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Lost Boy's Return

“Hearing [Rafe] . . . is really like listening to the devil telling you to quit your job, don't heed the advice of your loved ones, turn your back on everything you have ever fought for or held dear, to come and live forever on the Island of the Lost Boys.” — Ira Glass, This American Life

Me (Venice A's) looking and feeling lost in 1978

Part I

This article is about letting go of control, regulating emotions, and shifting from the reckless, inchoate play of a child into responsible, coherent, adult creativity.

My friend, Mary, told me once that a Leo's journey is one from pride in self to the pride of my fellow lions for whom I am responsible.

On the eve of the third annual Easter Egg Hunt in our new home in Boulder, the RSVP count was over 100 and still climbing. Double the previous year’s event. My wife, Laura, is a pro at holiday festivities, and I trusted that by putting our three boys to work stuffing 1,200 plastic eggs with candy during the prior week, we wouldn’t be in need of any multiplying miracles on the big day. As Captain Safety, though, I was worried about throngs of kids interfacing with zip lines, trampolines, goats and chickens.

So rather than micromanage the fun or yell at some poor tween for attempting his first backflip amidst a sea of bouncing toddlers, I broke out the POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape we keep in a shipping container for just this sort of occasion.

“Dad, why are you making the treehouse off limits?”

“Remember that time one of your friends was hanging from the zip line by his leg, screaming for help?”


“And the time your other friend fell out of the tree and sprained his ankle just as his dad was pulling up in the driveway to pick him up from the play date?”


“I rest my case.”

Laura drew the line at my overzealous police-taping of the entire goat and chicken pen.

“Rafe, this is an Easter Egg Hunt, not a crime scene. The kids want to play with the goats. Don’t be a Grinch.”

“Technically that argument only applies to Christmas, but okay you win.”

I rerouted the tape around the shipping container, feeling good about not wasting it, and breathing easier knowing that nobody would accidentally find themselves locked inside while hunting for an egg, screaming for help that nobody would hear, like our cat did that one time. Wisely, all shipping containers have air holes in multiple places for exactly this scenario. Still, I can imagine the steep dropoff in yearly attendance if someone’s kid got stuck inside for a few hours.

“Have no fear, Captain Safety was here!” I said to myself silently as I finished securing the perimeters.

Then I headed to Dunkin Donuts to pick up the coffee and sugar bombs.

2023 Easter egg hunt at our home in Boulder

On the way to Dunkin Donuts, I realized that my anxious feelings did not torpedo the party and I was able to self-regulate and lean into co-creating an epic wonderland for dozens of kids and their parents. I rewarded myself with a boston creme pie whose crumbs I had to hide from the kids since they were stuck with plain old donut holes. Frosting, cream and sprinkles get stuck in the floorboards and create a slipping hazard.

Looking back at when I began doing inner work in Leap Forward – the peer-based personal development community I joined in 2014 – I would answer the question “what are you feeling right now?” with things like “I feel that my wife is being irrational.” It would take several rounds of probing by my friends in the community to get to “I feel angry!”

So the fact that I am now aware of my physical safety fears and deep-seated control issues (and can successfully navigate around them) is a minor miracle.

Notably, there was only one trampoline-induced sprained ankle, which is easily countered next year by lowering the “Max Capacity 8 Kids” sign to say “3 Kids.”

Okay, it still bugs me that I vastly overestimated the amount of coffee needed. Next year.

Part II

When the Call is Coming From Inside the House

In the movies, when the protagonist realizes he’s the culprit, it’s usually the surprise twist at the end. In real life of course, it’s only the beginning.

Through a rigorous, guided group process led by Ronit, my mentor and the founder of Leap Forward, I learned over time to notice the many subtle and not-so-subtle defense mechanisms my psyche created during childhood development.

I came to understand how in my household, since neither of my parents ever spoke about emotions, and since they never inquired about my feelings (only my thoughts and doings), I learned to deal with emotions — mine and others — as mental constructs. At times I acted as if I were Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

As liberating as it was to now feel and express what I was experiencing, it was sometimes unnerving to my family and close friends.

My wife was downright contemptuous: “You used to make money and be someone in the world, and now you spend all your time crying on Zoom calls with strangers!” (Plus making nerdy charts about my childhood traumas, I might add, if only I were brave enough to show her the charts).

My personal “map of being”

Not that I enjoyed the process of blowing up my life, emotionally speaking. But I trusted Ronit when she told us that after our heart shatters is when the healing can begin.

That being said, it’s hard to convey the bone-chilling terror I experienced a couple of years into group Zooms when I began to realize the effect I was having on my children.

I was noticing certain behaviors that seemed atypical for a toddler. By this point, I was familiar with the notion that our early childhood home lives have a profound influence on the course of our social and emotional development. I hadn’t connected the dots yet that I was my children’s primary model for how to be a boy, and that my rigidity, my need to control, and my lack of fluidity with emotional self-expression were setting the tone for their developmental environment.

I had begun noticing sensory issues in one of my boys – for example, that he, like myself and other family members, didn’t want to wear certain clothing because it overloads and distracts him. I noticed highly focussed behaviors, like lining up his Hot Wheels on the arm of the couch.

Most concerningly though, I realized I hadn’t ever heard him share his feelings in words, even though he talks nonstop about ideas and concepts (like me).

Staring into my reflection in the Zoom window that day, I could see the blood drain from my face as chills went down my spine.

“What are you feeling right now?” Ronit asks me.

I’m feeling totally numb.

“Where are you right now?”

I’m not in my body, it’s as if I am watching myself in a movie from the theater seats.

“What’s the story going through your mind?”


I felt the blood curdling rage of a lion seeing his child being harmed.

My insides exploded.

When sensation returned to my body, Ronit helped me process the feelings and do a reality check on the story that fueled them. While there were some legitimate concerns about my son’s emotional and social development, it wasn’t nearly as severe as I was making it out to be.

Furthermore, by working on my own social-emotional development, I was doing the absolute best thing I could to support my son’s development. Now that I’d felt the impact of my own unconscious behaviors on my children, I was no longer in denial. Instead, I was motivated to get him the professional support that both the school and my parents suspected he needed.

Fast forwarding to today, my son is flourishing. None of the fears and concerns about autism have manifested.

Nobody can say for certain whether my own neuropsychological rewiring and behavior repatterning made a difference. What I do know is that through this near-death experience for my ego, my son saved me from the emotional prison my life had become – because in that moment, self-transformation became my highest priority in life.

Part III

escape from L.A.

They say the worst thing that can happen to someone on their first Vegas trip is to win a lot of money. That was me with my first startup back in 1997. My two partners and I had hit the jackpot with Pick'em Sports, bootstrapping it without any outside financing and cashing out two years later, just before the internet bubble burst. Barely 30 years old and a million in cash in my pocket, single and carefree. Life was GOOD!

I was still chasing that winning high 20 years later, married with kids. While I knew the statistical reality — nine failures for every one startup success — I didn’t believe they applied to me. Despite all the evidence in a career of promising, innovative startups that for some reason or another flamed out. That’s the way my ego works. It creates a reality distortion field and compels me to prove my worth as a person through my success in business, no matter the costs, risks and collateral damage.

I wish I truly understood that when I ran into an old friend on New Year’s Day, 2017. I wish that I had learned to listen to the still small voice guiding me to avoid the temptation to start a company in yet another legally gray area, when what I really needed was to learn how to provide tangible value and earn a stable income. Alas, I was too busy ignoring the loud pleas of my Leaper colleagues begging me to pause and reconsider.

I had every excuse in the book about why this time was different. How I was different. Despite the fact that I had fucked up two other entrepreneurial ventures in the past three years.

Luckily for me, another existential crisis was brewing.

I had signed up to do a TED Talk on cryptocurrencies and I was really struggling to find my voice. I wanted to deliver my ideas and vision in a relatable, emotionally honest way that also honored the reality of my own past as well as that of the nascent crypto industry. Which was a tall order, because I was still riddled with shame and guilt from my role in Full Tilt Poker’s implosion.

The earliest drafts were feeling more like a melodramatic mea culpa than a talk about the future of money. Part of the problem was the troubling moral parallels between crypto, startups and the poker world. It was so obvious to me by this point that the once-promising crypto community was heading off their values rails, that I was incapable anymore of pretending it wasn’t. While preparing for the talk, I was starting to become emotionally unstable for the first time since I was hospitalized and given anti-psychotics six years earlier.

The crisis came to a head after I gave the talk.

The process of preparing and delivering the talk made it clear to me that my heart and priorities were no longer in the company I had co-founded just six months earlier. When I returned home to LA after speaking in Virginia, I gave my business partners notice that I would be leaving.

Two weeks later, Bitcoin went exponential, and soon followed our stock price. My partners and I became overnight paper billionaires. This was hugely problematic.

You see, we were a pink-sheet stock, created by a "reverse public merger" and there were scant few shares available to trade. Thus any increase in demand — like, say Bitcoin going from $4K to $17K in the course of a few weeks — would necessarily skyrocket our stock price without any increase in the fundamentals of the company. It smelled fishy to the regulators and it didn't help that I had a public record of prior fraud allegations at Full Tilt Poker and I was now the Chief Investment Officer of the new company.

A week later, the SEC halted the trading of our stock to investigate. It would take two years for the investigation to clear the company of any wrongdoing and allow investors, many of whom were my family and friends, to get their money out.

Meanwhile, on the homefront, a different type of fire was raging. Wildfires. For the second year in a row, we would have to evacuate our home with two small children in tow, because, frankly, it looked and smelled like the apocalypse. We could barely breath when outside and we could see from our front yard the flames cresting a nearby peak.

In December of 2017, barreling down the 405 in a camper van, not knowing yet our third child was on the way, I turned to my wife and said, “Do you want to get outta here and move to Boulder?”

So began our escape from LA, and my escape from the startup boom-and-bust cycle I’d become addicted to.

Part IV

Beverly hillbillies

A friend from a big Catholic family in the Boston area teases me about having spent several million dollars to recreate what she calls the “white trash wonderland” of her own upbringing. She assures me that all of the junk, dirt, chicken coop, goat poop, heavy equipment, trees and tree houses mean that my kids have a fightin’ chance of growing up creative and happy.

When we first moved in I found much to my surprise and delight that I was building enclosed garden boxes (thank you YouTube) and risking life and limb repairing the asphalt shingles on the dilapidated garage roof.

Shopping for homes remotely from Los Angeles, it seemed a bonus that there were no interior photos of the house since that meant (a) it was a teardown and we could create whatever we wanted on a full acre of land, and (b) it would cheaper than anything in our LA neighborhood, where the houses are built on 7,000 sq ft lots and take up 6,500 of those feet.

The fact that coastal California had become a cultural Upside Down of the progressive values I grew up with was a big part of my motivation for moving. I was secretly yearning for the small town back-to-nature homestead my hippie parents hand built in Norwich, Vermont when I was 5 years old. Like Norwich, Boulder is a top college town surrounded by open space, farms and wild lands – the opposite of the smog and freeways of LA where we moved when I was seven.

From a financial standpoint, our timing was good. We got in just before McMansionization process took hold in Boulder. Shortly after moving into our small one-story ranch-style house in the sleepy rural neighborhood a mile from the university, an ultra-modern outrageously-priced all-black box went up several doors down. My kids and I began to refer to it as The Death Star. A year into COVID, when the darling Vader Family moved in, I knew it would be an uphill battle to “Keep Boulder Weird” (as a popular local bumper sticker implores).

Although for a time I fantasized about moving to an even smaller, rural community with less wealth and fewer Teslas, I’m calling it good. There’s no perfect place, and I’m realizing that the fantasies of something different are simply one of the ways my ego distracts me.

Distracts me from reckoning with the long-suppressed and avoided emotions of my early childhood experience, which become reanimated in my body and psyche when creating and participating in events like the Easter Egg Hunt. Staying put, resisting the impulse to flee, physically, emotionally and socially, is the path I need to take to wholeness.

I guess the Stoics were right: the obstacle is the way.

Part V

“How we do anything is how we do everything” — Ronit Herzfeld

It’s a daily struggle not to get angry and frustrated with my boys for simply being kids. The control demon still lives inside, ready to keep my inner child safe by laying waste to anyone and everyone who dares deny its will. The social and physical chaos of 1970s Venice Beach are wired into my neuropsychology.

What gives me hope and joy is that I’ve been learning how to rewire. Unlike before, I now have some lived experience with this process, so it doesn’t feel futile, regardless of how many times I fall back to old patterns.

The other day I was meeting with a friend to discuss an event we had put on together two days earlier to test out a potential business partnership. I had thought the event went very well; however, my friend had managed all the details except my small role, and I had paid no attention to all the tasks she was juggling. Thus, when the food and drink service bogged down and became a distraction, I was oblivious to the stress that she and audience members were experiencing. Over lunch the next day she let me know how she felt about it. "You let me down, Rafe," she said matter-of-factly.

In the past this most likely would have been the beginning of the end of our business relationship. I would have deflected and minimized her feelings, and the trust between us would have slowly eroded as I failed to address her concern and the goals of the event. Sure enough, my fear of seeing and owning my own shit was re-surfacing now that I decided to dip my toe back in the business waters.

But this time, perhaps for the first time, there wasn’t even the slightest contraction inside me when my friend reflected my unconscious behavior. Instead, I felt surprise, followed by compassion and curiosity.

In the ensuing moments, she helped me see something about myself, a blind spot that I had not been aware of. True teamwork is new to me. Looking back on my career launching and building startups, it’s clear to me now that most of what I was engaged in was “parallel play.” So my friend came up with a strategy for helping me know what to pay attention to, so that in the future I could be a more supportive teammate, so that, as a team, we could level up our service to others.

Instead of defending my ego and causing breakdown in the relationship, I felt the feelings and connected deeper with myself and my friend. This took all of five minutes, it felt incredible. By responding as a mature adult who owns his mistakes and cleans up, our trust in one another is growing, and our clients can sense this, and as a result, trust us to help them create business results.

What brings me the greatest joy in life though is when I see my boys being good teammates with one another. When I look at them I see the fruits of my hard-earned skill development. I see the possibility of multigenerational rewiring. This makes my heart swell beyond words.


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