I am reading Bob Buford's latest book, Finishing Well: What People Who Really Live Do Differently, and I'm finding it a great follow-up to his earlier book, Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance.  I am attending one of his Halftime Institute seminars this month in Dallas.  As I read through the 60 interviews with people who have successfully navigated halftime, I found one exercise especially compelling.  It is a values exercise that illuminates the competing priorities of any successful professional in America today. 

Here are Buford’s instructions for this exercise.

Think about your life in four categories:

  1. Making and Spending Money
  2. Achievement (which may or may not be acknowledged by money)
  3. Relationships
  4. Spiritual Life

Be as honest as you can be with yourself and put the element that’s most central to your life in the center, then put the other three elements from next most important to least in the outer circle.

Buford goes on to say that the first time he did this exercise, while consumed in building his business, if he were honest (which he wasn’t) he would have put money and achievement as his central values.  He suggest you think not about what your priorities ought to be, but what your priorities are based on allocations of time and mental energy.  When we (men especially) are focused on making our mark in the world, our relationships and spiritual life get crowded out.

I know that in the midst of my 60-hour work weeks, I tried to maintain some balance, but the drain of leading a growing business can be all-consuming.  We build things to serve our needs, then we find ourselves serving that which we have created.

Buford interviews Dr. Armand Nicoli, editor of the Harvard Guide to Psychiatry, who teaches at Harvard, writes for academic journals and maintains a clinical practice. 

Early in the semester with his students, Nicoli asks them to articulate their life goals.  Invariably, their goal is to be successful.  Unpacking the answer always leads to the idea of fame and fortune. He then asks them if they had 20 days left to live, how would they spend the time? The universal answer was to spend time working on their relationships with family and friends, and if they have faith, their relationship with God.

In a subsequent lecture, he suggests that fame and fortune are in direct conflict with their highest stated priority of family and friends.  Chasing fame and fortune will leave them so focused that they neglect what they value most in life, their relationships.

As they reach midlife, Nicoli finds his patients with “disordered priorities. These people have spouses who are of secondary importance to them; they have children they’re not close to anymore ... and they’ve been so busy looking after their own interests that they’ve basically neglected God altogether.”   Because this happens gradually, they don’ realize what they have done to themselves. Retirement is not satisfying to these people, because without their position, which has defined their self-worth for decades, they are lost.  Buford relates that “the relentless search for wealth and influence actually interferes with happiness and joy.”

In my business career, I've met countless men who have fallen into this trap and can't seem to get out.  My father was consumed with building our business and had very little time for family or friends.  He died at age 75, still coming to the office every day.  I think the American corporate culture sets norms and expectations of focus and dedication that rarely allow one to reach the top echelon without becoming a workaholic.  Our largest supplier, Ingersoll-Rand, is a multi-billion-dollar global business.  Most who became senior-level executives had seen their marriages fail and had grown children who didn't know them.  They continued chasing the dream.

Nicoli goes on, “The people who feel best about themselves after retirement are those who get involved in some kind of work or activity where they can make a contribution to others. Sharing your wealth is important, but sharing your knowledge is every bit as important.  I’ve often said, ‘The fruit of my work grows on other people's trees.'” Finally, he explains, “Joy has more to do with being in alignment with your task or assignment from God, and being in a right relationship with him and your significant others, than with your sense of personal gratification or happiness.”

This gets to the essence of why I am writing my book and have created this blog.  I’ve spent 35 years learning management and leadership while trying to learn how to live as a Christ follower.  This blog is a channel to let me begin to share my knowledge and mentor others who are early in the journey.  I have had wonderful mentors who have accompanied me on my journey, and I seek to do the same.  This tool of Buford’s is a wonderful way to start thinking clearly about your priorities.  May you hear God’s still, small voice speaking to you as you reflect on this exercise.