Lorenzo Gomez was in his mid-30s and facing a divorce when his pastor recommended a mental health therapist.
In therapy, Gomez learned how growing up in one of San Antonio’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and traumatic events he had experienced during his childhood, contributed to anxiety, shame, and bad habits that persisted into adulthood, despite becoming one of San Antonio’s tech industry leaders. From that point, he began making choices to improve his social interactions and self-image making strides to overcome his mental health obstacles.
Gomez, 39, credits therapy with changing the course of his life, and later contributing to his success as the the chairman of Geekdom, cofounder of the philanthropic 80/20 Foundation and Tech Bloc, co-founder and CEO of Geekdom Media, and best-selling author of The Cilantro Diaries, released in 2017.
His new book, titled Tafolla Toro: Three Years of Fear chronicles the three years Gomez spent at Tafolla Middle School in West San Antonio through stories from that time and letters he wrote to his 12-year-old self. In it, Gomez tells young people how they can take control of their futures by changing patterns of negative thinking that can prevent them from reaching their full potential.
Ahead of the 200-page book’s official release by Geekdom Media on Oct. 1, Gomez sat down with the Rivard Report to share his thoughts about the importance of a healthy mind and how the way a person talks about themselves can lead them toward either success or failure. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Rivard Report: Throughout your book, Tafolla Toro, you discuss struggling with fear, anxiety, and hopelessness throughout your childhood, but did not actively work on improving those emotional experiences until later in life. Why was it important to you to write a book that attempts to normalize taking care of mental health starting at a young age?
Lorenzo Gomez: As an adult, I am dealing with the repercussions of not working on some of the emotional experiences I struggled with when I was younger sooner. My feelings of fear and anxiety definitely affected my academic career, it affected all of my relationships – and if I could go back and take away the pain that I experienced by not addressing the pain that not dealing with my struggles inflicted on me, I absolutely would. When I started going to therapy, I realized that the majority of my adult struggles stemmed from bad habits and mindsets that formed when I was a kid. As I started becoming more comfortable with the tools I learned to better my mental health, I felt that I needed to share them.
One of the things I have learned to be OK with is being vulnerable first, so I wanted to share my story because struggles with fear and anxiety have held me back my whole life, and that doesn’t need to happen to this generation of kids. I am not a mental health professional; my superpower is storytelling. If I can get a story out there that kids can relate to and it becomes a starting point for them to begin talking about their own mental health, that’s a huge win for me.
RR: Throughout the book, you talk about “the stories we tell ourselves,” and how these stories change the course of your life. What are some of the stories you told yourself that stuck with you and negatively impacted your life as an adult?
LG: I grew up in a family where we didn’t know how to deal with conflict. We didn’t have the tools. My parents never fought in front of us, so we didn’t see a lot of conflict resolution in the home. And I went to a school where conflict often resulted in physical fighting, whether between rival gangs, or someone being beat up for looking at another person’s girlfriend. So conflict is something that would give me a lot of anxiety, and in the past, I avoided it at all costs because I told myself it was something I didn’t know how to handle, or I didn’t want to handle because of the potential repercussions.
Now I know how to confront it. I know how to put my inner child at ease and create a safe space for it by reminding myself that I don’t have to respond to conflict with stories about what will happen.
Young Lorenzo would tell himself that if I tell someone that they upset me, it could result in a fistfight. Older Lorenzo would tell himself that if someone didn’t email him back right away, that person was upset. I would create a story where the person is mad at me, wants to fire me, and creating these stories creates so much anxiety that resulted in wasted days, sleepless nights, and other bad behaviors.
In reality, when we confront conflict, or things that cause us anxiety, we come to learn that it was nothing, or at least that the response is likely something you can handle. Not every conflict is going to result in a fistfight. Not all conflict is going to cause the end of a relationship – romantic or otherwise. Knowing how I respond to conflict doesn’t make any bad habits immediately go away, but it gives me perspective, a starting place where I am able to see how or if I am responding based on stories I am telling myself and remind myself of the skills I have learned to make better choices to lessen feelings of fear.
RR: In Tafolla Toro, you describe labeling other children at your middle school as either good or bad based on their actions, such as gang involvement or talking back to the teacher. Why is it important to you to discuss how labeling people can cause harm?
LG: No matter what label someone gives us or what choices we make, we can all change things about ourselves, and have understanding for others. When I was in middle school, it was easy to look at a kid who chose to be in a gang and say: That person is bad, they aren’t making good choices. But in actuality, that person is likely struggling with something really hard. That person wants connection – that’s probably why they are in a gang in the first place. What would my relationships with my classmates [have] been like if instead of believing that I shouldn’t be friends with someone, I looked for connection or commonalities instead? How might that have improved both of our lives?
It could lead to less bullying, less violence in school, less conflict. I spent so much time avoiding the people around me out of worry and fear, and people do that as adults as well. People talk about one another, talk about being different from one another, instead of focusing on how we can likely on some level connect about something, whether it be a comic book for kids, or working to be better people as adults.
RG: This is your second book, but you’ve already started your third and you plan to write several more. What other stories can readers look forward to hearing from you in the near future?
LG: My third book is about workplace culture. It includes all of the lessons and principles I learned as a young dude working at Rackspace, how I was influenced by its magical workplace culture, and how I have figured out how to articulate those principles in other working environments to stave off disaster. That book is all story-based, and how company values impact its members and teams.
My fourth book is going to be about gentrification. I didn’t want to write about it necessarily, but I am so fed up with how the conversation about gentrification is framed: We only talk about the outputs, we never talk about the inputs that lead to it, and the things that a city needs to do to fix it. After that, I plan to do a categorical marketing book, that includes conversations about entrepreneurial ecosystems. Then I want to do one on mental illness – which is very different than mental health – because I think it’s important to keep having that conversation.