that is the biggest one that has brought me the most joy and made my life better in countless ways, it’s the detachment from outcome. That is number one. The metrics speak to all that stuff underneath all that noise down below but being detached from the outcome is everything.Detachment from the outcome can bring you the most joy and make your life better in countless ways. Click To Tweet
As far as making a difference in the world and living a good life for yourself, it’s everything. When you’re not detached from the outcome, that opens up expectations, disappointment, and a litany of things that have nothing to do with the actual process. That’s the number one thing that I would tell people. Try to somehow develop this ability to be detached from the outcome. That’s hard to do in your job, for example, when you’re going in for your quarterly review. You have to show numbers. That’s different but what I’m also saying is that doesn’t have to be your life. You can have that and then have this whole other thing happening outside of it.
Sometimes with the outcome we think we want, there’s something much greater that could happen. You’re right. We’re not conditioned to let go. We’re conditioned to protect and be safe. We have answers. We’re going to pay the bills and take care of everything. We have a Compassion Lab leader-led session where we’re going to be speaking about life balance and life harmony. One of the a-ha moments is if you’re true to your path, taking care and entrusting yourself, you at any given time are letting someone down.
We can’t be all things to all people. There is so much of a trust. I see these flags as being values. You mentioned gratitude is a value but when I get to that end-of-life statement and not wanting to have regrets, I want to know that I lived with certain core values. When things are getting a little crazy and spiraling out of control, how do I reground myself with how I’m choosing to show up? It’s not necessarily what has to happen but how am I choosing to show up?
Sometimes when I talk to people about this idea, it’s a relief. You don’t have to have this whole master plan. I’ll figure it out. You just have to know how you want to live and then let each moment unfold in the right way. It’s even been that journey with this show. When I first started this, I would have thirteen questions outlined. Now, I have my first 2 or 3 and then we dance and see what happens. That becomes more authentic if we let emerge what needs to emerge.
Art Of Letting Go
It’s very powerful and a difficult thing to talk about. In most parts of our corporate and political life, in everything, it’s hard to talk about letting go because it’s not of value. It’s not something that can be sold or something that you can market that well. It seemed like early on I was in touch with that instinct or gut. As you were talking, I remembered a moment that opened that up for me. It was a very pivotal moment when I was twenty. I was at UCLA.
I didn’t get a lot out of college. I was a relatively smart kid but I was on this path that there’s more to it than this. I had one class that impacted me. There was a teacher and I ended up being a TA for this teacher. At the end of my TA or tenure, he gave me a framed branch. It was a dead flower or something. It was this dead thing in this frame. I was like, “What is this?” He goes, “This is what happens when you’re not connected anymore.” I still have it. It’s hardly anything in the frame because it’s so long ago. It’s all wilted away.
That same teacher told me something that day. There were a few more TAs in the class. He gave it all of us and told us something that stuck with me for a long time which is this moment that I’m telling you about. He told this story. I think about being on my deathbed all the time. I’m like, “On my deathbed, would there be anything I would regret?” I was trying to live my life in a way where I have no regrets.
He told this story of a man on his deathbed and I’m paraphrasing this horribly. He lived a pretty good life. His kids were around him and everything. He looked very sad and the kids were like, “Why are you so sad? We’re here. You’ve lived this life.” He said something to the effect of, “I feel like I’ve spent my entire life with this beautiful instrument but I’ve never sung my song with it because I’ve spent my entire life stringing and restringing the instrument.” That was incredibly powerful to me.
Visualize that and think about a guy with a guitar going to play a song but was like, “Wait a minute. I got to put new strings on this thing.” He put new strings on it and was like, “I’m going to play it. Wait a minute. I got to put new strings on this.” That was a huge moment for me when I realized, “You better play the song. It might not be pretty initially. It might not ever be pretty but at least you’re playing it.”
It is applied to me. I keep strings on my guitars forever because of that. Guys change their strings before every show and I leave mine on until it’s not good and I’m breaking strings and stuff but it’s because that has sat with me so deeply. That’s such a powerful story. You got to go for it, play the song, and trust the process. If it’s not that great, rewrite. Do another one. That was the biggest moment for me when I realized, “I better start listening to this gut or little voice that I’ve got and not die never having sung my song.”
It even makes me think about what my dad had in his office and I have it here in my house of that Roosevelt quote about the man in the arena. It is like, “Go out there and do your thing. Get dusty and bloody. Do whatever.”
Get beat up and back up again. That’s what matters.
Ordinary Soil: Everything Is Connected
You slide into the home plate and you’re like, “I’ve lived this life that I wanted to live without regret.” That’s the message that we’re talking about. I want to be sure to talk about Ordinary Soil, which is one of my important flags for this conversation with you. It’s such important work that you’re doing. It’s a transition into fiction but you called it faction.
It’s fiction based on facts, another great use of language. Can you share how this project came to be? What I’ve seen from you is when I met you and you were doing For The Sender, you’ve always been playing your song. You’ve taken a whole new chord. You’re going in a whole new direction. Will you share that with us?
Let’s start with the pandemic. I was in Fiji at the start of it, surfing. This island was called Namotu and it was early March 2020. Stuff hadn’t gotten shut down yet but people are starting to freak out a little bit. On this island, there were supposed to be 25 of us but there were 8 of us. There was a small house. This guy came up to me and introduced himself. He wasn’t a surfer and you could tell that wasn’t his gig. I was like, “What are you doing here?” He told me he was the medic.
We had a brief conversation and that was the end of it. A few days into that trip, California shut down. Everybody started looking at each other going, “What is happening here?” This guy who’s the medic offered to tell us what this Coronavirus thing was which none of us knew about. He gets up and starts talking. It’s clear he’s not a medic. He is but he’s a lot of other things. As he spoke, he talked about the Coronavirus but also what he was doing, which was researching the root cause of the disease. It was fascinating stuff.
When I got home, I looked him up and it turned out he was this triple board-certified MD who was developing chemotherapies and moved into more regenerative agriculture and research. He was a fascinating guy. His name is Zach Bush. I saw a video. He had a podcast with somebody called Rich Roll and it’s a relatively well-known podcast. They had done an animated drawing of the conversation.
It was the story of chemical and mechanical farming from the late 1800s to the 2020s. It’s not a very sexy topic and there was no opinion in there. It was Zach talking to Rich about what had happened. However, with this animation, it was fascinating. I’m not exactly an environmental warrior but I had no idea about the progression and what it looked like. We are eating every day and we have no idea where it’s coming from. It was cool.
It went from indigenous substance farming up until the morning industrial approach that has been happening. I thought that was a story that needed to be told because I didn’t feel at the time that there was a lot of fictional representation of that story. The people who may be most interested or most needed to hear that story are the least likely to be listening to a Rich Roll Podcast, going to a seminar with Zach Bush, or something like that.
I thought an effective way to get that message out might be through fiction, which I had never done before. I reached out to Zach. Over the course of a year and a half, we collaborated on this book, which is fiction. It’s historical fiction but I prefer to call it faction. It covers the story of this multi-generational family farming in the Oklahoma Panhandle from the Choctaw indigenous roots to the present day.
The book starts with the generation of farmers attempting suicide because it turns out farmers have the highest suicide rate of any profession here in the states, which I didn’t know but after doing all this research, I learned about this. It tracks that whole progress or whatever you want to put it from the late 1800s up to where we are. It’s called ordinary soil based on a Native American quote that I found that was powerful.
You alluded to this. It’s like a Steinbeck meeting Stephen King kind of thing where you don’t know what you’re reading about until you’re halfway or 2/3s of the way through. You’re then like, “That’s what this is,” which was my hope and I don’t want to get too much away to readers. I wanted to tell a good story and then have you be 2/3s of the way through saying, “What?”
I’ve got a buddy in Atlanta who’s like your job at Home Depot. He’s high up at Home Depot. He’s been a fan and a friend. I sent this to him and he’s a bit type A. He thought it was a good book but he texted me when he got to this certain point in the book where he was like, “What?” He then went down the rabbit hole because there are a lot of rabbit holes that you can go down with how the soil relates to your health and food. It’s powerful and cool.
We were talking about metrics and numbers. I didn’t want to come at the reader with a bunch of numbers and doomsday kind of things about what’s going on with planetary health and that kind of thing. The reason was that I don’t think it’s all bad news for one thing. Zach has an incredible gift. He had some influence on the writing but I realized this after the fact that he’s good at bringing you to the brink of disaster where you’re like, “We’re all going to die tomorrow,” and then giving you these ginormous bundles of hope or these rays of light where it’s not too late for your kids and your kids’ kids to make some changes.
Ordinary Soil tracks the first half of the story so to speak, which is what we’ve done to the land and human health. You can look around and see what’s happened but it doesn’t necessarily give a lot of solutions. The next book is going to be all about the takeaways and what people are doing to make the world a better place in terms of agriculture, food systems, and that kind of stuff. It’s not very sexy. I didn’t want you to think when you started that book that it had anything to do with that. I was just giving you a book. This is just a novel. Check it out.
With character development, you learn what’s going on in their lives and their heads like you would read any good story.
The idea is to have you connect to these characters because they’re you and me. That’s the whole thing. The whole point was to show folks these underlying currents and I can talk a little bit about what’s happened over the last 150 years as we depleted our soil in a lot of ways. As a result of depleting the soil, you have to add chemical and mechanical inputs to make the ground able to grow anything.
When you do that over time cyclically, eventually, you start getting into a place where there’s not much nutrition in the food because there’s nothing in the ground. That’s oversimplifying it but that’s where we’re getting to. At the same time I was telling that story, I was trying to tell the story of the heartland and rural communities and what they’re struggling with. I don’t know if you read Dopesick or saw that which was a great book.
I’m very familiar with it.
It’s not fiction but it’s fantastic. It’s about the opioid epidemic and how it started. That in a way was an inspiration for me because I had no idea about how that particular epidemic in our country started. The origin story was fascinating. That turned me on to the struggles of the heartland and rural communities, which was happening already when I met Zach. It all came together at the same time. The guy in the book, the main character who is trying to kill himself, has an opioid problem. It’s from an injury that happens to a lot of people. A friend of mine’s dad was getting out of it.
I was trying to encapsulate in these characters a lot of what’s going on the coast, especially in the middle of the country. I don’t think there’s always enough of a voice there but I wanted to make it interesting too, which is why there’s a ghost story element. It’s there for a reason. It’s serving a purpose. It was fun to write. I wrote it the same length as Living Halfway and Open Up. It was 25,000 words, which is like a little novella. I got a lot of interest in it but everybody was telling me that I had to triple it. I was like, “Triple it?”
Three different people on the same day who were the biggest fiction literary writers out there who’s from here and two publishers said, “We’re interested but this has to be at least 75,000 words.” That was nothing I ever thought about. Just when I thought I was done, they all said the same thing and all their input was good. I figured, “Let’s see what happens if I turn this into a novel,” which is what you have. It’s a normal-sized novel. That was an adventure for me. You talk about letting go and surrendering. I had no idea what I was doing with that kind of length but it turned out.
Alex, think about it. This is what I love about this story. Before you met Zach, were you thinking of doing nonfiction?
This is the trust the flow follows the flow. You’re doing your thing. You’re surfing. It’s one of your passions. You randomly meet this guy on the other side of the world at the start of a pandemic. You have this random conversation. I’ve got this beautiful book.
Woody Harrelson liked it.
He’s right on the front. He says, “Ordinary Soil brings to haunting life the desperate realities of the American heartland but also offers a glimpse into a better future, a call to action for all of us.” What you’ve done is used these incredible gifts as a writer that began in songwriting, went into writing books, and then into writing faction moving forward. It is a call to action. I love the whole idea and we’ve heard this a million times, “When you know better you do better.”
We’re on a journey to greater understanding. We talked about that a few years ago with racial unrest. We’re talking about this in understanding what’s happening with our food systems because most people have no idea. We were growing up. I had Little Debbie Swiss roll cakes in my lunch. It was what we thought was delicious. Our taste buds were not having any problems with this but all of a sudden, we learned. As I was reading the book, the thing that kept coming up for me was this power of interconnectivity.
In the Lab and this show, the umbrella of compassion is compassion for self, others, and the life process but it’s also about our level of consciousness and how are we behaving in the world. We already talked about values. We talked about intention and how we want to show up. It’s a matter of what we need to learn so that we can take care of each other and the Earth because it’s all connected.
Our actions are all connected. What did the pandemic teach us? Something that’s happening on the other side of the world is not separate from us. It eventually finds us. There are no more spoiler alerts because you are inviting people into this journey of you reading this beautifully written story. As you go through this with all of the components, you start to understand what the story is about and how much you changed.
I’m so glad that you’re saying that. One of the things I hated in the self-help world was it was the nature of the thing but it’s telling people what to do. I don’t like that idea. I like the idea of giving people information and letting them do what they want with it, like my buddy in Georgia who is reading this thing. The book doesn’t form an opinion either way of anything. It puts all sorts of stuff out there that you can go check out if you want to.
There’s a journal entry from one of the patriarchs of the family who by that time was probably half-blood Choctaw, which is another story I’ll get to on how I relate to this whole thing. He writes something to the effect of, “In all things we are connected,” or something. The reason I put that in there was because the book is not even suggesting this. It’s just the way the world works. Inputs equal outputs or at the very least, inputs influence outputs.
What you’re putting in your body is going to affect what you get out. What you’re putting into the ground is going to affect what comes up and what grows. What you’re putting into your relationship with your kid is going to come back to you. It is like this universal truth that what you put in is going to impact what comes out. If I had to pick one theme in that book that tells the story, it’s what we’re putting in that influences what we’re getting out. Inputs equal outputs or influence outputs in all things. It’s something like that.What you put in is going to impact what comes out. Click To Tweet
I would add, what you put out is coming back in.
It’s a circle cycle.
Everything is a circle. When you click on that, you realize every single choice you make in every moment. Not in a crazy pressure way but in a way of knowing like, “I want to show up with the highest that I have which changes on certain days,” and the information you have, which is fine but I love that. What you’ve done with this book is such a unique creative approach because it’s usually like, “Here are the nonfiction facts. Let me scare you into action. Let me do this and that. Let me shame you into action.”
Whatever you get into shame is not a good strategy because that brings out the bitter angels in people. This is an invitation into a story that creates a realization that then you can draw your conclusions. We were talking before we started. I got off the plane. I was reading your book and saw all these signs that our roots run deep. I started thinking, “We could connect this person and that person because they’re interested in this.” Your mind starts to take it from there. It’s pretty cool. It’s like a co-creation.
It is crazy. What you’re talking about on the plane, the input was the story and that’s in here. As you’re getting off the plane, you’re starting to see signs that have always been there that are more apparent to you in that moment because of what you brought in. It’s amazing how it works and it’s a fact. What you put into anything is going to influence what comes out. It’s how it works. It’s like the nature of the universe. It’s hard to argue it.
I’m super excited to see what this book does and what it creates because what we’re talking about is a ripple effect. We are taking in so much. I wrote down as you were talking about this whole depletion of the soil. In some ways, we chatted about this on the last episode that we were on together. How are technology, lack of presence, comparative cultures, and selfie wounds depleting our soil? It’s the soil of what we’re made of and the whole reason that the college TA advisor gave you that dead plant that says, “If you lose connection, here’s where you end up.” Let’s not lose our connection to this magical ecosystem that we are all a part of. It’s amazing.
There’s a pretty strong message at the end of the book of hope based on that and that we’re getting to a place. You and I were talking about eating organic and what a small percentage of the country is doing. It matters because it drives consumer behavior, which drives what’s offered. It makes companies say, “Maybe we should get into this game like that.” It all matters. Despite what you’re reading every day in the news, it is moving in the right direction.
There’s a lot more awareness around a healthy body and planet than there used to be. It’s a beautiful thing. It’ll start affecting policy. I’m not a big government guy. I would rather see this happen in the private sector. There is organic stuff at Walmart, of all places. As that grows, it’s going to have a ripple effect on people’s purchasing behavior. That is looking to help drive a lot of change. I don’t think all the news is bad by any means. It’s all happening out there. You don’t hear about it as much because there’s so much other stuff at the top of your news feed that probably shouldn’t anyway.
It’s a learning process. Alex, I’ve kept you beyond time. Thank you for staying with me a little bit longer. Can I close this with a few rapid-fire, 1 or 2-word answers or whatever comes to your mind quickly? The first one is, what is your superpower?
What is the thing that brings you the most peace?
What is the most unexpected side of you?
There is a humor side that people often don’t see so that is there.
What is your definition of a life well lived?
Service to others.
What is your wish for the world?
It’s the same.
Beautifully said, Alex. I have to tell you that I admire what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and what you will do.
Thank you for having the ability to see it. I very much appreciate it.
It’s a gift to all of us. I’m so honored to know you. I’ve learned much from you through these years. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next. Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me. It’s always good to see you. We’ll make it happen in person here. There’s no reason. We act like we live states apart.
Let’s go back to intention. The more we connect with like-minded people, the more we create cool things. We’ll plant that flag. Thanks, Alex.
- For The Sender
- Alex Woodard
- Part One – Past Episode
- Growing Up
- Ordinary Soil
- Open Up
- Living Halfway
- Ben Nemtin – Past Episode
- Zach Bush
- Rich Roll
About Alex Woodard
Alex Woodard has toured nationally behind several critically acclaimed albums, earning a few prestigious industry nods while sharing the stage with some of his heroes. His FOR THE SENDER book, album, and concert series has earned praise from Huffington Post (important, enlightening, and ultimately inspiring), Deepak Chopra (a beautiful tribute to the resilience of the human spirit), Dr. Wayne Dyer (an inspiring, thought-provoking, and life-changing work), Ellen DeGeneres (I. love. this.), and Billboard Magazine (one of the year’s most touching, unique releases), among others.
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