A Letter from Author Jeff DeGraff Rebalancing Your Portfolio Life
Have you ever fantasized about your great escape? You know, getting away from the stressful job, the daily grind, the loveless marriage? What if you made a break for it and actually got all the way to the land of plenty only to find that it wasn’t what you really wanted? That’s exactly what I did (more than once) before I learned that the same mindset that drives a person to try to have it all eventually stops them from having what they really want.
I made my first great escape at twenty nine. I was exhausted. I had been running full-out for a decade. A marginal student from a blue collar neighborhood in Michigan, I made my way through three degrees in six years working as a Teamster. I got married at twenty three and put my wife through college, as well as the tornado that was my life. At twenty five, I turned my back on a professorship at a top university to go to work as an executive at a regional pizza company. Four years and three billion dollars later (for the company, not me alas), it was time to leave Domino’s Pizza, and my marriage, though not our daughter, who had arrived a year earlier. A single daddy, I retired at twenty nine in search of simplicity, solitude and solace. I found them all, but found them all wanting.
My daughter and I moved into a small but fairytale house. We sang songs, read rhyming books and went on magical adventures. Sure the meals were mediocre, the laundry a failed chemistry experiment and our personal appearance merely adequate, but we managed. During these four years I read every self-help book ever written, played my guitars incessantly and even learned to meditate. My social life was a patchwork of yoga instructors, performance artists and earth mothers. I smelled like patchouli and sandalwood. This was a life I wanted?
Time with my daughter aside, my soothing daily routines began to bore and annoy me. How much mindfulness and navel gazing could I really stand? How could I have fooled myself into believing that I could go from doing deals around the world to doing tea around the corner without getting altitude sickness? It wasn’t that I failed at making my dreams come true; rather it was that I succeeded only to find that they weren’t my real dreams at all.
It’s not just me. My guess is that it’s you too. You might be flirting with an old entrepreneurial idea and are considering chucking your present career to chase that long-held dream. Or maybe you’re a recently retired doctor boomerang back into a medical practice because fishing and golf just aren’t enough for you. Or maybe it’s your twenty five year old kid who is trying to reinvent herself after her hitch with the Peace Corps and is now back in school getting her MBA. We all seem to be chasing something we haven’t got or moving the bar once we get “there.” In my case, I’d gone from brashly pursuing goals to quietly searching for harmony, like a windshield wiper. And then, quite by coincidence, the next stage of my life began when I was able to make a shift in my perspective. Going over my portfolio of investments with a financial advisor, he metaphorically referred to them as though they were parts of my life. And just like that, I started to see new possibilities: High risk, high reward investments in startup biotech firms made me think about a new business I had long considered starting. Blue chips stocks with consistent returns suggested to me that I too needed to commit to daily discipline in areas of my life like exercise. Giving money to my alma mater reminded me how much I missed being part of a teaching community. The detailed research required to manage treasuries and bonds brought to mind the need to stay current by reading journals in my field of expertise.
We talked about how my investments were a work in progress just like me. Over time what I needed would change as my daughter grew up and went to college. In essence, I started to look at my investments as a series of cycles that closely resemble the seasons of my life. I began to see that maybe I could have it all, but just not all at once. More importantly, I came to see that having it all would require me to constantly balance my portfolio life instead of moving wholesale from one extreme to the other.
But achieving some semblance of balance is not a matter of slavishly recalibrating every detail of my life. I’ve come to see that paying attention to my need for what I call the “Four C’s” is the key: to Create, to Compete, to Collaborate, and to Control. When I am nurturing these areas of interest, I am nurturing the portfolio that is my life
. My work with corporations and individuals today (I eventually did come out of that early retirement!) proves to me that these four categories are universal.
In my own life, paying attention to my need and desire to Create means that I keep a notebook for my creative ideas and that I maintain my lifelong interest in spirituality; I try to visit holy places of all religions when I am traveling.
In terms of nourishing my hunger for Competition, I try to keep a daily appointment with myself to work out (I also aim to meditate every day). My Competitive side also stokes my financial well-being; I actively manage my investments.
Paying attention to my instinct to Collaborate, I try to honor my need to feel and be capable: I want to keep learning and growing so I occasionally enroll in a continuing education course. I also recognize that staying connected to family, friends, and my community keeps my collaborative capabilities sharp and in focus. Last year I went on a camping trip with my family which is perhaps the greatest test of one’s ability to collaborate!
My need to maintain some Control over my life has led me to institute small rituals in my life: I keep a cash jar for family emergencies and as a way to satisfy my desire for productivity, I also occasionally volunteer for projects that will enhance me professionally, even if they don’t pay.
Like any high-performance portfolio, taking the long view requires that what I do and the changes I might make must reflect what I believe I really want at any given time. This means that I may pursue very different types of outcomes in various areas of my life. For example, I may seek to CREATE by traveling to Bhutan, one of the few places I’ve never been to, while also seeking to CONTROL by moving some of my investments out of the volatile market and into a savings account. Over time, you will recognize a rhythm to these patterns in your life; compartmentalizing demands and desires into the Four C’s may actually free you up to pursue the wildest of options!
I sometime feel like I’m Forrest Gump. But being in the right place at the right time is a matter of both luck and readiness. My story goes on but this time with a diversified portfolio. Six years after my daughter and I struck out on our own, I married again and my wife and I have two children together. I became a professor and built a successful business. I even found time to write a few books. We are now a portfolio family. Some weeks it’s about the kids: Karate, violin, catechism and the like. Some weeks it’s about the career: Travel to clients, lectures, academic papers and so on. Every Sunday my wife and I talk about our portfolio life. We shift things around, create hybrid solutions and connect a lot of dots. With a little luck, most of the time our portfolio is reasonably balanced and for that we are grateful.
Imagine if your dreams came true the day you graduated from high school: The bright lights of Broadway, a fast car, married to the beautiful homecoming queen, or whatever. Would you still be happy today? While some are, many of us have outgrown our early dreams and have new ones to pull us forward. So while you’re planning for your way to the future, why not leave a little room for the things you don’t now? Diversify your portfolio life to hedge against unforeseen challenges and give yourself the freedom to pursue emerging opportunities. That way you can have it all…when you really want to have it.
Advance praise for Innovation You
“A useful guide to thinking about career changes, entrepreneurial leaps, or general self-improvement, DeGraff’s newest work is a must-read
for those contemplating change and wanting to make more creative decision.”—Publishers Weekly
“Whether you’re looking to stay competitive professionally, make a career change, or just be inspired to greater personal creativity, this is the book to light the proverbial fire underneath you. It is a pragmatic, step-by-step framework for unlocking the unique capacity for growth in each of us.”—Tom Glocer, CEO, Thomson-Reuters Group, PLC
“This is not just another book on innovation. Jeff DeGraff takes a lifetime of learning and teaching and turns it into a conversation about what it takes to change, grow, and create. And he does it with honesty and wit. You’ll discover ‘we grow when our life sucks’ and other DeGraffisms that put into perspective the hard work and motivation that goes into innovating at work and in life.”—Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer, GE
“DeGraff translates the innovation strategies and practices used in top-shelf firms into an easy-to-follow road map for making our own lives new and improved. This book will show you how to really make innovation happen.”—Vijay Govindarajan, professor, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth