Meet Donald Marrs
But call me Don.
To introduce myself, I'd like to tell you a bit about my journey.
More specifically, I'd like to share about how I went from being a successful but unhappy advertising executive for Fortune 500 companies to a more successful business owner who experiences uncommon fulfillment and extraordinary love every day.
It should have been a celebration
I was a Creative Director at Leo Burnett Ad Agency in Chicago, still in my mid-thirties, when I made Vice President and was put on the fast track to top management. I had achieved everything I’d hoped and worked for.
But in truth, my career was finished and I knew it.
During the day I was creating ads for Kellogg’s sugar-sweetened cereals, but at home, I wouldn't let my own kids eat them. I was also making ads for Philip Morris cigarettes while trying to quit smoking.
I could no longer tolerate the split between my ethics and what I was doing to achieve my success.
It hadn't always been this way.
Some of my fondest memories from my time at Burnett were about the Doughboy. I had the challenge and fun of being his creative director for the decade following his initial development.
Over time, however, the product ingredients changed and even that account had me conflicted.
There were other conflicts, too, but my breaking point came when I was invited to take on the prized project of keeping General Motors’ gas-guzzling cars selling during an international oil crisis.
I hesitantly declined, citing the pressure of two major presentations due the following week.
Attempting a Graceful Transition
Something had to give. I set a meeting with the chairman of Burnett and revealed that between my crazy workload and a bitter divorce, I was on the verge of burning out.
He sympathized, and by the end of the meeting, he’d approved my request to join our TV Production Group in Hollywood.
I'd fallen in love with movies as a young boy watching early Disney films, and commercials were still like little movies to me — even if only a 30-second epic about shampoo.
I also felt that something more was pulling me to California, but I'd barely articulated that to myself and certainly didn't mention it to the chairman.
My focus was on getting myself into a new life — one that was less conflicted and more aligned with subtle inner stirrings that were speaking louder and louder.
The move to LA took me out of the pressure cooker of my personal and professional life, but other than that, it was nothing like I planned.
The team in the Hollywood office was not happy having a VP, Creative Director in their midst. Plus, I quickly realized that I'd misjudged the job itself.
I still loved storytelling but discovered that I didn't like and wasn't good at the nuts and bolts of production. Worse, the conflicts that precipitated my move had followed me to California.
However, my miscalculation, really the failure of my plan, came with some unexpected gifts.
One was that I realized that if I wanted to live aligned with the truest part of myself, I needed to change more than my job and my address.
Another was that my love of writing stories blossomed in this less stressful environment.
A New Possibility
One of my movie industry friends turned me onto a screenwriting class by a successful Hollywood writer.
I was immediately captivated and threw myself into learning the underlying structure of great stories.
Writing scripts became my new love, and I wondered if this was is why I'd been drawn to LA.
Coincidentally, perhaps, it wasn’t long before I received an ultimatum from Burnett — return to my VP/Creative Director position in Chicago or resign.
I chose the latter.
I’d saved enough to focus on my script-writing aspirations full time. One of my early screenplays led to being signed by an agent from William Morris. From there, several submissions received serious studio interest and encouraging feedback.
None, however, were produced.
Accepting Failure as a Teacher
Each of these failures was humbling. Yet each insisted that I look deeper into myself and the motivations behind my choices.
Learning from failure instead of success was painful, but each step of the way it felt like I was refining myself toward something truer and more worthwhile.
I persisted in believing that I could make a good career in the movie business and thought everything had come together when Disney offered me an executive position in production and marketing.
It was a disaster. Except for this momento that still hangs in our office.
Three months later, I was in a similar job at Fox, working with top executives who appreciated my contribution. But I was no closer to feeling the inner alignment I sought — until a seemingly routine vendor meeting introduced me to a multi-media startup.
A few weeks later, I left Fox to accept Quantum Leap’s invitation to join them. This well-funded startup committed to making “conscious” films, and everything about them — their mission and the people — seemed ideal. I was sure I'd found what I'd been looking for.
Six months later (you guessed it!) the investor group declared bankruptcy. The attorney and I had a month to tie up loose ends. The rest of the staff was fired on the spot.
I was beyond devastated.
Every effort to earn a living without sacrificing my ideals had failed.
I felt like an airplane that had crashed into a California mountainside.
Epiphany by the Pool
On a particularly painful day, I sat down by the pool and closed my eyes.
After a few breaths, I felt myself hurtling down a long, dark channel and wondered if I was dying. Instead, I landed in a cushiony bed of flowers surrounded by a pastoral glen.
I was immersed in limitless love, gifted by the awareness that I, and all that existed, was love. The universe was love. There was nothing in the universe that was not love.
After an unknowable time in this boundlessness, a life-review began. Vivid snippets of past experiences revealed how my fears had distorted my judgement and sabotaged many outcomes.
The message was clear. Example after example, from kindergarten shyness to relationship troubles to disappointing business situations, fear was the hidden culprit behind almost every one of my unproductive choices.
The more powerful lesson, though, was becoming viscerally aware of the vast creative power of love.
Looking back, that epiphany by the pool was a spiritually transformative experience that changed everything. Me included. In the weeks that followed, I vowed (to myself alone) that I would do my best to make choices from love and keep fear from having a deciding vote.
The problem was… I didn’t know what that meant in the practical world. And I certainly didn’t know if the insights from my out-of-body epiphany were compatible with making a good living.
Money was my most urgent priority.
I couldn’t imagine a job situation, especially in advertising, that would allow me to make choices on my terms, so I decided to start my own consultancy. I’d offer my Fortune 500 marketing expertise to the few local family-owned businesses selling healthy, organic food products — a then-fledgling industry.
It sounded like such a solid plan, but I was torn.
To finance my experiment, I’d have to sell my house on three acres in the Hollywood Hills and live much more modestly. I humbly accepted my girlfriend’s offer to move into her one-bedroom apartment. (The chronicle of this transitional journey appears in Executive in Passage.)
During the first couple of years, it seemed that learning-from-failure was still my path. But at some point, things turned. At least in my business, which had taken root and was growing.
In startling contrast to my flourishing client relationships, my once-promising love relationship was withering. Even our best-intentioned attempts to heal our conflicts weren’t working.
Meeting Paige, a New Client
A brief phone message announced that a potential new client was looking for marketing help for a line of natural Swiss skincare products.
I had little experience in cosmetics and zero interest in that market segment, but a close friend referred her, so I tried to stay open.
Paige was attempting to build a business that reflected her ideals, not just in product quality but in the way they (she and her husband) did business. She even mentioned that they were trying to make choices from love instead of fear.
This, of course, fired my curiosity, but when I told her about the big brands I’d help build — a plus for every other potential client so far — I could feel her retreating.
She said it gently, but firmly. My success with multinational companies was a red flag. Thankfully, when I explained why I left that corporate world and what I was doing now, she wanted to talk further. It took several meetings, but she finally decided to hire me.
Having a client who was openly trying to build a business from love instead of fear certainly added a new dimension to my experiment. I was filled with a sense of high adventure, but at the same time, questioned whether I knew enough about that aspect of business to guide her.
In the background of my mind, another far more intriguing question formed: What magnitude of relationship awaits two people who fully commit themselves to working together in alignment with transcendent love? We would soon learn.
Our second book, Grabbing Lightning, explores the spark that so enlivened and opened our hearts to each other.
It has a very happy ending. Yet as the epilogue reveals, that ending is also a beginning.