All I wanted professionally was to be the CEO of a company.
Until I didn’t.
Like a lot of young men, I grew up emulating my father. My father’s career was otherworldly to me.
The first time I realized how important he was to his company was when I was in fifth grade. He and my mother approached my older brother and me one day and told us that we were moving because my father had received another promotion. He had been running the largest distribution center that the company had and they wanted him to be in charge of an entire region. Where we moved was our choice. The choice was between the Midwest and California. To two young boys, it wasn’t a hard choice. So, off to California we went.
That move came with a lot of perks. The company made every third house payment for us, due to the cost of living difference, and gave my father a corporate car in the form of a Thunderbird. My parents regularly went on all-expense paid trips.
Within less than a year the company decided to promote my father again. This promotion would make him the #2 guy at one of the largest fast-food distribution chains in the US. He spent the next two years commuting by plane between California and Florida so that my brother could finish high school at the same school. In 1988 we joined him in Florida.
That lasted all of eight months.
Having been caught up in office politics and at the wrong end of things, my father was unceremoniously let go from his high-flying corporate job. The same job that had wrecked his health due to all the stress involved. What followed was a series of consulting gigs that eventually led him to his own consulting firm, which managed some $75M in business, and other business acquisitions.
When I started my professional career, all I wanted was to be like my father. Around 2013 I reached what I thought was the pinnacle of my career. I passed the six-figure income mark and was awarded my first C-level title. I was even told, by the CEO and the Board, that I had a real chance of being CEO one day.
I walked away from that in 2016.
I left that opportunity behind for a role that better suited the type of work I wanted to do. When I made the decision to change roles, and therefore companies, it was because I wanted to focus more on designing my life and making my work fit into that mold, rather than the other way around.
The modern term for this is “quiet ambition.” Don’t confuse it with quiet quitting. While quiet quitting is when people do the minimum necessary to keep their job, quiet ambition is focused on work that matters to the person. It’s focused on work that is fulfilling, not simply work that fills one’s pockets.
Ali Abdaal, one of my favorite YouTubers and productivity experts, recently published an article along the lines of quiet ambition, although he didn’t call it that. He called it the Feel Good Business Model, i.e. a lifestyle business. In his mind, there are three business models - 1) a corporate job; 2) a high-growth startup; 3) a lifestyle business.
I’ve personally experienced all three of those models. You just read about my corporate career. I’ve also been the founder, three times, of startups. One was high-growth and the others were…not.
Nearly eight years after I walked away from the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a CEO, I find myself in the quiet ambition camp once again. Somewhere along the way over the last eight years, I’ve allowed my career to shift away from doing the type of work I love. The allure of climbing the corporate ladder won out.
However, in the last year, I’ve noticed that I am returning to a mode of quiet ambition.
Having climbed the corporate ladder and experienced the grind of entrepreneurship, I learned that it's never enough. All of the accolades and benefits, i.e. more money, have only been short-lived rewards. Eventually, I ended up unhappy.
How could that be!? After all, I always wanted to be like my father as a professional.
Just last week I sat on the porch with my mother and talked about my father’s career with her. That week I had finally accomplished a lifelong goal. I had finally surpassed my father’s largest annual income…and I felt empty.
It turns out that through all the corporate promotions he was never happy. Not once. Why did he do it? For his family.
According to my mother, the happiest he ever was as a professional was when he was selling eggs for a local entrepreneur who owned a medium-sized food distribution plant.
I used to visit him often up at their farm. They were paying him less than $60,000 per year, yet I never saw him smile so much.
How is that possible? He had gone from virtually the top of the professional mountain to selling eggs. Yet, to him, he was living the dream.
I never asked him why he eventually moved on from that role. According to my mother, the business eventually went up for sale and my father didn’t want to work for the new owners.
Over the next decades, he built up his consulting business and acquired another business. His days of quiet ambition were behind him.
I suspect it's because he felt the need to provide more for our family and to leave behind an inheritance, which he did.
I can respect that because I feel the drive to do the same for my family.
In fact, if you look at my father’s career tract and mine, they are almost identical. Our careers seemed to have peaked at the same time and we both went through a period, in our mid-40s, of quiet ambition.
If I followed his path, that would mean that it's time I step up to the plate and try to hit another home run.
But, that is where our professional stories diverge.
My father worked until the day he passed away. In the end, he pulled off a magnificent string of events that left my mother not wealthy but not wanting for much either.
Still, I wonder if he was happy or if he did that out of duty.
Was he happy or would he rather have been selling eggs?
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