Today I interview Nicholas Whitaker who shares his journey of finding his place in the world. He felt out of place in his hometown and decided to leave, which led him to Baltimore where he struggled with poverty and lived with a woman that was not a good fit. For years, he lived in unstable housing, including his car and squat buildings, while working in restaurants and coffee shops to make ends meet. During this period, he often turned to partying to escape reality. However, his perspective changed after experiencing hallucinogens, which sparked his interest in exploring consciousness and understanding his place in the world.
Following his time in Baltimore, Nicholas moved to New York City to attend film school, where he discovered that he was more passionate about telling other people’s stories than his own. This led him to become a documentary filmmaker, instructor, and teacher, working with various industries such as business, government, nonprofits, advocacy groups, universities, and even the Occupy Wall Street movement. Through his work, he aimed to give people a voice and help them tell their stories in a way that resonates with others.
After meeting his partner, Nicholas relocated to Colorado to be closer to nature and have more space to process and deal with his experiences. Since 2013, he has been on a journey of self-discovery, learning how to help others through the experiences he has overcome and the things he has learned along the way. He describes his experience with hallucinogens as a catalyst moment for him to explore consciousness and better understand the world, which he has been investigating and discovering ever since.
Nicholas is a Chief Wellbeing Officer and Coach helping tech workers and founders thrive in ambiguity. He will coach you through the uncertainty of life’s big pivots to find greater balance, calm, focus, and fulfillment.
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Transcript of Interview
Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com
Episode #101 Nicholas Whitaker
“Exploring Consciousness and Discovering One’s Self”
(0:35) Doreen Downing
Hi, this is Dr. Doreen Downing. I’m the host of the Find Your Voice change your life podcast. What I do here is invite guests that fascinate me. I like to hear more about the story of how people find their voice. And I know I’m a psychologist, I know life is a struggle or can be a struggle. But I also know that the struggles are part of what brings us more character and help us be more of who we’re meant to be. And it’s our path that is what we’re here for. So today I get to have this conversation with Nicholas Whitaker. Hi, Nicholas. It’s really a great day, I know. It’s your birthday. And I’m so glad you’re celebrating with me today. And I’m glad to give you this platform to share your story. You did send a bio. And I’d like to read that before we launch into more of our conversation so people get a sense of well, you didn’t have a voice but Whoa, do you have one now!
(1:46) Nicholas Whitaker
Thanks so much. Yeah.
(1:47) Doreen Downing
Nicholas Whitaker is the go-to guide for high achievers looking to navigate stress, burnout, and big life challenges. Nicholas thrived for two decades in the big tech, academia, and media industries, while building expertise as a certified mindfulness facilitator and while being coached as a public speaker and workshop facilitator. Whether you’re dealing with layoffs, uncertainty, or just seeking greater balance in life, Nicholas offers one-to-one and group coaching team development workshops, and consulting for organizations that want to prioritize well-being in the workplace. And you can find Nicholas at nicholaswhitaker.com.
(2:42) Nicholas Whitaker
Sounds so much greater when you read it. Thank you so much.
(2:46) Doreen Downing
Well, what I usually do, and if you’ve listened to any of the podcasts, you have seen that I like to get at first some kind of foundational sense of where you came from, because I think that early time of being out in the world is whether we’re seen and heard, starts with our family. So if you could reach back in there and give us some snapshots of your early life and what those might have been in terms of challenges about finding your voice.
(3:28) Nicholas Whitaker
Yeah, absolutely. Well, first of all, thanks for having me on. It’s really good to connect with you. And I’ve just been a big fan for quite a while now. So this is exciting to spend my birthday or part of my birthday, at least with you to chat about these things. Going back to my childhood, I had a pretty rocky childhood, honestly. I had three half-sisters, two from my dad’s first marriage, and one from my mom’s first marriage, and I only lived with one of them. She was about seven years older than me. So there was a really big gap in age between us and we really didn’t have a whole lot of interconnection. But there was a lot of strife, uncertainty, and unease in the family as we were growing up so there was a little bit of violence in the household and there were just a lot of mental health issues growing up. I found myself spending a lot of my time either alone in the attic of our house, which is actually where my bedroom was, a fully finished bedroom. It wasn’t like being locked up there or anything like that. But I spent a lot of my time up there alone, daydreaming, playing, really kind of occupying myself. And as my mom says, I kind of raised myself in a lot of ways.
My parents did the best that they could, they were both small business owners. They were working in the American steel industry. My mom worked for my dad as a bookkeeper, secretary, and business manager and my dad was the engineer, the person that actually built all the equipment. So they were occupied a lot. I think I was a latchkey kid. I came home from school and took care of myself, and really spent a lot of time alone. I also grew up in the middle of the country. I lived in central Pennsylvania, about 45-50 minutes outside the nearest town. So there weren’t a lot of neighbors and there weren’t a lot of close social ties. For the most part, a lot of my childhood was pretty solitary and I left my childhood home very early. I got out of there shortly after high school, chased a girl to Baltimore, Maryland, and from then on out was basically on a trajectory from city to city and experience to experience until I found myself in New York City for about 13 years.
(5:39) Doreen Downing
Well, that’s certainly a snapshot, let me pick out a couple that kind of stood out to me. One is the different siblings that you had. And nowadays, I guess we call that a blended family. But it doesn’t sound like it blended very well, right?
(5:56) Nicholas Whitaker
No, not so well, with my half-sisters. I didn’t really have a very particularly close relationship with them, they lived in different states and had different parents that they lived with. And the age difference, I think, just by itself was pretty challenging. We’d see each other occasionally, during family reunions once a year. We would drive down to Kentucky and spend some time with family sitting and listening, which is a lot of what we did down there. But my older sister, who I did live with, again, several years apart, had a lot of struggles early on, and I got to witness a lot of that in how my parents related to her, and how that impacted the dynamic of the family more broadly.
(6:37) Doreen Downing
I know we’ll talk more about mental health, but you did reference mental health in terms of that. Can you give a few more details about that?
(6:45) Nicholas Whitaker
I think it should have been a few different ways. I think there were some major life events that happened in our family, some losses, and some deaths that radically impacted people’s mental health and just the way that the fabric of the family dynamic held together or not. So, for my parents and my sister, there were emotional regulation issues and other types of conditions that were making it really difficult for a loving, caring, and connected type of family environment. And then, I suffered from anxiety way before I even knew what anxiety was. I think for me, it was an unease or a discontentedness with my environment and with the people around me. That tipped me into punk and anarchist-type activity, like in middle school and high school, that’s what I gravitated towards. So I was lashing out quite a bit in different ways, just to try to make sense of the world around me, but not skillfully, and really not using my voice per se. It was just outbursts and these big emotional swings, because I just didn’t know where to place all the feelings that I was having.
(7:54) Doreen Downing
Yeah, but I get that it really was a voice even though it was one from outbursts because it was something inside that needed to be expressed. And one other thing you mentioned, is violence.
(8:09) Nicholas Whitaker
Yeah, there were some really difficult things going on in my family. My mom, specifically, is a survivor of domestic abuse. Her prior relationship was pretty much filled with that, and I think that had a lot to do with the struggles that my sister had growing up because she was in that environment. And then that spilled into my experience growing up with my own father. It wasn’t the most violent house that I’ve heard of, but there was definitely a sense of lack of safety there. And there was a sense of having to protect or otherwise keep yourself small, to not be in the crosshairs of anger or rage, or the volatility that would often show up. I think, honestly, just because of the pressures that everybody was experiencing, and the lack of skill and being able to navigate those.
(9:00) Doreen Downing
I appreciate the clarity that you’re bringing to our conversation. A lot of times, it’s hard for people to talk about those kinds of mental health issues, the violence, the effect it has on our psyches early on, but with you, it feels like there’s clarity, there’s integration, there’s the truth about what happened, there isn’t blame. It’s just, it is what it was.
(9:29) Nicholas Whitaker
I appreciate it. Yeah, that’s a lot of therapy. It’s a lot of therapy and a lot of personal work to try to uncover those things that I was angry with for a very, very long time. I think even in the way that I showed up in my relationships, I had a bit of a savior complex. I really was gravitating towards partners who I felt like I needed to help or to save in some capacity and there was a lack of an equal footing there in terms of power dynamics, and just what we were both able to give and get out of those relationships. So it’s something that I’ve thought quite a bit about, and even in work environments, that type of childhood, that type of early experience. I’m way up on the scale in terms of adverse childhood experiences, and those show up in the workplace and the way that I deal with managers and deal with colleagues. It impacts every part of your life. So it’s something I’ve paid a lot of attention to over the last few years, as I’ve been unpacking my own experience and trying to serve the community a little bit better.
(10:33) Doreen Downing
As I’m listening to you I’m getting this kind of “aha” moment, about voice. And that is, you talked about being contained and kind of shrinking back into yourself. Yet when you had the opportunity there were no boundaries, at least with the voice. And then you made it clear how it seems like those kinds of early experiences, that kind of conditioning, that shaping, make their way into corporations, don’t they?
(11:11) Nicholas Whitaker
I think it’s that awareness. That was the key piece for me. I spent years just reacting, and there was trauma there that had been unprocessed. There were a lot of physical manifestations of the tension and stress that I wasn’t really identifying and dealing with. Gut health issues, back pain, all these different things, were poor coping mechanisms. And then, once I got into high-pressure environments, where there’s a lot of interpersonal dynamics, it’s very much like being in a family dynamic. And a lot of those different parts will show up. When I was confronted with management that felt a lot like the type of parenting that I got from my father growing up, and immediately I was butting heads with those leaders. The initial reactions were the same kind of punkish, anarchist-reactive ways of responding to my environment, which just doesn’t work in those environments very well. And it became really obvious to me that I needed to change my approach and do a little bit more inner work to be able to discover how to speak about these things in a way that’s productive, and that doesn’t cause more harm. Because at the end of the day, that’s really what I wanted to make sure that I was doing. I wasn’t perpetuating that cycle of harm and trauma that we tend to inflict on the world around us when we haven’t really processed or otherwise internalized some of those things.
(12:36) Doreen Downing
Processed and internalized, digest and get rid of all those metaphors we use. I’m getting a clearer picture of what it takes for corporations to have changed because they are filled with people. And people if they do not have awareness, or do not have this kind of clarity about their impulses, and what voices are coming out inside of them and their behavior, it feels like it’s just a repetition. Corporations, as you say, are families.
(13:39) Doreen Downing
I know you said that you moved around a lot after you left home early. And tell us more about some of your early journeys into the world and how you found your voice.
(14:33) Nicholas Whitaker
Well, it was a circuitous path. I think my initial response was, let me get out of this town, like get me out of this environment that I’m in because it didn’t feel aligned and it didn’t feel like I really fit there. And that was a theme that I think perpetuated throughout my entire life was this feeling of not really belonging, not really quite fitting in until I was able to really find more of a voice and more of a way to kind of speak about my experience in a way that connected with other people. But yeah, I had bounced to Baltimore, I was in poverty at the time and was living with a woman, which was a bad fit. She’s a lovely human being. But I was deep in my trauma cycle at that point and really didn’t have the language or words to be able to explain what was going on. So of course, my romantic relationships aren’t going to function quite right. And then I spent a couple of years bouncing around very housing-insecure situations, I lived out of my car for a little while, I lived out of squat buildings in Washington, DC, I was working in restaurants and coffee shops really just to kind of get by and really spending most of my time escaping. I spent a lot of time in the early I should say, the late rave scene in Washington DC during the late 90s. So it was just a lot of partying a lot of kind of like obliterating my mind as much as possible. But that kind of turned itself into further explorations of consciousness, playing around with some hallucinogenics and things like that, which suddenly changed the way that I was approaching, like ingesting exogenous experiences, to change my consciousness. And I think that was one of the moments where it just kind of like tipped me over until like a different approach to like understanding the world around me and understanding my place in it. And I think that was all like a seed that got planted that came to fruition many, many years later.
But that was kind of like the beginning of a new journey, I think that I was on, was at a party with a friend of mine. And like he handed me a book about filmmaking and got me really excited about the possibility of becoming a filmmaker. So I found myself falling yet another woman to New York City, where we both ended up going to university there for a few years. And that put me on a whole other path of helping to tell other people’s stories I originally went to film school because I wanted to be a filmmaker to tell my stories. But once I started getting into it, I realized what I was most excited about, was hearing about other people’s journeys and what they were experiencing. So that kind of kicked me off on this whole journey of being an instructor and a teacher and a documentary filmmaker for about a decade in New York City. I did a whole bunch of different projects across different industries, like, business, government, nonprofits, advocacy groups, did some training and things like that at universities, and eventually, places like Occupy Wall Street, where there were these massive movements happening in the space. And what I was really interested in was trying to help give more people a voice that actually like dovetails quite a bit with like, what you were talking about here was like, how do I help people tell their story in a way that resonates and they can help people better understand the world around them.
And 13 years later, I met this really wonderful woman, we were both looking for people outside of our immediate community on OKCupid and ended up finding each other turns out, we knew all the same people. So that didn’t work so well. But the relationship has worked really fantastically ever since. And, we spent a couple of years in New York but decided at some point that New York wasn’t our home anymore. And we needed to find something different and kind of made our way out here to Colorado on a little bit of a whim. But found ourselves out here at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and close to nature and close to trails. And I think that also helped me really kind of come back into my own body. And in my own experience, in ways that I wasn’t able to do in an urban environment, just a lot of noise, a lot of stimulation, a lot of activity, a lot of hustling and doing just trying to get by and out here, a little bit more spaciousness, a little bit more rootedness in nature and the cycles of the seasons and things like that. But also just giving me the space to kind of process and deal with everything. So, it was back in 2013. And I’ve been on a pretty intense journey ever since of self-discovery and finding ways to help other people with the experiences that I’ve overcome and through some of the things that I’ve learned along the way.
(18:46) Doreen Downing
Well, you mentioned earlier today that it was some kind of opening with the, I guess, drugs as you call them. The hallucinogens that went oh, there’s something about more expansiveness that and you just now reference space and groundedness. And I, I can see the connection there. That the, the idea the the experience was, Oh, there’s more in Oh, since 2013, it feels like you’ve really, really living a life where you’re discovering and investigating what this more is. Say more. Well, say more about the more.
(19:29) Nicholas Whitaker
Yeah, I’ll tell you more about the more. Yeah, honestly, it was a catalyst moment, and there is Ram Dass and a few other people put together this book called The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was a riff off of an older text that became a guide for how to deal with psychedelic experiences and how to kind of move through journeys. And this was the early 2000s, when I really kind of dove into this and started reading this in more detail. And one of the things that really struck me in that book and some of his other writing and some of his recordings was, he too had been like a psycho not, had been experimenting with different types of hallucinatory experiences, with other types of drugs and experiences that could help open up consciousness. But what he really found was that meditation itself was one of the most powerful things that helped move him forward. And it helped him move closer to what he called coming home. And I think that, for me, it really resonated was all of these various different things that I was trying and dabbling with, they were depleted, they were temporary, and they always had some sort of a collapse at the end. And there’s always a bit of a hangover afterward. But with meditation and mindfulness, this was sustainable. This was something I could tap into at any point during the day and didn’t disrupt everything else that I was doing. And I think it was around, the early 2000s, that I started to build a mindfulness practice. But it wasn’t until like, I hit burnout, the first time working at Google, and really started dealing with some of the unprocessed emotions and some of their unprocessed trauma that I had experienced, that I had really become more involved with meditation on a regular basis, it became more of a way of being instead of just something I reached for whenever I was in crisis.
And that was what I think really started to open up this awareness that there was more to my experience than the immediate thoughts that were popping up and the immediate knee-jerk reactions that I had. So like cultivating this mindfulness meditation practice over the years, and then eventually diving even deeper into training. And facilitating mindfulness became this whole new way of being in this whole new way of approaching what to do with all of this life that I’ve had and what to do with these experiences that I’ve accumulated over the years. And, the teacher in me and a storyteller in me and the helper and I that wanted to help people and help heal people found a lot of solaces, and found a lot of strength in that, in that gift of learning mindfulness and being able to teach that to other people. So that’s been a big part of my opening. And a big part of my awakening, over the last many years is finding these tools and finding these different modalities like meditation, like journaling, like being in nature and connecting with nature, that that has been a big component of, I think, what has allowed me to come more fully home to myself. And what I mean by that is like having more acceptance, so what my experience is, understanding that wherever I am, that’s where I belong. And knowing that there are things that I can offer the world, there are things that I can offer people, from my perspective, and from my experience that will help others suffer less. And that’s given me a lot of purpose and meaning in life.
(22:53) Doreen Downing
Well, what you’ve just said, I think, is the message and I hope people can hear that that is coming from your true voice, the word around being lined up, and this whole idea of you getting to carry yourself all day long. And it’s not something you have to like to disappear and go take some sub to substances, like the inner you is I use the word home. And yeah, and you mentioned Ram Dass, and how that works with my, my work around speaking is that in order to be heard, now, you have to be here now. Right? That’s the play on his work be here. Now.
(23:37) Nicholas Whitaker
It’s all like that. Yeah, and it’s so true. I think all we have is this moment, and the more present we can be to this moment and the more connected we can be to our experience at this moment. I think the closer we are to like what I like to call a near-life experience, right? So I’m always seeking that opportunity to like strip away all the veils and strip away all the extra garbage that we kind of bring along to our experience. So we can just get down to that true connected, heart-led, heart-centered way of being that I think a lot of us are striving for, even though we might not be able to put a word to it. Like we want that sense of being home and being comfortable and being at ease with ourselves. Regardless of whatever’s happening around us,
(24:21) Doreen Downing
Heart lead, heart-centered. This is wonderful. We’re going to come to a close pretty quick here, but I like that how that rings you know, the resonance of that idea of people dropping down into their heart and I feel like what we’ve done today already I mean, people can’t if people who are listening don’t see us, just with our smiles and it feels like our open hearts are connecting in. So you know I can feel it. You connect with people with your words, but the words are coming from experience and you have found something within you that you are committed to living every single I was gonna say day, every single moment, right?
(25:10) Nicholas Whitaker
I think that the real gift of this experience is, well, there are a few things, I think understanding the intuition and trusting that inner voice has been a big part of my journey. And then knowing how to skillfully use that to connect with other people. It’s not so much like banging your fists on the table and shouting when things are wrong. Like, that doesn’t always resonate with folks. And that’s something I even had tried in the past. But I think, sharing my struggle, sharing my challenges makes it okay for other people to know that it’s hard sometimes. And talking about what works and what hasn’t, over the years, I think has really been the thing that’s helped me connect with other people in more genuine and complete ways. Not to mention, it keeps me honest, it keeps me doing these practices. It keeps me like paying attention and assessing what’s working and what’s not. And seeking, new new and better ways, to feel complete and to help other people do the same thing.
(26:08) Doreen Downing
Thank you. Thank you so much for being you and for taking the time to speak up and share your voice today. I’m going to say one more thing about you that what I’ve enjoyed specifically is the way that you flow into the moment there’s, you just open yourself up and your voice just, it’s like music listening to you. It’s like, oh, yeah, I like that sound. Oh, that’s lyrical, that staccato? You know what I mean?
(26:40) Nicholas Whitaker
I appreciate that. I’ll take that. Yeah, I wish I could say it’s intentional. So much of it. I think he’s just like, trying to step into my experience as much as possible, and trying to stay open to whatever comes out and trusting that at some point, it’ll make sense to the other person. Hopefully,
(26:57) Doreen Downing
it made total sense today, and so people can find you, Nicholas whittaker.com. Is that? Yeah. And it’ll be in the show notes. Okay, thank you. Thank you. Nick goes.
(27:10) Nicholas Whitaker
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
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