Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
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Amy McGrath: From the Marine Corps to the Campaign Trail
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“Strapping on a $70 million aircraft to your back and landing on the back of an aircraft carrier at 120 miles per hour at night in bad weather and with no navigational aids - that's hard. And when I look at that, in comparison to what I'm doing today, I think ‘I can do this.’ Because it's so important for the country and I've done hard things before and we need it.” - Amy McGrath
Amy McGrath, candidate for the US Senate seat in Kentucky, talks about the state of the Senate under her opponent Mitch McConnell, about her experiences campaigning in such a high-profile race, and about how her days as a fighter pilot informed her approach to leadership and patriotism.
Amy is a former Marine fighter pilot currently running against Republican incumbent and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat in Kentucky. You can learn more about her campaign at AmyMcGrath.com and follow her on Twitter at @AmyMcGrathKY.
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Amy McGrath: Strapping on a $70 million aircraft to your back and landing on the back of an aircraft carrier at 120 miles per hour at night in bad weather and with no navigational aids, that's hard, and when I look at that, in comparison to what I'm doing today, I think, I can do this. Because it's so important for the country, and I've done hard things before, and we need it.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
Today I sat down with Amy McGrath, former Marine fighter pilot currently running for Senate in Kentucky against the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Amy talks to me about the state of the US Senate under McConnell, her experiences campaigning in such a high-profile race, and how her days as a fighter pilot informed her approach to leadership and patriotism.
Amy McGrath, welcome to Burn the Boats. You're a former Marine Corps aviator, the first woman to fly in combat in the F/A-18 in the Marine Corps, now running for the US Senate against Mitch McConnell after a run for Congress that was a very, very near miss for you. I guess you just can't get enough of the campaign trail. How's it treating you?
AM: Well, first of all, it's good to be here. Look, what I'm doing right now it's just a second service to country. The campaign trail, this is our democracy. We need good leaders. We need leaders who believe in service, in servant leadership as I know you do, Ken. For me, I look at this as a calling, the same way I had when I served in the Marine Corps.
KH: You talk about the contrast between running for office and serving in uniform and in your case that service in uniform included going to combat three times. I recall you telling me once that when you step back and really think about it, this isn't as hard.Landing on a carrier deck pitching at night that is really tough. But the way you describe running for office as a calling and what I've seen from your campaign, there's an element, a real element of joy in it. You really derive a real sense of joy out of being on the campaign trail and talking to people, and fighting for what you believe in, in this new way. Is that an apt description of the contrast?
AM: For me it's even more than fighting for what I believe in. It's this just sort of deep love of country and love of what makes America what it is, the institutions that we have and the patriotism that so many people have and the fact that we need better leaders and I'm the kind of person that loves my country and knows that if those of us who can need to stand up right now and running for office in this political climate, especially running against the guy that I'm running against, right, Mitch McConnell. Man, that's hard. That's a hard thing to do, and it's kind of in my nature to do the hard things.
I mean, as you mentioned, look, strapping on a $70 million aircraft to your back and landing on the back of an aircraft carrier at 120 miles per hour at night in bad weather and with no navigational aids, that's hard, and when I look at that, in comparison to what I'm doing today, I think, I can do this. Because it's so important for the country, and I've done hard things before, and we need it. So that's what it comes down to for me.
KH: It's also in your nature to be positive about the pursuit of difficult missions. I'm wondering how you maintain that in an election as ugly as this one. I mean, your opponent has given you a ton of ammo to use. For the most part, you're talking though about love of country, about what you can do for the residents of Kentucky. It is an overwhelmingly positive message because of who you are but at some point, you're really going to need to unleash, aren't you?
AM: Well, I think number one, I'm an optimist by nature. I also think that's what makes me an American. Anybody who has made progress in our country has been an optimist, not a cynic like Mitch McConnell, okay. But somebody that deeply believes in this country and believes that we can fix the things and- I have this sort of idea that we're Americans, we can fix this stuff. Whether it's healthcare, or whether it's our economy and getting an economy that works for everyone, and not just the 1%. We know how to do this, and so I feel very confident that we can take on the challenges that we face in this country and in Kentucky. We just need leaders of courage to be able to do the things necessary to move us in that direction. But in terms of unleashing against my opponent, I'm just simply going to point out his continual failures for Kentucky. This is a man who's been in office for 35 years. He wants to be in office for 42 years, and Kentucky by many measurable metrics isn't doing so well. We have the highest cancer rates in the country. We have one of the highest rates of diabetes. We have entire regions of our state that are economically decimated, and Ken, that's all happened on his watch, and we have wages in Kentucky that haven't increased in 20 years. What good is a powerful senator if he's not working to make things better for Kentucky? He's actually working to make things worse. So I'm going to be pointing that out over and over again.
KH: And I would imagine you would make a distinction between going negative and telling the truth. The truth is the truth however you want to receive it, right?
AM: Well, I mean, I think the truth, unfortunately, about Senator McConnell is a very negative thing. This is a man who, when you talk about healthcare, for example, who's not only not actively trying to fix the system that we have and make it better, but he's actively making it worse. When you talk about trying to undermine protections for people with preexisting conditions continuously. Ken, when you talk about the fact that there are six bipartisan bills to reduce the price of prescription medication in this country. Bipartisan bills that have passed the House that are sitting on his desk and he won't bring them to a vote, he won't move them. Why? Well, follow the money, man. Follow the money. He gets the most campaign cash from Big Pharma than any member of Congress, at least in this last cycle. So it's not rocket science, and so to me, you're not doing what's best for Kentucky. Kentucky has the second highest per capita spending on prescription medication in the country. So, to me it's not going negative or anything, it's pointing out, he's failing, and it's pointing out the fact that he doesn't really care about Kentucky. That he has left Kentucky behind, that he works for his special interests and the entities that fund his campaign cash and it's very obvious, and that's just one example. There are many.
KH: This is one of those races in this cycle that is about so much more than the state in which it's being fought. This is a race with a national profile because the person you're attempting to replace has had not just a detrimental effect upon Kentuckians but upon damn near every American. When you talk about those bipartisan bills that are sitting on his desk, alongside, if my research is right, the 400 other bills that have come through the House that are just languishing in his graveyard. I mean, the stakes in this Senate election in Kentucky are national. Surely that impacts how you're pursuing this race?
AM: Well, yeah, of course. I mean, I think that one of the problems that we have in our country today is that the mechanism for debate, the mechanism to hash out our differences in our opinions and our values, is the US Senate. And under his leadership, the Senate is broken. It's broken.
KH: Can you give me a couple of examples?
AM: Okay, all right. You may not - let's just say minimum wage. Maybe Ken you think that the minimum wage should stay at $7 and 25 cents? And maybe, I think it should go up to $10, and maybe my husband thinks it should go up to 12, and other people think it should go up to 15. Here's the thing. We can't even debate that right now. We can't even have the discussion, because one man is not allowing the mechanism for even discussion of that to get underway, and it's inflaming both sides on just that one issue. Talk about healthcare. We can't even have a debate on whether Medicare should be able to negotiate drug prices. This is something that even President Trump has wanted to do. The bipartisan bill has passed the House and Mitch McConnell, because he's bought off by special interests, has that power to just say, no, I'm not going to even discuss it, and that's fundamentally against our democracy, that's my point is the Senate is broken because of that.
KH: It suggests though a larger systemic problem if one man can break the Senate, can grind the gears of government to a halt. I think in the immediate term, you have to replace that person, which is the mission you've embarked upon. But are you contemplating systemic reforms that can keep that from happening in the future such that 400 bills don't get stuck on the desk of one person elected by infinitesimal fraction of the American public?
AM: Well, I think the first thing we need to do is to get rid of Mitch Mcconnell because we have been able to have a democracy that's worked for over 200 years.
KH: Fair point. Fair point.
AM: Okay. So yeah, and take it back to his ripping up the constitution under the last administration when it came to Supreme Court nominees, right?
KH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
AM: Merrick Garland. Okay, need I say more. I mean, this is a man who puts his personal and political interests ahead of the interests of the country. And then again, take it back Ken, to you and I, I mean, I took an oath to the constitution to defend it six times, all right? And that's not an oath to my political party, it's not an oath to the president, it's not an oath to myself. It's an oath to the values and the system of government that we have, and I take it very seriously and I feel like it's bigger than myself. And this is something that we need to get back to, and I just believe that Senator McConnell does not take that oath seriously anymore, and we need to replace him with people that do. And if we can, then we can get our government working again, all right? And that's not an ideological thing to say. It's not a left, right, red, blue thing to say, it's just a fact.
KH: And do you think if we are successful in replacing Mitch McConnell, and replacing Donald Trump, that the established norms that held such sway before they swept into power can be restored? I mean, when you talk about that fidelity to the oath of office, it's really a moral obligation at least for senators not a legal obligation. The undoing of our traditions, of our standard practices in the Senate, like giving someone like Merrick Garland a fair hearing that undoing has been wrought by the destruction of norms, not by the changing of laws. Have we reached a point though, where those norms are shattered forever? Or do you think with the right leadership, we can bring them back without having to codify new standards and law, like getting rid of filibusters and super majorities and things like that?
AM: I'm an optimist but I also believe we need to get government working for the people again, and so to me, that means tackling the money and politics issue, right?
AM: That means tackling all of the underlying problems that are creating this division that we have. So it means yes getting Mitch Mcconnell out of the Senate. But it means in replacing them with good leaders that put our country above their political party and care about their oath to the Constitution. But it also means some reforms in terms of reining in the excessive money in politics that’s just crushing us, when you talk about dark money, it's unlimited, we have no transparency, we don't know where this money is coming from, we don't know what country it's coming from, we don't know how that's influencing members of Congress. This is a real problem for our democracy and this, frankly, is the swamp, this system that Mitch McConnell built, and I believe it's going to crush us long term if we don't tackle it.
So I think to me, that's something that I want to go after. I think that's more important than even filibusters or any kind of structural, internal issues that you would ask about.
KH: You appeal passionately to patriotism, to the oath you swore when, I imagine was that your first day at the Naval Academy when they in dock the Midshipman?
KH: And I think that's essential, not just for restoring people's faith in democracy but for winning in a state like Kentucky. It is by and large a red state, although the last gubernatorial election, maybe forced some rethinking of that. But you've got a real task ahead of you in appealing to people on both sides. How is that playing out?
AM: Well, I mean, I think first of all, people are hungry for real leadership, and we can talk about what that means, but I think from a political standpoint and just running this campaign, I mean, look, Mitch McConnell for a lot of people, they just believe he's been around too long and that he is not working for Kentucky. That he is somebody who's bought off by special interests. So how do you run against that? I think there's three things, one, you need to go to as many places and talk to as many people as you can. I mean, it's basic sort of bread and butter issues that you talk about. It's basic listening all around the state. People are hungry for that, and when I go around the state, I don't go around preaching, I go around listening. And when people say, what are your platforms and what do you care about? Well, it's not necessarily me, it's what people are telling me, and those issues are healthcare, those issues are good quality jobs, those issues are infrastructure and the problems that people are having. So that's number one, focus on people. Focus on making their lives better and having that message on those bread and butter issues and listening.
Number two, I think people are hungry for a new generation of leaders they can trust to put their country above their political party, who are not necessarily- they didn't grow up within a political party, they don't see everything through the blue lens or the red lens, that's me. My husband's a lifelong Republican. I'm a Democrat. I was an independent for most of my career in the military. I don't see everything through a partisan lens, and I really believe that we need to get back to that, and I believe people are hungry for that. And the third thing is how do you take on a guy like Mitch McConnell? You take on with grassroots support. I'm not doing this alone. I am not arrogant enough to think that I can do this myself. I'm going to need all of Kentucky, I'm going to need all of the country. We have to do this together. We need patriots. We need patriots to be a part of this campaign, whether they're in Kentucky or outside Kentucky because it matters. Our country it matters. So we're building a team to be able to do that and then get that grassroots support, and I think that's the third thing.
KH: You are however running as a Democrat. I am wondering if there're parts of Kentucky where that presents an insurmountable hurdle, given the Democratic brand and I'm recalling a conversation you shared with me some time ago about teaching your class at the Naval Academy and presenting a list of issues to your students and asking them which side they believed in, and it turned out the vast majority were actually Democrats in how they thought but Republicans in how they identified. I imagine in parts of Kentucky as in parts of Ohio, where I'm from, that holds true. The Democratic Party, the platform on which you're running, really is the platform that best advocates for the people you want to fight for. But something about the Democratic brand makes it hard to communicate.
AM: Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's definitely an uphill battle. I'll tell you a quick story. Down in Letcher County, visiting a few months ago, talked to a gentleman and he was a retired coal miner and we talked for about 10 minutes, and we had a very good conversation. We agreed on some things and disagreed on some things. And at the end of it, he said to me, I don't know if I can vote for you, you're a Democrat. But I'll tell you one thing, I'm not voting for Mitch. I'm not voting for him, because he doesn't care about us. He comes down here once every six years, and he sees one person, the coal baron, and then leaves, and I'm tired of that. But then he said, I don't know if I can vote for you, but I'll tell you, I'm not voting for him. And my response to him was okay. I know you might not be able to vote for a Democrat. Can you vote for a Marine?
AM: Because the challenge, Ken, is to try to get people to maybe see things a little bit differently. I'd never defined myself as a Democrat. If you were to have met five years ago, I would never have even thought about it. I mean, I just thought of myself as an American, I thought of myself as a Marine. And yes, you have to choose a side, I get that to run for office, I get it. But that's the challenge is trying to show people look, man, I'm just somebody who's an American, who's a Kentuckian, who knows we need better leaders, and who wants to step up and do what's right for you. And yes, it's a challenge. Again, I'm an optimist and I think we can break through to many people.
KH: And when you're talking to Kentuckians about that, when you shared with that coal miner, that invitation to vote for a Marine, as opposed to voting for a Democrat, how's that received?
AM: Well, they definitely take sort of a step back and think. I mean, and that's been part of my primary message when you talk about leadership and real leadership, the Marine Corps and the military has influenced me a tremendous amount, and one of the reasons I'm running is because I don't see the basic leadership principles that were so important in the military. I don't see that instituted in our political leadership today. It's the basic leadership principle of responsibility. How many times does a guy like Senator McConnell blame the other side for everything? I mean, at some point, are you going to take responsibility for the fact that this is broken or not? That's what leaders do. Teamwork. The idea that we will work with anybody who wears a red jersey or a blue jersey to get things done for America. Where is that teamwork? They don't have it anymore. These guys that are up and especially Senator McConnell, they don't have these basic leadership principles that we were taught in the Marine Corps, and I'm tired of it and that's one of the reasons I'm running.
KH: As a marine, as a pilot, as a leader during wartime you have borne responsibilities that most people can hardly fathom. Can you share the story of where you were and what you were asked to do on 9/11?
AM: Sure, on 9/11 I was a very junior aviator. I was a weapon systems officer, which is in the F/A-18, we have two seat versions of the F/A-18. Where you have a pilot in the front and you have a weapons officer in the back and I had trained as a weapons officer initially before I trained as a pilot. And at that time, I was backseater, I controlled the weapons, the communication, the radar systems and that sort of thing, and I was very junior. I had just joined my squadron, probably only there a few months. And I was in San Diego California at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, which is three hours of course behind New York time when the Twin Towers were hit. The squadron command called us all in, all the aviators to come back onto the base and get immediately into the ready room because we were at the defense. We were going to be the defense for the West Coast, for Los Angeles and San Diego. So I hopped in my car, I got on to base, and remember that day was very confusing. We went to a certain DEFCON level and they actually shut the gates of the base down. I had lived very close to base at the time, not all pilots and weapons officers lived on base. All of the more senior aviators, pilots and weapons systems officers could not get on to the base. So here you had in my squadron only a few of us, four or five of us, who were in the ready room, and I remember my commanding officer looking at me saying oh my gosh, she's the most junior person in the squadron, we're going to have to put her in a jet with live AMRAAMs which are radar guided missiles and Sidewinders which are heat-seeking missiles. We're going to have to put her in there and I was ready of course I was trained and-
KH: Just to drive the point home. What were you being asked to use those missiles for? Because I don't think people appreciate just what a dilemma that was.
AM: The F/A-18 is a fighter jet, right? So it can drop bombs, but its primary mission is also to shoot down other aircrafts, okay? And we have aircraft that can shoot down other aircraft. Now, I never imagined that I would ever have to be in a position to shoot down an aircraft like an airliner, but on 9/11, our world changed and airliners became weapons themselves. And so I hopped into the cockpit, loaded up with live air to air missiles, six of them, and we basically went to the end of the runway and for three hours we had one engine on and one engine off to conserve gas and we sat there ready to go literally on the edge of the runway ready to launch and launching would have taken 10 seconds and we would have been airborne ready to possibly shoot down an airliner if they weren't communicating or were ever looking like they were going to ram into San Diego or Los Angeles. So that was a really tough morning. A lot went through my mind, I was prepared to do the unthinkable, and I've thought a lot about that. I mean, it was very real on that day. Luckily after three hours we stood down and actually I was relieved by another aircrew that took over, and of course the attackers did not go for the West Coast. So we know what happened there.
KH: When you talk about putting your country first, it's not academic; you have been literally in the hot seat in a way that Mitch Mcconnell hasn't. Surely that holds some sway with voters who are on the fence.
AM: I mean, I think that, again, people are hungry for leaders they can trust to put this country above their political party, and I just think we need that now more than ever, and I'm somebody that fought for the country and just wants to do what's right for our country, and I just believe we need that right now. And again, it's not a partisan thing to say, it's just the reality.
KH: You've become something of a celebrity candidate. There are certainly a lot of celebrity politicians out there, but precious few celebrity candidates. You've got, what 300,000 plus Twitter followers, armies of supporters and trolls. How does that affect you? Does your Republican husband or your kids see you at all differently?
AM: Well, my children are seven, five and three, so they don't watch a ton of TV except for Paw Patrol, and they are not on social media, thank God. So there hasn't been much life change there, and my husband, we're still very grounded and I think anybody with small children knows what that means. We're still very grounded to daily life.
KH: I imagine one of the other things side effects of being a celebrity candidate is that you do a lot of media and probably get asked the same three questions over and over and over again. Is there a least favorite one? I have one in the running that I'm going to run by you.
AM: You would ask me what my least favorite question is. I try to just be honest and transparent with everything that I say and how I answer things. I think that the gotcha questions are always the ones that are politically motivated usually from the other side that plants them. So they want to take you out of context. I think that's one of the hardest things running for office in the age of podcasts, in the age of being able to splice things. I mean, my opponent has already spliced parts of sentences out of things that I've said and tried to make them into attacks and it just sucks because you can't have a conversation. I mean even joking around as a candidate can be taken out of context. So you have to be very disciplined. There are things that are more difficult as a candidate, but you work through it just like anything else.
KH: Well, I will submit one of these least favorite questions for the record. I have heard people ask you more times than I can count what it is like running for office as a mom and it occurs to me that the guys never get asked that question. Does that bother you?
AM: It doesn't bother me because I like to point out sort of just that fact, that first of all, both my husband and I were in the military prior to me doing this and I really feel like our time in the military as two active duty officers with three small children was more challenging in many respects than what I'm doing today. I do feel like there's some level of “hey, you would never ask a guy this question”, and so last cycle I remember having an interview with a local newspaper editorial board, and one of the members asked me, “hey, you got these kids, and if you get into Congress, you're going to be gone three days a week and how are you going to manage that with the children and being gone?” And I remember answering him by saying, “my opponent- I'm going to have to call my opponent when I win. I'm going to have to call up my opponent because I don't know how I'm going to do it, and he does this every day.
He's got small children the same age as mine. So-
KH: And you never asked him.
AM: ... That kind of shut down that line of questioning. But so I try to be humorous about it. It is annoying to some extent, but we have to break through that. I've dealt with that in the military. I mean, going into the Marine Corps and being one of very few women doing what I was doing, you just sort of water off a duck's back. You take it, you answer it truthfully, and you kind of move on and performance matters. So, at the end of the day being a woman even in the Marine Corps, did the bombs hit the target on time? That's what people care about. There might be a lot of talk initially, but if you're a performer and if you do a good job, that becomes secondary.
KH: Well, Amy it's been an honor having you on the show, we always end with the same question. What is the bravest Burn the Boats kind of decision that you've ever been a part of?
AM: Wow, just this idea that failure is not an option. I mean, look with what I did in the Marine Corps. There's a lot of examples of that. I think the first night of the war in Iraq in 2003, wasn't something that I did. It was something that I saw another Marine do, and I don't know who this Marine is to this day because they had gas masks on. We were going to our jets to launch and Scud attack happened where at that time we thought that Saddam Hussein had potentially put chemical weapons into the Scuds, we weren't sure. and so we were at al-Jaber in Kuwait at the airbase and we're about ready to launch and we got an alarm for a Scud attack which basically means that everybody runs into the bunkers, puts on all their biological and chemical weapon gear. We in our F/A-18 could not arm up. We were ready to go but it requires that somebody from the ground maintenance crew to run out and actually physically arm up the weapons from the outside and so we were basically useless unless somebody came out and we were in the middle of the Scud attack where you're supposed to be underground in the bunkers. And we had this one Marine who ran out of the bunker, literally in the middle of the alarms where we don't know if we're going to be attacked or a missile is going to come raining down and he- he or she, I have no idea- ran out and armed up all the F/A-18s. There were four of us that were lined up to launch. So that we could take off and do our mission to help support the Marines on the ground who were actually crossing the border at that point into Iraq. So I mean, to me, that was the most, like hey, failure is not an option for the whole team, and that was one of the bravest things I think I've ever seen anybody do.
KH: Well, I think that is an apt metaphor for what you are doing right now. Good luck, Amy. Thank you so much.
AM: All right. I appreciate it. Take care.
KH: Thanks again to Amy for joining me. The Kentucky primary election was scheduled for later this month, but it’s been postponed to June due to the Covid-19 crisis. Keep an eye on Amy’s campaign as it continues to ramp up - you can find her on Twitter at @AmyMcGrathKY.
Amy said that her label as a Democrat has dissuaded some Kentucky voters from considering her and we wanted to hear your thoughts. Do you vote along party lines? Would you vote for or against someone just because of their party affiliation?
Isabel Robertson: Hi, I’m Isabel, the producer of Burn the Boats, here to read some of the thoughts you all sent us about voting along or across party lines.
We got a range of responses, but most people generally said that they are willing to vote across party lines, but they don’t often do it in practice.
Dee and Jenny on Facebook were both firm about not voting along party lines. Dee said “Nope. You vote for the best candidate, regardless of party affiliation” and Jenny said she also votes for the best candidate, specifically someone willing to reach across party lines.
A few people said that they used to vote across the aisle, but no longer do. Andy on Twitter said that he never strictly followed party lines and generally voted for Independents or Republicans. But thanks to today’s GOP, he’s a Democrat. Quid on Twitter said that they never voted along party lines until 2018 when they changed their party to Democrat from Independent and they’re planning to vote on party lines for a long time.
A few other people said that they vote for the candidates they think best represent their values, but that those tend to all be on one side of the aisle or the other. Kirsten on Facebook said that she votes for those that uphold her values and that that’s rarely been anything but a Democrat for the past 20+ years. Taylor agreed, saying that he votes for the best candidate, they just tend to be Democrats.
Thank you all so much for your thoughts this week! You can join in our conversation yourself by finding Ken Harbaugh on Facebook or following him on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.
KH: Next episode, I’m talking to award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien. She talks about the current news landscape, about what success means in journalism, and about her flexibility and optimism in seizing new opportunities.
And we want you to join our discussion. Tell us about a time when you had to adapt to a new situation. Send a comment on social media, leave a message at 216-245-5461 or send a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.