“A near miss is like you’re close but you’re not on center. It’s the idea that you could fool yourself and feel like you’re doing something that’s important and rewarding. You feel smart and clever. But you could still really be sad. And if this is all there is, you could end up with regrets.” — Don Ball
“It still wasn’t what I really loved. I call it a near miss. It’s not the thing in your heart.” When Minneapolis co-working pioneer Don Ball uttered those words out loud at a public event a few months ago, I felt like I was getting an electric shock. “It wasn’t what I really loved…not the thing in your heart.“ Yes, that feels familiar.
Don Ball knows a lot about career near misses. For over two decades he made a name for himself as a handsomely-paid writer, content creator, and marketer. But that wasn’t necessarily the future he’d imagined for himself when he studied creative writing and fine arts as an undergrad. Looking back, he regrets that he didn’t figure out a way to travel after college.
Instead, he landed a job writing feature stories and marketing materials for a financial services company in Minneapolis. He got a lot of praise. One thing led to another and for the next 20+ years Ball followed opportunities more or less as they presented themselves. “I never analyzed or thought: Why am I doing what I’m doing? Mostly it was: Here’s the next good thing.”
He see-sawed between being a freelance writer, starting small businesses, and working for other people. The affirmation he received from landing a client or impressing others became its own reward, rather than the work itself. “My personality is such that I allow a lot of external factors to influence what I do because I’m overly concerned with what people think of me. That’s a really honest statement of what pushes me around.”
But by 2009, praise wasn’t enough; steam had run out of his train and Ball was exhausted. His latest venture was “at death’s door” and he no longer had the will or motivation to pretend like he cared. It was around that time that he reconnected with an old acquaintance who was also looking to make a change. Within a few months they launched CoCo—a lofty co-working space in downtown St. Paul that has since expanded to two additional hubs in Minneapolis.
CoCo is kind of a haven for people who don’t fit into the box of conventional employment. It’s where people go to start businesses and pursue a dream. Ball is happy to host those kinds of ambitions. But he’s also seen how dreamers can falter, which is why he and his business partner are launching a new venture to help people discover their purpose and make a plan around realizing that purpose in the world. In other words, he’s trying to help people avoid the kinds of near misses that plagued him all those years.
I sat down with Ball a few weeks ago to hear about his own near-miss experiences and what other people can do if they find themselves in a near miss rut. Here’s an edited version of what he told me, in his own words:
Don Ball’s Near Miss
I know a phrase like ‘the near miss’ from playing Battleship with my dad when I was a kid. A near miss is when you call out a number and the peg goes right next to the ship but doesn’t hit it. A near miss is like you’re close but you’re not on center. It’s the idea that you could fool yourself and feel like you’re doing something that’s important and rewarding. You feel smart and clever. But you could still really be sad. And if this is all there is, you could end up with regrets.
I think the near miss is more dangerous than trying something and failing. Because if you try something and it really is your heart’s desire and you fail — there’s no shame in that. Maybe that was round one. The issue isn’t whether you were tuned into yourself and your calling or purpose. It’s just that the first attempt didn’t quite solve it. But your second attempt is more of a mechanical question. Is it the right business model or the right nonprofit idea? Is it a viable thing? That’s different than: Is it a thing that motivates you so much, you’ll be reluctant to retire? If you can live long enough and have a choice of retiring but then decide: I can’t retire, this is way too important. That’s winning the lottery I think.
I realized, I’d spent the last 20 years doing the thing that people praise you for that makes money that seems clever. But I never admitted to myself: My heart’s not in this. This is not who I am.” — Don Ball
I have four kids. One is in college. I don’t want to let them down. Ask anyone and they’ll have their own unique set of things that box them in. What tends to happen is you say: Once the kids are in college. Once this, once that. But sometimes the price you pay is that you never get to that someday.
I’ve told my kids — when you pick your field of study, don’t do it for the money. That will work for a while and then there will come a point where you can’t fool yourself anymore. That’s called a midlife crisis. Have your midlife crises more frequently and sooner. Start having them now. Go find the thing that’s you. Why waste all those years?
I wasn’t doing anything I was so passionate about that I wanted to go tell the world about it. “Your website should be more usable. I’m making the world better by improving its websites.” That was not my mission statement.
I realized, I’d spent the last 20 years doing the thing that people praise you for that makes money that seems clever. But I never admitted to myself: My heart’s not in this. This is not who I am. What I should have been doing after age 22 is going down to South America and writing travel articles and going searching for ruins in the Andes. That was my passion. If I’d really been telling the truth I would have left Minnesota to go do that.
I got married young. We didn’t have kids yet but I got my first job out of college and it felt good to be paid what seemed to me like a good amount of money. We were shopping and spending money and running up a little bit of debt. Slowly but surely you find yourself thinking: Anything I do now has to be to maintain that lifestyle or level of comfort. And you start to build a barrier of what keeps you from something that probably early on would have been doable. Also I had student debts. Even when I had all these ideas I was like: No, I’ve got this loan every month. And nowadays people have that even more.
On dealing with a near miss
The advice I’d give would be to get yourself an experience that’s outside your usual pattern and flow that gets you exposed to a whole different set of motivations and rewards.
I went down to New Orleans right after Katrina to do relief work. I was volunteering with people I would never have met in any other circumstance. We had nothing in common except that we were all being our best selves. It was really powerful because we were just doing what needed to be done. And it felt amazing. That told me that you could act out of that part of yourself. There’s nothing practical about it. It’s really impractical to put your life on hold for a couple of weeks and go volunteer somewhere. But it felt so urgent and important. I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier.
I never set out to do co-working. But I knew that it was righteous. I was like: Wow, being with all these people who’ve got these great ideas and spending time together and belonging to a community. It felt so good. I was like, yeah, I want to make this happen.
I’m a troublemaker. A teacher in 6th grade saw me causing some trouble in the back of the room. I said something to one of the students that caused a little bit of a conflict. But by the time it happened I was nowhere near it. I was already sitting at my desk. So the teacher said, “Hey Ball. I just figured out what you are. You’re an instigator.” It came back to me years later. I realized I really love to stir up trouble. But then I like to move on and go do it somewhere else. I want to speak to that side of us that’s like: Don’t be complacent. Go join tribe of people that are trying to do that thing that’s hard to do and most people don’t advise you to do. It’s not about safety. There’s risk in being among these people. A lot of what we’re practicing is risky stuff — being self-employed and not getting a safe job. I like stirring up that kind of trouble.
Don Ball is now hatching plans to combine his love of Peru with his role as CoCo’s “Chief Instigation Officer.” In July 2014, he’ll be organizing The Big Trip, a group co-working expedition to the mountains of Cusco in the sacred valley of the Incas. According to Ball, “This is a way of taking my current circumstances and actually birthing something that I want to be my thing.”