7. Circle of Life

“Next to love, balance is the most important thing.”
— Coach John Wooden

Anyone who has known me throughout my professional career would back my claim that balance in life has been modus operandi. It is in my DNA. As I came into Silicon Valley aspiring to achieve success and to support our family, I was constantly battling equilibrium between my work, family, and personal life. I can’t exactly explain the drive; it has been my calling.

This balance mantra appeared to me in a Golden Gate University classroom in Los Angeles one night. It was an epiphany that stuck. I was in a master’s degree program (Telecommunications Management) to further my education in my job at Siemens (who purchased ROLM in 1989). Sipping a hot chocolate to wake up after a long day at work, I was contemplating what this class might entail when the instructor walked in. I’ve forgotten his name, but I remember he started the class by handing out what I thought was a class syllabus. Upon inspection, I noticed that it was titled the Circle of Life.

I put my hot chocolate aside. He had my full attention.

He opened with a statement about life beyond telecommunications. He wanted us to review our direction in life and consider whether that was where we wanted to go:

“If we don’t change the direction we are going, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

I could see that he was quite serious about this. He made perfect sense in what he was saying:

“If you can keep your life in balance, you will inevitably be a much happier and healthier person.”

His words were simple, yet true! The Circle of Life document included a self-analysis quiz to help us understand how our life was going today. He wanted to help us improve our lives at work, at home (family life), and attend to our personal needs (self). After we completed the quiz, he stressed the importance of setting goals. 

“A man without goals has been compared to a ship without a rudder. Both are subject to the winds of fate.”

At once I realized that I was sailing on that ship! I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, but could see there was no way to balance those desires against the other vital areas of my life. I was excited to put my rudder into the water.

It was brilliant!

I want to say that my life changed that very moment in class as I reviewed the results of my Circle of Life quiz. Not so. While it prompted me about the areas I wanted to achieve better balance, it was a busy time with family, work, night school, and more. His handout went into my class binder along with the rest of my materials. I did not retrieve it for several years.

A marriage, two kids, and two jobs later.

I was working for Sun Microsystems in 1999 when the Circle of Life resurfaced. My telecommunications expertise helped earn me a job with their new and emerging “Netra” division. Sun was riding high on the dot-com bubble caused by internet-related companies’ explosive growth in Silicon Valley. The Sun Netra division was selling servers like In-N-Out sells burgers. We couldn’t build them fast enough!

Sun’s CEO Scott McNealy had extended a $1 billion credit line to Senior VP Neil Knox to build a family of telecommunications-grade servers (the “Netra”) to sell to large telecom providers worldwide. The time was ripe; Scott wanted them now. Working for Neil and his Netra product team in Menlo Park was like being part of the Apollo 13 moon launch team. Between beer bashes, we were pouring cement for the foundation to the internet! A go-to-market plan was quickly developed, and soon, we were pedaling  Sun’s new Netra servers around the globe. 

Amid the chaos, Marla was learning to manage our home with two active toddlers as I was jet-setting around the world to get our Sun sales teams onboard about the opportunity with Netra servers.  All appeared to be going according to plan when a letter arrived with the opening line of, “Congratulations!”

I won the lottery!

Well, kind of. The highly coveted letter from the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii had arrived, announcing they had picked my name to compete in the 1999 event.

Holy cow! 

It was a fairy tale come true. Dad lived in Kona right on the course, and we had watched the race several times. I had dreamed about going by him while competing in the race for years. And yet, my first thought was how I could find time to do all the necessary training without losing my job, family, or both! A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile marathon was not going to happen purely by desire. Pulling this off would require a Ph.D. in balance.

Fast-forward four months later, and things seemed to be falling into place. I was feeling good. I learned how to sneak in my runs and rides on business trips and made up the swimming in my time back home. It did wonders for the jet lag and helped me sleep when my clock was off in another time zone.

Then Marla said something which changed my paradigm. We were discussing making family time a priority on weekends when she blurted out:

“If you put as much time into your family as you do into training for this triathlon, we would have no issues!”

Gulp. It stuck, as I knew it was true.

I was speechless.

My life had been revolving around my job and triathlon training. There was no time for much else besides the necessary sleeping and eating to keep it all going. The family had taken a back seat. I immediately rummaged through my Golden Gate University class binder and pulled out the Circle of Life. As I mapped it out, it was clear as the light of day. I had been in a cloud of denial and had lost perspective in all I had been accomplishing.

Thank God Marla brought me to my senses. Here are a couple of questions in the Circle of Life quiz which convicted me:

– Do you spend “quality” time with your family and children each week? 
– Do you make time for regular “date nights” to have quality time with your spouse/partner/children?
– Do you eat dinner as a family at the dinner table 3 times a week?
– How often do you check email after hours and on weekends without taking the corresponding time off work? 

This discussion was much larger than a triathlon for me, but it helps make the point. Like the three events (swim, bike, run), I needed to find equilibrium in my time and energy for each area of my life (work, family, self). It was as if I was planning to have a stellar swim and bike time while ignoring preparation for the run. My overall performance (my life) would suffer as a result. Or worse, I might not finish the race! I have seen that happen more than once in the triathlon circles, especially in the ironman distance race. Just like a job, the training can be all-consuming, discarding family members along the way.

Keeping my family a priority would be vital for the rest of my life, and something I would model for my children going forward. I had to (and did) make changes.

If things go well with the family, life is worth living; when the family falters, life falls apart. This is truer today than ever before and underscored for me the importance of maintaining balance.

Here is the “Circle of Life” quiz (pdf file): https://surfingforbalance.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/circle-of-life-quiz-v5-4.pdf

Give it a try!

A balanced life not only feels good, but my experience is that it helps those around you too. As that instructor reminded us that opening day of class:

“If you can keep your life in balance, you will inevitably be a much happier and healthier person.”

Work-life balance in Silicon Valley (podcast)

This wedotalk podcast by good friend and running partner David Jaques provides an overview of my journey of surfing for balance in Silicon Valley.

Enjoy!

David Jaques
Mike Mulkey
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAF2F6B4mfuuFw8blXXWPii_1MhWxrw0X

“A Lotta Shit …”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”
Mark Twain

Like the marathon, life can have its challenges as you enter the second half.

A good comparison is my 1970s vintage Infinity surfboard. It now requires extra resin and fiberglass between surf sessions to keep going. It still rides fine, just takes a bit more nurturing.

It’s naptime for Redwood when the ding repair kit comes out …

With all of the running miles I have pounded out over the years, I have to confess that my body is starting to show some wear and tear. I’ve had to put my fair share of resin and fiberglass (and DMSO!) on to keep things going. In 2005 I ran a half marathon that was somewhat prophetic in this respect. Here’s the story exactly as it happened.

On a seasonably cool October Monterey morning in 2005 I was approaching mile “11” in the Big Sur Half Marathon when my view on life after 50 was about to be jolted. Big Sur is a relatively fast half marathon for time (it does not have the hills its name might imply), and it is extremely well organized for a race of its size. I had run a relatively fast first 10 miles and was struggling to regain my focus for the final push while simultaneously ignoring the red flares my body was sending to SLOW DOWN. I had turned 50 earlier in the year and was intent on proving that I could still run fast. Ha.

Oblivious to the serene setting of sailboats moored along quiet coves on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, I pulled up to a tall and lanky runner who had been in my sight for the past mile or so. He was running well, so I latched on to his side to keep pace with him to try and regain some composure for a strong finish. We had covered a half mile or so side-by-side when he suddenly blurted out to me:

How old are you?”.

Wait, WHAT !!??…
I’m struggling for oxygen, and this guy is asking me my age?
Clearly, this was not a time to be conversing. We were both breathing hard and pretty well spent. If I had the grit to initiate anything (and I didn’t), I might have squeezed out a one-way, “good job”, or “nice work”, or “hang tough”.

But “How old are you?” just hit me wrong …

I took time to respond as we bumped shoulders while moving onto the street at Cannery Row for a long straight stretch on the open pavement. He appeared to be sizing me up; maybe thinking that I was a threat in his age division? Finally, I found it in myself to respond, mostly out of the angst of having to say anything at this point of the race:

50!”
“How old are YOU!?”.

59”, came his immediate reply.
And nothing else, as we both continued to push hard to keep the pace.

I was glimpsing the finish line banner less than a mile ahead, so I decided to put on a final kick to get in. As he faded 25 yards or so behind me, I was suddenly hit with what seemed like a cannon shot from the back:

A Lotta Shit Between 50 and 59!!!”.

Say what?
As my mom would say, “How rude!!” He said it with such purpose and conviction that it really hit me. I found myself pondering it as I crossed the finish line, suddenly unaware of the time that I had worked so hard for. Why the heck did he have to say that? What did he mean? Was he mad at me? Who is this guy!? …

I wandered through the finishing chute with the masses looking like a lost zombie without any sign of him as I looked around. I mentioned it to my friends at the finish line party and we all had a good laugh as we slurped down our hard earned post-race rewards while listening to the rock band that is powered by people riding exercise bicycles. Big Sur throws a fantastic finish line party!
But we really didn’t think much about the true meaning of “A Lotta Shit …”.

Post-race rewards at the 2007 Big Sur Half Marathon (with fellow criminals Doug Atler & Mike Benkert)

Fast-forward nine years to age 59, and I knew exactly!

LOL. “A lotta shit…” pretty well sums it up.

That story has become legendary among my running community as we kid each other about the various ailments we experience as we continue to push our bodies to untold extremes in various sporting escapades. The joke on the track when someone is injured is simply to say:

Well, you know, “A Lotta Shit! …”

The Circle of Life

“Next to love, balance is the most important thing.”
Coach John Wooden


(click image for “Circle of Life” quiz)

Prologue (4.2)

To me that it’s the simple things in life that can make the biggest difference.

This story starts with a bit of an epiphany I had one night while in graduate school at Golden Gate University in Los Angeles.

As I was launching my career in high technology with ROLM, it became apparent that my Sports Management degree was only going to take me so far. After successfully navigating the transition from tennis club into telecommunications, I enrolled into a Masters degree program at Golden Gate University to both learn about the industry and open opportunities for advancement in my career. Over the course of what seemed at the time like an eternity (eight or so years of night school), I completed a Masters Degree in Telecommunications Management.

One of those evenings in class as I was sipping a hot chocolate to wake up after a long day at work, I discovered something that was to stick with me for the remainder of my career in high-tech.

It was the first day of a Telecommunications 101 class, and the instructor walked into the room to begin. He proceeded to pass out something completely unrelated to the class syllabus. He called it the Circle of Life.

Wait, what!?…
This caught my attention.

I sat back trying to understand why he was talking about “life” beyond telecommunications. Yet as he spoke, I realized that he was quite serious about this and in fact it made good sense.

“If you are able to keep your life in balance, you will inevitably be a much happier and healthier person”.

What a novel thought. So simple, yet so true!
Best of all, he backed up his claim with a quiz he proceeded to pass out to test us on just how well we were doing in the area of life balance right now. We had immediate feedback on the life we were living. For me, it stuck.

Then he moved on to the class syllabus for Telecommunications 101 and I went back to my hot chocolate.

I’d like to tell you that my life changed that very moment as I reviewed the results of my Circle of Life quiz and began thinking about the areas where I wanted to focus to achieve better balance in my life. But in truth, that handout went into my class binder and did not come back out for many years later.
In fact, a marriage, two kids, and two jobs later.

When it finally did surface, I was working for Sun Microsystems in Menlo Park in 1999, riding the high-tech Silicon Valley bubble. I leveraged my telecommunications skills to join Sun’s new and emerging “Netra” division, and they were selling servers like In-n-Out sells hamburgers. We couldn’t build them fast enough.

As the story went, Scott McNealy provided a $1 billion credit line to a senior executive at Sun by the name of Neil Knox to bring a family of telecommunications grade servers (Netra product line) to market for Sun — FAST. These early days working for Neil and his Netra product team in Menlo Park were high-flying and very fun times. Sun had been labeled “the dot in dot-com”. They had invented Java. Scott had even coined the term, The network is the computer, and that was BEFORE we had the internet. It just didn’t get any better than this as far as I was concerned from a professional standpoint.

Congratulations!
During this very hectic time at work, I received the highly coveted acceptance letter from Ironman Hawaii announcing my lottery number had come up, and I was accepted to compete in the 1999 Ironman Hawaii Triathlon.
Whoa…!  How I would possibly find time to do the necessary training without losing my job or my family!?

Fast-forward four months down this path and things seemed to be working out Ok. Or, so I thought…
Then my wife said something to me, which really captured my attention.
We were discussing making family time a priority on weekends when she suddenly blurted out,

“If you put as much time into your family as you do into training for this triathlon, we would have no issues…!”

Gulp.

Now mind you, I am pretty good about that balancing act between work, family and play. But that one really stuck.

Enter the Circle of Life.

Clearly my life was revolving around my job and my triathlon training, and not much else, other than the necessary sleeping & eating to keep it all going. Family had taken a back seat. Once I pulled out the Circle of Life and mapped it out – it was clear as the light of day to me. And worst of all, I had been in a cloud of denial about seeing it.
Thank God my wife brought me to my senses.

This is a discussion much larger than just triathlon training, but it helps make the point to use this example. Just like the three events of a triathlon (swim, bike, run), I needed to equally balance the time and energy I was spending in each area of my life (Work, Family, Self) in order to come out with the best overall performance.  But I also needed time to rest and have some inner quiet time (in the words of Dr. Richard Swenson, margin), to feed my soul and attain an optimum performance in the triathlon.

And most importantly, this was about not sacrificing my family.  I truly believe that the family is the key to our future.  There is a saying that:
“If things go well with the family, life is worth living; when the family falters, life falls apart.”

Whether it was work, sport, or maybe something else, keeping my family a priority is something that would be important to me for the rest of my life, as well as something I would model for my children.
I had to make some changes – right away.

Here is a 5 page document called the “Circle of Life” quiz (pdf file).
It is best if printed so you can fill it in and keep it with you.

Give it a try!
It has helped me several times get order back into my life. As my instructor stated in that Telecommunications 101 class many years ago,
“If you are able to keep your life in balance, you will inevitably be a much happier and healthier person”.

He was right. I have experienced both sides, and I can tell you that a balanced life not only feels good, but it just plain works!

** Resources **
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2016: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles
Amazingly, Richard Bolles has been updating this book since 1975, when it was first written.  In spite of the dramatic changes in the job market today – driven largely by the emergence of the Internet and social media tools like Linked-In, his principals pierce time and are life changing if properly applied. Most importantly, he does something that many of these job seeking books miss.  Richard makes a strong case for taking a thorough inventory of who you are, before embarking on your job search.  In other words, what color is your parachute.