The First Small Step

I woke up this morning to an email from a friend of mine, and it made me realize that a whole bunch of doors had closed on me while I was going about my life.

I had written him the day before, thanking him for a giant pile of toys he gave us a few years before. Catter had just gone through the garage, looking to clean it out and seeing what we could donate to Goodwill, and there was a Thomas the Train Engine set in there.

Rypp is obsessed with Thomas these days. He’s been talking for days about how Mom cleaned out the garage and found Thomas there. So I thought a note would be a nice way to say, “Hi,” since it had been a while since my friend and I had talked.

He got a huge promotion about nine months ago and was in the process of picking up the family and moving to Florida.

I’m really happy for him. He’s worked his butt off for about twenty years, and has earned this. He’s woken up at four or five in the morning almost every work day. He probably has a couple million frequent flier miles from all of his work travel. Every time he and I had texted in the last year, he was in Brazil or Columbia or somewhere else in South America. It seemed like he was never home.

Still, I hadn’t realized that he had gotten promoted or that he was moving to Florida. We hadn’t talked much in the past year, our kids are different ages and doing different activities, and we had just slipped apart a bit.

What surprised me was the realization that, even though we had worked together and had started from the same place (we went to the same university, and started out at the same private equity fund out of college), the path he took was closed to me.

And, if I’m being really honest, even though we started in the same place, it was always closed to me.

It was closed for one really simple reason.

It’s not work ethic. I have that in spades. And so do you.

It’s not skills. It turns out that we’re all just robots made of meat, and once you understand that, you understand that we’re all programmable and we all can learn anything we put our mind to. I stole that idea from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

It’s expectations.

My friend expected to take twenty years of working his butt off to have a chance — just a chance — at this kind of job. I know that his ultimate goal is CEO of a big company, and this job is a really good step in that direction. That was his goal.

We all have goals. My goal is to be able to spend as much of my waking hours outside having fun as possible while making sure that my family has enough money to do whatever it is that they want to do.

I have no idea how to accomplish this goal. I could try to be an extreme athlete, but at age 38, I think that ship has sailed.

Throughout my career, I’ve had two sets of expectations. Sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they’re independent. They were:

  • I need to make progress toward my goal in big leaps; and
  • If I do what I’m interested in today, my goals will take care of themselves.

These are lies.

All progress is incremental. Everything that looks like a big leap took someone years to accomplish. We just like to tell stories about the big jump and ignore the rest.

And nothing ever ‘takes care of itself.’ I remember that the big thing in self-help when I started working was ‘do what you love and the money will take care of itself.’

That is just wrong. To have money, you need to have something that someone else is willing to buy. And the things I love to do don’t benefit anyone else outside of my immediate family.

If you said that you loved watching sports on the couch while drinking beer, who would pay you for that?

No one.

This is why I’ve never had the same path open to me as my friend.

I expected that things would happen in big leaps, or that it would take care of itself. While I was always willing to work hard on a project, I expected too much from the end of that project, like a big bonus or a better job.

And, so, I got unhappy. Really unhappy. Because the world doesn’t work that way. No one rewards you just for being smart or working hard.

In fact, no one rewards you… ever. You get what you earn, and you earn what you get.

My friend got this from the get-go. He got that the only way forward was small, incremental steps towards your goal.

I thought, “Twenty years is a long time.”

Well, that went fast.

This blog is about not making the same mistake for the next twenty years.