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"Sharpen the Saw," Whether You Like It or Not

Over the five months that I took off from work, I learned a lot of very valuable lessons and came out of the experience feeling like the luckiest guy in the world. But it didn't start out that way.
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There are a lot of stories about corporate layoffs in today's cruel world. Mine is different than most, and I certainly don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. Over the five months that I took off, I learned a lot of very valuable lessons and came out of this experience feeling like the luckiest guy in the world. But it didn't start out that way.

In early February of 2009, I was recruited to run a very large division for AOL. My tenure only lasted 10 weeks. The CEO who had hired me was fired five weeks after I started, and the new boss wanted to bring in his own team. I had a significant contract that AOL fully agreed to honor, and I was out the door and, for the first time in 30 years, without a job. Many executives will tell the story of "loss of identity" when a job is lost, and in my case, I was put in the position of having to throttle down my life after ramping up for 10 weeks in my new role. I was immediately thrust into "the twilight zone."

When I was let go, it was late April. Many of my friends who were trying to cheer me up reminded me that I had the whole spring and summer ahead of me. I was fortunate in that I did not have to worry about getting a new job immediately. I had real free time for the first time in my life.

As nice as all of that sounded, I still felt that I needed to tell everyone that I wasn't a loser and that "every new manager needs to bring in their own team" and blah, blah, blah. It had not hit me then that I was just given a gift of a lifetime. But I would soon find out that I did get very lucky indeed.

I was fortunate to have a house on the beach out in a town called Amagansett on Long Island. I had always dreamed of taking some time off and had actually openly discussed with my friends and family that one day I would take a whole summer off. This was going to be my chance, and in the first week of May, I left for the house on the beach and did not return to New York City until late August, and that was to take care of a few chores.

I had been asked to meet some important people and some important companies about job opportunities over the summer, but I declined and I kept true to my word -- that I was taking the entire summer off. I have been a real fan of Dr. Stephen Covey who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and over time, I had become a friend of Stephen. His last Habit of the 7 was called "sharpening the saw." This is a time in our daily life that Dr. Covey suggests that we all take, away from the daily grind, to clear the mind. He feels that in order to be truly effective, that we need a vacation and some time to just get away to gain perspective. Well, I thought, by the end of the summer of 2009, my saw was going to be the sharpest in the world. By mid May, I had stopped trying to make everyone feel that I was not a loser for being fired. I just went with it and tried to get into a rhythm all my own, and it started to work.

There is no roadmap for taking a few months off, but there is lots of advice that everyone wants to share. I listened to my friends, but this was my time -- no rules and no one to impress but me. This was a special time, and very spiritual in that for the first time in my 55 years on this planet, I had nothing to prove. I had worked since the day that I got out of business school in 1978 (31 years) and had never taken more than 10 days off in a row. Ever. This was my time, my scorecard. I didn't care what anyone thought. I felt selfish and that was good. I was given a gift of time, and it was getting more clear every day.

I had bought eight books in early May, and as it turned out, I did not open one of them up all summer. I like to read when I am on vacation, but this was not a vacation, this was a sabbatical, an awakening, a hoot! I was only accountable to me and honestly, that was a first and it was a little scary and a lot of fun. I kept thinking that I was not going to engage in the "real world" for another four months! My only obligation was that I had a class to teach at Georgetown University in the fall, and I needed to organize the lectures. As I found out later in the summer, getting motivated to prepare for my classes was not going to be so easy. My dad used to say, "Give a busy man a job and it will get done." Well, I was not busy, and my preparation almost didn't get done!

On the first day of my "lucky time" that I was by myself at my beach house, I woke up and walked down the beach and started to laugh uncontrollably. I was free to come and go as I pleased. My calendar had nothing on it, no trips, no dinners, no 12 meetings a day. It was like I had been shot and gone to the real heaven, only better than the one that I had imagined. I finished my walk, went into my garage and pumped the tires up on my bike, and that summer, I rode my bike like Forrest Gump ran across the country. I was riding. I must have biked two hours every day, and I don't have a fancy road bike; I have a good, old-fashioned, heavy hybrid bike, but it was my companion all summer.

Besides the biking, I golfed almost every day, walking between 18 and 36 holes, and then I would take my little sunfish sailboat out and sail for an hour or two. I repeated this ritual every day that it was not raining heavily. I saw every movie that was made, and I ate well and tried to stay on a smart diet, which I am proud to say I did. With all of the exercise, I found that I could sleep between eight and nine hours per night and that I was remembering my dreams for the first time (and they were splendid).

I started to gain perspective on life and what I thought I wanted to do next. I found that I craved having no schedule and was not thwarted by the fact that I did not want to engage in the real world of business. I did read all of the New York and national newspapers every day (yes, including the New York Post) and also spent a lot of time on the Internet exploring many of the interesting ideas that I never had time to look into. I contacted friends that I had lost track of and had many close friends come over to my house for weekends. I became connected to the people that I valued the most, and I had real time to listen to them (and my BlackBerry was not in my hand or pocket). My friends called me Benjamin Button after the character that got younger with age.

I did all of these activities for four months and never craved the "fix" of the job. It never hit me until one day in early September, and for some reason, I knew it was time to go back to work. This time, it had to be 100 percent on my terms. I was ready to venture out, and I had made a series of promises to myself as to how I could work hard and smart but keep a much better balance of my life and to keep my priorities where they should be.

The big difference between taking a week or two off and taking four months off, was that I found that I regularly challenged myself to make sure that I was true to myself, and I had enough time to make sure that I was going to take the right path.

What I had never expected was that after so many years of continuous work, even though I had a variety of jobs at the three companies that employed me, was that I had many layers of history and business mentality and business "acting" to shed in order to get to the root of who I was and what I wanted to do next. My perspective changed almost every week during the summer on what I wanted to do, and as this was happening, I knew that I still was not ready.

The changes were too continuous. I actually found that my "idleness" was not idleness at all. I was going through the process of self discovery, and I found that I did not want any distractions (including reading, traveling, consulting etc.) to get in the way. The first part of the summer, I felt kind of guilty, but after the second month, I found this clear time off to be invaluable to my thought process. I realized that I had not been alone with myself for any real time in the last 30 years, and this was an amazing discovery. I'd had big jobs and knew a lot of people, but I really did not know myself. I became an amalgamation of what others expected of me during my working life, and separating that from who I was could never have been accomplished during a regular vacation.

I have been back in the saddle now for three weeks in my new job -- I am writing this note on a plane between San Francisco and New York -- and I still have a clear head and a skip in my step. It's hard to describe the difference that I feel now versus where my head was at the beginning of the summer, but it is different. I will be at the gym tomorrow at 6:30 a.m. and in the office at 8:30. I don't have 12 meetings per day any more. I have four to five good ones, and that should do it as long as my team is strong and committed.

I found that I spent a good chunk of my first three weeks working on the strategic framework for the road ahead, and we should be able to move smarter and faster with that plan. In the past, I would have been far more tactical. I have promised to check in with myself with a kind of self evaluation to make sure that I am keeping the promises that I made during the summer.

It is very rare that I had the chance to take this kind of time off without the financial pressures that usually accompany being laid off, but it will not keep me from preaching to my children and close friends the value of finding a way to truly get in touch with yourself in a significant way. As I said earlier, getting fired turned out to be the greatest gift that I could have ever been given. Now let's see if I can keep the dream going.