Lewis Howes settled into his chair on the set of “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” positioned across from its iconic host. His heart raced as the cameras rolled. It was not the first time he had walked across that stage and engaged in a dance with Degeneres, his hip bumping playfully against hers. And it was not the first time she would interview him about his turbulent and winding journey to becoming a New York Times bestselling author and internationally celebrated podcast host – recognized in 2013 by President Barack Obama as one of the Top Entrepreneurs Under 30. This was a moment he had lived hundreds of times.

In the years leading up to it, Howes often shut his eyes, visualizing the faces of the audience members. He experienced the butterflies in his belly and the energetic rush surging through his cells – pulling those sensations to his consciousness like a magnet. He believed he would sit on that stage and unfold his story for the world long before the world recognized his as a story worthy of being told.

Less than a decade prior, in the midst of the economic crisis of the late 2000s, the Ohio-born Howes was a college dropout in his mid 20s, sleeping on his sister’s couch. His career aspirations of becoming an All-American athlete had been shattered when he crashed into a wall, mid-game, while playing in the Arena Football League. Though determined to finish the season despite a broken wrist, he later underwent a corrective surgery which would prove his condition to be irreversible.

This was the ultimate of lows. Having struggled with dyslexia and poor self-esteem his entire life, he held no formal degree or real-world professional experience. Sports had not only been his crowning source of affirmation and confidence (while playing in college, he set an NCAA record for the most receiving yards in a single game), but had sort of encapsulated his identity. And now that those gates of opportunity had slammed shut forever, he had to figure out who he was on the other side of a decaying dream.

“What do I do now?” was the question looming over him, torturing his confidence. But, before long, answers began emerging – luring him away from the couch and toward a series of twists and turns that would ultimately land him in the realm of being one of the most influential (and multi-millionaire) entrepreneurs in the world.

Lewis Howes in Iceland | Photo by Nick Onken

So how does such a phenomenon occur? How does a shy and insecure child who held a second-grade reading level as an eighth-grader, who withdrew from college to pursue the only thing he had ever excelled at – sports – to later suffer a career-ending injury, stripping him of his passion and identity, progress from sleeping on his sister’s couch – lost, depressed and destitute – to becoming a globally-recognized entrepreneur, honored by the White House – in a matter of five or six years?

Howes believes it’s no phenomenon at all. It began with tiny, brave and stubborn steps.

“I started to realize that I had to face my biggest fears if I was going to get off the couch and make a career for myself outside of sports,” says Howes.

With his body still healing and his self-esteem equally as fractured, he signed up for Toastmasters, an international organization that helps individuals become better communicators, hoping it would dispel one of his life-long fears: public speaking. Swarmed with dread each time he was called from his seat and asked to stand before the group and speak, he reflects on that fragile period as one of reawakening. Still wearing a cast and financially broken from a year of unemployment, Howes would stuff his pockets with the snacks available at the meetings.

“It was a pretty low point for me self-confidence wise, says Howes. “But just making myself commit to overcoming a huge fear was a big step in turning my career and situation around.”

Lewis Howes in Iceland | Photo by Nick Onken

With his confidence slowly rebuilding, Howes devoted hours each day to exploring LinkedIn – seeking out connections with inspiring mentors while searching for lucrative opportunities he could anchor as a result. He cultivated hundreds of relationships through his months scrolling through and absorbing the wisdom he discovered on every corner of the site. This evolved into an actual business of coaching individuals one-on-one, as well as hosting workshops – teaching people how to make optimal use of their LinkedIn profiles. During this time, he co-authored his first paperback, “LinkedWorking: Generating Success on LinkedIn… the World’s Largest Professional Networking Website.”

Once he was in a position to move out from under his sister’s roof, he sold the LinkedIn-focused business altogether. He then channeled his energy to launching The School of Greatness, a business focused on leadership and personal development – one that would soon take on a life of its own.

“My idea was to provide the kinds of conversations and real-world lessons that anyone could learn from,” says Howes. “I saw a big lack in traditional school systems of providing alternate learning methods to students who don’t excel sitting at desks, reading books or taking tests.”

Through this program, he shifted his spotlight from mentoring clients privately to hosting webinars. Howes laughs as he reflects on how he evolved since the early days of struggling to find his voice as a speaker.

“It was a different way to speak in front of an audience, since everyone was online watching virtually, but I felt just as nervous. I messed up a lot but, when I finally got my act together and delivered the value that I had been invited to give, I realized it wasn’t so bad. When the [first] webinar ended, I was soaked in sweat,” he says.

Lewis Howes in Iceland | Photo by Nick Onken

During the segment, Howes had pitched a coaching bootcamp that he was offering for sale on his website. When he later checked his email, doubting that a single soul had found it worthy of purchasing, he was shocked to discover that he had payment receipt notifications totaling $6300. “That’s when I knew I was onto something,” says Howes.

This sparked the idea to utilize the connections he had made as an athlete, entrepreneur and social media expert, and produce podcasts with in-depth conversations illuminating other successful athletes and entrepreneurs, as well as authors and entertainers, who were innovating through their business endeavors – each leaving a positive thumbprint across the world. He sensed this would multiply his impact, and wanted to flood the masses with the kinds of empowering tools he starved for growing up, yet never found. His instincts were on point.

Named by Details magazine as one of the “5 Internet Gurus Who Can Make You Rich,” Howes’ podcast found its home inside of the 100 iTunes ranked Apple podcasts. At the time of this writing, it boasts more than 40 million downloads. Its popularity may be due, in part, to Howes’ rare blend of candidness, enthusiasm and vulnerability, carried by his generosity in sharing his wealth of entrepreneurial knowledge.

In episode 464, “Understand Your Energy,” Howes opened up about his emotional state in the days and hours leading up to his appearance on “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” saying to his millions of listeners, “If you have a dream inside of you, there are going to be big moments that happen. When that comes, you need to understand your energy. If you can’t be present when the time comes, you may miss the opportunity.”

The School of Greatness has become a seven-figure business, and has transcended its original podcast identity – expanding to live events, online courses and viral YouTube episodes. Howes has hosted candid conversations with the likes of Julianne Hough, Marie Forleo, Daymond John, Tony Robbins and many others. Add to his impressive resume a bestselling book, “The School of Greatness: A Real-World Guide to Living Bigger, Loving Deeper, and Leaving a Legacy,” his first hardcover, which spawned from his profound digital presence. The book was published in 2016 and reached the No. 2 spot in the business category and the No. 3 spot overall on the New York Times bestseller lists.

Howes preaches the paramountcy of holding a clear vision of your dream in your mind at all times because he says it will act as the fuel to sustain you as you struggle to move along your path during the inevitable grim and rocky periods. And he says that it’s totally permissible for your dreams to evolve and shift with you; his certainly have.

“[All of my dreams] have been based on chasing greatness and inspiring others,” says Howes, “but as I’ve gotten older, my focus has shifted from me being the center of my dreams to the impact I can make in service to others.”

More comfortable being raw and vulnerable than ever before in his life, Howes, who will soon be turning 35, has grown increasingly candid about the private demons he battled as a child. Having been a victim of sexual abuse at 5 years old, he reveals how that experience created layers of dysfunction, oppression and pain throughout his adolescence and into adulthood. More specifically, how those layers of dysfunction, oppression and pain created the masks he often hid behind in order to project the image of a man he was sure society required that he be. The insights he gathered through his own personal evolution inspired his second and most revolutionary hardcover book, “The Mask of Masculinity,” published in 2017, which he says, according to the feedback he often receives, has ripped apart and, thus, welcomed healing into the paradigms of both men and women in equal measure.

“So many men have reached out to me or told me in person that the stories in this book were the first time they felt validated for their feelings growing up as a man in our modern society. Many of them have started sharing things with their families and friends they never discussed,” says Howes. “That [process of] opening up is an amazing start to the journey of being emotionally free and at peace with ourselves.”

Howes says it’s those moments of connecting with this audience that not only motivate him, but make him feel the most alive. “Whenever I hear people tell their stories of struggling with career, business, health, or their unfulfilled dreams, I go right back to when I felt all of those emotions myself. I look them in the eye or give them a hug and let them know I really do understand what that feels like,” he says.

So vividly remembering his former dark days of depression, failure and financial ruin – often feeling as though they would stretch on forever without end, Howes says that if he could make one blanket statement to all aspiring – and, perhaps, disheartened – entrepreneurs, it would be, “Your dreams matter because you matter. Commit to your vision and take massive action.”

And, maybe – just maybe – the moments you relive in your mind over and over again for long enough, then further propelled by those massive actions, will carry you to the kinds of phenomenal places that make your heart race and your most ambitious dreams realized. If you ask Howes, he’s living, speaking, hip-bumping proof.

This exclusive feature is The Connect’s Spring 2018 cover story. You may purchase the full issue here, or download the digital version here.