“Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”
Three of the more incredible and memorable experiences I had while at Microsoft happened in the midst of the hyped up battle between AOL and MSN. The next few chapters cover a few of the more personal experiences and stories I experienced during my time at Microsoft. I think they are worth sharing in this book because they are both fairly interesting and they highlight the importance of adventure in a long career.
When I look back over my time at Microsoft, there were many days that basically just fell into the trash bin of long & boring corporate work days. Any career that spans more than 20 years is going to have ups and downs, and more than its fair share of days that are nothing more than the average day on the job. The unique adventures and the stories and learning around them are what makes work and life interesting.
If I had it to do all over again, I would have jumped at taking on more adventures and pushing the boundaries much further. The best and most interesting parts of any career are the times where you are taking risks and doing new things. Those risks and adventures can come from lots of different paths you take when you work at a big company. As discussed in the last chapter, joining a division or group of your company where there is a big strategic battle is one way to ensure that things stay interesting and exciting. Another great way to keep things interesting is to go out into the field as often as you possibly can. Getting away from the Company HQ when you are in a big company is a really important way to experience new learning, hear directly from customers, partners, investors, press and whoever else might be taking interest in your business. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see a big part of the world while working at Microsoft. I am super thankful for the experiences, the learning and the adventures I had along the way. While some of these events were stressful and very difficult, they helped me become the person I am today and have helped me to appreciate all I have now.
September 11th, 2001
One of my biggest adventures on the job happened during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was scheduled to do press briefings and updates on MSN’s business and product offerings the same terrible week of the terrorist attacks on the East Coast. As fate would have it, my original schedule had me set to be in one of the smaller neighboring World Trade Center buildings on the actual day of 9/11. Luckily for me, my schedule had shifted around based on the availability of Walt Mossberg and a couple of other important technology reporters.
In fact, as I remember it, Mossberg was in NYC the day of 9//11 and he was scheduled to fly back to his home near DC that very morning. So instead of being in NYC on the day of 9/11, I was in Washington DC. I was staying at a fancy hotel just steps from the Capitol Building the night of September 10th. I had flown in the day prior as we normally did when doing press tours on the East Coast. I got up early that morning of 9/11 and I turned on the TV in my hotel room. I remember I was ironing a dress shirt for the day, and looking at the TV getting caught up on the latest business news. I was watching CNBC, and the anchor was Mark Haines, who by the way, was an awesome and entertaining anchor for CNBC for many years. He has now unfortanetly passed away. I was watching Haines do one of his classic interviews with Bill Nygren of the Oakmark Select Fund, the market was not yet open. It was approximately 8:50 in the morning. (You can see the coverage here.)
I can clearly remember how Haines calmly covered the first plane hitting the first Trade Center building. He quickly cut over to the live pictures of the tower on fire. He called it a significant problem and didn’t speculate very much further other than to say it was safe to assume there was probably some fire in the building. His coverage was excellent all the way through, and if you have never watched it, I recommend it, as it was a defining moment for Haines and for CNBC in my opinion. It was truly excellence in live journalism.
Because I was scheduled to be in NYC the next day, and I was previously scheduled to be at the WTC buildings that very day! I was now on full alert! watching the horror unfold. It took only a few more minutes to confirm on live TV that it was a plane that had hit the first tower and that a large hole could be seen in the building. At 9:03 EST, for just a brief second the CNBC feed actually went out, and then came back and I (with millions of others) watched in horror as a huge explosion erupted in the other tower.
Like so many others on that terrible day, I just could not believe what I was seeing. I was in shock. I quickly called home to my wife back in the Seattle area and told her to wake up and turn on the TV. She was back home with my young children and on West Coast time, so it was still really early and she, like most others on the West were still just starting to rise for the day. I told her I would call her back and then quickly called my parents who were also on the West Coast and told them to turn on the TV, that something very major was happening. I then called the PR Agency woman from Waggener Edstrom I was traveling with, Marla Polenz, and we discussed quickly if we should start to cancel our meetings for the day. While it was obvious in retrospect, that all meetings would be canceled that day and for the entire trip, we had only had about 15 minutes to start to understand the magnitude of what was happening.
We both agreed to call back to our respective bosses and get a quick opinion on if we should continue on with meetings for the day. I could not get a hold of my boss at the time. Marla’s boss at Waggener Edstrom was Colleen Lacter, who is an awesome person and great PR leader, she suggested that we should plan to go on and do the meetings for now and see how things unfold for the rest of the morning. It was a good thing she did as it kept us moving that hectic morning. Marla and I agreed that we should meet in the downstairs lobby and see how things developed before we made a call on heading out to our first meeting. As soon as we met in the lobby it was very quickly becoming obvious that there would be no meetings that day, and for the foreseeable future.
This was a good lesson in how fast things can change in life and in business. I was up late the evening before, stressing out over every little detail of the meetings that were going to take place the next day. Rehearsing our pitch, going over in great detail every point we wanted to get across, repeating the technical demonstration on my laptop over and over again making sure that everything was just right for the meetings. In a flash, those meetings now seemed totally meaningless, there were much more important things happening in the world. It was a good reminder to not take yourself too seriously. Something always worth keeping in the back of your head.
The particular hotel we were staying in was very close to the Capitol Building, just a couple blocks away and you could see the Rotunda from the street in front of the hotel. We had a driver who was to be waiting for us out front that morning. So I went out to the front of the hotel to see if he was there yet, when I poked my head outside I saw that the entire street and sidewalks had been totally shut down. There were black government SUVs everywhere, D.C. cops, secret service people and bomb dogs all over the place. With all the different black cars parked and mostly sitting empty in the street, I had no idea which car was intended for us, and all traffic was essentially shut off in the street. I raced back inside the hotel, on the TV’s in the lobby at 9:30 AM President Bush made a statement that he was heading back to Washington from an elementary school visit he was doing that day in Florida. In his statement, he confirmed that this was a major terrorist attack on the country.
By 10:00 AM a full evacuation of the White House, the Pentagon, and the Capitol had been put into action. The hotel was asking people to stay inside and in the lower lobby area on the first floor in the event that any more planes were still trying to hit the Capitol. At this point it was more than clear, we were experiencing the worst thing that had happened to America in a very long time.
Marla and I got very lucky that our driver for the day had come inside the hotel to wait for us. His car was still there at the hotel and we found each other in the hotel lobby. By the time we found the driver and realized the severity of all that was happening it was announced that all air travel was now grounded, it was clear to me that we were not going to easily get out of D.C. At this point, we were rattled, I personally just wanted to get away from the city. It was a combination of fear, emotions and my natural inclination of just not liking big cities very much in the first place. I simply wanted to get away from the D.C. area ASAP, and more than anything wanted to be home with my family.
I asked the driver if he would wait for us to gather our luggage and take us out of town. He said he would. Marla and I grabbed our luggage from our rooms and raced down to meet the driver and get to the car. By this time they were allowing people to now leave the hotel area and go into the streets, all flights had been grounded are diverted away from D.C. The driver asked where we wanted to go, I asked him to just “Head West” and we will figure it out as fast as we could. He took us out of town on the I 395 which travels right by the Pentagon. We could see the flames coming from the Pentagon where the 4th reported plane had come down. It was extremely scary, eerie and horribly sad to see.
We quickly came up with a plan to try and get a rental car, so that if nothing else, we could be far away from the D.C. area for the next few days until things calmed down a bit.
We found that the closest place where we could get a car would be at the Budget Rent a Car at Arlington Virginia. This particular Budget has both Trucks and cars. By the time we got there, they were down to the very last couple of cars. In fact, the agent there told me that the only car we could have was a local rental and had to be returned to the same office. I told him that was fine, we would find a way to get it back to him. As we were getting the car rented at the front desk, more and more desperate businessmen and women were streaming into the rental office to try and rent cars, all wanting to get out of town as fast as they could. I vividly remember a group of three businessmen from Florida who wanted to head home, there were no more cars, so they rented a big box truck and had planned to take it all the way to Florida.
Marla and I felt very lucky to have secured a rental a car, it was a nearly new Jeep Cherokee, we started driving West without a clear plan to start. As it turned out, Marla had a family wedding she was planning to go to in Nebraska after our meetings that week. We talked about it, and I said, “well, we might as well head there, I will drop you off in Omaha and continue west until planes start flying again and will catch a ride home from there”. It is around 1100 miles from Arlington to Omaha, it took us a couple days driving to get there. I think Marla was ready to be done with me after that trip. I was happy enough to continue the journey home alone. We had some fun along the way chatting about things and getting to know each other, but that was a long and unplanned road trip for two people who didn’t know each other very well. We ended up becoming pretty close colleagues after that trip. We definitely had some laughs after it was all over.
After dropping Marla off in Omaha, I ended up driving toward Wyoming. I learned that Nebraska is a VERY long state. The I80 portion of Nebraska is 455.27 Miles long. It boasts 25 rest areas, 82 interchanges, and One scenic overlook. Driving that distance alone through the hundreds of miles of farmlands with nothing more than a radio that was airing constant talk of the terrorist attacks was very depressing and isolating. I started to regret my attempt to drive home and wished that I had just stayed in Washington until flights started going again. But I was too far gone on the journey by that time.
It is hard to imagine now, but the 9/11 attacks actually happened before the advent of the iPod – which wasn’t launched until October of that same year in 2001. So we didn’t have smartphones, Facebook, Twitter or any other technology during that time to keep us both connected and distracted about the events of the day. I think if we had all of those things back in 2001 it is probably more likely that 9/11 may have never even happened. Or, quite possible that much more of it could have been thwarted. The speed at which information now travels and the connectedness of people make it more likely that somebody may have found out about the attacks before they happened and authorities might have been able to stop it. Certain it may have been possible for people flying on the planes to get messages about what was happening and more fully rebel against the terrorists. We, of course, will never really know if it could have made a difference, but it certainly seems plausible. It is hard to even conceive of major geopolitical events like this happening prior to social media and access to always-on broadband connections. Thinking back to my trip across the United States starting the day of 9/11 is like going back to a time that I can barely explain to my children. The changes in the way we react, communicate, exchange ideas are completely different now.
I grew so tired of listening to the radio coverage of the 9/11 story for hours on end, I decided to buy a couple of music CD’s from a truck stop, I played them over and over and quickly grew tired of them as well. For many hours I just drove silently, thinking how strange it was to be out there in the middle of the country driving alone, with no planes in the air and very few people out on the highways. My work had stopped completely, nobody cared about the battle between MSN and AOL, it was completely insignificant in the world. Silently driving across the vast plains of the country gave me time to think about how ridiculous it was for me to be so caught up and stressed out about my work. It was a good time to do some reflecting on what was really important to me. I think others had similar reflections on their own lives. There were a lot of important cultural changes after 9/11. Many families decided to spend more time together. The display of patriotism was strong, church attendance went up, and people spent more time at home than going out. Some of these changes were more long-lasting than others. But no doubt, 9/11 was a major watershed moment for the USA.
The rest stops along the highway were full of other stranded business travelers and made for some entertaining encounters. Everyone was trying to find their way back home to their loved ones in rented cars that had been flung all around the nation. Everyone had their own story of where they were and what they were doing when that horrible tragedy took place. Sharing that story was not something you put into social media in those days. Sharing the story meant you were talking to strangers at a rest stop, or at a gas station or restaurant along the highway. Looking back now, I see those times, as horrible as they were, as a moment that truly brought the country together in a meaningful way. The spirit and love for America were strong at that time, people looked into each other’s eyes and shared their story. And in that way, compared to how we communicate today, it was beautiful. I spent one night in an old motel in Casper Wyoming, it was a fine place and it gave me some time to rest and relax, that night I decided to go up to Yellowstone National Park as part of my journey home. My boss at the time was Christophe Daligault, a great guy, who was a Frenchman, he had an incredible marketing mind and a great spirit about him. He encouraged me to take my time, relax and try and enjoy the journey home. I figured driving through one of the nation’s most beautiful and iconic national parks might be good for me. And it was.
Yellowstone was almost completely empty the week after 9/11. I will never forget the startling contrast of escaping one of the biggest catastrophes ever on US soil, leaving a city under siege and chaos and then ending up wandering around amongst wild buffalo in Yellowstone National Park in utter silence and serenity. Yellowstone is possibly the most beautiful place in the world, the contrast was such a mind bending experience. For me, it cemented my fondness of country life over city life. The experience was one of transformation for me. I viewed work and life and that balance very different after that trip. I knew at that point that I did not want to spend the rest of my life fretting over small details, I made a bargain with myself to find a way to retire early from Microsoft, but also to enjoy the time I spent there as much as possible.
Learning Lesson #11- Take risks and let adventure guide you in your life and in your career. The journey truly IS the reward. It has taken me a lot of time, contemplation and perspective to really appreciate that fact. So much has been written about how to achieve great success in life, how to find your passion and how to find a truly satisfying and successful life that you love. One of my favorite books I have read on this topic is Ray Dalio’s -“Principles” In it, Dalio talks about the importance and the balance of taking on risks and challenges and truly embracing and learning to love the pain involved in learning new things and new lessons. He advises that if one learns to love the process of making mistakes, love the learning from them, and advancing from each lesson, it becomes a formula, or a “machine” for achieving whatever goals you want in life. In the book he walks through his method for how to think about loving that pain, and how our brains work for and against us when trying to embrace that type of learning. His methods have certainly worked well for him, he runs the biggest hedge fund in the world, and by all accounts has had an incredibly good life.
One other book I highly recommend on this topic is “The Element” by Ken Robbins. This book covers some similar ground in Dalio’s “Principles” but focuses more on how to find your passion through a process of discovery. If you are just starting out in your career, or still in school, this I think is a MUST READ book. Every single very successful person I have ever known or studied has one big thing in common. They LOVE what they do. Finding that passion for some people comes early and very naturally. For others, it takes more time, and sometimes it means you need to toss out some of the programming you have received from your education, or perhaps your parents so that you can find what you truly love to do. Read Ken Robbins book to help you find your passion, he has some really useful ways to think about this.
In my experience, taking on risks, and taking on as much adventure as you possibly can with your career is the best way to keep things interesting. New adventures will lead you to new areas you likely never knew would excite you and bring you new success. When things go wrong, learning to feel the pain and embrace that pain as good thing will also teach you what you don’t like, and as you embrace that pain, and use that as a force for good, you will grow and find new heights of success.