July 20, 2017

John Walsh on the Power of Purpose (Part 1)

In May, the entire PHOS team took a day out of the studio to attend Leadercast, an all-day, immersive leadership development event. One of the biggest moments of the day was the opportunity to hear from John Walsh.

John has been a friend of PHOS for some time. He has an absolutely incredible story to share about his life: a troubled beginning, a turbulent middle, and an end that he sees as his launching point into greater things. John currently serves as a financial executive at Walt Disney.

Below is the video of John’s full talk, sharing his story, and how it led him to develop a formula that he uses to find his purpose. Below is the transcript of that video.

After his talk, John sat down with our CEO, Brandon West, for a Q&A session driven by the audience. In a few weeks, we’ll share that video in Part 2.


I’m pretty excited about this and also nervous from not the perspective of speaking, but from what I’m about to share with you. So I’m here to really do two things today. One is I’m gonna share with you a story, and it’s my story. In traditional Disney fashion, that’s what we do, we tell stories. So I’m going to tell you a story.

And, as I think about it Disney stories are all kinda the same, right? You’ve got a main character, they have to overcome some sort of a challenge, they probably lose their parents, and then they overcome in the end. So stay with me for a second, because I know what’s happening. You’re in your mind starting to run through the Disney movies and seeing if that’s true. We’ll do that exercise maybe later (Brandon, maybe we can do a Q&A on that one).

More importantly, (because I’m a finance guy), I’m gonna give you a math formula. We’re gonna walk through it, so if you wanna write it down, I’m gonna fill in the blanks for your later, and connect not only my story, but everything you’re hearing today.

So as we think about the story I’m about to share with you, I should start by telling you that I’ve talked to a few people about my story and there are a few people (a couple of students, my wife, that’s pretty much it), that know the punchline. The punchline is that I was homeless.

What I’m about to share with you right now I have never shared with anybody. Nobody knows but me. And now you’re 500 of my closest friends, and you all know. So I’m gonna share my story with you.

My story is incredibly (still to this day) embarrassing. It is also hopefully a story of encouragement. It is a story still of some pain for me, but it’s also a story of just incredible pride.

Any time you look at your story and you guys are all writing your story right now, whenever you write your story: beginning, middle, and end. So I’m gonna go back to the beginning for me, and then hopefully paint a picture for you that leads to your end.

The Story

I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. Middle-class family. My dad was in computer science, my mom stayed home with us, with my brother and my sister, the normal life. Until 13 years old.

At 13 years old I’m playing football, and I come home, I walk into my house, and it’s chaos. My brother and sister are crying, my parents are fighting. Have you ever walked into a room and you can kinda feel the tension in the room? It was palpable. Something happened.

Now, what happened was my parents were telling us that they were getting a divorce. Now you say that and you say, well 50% of Americans are going through divorce. So that’s not really the story, but it starts the story.

Not too long after that, my stepmother moves in. So now think about a 13-year-old, an 11- year old, and a 9-year old, mixed in as a new family (and by the way, we’re acting like 13-year-olds, 11-year-olds, and 9-year-olds). Let’s just say it didn’t go so well.

So as a freshman in high school when this thing all started happening, one thing led to another. By my senior year in high school, earlier in the year, we got into a huge fight. Literally a fight. And I was kicked out of my house.

Leaving Home

The first night I left, I walked around the back of the house, behind our garage, we had these two huge bushes. And I tried to sleep between the garage and the bushes. The bushes were great because they provided the comfort and shelter from whatever was in the outside world. And of course, I was close to home. I didn’t go to school the next day.

The second night, I walked over to a friend’s house thinking I could probably ask for a place to stay (but of course I’m not going to). They had a little carport, and in that carport, they had one of those tubular patio furniture things. And so I slept there, for a couple of hours before I realized I don’t wanna be caught.

The third day as I was walking around, I found a new development going on. You know when they build houses they start with the wood framing, and the very first thing they put into houses is a bathtub. I had a place to stay.

The fourth night I ended up finding a set of railroad tracks in Burke, Virginia. This kind of became my home, so I walked the railroad tracks, I guess because it made me feel like I had a sense of going somewhere. Of course, there are trains, there are places that I could sort of duck in, little train depots and that sort of thing.

And that’s my senior year of high school.

Now, what’s interesting is at the same time I was working at a restaurant and I was cooking. My friends kept coming in and one of my friends realized what was going on. So his family took me in. So I move in with them, reintegrate myself back into high school.

About a month later, I go to the ATM and I stick my ATM card in, and it disappears. The family had wiped me clean. They took all my money.

No place to live, no friends, no family. Talk about purpose? How about none.

So I live on the railroad tracks, I’m doing things, I go into work at this restaurant where I can use the restroom to sort of clean up and sort of feed myself because I’m cooking. I end up working the double shifts every Saturday and Sunday. Of course, my bosses thought I was incredible because I’m picking up double shifts all the time. Who is this guy, it’s great! It’s my survival mechanism.

I end up meeting someone else later and he realizes the same thing and his family took me in.

Actually, before that, I should pause and say I actually graduated from high school. And I have no idea how I graduated other than my grandmother knew what was going on and would call the principal relentlessly to try to get me to graduate. I think he was just sick of hearing from her, so he said ok. So I graduated.

Finding Purpose

I ultimately end up moving in with a family and now I’m trying to find my purpose. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.

My step father, even to this day, is a senior executive in the recording industry, he works for one of the record labels. So I thought that’d be cool, I’m gonna do that.

I start working for a record company, a couple of record stores, and of course, I’m this young punk kid, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m getting fired from all of them. I thought, maybe this isn’t for me, I’m clearly not feeling the power of my purpose. I’m not feeling it.

Then I get this wild idea that I’m gonna go join the airlines. You can get the benefits and fly all around the world, so here I am pulling planes in, I’m driving the little thing pushing the planes out and everything else is great. The airline ends up going bankrupt. It was Presidential Airways if anybody remembers that from a long time ago. Now I’m out of a job.

My friend was working at a radio station. That’d be cool, let me go do that. So I go to do that, and then they come to me one day, and say “how would you like to be on the air?”

So from midnight to 4am I was on the air.

How did I end up here, right? It was about five days, then they came in and told me, “We’re sorry, we’re converting to talk radio.”

At this point, by the way, I know I have to go to school. I gotta do something, I need to get an education. So I’m signing up at the community college and 18 classes later, I have the absolutely incredible GPA of 0.00. Nine F’s, nine W’s. I would sign up, and I wouldn’t go.

At this point they kick me out and say “alright it’s time to go do something else, and by the way you should probably think about an office job.

I find this job at a law firm working in the mailroom and I guess I did a good job because then the mailroom turned into a litigation clerk, a litigation clerk turned into the office manager, the office manager turned into research. They asked me to do research. They saw something in me.

So now guess what I’m going to be? A lawyer! So I’m going to go do that, and I find out something interesting: confidence is really important.

I realize I can do what other people are doing.

I decided to really take school seriously at this point. So I take a class and I get an A. I take another class and get an A. I take four more classes and get an A. Eighteen classes later I’ve got a 4.0 (the reality is that it averages out to a 2.0), and now I want to go to the University of Virginia, the number one public school in the country. The number one business school in the country.

And what do you think they said when I went and said, “hey I want to come here?” I don’t think so.

So I proceeded to go home and put together a 75-page legal brief filled with tabs and graphs and everything else, showing “here’s who I was, here’s who I am now, here’s where I’m going, and by the way here’s how you fit. Here is my plan.”

And I get in.

So I quit my job, I go to school, long story short I graduate in the top five of my class at UVA.

Finding Disney

So then I just happened to be on a spring break and I’m down at Disney and I run into someone. Anyone who’s been to Disney knows the three and a half-hour queue lines. So I’m in a queue line and I’m talking to someone and I find out that they work there. We have a great conversation and lo and behold, I get an internship.

I go do the internship, they like what I do, and I get a job offer. Now I’m weighing all these different things. I’m coming from Virginia, I’ve got job offers from investment banks, consulting, a couple of companies up in Michigan, and I got Disney.

So my passion and purpose were to help other people. I started figuring it out.

So I took the Disney job.

I had a formula for success, and that formula for success as Brandon was saying, led me quickly to go from an intern to an executive in a really short period of time.

Here’s the thing: that’s not my purpose. Being on this stage right now talking to you is my purpose.

How do you go from living behind your house to standing on a stage talking to you, trying to help you?

And it comes down to this formula. I’ll walk you through it real quick and you’ll understand what I mean.

The Formula


John Walsh Formula

We are all here for a specific purpose. And by the way, it is the same for everybody in my humble opinion. That purpose is to do three things, and it’s represented by the U, the L, and the I.

Unbelievable Talents

The U is you’ve been gifted with unbelievable talents. Hopefully, you can see I’m proof of that. Your job is to bring your talents out every single day, so bringing that best you every single day to every single situation. That’s something that’s taken me a while to figure out. Otherwise, you’re wasting the gifts that you’ve been granted.


Only once you’ve figured out your interior DNA, and you found out how to lead yourself, you can figure out how to lead others. And leadership for others, as you’ve heard and you’ll continue to hear, is not about titles, not about money, it’s about how do you help the person sitting next to you be their best self.


The third, then, is once you’ve done that and you’re a leader, you ask, “what am I going to do to leave the world better than you found it?” At the end of the day, you’re all going to leave something behind. Hopefully for me, it’s this conversation right now, or something like this, that has one idea in there that does something for you. That’s called impact.

That’s it: that’s your purpose, to do those three things. And even if you don’t find that true purpose like we like to think about, that’s a pretty darn good life, isn’t it?


Here’s where the equation gets sort of complicated. You’ve gotta figure out, “how do I do that for me?” And the way that you do that is with the E. That’s experience. Think about my story. I’m gonna be in the recording industry. I’m gonna be a DJ. I’m gonna be, I don’t know what I was thinking back then, a pilot or something, I don’t know. Or a lawyer. Then I’m an executive with Disney, and now I’ve got more plans.

You have to experiment and experience things to figure out that thing that drives you. And generally it’s the thing that socially, you just get upset about. So you go fix it.

The E also represents experience: how do other people experience you?

Circle of Influence and Your 24 Hours

From there, the formula goes on to how the power of purpose comes in. It’s the power formula that the exponential C and the 24. The C represents the people who are around you, the circle of influence. You have to have the right people around you. And then, it’s what you do with your 24 hours. The one thing I will absolutely guarantee you is that the difference between anybody else that you see and you is how you spend your 24 hours. Hands down. My life is proof of that.

The Self-Interest Denominator

Now here’s the interesting thing about the formula: any of these things time zero is zero. It has to be greater than the denominator with is SI: self-interest.

Remember when Donald Miller was talking about “guide vs. hero”? The numerator is the guide, the denominator is the hero. You want the first to be greater than the second.

Here’s my challenge to you then: figure out each of these parts of the equation, figure out how to maximize this ratio. Because by the way, other people don’t do this so well. The denominator is much bigger, and guess what, they’re leading a fractional life. Your job is to figure this out, each of these points, and make sure you do one thing and one thing only at the end of the day: make sure that you don’t die wondering.

If you’ve enjoyed John’s talk, you’ll enjoy Part 2 with John’s Q&A session with Brandon West. If you’d like to be notified when Part 2 is available, sign up below.

Jon Saxton

Jon Saxton

Jon recognizes passion and works to convey that in powerful ways. With an eye toward what could be and an understanding of how, he brings energy and ideas to everything he works with.