Avoiding the All-Or-Nothing Trap – Zig Zag Principle #68

March 29th, 2012 by Rich Christiansen

I grew up in a rural community.  My father was completely blind.  I am the oldest of four sons, and as long as I can remember I have had entrepreneurial desires.  Despite some lofty ambitions, I was never any kind of a standout kid.  I was one of those boys who was often overlooked, and I spent a lot of time hoping I wasn’t the last kid picked on the basketball team. Nonetheless, I had this incredible and deep desire to do something of significance with my life.

I remember when I was eighteen years old and just finishing up high school, I wrote down some personal goals. I had always been goal-oriented, and my mother encouraged me to write down my goals. One of those goals was to become the CEO of a major company. Even though I wrote it down, I knew that was as far off a goal as I could have set.  I didn’t think that there was any chance or any possibility in the world of actually ever reaching that goal at that time; in fact, I might as well have written that I was going to sprout wings and flap my way to the moon.  But that became a powerful goal. It was my beacon in the fog.

I was very fortunate to have been able to get a good education.  After graduating, I worked hard and had some incredible opportunities.  And I ended up having the opportunity to work as a CEO and a general manager at some large and well-known companies.  Midway through my career in corporate America, I was given a leadership role in a large, international organization.  I was eager and determined to earn my stripes, and I basically committed to do so at all costs. I was a very young general manager of the U.S. division, and I was determined to do anything that was necessary to succeed. My commitment bordered on insane. I had a young family, but I was traveling hundreds of thousands of miles every year.  There were nights I would stay at the office all night long to do what I felt needed to be done.  I was going to succeed, and I didn’t care about the costs.  Then I learned the lesson that it is not worth risking everything of importance in your life to achieve success. The division I was over became very successful.  In the middle of our run, my mentor and boss, Dr. Peter Horne, called my secretary and said, “I need to have a visit with Rich.”  That meant jumping on a plane, flying to Atlanta, then from Atlanta to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam across the channel to Birmingham, England.  Door-to-door, this was a twenty-hour trip. When I arrived, Dr. Horne pulled me into his office and sat me down.   He then said, “Rich, we’re really delighted with the progress you’ve made in the business. Things are coming along rather nicely.” And then he made this comment, which has stuck with me: “I want you to remember one thing though, Rich. You can replace almost anything in this world. You can replace a car. You can replace a job. You can replace money. But you can’t replace your health, you can’t replace your trust relationships, and, most importantly, you can’t replace your family.” Then he shooed me out of his office, and I began the long journey home. 

Those twenty hours, which I spent alone on a very crowded airplane, gave me plenty of time to think about what Dr. Horne had just said.  Most of my thoughts centered on my wife and children.  For years I had been telling my wife, “This next project is a big one for me.  I am going to give it my all for six months, so don’t plan on seeing much of me.  But once I finish it, things will be different.”   The six months would pass.  I would complete the project, and then a new project would come along and I would start the cycle all over again.  Those six months had turned into years as I kept promising, “If I give my all to this for six months, then we will have it made.” As we crossed the Alantic, I reflected on a trip I had taken to India some months before.  When I got home, all of my sons and I came down with whooping cough, or pertussis.  We had all been immunized, but somehow we contracted this miserable illness.  It was terrible.  I remember coughing so hard one day that I literally vomited, but I lacked the discipline to take some time off from my work to get better and help my wife with our sons.  My youngest son at the time was Nathan.  He was less than a year old when we all got sick, and it was life-threatening for him.  In fact, he ended up in the hospital, where my wife took care of him because I was too busy.

Flying home, I realized I was falling into the “all or nothing trap,” and I resolved that I was going to do better as a father and husband, and when I got home I made it a point to gather my young sons together, give them each a hug, and tell them I love them.  But when I went to pick up Nathan, he hollered and screamed.  As he pushed me away, I realized he did not even know who I was.  At that moment, I realized that achieving my goal of being a CEO was not worth losing the love of my family.  And I began to change both my priorities and how I actually lived my life.

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