Good Is Good: The Illusion of Success for Men
Thursday, April 21, 2011
There is this part of some guys’ brains that still believes, consciously or unconsciously, that to be a man we really need to be the man. We need to be Clint Eastwood, or Tom Brady, or Norman Mailer, or Steve Jobs—someone doing something of real consequence with our work, making a mark on the world.
I’ve had that problem all my life.
Making matters worse, it’s a solo mission. Top secret. If what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas, what goes on at work stays at work—“Honey, you will read about me in The Wall Street Journal, but I really don’t have time to explain to you exactly how I am going to become master of the universe.” Just look at Tiger Woods or Eliot Spitzer or any number of guys who compartmentalized their lives, enduring incredible professional pressure and succeeding, only to screw up in their private lives.
Like a lot of guys, I went through a re-evaluation of what is important, how I define success, and how I balance wanting to be at home and wanting to continue to hunt some big-ass game. Every guy I know with a family is struggling to sort these things out—some with minor discomfort and others with life-altering agony. For me, it’s been the latter.
My career didn’t get off to an auspicious start.
I got a job at a Manhattan consulting firm specializing in health care. It was 1987 and the fax had just become commonplace, as had Lotus 1-2-3. My job was to build spreadsheets that analyzed hospital clients’ insurance and diagnosis information. I cut and pasted the data into presentations made with a printer, colored paper, scissors, and tape (PowerPoint had not been invented yet).
I liked the intellectual challenge, but the idea that I was supposed to work through the night to complete my assignments infuriated me. I wanted to party. After a couple of months my boss told me I was plenty smart but not doing my job. He was nice about it, but I ignored him. Within five months I quit, packed up my broken-down yellow Mazda pick-up truck (held together by a bungee cord) and drove to Boston to crash in my brother’s attic.
A freelance gig at the Houghton Mifflin Company followed, but after three years doing nothing particularly challenging, I decided that it was time to get serious. A friend from college had gone to business school. That sounded like a good idea—or at least a way to have fun while looking like I was accomplishing something.
I went to Yale School of Management, became social chairman of the school (in other words, I was given a budget for buying kegs), worked at Goldman Sachs for my summer internship, and then found myself right back at Houghton Mifflin in 1991. Now I had a corporate finance job and a fiancée. Neither role thrilled me.
Looking back, this is the fork in the road where my story gets both interesting and tragic.
I had always been intensely competitive. I swam, ran marathons in high school, and rowed at an elite level in college. I considered myself a pretty easygoing guy in most situations, but if I got my back against the wall, I’d fight with you to the death. You didn’t want me to get angry.
Up until 1992, I never looked as work as a competition or as a part of my identity. It was a joke—simply a way to pay my rent and fill the time between parties. But sitting in my little office on the executive floor of Houghton Mifflin at One Beacon Street in Boston, I realized that it was time to stop screwing around and take matters into my own hands. At 27, I began to plot my future. I wanted to prove what kind of man I was.
I found an interesting job in Providence, Rhode Island, submitted a resume, and got a rejection letter from a headhunting firm. After a phone call and and unannounced in-person appeal, they relented and decided to let me interview for the job. I was determined to win over the Chief Financial Officer. For both of us, it was love at first sight, and they offered me the job.
Then, a funny thing happened. Some part of me knew, I think, that I was going down a dangerous path.
I got cold feet and called to reject the job offer that I had worked so hard to get. I was scared of what might happen to me if I took the fury that had propelled me to athletic success and applied it to my work life. Could I dare to stop screwing around and really try to prove my manhood in the real world? Ultimately, though, I couldn’t resist what I saw as a chance to play in the big time. I bit the bullet and called back to beg them for the job again. They agreed.
In many ways the next four and a half years (I started at the Providence Journal in September of 1992 and left February of 1997) were a blackout—only shadows of memory to me now, 15 years later. My alcoholism doesn’t help my recall. But it’s also the kind of all-out assault—single-minded and pure at one level, horribly painful on another—that causes the brain to protect itself by erasing the reality of what actually transpired.
This much I can tell you: I was hired into a corporate finance job. The first year or two I didn’t do all that much. Then we decided to sell our sizable cable business. It was a very complex transaction from a tax and ownership perspective (we held many of the cable assets with various partners all around the country). My mind grabbed onto all that complexity like a huge dog chomping a bone, protecting it with his life. I sensed my boss, the CFO, did not have the mental agility that I did, and I took advantage.
We sold the cable business for $1.4 billion, and I played a pivotal role. Angry with the other members of senior management for being excluded, my boss began negotiating his departure. By some sleight of hand, I made sure he still treated me as his long lost son. Sensing that he needed a new job before he left, I called upon the CEO of Houghton Mifflin—still a good friend despite my abandonment—and offered my boss as a peace offering. The match was made. My boss left the Journal to become the new CFO at Houghton Mifflin. Within weeks I was announced as the new chief financial officer of the Providence Journal Company.
I was 29.
From that point on, things accelerated. It was that moment at the top of a roller coaster when you feel the car tip across the threshold of gravity to that downhill rush of out-of-control energy.
The Providence Journal, in 1995, was the oldest continually operated newspaper in the country—175 years old at that time. It had always been fiercely private in ownership and control. Even family shareholders were given precious little financial information. I wanted to change that by convincing the board of directors to let me take the company public.
On June 25, 1996, I rang the bell on the New York Stock Exchange along with the rest of the management team of the Journal. Our market capitalization that day was one billion—and rising. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
By August, I was secretly meeting in Atlanta with the CFO of the Belo Corporation, owner of the Dallas Morning News. By early September, I was presenting that deal to a secret Journal board meeting held in Boston. Some 90 days after we had gone public, we announced the sale of the Journal for $2 billion. Employees who attended our announcement in person and by satellite from our television stations around the country (and Rhode Island citizens who watched it on the news that night) were shocked and dismayed. A public trust had been broken. And for what? By whom?
That Saturday, I drove my company car to a church parking lot in Barrington, Rhode Island, where my wife and I had built a house on a cul-de-sac six months before. The sun was out that day. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I had made it through every impossible negotiation session, as guys twice my age looked at me like some punk kid who should be getting them a cup of coffee. Yet I had succeeded in my professional plan beyond any reasonable expectation. I was 31 and had just been quoted in every major newspaper in the country as the wunderkind who had pulled off the impossible. But I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking and, despite the beautiful fall day, I had no idea what to do.
I had arrived but realized that I now had nowhere to go.
My cell phone rang. It was my mom. I tried to explain to her, through gasps of pain, how my soon-to-be ex-wife kicked me out of the house, telling me that not only was she going to take my money but wouldn’t let me see my 2-year-old daughter or 6-month-old son.
During that phone call I realized, for the first time, that manhood wasn’t defined by conquering the world. I had seen huge success, but it turned out to be a mirage. I realized, at that moment, that a man is a father, a son, a husband, and a worker. And I realized that I had no clue how to be good at any of them individually—and certainly had no idea how to be good at them simultaneously. That phone call, in a way, was the start of the Good Men Project, even though it would take me another decade to sit down (with my partner in the venture capital firm I went on to found, James Houghton) and come up with the actual idea.
When I speak about manhood now, people always ask me what it means to be a good man.
They want the CliffsNotes. I always tell them that it’s up to each man to decide for himself. There’s no one right answer, but I usually say that, for me, it involves loving my wife passionately, showing up for my three kids (now 17, 15, and 6), and trying to do something for someone other than myself. I also quote a friend who told me that, to him, being a good man is “being a man who finds a way to live a life of congruence, meaning that he is the same guy in public as he is in private, the same guy at work, with his kids, in his marriage, and in his friendships.”
For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.
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