Q&A with David Whitesock, Founder & CEO, Commonly Well

David Whitesock believes we will solve addiction when we don’t solve for addiction. David’s path to his current work has been unconventional. Yet, each moment along that path contributed to a way of thinking and seeing the world around him. David grew up in a military family in North Dakota. Unlike many military families, he did not move around that much. Despite this relative stability, David struggled to connect to others or himself. This perpetual disconnect would be a driving factor for the varied paths of his life.

David thinks about problems and solutions through a design approach. Before understanding what this truly meant, he began is journey through college as an architecture student at North Dakota State University. David absorbed a wide spectrum of design principles. Applying this knowledge was put on hold, as would completing college. David found a way to find comfort from near crippling anxiety and depression in alcohol and drugs. The progression to addiction was slow but the impact would be enormous.



Q. If you are in recovery, what was your drug of choice? When did you stop using?
A. Alcohol. July 2005.

Q. Do you think addiction is an illness, disease, a choice, or a wicked twist of fate?
A. I used to blindly believe in the disease model of addiction. Addiction, once fully activated in the brain is certainly a disease. However, I believe through personal experience and through the study of neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics, that addiction is the result of choices and decision architecture. Sometimes the choice is 100% intentional. And sometimes we are subject to confusing, unintentional, or nefarious choice architecture. But because addiction is a progressive, onset-based condition, it is, like type 2 diabetes, 100% percent preventable and reversible in almost 95% of people.

Q. Do you log on to ZOOM 12-step meetings? How often? Do you share?
A. No.

Q. Anything special in your sobriety Tool-kit that helps keep you sober?
A. I stopped thinking about sobriety a long time ago. At some point the decision no longer use alcohol and other drugs became outweighed by other life and wellbeing needs and desires.
However, there are two items in my tool-kit that have exponentially advanced my self-actualization and wellbeing. 
The first is meditation. Nothing, absolutely nothing I have tried has had the level of impact on the underlying anxiety and depression which drove me to addiction. The difficult but straightforward process of sitting with one’s breath and engaging with one’s inner awareness has lead me through incredible personal growth and resilience the last 17 years.
The second is a rigorous process of self-evaluation. Ten years ago, I started exploring how to measure recovery. It led me into the scientific world of measuring subjective wellbeing (happiness) and eventually inventing a recovery capital measure, which we validated, had peer-reviewed, and published. Every 30 days I use the Recovery Capital Index to measure, track, and engage my own recovery inventory. This is a continuous process improvement that keeps me focused and working on myself. 

Q. Where did you grow up?
A. Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. Graduated high school from a small town outside Grand Forks, ND.

Q. From what school or teacher did you learn the most?
A. Professor Sandy McKeown at the University of South Dakota. Sandy taught Constitutional Law and was a public defender. I took her class as an elective. But she convinced me that I needed to become a lawyer. It was in that process of early recovery while at university that she helped me understand the true nature of advocacy. Advocacy happens every day. It can be seen, but most often it’s never seen. It happens in our actions of kindness and presence. 

Q.  If you had an extra million dollars, which charity would you donate it to?
A. Such an interesting question. I don’t have an answer. Since I worked for both non-profits and socially-oriented for-profits … I’ve seen how capital gets converted into impact. I’d rather give that million dollars to a social entrepreneur focused on a certain level of impact and not simply a charity or cause. 

Q. If you are in recovery, are you back to going to in person meetings or sticking with zoom?
A. I no longer attend meetings for myself. However, the 12-steps were instrumental to my process self-discovery, recovery, and wellbeing.

Q. Do you believe in God or a Higher Power?
A.There is certainly something greater than us at work. 

Q. What book(s) have you read more than once?
A.Million Little Pieces (James Frye), Nudge (Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein), Daily Stoic (Ryan Holiday)

Q. Do you have any children?
A. No. 

Q. Did you start any new projects after getting sober?
A. I decided to return to college at 30 years old. I completed a BS in history, then went on to earn a joint masters and law degree. This was a 6 year educational project. 

Q. If and when you retire would you prefer to live by the ocean, lake, river, mountaintop or penthouse?
A. I intend to retire with a home in the Adirondacks of New York and in Denmark. 

Q. What is your favorite hotel or resort?
A.The Admiral Hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark; followed by Ruths Hotel in Skagen, Denmark.

Q. Who has had the biggest influence on you throughout your life?
A. Two people, actually. Judge Kathleen Trandahl found me in her courtroom after 12 years struggling with addiction, facing a 5th DUI. She made a choice during my sentencing that would fundamentally transform my life. Instead of seeing a wake of destruction and little potential, she saw a future of impact and potential. She created an environment that gave me room to see new paths. 8 years after sentencing me to a felony DUI, she would administer the oath of attorney in the same courtroom.
The other person is Kevin Kirby. I met Kevin on my second day in Sioux Falls, SD. I moved into the sober home he opened. I had no idea at the time that Kevin was one of the most influential people in town. As he helped guide me through the first 6 months of sobriety, he opened his network. This network and his wisdom put possibility and opportunity before me … which I was able to transform into purpose and passion. I’ve worked with Kevin for the last 10 years. Everything I do in my work is an extension of a vision he started 20 years ago. 

Q. What books are you reading now?
A. Happier, No Matter What (Tal Ben-Shahar), Transcend (Scott Barry Kaufman), After Steve (Tripp Mickle)

Q. What is your favorite radio show, news show, podcast?
A. I listen to the Marketplace podcasts each day.

Q. Are you binge watching any TV series? If so which ones?
A. I try not to binge watch TV. But I am currently enjoying “The Man Who Fell to Earth”

Q. What/Who is your favorite band/composer/musical artist?
A. Ryan Adams and U2

Q. What is your favorite city?
A. Copenhagen, Denmark

Q. What is your favorite restaurant?
A. The most remarkable dining experience I have ever enjoyed was at Clos Maggiore in London. But the restaurant I must absolutely go to when I am in Denver, CO is Tavernetta. 

Q. What is the greatest risk you have ever taken?
A.When I was 6 months out of jail, living on probation and in a sober home, and when no one would support it … I decided to go back to college full-time. That decision put me into long-term and massive debt, but that decision has had ramifications I am still processing and have yet to experience. 

Q. What is the proudest moment in your life?
A. Graduating law school followed by taking the oath of attorney. I was a convicted felon. No one in my family had doctorates for professional degrees. Becoming a lawyer or even going to law school was never in the cards for me and it was never my plan. But others saw me, saw my past, and what it might mean if some like me become someone like that. And frankly, the poetic nature of returning to the very same courtroom I was sentenced in to be sworn in as a lawyer is just too much.