We’re all struggling with something.
Written by Brian Wang, Co-Owner, Epidemic Ales
Today, October 22, is International Stuttering Awareness Day. The reason I am writing this is because I am a stutterer. I've struggled with this speech disorder since I was 5 years old.
Did you know the familiar phrase, "Keep Calm And Carry On" is something that has great meaning to the stuttering community? It was a slogan created during World War II under King George VI who stuttered and was the subject of the multi-Oscar winning movie The King's Speech. He was a greatly respected king that was an immense source of inspiration to his people when they needed it the most.
I've spent most of my life hiding my stuttering and avoided it so thoroughly that I’ve never even read about it in books or searched the internet for advice. It wasn't until I saw The King's Speech movie and saw how King George VI struggled with stuttering and used great personal energy and determination to address and overcome it, did I realize that I was not alone in my fight. I had to watch the movie multiple times because I would cry through most of it.
Growing up, I’ve lost count the number of times an adult interrupted me while I was in the middle of a stuttering frenzy and told me to slow down, enunciate, take time to form my words. So I did, I tried to slow down but often it meant nothing came out, if I didn't stutter it was just silence. I'm still undecided if stuttering is worse or silence is worse - in the end it was the same. Everyone's eyes either stared uncomfortably at me or looked away in embarrassment.
It is difficult to describe what stuttering feels like to somebody that doesn't stutter, it feels exactly like being held underwater by somebody much stronger than you. If you panic, you struggle and fight while precious gasps of air escape your mouth, the bubbles rapidly racing to the surface in shimmering chaos. In these desperate moments, you are the only one who can save yourself by knowing that stuttering will not cause you to drown. You need to take a moment and be calm, but also be able to have the strength to carry yourself through the fight - Keep Calm And Carry On.
People often ask me how I stay so calm, I've had lots of practice.
It takes significant brainpower to keep my stuttering in check. Sometimes when I pause, it may not be a noticeable moment but it's often a game changing few seconds that I need to use to reset. Having part of my brainpower permanently occupied means I have a difficult time doing presentations where I might need to read off a piece of paper or say something in a way I’ve rehearsed - often a major requirement in business situations. I can function better if I can just speak freely. This very specific element I haven't been able to fully solve. This is something I find frustrating (or truthfully, limiting) because it makes me look like I don’t know the material if I’m not reciting facts smoothly. The truth is, I had to feverishly study the material so I could try to keep my thoughts and my stuttering in check. Sometimes I’m focusing on doing everything in my power not to run out of the room. A silent scream can't be heard but it sure can be felt.
A New Start
July 8, 2019 I gave a presentation to our brewery staff. Up until the beginning of 2018 the brewery was small enough that we had only a handful of employees. But now we had employees in significant roles for almost a year and a half which meant there was utmost importance that we addressed company culture. It takes tremendous resources to develop a culture of integrity and safety. And then it takes just as much to maintain it at a high level. We had to recognize our staff as being our most important asset. The most useful conversations are often the most difficult ones - and therefore they don't happen unless there was an understanding that all communications were nonjudgmental. We had to recognize there is an emotional side but success lies in sticking to facts, data, and strategy to solve problems.
I felt my message had the greatest impact if I came clean about my lifelong secret. And so I did. "I suffer from stuttering", I told them as I stood in the front of the room. I was facing my greatest fear while I asked them to do the same. I had decided I was not going to let this one thing define me. But I couldn't ask for greatness from our staff and hide from my own shortcomings.
I’ve grown up spending a lot of time watching people, observing, pondering if they’re hiding something they’re struggling with too. I went from being a silent observer to asking a lot of questions. I now ask a ton of questions every day. If there is a hint of me not understanding I ask it. If something doesn't really make sense I ask it. And then I listen. Stuttering has gifted me awareness to the importance of what are arguably the 2 greatest qualities of leaders, humility and listening.
Having to deal with stuttering has taught me other lessons as well -
*Gratitude is the key to happiness: In the quiet early mornings I always take time to think of what I am grateful for that day. It can be many things, but it is often what my family has sacrificed to give me this life. It is my wife Holly and our dog Cosmo and the good people in our lives. It can be said the meaning of life is discovered when you find a purpose greater than yourself.
*Fail gracefully: We all have to fail to grow, and we have to learn to fail gracefully. I fear failure just like everyone else. In Steve Jobs' 2005 speech at Stanford, which is the most watched commencement speech ever, he shares 3 life events. Two of the life changing events were failures. The first was dropping out of college and the second was being fired from Apple. He relates these experiences to successes later in life. He finished by telling the next generation of entrepreneurs to "Stay hungry, Stay foolish."
*Not all pain can be seen: Pain we can see we usually know how to offer help. Keeping my issue secret helps me show empathy if others are struggling with issues they keep secret as well. Mental health falls in this category, are we doing enough to address mental health? Most companies aren't. Most of us suffer in silence, not knowing how people would see us after they discover our secret. Fear of judgement often keeps us quiet. It takes us considerable courage and the optimal environment in order for us to face our fears. The speed of business often means certain issues can't be given the proper amount of time to show improvement. And even though we're a business too which means we can't give unlimited time either - but at a financial cost, we do our best to allow people their shot and at least ask the tough questions along the way.
Every Monday morning we have a meeting with select staff to go over updates and set the tone for the week. Some people like to go first. I've requested to go last. Not because I think finance is the most important, but because often I just need to gather my thoughts while others talked. I will not read from a piece of paper simply because – I’m unable to, I never found a fix to my issue. Sometimes I may have a few phrases or cues on my phone as a reminder. I say things from the knowledge that I have from studying the brewery's data almost every day, I say it the way I understand it with no filters. I usually give a tidbit about showing gratitude or self-betterment, maybe a quote, maybe a story I saw. My time in finance I’ve realized the work itself isn’t the most difficult, the most difficult is my ability to communicate reasoning and urgency so that we are cohesive as a group. Being an owner means I get to speak directly from the heart without anything held back, and that has afforded me the ability to not have to read off a piece of paper.
We have a commitment to our staff that we will always take the time to answer any questions they have, no limits. And because of that we're able to explain things as they are, which ultimately helps me from stuttering. There are of course still confidential and private matters but we will always reference when that is the case.
Every day we’re having to do better, for ourselves and for each other. We can only reap the benefits of our work if all of us are able to fully contribute. We have a tough road coming up. Inflation is still high in a slowing economy, a phenomenon that hasn't happened since the 70's. The cost to do business is sky high (inflation) but retail prices have to be kept low (slowing economy). The rest of this year and the upcoming 2023 year are going to be extremely important for all small businesses since we rarely have the capital to battle sustained hardships. We’ll have to sell more beer than ever. For those of you reading this, we can't thank you enough for being supporters and fans. When we first signed the lease to our space, we kind of said let's just see who shows up. And then you all did. Tell your friends about us, when you're out somewhere and they don't have us on tap, tell them your favorite Epidemic beer. We have made significant improvements, if somebody hasn't had our beer within the last few years we would love for them to try it again. We're now an award winning brewery with 6 medals in the last 2 years from major professional competitions. Our brew team wins the medals, but all of us earn them together. Lastly, I am biased but I believe we have the best company culture, and it's unlike any other.
The Vastness Of It all
In your lifetime, you're probably not going to come across a lot of people actively struggling with stuttering. But when you do, please give them a pass. Give them understanding as they work through their issues the same way you'd like understanding as you work through yours. Build awareness that we should all approach problems in a meaningful way. I leave you with this challenge the same way we often leave our employees with the same challenge: Are you making those around you better? Have you found gratitude that day and every day and helped somebody else do the same? If you are in a position of influence, as a manager, a supervisor, or someone in HR, are you asking the tough questions? Are you helping people achieve their best, face their fears (maybe even conquer them)? Are you setting them up for success? All of us are after the same thing, we want to not only live life we want to experience it. Everyone needs help along the way.
The madness begins
Throbbing starts getting the spins
This moment falling apart cue violins
Indescribable fear there’ll be no wins
Sound in my ear creeps up it rings
In this emotional locker embarrassment it brings
The failures and heartbreak each time it stings
Keeping my arms close this straight jacket clings
My glorious voice lodged just below my throat
Inaccessible, unheard, ungainable, no matter how much I hoped
Containing wisdom ready to unleash
But today it remains out of reach
Please please I beg - please release
The stronghold presses it does not cease
The horror as my mouth hangs open no sound to be heard
My stuttering voice remained undeterred
This repeated trauma can’t be deserved
droning, swirling, stuttering, failing…
building, strengthening, owning, conquering…
My life this weakness I couldn’t let define
Letting it consume me the hurt would be mine
Somewhere down below the fears resign
I made a decision my courage can't decline
Year after year I work in bits
Ensuring disappointment no one gets
Dormant and waiting deep below it sits
Every now and then it still hits
I battle it with my tricks, I untangle it with my wits
…I’m in it now no calling it quits
We all struggle with issues wanting to refine
Recognize it own it decide it has no line
We got this be brave it will be fine