Making a Life, Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion in Business and in Lifeby Mark S. Albion
Few of us will regret not having spent more time at the office upon reaching heaven's gate. Yet as we focus on making a good living, we often forget to make a life. Why not transform work into a pursuit that feeds the spirit and the pocketbook, and benefits society, too? Now that would be a life worth living, a legacy to look back upon.
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MAKE HAPPINESS A HABIT
A Personal Odyssey
Every person I have known who has been truly happy, has learned how to serve others.
The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat.
The rainy morning of June 5, 1986, was the high point of my thirty-five-year-old lifeor so it seemed at the time. I was full of anticipation, and no downpour could dampen my spirits. That afternoon I was scheduled to pick up a gleaming new black Jaguar, my first drop-dead trophy purchase. It said, "Okay, world, look at me. On top! In heaven!"
I had it madeMark Albion, little big man, wunderkind professor at Harvard Business School, hotshot consultant getting richer by the minute, and still younger than some of my students! I was so full of myself then that I had best use the third person in describing the Mark Albion of 1986.
At Harvard, Mark Albion taught his own second-year course in retailing. All first-year students watched his instructional videos and pored over his case studies. Nationally recognized as one of America's top young business professors, he was profiled on CBS's 60 Minutes. The dean of the business school warmly noted his growing celebrity in an official memo to all faculty.
Mark was making money beyond his wildest dreams. His visibility allowed him to charge a consulting fee of $5,000 a day, and he thought nothing of directing the Coca-Cola Company to send a limousine to his Boston office and chauffeur him directly to meetings in New York.
He was also co-owner of anutritional-supplement company that raked in $60 million in its first six months. With his compensation rate at 1 percent of sales, a single month's check was enough to buy two Jaguars, not just one. Mark was on the short list with one other candidate to become the nutritional company's next chief executive officer. If that happenedand all signs looked goodhe had just about decided to quit Harvard and get really rich. He was also being courted by the Reagan administration for a subcabinet post.
In any event, Mark was seriously thinking of selling his fancy house in suburban Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, and buying something even higher on the food chain, maybe in some gated enclave you could not even drive into in anything less than a Jag.
Then the phone rang. It was Mark Albion's wake-up call from hell.
Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you wish, but you can only spend it once.
Miguel de Cervantes
We all have crises in our lives. The question is, How do we handle them? How do they affect us? This one changed my life.
My mother was on the phone: "I'd like to see you this afternoon. I have something we need to talk about."
My heart sank. Mom was back in town, having come home early from a Chicago business trip. And she was virtually demanding to see menot at all like her.
I had never known my mother to unexpectedly cut short a business trip. Nor does she ever demand to see me. We see each other weekly, talk almost daily. Demands are unnecessary. Something was wrong with my mom.
We set a time of 4:30 p.m., right after my wife, Joy, and I picked up the new Jag.
My mood now matched the weather. The London-like fog clouded my brain. In the pouring rain, Joy and I drove to the dealership.
Our salesperson gave us a tour of the car, showing us how everything worked. But there I was, sitting atop the mountain, Mr. Success himself, and all I could do was stare at the windshield wipers and the pelting rain. I thought of the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ." I sensed the worst.
We finished the run-through and drove the Jag home. Right at 4:30, Mom appeared. I can still see her sitting herself downuncomfortablyon our custom-made, leather living room couch from Denmark. "I have something to tell you," she began. "I have cancer."
As Mom said, "Cancer concentrates"just the way Samuel Johnson once described a cancer of his time: "When a man knows he is to be hanged . . . it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
She needed an operation immediately, followed by several months of chemotherapy, then a final checkup operation.
I called her doctor. He told me the truth he felt unable to tell her: "Mark, your mother's cancer is very advanced, stage four. It has moved through her entire system into her liver. We are going to do what we can. We hope she will live another six months. Unfortunately, I can't promise you more than that, and that is only fifty-fifty."
You can imagine my first reaction: "What? Let's try that again."
It didn't work. After that, I got very busy thinking about what to do next. Should I tell her? I preferred honesty, but it wasn't that simple. Spirit is so important in fighting disease. I decided not to tell her the full diagnosis.
The only issue was whether or not to operate. That was not a tough decision for me. If there was the least chance, I wanted her to have it. Don't hesitate, I told the surgeon. She's only fifty-eight-and she's my mom.
A tragic irony of life is that we so often achieve success . . . after the reason for which we sought it has passed.
During the ensuing months, Joy and I visited my mother almost daily. Lots of time to reflect. Lots of time . . . except I always thought my mother and I would have so much more time together.
Waves of questions overwhelmed me: What is going on? Why can't I fix thisthrow some money at it and make it all better? When will this nightmare go away?
I was angrynot just at the passage of time, but especially at myself. Why was I doing what I was doing? What price glory? Why run so fast if I had no mother around to be proud of me?
During those months of not knowing, I came to cherish a relationship that before had never been as close as pretended. And I learned a lot. I learned that my mother dragged herself into her office, lying on the floor next to her desk because she could not sit at it. She was there because she loved her work so much. Would I do that?
My mother was still alive the next March when the doctors opened her up again to operate. I was told that if they found anything they could not take care of easily, they would just close her up and let her live the rest of her precious few days in peace, maybe all the way until summer.
I was numbafraid to feel anything real, I guess. I waited for the call. The phone rang. The doctors had taken a look and decided not to operate further. I swallowed hard. There was a pause, and then the doctor used a beautiful five-letter word: "Clean," he said, "your mother is clean." No sign of any cancercomplete microscopic absence.
The doctors were ecstatic. I was stunned. Days passed before I could grasp the miracle: Mom had been given a second life. And in the process, Mark Albion had been given a second life, too.
What would we do with these gifts? Give of your hands to serve and your hearts to love.
Mom had made it with the help of love, luck, and a never-say-die attitude. She threw herself into work with even more passion and energy. During the next decade she took dramatic business risks, created new products, and built a company nationally praised for its unique market niche, humanistic working conditions, and community efforts.
A touch of grace came that September: her first grandchild, Amanda, was born and would fulfill Mom's personal dream of becoming a ballerina. Mom had always wanted a little girl in addition to a son. If cancer had won, she never would have met her beloved Amanda.
Mom was blessed with another special grandchild in 1991, Nicolette. She is a devoted grandmother, a CEO who makes sure she spends ample time with her grandchildren at least once a week. She has shown meand hundreds of othersthat one courageous person can indeed make a difference. Her full story concludes this book.
That crisis helped me build a special relationship with my mother, one that might have been impossible without the catalyst of cancer. But the question remained: Would I have the courage to follow my own path now that I had been jolted into understanding?
There is only one successto spend your life in your own way.
When you spend most of your life pursuing the material rewards that the culture encourages you to pursue, it is not easy to obey some inner voice and suddenly say, "Stop! Enough! I want to exit the fast track and live the life I should live while there is still time."
No, it is not easy to give yourself permission to change gears and combine making a life with making a living. We are not supported to do so, either. For most hardworking businesspeople, the whole idea sounds farfetched. "Meaningful work?" my friends teased. "Isn't that a spoiled boomer concept?" But I suddenly felt the emptiness of what just yesterday I had called success. Having acquired all the trappings that everyone around me longed for, I discovered they were now nothing more than meaningless ornaments. While my high-paying, high-prestige job made me the envy of neighbors, I felt the life being sucked out of me, leaving me homesick for some place I could not name. I often heard myself say, "Doing research on the use of brand names is not cancer research. How did I end up doing this?"
I had broken one of my own guidelinesDon't get really good at something you don't want to doand I was paying the price: an inauthentic life. What had happened to the me I used to know?
How could I integrate my need for spirituality and love with my desire for material comforts and the good life? How could I stop keeping score the old way and start keeping score a new way? How could I build a truly successful, happy lifeone of significance? How could I spend my life in a community of people whom I loved and who loved me in return?
Is there anyone so wise as to learn by the experience of others?
This book is my response to those questions as told through the lives of a tribe of people I have met on my journey over the past decade. Like the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, we are all travelers in search of the trutha truth we would happily serve with our lives. They, too, have had their crises. They, too, have struggled with finding passion and purpose in their careers, with integrating their love for family and community with their work.
They are my heroes, my teachers. Their stories illustrate twelve important guidelines, organized under four questions, that will help you be the author of your own life story: Who are you? What do you want? What can you do? Where are you going?
The guidelines constitute a framework that many MBAs, managers, and executives I work with use to make a life while also making a livingguidelines for living a life of significance. After all, aren't we all the heroes of our own life stories?
Adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up 'cause they're trying to get ideas.
When I speak at leading business schools, I ask students two questions: What did you dream of being and doing before you felt compelled to get an MBA? And who are your heroes?
Less than 5 percent of these talented people in their late twenties know what they really want to do. Nor have the vast majority ever known in such a way as to make them feel they could make a living doing it.
By contrast, more than seven thousand MBA students have responded to my heroes question with exemplary names heavily weighted in favor of those who served humankind: Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Carter, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa. Moms and dads are mentioned often. So, too, are important personal teachers. Few businesspeople make the list. Most MBAs admire people for their hearts more than their headsthey admire people who do good. But why, if you greatly respect one way of life, would you feel compelled to pursue an entirely different course?
"We are shaped and fashioned by what we love," wrote the great German poet Goethe. So if we spend our lives doing what we don't love, we risk paying a heavy price: a disconnected soul that lacks a true home. And lives of work out of balance with who we want to become.
It isn't easy to give yourself permission to pursue your dreams, follow your heroes, and seek your inner truth. It isn't easy to work to express your true self rather than playing a role that isn't you and answering a calling that something or someone else has determined for you.
Mother Teresa said it best: "To work without love is slavery."
Work should be a vehicle for that heroism. The ancient Swedish term for business is na?rings liv, which literally means "nourishment for life." In the Chinese language, too, there are three-thousand-year-old symbols for business that translate into "life" or "live with meaning": work as an expression of life.
Each story is a portrait of someone trying to truly have it allby making a difference and being nourished by work. All want to fit a meaningful, financially successful career into their lives.
Each story was written to raise several questions. Each ends with a short prescription offering my personal lifelines. Read the stories alone or with family and friends. Read them most especially with your children. Read them out loud. Read them in any order you choose. Like the shortest distance between two points, the path to a better life is not always a straight line.
Until you make peace with who you are, you'll never be content with what you have.
I finally did leave Harvardnot an easy choice with so many great opportunities. Although my mother's crisis pushed me to leave, I actually had known earlier that this culture was not for me. My values didn't fit the system. But it took time and a blow to the heart to give me the strength to do something about it.
It's not always easy to articulate why you aren't jumping out of bed every morning to go to work. I know why in retrospect, but at the time the reality was too muddled, too confounding.
There I was with one of the best jobs at one of the world's greatest institutions. I had brilliant colleagues, unlimited resources, few bosses, a flexible work schedule, a challenging learning environment, and no financial concernsall in my hometown.
How could I not be happy?
The signposts were right in front of me, but I couldn't see them. I saw only what I wanted to see. I didn't want to hear what friends or family could readily have told me. I needed to seek my truth elsewhere.
So, in the summer of 1988, after spending nearly twenty years of my life in various capacities at one institution, my identity changed from Professor Mark S. Albion, Harvard Business School, to Mark Albion.
I was on my owna soloist.
There is an expression: "No amount of travel on the wrong road will get you to the right destination." At least now I had a chance to get on the right road.
Still, it would take ten years from my mother's cancer announcement before I could finally give myself permission to try to become someone I respected. It would take the personal satisfaction of my first speech from the heart before I could allow myself to try to become that person, a person known today simply as "Dr. Mark."
The eyes of my eyes are opened.
e. e. cummings
That decade can best be described as my "middlessence"a term invented by the life-stage researcher Gail Sheehy, author of the significant book Passages. It was a period of starting another age of life, one more attuned to seeking my truth.
The first step was to stop doing what was making me unhappy. Next, I had to find a way to act on my desire for change.
My first search, not surprisingly, was within the existing structures I knew so wellthe world of big business and strategy consulting.
But nothing really changed until I looked outside the traditional structures and inside myself. What did I want to do? Something that would make me happy? Yes. Something that would prove fulfilling? Yes, again. Once I allowed those thoughts to surface, I ran up against the usual fear and doubt: "Great idea, Mark, but how will you make a living?"
Soon after I left Harvard, I began to realize that chief executives who used to return my calls didn't anymore. The speech-making requests stopped, too.
I was forced to seek out a new group of people, a new type of executive. One asked me to do some strategic planning. I began the work, only to be told after two days that all the plans I had directed were "garbage." He said, "If we don't find a way, a strategy, to help our front-line service people find meaning in their jobs every day, none of this will happen."
I felt miserable. Still on automatic pilot, I didn't yet have the guts to do what that young executive so perceptively and courageously suggested: Develop a plan for meaning, for trust, for communityjust like what you should design for your own life.
I got invited into a group of socially conscious entrepreneurs, the Social Venture Network, and began to meet others who held values similar to mine. In my former life as a professor, these people had been invisible to meand I to them. Now they began to populate my world, giving me strength to grow and change. Today they are my community.
But as much as I enjoyed being a socially conscious entrepreneur in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that still wasn't it. Something was missing.
There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.
Zora Neale Hurston
In 1993 the Social Venture Network helped launch an organization for MBAs called Students for Responsible Business (SRB). My affection for SRB made me realize how much I missed teaching and writingbut this time I set out to focus on issues important to me. My mother's cancer had taught me at least that much.
I began to speak at business schools, enjoying the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to service of many of these young people.
In January 1996 I directed a national electronic survey of MBA candidates' values. My purpose was to demonstrate that these students cared about more than just money.
Our SRB representatives volunteered to enlist students to fill out the surveys at each of the top fifty business schools. I began writing an electronic newsletter to stay in touch with and motivate our reps. We finished with more than 2,300 completed surveys.
On June 5, 1996, I got the opportunity to thank those dedicated students for the incredible job they had done. I was slotted to give a fifteen-minute speech at a United Nations conference and in that speech would be able to thank the student reps by name.
I never expected that the speech would also start me on a new path.
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Perfectly placed in a city that spans two continents, the Istanbul conference gave me a rare chance to meet and mingle with representatives from around the world. Many were remarkable individuals.
Take Ghanian Nat Nuno-Amarteifio, the gifted, compassionate mayor of Accra's three million people. Or Sylvana Maric, a Bosnian engineer living with children deprived of the chance to attend school for the past four years in a household limited to three liters of potable water a day.
Then there was Cornelia McDonald, a great-granddaughter of African American slaves, who found purpose in touring the United States with her one-woman play to teach courage, strength, and self-esteem to those in need.
What struck me most was that we all wanted the same thingsthe same good life. We were all dreaming the same dream.
I thought about our kinship as I waited to give my prepared speech. Before doing so, however, I promised myself two things. First, I would not be nervous. During my two and a half hours on the dais (there were five speeches during our session), I would just sit back, have fun, and enjoy this opportunity. Second, I would speak in my own style, my own voice. Although I was forty-five years old, I had never done this before. Pretty sad commentary for one who had spent most of his life as an educator of some sort! But I had always gone by the bookjust not my book. I didn't have the courage or the confidence to be myself, whoever that was.
Five minutes before my turn arrived, I decided to throw away my prepared text, copies of which the translators had before them in several languages. Instead, I would speak from the heart. It was Dr. Mark's first appearance. It was at least the beginning, I feel, of being on the right road, to find my truth, my happiness.
I simply spoke about things I cared about. About my children and my own daughter's reaction to a homeless man in Boston: "What are we going to do about him, Daddy? How are we going to help? Why are there homeless people?" Surprisingly, when I spoke from the heart, other people seemed to hear me a little better. And for once, giving a speech was fun.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
After Istanbul, I felt energized. I didn't know where this would take meI still don'tbut I guess that's part of the mystery and the magic.
I continued my newsletter, as people told me that it provided a voice previously missing in their lives.
Readership and e-mails grew. I began to see an opportunity to write stories about some of the members of this business community as exemplars for young people. In August the first stories appeared.
The newsletter attracted some national attention; the press began to call me "Dr. Mark, spiritual guru of the MBAs." In 1997 readership expanded to eighty-seven countries, and in 1998 businesspeople of all ages and backgrounds began to subscribe. College friend Deb Imershein and I started a for-profit career management firm to complement it, You & Company (www.you-company.com).
Our aspirations are our possibilities.
A study of business school graduates tracked the careers of 1,500 people from 1960 to 1980. From the beginning, the graduates were grouped into two categories. Category A consisted of people who said they wanted to make money first so that they could do what they really wanted to do laterafter they had taken care of their financial concerns. Those in category B pursued their true interests first, sure that money eventually would follow. What percentage fell into each category?
Of the 1,500 graduates in the survey, the money-now category A's comprised 93 percent, or 1,245 people. Category B risk takers made up 17 percent, or 255 graduates.
After twenty years there were 101 millionaires in the group. One came from category A, 100 from category B.
The study's author, Srully Blotnick, concluded that "the overwhelming majority of people who have become wealthy have become so thanks to work they found profoundly absorbing. . . . Their 'luck' arose from the accidental dedication they had to an area they enjoyed."
No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.
Each of the twelve guidelines in this book has come from experiences on my journey through middlessence. The guidelines are illustrated by the life stories of some of the most successful businesspeople I know. These individuals have built careers that integrate their lives with their work. All enjoy financial security. Some are very rich.
They have done it in large measure through love. After all, isn't most of what we do in life a way of gaining a bit more love?
All of my heroes have refused to drift through false lives. Like many businesspeople, they conformed too long to cultures that stifled their inner values and left them untrue to selves they barely recognized.
But instead of giving in to self-pity, each in his or her way summoned the will to act, to seize opportunity, to take charge of their lives. Each staged a coup de vie, a masterstroke of self-liberation. What their stories confirm, of course, is the age-old truth that every person's life is his or hers to lose.
I am capable of what every other human is capable of.
Don't we all need to begin our journey by asking the question What do we truly value? As Deepak Chopra pointed out, "A life of purpose is the purpose of life."
Many of us do things backward. We blindly seek the jobs that will allow us to make the money and obtain the status that we think we need, and then we try to find out what is really important in our life.
Instead, you first need to express your own truth and serve it through your work. As Epictetus said nearly two thousand years ago, "Know first who you are. Then dress accordingly."
That takes reflection and action. It means throwing off the confining cloak of "should dos" and "have to dos" to find yourself by serving othersdoing the things you love to do and are good at doing, doing the kinds of things your heroes do.
Though the mind knows the direction, the heart knows the path to creative love and joyful purpose.
The point of this little book is simple: Life is too short to squander. So work only at what really matters. Make a living that ensures a life of giving and loving. Entitle yourself to your world's standing ovation.
Now turn the page and begin reading about Tom Reis, the first of the remarkable people who helped me change my life. His story may do the same for you.
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