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By Bob Buford
ZondervanCopyright © 2004 Bob Buford
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Chapter OneLet's Do Lunch
Visualize this. You and I are having lunch at your favorite place. It's comfortable, a good place for going to talk. You've come to a point in your life where you're asking, What now? What's next? You feel a new season in the air. I've invited a wise friend who seems to have some answers to the questions you've been asking, someone who seems to be ahead of us in this season I call Life II.
Certainly, all of the hundred-plus interviews I did for this book weren't over lunch, but it's a good way to think of the conversations you will find in these pages. Organic, personal, each one unique. We're in the company of wise and caring friends talking about things that matter. I followed whatever paths our conversations led us down, and I listened to what was said.
Lesson one: Just listen.
Today I've invited Tom Luce because he's a friend, a wise counselor, and someone whose own life models many of the lessons we seek to learn. Many of the themes we'll explore in this book are present in this one particular interview, so it's a good place to start.
Lunch with a Wise Friend
Tom Luce had just wrapped up a long session working on public education issues when we spoke. He had been in a conference room full of people who were helping an eighty-five-year-old client from West Texas decide how to deploy his resources. Tom's a superachiever, passionate about public education, and knee-deep in a program to help fix it.
Tom's faith and the biblically oriented class he's attended faithfully for more than thirty years are at the center of his motivation to give his life to public service. But the choice hasn't always been easy: Tom also has medical conditions that cause him to live with continual pain and prevent him from getting a good night's sleep. But he refuses to let such things impede his work.
As we sat down, I asked Tom to tell me what parts of his life's work had given him the most satisfaction.
"When I started the law firm," he said, "my goal was to build an institution that would outlast me. From the very beginning, my goal was to build something strong enough to survive my departure, and doing that allowed me to be free, because I knew I could step down without regrets when the time came. I could leave because I'd know I'd accomplished my goals, and others would take it from there.
"The other thing that I feel good about," he said, "is the wonderful friendships I've developed over the years. God gave me the ability to be a good counselor, to put myself in the clients' shoes, and that has led to many rewarding relationships." Friendships are important to Tom. He and I have known each other for fifteen years.
"Tom, I know how much these friendships mean to you," I said, "but obviously you also have a passion for a variety of projects. For example, you were the key guy in implementing billion-dollar-plus mergers, bringing a Magna Carta to this country, and building a nationally recognized law firm."
"Yes," he said, "all of that was very satisfying to me, and being able to step out of my normal role in situations like that has made practicing law even more of a pleasure. But the real reason I'm drawn to institution building, Bob, is that I never really had a burning desire to be a lawyer. My first interest was always business, and I never really intended to practice law. If I hadn't gone into law, more than likely I would have been an entrepreneur, a builder of businesses. That's where my gifts are, but as it turned out, I took those skills and applied them to other things."
"Most of us have different seasons in life," I said. "Our passions change. Was there a point at which you felt the law firm was becoming more institutional than entrepreneurial?"
"It was entrepreneurial for a number of years," he said. "We worked very hard at establishing our practice and acquiring clients, but I never wanted to be a managing partner, even though I was for many years. I felt that job demanded different skills, and I was more of an entrepreneur, not an institution runner. I wanted to use my entrepreneurial gifts, so turning the job of managing partner over to someone else was an easy step for me."
"Was there a halftime period?" I asked. "Did you come to a point when you felt you'd been there and done that? Or did you decide there was still more to do?"
"I think it was a little of both," he said. "I reached halftime in '88 or '89, when I decided to run for governor. I'd built a law firm and achieved some success, and I felt that the political arena might be the best way to make the move to significance."
"Running for governor turned out to be a firebreak for you, didn't it?" I asked.
"Yes, it did," he said, "and it was very difficult for me to go back to practicing law after I lost. It wasn't what I felt I was supposed to do in the next stage of my life. I was searching for what to do next, but obviously the door I thought was open had been closed."
"So, with a little perspective on all that, how do you feel about the experience now?"
"I'm really glad I ran for governor," he said. "If I hadn't taken the risk I think I would have always wondered if it was something I should have pursued. It was disappointing to lose, but I'm still glad I did it. The hard part was that I didn't just lose the race; I also lost a lot of my financial security. I'd spent so much on the governor's race that it took years to restore my assets.
"I eventually went on the board of Dell, Inc.," Tom continued, "which helped me rebuild my financial base and allowed me to focus again on public education. That led me to Just for the Kids. But basically I had to go back to ground zero before I could move on to what I was meant to do next."
"But at some point you got involved in Ross Perot's presidential campaign," I responded. "When was that?"
"That was the spring of '92," he said, "and I felt I owed a debt to Ross for his early confidence in me that launched my career as a lawyer and helped me build my law firm. I discharged that obligation but was still wondering, Wait a minute, Lord! What did I misunderstand? I was seriously in need of some answers."
The Past as Prologue
It's often surprising how unexpected changes of direction can lead us back to the things we're supposed to discover. In Tom's case, he realized that what had given him his start in life—education—was really where he wanted to focus his service. He was the son of a single mother who worked as a salesclerk in a small shop in an upscale community. They lived in a modest apartment, but because they were in the Highland Park school district, Tom had the opportunity to go to some of the finest schools in the country.
Good schooling made Tom's upward mobility possible, and he never forgot that. "I first got involved in education reform," he told me, "because Ross Perot asked me to. Ross was our biggest client, and he volunteered me for a couple of projects, so that's why I did it. Once I got involved, I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for the education I'd received. But in the background was this sense of righteous anger because I'd had such a good education, and here were kids who were being crippled for life by the very schools that should be helping them succeed.
"The fact that my mother sacrificed her own interests for my sake," he explained, "enabled me to do all the things I've done. But suddenly I was seeing kids who weren't getting any help at all, and that really made me angry.
"You've often talked about finding your passion, Bob, and what got me out of being stuck in halftime, and over the hump of being involved in making a difference for others, was stepping out and hiring someone to come in and help me solve the problems. It was a critical first step, and it turned out to be the step that helped me move beyond my halftime experience. Something about committing to another person forces you to make a serious decision to do something."
"And that was when you hired Brad?" I asked.
"That's right," he said. "I first met Brad Duggan in 1983. He'd been president of the Texas Elementary School Principal Association. Only two education organizations out of about eighty had backed the 1983 education reform bill, and Brad's group was one of them. I knew he was dedicated to reform, and I had a vision to form an organization to help make changes. That was the basis of Just for the Kids. I asked Brad if he'd join me and help build the organization, and fortunately he said yes.
"I remember the conversation well. Brad said he'd love to do it, but he wanted to know if I was serious or just dabbling. So he said, 'Tom, I'd be making a big jump to come with you. How long will you be committed to this?' So I told him I was in it for three to five years at least. And if it worked out as we hoped, I was in for the long run. It was a critical decision for both of us. I'd committed for a certain number of years, and that was the big step in making Just for the Kids happen.
"Since that time," Tom continued, "Just for the Kids has found a unique specialization—collecting data on school performance all over the country. Statistics are collected on every phase of the education process, segmented by social and economic factors. From that analysis it's possible to identify the best schools by grade and subject with every type of student population, and then determine how they achieved superior results. Most importantly, we then make those 'best practices' available to educators and parents on the Internet.
"When parents see the performance of their kids' schools, they're better equipped to judge how well the schools are doing and what kind of education their kids are getting. In fact, the No Child Left Behind program implemented by the Bush administration mandates that performance data be collected on every school in the country.
"Administrators may say, 'If you had the kids I have, coming from single-parent homes, who move around a lot or are on the free-lunch program, your kids wouldn't perform well either.' But Just for the Kids gives parents the facts, showing how other schools with the same problems are performing. It gives them objective standards, so principals, administrators, and parents can see what's really happening. And principals who are trying to make excuses for their shoddy performance can be held accountable."
Getting outside Yourself
"Tom, you've created an incredible program," I said, "but how did you go from your law practice to creating an institute for education reform?"
"My first concept was to follow the model of the nonprofit organization you founded, Leadership Network," he said. "You've used Peter Drucker's expression to 'go to the islands of health and strength' to convene them, let them talk to each other and learn from each other. I knew twenty or thirty talented school principals, so I convened them. The problem was that I wanted to change 6,500 schools in the state of Texas. I didn't have the personal knowledge to go that far, so one thing led to another. We learned how to measure success, how to replicate it, and how to create a best-practices scenario. The essence of what we're about today is measuring success, figuring out how those schools do it, and then convincing others to do the same."
"From 1994 until today," I said, "Just for the Kids has had some amazing results."
"You could say that," Tom said. "We're now in sixteen states and just got a grant that will help us go to all fifty. We've trained 7,000 principals and teachers in Texas, and we're beginning to see the payback in terms of quality and classroom results. So I couldn't be happier."
"You're in your early sixties now," I said. "What does the future hold? Imagine that we're meeting here twelve years from now, and let's assume you've finished well, and life has worked out just as you'd hoped. What would all this look like to you then?"
"I'd like to know that I've helped a million kids achieve their God-given potential," he said. "I think that's what public education is all about, helping children maximize their God-given talents. Everyone has a bundle of gifts, and the schools can help each child maximize his or her talents. They can't do it alone; our children are vulnerable to so many influences, many of them not good. But schools can help kids choose the right ones and act on them. I'd like to know I've helped a lot of kids."
"I like the sound of that," I said. "But what will you need to do in the intervening years for that to happen?"
"Well, I will need to take Just for the Kids to all fifty states," he said, "and teach 'best practices' to 100,000 principals and teachers. They're the ones who will change the lives of the kids."
"How many kids are you talking about?" I asked.
"About sixty-five million," he said. "You remember the old line about the bank robber Willie Sutton? Somebody asked him why he robbed banks, and he said, 'Because that's where the money is.' Well, we go into the public schools because that's where the most kids are, and we want to impact those kids with habits and knowledge that will change their lives. The ones who have the hardest time maximizing their human potential are those in public schools. I want those kids to have an education as good as the one I had."
"What effect do you think that will have on the broader culture?" I asked.
"Outside of the faith component, a good education does more than anything to help people maximize their human potential. Christ can do it better than the public schools, but the public schools can do so much more than they're doing now, and that's my passion."
"Earlier you said you were looking for whatever it is that you were called to do. Is this it?" I asked.
"My desire was to know I'd performed a public service, which I think I was called to do. Time will tell how much value these things will have, but I believe this is what I'm supposed to be doing. To the best of my judgment, I'm doing God's will."
"How do you know God's will?" I asked.
"I don't know for sure," he said, "but I pray a lot, and I try to do what I believe is right. The hard thing is to pray for God's will to be done in your life, that you'll know it when it comes, and that you'll be strong enough to go out and follow it."
"You've had some health problems that caused you to think about the long term and finishing well," I said. "Do you think most people finish well?"
"As a lawyer, I've had occasion to counsel a lot of people, in all stages of their life," he said. "Based on my experience, I don't think many of them finish well unless they've found some new mountains to climb. I think that's what determines if a person is truly successful in life. It's important to feel as if you're making a difference, and I think it's probably pretty good medicine as well."
What Tom found was something my friend and best-selling author Jim Collins calls a BHAG—"Big Hairy Audacious Goal"—a goal that demanded commitment of time and resources and would remain challenging for years to come. And it was a challenge that required Tom to look outside the box for answers and whose impact would be felt for years after his lifetime.
"I think an important part of finishing well," he told me, "is curiosity, wanting to learn more. Curiosity is very important, because it involves thinking outside yourself."
Chapter TwoIs There Something More?
The greatest case of mistaken identity in modern society relates to the four marks of public success: money, power, fame, and status. Success should never be confused with wealth or power. Rather, success should be linked to excellence and fulfillment.... I have no problem with money, power, fame, or status—as long as they're treated as resources, rather than as goals in themselves. But that's precisely the problem for most people—and why? It's so hard for people to answer the question "How much is enough?" If acquiring money or fame is your goal, how do you know when you have enough? Everyone I know who has a little wants more. But everyone I know who has a lot also wants more. — Tom Morris
Excerpted from Finishing Well by Bob Buford Copyright © 2004 by Bob Buford. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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