Finding My Bearings

Dear Will:

Let’s say you and your buddies start a company, and before long you’re generating pretty good revenue. You hire some people, schmooze it up at trade shows, maybe even have a suck-up salesman buy you lunch from time to time. Then after three years, let’s say some European hotshots buy your company (woohoo!), give you all raises and stock options and cool new titles . . . only to fire you all and most of your staff eight months later.

What would you do? As you wobble out of your office with a box full of personal items, how would you regain your equilibrium? Where would you go to find your bearings? Well, here’s where you might start:

On the Field

You watch him struggle to drag everything out in one trip, but it’s all there: soccer goal and ball; basketball; baseball bat, glove, ball, and home plate; football and tee; tennis racquet and ball; and, of course, pommel horse (not really). He picks up the mitt and you see him transported to Angel Stadium, and immediately you know the Yankees are in trouble again today. As always, he plays every position for every team while also doing the play-by-play. You watch as once again he throws the pitch, hits the ball, fields the grounder, runs to first, and tags himself out (somehow)—all while describing it for the fans. He is alternately Chone Figgins, Bartolo Colon, the prodigiously talented “Watkins Guerrero,” and his best friend Cameron. It is a formidable line-up to say the least.

When his team wins each game (as assuredly they do), you see him move into another season and assume the MVP position for each team. He nails three-pointers for the Lakers, scores touchdowns for UCLA, and pounds tennis balls off of the stucco (and sometimes the family room window). As you watch the Olympics that continue to unfold before you, you consider how poorly the word “play” describes what is taking pace. When at last he comes inside for a glass of milk, he declares the score of each game and recounts the amazing sequence of plays that led to each victory. So of course when he wonders if you would like to see an instant replay of the winning touchdown, you can’t resist. Fortunately, the announcer will be in the backyard with you to provide analysis as the play unfolds.

The athlete’s name is Seth.

At the Studio

There are 15, maybe 16, girls standing at the barre, each in matching leotards, hair pulled back tightly in a bun. They range in age from 11 to 15, with little difference in their apparent abilities. The teacher calls out instructions, sounding increasingly like he’s doing a dramatic reading of a French menu: “chassé, piqué, sauté, flambé, pommes frittes.” The girls respond in unison, and you think to yourself: “Clearly they’ve eaten here before.”

Even if you don’t speak the language, when you marry a dancer eventually you will find yourself staring ignorantly at a stage full of ballerinas. And in a sometimes futile quest to stay awake, you’ll begin to notice that certain dancers just stand out. You’ll discover that your eye returns again and again to the same one even though it’s a regular tutu-palooza up there. Later you’ll be informed that the one you noticed is even famous, but you’ll get points anyway for having stayed alert long enough to figure out which one was the star.

It works the same way even in a class of divas-in-training. You try to survey the entire room, but you can’t help yourself: your eyes want to watch the youngest one, the 60-pounder with freckles, the one with the flexibility of a contortionist and the grace of a swan. There’s something about the way she tilts her chin or moves her hands or points her foot. You may not be sure what it is, but whatever it is she’s got it. Lots of it.

The dancer’s name is Bryn.

At the Black Box Theatre

There are chairs enough for perhaps 100 people, but they didn’t all show up. Most who are here are high-schoolers with quirky personalities and equally quirky taste in clothing. Someone has made sure that there are eccentricities sufficient to go around, and it occurs to you that by wearing standard issue Levi’s you’re perhaps the only one who doesn’t fit in. At the front of the room is a solitary microphone, encircled by a single light from overhead. You think to yourself that there should be roasting coffee and a blissed-out bongo drummer as well. How can you have a poetry reading without a bongo drummer?

The evening is charged with hormones and nervousness and . . . something else. It’s not clear how you know it, but you can tell that this is a safe place where it’s OK to try something that may or may not work. The sense of acceptance makes the air lighter somehow. One by one the students come forward to read one of their recent compositions, to get briefly intimate with a few friends and a whole bunch of strangers. A few pieces are pretentious, several are incomprehensible, but most are thought-provoking and well-crafted. It occurs to you that you could never do this in a million years.

The tall kid with wire-frames strides forward. He’s wearing one of his signature hats—an olive green fedora—and mismatched socks. You glance quickly around the room because you know something the others in the audience do not: They’re about to be blown away.

The writer’s name is Luke.

In the Classroom

All the first-graders are crammed into one classroom: 60-some kids mooshed into the aisles and along the walls. The energy in the room is so intense that you anticipate an unscheduled brown-out in Pacoima. The mom at the front has worked the kids into a frenzy, with half of them shouting “Reader Leaders rule!” and the others responding with “Books are cool!” And the kids apparently believe it, because in just five weeks they’ve read almost 2,000 books.

Later that night, as you wander the neighborhood on Halloween, one of the neighbor kids grows so excited when he spots the Reader Leader Lady you begin looking around for paparazzi. His smile reveals both missing front teeth and genuine affection. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” he says, “if instead of candy each house gave out books?” Cool indeed.

The Reader Leader Lady’s name is Dana.

You never have to go very far to remind yourself that you have been blessed far beyond what you deserve. At this time of year, I am above all most grateful for the ones I love.

PW

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Stepping Away from the Curb

Dear Will:

As many of my friends know, about 3 ½ years ago a couple of buddies and I started a company called Thumbworks. In January, we sold our firm to a company in France. In the months that followed the acquisition, I hired several very capable people as we braced for a major expansion here in North America. It was all very exciting and promising. I may have mentioned it to you.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that my new bosses had decided to get rid of each of the very capable people I had hired along with all three of us who started Thumbworks in the first place. It was a stunning development considering the stated intention of our new bosses to grow our business here in the States. I couldn’t help wondering why they bothered to acquire us in the first place—or what, for that matter, they had ultimately acquired. I’m puzzled to this day.

But none of that changes the fact that as of Tuesday I will no longer be on the payroll of a company I watched grow from a blank piece of paper into a thriving firm with 20+ employees and product distribution in countries all over the world. I feel a little like the guy who just had his sandcastle kicked over by someone bigger—“just because.”

And so I am faced with a couple of important decisions. The first and most obvious is to figure out how to make a living and feed my family (still working on that, by the way). But assuming that works itself out—and I have every confidence that it will soon—I will be left with some memories of a great run destroyed. Had I gotten rich off of the acquisition, I’m sure that I could face the future philosophically; but since I have little more to show for my hard effort than the accumulated experiences of 3 ½ years, I admit that magnanimity is proving hard to muster. So as this chapter of my life comes to a close, the other decision I face is this: What will I choose to hold onto? The memories of the great run? Or the bitterness left by the destruction of what we worked so hard to build?

Eventually—and I’m not there yet—I hope to simply leave the disappointment behind me and get on with life. I know that harboring resentment or bitterness or regret can only canker my soul, so no possible good can come from obsessively replaying what happened or whining about what might have been. It will be better for me—not just in the long run, but in the short run as well—to simply move on. In fact, I have this image in my mind of bending down and placing “Thumbworks” on the curb and then walking away—never looking back or returning again to that spot. And when that phase of my life comes up in conversation, I’ll smile about all I learned instead of complaining about broken promises and dreams.

That’s my goal, anyway, and I’m working hard to get there. When I catch the bitter feelings starting to show, the Apostle Paul gives me this gentle reminder: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). As I consider that good counsel, I smile and take another, stronger step away from the curb.

Check in with me in a month and I’ll tell you how I am doing. Or better yet, check in with my wife. . . .

PW

Talking to People Like Me

Dear Will:

I’ve got some exciting news that nevertheless fills me with dread. About an hour ago (it’s 6:30 a.m. right now), a press release went out announcing that my company, Thumbworks, has been acquired by the French company In-Fusio. Now unless you pay close attention to the quirky world of wireless application development (games primarily), you’re not likely to read about the acquisition while you’re eating your Post Toasties, but for us it’s really big news.

Three of us started Thumbworks a little less than three years ago. We had little more than a line of credit and an extremely vague notion of what we were going to do to make money to feed our babies. It’s amazing to me that in such a short time we would have an enterprise that someone else would be willing to pay for. Kinda cool, huh?

The catch, of course, is that my job now gets really serious and complicated. In-Fusio has been extremely successful in Europe and China, but their efforts to penetrate the North American market have been, shall we say, underwhelming. That’s where Thumbworks comes in. In-Fusio hopes that we can become their North American operation and establish them as one of the major players in the United States. I’m already finding out that that translates into lots of meetings and travel for me, and lots of people looking on with anticipation, expecting that their problems here in the US are now solved. (Gulp.)

Next week I’ll be flying to the Bordeaux headquarters to meet a lot of people and begin the hard task of integrating our companies. It all sounds very exotic, of course, at least until you start to calculate the impact of a one week business trip. I’ll miss coaching Seth’s basketball team, miss Luke’s first week at a new school, and probably not get a whole lot of productive work done—meaning that when I get home, I’ll be even farther behind. That trip will be followed by at least four or five others over the next couple of months (thankfully not across the ocean), so I expect my family to feel some strain as I get my arms around my expanded responsibilities. I’m worried about how we will all handle the increased workload. I’m not, I think you know, the sort of guy who thinks a job is in any way more important than my family.

So we’ll take it slow and see how it goes. I must keep reminding myself to turn off the laptop and help Bryn with her homework, read a book to Seth, take Luke to the movies, rub my wife’s tired feet. I must make sure that when I’m home, I’m home, engaged in family activities so that the new job enhances our life rather than destroying it. That won’t be easy, I know, but it’s helpful to tell a friend about it now to help me remember as the piles of work continue to mount higher and higher.

I think it was David O. McKay who said: “No success can compensate for failure in the home.” My guess is that when he uttered those words he was talking to people like me.

PW