Live Messy Lives

I want to begin by sharing with you three stories from my life that you will not read in my bio or see on my CV.

The first begins at the age of 17, when I attended the Bronx High School of Science in New York City.  I was attending one of the finest schools in New York, if not America, surrounded by bright, motivated people, and presented with ample opportunities to learn and to grow.  In my third year, I dropped out.

In life, people often see failure in a romantic way when a person has overcome it.  Look at the many successful entrepreneurs who proudly share and derive lessons from their past business failures.  Similarly, when I tell people about my having dropped out, they ask me whether I perhaps volunteered to help others, travelled the world, or focused on my passions in sport and music. “No,” I tell them. I just wandered around New York City, thinking and trying to make sense of complex family and personal issues I faced as a teenager. Nothing romantic about it.  But I went on to graduate Bronx Science, attend Rice University, and later receive my Masters and Doctoral degrees from Oxford University, where I was a Marshall Scholar – all proudly listed on my CV.

After graduating Oxford, I embarked on an exciting career in international banking with Citigroup. I advanced rapidly, and in five years had reached and even surpassed many of my goals and expectations. I believed that professional life was a steady climb to the top, the faster the better. But then I changed my life, rather dramatically, for family reasons, moving from my home in Geneva to the United States. I learned the hard way about corporate politics, and wound up leaving Citigroup and being “between jobs” –  something I never imagined was possible.

I quickly found what seemed a fabulous opportunity running a New York City based asset management firm with a 30-year history and billions under management. But that opportunity disappeared just as quickly when the firm was undermined by fraud on the part of its main owner. I take great pride in having played a major role in saving the company, but was not able to save my own job in the process.

I tell these stories as valuable educational experiences along some determined path to success, and they certainly were.  At the time, however, they were anything but.  They were traumatic, soul searching, messy episodes that did not conform at all to my vision of success and accomplishment.

The final story I want to share is personal, and by far the most difficult.  I am the proud father of three amazing daughters, ages 17, 19, and 22, who are all moving forward and striving on their own journeys.  I am very involved and feel vital in their lives, as they certainly are in mine.  We are close, and we are happy. But there was a time, almost a decade ago, when I was cut off from them for three years, during which time I could not see them, communicate with them, or even know how they were doing.  I could not tell them how much I loved them and missed them, no matter how often or hard I tried. This horrible silence was the result of what I came to learn was called “parental alienation,” which is when one parent alienates their children from the other parent.  I did not see it coming. Not at all.  It tested my resolve, and cut to the core of my being.  Through love and determination, my daughters and I were reunited.  We survived this and came to prosper together. We are lucky beyond measure, and I feel deeply for the many families that are not so fortunate.

 

Our Non-Linear, Messy Lives

Each of these stories clearly is highly meaningful to me in my life. But that is not why I describe them here.  I do so because they illustrate how life, despite our achievements, professional and personal, is inherently messy.  And while the messiness of my life has made me the person I am, it is largely hidden from view in terms of my public profile.

Life is not neat, and it is certainly not linear. Some of you reading this may be studying economics, as I did, and for that you certainly have my sympathy(!)  Joking aside, though, in econometrics we map data points, and through regression analysis create trends to make sense of the many dots we see.  We do this in our lives as well through the narratives we create in our public profiles, through bios, CVs, and social media.  Long marches of achievements and paths of success fill the narratives of our lives as we try to smooth out the dots in our lives.

But no matter the smoothing we do, in the end, life is not the lines but the dots. Never forget that.  In his classic text on the history of science, Thomas Kuhn argued that science is not some steady march of progress, with ongoing advances on the path to greater truth and knowledge. Quite the contrary. Science progresses through revolutions that turn established thinking on its head and lead to what he calls changing paradigms.  This process is not linear and it is very messy.

So, too, are our lives, as they evolve through good and bad times, and ups and downs.  Another brilliant observer of science, Stephen J. Gould, pointed out that theories may explain facts, but facts occur continuously, whether they fit a given theory or not: “Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome.”  The messiness in our lives, seen through the many dots scattered across them, also does not fit neatly into any framework or narrative, as much as we may try to force it. 

In addition, we often do not understand the dots in our lives while they are occurring.  Steve Jobs keenly observed, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” While Jobs’ astute observation offers an important perspective on the challenges we all face in planning our future, I would argue that the dots in our lives do not connect so neatly looking backwards either, and we should not force them to do so.

 

Our Messy Lives and Our Neat Public Profiles

So much of our life journey is focused on creating our public profile in terms of our brand or reputation. We use our public profile to present the world with a compelling case to hire us, invite us, seek us out, quote us, reward us, respect and admire us.  To this end, the CV becomes a central document in our lives.  Especially for millennials, creating and launching their careers, I am acutely aware of the importance placed on CVs to open doors and put one’s best face forward.  To create excellent CVs, people of all ages follow tried and tested principles: show ongoing progress and increasing responsibility; show continuity and no gaps between jobs; and highlight the achievements of each role, even by presenting setbacks in positive terms.  Don’t say half of your employees quit, but rather that you amazingly managed to retain half of the workforce. There are countless other ways this technique is used.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it hides the person, and also hides the key moments in the person’s life when they were faced with challenges, choices, and, yes, failures and other traumatic events. This is akin to photo-shopping one’s life to blot out problems, brighten areas of darkness, and delete photos that fall outside the positive narrative.  For this reason, I have refrained from looking at so many CVs over the years as a hiring manager.  For me, the CV is often irrelevant because I want to understand what the CV does not say rather than what it does.

CVs also become tools we use to convince ourselves of our own narratives.  We are much more than the list of achievements presented in our CV.  The danger is that if we do not accept the messy episodes and transitions in our lives we can never learn from them and grow.  The seminal work of William Bridges is essential reading for people wanting to understand how to interpret and manage life’s messy transitions.  He describes what he calls “grey zones” in our lives, or periods where we depart one phase of life but are yet to enter the next.  We do not enjoy grey zones, but they are essential for us to advance and succeed through the transitions we face.  And these grey zones are usually precisely the episodes that we go to great lengths to keep off our CVs!

Finally, and importantly, we must not look at other people’s neat public profiles and compare them to our messy private realities, lest we convince ourselves that others are more successful than we are. It is easy to fall into this trap, and it can create insecurities and lead us to unhealthy places.

 

Five Personal Thoughts on Living Messy, Happy Lives

I want to share with you some thoughts on how I have learned to live with and learn from the messiness in my life.  While I hope these thoughts resonate with you, I am sure you will have and develop your own ideas and approaches.  First, accept and embrace the messiness of life.  Don’t try to cover it up or smooth it out. It makes you who you are.  Second, embrace risk and build resilience.  Take chances and try things out. If they do not work out you will learn from them and build your resilience.  When considering taking a risk, I find it helpful to ask myself, “what is the worst that can happen if this does not work out?”  The answer is almost always less severe than I think.  Moreover, life is like working out in the gym, the messy episodes in our life initially cause some aches and pains but over time they strengthen us.

Third, nurture curiosity and creativity.  Lifetime learning is a great gift to ourselves, and we must ask questions, read, and discover new things.  Creating something new, be it a story, a piece of art, or a song is exhilarating.  Fourth, recognize that people matter. A lot.  In tough times, especially, people have been there for me, and made all the difference. Mentors and others can play important roles in our lives.   There is a wise saying that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. People that challenge us, motivate us, and care about us make us grow and prosper.

Fifth, feel gratitude. This idea has become widely advocated, and it is something I have appreciated increasingly over time through reflection.  An important component of gratitude for me is understanding and managing one’s ego.  This involves setting the right measures of success and not focusing on the wrong things.  When we compare our private, messy lives to others’ public, “successful” ones, our ego often plays a central role in focusing us on the wrong things.  Measuring wealth is a classic case of where people get distracted. Remember, your net worth does not equal your self worth, no matter how much or little money you have.

 

 A Final Word and a Request

I applaud Fypster, and commend all of you millennials who are seeking and striving to make your lives full, enjoyable and meaningful. Your generation has a lot to consider and process, and also a lot to contribute.  Each of you has to think about yourselves and your unique and special paths in life. It is not easy! Apart from my reflections and suggestions above, I offer you a cliché: the journey means as much as or more than the destination. Enjoy all of it!

My request regards how to share this concept of messy lives with people, especially young people, so they can benefit from it. As I consider different ways to do so, I have purchased the url LiveMessyLives.com and am thinking of how best to use it. I would welcome and deeply appreciate your feedback and creative ideas on how the site and a corresponding community could be created and developed and, naturally, to invite you to be a part of it if you so choose.

 

Thank you.

 

Gregg Robins

Gregg
I am a very proud father of three amazing daughters – millennials. I also advise wealthy individuals and families and am a specialist on Russia. I am a singer-songwriter – www.greggrobins.com – and love creating new songs and generally developing ideas. Teaching is a passion of mine, and I have been a professor in select business schools and lectured around the world. I firmly believe in living passionate, messy lives!

How to start a business with no experience

This is a very bad idea, starting a business in a field where I have no experience. I’ve thought about it, over and over and each time the need to do it gets stronger. This is how I felt before launching my business. Just AK is an eco-friendly, ethical, street-wear fashion label, predominately specialising in menswear. I am a female scientist, with no fashion training and no formal business training. It got to the point where the feeling was so strong I had no choice but to do it, but how was it going to work?  Below are the key steps that I followed to launching a successfully growing business. But, before you continue reading ask yourself if the business you intend to launch is what you really want. For now don’t worry about whether it’s worthwhile, if you have enough money, or if it’s a good idea. It’s important to understand that the following points will only help and work for you, if you truly believe that this is what you want. Once you have that belief you can achieve any goal.

Step 1 – Ask for help

There is absolutely no shame in asking for help. Your biggest resource are the people around you. So, tell them your proposal or at least part of it. There will be those who will give you ideas on how to begin and as always there will be those who will have something negative to say. Use that negativity to drive you forward as it’ll either contain the truth which will be an obstacle you will have to overcome or it’ll be a diversion where can prove them wrong in the end. Over ten years ago I mentioned to a family member that I wanted to start a fashion business. The negativity I received put me off completely, but here I am today with a growing fashion business. Unless the person you are speaking to has been in exactly the same position as you, they have no idea of what can or cannot work. Seeking help not only gives you an initial direction but you will also gain feedback on your business idea. Which in turn can help it grow. In passing I spoke with a friend about how I wanted to start a business and she told me about a company that guides those who are under thirty into entrepreneurship. My friend herself had never been with the company but rather her sister had used them. See how these things work…

Step 2 – Research, research and research some more

I can’t stress enough the value of research. This is how you can gain experience and better understand the field you are going into. Coming from a scientist background I had no idea of what was happening in the fashion world or the market. I had no idea if my product was viable or sustainable. The only way to find out is to research. Some key questions to research and answer would be, what’s the current state of the market? who is my target market? what’s already available and how am I different? who are my competitors? how much money do I need to start? This list is not exhaustive and the research never stops, even after launching, but it does become quicker. Apart from everyone’s favourite, Google, a good place to start is the City Business Library. Here you can gain access to all kinds of business information including market research, financial data and business contacts.

Step 3 – Educate yourself

Yes, it’s true, I have no formal education in either fashion or business. However, I do not recommend going into any business venture totally blind. Researching the field and developing your business idea will inevitably throw up some questions. To answer some of these questions requires expert knowledge, which like me, you may not have. It was at this point I decided to attend a short course on fashion design and read a well known book on how to start a business in fashion. I’m going to say this in bold because it’s important but I’m only going to say it once…There is no need for you to get a degree in your desired field or in business. Educating yourself simply means gaining some understanding of the processes, terminology and available resources. You decide how, what, when and which method is best for you. Once armed with this knowledge you should be able to communicate effectively with others in your desired field.

Step 4 – Networking

And that brings us nicely to the final step, networking. By now I had identified my market, confirmed my business idea and had an understanding of the field I was getting into. I felt confident to discuss my idea and obstacles with others who may be in a similar position. Now, that being said, I did it this way but networking can take place at any point. Networking can easily be part of steps 1- 3 you decide. Once again, you chose how, what and where is best for you. There are so many options and I started with meetup. It took a while before I found one suitable for my needs but eventually I got there. The business library also held lots of social events that I found very useful. When it comes to networking, do not be afraid to put yourself out there. It sounds cliche and cheesy, but it’s true that you never know who you may meet and how you can help each other.

Aliya
I’m a mixed bag of treats!
After studying clinical physiology I become a professional Clinical Scientist at a large teaching hospital. Although I enjoyed my job and I progressed since starting I came to realise that this was not my only passion. That’s when I decided to start an eco-friendly fashion label, Just AK. Without any formal training in fashion design or business management I was terrified. Starting in 2014, I sought help where I needed it along the way and finally launched in May 2016. Climbing mountains, facing obstacles and jumping hurdles have been a challenge but the progression and success I have had thus far as surpassed expectations making it all worth the while.
If you have a passion or idea but you’re unsure of how to begin, remember why you want to do it and then DO IT. Get out there, talk to people and start. The rest will take care of itself.
Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to hear more about my journey and how I get over those hurdles!