What Really Matters in the Long Run

Posted by John Slater on January 4, 2016

The holidays tend to be a time for reflection, time spent with family and friends and time spent with ourselves contemplating the future.  This year has been no exception. Friday was our first Christmas with our new daughter-in-law and we all look forward to future holidays with grandchildren and the noise and excitement to come.  We have much to be thankful for.

This was also a holiday season that included three funerals.  Two were for adult children of long-time friends.  It’s impossible to imagine the pain they feel.  We share their grief.  Burying a child is not in the natural order of things and events like these remind us that we are not in control of the future.

The third funeral provided a different perspective, that of a life well lived.  We had the opportunity to celebrate the passing of an extraordinary entrepreneur, who made the most of the days he was given.  This was a man who lived each of his 91 years to the fullest.  He was a talented engineer, who, together with his wife of fifty years, also a highly talented engineer, created a vital technology still used around the world to bring light to places where it didn’t exist before.  He created a still thriving business and successfully transitioned its ownership to a new generation of management.  If the story stopped there, we would consider his life to be a great success.

But the story does not stop there.  This entrepreneurial couple also lost their son, their only child, who had been burdened with a challenging learning disability.  The pain of that loss would have been crippling for many of us.  Not for this remarkable couple.  Out of their personal tragedy they had the vision to build and support a remarkable school that equips dyslexic children and young adults with the skills required to read.  Until recently I was not truly aware of the burden of this congenital condition; when I was young, dyslexics were generally stigmatized as “slow learners” regardless of their intellectual abilities.  The community of dyslexics includes some pretty bright and talented people including Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson.  It might even be considered a useful skillset for entrepreneurs as the list includes Richard Branson, John Chambers, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab, Steven Spielberg and Ted Turner.

I’ve spent much of my life helping entrepreneurs grow businesses and exit them successfully.  This is certainly a crowd that has experienced bumps and bruises along the way and knows that their most important skill is often the ability to just get up, dust themselves off and keep on moving.  Too often though, in the heat of battle, it’s easy to forget that there’s more to a successful life than the accumulation of wealth and power.  Each of us has our own passions and there is no one model for success.  But as a business owner contemplates the future of their firm, it’s important to put it all in perspective.  What do I really want to be remembered for and will this decision enable me to further that goal?

The sale of our friend’s firm certainly did further his.  The company survives as a creative leader in its industry.  The founder was able to free significant capital that enabled him to both further his vision with the school he created and to enjoy life for a long time thereafter.  While he tragically lost his first wife after more than five decades of marriage, he remarried the widowed mother of a good friend of mine and they enjoyed many years together.  His new family adopted him as a full member of the clan, enriching both his life and theirs.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

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