A lot of people don’t want to volunteer. Who wants to give up a Saturday and not get paid for it? But what if volunteering and being of service to your community could not just improve the world, but also your mental health?
Join us as today’s guest, Travis Van Winkle, talks about how being of service led him to a profound emotional transformation.
Travis Van Winkle’s career has seamlessly transitioned between both television and film for over two decades. He can currently be seen as one of the leads in the Netflix/Skydance action-comedy “FUBAR,” which premiered on May 25, 2023, co-starring opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most recently, he played Cary Conrad on season 3 of Netflix’s acclaimed “You.” The hit series, which began streaming season 3 on Friday, October 15, 2021, quickly became the #1 program on the global streamer, taking down “Squid Game.” For his role as “the King of the cul de sac,” the actor received both critical and fan acclaim.
Previously, Van Winkle had a starring run on Michael Bay/TNT’s high-concept drama “The Last Ship” for five seasons and a series regular role alongside Alan Cumming on the CBS drama “Instinct.” Some of his previous memorable television roles include recurring on CW’s “Hart of Dixie” and ABC’S “Happy Endings.” Feature film roles include a lead roles in Paramount’s Friday the 13th remake, “Transformers,” “Meet the Spartans,” and Universal’s comedy “Accepted” with Justin Long, Jonah Hill, and Blake Lively.
Van Winkle has been a proud mentor within the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles youth empowerment organization since 2011 and hosted two of their galas that raised just over $1 million. He is also currently a member of their Junior Board. He serves as a Global Ambassador to the nonprofit organization buildOn. Through his work with buildOn, he has engaged and inspired his creative network to help raise over $470,000 and has led on-the-ground teams to build eight schools: three in Malawi, two in Senegal, and one in Haiti, Nepal, and Nicaragua.
Travis Van Winkle was born in Victorville, California; his parents’ Air Force responsibilities would bring him to both Michigan and Georgia before he eventually made his way to Hollywood at the age of 20.
Our host, Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you!
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling in today, we have Travis Van Winkle. Travis is currently starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Netflix action comedy FUBAR. Travis, welcome to the podcast.
Travis Van Winkle: Gabe, what’s up, man? Thanks for having me.
Gabe Howard: Before we get going. As much as I’d love to discuss the series FUBAR, because I have so many questions, I just watched the finale a couple of nights ago.
Travis Van Winkle: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: Healthline Media keeps reminding me that this is a mental health podcast, so we are here today to discuss how acts of service have really benefited your personal mental health and why you believe that service to others can improve everyone’s mental health. Now, one of the specific talking points that you shared with me is that volunteerism is both a selfless and selfish act. Can you elaborate on that?
Travis Van Winkle: Yeah, I think there’s a complex why behind service. And again, I think when you contribute in a way and you find yourself being useful to society, it is selfless, you know, but there’s also so much that we gain from it. And I think. I think our motivation comes from this, this pain that we all experience as humans. Like no one, no one can escape it. If we’re alive. We experience pain, right? But we don’t have to suffer. And suffering is our attachment to that pain. And I feel like service has allowed me to loosen up my grip on my pain. And in helping alleviate someone else’s pain, we find new perspectives. So, when we give back this this internal change and transformation becomes more probable for ourselves. And so why not set ourselves up to win?
Gabe Howard: So many people believe that in order for volunteerism or an act of service to count, it has to be selfless. You have to almost suffer in order to give back. And that if you get anything out of it, well, then it lacks humility or you’re not humble or my personal favorite, you’re not doing it right. And I really try to push back hard on this because if people aren’t bragging about the benefits of volunteerism, then why would anyone sign up for this? It sort of has really bad PR, it’s like lose
Travis Van Winkle: Well.
Gabe Howard: Your Saturday working for free. And can you imagine
Travis Van Winkle: Yes.
Gabe Howard: That like lose your Saturday working for free? Like, who would sign up for that? But there’s so many benefits.
Travis Van Winkle: Yeah. You know, there’s a couple things that come to mind when you say that community service is connected to usually crime and punishment. So, I’ve been arrested a couple of times in my life in university for, you know, underage shenanigans. And I was forced to do community service. And I thought like, oh, I’ve got to go do this thing and pick up trash or I got to go feed the homeless. And I thought it was like this thing that I was being forced to do because I had made a mistake. And then I reframed my whole perspective where it’s actually not that, it’s a choice. And when we choose to do it, regardless of if we’re choosing to do it because like, for example, there was a moment in my career where I was at the lowest point of my career, I was completely tied up in my psychological knots and into my own suffering, and I was just in a rut. And I had someone suggest, get off yourself, go be of service. So, my motivation in that moment was, yes, I just also want to be useful and I want to connect and I want to I want to be a steward for this world and for growth and for change. But also, I wanted to get off of myself and feel better. There’s this beautiful quote from Shoghi Effendi The more we search for ourselves, the less likely we are to find ourselves.
Travis Van Winkle: But the more we search to serve our fellow man, the more profoundly we will become acquainted with ourselves and the more inwardly assured. This is one of the great spiritual laws of life. So, it’s complicated. And who cares? Who cares how you get into service? Who cares how you get into doing good? Just do good and you’ll feel better for it and the world will be better for it. It’s like a portal that opens up inside of you and you’re you heal in ways that you can’t articulate. It’s such a beautiful process and it’s also a mystery. But I know that I feel better when I serve. I know I feel better when I give back. So regardless of how I get there or why I get there, I’m going to keep doing it.
Gabe Howard: I love the idea because so many people didn’t want to volunteer because, again, like I said, bad PR, you want me to work for free on a Saturday? I’m busy. I don’t have time for this. And also, people they thought that asking what’s in it for me was an offensive question. And I want to really push back that, no, what’s in it for me? There’s a great answer to that question. And the warm and fuzzy feeling is what’s in it for you? And I love that warm and fuzzy feeling. And Travis, I want to point right back at you. What was your warm and fuzzy? What gave you the most joy? What was your volunteer activity?
Travis Van Winkle: I think we have to surround ourselves with people that inspire us and we have to look to those who have done it before us. I’ve always had such a profound respect for prodigious human beings like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, you know, Oprah, you just you have to surround yourself with the greats, you know, whether that’s just studying them, reading their books or autobiographies, learning about them, but also creating an atmosphere for yourself that’s inspiring. So, surrounding yourself with friends that are inspiring, friends that are doing incredible things. And so, for me, I was just lucky to be surrounded by some great people and some great mentorship. And as soon as I started to get into service, I was like, I worked at Young Storytellers was one particular service. I remember we go into elementary schools and we team up with a group of fourth or fifth graders for eight weeks and we help them write a five-page play, and it’s a play about their life and we help them write it. We talk to them about what’s important in their life and what they’re going through. And we help them write this play. And then at the end of that eight weeks, performers come in and they perform that play in front of the whole school.
Travis Van Winkle: So, I’ve got to be part of both sides of that. And I just remember this process where these kids would write these stories about, sure, it would be about like a grapefruit and a banana, but it was actually about the like the pain that they were experiencing as a child, about not being seen from their mom or dad or their parents not being around or their sister being mean to them or whatever it was. The stories always reflected what they were going through and struggling with in their own lives in the fourth or the fifth grade. And to be able to put that onto paper and to write a story around it and almost detach yourself from it and put it onto other characters allows you to see it differently. And then to have people perform it for them in front of the school is such a healing process. And to be a part of both sides of that as a performer and as a mentor, it was it was incredible. And it’s that I feel like that was one of the openings when I first came to Los Angeles that I started to really, really fall for service after that experience.
Gabe Howard: It sounds like you had some really good people around you who gave you some really good guidance in a time that you needed it.
Travis Van Winkle: 100%. I think. I think for. So, I’ve been in LA now. I’ve been an actor for 20 years, which is half my life, which is it just feels kind of crazy. I’m being very nostalgic recently because of this, this two-decade mark. But for the first part of my. Career. I was hell bent on learning how to act and going deep into this craft and just throwing myself in the deep end. And I felt like I had to catch up and I was just working so diligently and tirelessly. I was a savage to just want to be the best. And so, I feel like there was a moment when I was so focused on all my stuff and myself that I started to actually, you know, lose touch with myself. I started to I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t feeling connected. I was I was struggling in my career. I was I was I felt like I was all caught up in my own psychology and, you know, almost like my attachment to my pain, which is suffering. And that’s a choice. We’re all going to have pain, but we all don’t have to suffer. And I think suffering is just an attachment to that pain. And we have to learn how to grieve the pain and you navigate it. And I think for me, I had I had a teacher reach out and she’s like, hey, you know, get off yourself. You’re not in a good place and just get off yourself. Go serve. And she suggested I go, and this was Sarah Marnell. She suggested I join the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. And well, first she actually she would hold clothing drive in our class. And I was so inspired by that. And so, then I held a clothing drive at my home, and I think 200 people showed up.
Travis Van Winkle: And my friends were, they showed up so effortlessly. It was such an easy thing to open up. As soon as you provide an opportunity for people to serve, they will show up. And I realize that in that moment. And then she suggested I join the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, which I did. So, for me, it all just that just made so much sense to me because when I would give back in these ways that I was, I felt like I was learning more about myself. I felt like I was understanding myself more. I felt like I was able to look at some of the pain I was feeling and see it from a new perspective and find some belonging inside of myself, which I was longing for. And it’s, you know, it’s been it’s been a long journey for me and I’ve been doing a lot of personal work for 15 years. And I feel like I advocate for service because it’s been something that has had a profound impact on my overall experience of life. And, you know, I found a lot of value. Maybe other people will, too.
Gabe Howard: You were a big brother with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. I was a big brother. I got the little the little guy at six years old. He’s now 28 and his daughter calls me Grandpa. I call her my loophole grandchild.
Travis Van Winkle: Oh, I love it.
Gabe Howard: I know. Isn’t it great?
Gabe Howard: I got to have grandchildren without having children. It’s the best gig in the world. I know. I found a loophole, and I’ve just been exploiting it to get all the hugs, all the love and all the benefits of grand parenting without the expense of raising a child. But. But all that said, I just. I have to ask. You’re a famous actor. You’re on my television, right? And you have a little from Big Brothers Big Sisters out there whose, whose Big Brother is a freaking television Star. What is that like? Your experience with Big Brothers Big Sisters has to be different from mine.
Travis Van Winkle: You’re very sweet for those kind words that you said. I love that you’re a big brother also. For me, it was. The experience of becoming a big brother. It was a profound shift in my life because I had to become accountable for somebody else. And he, my little brother Lyric, he comes from he lives below the poverty line. He one of his parents was incarcerated. He was having some trouble as a youth and spent some time in foster care. And he came from a pretty tough background. And this kid committed to me and I committed to him. And I knew that I had to step up and show him a positive light, a new perspective. And in order to do that, I had to hold myself accountable in a new way. And so that was it was a profound shift for me because I really started to see if I was walking the walk that I was if I was living the life that I was teaching to him. And also, just being available for someone like that is like, that’s the simplest impact you can have is your attention to someone.
Travis Van Winkle: If I can bestow my attention to him and just be present like that alone, like that’s the win. So, for me, becoming a big brother, it taught like taught me so much right out of the gate. And then to be with him for many years. Transforming and going through the different stages. I met him when he was 11, turning 12. He’s now 24 and so I have journeyed with him through his becoming a teenager and to becoming a young man. And it’s been a remarkable experience for me. And I feel like. It’s one of those, those things again, I, I went out of my way so that I could give back. But guess what? I have learned so much and I’ve received so much from this process. I’m like, wait a second, who’s serving who here? So I, I advocate very passionately about the Big Brothers Big Sisters program because mentorship changes lives and not only the lives of the mentee, but the life of the mentor.
Gabe Howard: For many people. I think it really goes back to this idea that in order for an act of service to be legitimate, they must not get anything out of it. And it’s sad that people see it that way because the two are not mutually exclusive. You can be a great help and derive great benefit, but society really does see those two things as incompatible and incongruent. And you don’t and What advice do you have for people that just really feel that it lacks humility to talk about these things openly, that acts of service must be done in private, behind closed doors? And if you if you even talk about them at all, you’re bragging and you have an ego because these are the messages that just get pushed out in society over and over and over again. And I really feel that it’s robbing people of an opportunity to get involved in act of services and to not only improve our society, but to improve their own lives. And that’s just that’s just such a tragedy in my mind.
Travis Van Winkle: Yeah, well, I mean, you bring up a good point, though, too. You know, the whole point of doing good and the whole point of putting yourself out there to be of help, you know, to society or to the world, it’s not so that you can necessarily talk about it, but think about the little things that we do in our everyday life, these little acts of service holding the door open for someone or someone drops their pen, you pick it up and give it to them or, you know, a woman’s pushing a stroller with a child and their little toy falls out and you pick it up or you smile at someone that you know looks to be having a bad day. Or you ask someone how they’re doing in the coffee line and you see them light up, whatever it is we’re performing these little moments of connection all day long. And so, we don’t talk about that. We don’t share that. We’re not bragging about that. It’s just it’s just kind of built into our system of being human. And I think it’s just part of what makes us keeps us alive, really. You know, we’re, we’re it’s built into our system to connect. And so, I just believe it doesn’t matter if your motivation, if you’re having a sad day and you just feel like you need to get off yourself and go pick up trash around your neighborhood because that’s going to make you feel better, go do it. If you have to tell people about it. No. Did it make you feel better? Yes. Okay. So, I don’t know. I don’t I don’t want to I don’t want to expound too far on what other people think and what’s holding them back from being of service. And if they’re judging you, sharing your experience of service, you know, that’s on them. And if they’re meant to go learn that for themselves and see how they can feel like a lot of value if they are of service, well that’s their journey. And so, for me, it’s not my responsibility to cater to, you know, to that that perspective.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing the mental health benefits of acts of service with Travis Van Winkle. I really love that you brought up small acts of service. I’ve been giving you big acts of service, you know, volunteering with a child for. For those not involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters, I believe it’s two hours every other week for one year. So that’s a that’s a pretty big commitment. And a lot of people give more.
Travis Van Winkle: It’s actually. It’s not a big commitment. It’s 6 to 8 hours a month and it’s a minimum requirement for a year. So, it is a nominal amount of time for a life changing impact. That’s just what it is. A year commitment, 6 to 8 hours a month. I mean, truly not that that a big amount of time, you know.
Gabe Howard: It. You are absolutely right for what you get out of it. It’s almost nothing. But to some people giving up 6 to 8 hours, it seems like a lot. But you just mentioned that holding the door open for somebody that’s going to take what, 30s a minute. If the person walks really slow and they were really far away. So, for I guess what I want to kind of put in people’s minds when they’re thinking, oh, well, an act of service would be nice, but I have a job or I have children or I don’t have time. Like you said, pick up the toy, hold open the door, say hello to somebody, Smile across the room. These are real action steps that we can take right now that have big, big, big, big benefits for ourselves, huge dividend dividends for society. And it again, as you just said, 6 to 8 hours a month for a year is not that big of a commitment. And this is significantly less. And you really feel strongly that this will make a person better. It will make people feel better. And I agree with you for what it’s worth, speak more on that, because, again, I really think that people just don’t think that they have the time, inclination, effort or ability to improve the world.
Travis Van Winkle: Mm. You know, I think small examples of service are just as profound and impactful as the big ones. I just want to start there. I don’t think. Well, I don’t know. You make me think of this, Gabe. I’ll meditate in the morning and I’ll put myself. I’ll walk myself through this little visualization. Imagine seeing yourself on a dot on the map in whatever city you’re in. Rise above that. See yourself in the state that you’re in, all the way down to that little dot in the city, in the home that you’re in. Rise up. You see North America or whatever country you’re in, rise up even higher. See South America. Go back to that little dot where you are. Rise back up. See, see Europe. See Africa, see Asia, Australia. Keep rising up. You see the earth go back down to that little dot. That’s you. Wherever you are in your home, rise back up. You see that? We’re the third rock from the sun. You see that? We’re in this little planetary alignment. Go back even further. You see that we’re in the corner of our solar system. Then you go back down to the little dot. You’re in your bedroom or wherever you’re meditating, you go back up. You see that we’re a part of a galaxy. You expand even further. There are trillions of galaxies the same size as ours. You go back. This is the cosmos. You then zoom all the way back in to the little dot where you are on the map, in your. In your home, wherever you are. That’s how small we are. There is so much that we don’t know. We are we are so infinitely small in this infinitude of possibility.
Travis Van Winkle: So, I am not arrogant enough to be like, I’m going to change the world. I am. Look, I can only do what makes sense for me and be, you know, help clean up the space that’s around me. What makes sense to my life and everyone has that version of that for themselves. And so, I don’t think it’s necessary to say like, you know, I can change the world or like, I’m going to be the one that’s going to create world peace. Like, no, but guess what? I can help clean up my streets or, you know, I can be a staple in my community and give back. You know, I can be I can go paint a mural or I can go feed the homeless. I can do I can I can take my kid to school on time. I can make sure to, you know, be a good wife or husband, whatever. There’s so many ways that we can show up that make our world a better place and make, you know, just the our little sandlot, the little space around us just a little bit better. And that’s the focus if it happens to or if our reach extends further than we know. Well, great. So be it. But the goal for me, I don’t think should be to like, I’m going to make the world a better place and change everything. Like bring it back to be such a much smaller because when you look at that little exercise or that visualization I walked you through, we are tiny, but we matter. I don’t know if that even answered your question, but that just made me think of that.
Gabe Howard: No, it did, I love that. I think so many people don’t get started because they think so big. I’m one of those people. Well, I can’t change the world, so therefore I’m not going to try. Well, but like you said, you can change your little sandlot. You can you. I can make my wife happy. I can smile at somebody. And who knows, once you put it out there, it could expand. Maybe it will change the world. Who? You just don’t know.
Gabe Howard: In one of the emails that we exchanged in preparation for this show, you wrote one of my core wounds or resident mirages, and maybe this taps into our societal core wound is my longing to belong. And I think that the idea of belonging resonates with a lot of people. What does it mean to you?
Travis Van Winkle: You know, I remember exchanging this email with you and I think for me, we all come from. Past. You know, we all come there’s a certain form of ancestral trauma, societal pressure, familial trauma. You don’t go through life unscathed. You know, it’s just part of the process. It’s built into our design. And, you know, for me, the way I interpreted some of my past is that I didn’t belong. I wanted to I wanted to fit in so badly. And I felt like I had to change myself in order to do that. I had to fix myself. In order to do that, I had to be someone different in order to belong. And for me, once I started to really give myself to other people and to be of service, every time I would do that, I belonged. I felt like inside my own walls, I belonged inside of my psyche, inside of my heart. I felt this, this, this great sense of belonging. It was it was every time I would do that, it would just be a deposit. It would be like a soul deposit. And the more and more I would do that, I would feel more and more a sense of inner belonging. And I think that’s what we’re all going for. Yes, we look to external belonging as well, but internal belonging is I think it’s the key. It’s the it’s the gateway to so much. And so, for me, this longing to belong was has been a real motivation for a lot of, uh, most of my life really, you know. And as I’ve become 40, I’m realizing more and more the importance of, of self-belonging.
Travis Van Winkle: But it’s taken work, you know, we all have psychological knots that we have to untie and untangle, and we all are given a paradigm that of love that we live life through. And then eventually when we wake up, we realize this paradigm is it’s suiting us, is it not suiting us? We then have to dismantle that, dissolve it and build a new paradigm to live through. That takes time and tying these psychological knots takes time, but hopefully, I mean, all of it is in the pursuit for inner belonging. And maybe you’re lucky and right out of the gate you feel like you belong, you know, good for you. Everyone has their own particular experience and their own particular pain body, their own particular struggles that they go through that just happened to be mine. And service has been something for me that has helped me reframe, reshape and untangle from some of that pain. And I want to normalize this idea of pain so that we can learn how to grieve it. Grieve, loss and grieve pain and accept reality as the way that it is. And in doing that, I feel like it’s a gateway to a deeper understanding of love and a deeper connection to true intimacy. And so, for me, it’s all connected and it’s all part of the journey. And yeah, I’m kind of a sentimental, thoughtful guy too. So, you know, maybe some people are like, oh, this guy’s a softie, but, you know, this is this stuff matters to me.
Gabe Howard: Travis, I have to ask, you used a phrase that I’ve never heard before, soul deposits. Can you explain to me and our listeners what that is?
Travis Van Winkle: Um, for me, I remember I was building I’m a part of an organization called buildOn. I’m a global ambassador for them. They build schools around the world. They also have an after-school program around the United States where they create opportunities for children to give back to their communities. And then they take those kids to go build schools in the developing world. And it’s the service within a service. And it’s just a beautiful thing. I’ve had the opportunity to build quite a few schools and I remember I was on my first school building trek and I just felt, I don’t know the term soul bucks. I was like, Man, I feel like I’m just like in doing this, I’m like, I’m. I’m somehow, like, depositing soul bucks into my bank account, you know, it’s like positive deposits in my life. And it just felt like such a positive experience that it’s almost like when you, you know, you have a check of however big and you go put it in, you deposit it into your bank. That feels good. You know, and you just know that you’re adding you’re, you’re building something. You’re, you’re, you’re building wealth when you do that in the bank. But you’re doing the same thing inside yourself when you give back. So that’s a soul deposit for me.
Gabe Howard: Travis, thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for being here. Where can folks find you online?
Travis Van Winkle: I mean. I’m pretty much just active on Instagram, which is just @TravisVanWinkle. And yeah, I’m on Twitter @TVDub. And tried TikTok for like a week. And I don’t even I don’t even know if I’m on TikTok, but I feel like I need to. I always have this desire, like I need to have more of a presence. I need to do more things. And then I’m like, yeah, whatever. So just fine. You want to find me, look me up, find me,
Gabe Howard: Just, just Google him. The man is on Google. He’s famous. He’s on Google.
Travis Van Winkle: [Laughter] So I just appreciate the conversation.
Gabe Howard: Oh, I appreciate you having it. I think it’s a great message.
Travis Van Winkle: Yeah, well, you know, I just appreciate your platform and what you talk about and what you share. And I think it’s these conversations are helpful to, you know, to me, you know, I appreciate the chance to chat about all this stuff. So, thank you.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon. However, you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show, share it on social media, mention it in a support group, Talk about it around the water cooler. Hell, send somebody a text because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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