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.