Searching through the memory boxes of my mind, I realized the foundation that underlined my key career lessons were completely unintended examples from life witnessed during family vacations. While my parents thought they were teaching me about our country and geography, these memorable excursions became the core of the leader and professional I am today.
Risk Vs. Regret
Standing at the rail overlooking Niagra Falls is breathtaking at any age. Yet at 12, it was not the power of the water that drew my attention. It was the endless list of people who had dared to conquer it. In 1901, Annie Taylor became the first person to defeat the falls, surviving a trip over the edge in a wooden barrel in hopes of becoming rich and famous.
It would seem the lesson here is to be unafraid of risk and go after your dreams, yet ironically, praise for her efforts was short-lived and she died in poverty. For Annie, the risk did not guarantee the reward.
So I wrestled through my career wondering when and if the risk is worth the reward and how to know. One day I realized I was wrestling with the wrong question — it isn’t about risk versus reward, it is about risk versus regret. In business, as in life, if there is an opportunity you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking of, then it is worth the risk because the only alternative is regret.
There is no better way to understand the sheer majesty of the Grand Canyon than from a raft navigating the white-capped waters of the Colorado River. On this six-hour journey, I was the youngest and lightest on the raft. Much of the trip was spent cranking my neck to see the varied colors of yellow, red and orange that graced the sides of the seemingly endless canyon. However, gaze off for too long, and the river would remind you of its power.
One such reminder came two hours into the trip when a sudden dip sent me flying off the back of the raft. I remember three things: the shock of the frigid water, the sound of my mother’s scream and the feel of my father’s hand grasping my arm, knowing he would never let go. There is nothing like Mother Nature to remind you that you aren’t invincible, and there is nothing like the strong hand of a father to remind you that sometimes you have to reach out and let someone save you.
As a starkly independent human, it can be challenging for me to reach for help. However, I have been blessed with great mentors throughout my career — those who selflessly built me up, extended my skill sets and amplified my empathy. Reaching out to those who inspire you is a strength, not a weakness and can make all the difference in your career trajectory.
There is a field in New Jersey where RVs park and there isn’t a building in sight. One would never know you were a short drive from New York City. The evening was pleasant, and we pulled chairs around a radio to enjoy the late summer sunset. Alongside a childhood friend, we lay on the ground and drew pictures in the stars. We laughed until our sides hurt. We watched our parents and grandparents dance and remember why they still loved each other. We had traveled thousands of miles and visited all the attractions, and yet this would be the quintessential memory.
I think of this night often when I find myself caught in the routines of life and stresses of the corporate world. On the days when the long to-do lists, endless meetings and crushing deadlines seem to be all that life has to offer, I remember that a night under the stars is not just possible, it’s critical. Slowing down to savor the small moments can be good for the soul and energizing for the career.
Team And Family
Traveling together in an RV was a family tradition that began long before I was born and continued long after. It was a football weekend and we were headed to my mother’s alma mater. The much-anticipated moment of opening the door and smelling the fall air was something I never tired of. These weekends were full of traditions from the Friday night pep rallies to Saturday afternoon Tiger Walks, from Toomer’s Corner lemonade to face painting at Tiger Rags. What I took away, beyond my love of football, was a sense of community.
Our family was part of a unique group of long-time season ticket families that spent decades together. During most of the year, they were businessmen, politicians, teachers, policemen and plumbers. But every football weekend they were simply part of a second family, a living representation of a village that raises a child. The adults made meals, played cards and enjoyed the campfires while the kids played touch football, ran races and climbed trees. We celebrated team victories and bemoaned defeats. We knew each other’s birthdays and anniversaries. We threw parties when couples married or babies were born and grieved when someone was lost. This community taught me that family is wide-reaching, and it only takes heart and a few weekends to solidify.
We spend the majority of our lives at the organizations that make up our career. Although many give lip service to the idea of the workplace as a family, few authentically live up to this high bar. As a leader, take time to get to know the humans that work for you. Focus on the similarities, rather than the differences and extend care. The rewards are infinite.
Hidden in the faded postcards of these childhood destinations live these career lessons of risk-taking, vulnerability, slowing down and community building. May we all remember the moments that shaped us and allow those lessons to bring a new perspective to our work.