Football championship. Near-death experience. Autoimmune disorder. All play a role for Dave Nelson ’06 in understanding mindfulness, meditation, and goal-setting.
An 11-year-old boy, breathing heavy, hides in the basement behind the staircase. He retreated to this location, fleeing his four older brothers, who use him as a punching bag.
The family recently moved from a rough-and-tumble middle-class Chicago neighborhood to a bucolic Massachusetts town outside Boston. The move has amplified his brothers’ adolescent rebellion as well as the chronic tensions in the house.
Stress and displaced anger overwhelm the boy. As he sits out of sight, he becomes acutely aware of himself and his situation. He decides in that cramped and dusty space he must alter his path.
Right then and there, the boy scrawls on an exposed two-by-four a clear goal: I will play starting running back for the Chicago Bears. Football will save him.
Dave Nelson ’06 creeps along in morning traffic. He is guiding his Jeep to the local Staples so he can run in and grab a clicker. He’s presenting at TripAdvisor’s headquarters. The finance team requested nutrition, fitness, and mindset training as part of a group challenge.
Nelson’s spouse, Jenna, has led the team through a six-week eating-and-exercise boot camp. Now it’s his turn. He’s taking on emotional wellness by talking about goal-setting, motivation, and meditation. Their businesses, Milestone Mind and Milestone Fitness, work to avoid the clichés that claim to transform mind and body.
This is a personal journey that combines ancient practices, evidence-based research, Harvard Business School education, and stories of struggle and valor.
Walking into TripAdvisor, it’s hard to believe a 2017 Gallup poll that close to 85 percent of people hate or dislike their jobs.
A smooth bossa nova track is followed by Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” A large saltwater fish tank divides the welcome desk from the sitting space. A brightly colored selfie wall displays a world map made up of client photos and is replete with speech bubble signs you can hold. Add a fireplace, office dogs, casual clothes, free cafeteria and taproom, Romanesque forum-styled courtyard, workout gym, lush green walls, and floors named after continents.
It’s got the international hipster vibe down pat and the perks set at max. But those benefits may fade quickly if the work is filled with standard pressures—sales goals, customer satisfaction metrics, stakeholder reports, and financial trends.
Nelson sets up his laptop, and soon a team in Ts, flannel, jeans, and sweats strolls in. With his new clicker in hand, he fires up his slide deck.
“I’m here to share my story with you.”
In 2005, a 21-year-old Nelson has returned home on Friday night of Memorial Day Weekend for his brother Chris’ bachelor party. The following weekend Chris will be married. Nelson, co-captain of the Leopards football team, will begin summer captain training on Monday. In his dorm room, he has left his shoes, shirt, and shorts folded neatly on his bed, a symbol of his readiness for the start of his senior season.
His friends soon learn he is home and on Sunday night, drag him out to Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston where they drink beer and eat sausages and chicken-sticks. He is talking with his buddies when he notices a car stop in front of a friend and girlfriend. Things escalate quickly as the car’s driver hurls insults and soon steps out of the vehicle. Nelson sprints down to help his friend, pulling the driver’s shirt over his head, popping him a few times, and tossing him back in his car.
In the scuffle, Nelson doesn’t recognize he’s been stabbed repeatedly or that the blade reached his heart. He collapses. His friends hail a cab. The first one has no interest in cleaning up blood. Neither does the second. The third agrees to drive them to Massachusetts General but only after putting on gloves. Nelson remembers feeling peacefully wrapped in his friend’s arms as the chaos around him elevates.
He is dead on arrival.
His heart stops with no circulation for seven minutes.
The ER team opens his chest. A nurse massages his heart back to life through the stab wound. His chest remains open for four hours.
He wakes the next morning with short-term memory loss. By day four, he has full neurological recovery. By day six, his heart has recovered, and he is standing in a suit at his brother’s wedding.
It’s almost surreal considering what occurred a week prior.
Doctors tell him no football or any activity for 30 days. It’s not news he wants. He remains home during that time. Two weeks before training camp opens, he is back in the doctor’s office. He has made a full recovery. The doctor doesn’t like the idea of a full-contact sport but can’t tell Nelson no. The doctor says playing with the pain of broken ribs might be a deterrent, but it isn’t for Nelson.
Nelson learned early there that the best players play. Names didn’t matter nor donors nor legacies. Each player would earn playing time by the merits of what he put forth. So he worked to be the best.
He drives back to campus, opens his dorm room door, and sees his shoes, shirt, and shorts, just as neatly as he left them.
What he has been through and overcome finally hits him hard enough that he has a release.
He falls to his knees in tears.
As an 11-year-old, playing football became Nelson’s way out. He stepped out of hiding in the basement with a clear goal and adopted a fighter’s mentality to achieve it.
The first step: Get accepted to Xaverian Brothers, a private Catholic school with an amazing football team—a consistent league and state champion. While local family, friends, and coaches called him and actively dissuaded him from enrolling, he signed on.
He walked into his first practice of freshman year in a cut-off shirt and his arm brand on full display. While he didn’t look like the rest of the players, he got to work. A senior football player took the ninth-grader under his wing, and soon Nelson was using football as his great escape. He got stronger and faster and was made a starting linebacker in 10th grade.
He learned early there that the best players play. Names didn’t matter nor donors nor legacies. Each player would earn playing time by the merits of what he put forth. So he worked to be the best. By his senior year, he was team captain and starting tailback. By season’s end, he was one of the top rushers in the state.
While starting for the Bears was the goal, Nelson recognized the opportunity before him when a Division I program at Lafayette College wanted him on the roster. Little did he know then that his fight, drive, and perseverance would also help win a championship.
Nelson’s first job out of college failed. It’s hard to imagine; failure didn’t align with his track record. But he didn’t want to work for others, so he opened up his own construction business. After six months of operations, he wasn’t happy and closed it. Saddled with a sizeable business loan, he needed work.
He leveraged his network and jumped at the chance to enter a sales program at EMC, then the world’s largest data-storage provider. He was out in the field and excelled at sales. When EMC merged with Dell, Nelson moved over to a startup called Nimble.
Its data-storage product caught fire, and Nelson was soon navigating the eastern seaboard, managing sales in New York, New England, and Canada. The company went public and then was acquired by Hewlett-Packard.
While Nelson was riding wave after wave of success, he wasn’t feeling it.
“With star-up success, the companies would shift from being cowboys to being sheriffs,” he says. “The culture then shifted to hitting the numbers and managing them for stockholder consistency.”
Still, he gutted it out. Soon he was at another startup, spending three to four weeks at a time on the road, feeling unhealthy, and not seeing his family.
After 10 years in sales, he was starting to lose his fight. Or maybe he just wanted to use his fight in different ways, for a different kind of life and different sense of self.
His wife was operating what became Milestone Fitness as a personal trainer and recognized his unhappiness. She said he should join her. She could work the body and he could work the mind.
He dove in, planning how to make that idea a reality by getting up early and staying up late and working at his sales job in between.
As Nelson cruises in his Jeep to a private consultation, he talks about his inner fighter. He fought against the patterns in his home life. He fought to make the football team. He fought to protect friends. He fought back from a near-death tragedy. He fought through a decade of sales.
Fighting has been his standard response.
Early in meetings with his private clients, he works to uncover their outward responses and their silent suffering.
“One of the first exercises we do is a value inventory. We look at automatic thoughts, traits, and behaviors while I ask probing questions,” he says. “More often than not, clients recognize their identity is one created between the ages of 6 and 18. Often it was an identity needed to cope with a difficult situation.”
Part of the reason clients meet with him is the opportunity to discover that it is OK to shed that old self. That holding onto it is can cause more emotional distress, physical harm, or illness than the person can handle.
“Their body or heart is asking for something new,” he says. “I’m there to help them listen.”
That old self is thanked for the protection it provided and then released. Then a new identity can take form.
Nelson was a football player. When the seasons finally ended, he realized, more than football player, he was fighter. Despite his success with that outward identity, it took a toll on his health.
“When you find an outlet to alleviate some suffering, it defines you,” he says. “But it often comes with a cost.”
That cost for him? Psoriasis. At age 10 the patches began to appear on his shoulders. It would flare up during times of stress and subside during periods of calm. During his days in tech, it covered his entire upper body.
He watched family and friends struggle in similar ways.
Witnessing others live in and out of jail or escaping through drugs and alcohol, which led to debilitating addictions and self-destruction.
Most profoundly, his brother Chris’ struggle became a defining moment. Chris let go of his old identities and adopted new ones—he had gotten married and had become a new father. All things were looking up, but Chris’ health was still catching up. For him, the final release of old identities, repressed pain, and resentment took the form of cancer.
Nelson’s brother didn’t survive it.
That profound loss combined with living with psoriasis for more than 20 years and his life at a career crossroads motivated Nelson to summon his fight one more time.
He was determined to defeat psoriasis.
Nelson wanted to heal himself and poured every ounce of willpower into the fight, but he failed.
He adjusted his diet, giving up wheat, dairy, and meat. He also gave up alcohol. The psoriasis remained.
Frustrated that cleaner food didn’t bring clear outcomes, he tried fitness. He entered many races, including the grueling Sea to Summit where he swam 1.5 miles, biked 92 miles, and scaled 6,288-foot Mt. Washington. Still, the psoriasis persisted.
Now Nelson was annoyed.
“I had put my head down, worked hard, and fought,” he says. “It was a technique that worked in the past. So I ratcheted up the pressure on myself and kept asking, ‘Why can’t things be perfect?’”
He thought meditation could help, so he tried it out. But meditation led him to something a little bit deeper—something more unknown and uncomfortable.
“I was so used to pushing thoughts and emotions away, rather than embracing them,” he says.
He considered his childhood, near-death experience, and brother’s death.
As Nelson explored the ancient practice, he began a self-journey.
Like all people new to meditation, he’d sit, but 10 minutes after he was done, the stress would eventually return.
But he was listening to his body and wanted to listen better.
“All I knew was high stress,” he says. “I performed well with it and pushed toward it. So I had to learn to slow my mind and actions and to enjoy the process of healing by not forcing it, but surrendering to it.”
Rather than see psoriasis as an obstacle to overcome or an illness that needed to be beaten, he saw it as part of him … a part that was evolving.
“I found my authentic direction and began a mindfulness practice where I acknowledged feelings, learned to express emotions, and then released those feelings,” he says.
In his practice, he learned to find peace with himself, his past, and his illness. It took five years.
Today, the psoriasis is gone except for an occasional although isolated flare-up.
“Psoriasis, I often joke, has been my greatest teacher,” he says.
While meditating, he realized his journey could serve as a curriculum to others. But he wanted to back it up with education.
Nelson is a certified life coach and a meditation and mindfulness teacher. He is enrolled in a 100-week, 1,400-hour meditation program that requires two hours of meditation a day, with no days off for three years.
He also is a student of Phra Bhavanawachirawidesa V. (Mongkol Kuakool, pictured left), master monk at Wat Nawamintararachutis Buddhist Temple in Raynham, Mass.
While you might think monk and Buddhist temple means no frills, the building is palatial and shimmers in the daylight.
He has been coming to public meditation there for years. His first visit helped him learn to alter his pace.
He had seen a free public meditation advertised, so he showed up. The door was locked, so he sat. When a monk came to the door, Nelson explained he was there for public meditation. The monk said he would get the master. Nelson, who had other commitments that day, thought he might as well get started and sat in meditation for 20 minutes.
A different monk then opened the door. Nelson explained again the situation, and the second monk invited him in and said he’d get the master. Nelson sat for another 30 minutes in silent meditation.
Then the master entered the room and sat next to Nelson. Together they sat for another 30 minutes.
Ninety minutes into his public meditation, he needed to leave. Sensing this, the master stood. Nelson stood too. Together they began a walking meditation for another 30 minutes. At the end of it, they sat again for 30.
Nelson now really had to go, but the monk invited him back for evening chanting. Rather than appear rude, Nelson accepted, knowing that he had to rearrange his evening now in addition to his afternoon.
“That day pushed me to understand better what I was doing,” he says. “I couldn’t just show up and close my eyes for a certain amount of time and think I was practicing meditation.”
Today his visits demand more from him but take less time. It is a practice. He sits and breathes. He walks. He needs this time too to alleviate suffering. He takes in so much from clients that meditation is one way to release it.
Nelson is an intrinsic leader and a guiding hand,” Leauth says. “He doesn’t give you answers, but helps you think and do the work. He helped to reignite in me some things that lay dormant and provided some tools that helped me move forward.
Where does motivation originate? Nelson asks the team at TripAdvisor.
Maybe it comes from guilt, shame, fear of failure, fear of success, or regret. Often those lurk behind motivation. All are little fun and can cause lots of pain.
He then lays out a continuum for motivation that ranges from amotivation, the stuff you have no intention of doing, like cleaning off your desk, to intrinsic motivation, the stuff you see as an enjoyable reward.
Nelson wants the team to see how the source for motivation ties to success. More importantly, how all goals lead back to a state of being—that knowing how you want to feel will determine if you can attain that goal.
He moves the team to a worksheet that begins with the end in mind—a feeling—and uses a reasonable timeline and benchmarks to reach it.
While it’s harder to dive into personal questions and states of being with the group, Nelson challenges employees’ thinking or presents a new way of considering the path forward.
With his private clients, the path is often physical and metaphorical. At Blue Hills Reservation, Nelson meets a client for a hike. The ground is damp, making the fallen pine needles rich with scent.
Nelson and Chris Leauth (above, left) don backpacks and hats. They pick up their conversation quickly. Leauth reached out to him during an employment transition. Nelson helped him put pen to paper as a partner and mentor and work through some changes.
“Nelson is an intrinsic leader and a guiding hand,” Leauth says. “He doesn’t give you answers, but helps you think and do the work. He helped to reignite in me some things that lay dormant and provided some tools that helped me move forward. I feel a peace with myself and am able to listen and hear, which help me recognize and receive, two skills that come from mindfulness.”
Nelson nods as Leauth speaks. They then continue to move deeper into the reservation, a sacred location of the Massachusett Indian tribe for over 10,000 years. The spiritual sanctuary is now set in the heart of Boston, and its surrounding cities are bustling with development and innovation.
Seems the perfect metaphor—the spiritual mountain at the center of evolution, a backdrop for many commuters, some of whom will step into the wilderness and waken to the sights, sounds, smells, and deepening silence.