“It’s hard being self-aware but once that awareness happens just go with it. Don’t dwell on why we can’t all be this way, just go forth on your path because as you go others will follow.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview by Theo Constantinou
Photographs provided by David Sylvester
When David Sylvester’s friend and mentor gave him praise for his accomplishments David forgot to say, “Thank you.” A few days later his friend was lost in the 9/11 attack. Forced to see his childhood heroes covered with their own tears and unable to stand because of this tragedy David knew he had to find strength. With new priorities he began to reorganize his life and act on his impulses to provide hope for others.
Ambitious, healthy, and ready to try something new David biked across the United States. He later cycled across Africa and Asia becoming involved with the reality of needs and wants. To meet others who are innovative out of necessity, respect the simplicities of life, and crave new knowledge only validates the importance of David’s work. David not only used an abysmal event to spark positive change in his own life but to spread it across the world. It may be a small deed to hang out in a village for a night, and drop off a few pens or a pair of shoes, but nothing compares to the cry of genuine thanks, or the look on someone’s face after their words have been heard. David Sylvester is a man of action instead of empty promises, a small bridge between a gap of global misunderstanding.
I was just in New York City and went down to the 9/11 memorial. When your friend Ken Bowser passed on September 11, you said his death gave you perspective and I just had someone write something for the magazine and he wrote about perspective. He wrote, “Perspective, that volatile engine of human experience that drives and defines our capacity to behave purposefully. Art and travel perform a mutual function: to examine, enhance, dismantle, remold, and fundamentally broaden perspective. The power and promise of perspective has floated effortlessly to prominence as I digest my time here in Suriname.” Can you speak more on the idea of how this event not only affected your perspective of life and everything, but what drove you then to pursue what you’re doing.
I think when Kevin died it was in the last place you expect something to happen, 98 floors above street level and it just let me know that no one is safe. It can be our time at any time and I needed to do something. It wasn’t just his death, but the things surrounding his death. It was the fact that the plane hit pretty much his floor, his body and his coworkers were incinerated. There was nothing for us to say goodbye to, there was nothing for us to get closure with. There was none of that. There was the fact that at his memorial service I looked at all of these guys, all of his friends that I looked up to when I was a kid; they were men and I was a boy I looked to them for strength and to see them as broken pieces, broken men… At one point during his memorial service the guys presiding over the memorial service asked everyone to stand up and one of his good friends couldn’t stand, he was so broken. But I could stand. I realized that if I can stand then I can walk, if I can walk then I can do something. It was an obligation to do something. There were a lot of different perspectives. Something bad can happen at any time and I had to do something. I’m not a kid anymore. No matter what I may think of them, I was a grown man now and it was time for me to do something to honor another man. There are a lot of perspectives being changed, a lot of new roles emerging, old rules eroding and it was time. It’s time. Now I didn’t have the idea that I was going to do all of this, but it was time for me to do something.
What had you been doing up to that moment?
Training people, that’s all I saw myself as. The last time I saw Kevin was in a Whole Foods. If I didn’t see Kevin and we hadn’t had that conversation I probably wouldn’t have done anything. I had a salad and some wheat grass juice and some other shit. Kevin was vegan, he had gone vegan long before it was fashionable and he was sort of my influence of wanting to be healthy, wanting to be strong, and he said, “You’re training one of my friends, you spoke at this church about health and fitness, you did this, you did that,” and he wanted my help getting in shape. I was like, “What the fuck can I tell you man? You raised me.” He said, “You’re beyond me now.” It was very touching to hear my mentor, my big brother, say “you’re beyond me now.” It was something that I didn’t ask for, and I wasn’t fishing for compliments, it just came out so naturally. That speaks volumes about Kevin, that speaks volumes about what he thought of me, and I had nothing to say. I normally have smartass remarks, but I had nothing to say. I wanted to say thank you, but being a guy, macho and stupid, I didn’t. I didn’t have opportunities to see him Saturday, I didn’t go to a BBQ he was doing Sunday, and he took off Monday. Tuesday my opportunity to say thank you was gone. Something very basic, thank you.
It wasn’t weird on his part to give a compliment, but it was weird on my part to give thanks. Seeing all the things surrounding his death I knew I had to step up. I fucked around once and blew an opportunity to do something very decent, and I wasn’t fucking around anymore. I knew another person that was in the towers and she didn’t die, she overslept. Rolling over to catch an extra 15 minutes, or going to work on time was the difference between life and death. All that stuff changed my perspective, put urgency on what I’m doing. You can be as chill as you want, everyone else can lolligag, but I don’t have time because I don’t know how much time I have. For me there has been a definitive urge to maximize every bit of talent, of ability. Every moment maximized into something else, that’s my perspective change. I don’t have the inclination to not say thank you anymore, to not do the decent thing.
I did an interview with a close friend of mine now who is a filmmaker and he was a serious drug addict and almost killed himself and his best friend. After that moment his perspective changed, “There is urgency in my life, I don’t have enough time in my life now to get everything I need to do to get out, and to give back to people.” Why is it that most people don’t see it like that? Why does it take this one little thing? I wonder sometimes if certain people are put on this planet for a specific purpose. What if Kevin was to move on at that point for you to go on and do what you did. Do you ever think of that?
I do. Especially a couple years ago when I spoke at a school. Kids sometimes ask the most provocative questions. This one girl asked me, she was in fifth grade, “Mr. Sylvester after everything you’ve done, what would you have done if your friend hadn’t died? What would have become of all of the talents, and the strength?” I didn’t have an answer. Another kid asked me a couple months ago, “If you could take it all back, if you could go back to September 10, 2001 and tell Kevin not to go to work, you get your friend, but the trips, the book, the movie, the self-awareness, everything that you’ve gained from that you don’t get. Do you make that call?” I was like wait a minute. In a sense that’s what got me thinking, maybe that’s why we’re put here. I think everyone needs to understand the leadership potential within them. Somebody is looking at you, get your shit together. I’m looking at you, step your game up. You may think, who am I to look at? But someone is. I’ve now lived long enough where I’ve seen this happen. People have come to me to say they were looking to me for this, this, and this and as I stepped up my game it really brought them up, and it did things for them. Even with Kevin. He was clocking me and I didn’t even realize it. He didn’t have to say shit, but he did.
A lot of times it takes the loss of something for you to realize everything that it’s attached to. Whatever it is you lose you forget that they brought a lot of laughter into the room, or good advice. Whenever you lose anything, a phone, it’s like you remember what you forgot. You remember that the person did make you smile and you start to remember the little things. I think after these losses people have a greater significance in your life. If it’s a thing certain security has significance and I think it’s a human condition to realize the weight and magnitude of it after it’s gone. I think it would be almost impossible to raise an individual to recognize the influence and true impact in everything. It’s hard being self-aware but once that awareness happens just go with it. Don’t dwell on why we can’t all be this way, just go forth on your path because as you go others will follow. I don’t dwell too much on these deeper questions of life outside of biking, lifting, or doing something else where my mind can wander to those heights. But after that task is done it is getting back to work and moving ahead.
David in Kenya with a Samburu Warrior
In an article, I forget if you wrote it or if it was written about you, but you basically posed the question: who am I? You said, “I’m just a regular guy.” I was having a conversation with Todd, who introduced us, and he said when he’s talking about his kids there’s one question that they need to answer: who are you? Writing the interview questions for Henry Rollins, it is one thing to prepare a question but when you have a conversation it goes in many different ways, but he wrote a book called ‘Solipsist.’ The definition of that word is the philosophy that the only thing you can really know is yourself. Who is David Sylvester and after this last decade do you now know who David Sylvester is?
I have a better idea of what my perimeters are. I have a better idea of who I am. I haven’t climbed my highest peak yet, that gets me very excited, and people wonder how I can be so positive. One reason that I’m very positive is because I have done things within the last ten years that wasn’t trained for, that I wasn’t suited for, that I wasn’t sponsored for. I have done more with less. I’m not saying I’m the shit. It’s thinking of someone saying ten years ago that I was going to bike 33 states, 20 countries, write a book, make a movie that is going to get into 20 film festivals and get best documentary, I’m going have two main hits on ESPN, just lay all the shit out. I would imagine I’d be wealthy, that I’d be sponsored. I would have imagined that I’d be a lot of other things but none of that stuff has happened and I was able to achieve these things on will and passion. Now that I’ve achieved these things looking back, and looking at where I am today, I realize I am more enduring than I thought I was, more willful. I’m more than what I ever thought I was. You asked what was I doing ten years ago, and I said at the time I thought I was just a personal trainer. I was all of these things and more; Dave Sylvester is stronger than he thought he was and is still interested, and able to push limits. I’m willing to push limits. I’m willing to say I don’t know, but work my ass off.
I have more integrity than I thought I did which is something I didn’t know about myself. I didn’t know how much my word meant to me until it came to certain points where I could have given less than my best. I could have gone back on my word but there was something that was driving me so I couldn’t do that. I don’t want to be the guy who passes the buck; I want to be looked upon as someone who is dependable. Maybe I will be 10 minutes late, but I’m going to be there. Maybe I’ll do things that won’t be up to your standards, but I’m going to do my best. I want to be someone that’s dependable and trustworthy, that’s something that I didn’t think meant much to me. I’m a lot more of a stand up guy than I thought. It is interesting.
That is who I am. I am a person who is fairly self-aware and ready to go. I’m ready for more experiences and not shying away from stuff. I’m more secure, I don’t have to dominate the room. I’m quietly confident though I’m not quiet I’m a simmered down version of me. I can still be an asshole, but I like this version of me much better because it’s not as anxious. And wrapped in all of that I am just a regular dude. I’m not making any money, I’m not blessed with anything special. I’m a normal guy pushing all of these normal things to their limits and that gives me strength. I tell this to people because I think a lot of people are a lot more talented than I am. You’re more of a talented writer than I am, I don’t know the difference between a comma, and a semi colon. There are people more talented than me, better cyclists than me. I’m just a regular guy, that’s who I really am.
We touched on that idea of integrity, that most people don’t know what integrity is, or what it means. I’m going to relate it to making this interview happen. I met you in October last year. It was one of those things where we were going to make this happen and now we are actually making it happen but I just think of the instance where I said I was going to text you that Sunday and there were other things going on and I forgot. I hope I don’t come across to other people, or yourself, as lacking integrity because from everything inside of me I want to make things happen. Some people I know would just try to avoid you, say they’re going to do something and never follow through, it’s just easier for them to not do it. Why?
I think that everybody is dealing with things on their own schedule. I look at proposals, some things that I did years ago and I realized they were poorly written. I beat myself up over it, but in my mind I look at it as the best I could have done at that point. There were people that took the time to shape it for me and they gave me some leeway. Who am I not to give the same leeway to somebody? I’m not avoiding anybody. You took on a very Herculean task, leaving one world and going to another. You went from one job to juggling a job, a passion, and doubt. I’m not interested in being something else that you’re juggling, that you feel forced to catch. I’m a spectator and if you say come up on stage I will come up on stage. I understand because I’ve made that jump, I’m still in the middle of making that jump. I give people time.
But where is that line drawn with people not having integrity?
The line is if I see you three straight times and you never mentioned it. I’d think maybe you’re full of shit, maybe it’s not going to happen. That never happened, every time I saw you, you said we have to make this happen and my attitude every time was cool. I’m not someone you have to worry about. There are more demanding people and you deal with them first. I’m much more understanding of other’s schedules than before. I’m laid back when it comes to other people but with myself I would have eaten myself alive about making appointments, or doing stuff. With other people it’s cool. I won’t hold your feet to the same fire that I hold my own feet to. For me it was the little things, every time I saw you, you had to get on this.
But I think you’re right when you said that people don’t know about integrity. What it means about personal character. I think if people really start thinking about integrity, about their own personal brand I think it would scare a lot of people. All of a sudden you have to think about everything that you’re doing.
Someone was talking to me about high fiving people. It’s one of the things that I do to let everyone know, even if somebody is looking at me and doesn’t even know me, sitting in the corner, that I’m not some nearing threat. They see me as somebody who is friendly and open. I’m not having you reach across the counter toward me, I’m coming across because I want people to see that I’m friendly, that’s part of my brand. Every time that I come in I’m going to look you in the eye and be upfront that is part of my personal integrity. I don’t think people put too much thought into what they bring into a room with them.
It’s scary to face reality. Most people, especially my generation, not that it is different in any other generation, but in this generation it’s easy to hide behind your computer. To look into yourself and develop what integrity means not only for you, but how you project it to other people, is completely lost.
If it’s not lost, it will be. We grow up, we go to high school which is a small grouping of people, we go to college which is a little bit bigger, but still a small grouping of people, and generally what happens during our 20’s, when everyone goes off the grid for a little bit. You go to Kansas to get a job, then you regroup in your 30’s and you keep in touch and have something else to bond with. You need that time to go off and become whoever you’re going to become. With twitter and Facebook we are constantly in contact with each other, no one ever goes off the grid. No one can get away or disconnect long enough to become whoever it is they want to become. There is competing pressure because I see on Facebook you’ve got a job, or they’ve got a job so that must mean I have to get a job, or I have to get the same caliber job. It’s this comparative lifestyle that can drive people crazy, I’m glad I’m not in it. I’m glad I’m older than that. I don’t need it, I’m doing my thing and it’s not hurting you. But I think the concept of individual integrity, or even individuality, is not the way of the dinosaur, but it’s going to be harder to achieve because we have to wear this pack mentality. Facebook, and stuff like that is almost like high school all over again. I only tweet when I have something to say. If you’re watching the Oscars and you are upset that ‘The Artist’ won, who cares? If we sit down for coffee and are talking about movies and you say that you hated ‘The Artist’ and I did too, we don’t need to tweet that. I’m much more secure.
It’s like opening Pandora’s box. I did an interview with, he’s now a country singer, but he was in a psychobilly punk band and he’s like, “The fact that Kim Kardashian has 50 million followers on twitter and people actually give a shit about what she has to say is sad on the actual commentary of where our society has come.” It’s that an individual who is actually doing something important for the world said something important but has 5 followers, or whatever the case may be. But Kim Kardashian says she is taking a pee and a million people re-tweet that. To me, people are just lost.
People are sheep. Don’t project too much morality or too much passion, compassion, empathy, or whatever on mankind. We are not well thought out. It takes a lot of strength to be an individual and a lot of people are just going along with the pack. I don’t care about Kim Kardashian. I am sure she does something good for somebody but it’s not me, or the world at large.
The world at large is the places that you saw in Africa. That’s the human condition not Los Angeles with someone in a Mercedes Benz driving around complaining.
It’s a little twisted. I think once you’re out of the country and the decision between a want and a need is made for you, you start to rethink the opportunities that we have here. When you’re in a place where there is no running water and you have to pump your own water you have to first get a container with no holes in it that has a handle. That’s not always the easiest thing to do. I’ve been to countries where containers with a handle were like gold. You are making shoes out of old tires; it’s not what kind of shoe to get, it’s getting a tire and making your own shoe. Then you come back here and American culture, to a certain extent, is just laughable because it is predicated on style and no substance and because there is no substance it’s going to crumble at some point. The crumbling comes with a person’s credit ratings, or something like that, when you’re constantly buying stuff that is in style or constantly doing things that are in style. Needing an iPhone 4 or GPS when there was nothing wrong with your other phone.
I don’t think you really get to understand America until you have taken a step back from it to look at it all. For the good things you can be lazy and live a pretty decent life here. See it for the good and bad. See the sillyness that is out there. For 2 ½ weeks it was Tiger Woods news heading the New York Times, 9/11 wasn’t on there that long. That’s where we’re at, this is what we care about. We care about what famous people are doing.
People don’t like themselves so they project themselves onto these celebrities or other individuals that they think live lifestyles that they want to live instead of digging deep into their self to figure out what makes them tick. I didn’t see any news come out saying Whitney Houston was a serious drug addict and she had problems, they should have said if you have these problems here is who you call for help. None of that came up, it was just talking about her best track. And if you’re a 13 year-old kid the media portrays it to be that she was a glorified pop star. Why doesn’t someone say no?
A lot of times you have to experience a loss in order to figure things out. You have to be out of America to understand. After doing these trips I often feel I am working at a higher gear than everybody else because they’re held down by what they think, by what they perceive racism to be, what they perceive societal pressures to be, by what they perceive. Move forward. I’ve been in places where people didn’t have shit, but they are still finding a way to move forward. Here we are wired down by competitive noise. In order for Kim Kardashian to shine she has to have more followers than Nicole Ricci or something. No one is saying shit and no one is giving you the individual time to look at yourself. We are deaf to the way that we should be which is more introspective, more focused on the craft of things instead of just the purchase of things. We have a consumerist attitude but we need to work on building ourselves.
David in the Kyrgyzstan Mountains
If you go tomorrow, or today, what will you leave behind? What is your legacy of knowledge, passion and compassion? If I go tomorrow I want somebody to say they’re going to go high five somebody, or hug somebody because Dave is gone and there is one less high fiving motherfucker out there. I want somebody work a little bit harder when they think of me, realize they have talents and they work on them. I am writing my legacy. People have an obligation to leave a legacy. Legacies aren’t only for kids, but for everybody in your circle. Understand the power within you, once you understand that and own up to it you’re not going to slack off in anything that you do in your talent. Maybe you’ll slack off at your 9 to 5 and not make coffee as fast, but where your passions are, you’re not going to slack off from that shit because you’re on a mission to lead.
I’m trying to leave a legacy of achieving. There are not too many others out there doing this so I have to do this. I don’t mean to say that I’m the only one out there but it’s few and far between. Most brothers are just worried about how to pay the child support, or are so worried about their job they’re not even thinking in the broad way that I am. I have the opportunity to think that way and I want to capitalize on it. That is what I’m saying about perspective. Shit is changing. I am now Kevin’s age when he died, that weighs on me. I don’t know how much time I have left and shit can happen anywhere. It keeps me awake and moving forward. I’m doing things, multi-tasking, my brain is searching for a way. As I am sitting here listening to you about you and what your magazine is doing I’m thinking about what I could be doing. Maybe I should be interviewing people. You’re constantly getting new information, meeting new people, and getting new stimuli. Only a fool would sit on this and do nothing.
I don’t have any kids so I have been a big brother and now my kid brother is 27. I’ve known him since he was 16 and I text him every single day. When I’m having a good day or bad moment. I let him know when I succeed and I damn sure let him know when I fail. He understands that I’m all about moving forward. You work on your legacy, you work on passing on something pretty good. I try to give him perspective since I’m 40 something years old and this is the stuff I want him to be thinking about. You’re going to be thinking about the world in a broader way when you hit 40 and he appreciates this. Just the power of health. He’s healthy, he’s doing things, and we talk about staying healthy. The older you get health means more. Kevin’s legacy to me was health first and foremost. Like I said, he became a vegan in ’79, a black vegan. I thought: what? Kevin was ahead of his time. These are all the sort of things that push me, that make me want to achieve. I’ve lost people, I’ve lost Kevin, I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost my father, and I don’t know what happens after you die but on the off chance that we meet again I sure don’t want them to ask what I wasted my time for. The first thing I’d want them to say is: who knew your dumb ass could work this hard? I’ve had a lot of opportunities to see things, I want to see a lot more things. My father knew he was going to die of cancer and said, “it’s all so simple now.” He started talking about feelings, and things left unsaid. I was 26 or 27, but I’ve held onto these conversations. As I’ve gotten older I’ve dwelled on what he was talking about more.