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The pandemic and the panther: what COVID-19 & Chadwick Boseman taught me about purpose

Paul Perry discusses the driving forces that inspired him to start Literal Humans and what they taught him about purpose

I know cancer.

Rather, I have been quite adjacent to it.

My father Ken (I called him “Poppy” — I grew up with two Dads) passed away from brain cancer in 2005. I was 19 years old.

I miss him so much that sometimes, when I’m walking in the park, I’ll just randomly start weeping. I never grieved him properly.

I remember when his headaches started. I was in my junior year of high school. For three years he battled through multiple surgeries, radiation treatments, and the various indignities of the disease.

One day, he fell out of the shower. I was the only other person at home that day. I ran downstairs and slowly lifted him back into the stall, closed the curtain.

I cannot imagine (and hope I never have to experience) what it feels like to be so helpless and out-of-control when it comes to one’s own body. To ask your only son to lift your naked body up from the floor and back into the shower.

There is absolutely no shame in it. None whatsoever. I’d do it again every single day…just to have him back.

So when I learned of Chadwick Boseman’s untimely passing this year, and all that he accomplished while he was sick and receiving treatment—I understood why he chose to live his last years as he did.

I had seen that kind of bravery before:

How my father Ken worked in our family store until the very last day he could manage.

How Poppy mustered all of his fading strength to help me move into my dorm freshman year.

How he stubbornly insisted that I not take a year off from school to be by his side when he was literally wasting away.

Learning about Chadwick’s passing and managing myself through this pandemic created a strange alchemy.

Seeing someone—again—live and die with such utter courage and selflessness while being forced to confront my own mortality within the pandemic, a climate crisis, and a worldwide reckoning with racial injustice…it moved me.

They say the two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why—but I disagree with that.

The moments in which you find your evolving purpose are—hopefully—sprinkled beautifully and auspiciously throughout your life.

As I tried to process Chadwick’s passing and just survive through 2020, I knew I needed to make a big change.

From indulgent optimist to earnest pragmatist

I had been flying pretty high for a few years. Literally and figuratively.

I criss-crossed the globe living a pretty decadent digital nomad lifestyle. I worked fewer than 40 hours per week. I got to be creative. I had a cushy gig as a freelancer who didn’t have to chase down much business—it found its way to me through my partnership with a previous agency.

The world was burning but it was largely sunny skies for me, I’m ashamed to admit it.

When COVID-19 hit, I decamped from a bright beach town in Costa Rica to be closer to my family in Philadelphia. After two weeks at home with my father Paul, I finally got my own Airbnb in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.

I was mainlining CNN.

I tore through Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and weed edibles—stress-eating my way through the horrid news coverage. After George Floyd’s murder, I hit the streets to protest. I jogged by the river to take my mind off of things. Somedays, I wept about the state of the world.

I spent Sundays masked up with my father, praying his immuno-compromised body wouldn’t contract the virus.

My previous agency shed nearly 40% of its clients and my monthly income was cut by 75%. If I’m honest, it was a wonderful training ground but it was the right time for a new path. The drastic drop in income was just a catalyst.

You know when you’ve maxed out at a particular workplace?

When you’re not growing anymore (or the institutional limitations won’t allow you to grow)?

That’s where I was—stagnant.

With the spectre of death all around me, I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life. I came up with the following list:

1) Goal: I want to build and run an organization that prioritizes truly diverse teams (with an emphasis on Black and BIPOC talent).

Context + Solution: The marketing and advertising world is unforgivably un-diverse and that needs to change. Not just for the quality of our work to improve, but it’s simply the right thing to do. So we’re starting by building a globally-distributed and diverse team of talented creatives.

2) Goal: I want to be creative and help support the creativity in others. I want to use creative strategy to support mission-driven organizations that are driving towards a clear purpose.

Context + Solution: Mission-driven companies deserve top-flight content strategy but they don’t always get it. So we’re making our services affordable and high-quality for charities and nonprofits as well as tech companies/startups and small-to-medium brands.

3) Goal: I want to make enough money to live comfortably and to share that wealth with my community in ways that dismantle current inequitable systems (by offering flexible and well-paid freelance work, serving on nonprofit boards, donating to anti-racist/anti-oppressive causes, etc.).

Context + Solution: Most agencies—even the ones with some form of profit share—fail to compensate their teams equitably, share power within, and typically don’t offer real employee ownership schemes nor meaningful pathways for career advancement. It’s usually one or two white guys at the top making 10-20x more than their lowest paid team members and setting the terms for everyone else. So we’re building a more robust profit share model, we’ve already got 4 partners who own a legal stake in the business (with more to come hopefully), and we’re creating clear ladders for advancement. It’s early days but we’re going places.

That was the seed for Literal Humans.

A genuine desire to live a good life whilst supporting individuals and organizations seeking to make the world a bit better. Purpose.

It’s easy to be blindly optimistic. To embrace a form of pollyanna-ish, hokey hope that doesn’t actually engage in the arduous work of deconstructing unequal systems in order to build something better.

It’s much harder to move against the inertia and create something truly different.

That’s difficult, messy work. But I’m here for it. We have to be. The planet is sending us a message loud and clear that “enough is enough.”


What I mean by “purpose”

I get it.

When you watch someone you admire pass away or when a global pandemic threatens your own life, the knee-jerk reaction can be: “I really need to live every day like it’s my last!”

Let me be clear: You simply cannot live every day like it’s your last.

We cannot physically and emotionally sustain such a pace. Nor should we try to.

But what we can do is live intentionally. We can center our lives around a clear purpose—whether that’s raising a wonderful family or building a business or eating healthy and exercising.

Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s that extra spring in your step when you’re diving into that new creative project. That glint in your eye when you see a loved one.

Your purpose should be both selfish and selfless. It should be defined by enlightened self-interest that empowers you to be your best self while also making one’s community a bit better off than you found it.

I resolved that I wanted to work with people and organizations that strike that balance.

So far, I’ve been absolutely heartened and thrilled with what I’ve found.

I’ve discovered incredible organizations like Goodbets, Boost, LEANLAB Education, Empower Work, MDC, 4.0 Schools, Aya, Bethnal Green Ventures, Animal Charity Evaluators, and many more that are serving their communities and pivoting brilliantly in an era when adaptability is a key virtue.

This is just the beginning.

I truly hope this will be a long and fruitful purpose-driven journey for me and the team at Literal Humans.

We’re gonna tell some amazing stories. Stay tuned.

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