Shark Tank star Robert Herjavec is arguably one of television’s most likeable personalities. He is the elegant, gentleman investor audiences love, the counterpoint to gleefully greedy co-star Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary—the business shark whom audiences love to hate. But being a good guy and wildly successful (the tech mogul Herjavec is worth an estimated $100 million) are no insulation against personal pain and despair.
I’ve praised Herjavec on Acculturated before. The 51-year-old is no pushover in the shark tank, but he unfailingly exhibits a class, politeness, and respectfulness that are out-of-sync with the melodrama, selfishness, and immaturity that dominate reality TV. But last year he struggled with his own drama behind the scenes: a divorce from his wife of 24 years. “We were great parents and a great team,” he says, “but over time we drifted apart.”
He recently revealed to People magazine that the breakup hit him hard, and also apparently created a painful rift between him and his three high school- and college-age kids as well. “Everyone has their kryptonite,” Herjavec says. “For me, it was my kids. It took me to a place I never thought I would go.”
That place was the balcony of his hotel room last July, shortly after he and his wife filed for separation, where he claims that late one night he considered jumping. “I just wanted to end it,” he told People. Thankfully, he contacted his pastor John McAuley instead. McAuley’s advice was, “Go to work”—not back at the office, but at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a shelter that provides “emergency care and long-term recovery services to hurting and homeless people.”
The pastor knew that when you’re wrestling with emotional pain, busying yourself with real purpose helps to drag you out of the echo chamber of self-pity. And no purpose gives you a less self-centered perspective and gets the healing started quite like committing yourself to serving the less fortunate.
Herjavec spent the next two and a half weeks at the downtown Mission. He served food in the soup kitchen (“Nobody knew who I was. People thought I was a recovering addict.”) and went out at night delivering food and other essentials to “this whole world of people living beneath underpasses and under trees, who aren’t well enough to make it into the shelter.” People reports that he even bought out all of a local Walmart’s inventory of socks and passed them out to the homeless. “I think I’ve donated around 100,000 pairs,” he says.
The “suffering and hopelessness” that Herjavec witnessed among the men and women he met in the shelter quickly dwarfed his own. “What was the purpose of all this pain?” he asked himself. In the end, he concluded that his time at the Mission gave him “the opportunity to reconnect with God and to help others.”
“I always used to think that if you are compassionate, you are weak. You see that on our show. This place saved me,” said Herjavec, who reportedly still volunteers at the Union Gospel Mission when he can and helps support it financially. “I was hollow and broken and these people saved my life. And for that I’ll always be grateful.”
It’s easy, and not always wrong, to view pop culture with a cynical eye. Now that Herjavec seems to be dating again, some aren’t buying his suicidal distress and they see his saintly work at the shelter as a PR move. But cynicism has a way of closing you off to real miracles of transformation in people. So until proven otherwise, I accept that the Shark Tank star’s humble gratitude is sincere, and that service to others helped him rediscover purpose.