What’s a Front Row Dad retreat and why should you care?
I recently attended my 4th Front Row Dads retreat in Key West. This event delivered in typical, extraordinary fashion. Let me restate that. This event, and all FRD retreats, are extraordinary.
very unusual or remarkable
Here’s why I use that adjective to describe them –
The men who show up to a FRD retreat are part of our Brotherhood – a membership community of family men with businesses, not business men with families. Our community is built on pillars and values that encompass the total father, husband, entrepreneur, and more. We actually just updated our slogan to “family men, etc.” Why? Because family comes first, and the rest of the things integrate with or supplement who we are.
So rest assured, you are surrounded by remarkable men at this event. The collective wisdom, experience and humility is next to none. We show up, open up, and pour into each other with vigor. It’s the mastermind for dads who constantly want to evolve.
Furthermore, it’s not an event where you have to prove yourself or come in with an ego. In fact, the majority of men leave that at the door. You could be sitting next to a multi-millionaire or a man facing bankruptcy. I love that about these events because I personally have no taste for status games anymore. We do integrate business and wealth, but it’s not the focus.
Key West had an awesome roster of 45 men from varying backgrounds and talents.
A powerful part of these events are the types and quality of conversation. This isn’t your typical conference talk. We go deep and we go fast with a balance of candor, humor and inspiration. One minute you could be blown away by new knowledge, and then seconds later brought to tears by a story… or laughing hysterically at a dad joke that only dads could fully appreciate.
These discussion formats are strategically designed as well. For example:
- We have large group discussions with all 40 men facing each other in a circle.
- We have 4-person “jam bands” for focused topics.
- We have 1-on-1 interviews for deeper dialogs.
- And then there’s a variety of drop-in conversations through meals, exercise, and general down time.
The beautiful thing is that you never know when a knowledge bomb will be dropped. I’ve found insights and support at the least expected times during these events.
The third piece to tie together the men and conversations is the connection that’s created here. These aren’t your standard events where you leave with a few new contacts or people to throw in your network. These are experiences where you leave with a new brother.
We let the walls down during retreats. This doesn’t mean being honest, this means being completely vulnerable. The real stuff comes out. Tears, confessions, raw humiliation – that’s part of why we’re all here. This retreat is our opportunity to let other brothers in and help see our blind spots.
I’ve made friends for life at these retreats. I’ve shared experiences with them that my family and friends couldn’t comprehend. The safe circle we create to share and empathize is what makes for such powerful connection.
Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all about dumping your baggage and venting daddy problems. It’s about being able to truly connect and go deep on things that only another Front Row Dad would understand.
My Key West Experience
Now that you have context for retreats in general I’ll share my recent experience in Key West –
I was pretty excited for this event. I’ve been in a great season of family life and decided to keep that momentum going, so I brought my family along! We designed the trip to have some vacation time before and after the event.
However, I’ve been in a not-so-great season of business recently. There has been extra stress and pressure that’s mounted from recent months… and this trip was intended to be a reset. I committed to fully unplug from business for a week and informed my teams that I would be checked out.
In summary, I went into this retreat looking for rest and human connection. No email, Slack, projects, clients or any other form of business. I completely checked out and focused on what I went there for.
*Note – I appreciate my teams for giving me this space. It’s not easy to fully unplug from small businesses for a full week. I’m fortunate to work with great people.
The retreat officially kicked off at 7:30pm Tuesday night. Before heading in I grabbed dinner with my band mates – Matt Drinkhahn, Matt Spring and Nick Hemmert. These are other FRDs that I’ve formed a small group (band) with. We chat monthly via Zoom calls to stay connected and support each other. We’ve developed such a close bond over the last 18 months that we all decided to fly our wives in to meet in-person! More on that later.
The first night had great energy as usual. Jon (our leader) provided a nice welcome with intro material and then we dove right in. The night included:
- A group exercise of sharing #ASK, #GIVE and #WINS. This is where everyone had a few minutes to speak about about they came here to figure out (#ASK), offer (#GIVE), and share (#WINS).
- The first of several 1-on-1 interviews. This was a nice ice-breaker to meet another brother you don’t know well. I got matched with Dane Espengard and enjoyed learning more about his story. He and his wife plan to take their horses on vacation, among other interesting things! 😉
- A summary of what to expect in the following days.
I started day 2 off dark and early! I joined Matt Drinkhahn For a morning run around Duck Key. We had a great chat about family routines and our mothers. To no surprise, there were a lot of similarities that came up.
After that I grabbed a quick workout and shower before the first morning session would begin.
Emotional intelligence and Anger
Session 1 kicked off at 9am focused on emotional intelligence and how we process anger. This was a hot topic since a lot of men confessed history of processing anger at home. As fathers we can take on a lot and then use anger as an outlet.
The insights came when we led into a broader understanding of where anger comes from. Typically it’s fueled by deeper anxiety, stress or fear. It’s also almost always a reflection or projection of something else. In other words, we’re usually not angry about the thing. We’re angry about something deeper that the thing triggered.
This topic brushes on the concept of “shadow work” – which is essentially a deeper understanding of one’s self. That’s something that many of the men, including myself, are currently pursuing.
After an awesome session we would break for “sweat time,” which is one of my favorite parts of FRD retreats. Sure, it’s always great to talk and stimulate our emotional and intellectual sides, but I really enjoy the physical stimulation as well.
We broke out into two groups for basketball and volleyball. I chose basketball this time around. We got 3 [small] full court games in and then realized we might not have any energy left for the retreat! Full court basketball takes it all out of you. So we switched to half court and completed the sweat. In the meantime, Matt Storm was next door spiking volleyballs on other FRDs! 😜
I haven’t felt that exhausted, in a good way, for quite some time. In addition, I was sharing with some of the other brothers that playing sports as an adult does something special for me. It’s one of the only times where my mind is completely cleared of all the other things in life. In other words, when I’m out on that court the only thing I’m thinking about is the game. I’m not distracted or contemplating anything else. I find that mind state pretty rare to replicate. Even with meditation I have trouble clearing things out, for example.
After the sweat we had time to clean up and get ready for the afternoon session. This session focused on how to connect with your kids.
Connecting with our kids
There was some powerful group alignment around how we show up for our children and what it means to them. This was particularly important when it involves something we don’t want to do. For example, it’s not always easy to play legos or dress-up every time our kids ask. However, most of the time they don’t care about the actual activity, all they really want is to spend time with us.
One of the key lessons here is what things look like from our kids’ perspectives. If you always say “no” to things your kids request that you don’t feel like doing it’s probably negligible to you. On the contrary, your child might remember a father or mother who always said no. In fact, that’s exactly what they’ll remember if your default answer is no.
This can have a significant impact on their lives for years to come. Quite a few of the men recalled matching scenarios where their parents rarely expressed interest in what they wanted to do as children. Their memories weren’t focused on their parents not doing x with them, but rather having parents who didn’t want to spend time with them. This is not an easy thing to shake after years of suppression. But that’s a separate blog post!
We also discussed how there are ways to be creative here and combine things that we actually want to do. Again, our kids are most interested in spending time with us. They are also generally open to doing things we want to do. So a “yes” with some flexibility on the activity is far greater than a “no” in most scenarios. I’ve realized this first hand when my son and daughter ask me to play with them. They don’t truly care about the activity as long as I’m engaged. I often accommodate their requests, but other times I will suggest a new activity that is more interesting to me.
I left this discussion with a healthy reminder to make time for the things my children want to do, even if I don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes these activities end up being front row moments that you never saw coming.
The first day’s activities were complete. Now we would head out to dinner with our jam bands. I was matched with Les McDaniel, Henry Kim and Mike Gorman. We had a great meal with some awesome conversation around our #ASKs. We went deeper in order to help support each other on our various challenges.
- For Les we discussed how he could help his 17 year-old son navigate some of the social challenges and pressures of high school.
- For Henry we discussed how he could address education challenges he was experiencing with his youngest daughter.
- For Mike we discussed how he could protect his time and evolve some of his business offerings as demand for his services grows.
- For me we discussed how I could further embrace a mindset of wanting less.
I won’t share the details of my fellow jam band members in effort to protect their privacy, but I will tell you what came out of my discussion.
I went into the retreat with an #ASK of wanting less. This was an ask for both myself and my son, Everest. At 5 years old I already see him on the perpetual “what’s next” mentality, which has plagued me for years. I say plagued because I’m hard wired to go and achieve, yet I’m enjoying more simplicity in life as I take on less and remove desire. So my #ASK here was to amplify my current efforts and essentially see if any brothers had more gas to pour on the fire – i.e. more tactics or advice on wanting less.
Note: this is not a simple ask. The notion to reduce desire can be complicated. Throw my son into the mix and it’s now extremely complicated. I’ve spent a couple years studying this. What I want versus what he wants versus what I want for him are three entirely different things. So you can imagine… there was no silver bullet answer here.
But that’s the beautiful part of these retreats…
I wasn’t even looking for an answer or quick solution to my #ASK. I was seeking some perspective from other fathers who may have experienced similar feelings. I was seeking other fathers who could listen and ask more questions. And that’s exactly what I got.
My jam band members helped me realize that there are some deeper things beneath this ask. There is some work to be done on the WHY I think I want less and where that comes from. There is also a strong argument of whether or not I really want less for myself, and then of course, why I’m wanting that for my son.
So needless to say, my #ASK got handled. I left with some clarity around something I was questioning, plus some new tools on how I might continue navigating it. The power of a jam band!
After dinner I was pulled out to the resort courtyard for karaoke! I did not participate but a few other brothers put on some stellar performances, including:
* “Come Mr. Tallyman” by Adam Stock
* “I Will Walk 10,000 Miles” by Matt Drinkhahn and Phil Bohlender
Before heading to my room I ran into Ken Wimberly who’s building an amazing app/business called Legacy of Love. We chatted about how that was inspired from years of documenting his daughter’s experiences. She just graduated high school and he has an extraordinary gift for her in the form of legacy letters. It’s one of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever heard of, and once you speak with Ken you realize why he’s the perfect person to help other people create similar gifts. Interestingly enough, he and I have very similar long term visions for getting away from technology and more in tune with nature. I look forward to seeing the Wimberly Ranch one day!
Day 2 was done. Big day with big impact already.
Day 3 started with an early morning session around journaling.
This was led by Ned Schaut who’s spent the last 20 years devoted to a strong journaling practice. We had some collaborative conversation around why we journal and how we’ve approached it. Ned shared some tips and tactics from his own experience, plus some guidance on how we might maintain a more consistent journaling practice.
This was helpful for me to hear because I’ve struggled with journaling in the past. I’ve head streaks of decent journaling and then periods of nothing. I value the concept of journaling but I’ve failed to be consistent. My takeaway was committing to a weekly journal exercise, which I’ve [mostly] held since the retreat.
Now we would heading into the morning session led by Geoff Woods, which focused on core values.
Geoff runs The One Thing business and gave us an awesome exercise to complete around our top 3 core values. This was a humbling and challenging experience for me. There are so many values I want to claim or aspire to… but Geoff asked us to select 3 out of 150 that we’re currently living. These should be a reflection of our actions, not our aspirations.
My core values ended up being:
That’s not to say I don’t care about other values, like family, but these were my top 3 at the end of the exercise. I actually had some guilt about not having family in this list. After all, I’m now a family man with a business, not a businessman with a family! I’m at a Front Row Dad’s retreat where “family” is the core of all things. How the hell did family not make my list??
The honest answer is that family goes deeper than a core value for me. It’s more of a purpose than a core value. I love my family and think of them often, but labeling them as a core value didn’t feel right. My core values actually influence how I show up for and lead my family. I need freedom to be a husband and father. I need curiosity to engage and inspire them. I need nature to help them remember where we came from and how things work.
Family is not one of my core values. It’s far more important than that. My core values are a reflection of my actions. A big thanks to Geoff for helping me realize this.
This exercise is also something we were encouraged to do with our wives, which provides some insight into how our core values might overlap or compliment each other.
Next, it was time to sweat again! We made our way back to the basketball court and volleyball pit for a few hours. Same story as previous day – lots of sweat and awesome camaraderie.
The final afternoon consisted of 2 sessions – one on plant-based medicine and another on exit strategy.
We had a group discussion around modern plant-based medicines. This can be a broad topic with highly subjective opinions. However, we focused the conversation on “illegal” medicines like Psilocybin and MDMA. In other words, drugs that people are more commonly using for therapeutic purposes. And to be clear – this was not a conversation focused on recreation. It was a conversation focused on how and when to use these medicines for therapy.
Here were some of my learnings and takeaways:
- Drugs like Psilocybin (mushrooms) and MDMA are currently illegal but likely to become legal in the next couple years. Large public companies are backing them and investing heavily in legalization, similar to marijuana.
- Use of these drugs/medicines has proven history to help people unlock or navigate traumatic experiences. This is why so many people are turning to them for therapeutic purposes. Like all other drugs, they aid in helping humans do things that are hard for our bodies and minds to normally do.
- Using these medicines can be highly effective but also comes with risk, like any drug. Most of the men with experience emphasized having a guided session and being fully committed to facing deep fears. In other words, this is not light stuff and you need guidance plus preparation for what might come out.
- Combining these medicine sessions with other traditional therapy is a great way to holistically navigate your issues.
What was most intriguing to me were the stories from various men about what plant-based medicine allowed them to “unlock.” These are life changing stories where years of traditional therapy and other strategies had little affect. Then after a few plant-based medicine sessions major break throughs were made.
For example, some of the men faced early childhood trauma and neglect. These memories and emotions were buried so deep that it took powerful medicines to reveal them. Once they were revealed, it became obvious why certain things were challenging and certain behaviors were repeated. So many of our adult issues come from early childhood experiences, some of which become so suppressed that we have trouble realizing them. Plant-based medicines can be an effective tool to reveal and face some of these issues.
I don’t have any critical desire to use plant-based medicines, however, I am curious on how I might utilize them to better understand myself. I think there’s a ton of value in recognizing the correlation between our childhood experiences and adult behaviors.
The last group convo was a powerful and sobering one. It revolved around the topic of an “exit” strategy for us and our families if/when our time comes. To be blunt – how we plan for our deaths.
This topic was brought on by a recent and tragic event in one of our neighbor social groups. That community just lost a member in abrupt fashion. The member was in his late 30’s with a wife and two children. This is my exact scenario… so my heart dropped when I processed the story.
Among other things, we talked about who would show up for our families when we’re not around. This was a powerful question to ask ourselves and visualize. It strengthened the sense of community that we need and cherish as humans. It strengthened the reason FRD and other communities exist. It strengthened why we show up for each other through good times and bad.
The lesson here is that most of us, including myself, never plan for the unexpected. We blast through life without giving much thought to what happens when we’re gone. While it’s never fun to have morbid thoughts, they are essential if you want comfort and clarity for your family when you leave this life. That was my takeaway at least.
After that we lifted spirits with some final thoughts, reflection and gratitude. The formal retreat was coming to an end. We gave our hugs, said our good-byes, and broke away for a final dinner with our jam bands.
The final dinner with my jam band was a perfect way to end this retreat. Les, Mike, Henry and I grabbed some sushi and brought closure to our experience. We talked about our core values, our #ASKs, and what we were leaving this retreat with. We also threw in some small talk to get to know each other better.
Sitting across the table from these 3 men reminded me exactly why I was here…
These were 3 guys with similar problems, feelings, and situations. They were just like me!
We all have a unique story to tell, but FRDs have common themes. We also have alignment around similar values and ambitions. That’s what makes this community so special. That’s why it’s so easy for me to connect and relate with these men. We’re on the same journey seeking similar things.
Bonus Day – Sailing & Dinner with Band Wives
While the retreat was technically over I had one final event to look forward to. As I mentioned earlier, I’m in a band with 3 other men – Nick and the two Matt’s. We’ve been a band for almost 18 months now. We meet virtually every month via Zoom calls and stay connected via Telegram (messaging app). We’ve built beautiful relationships during this time and treat each other as true brothers.
As a result, we agreed to fly our wives into FL for an in-person meet up. The plan was to spend a day together, which included a 3-hour sail and relaxed dinner. And we did just that.
The sail was a lot of fun. Our captain took us a few miles out of the Keys and we anchored in for some time in the water. There was an abundance of smiles, laughter and overall good vibes. It was awesome to finally meet these women that often came up in our band meetings. It was equally awesome watching Matt D., who’s 6’7” tall, try to sprint across the floating lilipad. Let’s just say the water won 😉
After the sail we cleaned up and headed out for dinner. We enjoyed a full evening of great food, stories, jokes and even some tears. Our band has impacted all of our families in meaningful ways and it was beautiful to share some of those emotions as a group.
This was a perfect ending to an eventful retreat.
My family and I would pack up and head out the following day. The Florida Keys treated us well. It was time to head back home. I was well rested and recharged to get back in the game.
I leave FRD retreats with inspiration, new energy and immense gratitude. They remind me of the important role I have for my children, my wife, and the world at large. These retreats give me tools and resources to become the best father possible. They set a higher standard for me to live up to.
I am extremely grateful for Jon, Rachael and the FRD team. They go above and beyond to make these retreats unique experiences unlike any other.
I’m also grateful for all the men who attend the retreats. It’s not easy to show up and open up, especially your first time. We’re often taught as men to be strong and not let our feelings get the best of us. However, I’m continuing to learn that it’s exactly the opposite. It takes courage to be vulnerable and talk about the real stuff. That’s where true progress and insights are found. That’s why FRD retreats are so powerful.
More about Front Row Dads
I’ve been a Front Row Dad for just over 2 years now. It’s an understatement to say that it’s changed my life. This brotherhood is my primary social group and it continues to create value in my life every single day. I’m blessed to have found this community and attended several retreats.
That’s mainly why I write these blog posts. Sure, it’s nice to reflect on my experiences, but I want to promote FRD as a token of gratitude for the impact it’s had on my and my family. I also want to inspire other like-minded men to join us!
At the time of this writing we’re well over 200 members and continue to grow. In fact, we all have fancy invite links now that help us promote the Brotherhood. If you were inspired by this post and feel called I would encourage you to use my invite link below to join our Summit Series.
The Summit Series is a great entry point into the Brotherhood, offering access to all of our training calls and virtual summits.
Or, if you’d simply like to learn more about FRD just get in touch with me. I’m always happy to have a conversation with a fellow father.
Ali is the creator of this site. He is a father, husband, serial entrepreneur, software engineer and last but not least - a relentless life learner. He adds Siracha to 90% of the food he consumes.
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