Sunday, March 5, 2017

Chapter 6 - David and Me

End of August 2010, a week before the new school year

"Do you remember that next week you’re responsible for David?", my spouse Yael asked me, "You take him to nursery school, spend some time with him and be available to pick him up early”. Surprised, I said nothing. “How embarrassing”, I thought to myself, “I forgot all about it”.

David, our two year old son, was about to go to nursery for the first time. For Yael, my spouse and a teacher, the back-to-school season is her most intense period of the year. So taking David to nursery school was on me. Several weeks ago Yael advised I should work half days, leave the mornings empty and spend some time with David in the mornings. Also, I should be available to pick him up early in case he has difficulties adapting to the change.

One week to go, my calendar was packed, it always is. If I have a free moment, I immediately fill it with something productive, never leaving space for idle time. What shall I do? I can’t just drop him off and run, and there's no way I can waive this off. “I'll manage”, I thought to myself, “I’ll postpone a few meetings, start at 10:00, and compensate for the missed hours by staying late at work”.
On opening day the nursery bustled with toddlers and parents. I found a clear spot, a few toys, and played with David to acclimatize. Occasionally I checked the dials on the wall clock, calculating when I should leave to reach the office on time. “Need to hurry”, I thought.

Being together and playing was great fun, but it didn’t seem to prepare David to our soon to come parting. Time flew by and I became uptight, I had to go. I signaled to the nursery owner and she quickly came into play. A warm, loving woman and experienced in such circumstances, she collected David in her arms and motioned for me to go. It was comforting to know David was in good hands. But David instantly understood what was happening and burst into bitter tears. It was heartbreaking. I felt awful, my whole body convulsed. I felt I had no choice but to cut away. I hurried to the car.

On the street I paused for a moment to listen to the sounds from the nursery. David's crying was heartbreaking, I felt my eyes welling and my stomach twisting with guilt. "That’s life" I excused myself, "He’ll have to learn to deal with it’s hardships. It’s his learning experience."

A little bird in my heart doubt my reasoning, and a little doubt can go a long way...

Three years later ... end of August 2013

Three years have passed since the summer of 2010. Three years of awakening, of observation, of questioning. Three fascinating years of transformation.
David was now five years old and ready for kindergarten.
I was now self-employed and owned my time.
I devoted the week to David. I planned it so any other tasks could be carried out in accordance to his acclimatization. No pressing commitments, no fires to fight, no drama.

On opening day the kindergarten bustled with children and parents. It was a new community and everyone was strange to us. David and I played and adapted to the space. In another room the teachers arranged the little chairs in a large circle, preparing for the morning session. I prepared David that soon the parents will be asked to leave.
At the appointed time the teacher asked us to leave. The parents parted and left silently as the children entered the other room and joined the circle. The glass door between the spaces was closed and the morning session began. Some parents stayed a few moments to watch through the glass before going about their business. I stood watching in amazement. The children were all seated and listening to the teacher attentively. There was no weeping, no wailing. All except David.
He clinged to my legs, grasping them tightly, his eyes watering and demanding we go home. I tried to comfort David, to reassert his difficulties, to be empathic - all in vain. The minutes went by and we were at a standstill.

I tried to make eye contact with the teacher or one of her helpers beyond the glass door. They were fully engaged in the session, overlooking David’s absence. No help - this time it was just between  David and me.

My thoughts ran: How is it that all the children adapt so easily, except for my son? What does it reflect about me as his father? About his upbringing?
I was determined that David enter the kindergarten and acclimatize like everyone else. David wanted to go home. We were in conflict.

My recent years’ experiences taught me to always forge relationships before results. In this case, my relationship with David. To put relationships before results meant to pause and set aside my desire that David enter the kindergarten. Instead I should consider the lifelong relationship I want to have with my son and question:
If I impose my intentions on David, what sort of a relationship am I forging?
Does it correlate with the father I want to be? What father do I want to be?

As David stood his ground and wept, I took a deep breath and remembered the father I want to be; Loving, attentive, compassionate, yet able to set clear boundaries. I want to be an empowering father, to lead by example and to have mutual respect. How would such a father respond to this situation?  
My thoughts drifted to my first day in second grade at a public school in Philadelphia. Our family relocated to the USA for three years due to my father’s studies. I’ll never forget that first day at school. A new country, new language, new culture, new school, new people. Everything was foreign. It was stunning and incomprehensible. I have a vivid memory of being dragged to class down a school corridor by a strange adult. I’m on the ground screaming and crying helplessly, refusing to cooperate. I remember the people standing along the corridor, looking down at the crybaby being pulled at their feet. It was humiliating. I was alone, no mother, no father. Apparently it happened after they left.

I was at a loss, I didn’t know what to do. I felt stuck in a deadlock. I told David I’m going outside for some fresh air, he can do whatever he wants.

I sat on the floor, leaning against the wall. David followed me out and sat near me. We were side-by-side, almost at eye level, as equals. It occurred to me to share my memory with David, and as I did, he listened attentively. His focus shifted from his own problems to my story and he calmed down. I told him how difficult it was for me and how I finally got used to the new environment and made new friends. David showed interest, we developed a conversation and he concluded,"Dad, I think it is harder in Israel".

Then David came up with a proposal. "Dad, I'll go to kindergarten, you wait for me outside and we’ll go home at the first break." I agreed to wait outside and that we would reassess the situation during the first break. My offer was accepted, we had an agreement. David stood up and walked confidently into the kindergarten. I watched excitedly from behind, following his small footsteps and adoring the cute nape of his neck. He did not turn to look back and entered with determination.
I was elated, proud of David, the hero who conquered his fears and entered the kindergarten of his own will. I was proud of myself, for I have found patience, attentiveness and sensitivity. I was proud of my journey and thankful for its fruits.

To be continued...

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Chapter 5 - A Sense of Urgency

Life is short, youth is finite. With every breath we take, we come closer to our inevitable end.  Thus, time is our most precious resource. We cannot control time, yet we control how we spend it. Most of us invest a great deal of time in building our life, earning a living, acquiring assets and securing a future. We invest time making money, but money cannot buy back the time invested in it. Our children will never be children again, our parents will not be around forever, and who knows when our time will come. Time does not wait for us to wake up and appreciate it. It rushes by. For the most part of my life, this was not my way of thinking.
As a young man death and aging did not bother me. With plenty of years ahead, old age was too far to be noticed. My interpretation of ‘living the moment’ was to make the most of the cards that life dealt me, to be productive and do whatever was necessary to succeed. I was busy, one thing followed another. I had no reason to stop and ponder over life.
Then, at 32 I felt a twitch in my left eye and noticed my eyesight became blurred in the evenings.  I assumed it was related to my working late hours in inadequate office conditions. After a few days without improvement, I scheduled an appointment with the local eye doctor. The ophthalmologist looked through my pupil and thought my optical nerve seemed swollen. He concluded that I may have a brain tumor and that I should go straight to hospital. Needless to say, it came as a great shock.
I spent the next two weeks hospitalized in the neurological department, going through every imaginable test, some invasive and risky such as lumbar puncture. The doctors speculated but could not find a diagnosis. Only when my parents intervened and asked for a friend’s second opinion it became clear - I was farsighted. Natural aging simply exposed a common condition I was born with. I just needed glasses.
It was a daunting lesson about the imperfections of the medical system, but more important, I began to recognize that age was catching up with me. A few years later, cholesterol popped up. Gradually strands of grey hairs became apparent, and I noticed wrinkles subtly accumulating around my eyes and forehead. Here I was, gazing at the aging man in the mirror, wondering how fast the years flew by. Still feeling young and wishing I could be forever young, but no longer able to deny my time was ticking away.
So, by the time I entered my 40s, my perception of life has matured. It was no longer infinite, and perhaps no longer taken for granted. Time became precious and I began to pay attention to how I spent it. I looked at my relationships,  my free time, my well-being and quality of life as a whole. Was I living the life I wanted? If everything was possible, would I still choose to live this way?

Many of the people who transformed their life, attribute the trigger to some compelling event such as evading a fatal accident, overcoming a deadly disease, or losing a loved one. Such events change one's perception of life and add a sense of urgency – to consider what is really important and to pursue it. Do I need to experience a compelling event to get going? Why not learn from others?
I would like to share with you the story of Alice Lok Cahana, which had a profound influence on my journey:

"Alice Cahana, an artist living in Huston, has a painful and vivid memory of her journey to Auschwitz as a fifteen-year-old girl. On the way, she became separated from her parents and found herself in charge of her little eight-year-old brother. When the boxcar arrived, she looked down and saw that the boy was missing a shoe. “Why are you so stupid!” she shouted at him, the way older sisters are inclined to do. “Can’t you keep track of your things?” This was nothing out of the ordinary except those were the last words that passed between them, for they were herded into different cars and she never saw him again.

Nearly half a century later, Alice Cahana is still living by a distinction that was conceived in that maelstrom. She vowed not to say anything that could not stand as the last thing she ever said."

Source: "The Art of Possibility", by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. (New York: Penguin Books, 2000, page 174)

Alice’s story inspired me to question, “If I knew today was the last day of my life, would I still live it the way I do?” Answer was clearly NO. “And if I knew I had a few more years to go, would it change my answer?” I reflected upon my relationships with family, friends and colleagues and asked myself, “Was I content with my current relationships? If a relationship was to terminate abruptly, would I be content with what I left behind?”  

How well did I know my son, and how close were we? How much time was I spending with Yael (my spouse)? How well do we know and care for each other? How does my son experience me as a father? How does Yael experience me as a partner? Am I present? And what about my parents, brothers and sister?

Clearly my focus was elsewhere. I was preoccupied with my work, spending most of the day at the office. I firefighted my way through the week, and the weeks flew by. Any attempt to slow down and take a breath was in contradiction to the belief that executives should be fully committed to the firm and that success required sacrifice. Life was measured by efficiency, utilization and profits. I was aware and discouraged by it, but I kept going, perhaps on the premise that it will change for the better in the future.

Before I was CEO I may have hoped that as CEO I would be able to change things. I believed I would be in control of my time, set my priorities and enjoy financial security. But here I was, CEO, and none of the fantasies materialized. I was working harder than ever, and I could easily be fired by whim of a boss. I did not own the business, I did not call the shots, yet it completely dominated my life.

My fears of change, as grave as they were, were secondary to my fear of carrying on like this for years to come. I was burning my most precious resource - time. Looking forward and assuming I might work until 67 meant I had another 25 years to go. So, potentially, I had more career years ahead of me than behind me. I could start all over again! I had a window of opportunity to take a shot at a new life, but that window would not stay open for long.

When I’m old and facing the final curtain I want to look back with satisfaction, like Frank Sinatra singing, “I did it my way”. I do not want to look back with regret, knowing I had the opportunity to make a difference, but was too afraid to take it. Transformation became a matter of urgency.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Chapter 4 - Independence

I was about to leave behind 15 years of career with the firm. I did not know where I would go or what I would do. But I was determined to be self-employed. To be my own boss, to set my own targets, and go at my own pace. A frightened, pessimistic voice inside my head called me to stop. The voice knew it’s a tough world out there and provided good reasons why I should fear.

  • What are you going to do?
  • How will you make money?
  • What if you don’t make enough money?  
  • Your savings will burn out within 18 months. You’ve got just 18 months!!!
  • You can’t burn out your savings.You’ll need them when you’ll be elderly.
  • You must keep your savings for emergencies.
  • A corporate career is child’s play compared to going solo in the real world..
  • You don’t have what it takes; you’re not a salesman, you’re not a businessman. You don’t swim with the sharks, you don’t run with the wolfs.
  • You’ll end up like those prison inmates that can’t make it on the outside and return to life behind bars.
  • You’ll come crawling back, asking for a job.  

These were not momentary thoughts, they were powerful self-limiting beliefs. I could not dismiss them with “think positive”, “believe in yourself” or other such motivational slogans. I perceived life as a struggle - the survival of the fittests. The successful businessmen I met so far were wolves, superior and skilled at deception and manipulation, far from who I was or whom I wanted to be. Throughout the years I developed strengths that enabled me to prevail in this environment, but I had an Achilles' heel as well. When it came to caring for my own interests and well being, I could not draw the lines. I could not have an open, eye-level dialogue with superiors whom I did not respect. Instead, I would clench my teeth and fists, keep to my own, and build a grudge.

Most of us have self-limiting beliefs and habits that affect various aspects of our life. Some believe they are limited by a glass ceiling. Some feel lonely in a relationship, others can’t find a relationship. Some feel they are not fulfilling their potential. Some feel they ticked all the checklists, but something's still missing.  Some struggle to keep their head above the water. Others feel they have drowned and wish it would be over. As I would soon learn, such feelings are not a product of the present.

My coach reflected my beliefs back to me, and asked how I knew them to be true. She was questioning what I had considered to be obvious. “That’s life” I said, I didn’t have a better answer. Apparently, what was obvious to me was clearly not obvious to her, it was something to challenge. I didn’t enjoy life in the rat race, it’s values were different from mine. So even if there was the slightest chance to make a difference, I was willing to open to the possibility that I was wrong. We were about to  reveal ‘the Matrix’. and I was ready to take the ‘red pill.    

How do our paradigms and perceptions of life come about? Apparently they form early in life. Various schools of developmental psychologists, associate our development to different stages of infancy, childhood and adolescence. Yet, it is commonly accepted that by the time we reach our early twenties our personality, our habits and beliefs are conditioned. From there onwards we just repeat patterns. We have patterns of response, we have emotional patterns and patterns of thinking. We look upon the world through the tinted and biased glasses of our childhood experiences, and we interpret events to suit conditioned agendas.

As babies we are totally dependent on our parents. We are born dependent and nurturing has shapes the person we become. For example, Avigail, my ten months baby is not fond of diaper changing. As I try to change her diaper she may roll on her belly or arch her back and scream. Changing diapers is not my pleasurable pastime either, especially if I am preoccupied or in a hurry. We are in conflict - I want to get it done, she does not, If I lose my patience, the conflict will become physical. A baby is no match to an adult, and if I hold her down forcefully her experience of diaper changing will be of oppression - the exercise of authority in a cruel, or unjust manner. The upbringing of children provokes conflicts and it can bring us to unnerving situations. Children can be very difficult at times, and as parents we may feel helpless. But if we lose our nerves, if we use force and aggression we oppress our children and we can make an imprint on their body and soul for the rest of their life.      

Today I understand this, but at first I refused to consider it. To think that my relationship with my boss was somehow a reproduction of my childhood experience came to me as a great surprise. When my coach proposed we look into my childhood to understand my current behavior I resisted. I wanted executive coaching, not psychological therapy, and I didn’t like where this was going. I considered my childhood a matter of the past, and saw no point in reopening it. Lucky for me, my coach was a professional. She understood resistance was part of the process, and lead the way with patience and compassion.

I am the eldest of four siblings. My parents were 23 when they had me. Two years later came my first brother and the second was born two years after. So, at the young age of 27 my parents had three boys to handle. Our sister was born much later, when I was 13. In retrospect I think the three of us were too much for my parents to handle at such a young age. They both studied and worked hard, especially my father who always came home late, tired and stressed up. House rules were non-negotiable and crossing lines was unyieldingly punished. Gradually I developed a passive-aggressive attitude towards my parents. In the early years it was passive rather than aggressive, because aggressive conduct was punished with even greater aggression. There was no dialogue, harsh events were never discussed and reconciled. At age 16 I rebelled and became a raging teenager. I did not speak a word with my parents for more than two years. I kept to myself clenched my teeth and fists and feed my feelings of victimization with even more anger. Eventually, during my military service I tired from rebelling. Life went on, but those years were never spoken of, the experiences were never processed. We locked them away and threw the keys.

Twenty-six years later, at age 42, and with the guidance of my coach, the wounds were reopened. Gradually it became clear, I saw the pattern of my relationship with authority figures. It repeated itself again and again. When I had supervisors who I could look up to and gave me a free hand, I flourished. But whenever I faced a supervisor who I did not appreciate, or I felt he was limiting my freedom I would rebel. Usually I would  bottle up my feelings and shut off verbally and just do my own thing, accumulating my anger. My conditioning confined my possibility of having an eye-level dialogue with authority figures. It happened with quite a few commanding officers in the military and now it was happening again as I lost faith in my boss and did not want to follow his guidelines.

Born free spirited and restrained by upbringing, I carried my restraints into adulthood by preserving my resentment and anger. These restraints affected my ability to communicate openly with some of my superiors. When we had conflicting interests I was unable to speak out, express myself openly, and protect my interests. Deep within I preserved the victim mentality of a raging teenager. No matter how high on the ladder, even as CEO, I was not free.

Life taught me that freedom does not come with rank, position or title. It is not granted or delegated by others. Neither is it related to being employed or self-employed, I’ve seen enough business owners who live as slaves. To be free is to have a sense of responsibility and ability to navigate my own life. To let go of the victim mentality, the blame and the anger. Today, I do not blame my parents. They did their best and believed they were doing the right thing. I recognize my responsibility for my choices. I have reconciled with my past, therefore I am free to live in the present and to choose my future..

Chapter - 5

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Chapter 3 - Leap into the Void

“What is your vision for the company?”, my coach asked as we started working together. “What is my vision for the company?”, I pondered, “What is my vision for myself?” I did not know. It was an impact question, requiring me to stop and think; like pulling the handbrake on a speeding car. It was an invitation to retrace the main crossroads of my life and the choices I made, and understand how I arrived at where I was.

Last time I had any solid plans for life was in my teens, I dreamed of becoming an air force pilot. From early childhood I was enchanted by flight. I spent hours gazing at the skies, imagining myself wandering through the canyon like structures of soft cotton clouds. The dream blew up in my face when I dropped out of the Air Force Academy after 11 months. It was devastating. I had no other aspirations so when the military routed me to the armored corps I took it with indifference. A few months later, when it was time to consider officer training, I volunteered. My rationale was that as an officer I would have less people giving me orders and I would have a certain degree of independence. I was willing to ‘pay the price’ of serving an extra year in addition to the compulsory three. Those years are known as ‘the first Intifada’, one of many rounds of futile violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a first-hand, eye opening experience, of living in the middle east. Evidently I also understood that officers had commanding officers and that obeying orders was not my thing. Military life was not my cup of tea, though I had 23 years ahead to serve as an officer in the reserves.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Chapter 2 - The Traveler at the German Bakery

Apart from family and a few friends, the people surrounding me were not aware of what was going on. Throughout the company it was ‘business as usual’, we were attaining new customers, signing contracts, recruiting employees, managing projects.

So when I first notified my boss of my decision to resign his response was indifference, as If I was not serious and will soon come to my senses. He knew I was unhappy, we had our disagreements. Yet my employer believed he gave me the chance of a lifetime, and that I was to be grateful. Walking away was inconceivable. It was business as usual.   

A few weeks later I came to meet  him again to assert my resignation. Now indifference was replaced with contempt. It was considered a selfish act, and there was no chance this was going to be accepted easily. I felt like Moses pleading Pharaoh, “let my people go”.  It was intense conflict. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

Chapter 1 - Profit Mania

In my first year as a CEO I was given ambitious sales and profit targets. These were based on an assumption that we would close a contract and deliver a huge project for the dairy industry. Half way through that year a nation-wide social protest erupted, boycotting the dairy industry. As a repercussion the project was put on hold, blowing a huge hole in my budget. Reaching targets seemed impossible. I was clueless and restless. Not meeting targets would be a failure, and failure was not a possible outcome. I was confused. I felt I had to do something, to take action. To be creative, to find a solution, whatever it takes. Endless hours at work and sleepless nights went by.

Eventually, we finished the year within 86% of our target, well above the adversity that could have been inflicted by the cancellation of the dairy project. It was a challenging first year, with it’s successes and failures, but overall and relative to previous years, the company was now bigger than ever, though not as big as expected.

This was an Information Technology (IT) consulting firm, and I have been with the firm for 14 years. I started as a junior consultant and rapidly worked my way up the executive ladder. I enjoyed my work and was focused on it. The many challenges of a growing company fed my passion for achievement. I have learned much and we were very successful.