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The oracle of Somerville

Ask Johnny
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  December 23, 2008

KEEPIN’ IN WHEEL: Johnny Monsarrat is the Boston area’s self-appointed answer man.
Johnny Monsarrat is a self-styled answer man. He's also a most unusual entrepreneur. But it's the "secular version of a Tibetan prayer wheel" in his Somerville back yard — his oracle domain, if you will — that really gets people asking questions.

Monsarrat, a big man with a big smile, co-founded and became CEO in 1994 of what's now called Turbine Inc., New England's largest computer-games developer. Its first release was the hugely popular online game Asheron's Call.

After leaving that business around 2002 with, what's fair to say, a pile of cash, he consulted for businesses (including General Electric and Citigroup). In 2006, Monsarrat, who has two degrees from MIT, plowed most of what he made into Hard Data Factory, which supplies event listings to Web sites. Says Monsarrat, in Boston parlance: he's had some "wicked" success.

Still, that's not really what this story is about.

In the back yard of Monsarrat's home at 123 Elm Street, in Somerville, stands a 25-by-15-foot garden dominated by a circular stone path and that wheel, which he considers a public art project. He says he'd like to get a grant to create more.

Ever since July, people have been coming to leave questions on the wheel. Anyone is welcome to enter the garden 24/7, and so far more than 1000 have. (The garden is lit up at night, and Monsarrat provides papers for his visitors.)

Queries may be serious; they may be whimsical. No matter, he promises an answer to each one within three days, both on the wheel and online.

Except . . . why?

Monsarrat himself jokes that he's no more a doctor than Dr. Phil, but says, "A lot of people don't want to see a therapist and don't want to ask friends and family. I have certainly screwed up enough and can pass on some lessons I've learned."

"I had a big period of my life in disaster mode," he adds. "I had an unhappy marriage, I was severely obese, I had a lot of problems with self-confidence."

"To be successful, you have to have confidence and humility."

Monsarrat had been calling the project "Crossing into the Abyss," but recently re-named it "Wheel Questions, Wheel Answers." "My original idea was to make it Goth and spooky," he says, "but going to the wheel was more uplifting."

And, really, spooky is not what Monsarrat does. At 40, he is brimming with almost boyish enthusiasm and cheer. "My philosophy, being a project person, is 'Take control of my life,' " he says. "I try to get people inspired. Even if my advice isn't helpful, it gets them thinking. Changing your life is scary because the stakes are so high and it's confusing."

Recently, someone posted a question on the wheel: "Do we change in our sleep and re-awake anew?"

His reply: "Every day you awake with new willpower, unless you are shortchanging yourself on a good night's rest. Forgive yourself the mistakes of the past and be smart about spending each day's willpower towards happiness and stability."

So there.

  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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