Stepping down and slowing down

Separating what I do from who I am.

hand business card 88 (photo credit: )
hand business card 88
(photo credit: )
I call it the cocktail party dance. In our neighborhood, the ritual plays out as follows: Men and women congregate in separate groups; men typically closer to the bar. Women warm to conversation with complimentary chatter focused on their outfits, hair and children. Men, who likely start out their visit far less connected, skip the small talk. Instead, with no recognition for new khakis or wingtips, someone kicks off the discussion with the time-honored question: "So, what do you do?" Though unspoken, among the men, status is conferred based on profession and business card. Different from generations past, where religious leaders, creative minds, doctors and lawyers were accorded the most respect, these days the high mantle is reserved for hedge fund managers, private equity partners and business leaders (especially those few with a "C" in their title - CEO, COO, CFO. SO ONE would think that I would enjoy cocktail parties. Instead of following in my father's footsteps - trained to be a rabbi and instead become a successful art dealer - I chose to pursue a path in business. I have always been competitive and enjoyed the scorecard and strategic challenge of business and leadership. After stints at a prestigious investment bank, a research institute and a consulting firm (all with great business-card cache), I landed 15 years ago at a consumer products firm based in New England. My timing was excellent, as the company grew remarkably and I was given opportunity to stretch… ultimately becoming Chief Operating Officer (a C title) eight years ago. I traveled the world, worked nights and weekends, and, along the way, married and had two daughters. I had a wonderful boss and believed intensely in the mission of the company. I had passion for the products we developed and marketed. If you had asked me five years ago what was most important in my life, I would have answered: family, faith and work - ordered in priority sequence. Yet, if you looked for substantiating evidence, you would find that I acted much the same way as the first sentence of this paragraph. And yet, today, I write from a modest apartment in Jerusalem. I chose to drop off the cocktail party circuit, turn in my business card and move to Israel. With the support of my very courageous, English-speaking wife, I gave up speaking engagements, a secretary, responsibility for over 6,000 employees and my identity. I wanted to test myself - to see how I would feel answering that question "So, what do you do?" I wanted to break with routine and be more conscious of the choices I was making to guide the back half of my life. In an attempt to help myself, and in order to prepare my children, we play-acted what they would say if asked "What does your dad do?" They concluded that they would answer, "He is a dad." I HAVE learned so much these past months. For starters, I now understand time differently. While engaged at work, I never had enough time. Time flew. I remember calendars of 12 meetings in a day, with literally no time to make it to the bathroom. I struggled with a grandiose sense of hyper-responsibility, which led me to try to cheat time. Now it is amazing to me that there are the same number of hours in a day as there were during my days at work. Time now passes slowly - with time for reflection and observation. I now take pleasure in banal tasks done well. I value friendship and selflessness, and better appreciate the whim of fate and fortune. Were I starting over, I would be far more selective about how to allocate my time. I would elevate my focus and liberate my subordinates. I would also reserve more time for my family. I would also work harder to better separate what I do from who I am. This has been a must, as I now don't have a title on to which to fall back. The choice of Israel has made me far more conscious of my faith and much more eager to find my place as a Jew. I have been able to reorder my actions and choices to better match my stated priorities. At the outset, I worried that my lack of a job would be a bad example for my children. Today I feel the opposite. I am proud to model that the road to purpose and fulfillment is not a straight one. IRONICALLY, absent a business card, I have become far more interested in being social, in hearing others' stories. I have more mental capacity to listen with interest and empathy. The other day, I was comparing notes with an old friend. After sharing an update, I asked him if he had ever considered taking off a year to travel with his family? Different from most, he answered no. He explained that he had the best of all worlds where he was - he loved his work and was able to reserve time each day to walk his kids to school and be home each night for dinner. I have come to value his response. I recognize that my wife and I are blessed to be able to take time off and that I am lucky to also be able to walk our kids to school each day. Unlike me, my friend figured out long ago how to find purpose through balance… something I am now to committed to. But I wonder how he answers the question "What do you do."