Slot machine relationships

My dad said that his early success was due to his ability to ‘get people talking’ in the first few seconds, thereby immediately creating a connection. His comment rang true when I was qualifying a gentleman about being a part of my next book. 

About a second after the call started, he asked me how I liked living in San Francisco back in the day. Roughly five minutes in, he politely interrupted and said very formally: “I’ve decided to let you interview me.” I laughed, teasing that I thought he was the one being qualified.

“Actually, I got you talking by asking you one question. Only one,” he emphasized with the wisdom of the seventy-year-old, self-made man that he was. “You answered directly, honestly and made no pretenses to what I thought about the subject matter.” Intrigued, I momentarily forgot his net worth (nearly a billion dollars) and my list of questions. I was impressed he’d gotten me talking and said so.

“I was determining if you were worthy of my time,” he said without guile. This was the beginning of a long, rewarding, and fulfilling correspondence with an individual I’ve never met in person, but who has since imparted tremendous wisdom over the years.

Genuine caring negates the fear

Early in my career, I was the voice for my employer, the direct line of defense to investors and press, making the case for the company, product(s) or both. Having seen my father in action and armed with words of wisdom, I worked to master the art of pitching to complete strangers. Selling – influencing – means you have to embrace fear:  fear of failure. As I detail in a semi-autobiographical book, had I not been a single mother, my fear of rejection would have been enough for me to quit. 

Yet I was inhibited until I realized I had to learn to love the process of pitching. Perhaps “love” is too strong a word.  I had to learn to be vulnerable. Being personable, sharing glimpses of my life requires a certain level of courage. Risking people judging you on very little information.  But, as with pitching, sharing snippets of oneself is also a process. Once I let myself be, asking and talking about the meaningful parts of life; family, pets and failures, all without prejudice or judgment, and always within the bounds of propriety and professionalism, whatever inhibitors that remained disappeared. 


We are humans, born with the innate need to love and be loved. Often, just caring is enough. You’d be surprised—as I was—the impact one can have on another’s life just by caring.

The slot-machine relationship 

For one project, I was tasked with working with the local media for a non-profit organization who in twenty years had made zero effort in terms of public relations. Donation drives for money and food yes; caring, focus and efforts to engage the press or developing strategic relationships, no. As a consequence, other similarly tasked groups were the firs to receive media calls, resulting in favorable coverage and ultimately, more donations.

I knew this was going to be a multi-year hurdle, because the first prejudice against a new media contact is that the interaction is only going to be a transaction; a classic slot-machine relationship. To counteract this, I started with sharing the basics, such as my goal of changing public perception but also that I was in it for the long-haul. Anticipating skepticism, I gradually began sending short pitches about other subjects or organizations that would be relevant for the publication.

In other words: I made each editor’s life easier by feeding them stories that had nothing to do with me. (For all you new PR/media folks, keep in mind an entire page/website/section of content needs to be filled every day. That’s a tough job! But remember, editors need you as much as you need them). I then went the extra mile and wrote articles that they could place, generally human-interest based upon a particular section.

Over time, this approach led to a foundational appreciation of my work, and their respect that it “wasn’t just all about me or the organization I represented.” My unsolicited shares demonstrated that I genuinely cared about their [the editor’s] success. At the core, the song from High School Musical is true: We are all in this together. Whether or not you wretch on the example, if we—the contributing members of society don’t care and help one another—we are left without a strong, invested and caring community.

It came down to the dog

Fast forward a few years. The six major media outlets, covering four cities in print and then two for the overall region, eventually came around and every two or three weeks, we had a major profile. This translated to over 600,000 ‘eyeballs’ looking at the positive press. Before and after polls showed that the awareness of, and positive perception of the entity went from single digits to over seventy percent (75%?  some people you’ll never win over).

Despite my near two-year efforts, one particularly tough editor simply wouldn’t cover the organization. I was never sure why this was the case, and I assumed that over time the good of the group be covered. Seven years later, she announced she would eventually relocate to the east coast to care for her ailing mother. I was really bummed. Although my work with the non-profit had ended, we’d continued to have the occasional sushi lunches and I brought her German Shepard dogs homemade treats.

The last day, we had lunch, eating spicy tuna hand rolls, talking about how our relationship had overcome the initial bumps and hurdles. She confessed she hated the former policies of the non-profit, and thought they were hypocritical and prejudiced to other non-profits.  

“Do you know why I finally covered your organization? You asked about me after my dog died. No one else did, not even my family members.”

What I’d done was natural to me and would be to every animal lover. They are our everything.  Ultimately, when she hurt, I hurt, and she knew it.

Our relationship with deity is not transactional

In a talk by D. Todd Christofferson, he used this slot-machine mentality in the context of our relationship to God, wherein a person has this “if-this-then-that,” approach. Ergo, if I am a ‘good person,’ my marriage won’t end in divorce. Or, if I give to charity then my business will be a success. If that were the case, as I’m paraphrasing here, then the decrements of our life should also hold true. The reason my car was sideswiped was because of my dishonesty at work.

Not all actions are going to cause a reaction that we desire. Not all books are bestsellers, not all articles are positive and not all relationships work, despite the amount of effort, devotion and love given. Even so, the forward momentum, pushed along by the engine of desire while being directionally correct continues, regardless of the immediate outcome. That’s the long-term approach, with man or with God. Evolving from the immediate impact, such as making the media page, selling the car or dropping off the cake to the neighbor transitions to caring, giving or and loving, the emotion which inspired the act, rather than the act itself. As the phrase goes, it’s not about what was said, but how you made the person feel. 

Returning to the successful executive and the editor, both individuals have been in my life for nearly fifteen years now. I’ve never physically met the businessman and haven’t seen the editor for six years now (and running), but it’s irrelevant. What’s in the heart has transcended proximity and time. 

The Billionaire Next Door

Unfortunately, this isn’t the happy ending Guy Kawasaki is known for, where one scrimps, saves, ends up with millions and is nice to boot. Nope. This is where a regular joe gets lucky with construction, parlaying one home to another, ultimately creating (then losing) a premiere golf course, but the windfall is still enough to give him a home on the water and about $1.1B in the bank.

Why now? Why this story?

Because after fifteen minutes at his home, pitching him on a business that will actually help people of color and the disadvantaged, and listening to his comments, I pondered for a hot minute, then announced: “we should end the conversation now because we aren’t aligned in our thinking.” He was taken aback as I stood, stammering as he tried to prevent my departure.

Here are a few choice comments he made during that painfully brief time we spent together.

Me: “Don’t you care about the world your grandchildren will grow up in and experience?”

Him: “No, I don’t see them that much anyway.”

Alrighty then….

Me: “Are you okay with a world where the stay-at-home economy is all we know, therein losing the opportunity to interact with those not like ourselves, helping us grow and live together—essentially, have understanding and compassion for others?”

Him: “Nope. I get all my stuff from Amazon. I like the way things are.”

A sad existence…..

I’ll skip over the bantering part where he gloated about getting in at the opening price of Facebook or that he thought most charities were schemes for the executives, or why he didn’t need personal advisors because he was smarter than all of them. I try one last attempt to get things back on track.

Me: “This place is beautiful, one of the nicest on the lake, but what about your wife? Don’t you two get out—and don’t you want this to remain lovely and inviting to those around you who are less fortunate?”

Him: “Are you referring to the woman who greeted you? She’s the housekeeper. I’m twice divorced, and no, I don’t care.”

They are probably better off for it….

At that point, it ceased being about the money, or his working with the organization in any capacity. This was about the simple things, like life, values, morals, ethics or lack thereof.

“Well, (name), thanks for your time, but I don’t believe we’re a fit for one another at any level,” and as I stand, I continue: “I’ll let myself out if that’s alright.”

Seeing I’m going to leave regardless, he rises, apologizes and insists I tell him more. I politely decline.

“From this brief conversation, it’s clear we don’t share any of the same values or ideals, and that’s quite alright. You have your view of the world and I have mine. Let’s just leave it at that.”

I start to leave his glorious gazebo by the lake, the metal, concrete and glass structure outfitted with a round, queen-size copper fireplace in the middle, sound-activated window shields and 180 unobstructed views behind. He rushes beside me, insisting that I can’t walk back up the gravel path in my heels (which I really can’t, but was going to try), but must go in his custom (and highly cool, I will admit) little 4×4.

Heed the 3-second rule

On the ride up, I realize that the first impression, the one Harvard Business School calls the “3-second rule” played out, once again. In 3 seconds, a person snapshots what they see, makes a judgement, and it’s usually right. The man who’d come to the door had answered in a t-shirt that included a moose, a crass statement and a curse word. I didn’t recognize him, and certainly didn’t believe him to be the man who’d taken my meeting.

As my agent always says: truth isn’t believable, that’s why we put it into a book, call it fiction and pass it off to the reader, because it’s the only way it’s palatable. Standing there, in my linen pants, heels and good attitude, I encounter a man who’s made good financially, but failed to acquire the class, perspective, kindness or compassion of others who aren’t a 10th as “successful.” In my words, he’s a complete failure.

The epilogue

Like so many a person who is suddenly rejected, his overly-solicitous nature went into hyperdrive on the carport area, as though he divined that I was neither impressed by his home, money or t-shirt. He made every offer possible for me to re-pitch and re-engage in the discussion. While polite to the very end, his efforts were disingenuous, and we both knew it. Nothing he could say would change who he’d revealed himself to be, and no amount of money or words would entice me to interact with him again. The downside would far outweigh the dollars.

And all these trite sayings….money can’t buy happiness, or you can’t buy class… they come from somewhere, and that place is real life, where you and I live each and every day. So when you read a line or a scene in my book, odds are—it happened, but as my agent said, I’m just writing about it, calling it fiction so it’s not as hard to digest.

When dreams die

Ever since I was a teenager, I’d wanted to learn to fly, not as a vocation, but for the fun of it. I was a natural according to my dad. He’d let me fly for hours, turning in accordance with the maps and flight plan, even descending until he was ready to land the plane. By the time I graduated high school, becoming a private pilot was a forgone conclusion—a dream I was excited to achieve when I had the time and money.

Throughout my twenties, I held onto this dream. About five years into our marriage, me and my husband (Rog) made a deal: he’d take over my business for a year so I could finish my first book (another life-long dream) then we’d swap roles as he earned his pilot’s license. The deal worked; my book was published, he became a private pilot and I was ready to become one myself. I was on my way…until I wasn’t.

You see, I was great at the task(s) of flying, but sub-par at the details part. I know this sounds ridiculous and inconceivable, but it’s true. Suffice it to say that weights and balance, the outside checks of the aircraft, measurements and calculations for distances etc.—all the manual must-do’s for a pilot—well, I was terrible. Now, I can hear you saying: but that’s what checklists are for. True, but there’s a little thing called acumen. It’s the difference between “something comes naturally” vs “I have to make/remind myself” to do it. One can get away with using sub-par running shoes without dying. The same cannot be said for scrimping on the details associated with flying. So it was that at 31, I gave up my dream of flying.

Dreams die daily

We live in ice hockey country. Here, dwellers convert old hockey sticks into windshield scrapers for the snow and ice–because one must also show a love of the sport, even when one is not playing. It also means that youth players are frequently tapped for juniors, the precursor league before going pro here or abroad. Over the last four years, we have seen many dreams fade before ultimately dying. Just today, we had a talented young man (19) who played several seasons in Europe call my husband. When I heard the advice Roger was giving, I thought to myself, “another dream just died.”

Rog empathized, he himself having experienced three successive dream-deaths as I call them. First, it was failing the eye exam required by the Air Force while still in high school (he wanted to be a fighter pilot). He was crushed, but according to his mother, rebounded by focusing on sports. Only 6’2, he was a standout basketball player in his region, receiving scholarships but not to the top school of his choice. When that (second) dream died, he pivoted to football, walking on to the University team his freshman year as a tight end. This dream continued until he was injured his sophomore year. Bah-bum.

Reframing the dream

As I listened to Rog provide feedback to this youth, he empathized with the young man devastated by the notion of a future without professional hockey. Then the problem solving began.

“What do you want to do? Where does your passion lie? Does standard of living matter to you?”

They were the kind of pragmatic, rational questions a high school counselor or parent/mentor asks. Over the next forty minutes, all sorts of options were discussed, as well as areas of the country to live, the pros and cons of each and ultimately, what needed to happen to get from here to there.

Rog concluded with an admonition to pivot towards a dream you can control. It’s what I call positive pragmatism. Reality has gotten in the way of your dreams, and because reality won’t change, you have to. In other words, you don’t stop dreaming, you create new dreams you can accomplish.

With Rog, he pivoted his energies towards what he could control, and that was academics. He finished his masters in eighteen months while working full-time. He controlled his efforts to pivot once again, creating a new dream of succeeding in the business world.

A dream with a deadline

I’ve often said: “A dream is an objective with a deadline.” When it comes to creating a new dream, commit to it with all the vigor your younger, more enthusiastic and excited self had. The fact you are now older, wiser and more capable increases the possibility that your dream will be realized.

When it came to writing, Stephen King advocated to “Write ten pages a day and in a year, you have a novel.” I couldn’t be a basketball player because no amount of perfect free-throws were going to change my height, but I could learn the craft of writing and become a novelist. But as I did so, I worked (for years) in the software industry, created a management consulting firm, got married, had two kids…writing away, always keeping that guiding light of a dream in the distance. Guess what? With each page, each book, and each year, that light became closer and brighter, until finally, one day, years later, a book hit #1. Yeah, it took 20 years, but as I always say, “The time is going to pass whether you do something with it or not.”

I know 2020 has been a dark year for a lot of people, but among the scorched Earth of the pandemic and election, many new dream seeds have been planted. A new business idea, a new passion, hobby or even the dream of love.

As we approach the years’ end, look around and find those seeds which have been planted in your life. Nourish them. Help them grow. And if your land is barren, a personal scorched Earth, then get out of your zone find some seeds. Take action. Create your own dreams because guess what? The only person who can create and realize your dream is you.

The 3 D’s of Success

There I am, lying on my back, the ceiling spinning, sweat dripping from every pore and I’m having an out of body experience, willing my soul far from the oppressively hot room. The hot hatha yoga class is nearly over, the final Shivasna meditation pose supposed to one of relaxation, where the body absorbs all the pain and punishment it has endured in a room of 110 degrees and 60 percent humidity. It’s the hardest part for me, because all I can think about is getting out of the room, into the cool air and slurping down ice cold water–which of course, is  the worst thing I can do.

“The 5:30 a.m. class is my favorite,” says the teacher, her voice calm and sincere. “It’s because the students here embody the three D’s: decision, discipline and determination.” I snap back to the present, the mantra reminding me of a keynote speech on success and entrepreneurialism more than yoga.

I sucked my soul back from its hovering position above me and refocused on her words.

“The people in this room made the decision to be here. Then you had the discipline to get up at four or thereabouts, eat and come here. Once in the room, you had the determination to put your entire effort into every one of the twenty-six poses.”

She’s absolutely right, I thought, breathing shallow, telling myself I can last another few minutes. Her Three D’s can be applied to pretty much anyone who’s achieved success by any measure. “We” make the Decision to go to college/run a marathon/write a book etc. Then we have the Discipline to study/train for a year/fail for a few novels and through Determination do we get persevere through the downs and ups, blisters and callouses and rejections on the long, hard and oftentimes bumpy road to our goal—the decision we made in the first place.

As Mimi, the morning instructor talks through the last five minutes of meditation, I continue ruminating on the notion, considering the application of the three D’s, reflecting how I’ve defined much of my adult life by determination, but neither decision or discipline. In fact, my oft-repeated joke has always been that God didn’t give me any natural skills or talents except one: Determination. My husband lovingly calls me his goat, but not in the Michael Jordan-type greatest-of-all-time. Rog means it literally. He often says I will “chew my way through a wall to get what I want.”

I take that as a compliment by the way. I just simply say: that’s what I want and keep going until I get it. Of course I’m realistic, no WNBA or President of the United States for me. But I do tend to focus, ignoring every bit of distracting, external noise in my path. As my yoga instructor implied, it’s a personal decision, a personal level of discipline and personal determination that got each and every one of us to yoga in the first place. No one else got us up, dressed us, stood for us or wiped the sweat off our faces when it was all over.

The after effects of that wonderful morning yoga session was I have added the other two D’s to the one I’d always considered the absolute. Perhaps that’s also given a conference seeker another topic.

Getting to the CEO

Breaking through the email barrier

There has never been a better time for email outreach, the stay-at-home economy requiring workers to be tethered to their devices more than ever. A few weeks back, the CEO of Intel told NPR this was the first time he’s been home in 30 years, his email, video conferencing and phone becoming the life-blood of business. That means you, the business development, sales or PR person, are presented with the best opportunity to get in front of the right person for your pitch.

Yet you it’s not always as easy as connecting through Linked In, especially when you want to reach executive staff. Emails are switched up and around, purposefully confusing the outsider. Because I’ve spent several decades breaking through the email barrier, “cold-emailing” and getting responses from the executive levels at the largest retail, technology, banking and manufacturing companies in the world, I’m going to share a few tried and proven tricks.

Conventions

A convention is technology-industry-speak for a format used by the company. These are pretty simple and vary depending on the size of the company. When it was small, it was bill@microsoft.com – which of course, was for Bill Gates. It remained so until he formally left his position. All other bills had a convention using numbers. As the company grew, it modified the names in a combination of first and last names, letters and so on. A great example of this is Steve Ballmer. His email was steveb@microsoft.com. Because so many Steve’s had the last name b, he was referred to internally as steveb–when in conversation. “Steveb said this…” “that’s what Steveb wants.” For years, I was known as Sarahg within that same organization (thus proving we can morph into our email names).

Most commonly used conventions

  • First name, last initial: sarahg@
  • First name only: sarah@
  • First initial, last name: sgerdes@
  • First and last: sarahgerdes@

If the company is a mid-size (250 or above), you will have the same names. In this context, they usually modify the first or last only slightly, but adding the second, then third letter, or also adding a number.

  • First name, last initial: sarahge@
  • First name only: sarah1@ or sarah01@
  • First initial, last name: sagerdes@
  • First and last: sarahgerdes01

It’s rather amazing how uncreative those assigning names are, and how easy it is to penetrate a firm using a combination of the above.

Conventions aren’t limited to just the first and last names. It also applies to the company name. For instance, for Benjamin News Group, a Washington-based firm that’s presently being acquired by another entity, the address ends with @bngspkn.com. It was the first three letters of the company name, then the city where the firm is headquartered. Now, this is different than the URL designation on the main website, so how did I attain that email and correct ending? I called the main number, gave the pitch and was given the name of the general manager. He was out, and what I really wanted was his email. Trying the mail URL didn’t work. It was only later that I learned that the abbreviation his particular city was included in the address line. This shows two things: it is possible to get past the first line of defense (the receptionist and attain the name), the second is that I learned a new convention, even after all these years.

Getting creative

These aren’t always going to work, so you need to dig deeper. Looking up the CEOs name for the largest property holder in the country was done through a search on legal filings! It turns out that families get in spats, and when emails are filed with the court of law as a part of the proceedings, these documents are made public. Along with the full content, so are the emails. Can you believe that people don’t go back and change their emails? I’ve contacts who haven’t changed their emails for two decades, and in fact, I’ve not changed my BMG email in that long. That said, I have disabled it because I’m not taking on new clients at the moment, and if a person wants to get a hold of me, they can get creative themselves.

Another creative way…. social media

This isn’t perfect for a long pitch, but I’ve had executives, fans and parents track me down on Instagram and Facebook (see above comment on creativity). Several of these have been busines oriented, but most have been of a personal nature, seeking additional clarity on a topic I’ve written about. Because I don’t have a service or personal assistant, I eventually get to these items myself. It might take me a while, and I sometimes skip over or neglect my accounts for a while, but I do eventually get there.

Forwarding emails

This is another little trick that I’ve used myself. I’ve always wanted to make sure that variations of my name are taken, whether or not I use the various instantiations. To have one dashboard (or view) of all my accounts, I have them forwarded to my central account.

Executives do the same, using not just one, but multiple accounts, all being aggregated into a single view. My only caution to you, the sales/biz dev/executive, is to beware of hitting multiple accounts without waiting a reasonable period of time for a response (a week). Don’t hit all of them at once, as much as you want to get after it—the recipient will only become annoyed. It might take a month or so, but be patient.

The list of DON’Ts

On one hand, it’s wonderful to know that it is possible to reach the CEOs of the largest firms in the world. By the same token, your email MUST be free of a few things that will catch it up in spam.

No links. This is the first spam filter applied to any email. Don’t link to your website, home page, or product listing. You will never recover.

No links in your signature. My email signature (at the bottom, name/title/phone etc.) included the link from my name to my author page. This was causing my emails to go into junk. It was surprising for me to learn that even recipients who’d authorized me (my attorney in this case) had the filters set so high that all my correspondence was going in to junk. I had to remove the link from my signature in order for him to receive it, even though I was specifically authorized by him.

No attachments. This also gets caught in the first line of defense. When writing the first pitch email, it should be so inspiring it gets a response. Attachments can be sent thereafter.

Don’t copy another person. If you have the CEO and a VP, you need to make a choice. The rates of a non-response skyrocket when you have two or more copied. Why? First, no one is required to respond—the buck gets passed or the dropped entirely. Common thought is that the person on the To line will respond, and those CC’d will just observe.

That’s the wrong way to go about it. If you are confident in your pitch (and your product/service warrants it), make it to the CEO, who will in turn, provide it to the executive in charge of that area. Otherwise send it to the VP in the appropriate area. This strategy also provides you options in case you don’t receive a response (ergo, send to the CEO when the vp doesn’t respond or vice versa).

Bouncing or received?

How do you know if an email is incorrect? The email will immediately bounce as undeliverable. You know it’s working when the email doesn’t bounce, but you don’t receive a response. This indicates it’s likely gone into a “holding folder” where an assistant is assigned to look at it.

One such case was when I sent my first email to Steve Ballmer when he was at Microsoft. In that instance, I new I had the right email as I was a vendor. After three days, I received a response providing direction on the opportunity at hand, and when I inquired, learned that he had three assistants monitoring his email. He’d respond personally after a first review of the incoming mails were culled.

When to send

There’s an adage I heard a million years ago when I was starting out. My vice president of marketing told me “the higher the title, the earlier they will be up.” I’d been sending emails between the standard workday, thinking if I sent at 8 am (their time, not mine) I’d be the at the top of the in-box. Sure, I might have been, but by that time, the day was off and running, and the email wouldn’t even be opened until the afternoon. Conversely, if I sent the email in the afternoon (thinking people were winding down the day) I’d get more mindshare. Negative on that. Tired, grumpy and overwhelmed tended to be the emotions I’d experience when I placed a follow up call.

Sending early, as in 6 a.m. Yep, I wrote that. A CEO has thinking about the business 24×7, rising early to get a jump on the day. Delegation is one key to success, so the email is read and forwarded to the right person. If that means you are on the west coast, you get up at 3:30 a.m. and send that baby off (unless your system can schedule it for you), but beware. If you receive an immediate response and don’t answer, it’s clear that it’s a bot on your end.  

In a recent example, I sent an email to the CEO of a $26B firm last week. He responded in 1 hr 22 seconds, forwarding the inquiry pitch to two vice presidents, one being the primary contact.

Sending Sunday night. Until recently, this has been my favorite time to send an email, because I constantly found that CEOs weren’t/aren’t waiting until Monday morning. Many get online Sunday night to plan for the week ahead. Last month I sent off a pitch to a Canadian investor originally from Hong Kong on Sunday, because he’d specifically told me he likes to receive items Sunday night. Within an hour I had my response to the proposal and next steps.

I say “until recently” because I’m personally trying to not work on Sunday for any reason, not even cracking my computer open to write or work. As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten more focused on family than business, especially on Sunday. If you don’t share this perspective, then by all means use this as a tool—and sometimes, others will require it.

Now go forth, write and send—oh wait, it’s Thursday afternoon. Not yet!

Three men, three mantras and three very different lives

A tale of three men began with a former boss and continued as I interviewed two-dozen individuals for a book on success. In this time when we are all contemplating our lives, a few gems deserve to be shared.


“You want to guarantee a job gets done? Find the busiest person in the company and give it to him/her.”

As always, one must consider the source to determine if the wisdom is worth anything. You be the judge.

Mantra one is from a Duke engineering and accounting graduate (with honors and masters), pilot and also certified flight instructor who went to Microsoft for a stint as a technology architect (designing the systems). He jumped ship after a couple of years for a start-up, parting ways with the chief technology officer after eighteen months, eventually landed in the consulting world and found his calling. He was making a pittance at Microsoft compared to project consulting fees. Within the first two years, he was making a million a year. By year five, this had jumped three-fold. On average, he was personally taking home three-four million a year for about eight years.

He traded up from his 1,200 foot home in an old part of Seattle to a primary residence of 10,000 square feet in the affluent Seattle suburb of Woodenville. He added a second home in the San Juan islands where his wife installed not one, but seven, count them seven, Gaggenau ovens. His journey from his home in Seattle was made easy thanks to his twin-screw vessel which he insisted on piloting once he earned his credentials.

What isn’t sexy about this?

But why stop there? This busy man didn’t know how or when to stop either work or his personal expenditures. Ergo, he had not one, but three planes, all covered by the business. One, a twin-prop Piper Malibu, $2M King Air with seating for eight and a Mooney, a quarter million dollar aircraft built for speed.

All of this afforded by his work ethic and smarts. He believed in the mantra he espoused because it was in part what had made him successful. His over-busy manager or counterpart would give him a task in desperation which he’d take, complete and ultimately receive the accolades. Sometimes, he’d receive the promotion instead of the other person.


“Spend eight hours doing the job you were hired to do, and another two doing the job you want.”

This was said to me by the senior vice president of mergers and acquisitions who worked for the world’s largest consulting firm at the time. He attributed his success to applying this phrase to every job he’d taken since college, the phrase initially coming from one of his professors at BYU. This man had two undergraduate degrees and his masters in business administration, but said those credentials were insignificant compared to the working on the job.

“More knowledge comes from what you learn at your job than you will ever learn in the classroom,” he believed. Then he went on to give examples of how applying the concepts gets you fifty percent of the way. “The rest is what you learn and how you apply it.” But even then, he argued, that’s only enough to fulfill what’s expected of you. “You will never really stand out unless you put in more effort, more work and show more determination than the person sitting next to you.”

In other words, leadership is always looking for the next manager, the next stand out sales person. Not everyone needs a college degree, or two graduate degrees to be financially successful.

Live to work or work to live

This man chose a very different life path than the first. His primary (and only) residence was a 3,400 square foot home in a nice, but older neighborhood in less trendy part of Seattle. His wife drove a minivan and he had a Prius. No boats, planes or exotic cars. When he did spend money, it was on travel with his family. It was his one indulgence. When I interviewed him, he’d racked up nearly twenty African trips, Safari’s being his favorite, and he’d often take his grown children. Eventually, he retired to give of his time to an educational institution, desiring to spend his days with his family while he was in good health.

The first professional I mentioned, who is approximately the same age, has chosen to continue live to work. He used his home in the islands a handful of times a summer, his packed schedule not conducive for the long boat ride up. He used his planes not for weekend family getaways, because his wife has always hated small aircrafts. Instead, his flight time has been used to generate revenue, not deepen relationships. In fact, leisure travel and activities wasn’t a part of his life, because it took too much time out of his work schedule and billable hours.

What’s the point of having things when your life is empty of friends or loved ones?

Comparing the two men, the difference in lifestyle are stark. One had all the material possession attainable yet were rarely used because…well, he was working so much. (I forgot to mention man one also owned a Rolls, driven by his wife to and from Seattle Prep where their children attended, a Bentley which he drove and an Escalade). On the other hand, professional number two kept his life and lifestyle simple, investing his discretionary time on experiences, not things. What’s ironic is that this second man (who drove the Prius while having an executive title with one of the world’s foremost companies) earned multiples of millions of man number one who showed it all off. This proved one of my own mantras: “Those with the most don’t show it.”

“Those with the most don’t show it”

It’s now been six years since I’ve spoken with either man, but from what I’ve seen on-line and heard, the path of one has changed dramatically, the other hasn’t. The boat, planes, homes and children of the first have all but disappeared, the burnout as emotional as it was financial. Specifically, bad choices led to the collapse of the consulting firm, the personal overhead unsustainable. It’s all gone. Alternatively, the former SVP has lived his life as he constructed; spending his workdays with an academic institution and his free time with his family. He still drives his Prius but his wife finally upgraded to a used Lexus SUV to haul around the grandchildren.

One lived to work, his surroundings and lifestyle reflecting that, his own mantra serving him very well. The second worked to live, his close family and sound financial decisions evidence of his conviction. Having heard these experiences and witnessing the eventual outcome, I do wonder if there was a middle ground to be walked, perhaps the peaks wouldn’t have been so high but the valleys not so low.

A third mantra from a former boss

When I was twenty-four working at my second start-up outside Silicon Valley, the once-divorced CEO, a thirty-nine year-old who’d already taken one company public, often said he “lost” his first wife and children in the drive to accomplish his goals. He found and married a hot thirty-year old who was step-mother to his two sons, and during our press tours, he’d talk candidly about what he’d done wrong, taking full ownership of the demise of his marriage, vowing to change his ways. During the five years I spent at the company, we grew from eight to two hundred and went public. I continually observed this CEO, wondering if history would repeat itself.

It didn’t. He left work at five p.m. No. Matter. What. He took vacations, two times a year, without fail. He wouldn’t respond to emails on Saturday, but wait until Sunday night at seven p.m. when his boys were in bed. He was ruthless about his protected family time. Yes, the cynical will say: “Well, he already had a few million in the bank and was the CEO, he could afford to do that.” I agree. Yet he still had a choice, as many do, to carve out and maintain a semblance of balance, and it was his actions that gave the rest of us permission to have a life. We could leave at six or seven and the world wasn’t going to shut down, neither was the company. We didn’t have to be on email at eleven at night to impress the boss, because the boss was with his family.

Although I was a senior manager at the time, I felt compelled to work late and come in on the weekends. One morning, I’d arrived at 6 a.m. and he appeared, asking me why I was in the office. I responded it was to deal with the east coast press, who were up and alive at nine a.m.

“My boss told me something I never forgot,” he said, one hand on my cubicle wall. “Things are never as good or as bad as they seem. Remember that. It puts everything in perspective.”

It took another decade to really embed that philosophy in my DNA, but it’s a phrase I often repeat to Rog, my close circle and myself. It keeps the highs and lows in check, our emotions and efforts a bit more stable.



“Things are never as good or bad as they seem

Modesty doesn’t equal a lack of means

I still think and apply the two other phrases quite frequently. When a person complains or a tasks isn’t being done at the office, I ask who is busiest? The owner/manager invariably responds in an instant. “Give it to that person!” I suggest, telling them the mantra. When a person wants to get ahead, I offer up mantra number two; “Work eight hours at the existing job and another two at the job you want.” That works like a charm. And for the life/balance situations, which happen on a weekly (daily?) basis, we have mantra number three, perfect for not just times of staying at home during a pandemic, but at all times, because as Jeff said: “Things are never as good or bad as it seems.” Endurable words of wisdom for all of us to remember.