Our twenty-year anniversary as a company is officially this Saturday, September 3rd. After tons of work, lots of help from our team, and trust from a host of great clients like those of you reading this, I must say this place and this life finally feels like home to me. At the same time, Bridget and I just dropped our third and last child off at college this week, so now is certainly a time of lots of reflection and I’d like to share some of this with you, such as where life as an entrepreneur all started.
Maybe it’s because I am just too much of a control freak to have any part of my destiny, especially financial destiny, dependent on large companies where I had too small a voice to ever feel comfortable. It could also just be the good fortune that I met my wife, Bridget, and her amazing immediate and extended family full stock full of descendants of German and Irish immigrants with a penchant for entrepreneurial endeavors. Bridget’s Dad, Don Schaefer, was of particular influence on me in the few fantastic years I knew him that occurred in the years of college and for a few years after where my self-transformation from angry poor kid with a driving chip on his shoulder and not knowing where to apply that drive to a laser focused young man trying to build a life for himself and eventually his wife and family. Bridget’s family with her parents (Don and Marilyn) at the helm was a literal business incubator before that was even a term, with all her brothers and sisters experimenting with new business launches. Don was busy on multiple fronts in the hearing industry, especially with newly patented implantable hearing device that gained FDA approval years after his death.
Shortly after we were married, Don and Marilyn were tragically killed in a car accident by a few teenagers that were driving too fast. It would be the first of a few deaths in the family that one almost never really recovers from, but what I saw next after each of these scenarios of loved ones taken too soon, was and is to this day beautiful to behold. I saw grit like no other with a determination to keep forging ahead. Yes, there were bad days and somedays still are, but this new family of mine just doggedly moved ahead while still being able to laugh and experience the best things from life, like love and care for each other. I think death has a way of doing that. You have two choices, whither up and give up, or see the fleeting nature of life and resolve to squeeze every last drop out of it. This family does the latter and while I don’t always appreciate it, I often find myself in quiet moments reflecting on the power of that response to life’s cruelest challenges. That ability to take on the pain and work with it to an ever richer, more meaningful life.
It does seem a bit like destiny that this family came to be mine. I somehow had developed that same determination early on. If someone said I couldn’t do something, I was going to prove them wrong. It’s one advantage of being brought up without much, you learn to work for it. I started work in grade school with a paper route and there was a family that lived in what looked to a kid to be a very scary house where some of the people were rumored to be in a motorcycle gang. No one approached that house, but when the newspaper put on program to reward us for getting more newspaper subscriptions, I now looked at that house as a fresh, ripe target since no one had likely ever even asked if they wanted a paper. So I nervously set down my bike and knocked on that door. After what seemed like an eternity, I heard foot-steps approaching the door getting louder and louder as they drew nearer. The door opened and sure enough, what looked like a motorcycle gang member opened the door looking quite surprised to see me there. I explained what I was doing there and was flatly rejected. After the door was closed though, I heard him laugh and exclaim to someone else in the house that it was some little kid trying to sell newspapers and he laughed and made some comment that amounted to what courage I must have had to come there…well that is not the exact quote, it was much more colorful language than that but I will leave that to your imagination. While I didn’t get the sale, that experience, and those crude words acknowledging my bold effort really struck a chord with me and stayed with me ever since. In the ten years I spent in the pharmaceutical industry, I always loved going after the toughest targets, the impossible. The run of the mill, easy stuff bored me instantly. So it seemed I became the perfect match for the entrepreneurial family I was later lucky enough to become a part of in meeting Bridget in college.
During a period when I found myself questioning my ability and place in life shortly before starting Identity Works, I was frequently looking back at Don as this perfect picture of manhood, entrepreneur, and father. I had really put him on a pedestal as the perfect reflection of what a man should be. Our first child Ben had just been born a few weeks earlier and for various reasons I went to bed that night full of anxiety about whether I had the goods to do what I really wanted to do in life; be a successful entrepreneur, a great dad, and husband, etc. I was really doubting myself. I finally fell asleep and sometime in the middle of the night I had what I guess I have to rationally call a dream but was more like an out of body spiritual experience that closely resembled what you read about when people have near death or after death experiences and are revived. It seemed more real than any reality of the normal daily experience. It was a heightened awareness beyond anything I had experienced and no, I was not taking any drugs!
Bridget’s Dad came to me and his already crisp blue eyes were even bluer and looked through me with such compassion, that my attention was completely focused like never before. As he talked and he explained things to me we essentially time traveled to different spots or times that he was talking about. The most amazing thing was what I later called “3D knowledge” where it was as if our brains were wired together and I not only had access to what he was telling me but also the experiences he had personally had in developing those perspectives.
In our last moments together we were in a horse barn saddling a horse together. Bridget grew up with horses and I had one of my own growing up. As we calmly worked with this horse, his final words to me in the crescendo of what he was showing me about his life was this, where he said, “Tommy, I wasn’t always how you knew me.” Then as he started to leave, he looked back with those bright blue, compassionate smiling eyes and said, “By the way, you have a beautiful son there in Benjamen.” Just as he finished those words, our baby began babbling happily at 2 or 3 in the morning and I shot up out of bed excitedly telling Bridget, “I was just with your Dad!” I proceeded to tell her the story as I paced around our bedroom in amazement of the experience and the message.
That experience has obviously stayed with me all my life and I have reflected on his words often throughout my days as a husband, dad, brother, friend, boss, searcher, and entrepreneur; especially when facing challenges. What he was telling me was that he too, had to learn through the school of hard knocks. He made mistakes, had to get back up and dust himself off. He became that amazing man that I instantly loved and looked up to, over years of successes, failures, and all the experiences that life can throw one’s way. He was also telling me to not put him on a pedestal, that life and your place in it is journey of learning and adjustments. He made plenty of mistake and dumb choices as have a I. The key is to learn, adjust, and keep growing.
We moved a lot when I was a kid and Bridget and I moved a lot for the first ten years of our marriage. We’ve learned a great deal both personally and in business. My father-in-law’s words continue to talk to me. It’s sage advice. Give yourself a break, be humble, and keep moving forward in life to try to become the best you can be with the gifts you have been given. When you do, you will feel at home almost anywhere. Thank you all from the bottom of hearts for being our friends, family, team members, clients, suppliers, and fellow life explorers.
I leave you with one of my favorite songs, from one of my favorite and most original bands ever, The Talking Heads, if you read the lyrics you’ll see some of the themes of my ramblings above reflected in this song. This song is pure joy to me: