A Man Without Fear
Nike invented a job for Kevin Carroll called The Katalyst (the “K” is for Kevin) to serve as an agent for creative change and to add value to the overall mission of the Nike brand. Kevin has travelled the world to promote play as a means of maximizing human potential and creating social change. This might seem a tad idealistic until you see his resume. He speaks 5 languages including Croatian, Czech, Serbian and German. He went from being a high school athletic trainer, to a college athletic trainer, to the athletic trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers in just 5 years. His words have appeared on over 17 million Starbucks coffee cups. He has addressed the United Nations on the importance of play in developing countries. He is the author of 3 highly successful books published by ESPN Books, Disney Press and McGraw Hill–most notably the Rules of the Red Rubber Ball.
He was also abandoned by his parents. Kevin Carroll knows about potential.
Okay, let’s get to it. What is the significance of the “Red Rubber Ball,” and how can a ball create social change?
The significance of “Red Rubber Ball” for me is a metaphor. It’s also a literal thing for me, as far as the ball and sports and what it has meant for me in my chase. It’s a metaphor for my pursuit of possibilities, my human potential and rising above my circumstances—finding a way to demonstrate to people that circumstances don’t dictate a person’s destiny. I truly believe that it didn’t matter what those social workers were saying about me and how they had written me off so early in my life, how people in the neighborhood just looked at my brothers and said, “We know those guys are going to be laborers or whatever.” The “Red Rubber Ball” represents my life in two ways: my chase, but also my pursuit of being my personal best on a regular basis. At Nike I got to travel the world and see, no matter where you go, a ball is always used to bring people together. So, a ball has a meaning to people. Anyone can relate to chasing a ball and doing it with determination. For me it started with those red rubber balls we all used as kids on the playground.
What’s the difference between inspiring somebody and creating social change?
The ball is about your chase—your personal pursuits, your passion and action. How do you manifest your dreams into reality? When somebody is actually chasing their passion, they change. When you get enough people chasing their passion, their red rubber ball, the society changes. People are different when they are doing things in life that are personal and mean something to them. If the entirety of society pursued their passion, the society would be better off in obvious ways. When people have meaning in their lives they are happier and so is the culture.
I get it. The icon of the red rubber ball is a metaphor for a purpose.
It’s also as a symbol for community and belonging to me. Look at it as a symbol of purpose, a metaphor for your own chase.
When I went to your office there were no windows. I saw references to the comic book hero, Daredevil, all over. It reminded me of a secret hideout.What role has comic books, but especially Daredevil, played in your life?
Actually, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me the significance of Daredevil. It’s very personal and emotional when I talk about it out loud. I discovered Daredevil at 10 years old. I remember discovering him rummaging through all the different comic books. I grabbed that one because I saw the tag line, “The man without fear.” I took a pause, I looked at it and I said, “I want to be that.” I wanted to be the man without fear because that’s all I was dealing with—a lot of uncertainty, a lot of disappointment, a lot of challenges as a child—and I wanted to have courage, I wanted to live a life of courage and be courageous as I faced things.
So, I devoured Matthew Murdock (Daredevil’s alter ego) and Daredevil in all things. I’ve always kept him at my side as a reminder that I can live a life of courage. I can lead that way. I can have abilities beyond what people can see. It’s not just about a superhero who happens to be blind. It was this whole other thing about him having presence and being more present because he lost his sight. He lost his sight because he tried to save someone when he was a boy. His willingness to sacrifice himself—all these things made me realize that I wanted to have that superheroesque ingredient, that DNA, in me. So I did my best to manifest it. Daredevil has always meant the world to me. I only get Daredevil comics.
In a way your windowless office is a secret lair…
Your office is filled with collections from your travels. Do these sensitize you, and can the average person, or even a failed person, benefit from collecting things?
I think it’s important for people to surround themselves with things that move them. When you are dealing with a challenge or facing some adversity, you have something to look to that can be a source of inspiration to uplift you. All those things you see in my office are just those kinds of moments or recollections or memories that are uplifting. Immerse yourself in things that feed your creative soul, things that feed you on a regular basis so that you get sustenance for your soul.
What is the most important or significant item in your vast collection?
I have a bottle of magic. I’ve had that bottle of magic for nearly a decade now. It used to travel the world with me. It’s been handled by thousands of people who wanted to pour magic on themselves—from business people to students, from civic leaders to individuals—anyone that may feel they want some help with a hard time. On it says, “MAGIC uncork the possibilities.”
But it’s not really magic?
Or is it? The question is—and this is what I’ve learned from children—that bottle represents belief beyond something you can see. Children always hold on to something like that. They don’t even question it. Adults always go, “Hmm, I’m not really sure,” but once I tell them where the bottle’s been, who it touched… After I explain to them it’s about belief, it’s about faith, they say, “Give me a little bit of that.” Belief and faith, chasing your own personal red rubber ball, having purpose—it’s transformative.
Speaking of children, how has the struggle of your childhood informed your life?
Abandonment is something that my childhood really presented to me; finding a way to manage that and deal with that loss. I was told as a young person that children who deal with a lot of adversity and challenges and overcome them and rise above them will reap the benefits in their adulthood. This was my pastor who said that at my church. Ms. Lane, my childhood best friend’s mom, always reminded me of that. Embracing that struggle and how that struggle was framed for me had a huge impact on how I looked at my plight. Had I not had others framing it as an opportunity, things might have turned out different.
What’s interesting is that most people who grow up in those circumstances don’t become Kevin Carroll. It makes me think that the “Red Rubber Ball” creates social change by reframing one’s situation in life.
Absolutely, because there are plenty of other choices out there, especially when you don’t have somebody who is really keeping you in line. You have to make a lot of big decisions quickly. “What’s my path going to be?” You have to bear all that comes with that because people will hate on you.
You give people a box of magic in the back of one of your books. What is a box of magic?
A box of magic is about your story.
After they create their box by artistically rendering their story on the outside and putting things that represent their dreams on the inside, they have a better understanding of themselves and an increased ability to communicate their goals.
Yes, they have now defined that for themselves and because of that they will be able to communicate it effectively to others. We need to be able to share the story of our passion. We need to be able to get people to believe in us if we are going to expect others to help us.
It’s not just about defining it for yourself. It’s so that you can communicate yourself and your goals to others.
Absolutely. I think that’s imperative. That’s the courage moment. So many people keep dreams locked up inside, they are scared to death of saying them to others. Creating a box of magic makes it possible to communicate one’s dreams, which is the first step. It’s out there now, so it forces one to be accountable to their dreams.
That’s intense when you think about it. What about a person who is stuck in a dead-end job for 20 years and is maybe in a rut, has bills, a mortgage and a family to support? How can a person that is 55 years old and pursued a life that maybe they aren’t happy with decide to chase their “Red Rubber Ball?”
I absolutely believe that we can all find a source of passion, a source of joy in our lives. I’m 52 years old. I’m not some rose-colored, ridiculous dreamer kind of person.
You look like you’re 25.
Thank you. I say this to people: “What’s your primal source of joy? What would you be willing to do for free?” So we have bills. We have obligations. We have commitments. Check. That dead-end job that you’ve had has actually served an amazing purpose. It has allowed you to meet your commitments and to do the things that you need to do—to keep a roof over your head, food on the table and so forth. That job has actually been something wonderful if you actually look at it a little differently. Yeah, maybe it hasn’t fulfilled your soul. Maybe it hasn’t, but it actually has reduced some noise.
Now, knowing that that job is providing that, how can you then take that, whatever hours are left out of the day, to go and pursue something that feeds you, pursue something that brings you joy? If you do that it will change the way you look at your job and all other aspects of your life. By changing you, it changes society as it creates a happier, healthier person in a profound way.
So the “Red Rubber Ball” forces you to narrow down the one thing that is that thing for you. Even if you don’t build a career around it, just the fact that you are now pursuing a passion is going to improve your life and improve the lives of people around you.
Exactly. You can enhance everything. I think that’s what people tend not to realize. They’d rather rail on what they don’t have. Tell me what it is that you would do for free. Tell me what it is that gives you passion. What’s giving you the ability to have some money, some freedom, some economic freedom, to be able to pursue something you love?
Okay, should there ever be a distinction between work and play? What about the surgeon? Shouldn’t a surgeon be serious?
Oh! So here’s a great story to combat that.There’s a surgeon Malcolm Gladwell writes about—a genius, Charlie Wilson. Charlie Wilson is a neurosurgeon in the Boston area, one of the most renowned in North America, maybe globally. Charlie talks about how his work is play and how he is doing the most delicate, intricate of surgeries on the brain and how he practiced and practiced on cadavers. He practiced on mice, all these things—which to him was a form of play—to get to this level of mastery. So that by the time he would actually go in to do the surgeries, he reveled in the unexpected—where he had problems to solve, where he could play. Because he had found a way to play toward a level of mastery, he had that confidence.
What about the garbage man? How would he play?
People on the garbage truck—we used to talk about this all the time. The guys in my neighborhood who were garbage men, they love the fact that that job which paid great money—hard demanding work—they then had all this economic freedom to pursue their joy: their fishing, their love of muscle cars. All these other things. Once again, that dead-end job—no it’s not, if it’s actually availing of you the ability to pursue your other passions.
Okay. And that would work on any scale. What if you are an illegal immigrant and you are working in a factory, or on a farm—that person can find a way to play?
That work is providing something very special. I worked for the Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation. They work with the migrant farm workers who have come through Oregon. For many immigrants it’s really about trying to make a better life, trying to encourage their children to seek something better than their own opportunity. They’re also availing their children of education, of books and all these better things. So when they realize that this job, this work that they’re doing, is presenting opportunity, it can become something that represents the ability to play for them. It could be about your work being play or can be about your work providing play. Knowing that your job is providing for something you love can drive your passion in that job no matter the work you do.
What is the fundamental social change that you would like to see?
Access to knowledge. I think education and books are so critical. That’s a very personal thing because books really were magical for me as a child. That knowledge, access to knowledge, I think, is critical.
Is there any other way that play creates social change?
Yes, you could say, “We all speak ball.” The simplicity of play holds attention for a discussion, and then immediately following one is playing together, which will enrich and enhance any discussion. So before starting this game let’s talk about this issue—whether it is HIV in Africa, how we can be more productive as a business unit, or how we can be a better family. It will make almost anything seem possible—to follow a difficult topic with play.
I have a collection of soccer balls from around the world that I have traded with kids from various countries. Soccer balls made of everything from garbage to banana leaves. It is amazing what people will come up with in an effort to play.
Is it true that you have your own line of different red balls? And, that you got a major corporation to ship a bunch of them to Haiti?
Molten USA, the largest sports equipment manufacturer in the world, based in Reno, Nevada—they’re my custom ball manufacturers and production partners. They’re a phenomenal group, and believers in what I’m doing. They support a lot of my efforts. They do a lot of matching of my ball donations. We did a project with Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising where we did a ball donation to Haiti after the earthquake. It was actually just to bring some joy back to the children. A lot of their personal items and things were lost. There was so much upheaval. One of the things that was asked time and time again is, “Can we find something for the children to do so that they can start too—as the adults start—to address the problems and issues they have?” They need to be able to play.
How many balls did you send?
Oh, it was thousands.
I don’t want to be cynical, but you’re also a very sought-after corporate speaker. When you go into a corporation—a profit-making business—and you speak to business people, are you really trying to create social change?
So, a big part of it has to do with business culture. So many times, businesses want me to come and talk about, how could we be more innovative? How can we be more creative? I say, “Well, do you play? Do you allow there to be purposeful play in your business?” As I said before, when you improve the esprit de corps and the community aspect of a business you improve the society.
It’s kind of like how Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has organized and simulated hacking contests?
Yes. Exactly right. I always get the crossed arms with the business people at first. I love to watch this. I call that the transformation from the boxer to the hugger. The boxer is tight and closed-off and the hugger is open and vulnerable, they’re leaning forward. My goal when I’m on stage is to get them to get to that place. I work my behind off to convince them, be it through my own personal stories, through anecdotal stuff, but also I hit them with some science. I’ll give you whatever it’s going to take because there’s plenty out there to justify and support it till I get that moment right, where I see that transformation happen in the room. That’s when I know, okay, they get it.
What’s the difference being an agent for social change and being a motivational speaker?
Big difference. A motivational speaker, to me—which I don’t even consider myself to be, I always felt I’m just a speaker. Whatever the outcome that you get from my exchange, that’s on you because I don’t have this arrogance to say, “I’m going to motivate you. I’m going to stir you up.” Because maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll make you reflective. Maybe I’ll anger you because you’re not doing something. You may realize, “Shit! I’m not doing all I can. What the hell am I doing?” And so, my goal is to enlighten. I’m a teacher at heart.
But do you think sports can pull our attention away from more important aspects of living or what is going on in the world?
I am sure it can have that effect, but not if it is framed correctly. Not when it’s being used as a tool of social innovation. People will always pay attention before they play and be more reflective after. It breaks down barriers between people and within oneself. So, before we play we can hold back the ball and say, “Let’s have a conversation.” Again, it is all in the way that you frame it. That is the story of my life. My grandparents framed my adversity as opportunity. No matter what you think about what I say, that is so real.
You’re from Philadelphia. Why do you choose to live in Portland and how do you feel about Portland as a city.
I really feel Portland is conducive to creativity and innovation and inspiration, for me personally. I love the weather because it makes you retreat and have time to think. I have time to reflect. I have time to take ideas and start to put shape to them. I love that about this city. I love the fact that I can find enough like-minded people that have the same like-mindedness about creativity and innovation. So, I think the city really attracts that. Many people talk about managing the weather here. I don’t think it’s a matter of managing the weather. I just think it’s more about your attitude and what it is that you’re trying to accomplish here.
Do you still carry any of your abandonment with you, or any of the pain of that abandonment, in your current adult life with all of your success?
I don’t think it was actually the abandonment more than the doubters. I would hear the social workers when they would come to talk with my grandparents. I would sit at the top of the steps because I was very curious. I wanted to hear what they were saying. The first time I heard them—like I said, they basically wrote me off. I got a chip on my shoulder from that and thought, “I’ll show you.” I only was 6 or 7 years old at the time.
What would you say to a person that isn’t even trying, that’s beaten down, depressed and apathetic? Do you ever get people like that, that come to you, “That’s great for you, Kevin, but my life sucks.”
Do you really believe that if you tell yourself positive things constantly, and the right things, that eventually you start behaving like that?
I think you get what you put out or attract, right? That’s not some esoteric whimsical thing. I really do believe that if you start to shift your patterns in terms of how you see where you’re going, what you say, that you change. I think that’s what happens.
Okay. How much of success is physical work? How much of success is belief? What’s the ratio?
I think that the hard work part is 70%, belief is 30%. I think you’ve got to push yourself, man. You’ve got to put the time in, but you can’t ever stop that belief part, right? I also think you have to be open to unexpected twist and turns, because many times, in my journey… I say to people, “How could you even script some of these places that I’ve been?” I always just kept my mind and my eye on the specific thing that I wanted—being around sports, trying to find a way. There were tangents that made no sense at all. But I had belief. I believed that it was going to make me better for my life to be around sports, and that informed all of my decision making, even if in some remote way.
Do you have any “haters,” and how do you deal with them?
In Soweto, South Africa several years ago, this young man came up to me and said, “Mr. Kevin, do you know what haters are?” I said, “Yeah, I think so.” He says, “No. Actually, I think haters are confused admirers. I think that they’re just confused. They really admire what you’re doing, but their reaction is to try to shut you down to push you back.” You have to learn to manage people like that even if they are in your own family.
Look, there’s a beautiful rainbow. That’s a good moment right there. [Kevin has noticed a rainbow hovering in the sky right out of the window during our interview] Do we note it?
Yes, I really like the timing. With everything that you’ve done, what do you personally consider you greatest achievement?
Being a single father, raising my two sons and being a father to my stepdaughter—now being around her for nearly 12 years.
So your human relationships, your personal relationships—the people that rely on you and love you, that’s the most important thing?
What is your most significant failure?
As my wife always points out, I over-trust. It’s in my nature to believe in the best in everyone. In doing so, people have disappointed me. I think that in the first five years of my business—I thought I understood what it was to have a business and all that, but I made a lot of missteps, a lot of over-trusting and not understanding. An artist also needs to be the businessperson.
So, basically, you weren’t taking responsibility for the business side?
Richard Branson (the founder of Virgin) said, “You can’t call yourself an entrepreneur until you’ve failed.” I failed in not managing my business in the right way. I know that I failed that way in the first five years.
It’s a really profound statement from Richard Branson because it’s one of those feel-good things that everyone quotes. Do you really think it’s true?
I would think that if you’re out there as an entrepreneur and you’re trying to establish your business, you’re not going to know everything. It’s impossible. I would think it’s part of the life of a risk-taker. Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Have you ever bombed on stage?
Not really. I always tell people that the two most difficult audiences for me are grade school kids and creatives. Creatives are in the business of inspiring. Grade school kids have no filters. If you don’t connect, they will let you know. So, you’ve got to work your butt off for both of them. It’s interesting, they’re both the same audience in many ways.
Is there anything in your life that you haven’t done? Some major goal that you want to accomplish?
I want to fill a stadium with the young and the young at heart having everyone read the book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” out loud. I love that book. I think it’s one of the most beautiful books ever. Imagine everyone is reading in unison from the book. The reverberation of that story is just filling that entire stadium.
You paused; you were thinking when I asked that question. It was a long pause. Why was that?
Because I always love seeing the image first in my mind’s eye of a stadium rocking with reading.
Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
In Portland Oregon, married, being inspired by others and hoping that I’ve found the way to get that stadium moment done.
In terms of your success, do you really feel like chasing your red rubber ball on purpose is what keeps you from being derailed? Or is it Kevin?
I think it’s about my purpose. I think it’s about purpose for anyone.
So if you can get someone to take on their own purpose, you can get them to not be derailed by their failures?
I think it’s your ability to recover. That’s part of having a life. It’s getting knocked down, tripping and falling, and all those things. Choosing and chasing a purpose makes it possible to recover more quickly. I’m not trying to be cliché, but it’s your ability to pick yourself back up, right? And look up and say, “Okay, that happened.” Choice. I can wallow and curl up in a ball, or I can get myself up and try to figure out what the heck am I going to do about this. I think that it’s that fight in us. It’s that willingness to fight for something that we really want. And to heck with the people trying to say that that’s not going to be possible, or maybe it’s not exactly the way I envision it. Maybe it’s some other version of it that I had no idea of, but you get closer.
Because you’re chasing that red rubber ball—your purpose—it’s going to be a better existence. Your going to be closer than you would have been.
I truly believe that. I think that’s what I fight for on a daily basis in my life. There is no “seven easy steps” to success. It’s a battle day by day and it is relative to where you were yesterday. You have to focus on the positive.
Do you ever think about the fact that you’re just a regular dude and that has an impact on your ability to be believed?
Yeah. I firmly believe that I’m every man. This is what I love. I walk into a high school gym with 2,000 kids, they start reading off my bio, and then I start telling them my story. And they look at me and think, “I can do that.” Yeah, you can.