My mother commented, or complimented me, recently on my ability to have crafted my own lifestyle, personally and professionally. What she was referring to is that I often times wear shorts and a t-shirt (even in the winter), working hours set by me, and earning a good living on my terms, from the comfort of my own home. I am surrounded by a wonderful family. I am fortunate, happy (really, I am), and have commanded a disgusting-to-many healthy work-life balance.
It wasn't always this way. Not by a longshot.
Her comment has had me thinking lately about when that tipping point in my life happened. Where exactly was this point, and what nudged me into taking control of what I want to do with myself, and how I want to do it? I can trace this tipping point back to a comment made to me by an 18 year-old goofy Croatian kid with a unibrow, some cajones for telling his boss exactly what he thinks, and wisdom far beyond his 18 nerdy years.
I often wonder about those fateful moments in life -- nudges, and split decisions, that can affect the rest of your life. Thinking in a "Sliding Doors" kind of way, "Bojan" from Croatia was a wise doorman who ushered me through one of mine.
When my dad helped me move to Vail in my early 20's, I really had no plan, and no idea of what I wanted to do. I simply knew that I needed to start getting serious about my life's path ... in whatever way that might eventually present itself.
My faded-green Subaru which was held together by duct-tape and a glove box full of pieces and parts that had fallen off my trusted wagon over the years -- was filled with my life's net worth, a cat, an ironing board, one button-up shirt, a newly earned college degree and my wonderful dad.
I had one mission -- moving to the mountains, and getting a cool job working with even cooler people doing something that might pass as being 'professional' -- but cool nonetheless. I had no real plan, no real contacts, and no real idea what I was doing. My dad probably thought I would be back in Arizona in a few weeks, but he obliged to help me move, surely thinking it was a relief to have me out of his house in Phoenix ... at least temporarily. In hindsight, it was one of the best times I have ever had with my dad up to that point, and his support, love and patience gave me the confidence and determination to pursue this crazy idea -- and it worked.
Having been offered a mid-mountain restaurant management job that paid peanuts, I was a 24-year-old in heaven. I drove a snowmobile to and from work, and often times saw the likes of Ross Perot (never a hair out of place, even in a blizzard), Al Gore, Diana, the late Princess of Wales (who would famously sneak in mid-morning to use our fancy bathrooms, followed by giving the paparazzi the slip by having a hotdog at the greasy snack shack at the top of the mountain) -- or any variety of movie stars or politicians walk through the door. I have never been really star-struck, but I knew this was pretty cool.
Six- to seven-day workweeks and sometimes 15-hour days didn't matter in the beginning. I felt like a big lizard in Jabba's palace.
It was awesome...until it sucked.
Many years later, with infinitely more responsibility, and making what I estimated to be about 8 bucks an hour if you took my salary and divided it by actual numbers of hours worked, I was about to fall flat on my face. I am almost 6'4", and towards the end of this crazy run, I weighed 165 pounds of pure, overworked skin and unhappy bones.
I saw managers above me who had families, but they almost never saw them. One boss of mine took great pride in the holes worn into the bottom of his shoes from working so much. Whenever I would complain, he would proudly take off his shoes for me to inspect the damage. No sympathy there.
I never wanted to be 'that guy' -- that much was clear to me.
A wonderful gift came to me during my last winter in Vail. Short-staffed, as always due to the transient, resort-town nature where I worked, and also due to the uncanny coincidence of my staff calling in sick when it was a powder day -- the hotel where I was working on my heart attack decided to import a group of awkward, teenage Croatian work-studies to help during the holiday season. They were dedicated, enthusiastic and, better yet, they didn't ski.
Immediately, Bojan took a liking to me, and it was reciprocal. The kid was always happy, and had this endearing and understanding euro-commercial-pitch-type deep accent that allowed him to get away with saying anything he wished -- and he did. I envied his joyfulness.
After his very first shift with me, as he was leaving the hotel, he turned around to me, and in a sort of an over-the-shoulder kind of way said to me with his deep, but reassuring accent "David, you know, my father always told me .... work hard, but don't work too hard. See you tomorrow."
In one shift, the kid had figured me out.
What he said was not mindblowingly innovative or Earth-moving on the surface. It was how he said it, the timing of when he said it, and the confident, "I already know this at 18, what the hell are you doing" manner in which it was delivered. It was at that exact point that I committed to making a change in my life. My tipping point.
I quit my job soon thereafter and left the ritzy wannabe workaholic lifestyle of Vail behind me. Again, I had no real plan, no real contacts, and no real idea what I was doing. I just knew I had to find balance and happiness. What was said in my gross, glorified supply-closet office at the hotel as we ushered in that snowy, depressing New Year gave me the confidence to pursue it with purposeful intent and dogged determination.
This personal Manifest Destiny to achieve happiness and balance certainly may come off as being selfish and self-centered, but to me, it's anything but. I now have more of myself to give to those who matter to me than I ever have in my life. I can freely take time to volunteer at my son's school, go for a long run, or spend quality 'fat-pants-and-wine' time watching a movie with my wonderful wife.
"Work Hard ... but not too hard." I may cross that line occasionally nowadays, but thanks to a Croatian teenager's golden nugget of well-timed advice, I now know that such a line exists, and which side of it I am on.
Bojan, wherever you are -- thank you.