Life and work should be more than fun

Apr 10, 2000

I had a 56-year-old client say to me the other day that he just isn’t having any fun anymore. He wants to change his life, and he had decided to sell his firm so that he could pursue other interests. When I probed into what these other interests were, I found out that he really didn’t have any. None that were substantive and that he would find truly gratifying, that is. Sure, he is a weekend golfer. He likes to watch a good game on TV and enjoys going out to dinner with his wife and daughter. But the fact is, those activities are enjoyable because they provide a balance to his very busy work life. If that demanding, challenging, intellectually stimulating work life wasn’t there— if his days consisted of golf, eating out, and watching TV— it isn’t hard for me to imagine this guy being absolutely miserable. He is just too vital and too ambitious to be satisfied living a life of pure leisure. He would have to be involved with something productive. Yet he says he is tired of the day-to-day regimen that running a 45-person A/E firm requires. He’s done that for the past 20 years, and he wants to move on to a different chapter in his life. So what to do? Here’s my advice to the guy (and anyone else in his situation): Think about how much money you really need to live. A lot of people seriously underestimate what it takes to get by for two reasons. First, if you are used to not worrying about money then you probably aren’t counting pennies and clipping coupons, two things that may be necessary to get by on a reduced income. It’s not easy to go back! Second, people live longer today. A 56-year-old in decent shape can probably expect to live to 80 or even longer. That’s 24 years. Think about prices in 1966. I just found an old Spiegel catalog from that year when I was cleaning out some stuff in preparation for our move. A new bicycle cost $33. Bed sheets were about $2 a piece. The cost of living goes up! Develop sale options but also consider “buy” options. There’s probably never been a better time to sell your firm. Like many of our readers, I get something practically every day from The Geneva Company telling me so! But that said, it may also be a good time to consider growing your firm through an acquisition. There’s strength in numbers. It’s a good way to get needed talent. And some people, while they enjoy the work itself, just don’t like running a business. These are all good reasons to consider buying another firm. And many CEOs are energized by taking on the new challenges that come about through the acquisition process. Consider changing your role or going part-time. Why does it always have to be an all or nothing proposition, either working full-time or retiring altogether? Maybe 50 hours a week in one place is too much of a grind, but 25 or 30 hours wouldn’t be. That leaves 20 or 25 hours to do something else, something that may be more fun. Of course, along with that comes a pay cut. And it may be in the best interests of the firm if you sold some of your stock. But this option is not as severe as having no income coming in and no chance for more growth in your investment in the firm. Talk to your people to find out what they want you to do. They may want you to sell. They may want you to stay. Or they may want you to stay but not suck out more than you are contributing. I think it would be good to know this. It’s not easy to ascertain, but well worth it. Maybe you need some outside help? Sometimes bringing in an outside expert is what it takes to really find out what’s going on. You may be too close to the situation to go it alone. Find out if you could start another business on the side. Maybe this would be the way for you to have your cake and eat it, too. This new venture could be set up in such a way that it doesn’t require any time away from your “real” job. (Although in reality, the emotional and mental strain associated with the second business will probably cost your primary business to some extent.) There’s also the added benefit of learning lessons or meeting people that could eventually help make your A/E/P or environmental firm more successful. Check your company’s policy manual, however, before giving this idea too much thought. Go see a psychotherapist. Maybe your depression has nothing to do with work. It could be a chemical imbalance. Selling or quitting could be the worst thing for you. Getting some outside help is nothing to be ashamed of. It may keep you from making a big mistake. My point is that there’s a lot to think about. Retirement may not be all it’s cracked up to be. You don’t want to end up like one of those people we have all heard about who retires and then dies three days later from a heart attack. Originally published 4/10/00

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.