Redefining Success

We were in our attorney’s office signing the final documents to sell our company, poised to realize the largest payday of our lives. I was a 36-year-old with two partners who were only 10 years my senior. We had built a very successful company in just six years and were cashing in. My lifelong dream to be the “rich uncle” of the family was manifesting right before my eyes and I had never been so miserable in my life.

My lifelong dream was manifesting right before my eyes and I had never been so miserable in my life.

From the time I left school, I was a young man in a hurry. I was in a hurry to succeed in business, in a hurry to gain status, and in a hurry to make millions of dollars. I spent my 20s chasing the American dream but never quite catching it. I worked in entertainment, in retail, in wholesale art, on Wall Street, and consulted to turnaround failing businesses. It was the perfect job training for a wannabe entrepreneur.

Growing up in a middle-class Jewish home in suburban Los Angeles, we went to temple religiously, where I was bar mitzvahed and confirmed. We spent every Sunday afternoon with my grandparents and were diehard Dodger fans. I had an uncle who was an accomplished attorney and who was treated better than anyone else in the family, although no one would ever admit it. That’s how, when, and why I decided I also wanted to become the rich uncle, and so began to pursue the finer things in life.

Entering my 30s, I was approached to join a fledgling professional service business providing off-site personnel services to doctors and small businesses. At the time, there were only a few other businesses around the country offering the same services. We didn’t know it, but we were creating a brand-new industry. It was a perfect combination of being at the right place at the right time, and I loved it!

I was leading the classic entrepreneur’s journey, filling needs that I didn’t even know I had. I was vice president of sales and marketing and in for the ride of my life. In a few short years, my partners and I built a $160-million-dollar business serving over 600 worksites and 10,000 employees. I bought our first house with a down payment from a year-end-partner bonus, and soon thereafter came the family vacations, custom suits, and a convertible BMW. I was becoming the rich uncle—I could feel it!

We had success, status, and a business worth a pile of money. Other companies doing the same kind of business were profiting, too, and people—important people—were taking notice. We were exploring the possibility of going public when we were approached by two industry leaders interested in an acquisition. Eventually, we sold to the largest staffing company in the world, where I became the youngest vice president and corporate officer in company history. I was receiving stupid money, stock, and options. So, why was I miserable?

I was receiving stupid money, stock, and options. So, why was I miserable?

I had achieved my goal but felt completely empty. I tried redefining my goals, but my heart wasn’t in it, and even though I could have almost anything I wanted, nothing seemed to satisfy me. I should have read Ecclesiastes more carefully!

To add to my discontent, I found that I didn’t like working for a large organization. I was bored and wanted out, but I had a three-year-employment agreement that my attorney said I had to stay for at least two and a half years. So, I stayed until I could resign early—exactly two and a half years after signing my contract.

When I took that early resignation, I did not anticipate the loss of status I experienced. It was humbling to learn that my status was borrowed from my position in the corporation, and when I left, my status left too. 

I decided to take six months off. But after spending just a few weeks at my spacious, white-fenced ranch, I became restless. I had been away and working so much that I barely knew my family—my wife had created a nice life for them in my absence, and it didn’t include me. I didn’t like the corner I painted myself into and decided I needed an office outside the family home. 

Looking back, I know now I was running on empty. I had zero motivation. No faith. No plans. I was depressed but didn’t know it because I was so out of touch with my feelings. In fact, I was running from something and toward something, but I didn’t know what. I was numb, I was bored, and I was clueless.  

I went to see an office about a mile from my house that was within a large publisher of multimedia learning products. I was familiar with the industry, having written and marketed a course as part of my MBA-capstone project that included a printed workshop guidebook and cassette tapes. Well, instead of renting the office space, I bought the business. I thought it would give me a new direction.

There are lessons in life that repeat with different situations and different people until we learn. Unfortunately, I had another round to play.

There are lessons in life that repeat with different situations and different people until we learn.

I thought stepping into a president publisher role would reinstate my professional status. It did not. But I pretended it did, and I turned my focus to restructuring the business into a multimedia content provider. Profitable product was repurposed, redirected, and sold through self-managing partnerships. We outsourced all non-critical business functions for maximum return on investment and were looking to move all the audio-learning resources onto the internet. Then it happened.

I discovered that the majority of the products I bought actually belonged to someone else. The person who sold me the company hid this information during the sale, and I signed a personal guarantee for the balance of the purchase price. The only way to break the contract was to prove the previous owner had a criminal intent to defraud. The life I created was unwinding. 

Want to know how to make a small fortune? Start with a large one, get into a lawsuit followed by an extended, expensive divorce. My desire to regain my former shine backfired big time. I lost my golden boy status, my fortune, and my family. I won the lawsuit, but the business wasn’t sustainable anymore. So I walked away. I went back to work and started a small marketing consulting business. I moved into a small apartment where I would see my children one weeknight and every other weekend for years.

During this very difficult season, my life changed dramatically. Hubris became humility. My heart softened. I knew the world I created for myself was a disaster, and I needed someone to save me. At my lowest point, a friend introduced me to God. He loved me unconditionally with all my flaws, He saw me as highly valuable even when I lost my fortune, and He gave me a new status: a Jewish follower of Jesus. I knew no other Jewish people who believed like me at the time, but I was a changed man with a changed perspective, and I was very excited to meet others on the same path. 

My immediate family and Jewish business network did not take kindly to my new path. I was marginalized, some of my business friends would not return my calls, and I was even prohibited from talking to my grandmother. My seat at our next Seder went from the heir apparent at the head of the table to the one closest to the door. There was a price, but the peace I now had was worth it. Eventually, after I was welcomed back, my mother told me, “I like you better now.”

My mother told me, “I like you better now.”

The divorce had nearly bankrupted me, but I wanted to pay it all back and restore my good credit. I went to a credit counselor who put me on a payback plan that took years to complete. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I know it sounds weird, but it helped shape me into who I am today—someone I never would have become otherwise.

In time, I had a new direction and fresh ambition, except this time, it was focused on the welfare of others rather than simply my own. My priorities were redefined, and I was ready for real relationships again. I felt like Jesus was restoring all areas of my life, giving me a new sense of what it looks like to “be successful.” He guided me back to who He had always created me to be.

If I could advise my younger self, I would include a list like this: 

  • Take time to learn who you are truly created to be. 
  • Be kind to yourself and others. 
  • Be unreasonably generous with your time, talents, and money. 
  • Show and express love, respect, and gratitude frequently.
  • Be discerning about who you associate with. 
  • Place high value on developing a few lifelong friendships. 
  • Life is short—don’t put off what’s important.

It’s been 20 years, and my life transformation is nothing short of a miracle. I married the amazing woman who introduced me to Jesus, and together we have five children and eight grandchildren. I’ve made amends with my first wife and our children, and we’ve grown in healthy communication over time. I feel incredibly blessed and rich in a whole new way.

When my priorities shifted to God, family, friends, health, and purpose-filled work, my world changed. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait until your world falls apart like mine did to redefine success—in fact, I hope you learn the lesson I did faster and easier than I. Start by pointing your toes in the direction you want to go and looking at the God who provides the path.