The Power of the Pivot

July 31, 2020 – Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola

It’s been a whole year, friends!  One year ago today, I locked the door of Gwynedd Mercy University’s campus ministry center, walked through the empty parking lot, and drove away into my new life.

I knew it would take me at least a year to get my bearings, and that I had to resist the impulse to fill my calendar with everything that raised its hand first.  For years, I had proclaimed that I wanted to be a “freelance me,” and now I was actually doing it.  But what did “it” look like, exactly?  The joy and terror of a freelance existence are intertwined: it’s the fine line between getting to decide and having to decide what to do with your day / week / year / one wild and precious life.  (Thank you, Mary Oliver.)

Se hace camino al andar, wrote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado.  The path is made by walking.  As I have walked this unfolding path, a delightful companion on the journey has been my godson, Jeff Civillico. 

We are the bookends of our family—the oldest and youngest of seven cousins, both holding degrees in theology from Jesuit universities.  (Fun fact:  I’m often described as “profound—and surprisingly funny,” while Jeff is precisely the opposite.)  Jeff’s career has always been a freelance adventure, so he has been both an inspiration and guide for me this year.  With gratitude, I’m delighted to share his story with you.

Glad to be in one another’s company at any age!

The Entertainer

As I mentioned, Jeff and I both have undergraduate degrees in theology—Saint Joe’s for me, Georgetown for him—but there our stories diverge. I became a campus minister, spiritual writer, and retreat facilitator; Jeff became a professional juggler, Vegas headliner, and keynote speaker. (Bonus: the next time someone asks, “What can you do with a degree in theology?” you have a whole new answer!)

Jeff’s passion for entertainment predated his interest in theology, but since there was no major for what he wanted to do, he figured he might as well study something that interested him.  Arriving at Georgetown just days before 9/11, he was drawn to learn more about world religions, which led to a concentration in Religion and Culture.  (See, I told you he was surprisingly profound!) 

Jeff’s career path had already taken him from juggling in his parents’ living room to performing at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Williamsburg’s Busch Gardens; a couple summers of cruise ship gigs during college led to a couple years of Disney World gigs after graduation.  Then the bright lights of the Vegas strip beckoned, and Jeff got his own show: Comedy in Action.  For many performers, that would be the “BOOM – Made It!” moment.  For Jeff, however, it was simply a new beginning, as he constantly strives to expand and integrate his life’s work.  “A goal achieved,” he likes to say, “is just your next starting point.”

Jeff had a ten-year run doing family-friendly comedy in various Caesars Entertainment venues, at one point performing as many as ten shows a week.  By 2019, however, he was down to just one—Wednesday evenings at the Paris—by his own choice.  Though wanting to keep a foothold on the strip, he needed to free up time for new creative ventures: from guest-hosting the local ABC affiliate’s “Morning Blend” and serving as spokesperson for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum to giving keynote speeches and emceeing large corporate gatherings in cities across the country and around the world.

The Philanthropist

Meanwhile, there was an ambitious charitable endeavor taking shape in Jeff’s imagination.  Recognizing that Vegas is home to a community of generous performers, in 2011 he founded Win-Win Entertainment, a non-profit that enables entertainers, athletes, and other celebrities to share their time with children in need.  Thanks to Jeff’s professional network, in 2017 Win-Win began to expand, starting with Minneapolis then Salt Lake City, Orlando, San Francisco, and more. They are in a dozen cities nationwide now—and still growing.

Being founder and CEO of a non-profit may not be what gets Jeff the most attention, but it is, by far, his most satisfying work. (It’s also another intriguing thing one can do with a degree in theology!)

The Pivot

So, what takes a person from juggling for spare change at the Inner Harbor to running a national non-profit and performing around the world?  That feels like such an amazing leap, one that can’t be accounted for by the simple passage of time.  Here’s the secret: it wasn’t a leap at all.  Instead, Jeff credits what he calls The Power of the Pivot.

In a keynote address by the same title, he explains it this way: “A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.”  This is a perfect description of what Jeff has done in his career.  He has made a series of pivots:

  • Living room to Inner Harbor to Busch Gardens to Disney World to Vegas
  • Juggling to clean comedy to keynote speeches to emcee work
  • Volunteering personally to match-making local volunteers to establishing a national volunteer network

A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.

Through each change, Jeff has kept one foot on the ground and intentionally pivoted in the direction he wanted to go.

The Crisis

The coronavirus crisis hit the entertainment industry hard.  Everything Jeff did—as a performer and a philanthropist—was based on personal presence and audience interaction.  In a heartbeat, venues were closed, events were cancelled, and the last thing anyone wanted in a children’s hospital was a non-essential stranger walking from room to room just for fun!

Fortunately, Jeff already knew all about the pivot.  To help corporations hold successful meetings in the dreaded Zoom format, he branded himself as “your virtual host,” using his nimble wit and contagious energy to emcee more than 60 corporate, charitable, and educational gatherings since March.

For Win-Win, Jeff had begun to work on the idea of “virtual visits” even before the coronavirus era.  When the shutdown hit, again he pivoted quickly; Win-Win is now able to bring smiles to kids who really need them in 23 programs nationwide, through customized performances on in-house television channels. 

To onlookers, it might seem as though Jeff made this leap to virtual venues effortlessly.  But the secret, again, is that it wasn’t a leap at all.  Jeff kept one foot on the ground of his mission—the WHY behind the WHAT of all his endeavors—and pivoted to a new HOW.  (Thank you, Simon Sinek.) 

And here, our disparate paths begin to converge.  I still remember how my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing on the evening of March 12, as parishes and groups called to cancel their Lenten retreats and my event calendar collapsed like a blown tire.  At that point, I’m not sure I’d even heard of Zoom; now I’m giving Zoom retreats for St. Placid Priory, all the way across the country in Lacey, Washington.  Although I miss being in person, I am moved to be able to touch people’s hearts at a distance; during my first Zoom retreat, participants “came” from as far away as San Diego and Scotland.  Maybe you can join me for the next one: Does Everything Happen for a Reason? Tuesday, August 25 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern.

As we chatted about that commonality, Jeff observed that we offer two things people are craving in these very strange times: entertainment and spiritual sustenance . . . the funny and the profound; each of us has pivoted to continue meeting those needs.

The Mindset

Pivoting is not just about changing external tactics, Jeff suggests.  It’s also about the shifts in attitude and mindset that we need in order to move forward in changing times.  This is similar to one of the key points in a retreat I first developed in January, called Take Nothing for the Journey?  Packing for the Unknown.  I suggested that, as we “pack” for an unknown future (which is to say, every day we get out of bed in the morning), we need to let go of assumptions about the way things have to be, and hold onto qualities like flexibility, curiosity, patience, and a good sense of humor.  This is true more than ever in the coronavirus era.

One of the things Jeff and I have marveled at is that he was talking about the power of the pivot and I was talking about packing for the unknown before the pandemic broke over our collective heads.  While it’s tempting to pride ourselves on having been prescient, the fortunate timing simply affirms our shared message:  everything we need to get through this long season of uncertainty is already inside us. 

Whatever challenge you are facing, I pray that you are able to keep one foot on the ground, fortify yourself with a useful mindset, let go of what is not essential, and focus on your next step.  Together, we can pivot our way to what’s next.

May your ordinary (and far-from ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed!


Jeff Civillico recently celebrated a 10-year run on the Las Vegas Strip as a Headliner with Caesars Entertainment at the iconic hotel properties The LINQ, The Flamingo, and The Paris.  His clean, family-friendly “Comedy in Action” show remains highly acclaimed: voted “Best of Las Vegas” three years in a row by the Las Vegas Review Journal, named “Entertainer of the Year” by Vegas Inc, and honored by his fans with a 5-star rating on Yelp, Ticketmaster, and Google.  Jeff now takes his renowned clean comedy show to performing arts centers and major corporate events and conferences nationwide.  He also serves as a Host and Keynote Speaker.  When Jeff is not Hosting, Entertaining, or Speaking on-stage or on-camera, he is focused on the continued expansion and development of his national 501c3 nonprofit Win-Win Entertainment.  Win-Win Entertainment brings smiles to children who really need them in hospitals and foster homes through in-person and virtual visits from performers, athletes, and celebrities.  

http://www.jeffcivillico.com | @jeffcivillico 

http://winwinentertainment.org | @winwincharity

Unleashed

The dog I love most in the world just turned seven.  Lazarus is an aptly-named rescue: seventy-seven pounds of energy and affection, dignified except when he’s being silly.  He is my brother’s housemate. (Or at least that’s how I assume he regards himself, not feeling owned by anyone.)  I see him often, but not often enough, and cherish every day I get to spend in his extravagant company.

We don’t know the exact date of Laz’s birth; he was rescued as a three-month-old, born “sometime in July.” But it’s nice to be able to celebrate such things, so Stephen chose a date of significance: July 6. That’s the day in 2007 that our mom was diagnosed with the cancer that killed her swiftly; it’s also the day in 2012 that we lost our dear cousin Susan to the cancer she’d fought for years. It also happens to be the day before my own birthday. Stephen picked this terrible date to help redeem it, just as I picked the eleventh anniversary of our mom’s death—September 17—for my book’s publication in 2018. (That date had been a bit pre-redeemed already; Mom died on the day my goddaughter turned six. When Bizzy’s mom worried her daughter would someday feel bad about that, I said “You just tell her that God wanted it never to be a completely sad day for me, so made it her birthday first.”)

This year, we spent our birthday week in Maine, where Laz provided a “finding God” experience that I am continuing to unpack.

Being seven makes Laz now a firmly middle-aged dog, as I have been for some time a firmly middle-aged woman.  We’re both showing our gray, feeling a little creaky in the joints, and excessively fond of couch naps. We also both like long walks, so last Saturday we took Laz to Porter Preserve, part of the Boothbay Region Land Trust.

Setting off down a trail into the woods, I brought up the rear, picking my way cautiously, using a hiking pole for balance.  Laz, on the other hand, strained at his leash, whistling like a teakettle with frenzied impatience.  So much to see!  So much to smell!  Hurry up, people!  

The preserve had only a few cars in the parking lot, and no one in sight or earshot.  The posted rules said that dogs must be “leashed or under voice control.”  Laz is a good boy.  Stephen unclipped the leash.

He bounded away from us, all muscle and joy.  At the sound of his name, Laz whirled and returned, surefooted and exalting.  He continued foraging ahead and doubling back until we followed a sign marked “Vista” to some big rocks above the Sheepscot River.   Perhaps not understanding the meaning of the word “vista,” Laz leaped without hesitation and disappeared under the water.  Momentarily surprised by its depth, he popped up and swam strongly to shore, pausing only to shake off dramatically before rushing back in after a thrown stick.  Glorious!

Over the last few days, I have found myself savoring those memories of Laz’s adventure, and it has stirred something in me.  He was so free, so glad in his body, as I so often am not.  As an introvert of uptight (some would say proper) Irish descent, I know I am stiff in more than my joints.  Like Martha in Luke’s Gospel (sister of Lazarus—how about that), I work the perimeter of a party rather than plant myself in the center of the fun.  When worship turns exuberant at my church, I can practically feel the rigor mortis setting in, as I resist yet envy those who can give over their whole body to praise.

Thinking of Laz at Porter Preserve reminds me of one of the tenets of Ignatian spirituality:  that we draw close to God by recognizing the deepest desires of our hearts.  The yearning I feel when I replay the mental images of Laz cavorting through the woods reveals such a desire.  Something in me wants to move more freely, less self-consciously in this world.  I am drawn to the energy I experienced in Laz unleashed, and I believe this reveals something of God’s desire for me as well.  I need to sit with that desire, to notice when I’m following it—and when I’m not.  

In her lovely book Dog Songs, Mary Oliver imagines a conversation with a pup who claims to know nothing of prayer.  She assures him, “Every time you wake up and love your life and the world, you’re praying, my dear boy.” 

Waking up, loving my life, loving the world. At 55, I can’t think of a better way to start each day.

Thanks, Laz.

A photo of Laz, a dignified black lab/pit bull mix.
Laz at his most dignified