Chucky and my Vision Board

I was in my late 30s at the end of 2012 when I decided to leave the company I had co-founded. I was predictably existential, both about my work and my life. I was also completely burned out, and I was more than happy to set aside any anxiety I might have about the future, and simply take a break.

After the weariness went away, I had a brief surge of energy and excitement, which slowly gave way to anxiety. I was scared of starting over. I believed in myself, but I was afraid that others didn’t. On top of all that, I had brazenly decided to put myself through an intellectually rigorous process of challenging every assumption I had about how to do my work well, not realizing that this would slowly, but surely chip away at all that hard-earned self-belief.

One of my coping mechanisms was to collect articles about people whose stories resonated and inspired me. I placed these articles in a folder entitled, “Vision Board.”

One of the articles I clipped was about Jon Gruden (also known as Chucky, because his intense grimace resembled the murderous doll’s expression). I briefly mentioned why I did this in a blog post later that year, but the longer explanation is:

  • The Raiders hired him as their head coach when he was 34
  • After leading the Raiders back to contention, owner Al Davis famously “traded” him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That year, at 39, Chucky and the Buccaneers beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
  • He was fired from the Buccaneers in 2009 at 45

Everyone expected him to get right back into coaching, but he didn’t. Instead, he rented an office in Tampa Bay and proclaimed it headquarters for FFCA (Fired Football Coaches of America). It was a place where he could continue to study the game, and where people who loved football as much as he did could hang out and pick his brain. The space was pure, devoid of selfish interests tarnishing his viewpoints. And coaches and quarterbacks at all levels came in droves to hang out with Gruden.

(Another frequent guest, as it turns out, was Mark Davis, son of Al, who took over the Raiders when the elder Davis passed away.)

Over the years, his role evolved to include chief analyst of Monday Night Football and host of Gruden’s QB Camp, which quickly became legendary. Every year, people expected him to jump back into coaching, but year after year, he turned down all comers. He was happy doing his thing, which included both football and spending time with his family, something that wouldn’t be possible as a coach.

Gruden’s story resonated with me — his intense passion, his devotion to the game, his age when he stopped coaching, and his creativity in balancing his passion with his other interests while resisting the pull to coach purely out of habit.

Today, the prodigal son came home. Gruden decided it was time to coach again, and in a twist of all twists, he’ll be coaching the Raiders. Mark Davis apparently had been trying to re-hire Gruden for the past six years, and it finally happened.

I’m happy for Gruden and for Raiders fans. I “came out of retirement” myself a little over two years ago, so his ongoing story and the different parallels continue to inspire me.

Photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class John E. Woods. Public domain and found in Wikimedia Commons.

Grant Achatz, Small Business, Worldly Impact

Life, on the Line is the remarkable story of Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and widely acknowledged as one of the best chefs in the world. It’s a compelling play-by-play of the commitment, vision, and tenacity required to be the best. It’s also a beautiful tale of the mentorship (from Thomas Keller), partnership (with Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea and coauthor of the book), and friendship (with Keller, Kokonas, and many others) that kept Achatz on track. There’s even a bad guy (Charlie Trotter).

Oh yeah, and then there’s the tongue cancer.

In 2007, barely into his 30s and shortly after reaching the pinnacle of the restaurant world, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer. The prognosis was horrible. Most people with this form of cancer lose their tongue, half their face, and part of their neck. Only 50% survive after surgery. Achatz didn’t see the point of living this way and was ready to give up. Then he got lucky and found his way into a clinical trial at Northwestern. He managed to survive, tongue and face intact, but he also lost his sense of taste for many months (a story well-documented by the New Yorker in 2008).

The book was a page-turner in so many ways, and it’s a great read for anyone into food, high-performance collaboration, design, or new media. It’s a well-told story overall, but in my current state of exploration around impact, there was one brief, throwaway line in the Epilogue that caught my attention:

Alinea is a small business run by a small group of people.

After reading all of the great things that Achatz accomplished, and knowing the broader context for his story, it was remarkable to see his restaurant described this way. I was somewhat incredulous, so I ran the numbers using hints from the book. Sixty covers a night at an average of $200 a cover, five nights a week, 51 weeks a year for the flagship Alinea (not counting his other two restaurants, book royalties, appearances, etc.) — about $3 million in annual revenue. Given the downtown Chicago real estate, the cost of sourcing countless top-quality, often obscure ingredients, and 60+ salaries, it’s a miracle that they make any money at all.

So yes, it seems quite accurate to call Alinea a small business. Somehow, I found this comforting and inspiring. I want to live comfortably and joyfully, and I want to make an impact. I think it’s easy to get into the mindset that you have to create some sort of global, financial monolith in order to achieve that kind of success, but I don’t think that’s right. I like small business. I’ve started two of them, and I’d like to be part of another one. You can do that and make an impact.

Achatz’s story offers somewhat of a playbook for doing that. (It’s not the perfect template. Work-life balance is clearly not important to him. Maybe that’s an inevitable trade-off, but I haven’t quite succumbed to that belief yet.) I think the basic formula is simple, reminiscent of Steve Martin’s career advice to young comics:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

There are lots of things that have to happen in order to scale your impact, but it starts with constantly working on your craft, constantly striving to be the very best you can be. Do that, be a good person, and all that other stuff will eventually fall into place. This book was an excellent reminder of that.

Why You Can’t Have It All

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a wonderful essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It’s directed toward women, but it’s really for everyone who cares about work-life balance in his or her own life and in society as a whole. Her basic premise is that “having it all,” while possible, is predicated on a series of half-truths:

  • It’s possible if you’re just committed enough
  • It’s possible if you marry the right person
  • It’s possible if you sequence it right

To change this, we need to:

  • Change the culture of face time
  • Revalue family values
  • Redefine the arc of a successful career
  • Rediscover the pursuit of happiness
  • Enlist men

Slaughter’s essay struck me on two levels. First, the lack of women in positions of structural power does not reflect an “insufficient commitment.” Slaughter writes:

To be sure, the women who do make it to the top are highly committed to their profession. On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of them have something else in common: they are genuine superwomen. Consider the number of women recently in the top ranks in Washington—Susan Rice, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Michelle Gavin, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle—who are Rhodes Scholars. Samantha Power, another senior White House official, won a Pulitzer Prize at age 32. Or consider [Sheryl] Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard’s top student of economics. These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure.

While these “superwomen” are trailblazers, we cannot view the existence of these kinds of women as a measuring stick for a more equitable society. I recently had a Facebook exchange with Tara Hunt about some of the systemic challenges that women in technology face. I referenced Janice Madden’s study of African-American coaches in the NFL and wrote:

I think the problem is that if you’re a woman in tech, you have to stand out in order to make it. We’ll know that real progress has been made when there are just as many crappy female programmers or entrepreneurs as there are male.

Second, we have to reevaluate how we define success for ourselves and for society as a whole. If success is solely about rising to the top of our professions, then the vast majority of us our failures. When did balance, happiness, and family fall out of that equation? And if they haven’t, if we all truly value those things, what kind of structural shifts do we need to make to support them?

At the beginning of the year, I blogged about Groupaya’s three goals for 2012. One of our goals is, “Space for renewal, learning, and play.” I noted:

This is my favorite goal, and it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully. When you’re action-oriented, it’s very easy to spend all of your time, well, doing stuff. But it’s not necessarily healthy nor good for business nor good for the world.

When I said, “it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully,” what I really meant was that it would be the hardest one for me.

I go out of my way to emphasize to my peers how important I think this goal is. I am constantly reminding my business partner, Kristin, never to apologize for her lack of scheduling flexibility due to her 10-year old son. (The fact that she often does speaks to the unfortunate societal mindsets around work and family to which Slaughter alludes and that we all unconsciously perpetuate.) I am constantly discouraging my colleagues from working on weekends. I go out of my way not to overallocate people’s times.

While my colleagues will credit me for all of these things, they will also (un)happily point out that I am terrible at modeling them and that it sends a very mixed message. Earlier this year, I was complaining to Kristin and my other colleague, Rebecca, about a client who was having trouble respecting boundaries. I observed how often this client emailed or called “after hours,” then admitted that it was more the symbolism than the logistics of this that bothered me, because in reality, I kept similar hours.

“You mean you both work late into the night and start work early in the morning,” responded Rebecca in exasperation. She then told Kristin about an epic email exchange that she was copied on between this client and me that had started after she had gone to bed and that had continued before she had woken up.

I have realized for some time that the sheer numbers of hours that I work along with the lack of clear start and stop times create stress for my colleagues and undermine our collective goal for space and work-life balance. On the one hand, I resent this. I’m not asking others to be like me. Why should I be punished for my persistence and commitment? Why should I hold back if I feel passionate about what I’m doing and compelled to keep doing it?

On the other hand, it’s not about either-or. It’s about finding the balance. The truth is, I’m not happy about where the balance lies for me right now. Adjusting how often and when I work won’t just help others, it will also help me.

Moreover, when I dig deeper into why I work the hours that I do, it’s not all about passion and drive and all that rah-rah stuff that I like to pat myself on the back about. There’s a dark part of me that doesn’t truly believe that we can be “successful” (whatever that means) if I don’t “work my ass off” (whatever that means).

The rational part of me understands the hidden traps of this kind of thinking. The rational part of me understands that space and balance means that I’m more creative, I’m more effective, and I’m more pleasant to be around. I know from experience that slowing down can mean going faster. I know all of these things, but I’m worried that my dark, hidden beliefs undermine my attempt to achieve balance. Even worse, I’m worried that they undermine my attempt to support my colleagues in living this balance.

Finding this balance takes work and discipline, but it also requires reexamining the structures around you. We’re experimenting with a lot of things at Groupaya right now. We have tools that help manage our information flow so that we’re not disturbed after hours. We all track our time, and I’m trying to figure out how we might reward people for working smarter, fewer hours.

It’s not easy, and we don’t have the answers yet, but it’s a necessary exploration. If your structures don’t reinforce your beliefs, then neither will your behaviors. This is true for individuals, for organizations, and for society as a whole.