“So what do you do?”
I didn’t answer the question. This happened time and again when I was unemployed. Not between gigs. Not taking a little time off to clear my head. Not mulling over an offer. I was unemployed.
This was one of the most difficult times in my life. I never realized how much of my confidence and self-esteem was rooted in my job. What I did.
I would go to conferences looking to meet people who might have or know of an opportunity for employment. The first two questions people ask: “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?”
If you have a job, this question is easy to answer. You simply tell them what you do. But what if you don’t have a job?
A couple of times I tried to be honest and said, “I’m currently unemployed and looking for my next opportunity.”
This elicits the same look you give someone who tells you they just found out they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. The look of “I’m so sorry.” Followed by how do I get the heck out of here. Nobody feels comfortable around someone who is unemployed. No one.
So I solved the problem of answering the question by reciting my resume. “I was an entrepreneur. Helped build a company and had a successful exit. I was a group president of multiple software companies. Then became president of an international professional services company. Blah, blah, blah.”
But everybody knew. I was unemployed. They knew because they asked me what I was doing and not what I used to do. But the resume answer at least made the conversation less awkward. The problem was it didn’t get me closer to a job.
One day I was driving down Paper Mill Road in Marietta with my son David. I was 39, and he was four. It was a sunny fall day, and Paper Mill is a beautiful, curvy mountain road right in the middle of the city. David asked me, “Hey, dad, Doctor Phil next door is a doctor; what are you?”
At the time we lived in a Marietta subdivision just north of Atlanta. Our next door neighbor, who is now one of my best friends, is an OB-GYN.
I thought about David’s question for a moment. I was thinking, “Should I tell him my resume? Will he be interested? What is he asking, really? What do I say?”
As my eyes filled with tears, I decided to tell him the truth. I said, “Dave, I guess I am just your dad.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “That’s great!”
It was right then I came to realize who I am is more important than what I do. From that moment on, I was crystal clear on my priorities in life. When I gave my son the answer to his question, it also answered my question. “What are my priorities?” Not what I say they are, but how I live my life.
This revelation set in motion a life and career planning process. Great planning begins with clearly articulated constraints. One of these constraints included doing business in Atlanta and not anywhere else. I needed to be home. To be a husband and father who is present.
So here I am 23 years later. A husband to Kathy and father to Julia, Lisa, David, Nick and grandfather to baby Charles. All this was made possible by answering my four-year-old son’s question honestly and with humility.
I guess I should thank him for launching my second career as a professional angel investor focused exclusively on Atlanta tech startups.