THE BLOG
04/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be A Good Man?

One of the first times I told my story I was in prison, in a facility in Boston used largely for protective custody, to be exact. My talk was to focus on drug and alcohol abuse, but looking out over the crowd of some 60 inmates--including gay prostitutes and pimps who might not survive in the general prison population--I wasn't sure if I could get any words out of my mouth. My heart pounded with fear.

"Hey, Gucci boy," someone in the audience called out, "wanna spend the night?"

I looked down, past my Armani slacks to my loafers, which were indeed Gucci, and then peered off into the distance, avoiding eye contact with any of the inmates, many of whom were now whistling at me. I started by describing a moment when I should have died, when, while hungover and driving along a highway, I flipped the car I was in. I recounted how I had taken wilder and wilder risks and how my risk-taking had paid off in my business dealings, but that all along I knew I was headed for a real crash -- one that would destroy my entire life, not just a car.

By the time I told the inmates how I lost it all and had been forced, once and for all, to stare at myself in the mirror, they were silent--no more whistling, no more catcalls; they were listening. I told them I was just a few months into my new life but already things were better. When I finished, several inmates approached me to say how much they appreciated my coming and how sorry they were for what I had gone through. One even gave me a hug.

Lying in bed that night, I felt euphoria at having reached across what seemed an unbridgeable chasm. I didn't expect the inmates to feel compassion for me or to get anything out of my story. But they did. Something had happened as I stammered on about kids and divorce and mistakes made. Despite all our differences in circumstance, my words had affected them, and I felt a lot less alone with my struggles.

Around the same time, 1998, I started a venture capital firm with James Houghton. During the day I built companies with James, but before and after work, as part of my attempt to stay sober, I continued to tell my story and to listen to other men speak the truth about themselves. I came to value the listening more than the telling, whether the story came from a tough guy in Southie or an investment banker in the financial district. In each man's story I heard something I could identify with, and I drew strength from that empathy.

After a decade as venture capitalists, James and I had both burned out. James took off with his family for a year in Paris, and I began writing my memoir. I sent draft after draft to James, which eventually prompted him to suggest that I take classes and also write about other people instead of just myself. Magazine articles about musicians, scientists, and athletes whose stories touched me as heroic followed. By the time James was ready to come home, two things had happened. He had the idea for this book, and he was ready to write down his own story. From that point, The Good Men Project fell into place like a set of dominoes. One chance encounter led to another and another. We needed a solid editor, and my favorite writing teacher's husband happens to be a magazine editor, Larry Bean, for whom I wrote several articles before broaching the idea of this book. He was intrigued. It wasn't until Larry met James that they learned they were Harvard classmates--and I realized I would be forever outnumbered. But I also realized then that THE GOOD MEN PROJECT was meant to be.

In my search for contributors to The Good Men Project, I went to the three most well-connected people I know: Matt Weiner (a Wesleyan classmate and creator of Mad Men), Sebastian Junger (another Wesleyan classmate and author of The Perfect Storm) and my hairdresser of 17 years, Beth Bechard.

I begged Sebastian to write an essay. He was waist deep in his own book, but he put me in touch with photojournalist Michael Kamber. I first tracked down Michael via satellite phone to a bomb shelter somewhere in Baghdad and followed up with him by e-mail while he was in Africa, covering a civil war. I wrote him an e-mail that, I thought, was an eloquent exposition on why manhood is at a crossroads in America. He responded that he agreed with my premise, but that despite all he had lived through and photographed, he had no answers. In fact, precisely because of what he had seen, he didn't feel capable of addressing the topic of manhood, even though it was all he thought about while watching men butcher each other. Michael eventually agreed to contribute an essay, and he directed me to Charlie LeDuff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote a book called US Guys and had just appeared on the The Colbert Report to give an update on "the status of the American man's balls." I had two cornerstones of the book's foundation.

Toward the end of the process of collecting essays from the contributors, I shared some of them with my 13-year-old son, Seamus. It made sense to gauge a teenager's reaction, given that the proceeds from the sale of The Good Men Project will support organizations that help at-risk boys. We not only want to spark a discussion among men but also play a small part in improving boys' lives by helping them learn about manhood. Seamus' responses convinced me that collectively the contributors of this volume are onto something important. He told me that even the most challenging essays in the book--about war, sex, prison, addiction, death--cover issues that he already has been exposed to and is trying to figure out.

Seamus often has expressed an interest in joining the military. But our conversations never got much past Jason Bourne. I told him to read Michael Kamber's essay and watch Matt Gannon's short film about him:

The discussion we had afterward was completely different from previous ones. For the first time we talked about what serving our country at a time of war really means.

In speaking with Seamus I was reminded of what Kamber had said about not having answers. That certainly has been a guiding principal for The Good Men Project: There is no definitive way to be "good." When that word refers to a life or a man it is a concept that takes on meaning only gradually, through a kind of soul-searching that is unique to each of us.