Thursday, January 8, 2009

October 2004: Mid-Life Course Correction

What do I want to be when I grow up? This is a question not only asked by children but often a question that lingers well into adulthood. The question may go dormant for awhile but often it arises again in middle age when it becomes the fuel that drives many mid-life crises or Mid-Life Course Corrections.

Mid-life Crises are probably a great topic. I even thought about titling this e-letter venture as An Attempted Mid-Life Crisis. But, that is probably a better title for a book. Rather than any kind of crisis, I am thinking about careers, what makes people happy, what makes many people want to change and for a lesser amount to make that change.

Most everyone has dreams of doing and being something other than their current condition. This ranges between idle daydreaming and a heartfelt desire.

Turning fifty was the motivation to do a life assessment and to consider Mid-Life Course Corrections and lifestyle changes. That exercise led to the creation of this monthly e-letter. It was a good process to go through. Throughout our lives there are a progression of key thoughts and feelings we deal with in varying degrees at various times. Some of these are motivated by physical changes, like puberty, others are more subtle like this mid-life whatever it is.

In talking with friends and colleagues in relaxed settings, many are mulling over the same thoughts of Mid-Life Course Corrections. There is a realization that there are likely less working years left than we have worked. Rarely do I hear the word “rut” which was more popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Three is more concern about quality of life both in and out of work. The idea of being a rut seems passé, to me, because the demands of the modern workplace seem more intense and diverse than ever, negating the very idea of routine and “rut.”

In contemplating this, I have always been amazed by anyone who knew what they wanted to do in high school, be it a doctor, lawyer, artist, financier, or whatever, and then they went out and made it happen. I am more amazed when they do it their entire career and enjoy it. It must be a very good thing to be aligned with ones vision and fully integrated into their life style and profession.

For the greater majority of us, our career paths are a bit more of a random walk, a combination of not really being sure what we want and key events, some accidental, that attract or divert us in one direction or another. That certainly has been my case. In retrospect, I would not have it any other way. Certainly, there are roads not taken. If I know what I think I know now, would I have planned or maneuvered differently? I cannot say. I wonder if those that knew exactly what they wanted to do at sixteen and have been doing it successfully for years, ever have these thoughts.

Money becomes less of an issue for people thinking about a Mid-Life Course Correction. First, one has done well and has amassed enough wealth to facilitate such life style changes. Second there is the larger majority who really do not have the economic freedom to do what they are thinking about. You would think this would be a deterrent, but truly money becomes less of a barrier. Dreams do not cost anything upfront. You need no money to buy into a dream. I am coming to believe that people with a real motivation, desire, and passion somehow figure out a way to realize their vision, even if only as a hobby. Look at peoples hobbies. They are quite varied and very often quite time consuming.

There is something else that liberates people from money in middle age. If you do not have the means, you probably realize that the probability that you will make a liberating fortune is quite close to nil. This thought itself, in an odd way, is liberating. All of a sudden it does not matter. One is simply where one is. The key is to know what you really want to do and what you really have a passion for.

I sketched out this little matrix in trying to figure out where different people were in their careers.

Good at it Not so Good at it

Passion for the Work 1 2

Not a lot of Passion 3 4
for the Work

Clearly we all want to be in quadrant 1. This is where we want to be, living what I think of as an integrated life aligned with what we are passionate about and doing well at it. Quadrant 4 is a bad situation I would guess makes one very unhappy to be in a career or lifestyle you are neither passionate about nor very good at. Quadrants 2 and 3 are probably where the majority of lie, with the bulk being in quadrant 3.

In thinking about Mid-Life Course Corrections, I immediately think of my friend and former boss Dale. He left Colgate in 2000. He worked for a Japanese company for a few years and then retired and moved to Texas. He was idle for about six months and took a job at Baylor University in the graduate school of business. Dale and I are the same age, so his “retirement” really grabbed my attention.

In thinking about this letter I gave Dale a call to discuss his particular motivations for changing. He, as a recipient of this letter, was more than happy to talk about it. His changes were motivated by a desire to have more time and be closer to his family. He felt how precious time was due to the untimely deaths of a few close friends and family members of close friends. In talking with Dale he used the words of someone in quadrant 3. He said he “performed well but was unfulfilled.” It is a good place to be but what is missing is the passion and alignment. The passion for Dale is quality of life and being more involved in his family’s lives. His changes brought him to a integrated lifestyle.

Dale and I talked about the financial issue. He agreed that being financially able to make Mid-Life Course Corrections certainly helps. But financial freedom is not necessary. It is more important to know, truly, what one really wants and to move in that direction when one has the time, energy and health to do so.

In considering example of the aligned lifestyle, my father also comes to mind. He is a born coach. He never got a degree and due to the necessities of marriage and family, he took a job with a bank. He did well in his career but sports and coaching were always his passion. To me, Dad was clearly in quadrant 3. Yet, he is a great example of a gradual evolution to where he wanted to be. It began with him coaching our church softball team when I was a teen. We became quite good under his very organized and mildly stern tutelage.

He later move to coaching the track and field team of the Detroit Chapter of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). From it’s inception in 1933, the AYF has had a love affair with Track and Field having its own Olympic Games every Labor Day weekend. Dad’s passion for running and the coaching of runners began while a member of the Watertown, MA High School track team under the legendary coach Arthur Perkins who built a ten year dynasty cross-country and track state champions.

My Dad is now 75. He is the coach of the Schoolcraft College Women’s Cross Country team. His team just came in second in the Regionals and as I write, they are preparing for the Nationals. The older he became, he devoted more time to his passion. Basically, he now does it full time. Good for him!

Mike is the President of the Division of Colgate that I work for. He is wealthy. You could see on any of the numerous financial websites, like Yahoo Money, that over the past five years he has cashed matured option to the tune of $3-6 million. Many of us ask each other over lunch or coffee, “How many years of that would you need before you just retired?” The answer is always one, maybe two years. Yet, Mike continues to work. Why? I believe he is in quadrant 1. He loves what he does. He really likes to run a large business and he is very good at it. His life is integrated. Why would he change? I know other executives with greater wealth than Mike. Some love the flow of money in their direction, or they really like being King of something. That is passion, as well, but not as pure as Mike’s.

I have a friend Peter. He has carved out the most interesting lifestyle for himself. He works intensely for 2-3 weeks and than take is easy for the next 2-3. He is a distributor catering to privately owned convenience stores, pharmacies, gas stations and such. He is constantly renewing his product lines. He has to do this because his competitive landscape is continually changing.

A few years ago the bulk of his business was distributing street maps for a well known company. He moved their product in the small Mom and Pop operations the larger company could not reach. He grew his business, that of the map company, and that of his customers. But, with the demise of independent bookstores from competition from Barnes & Noble and Borders, independent pharmacies from the expansion of CVS and Walgreen’s, and the growth of companies like Wal-Mart and Costco in our area, Peter’s map business dried up. These large chains buy directly circumventing Peter and sell at prices Peter’s customers cannot match.

As a result, Peter was required to replace this volume and he has done a masterful job of it. He is always on the lookout for products that no one else offers. He wants products that are unique and compact enough to place by the cash register to generate sales from impulse purchases. He is a master of this. He has a passion for this. While Peter does not have degree, he has a practical MBA in retail management and marketing. Peter thinks I am making fun of him whenever I relate this observation to him. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is clearly in quadrant 1.

In thumbing through the latest issue of Fortune (November 1, 2004), the editors of that magazine must have known the topic of this e-letter. There were three pieces on very successful men who were making Mid-Life Course Corrections. The first of these is Jeff Bezos, the founder of the internet retailing giant, He started a company, Blue Origin, whose mission is to develop technology that “will help enable a enduring human presence in space.” He has always had a passion for the space program and space exploration. He is now acting on that integrating is life with his passion.

Frank Stronach is a Canadian billionaire who built his company, Magna International, into one of the largest and best automotive parts suppliers in the world. Magna was very innovative and moved from just supplying parts to supply sub-assemblies, just-in-time, and sequenced to the assembly plants production schedule. There was talk that Magna might even become an auto producer. But, instead of moving in that direction, Stronach followed his passion for the sport of Kings: horse racing. He created Magna Entertainment which now owns Santa Anita and Pimlico racetracks. The venture is hemorrhaging money but Stronach is following his passion. He seems to have moved from quadrant 3 to quadrant 2.

Lastly, there is Marcus Guttierez. He is on his second Mid-Life Course Correction. He began as a Navy surgeon and served in Desert Storm. He then started a surfboard company. Now, he is an IMAX filmmaker focusing on the extremes of nature such as volcanoes, tornados, and earthquakes. Guttierez seems to move from quadrant 1 to quadrant 1a and then 1b.

Me? I saw a bumper sticker once that said something like, “The worst day sailing, is better then the best day at work.” That kind of defines passion. My passion is teaching at the college level, playing music and now writing. I will comment on the music. I do not play a lot but I love it. I love it to the point I never think about the hassles of schlepping equipment through the bowels of buildings to service elevators, driving hours to a gig, setting up and tearing down or the low pay. These are all eclipsed by the playing. The fact I get paid at all for this gives me a professional feeling that cannot be matched. The worst day playing, is better than just about anything else.

This all reminds me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see sidebar below). This idea of Mid-Life Course Correction lies in the top rungs of the hierarchy: Esteem and Self-Actualization. The concepts and levels through Esteem seem quite intuitive and probably Maslow’s notoriety is as much for the concept of Self-Actualization as it is for the entire codification.

With American Thanksgiving approaching I must point out how fortunate I am to be contemplating the upper levels of this hierarchy. The vast majority of the world’s population is fighting for Physiological needs or Security and here I am writing a letter to friends and family on Mid-Life Course Correction. Life ain’t so bad when you look it this way.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

Sidebar: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist most noted for developing a hierarchy of human needs. One is concerned with fulfilling higher levels only when the lower ones are satisfied.

1. Physiological: The basic need for air, water and food, the basics to sustain life.
2. Security: Fear from threats both physical and psychological.
3. Love: Belongingness and camaraderie, the joy of family and friends.
4. Esteem: Being proud and happy about what you do and having that recognized by others.
5. Self-actualization: This is where you want to “be all you can be” without necessarily having to join the Army. It is about realizing one’s maximum potential.

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