How I Reconciled Professional Ambition and My Personal Life

What the Enneagram Taught Me About Steering Clear of the Dangers

When I was a young executive I had a level of stamina that was nearly supernatural. I could get locked onto a goal and not eat, not sleep, just stay focused on it until I achieved it.

But as I recently told my friends Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile on their excellent The Road Back to You podcast, all of my ambition came at a steep price, to my family, my friends, and me.

The Road Back to You podcast and book are all about the Enneagram, a personal development tool with roots going back to the fourth century. It divides personalities into nine distinct types: helper, loyalist, challenger, and so on. I am a No. 3, the Achiever or Performer.

Over the last decade, I’ve benefited so much from the Enneagram, I’ve even had Ian come and teach my entire company about it. It was a tremendous time of learning, self-discovery, and team building.

The thing I love about the Enneagram is that it not only reveals your personality type, it also helps you navigate around the pitfalls that often come with your number.

I wish I had it earlier in my life. As I told Ian and Suzanne on the podcast, there were two realities that helped me deal with the ditches I drove into. But there was still a lot of damage at the start.

Reality 1: The Women in My Life

The first reality that helped me understand how being a Performer could hurt or help me was being married to my wife Gail and having five wonderful girls.

Performers are all about achievement, but the women in my life are not really that impressed by achievement. What they are impressed with is relationships. And they’re not happy when I take shortcuts in that department.

I remember one time I was fighting with Gail (yes, that occasionally happens). She told me “I don’t need you to be a CEO right now. I need you to be my partner,” and she was right.

In relationships, problem solving is not nearly as important as being fully present. One of my daughters went through a painful breakup and opened up to me about it. She poured her heart out to me for 45 minutes, then gave me a big hug and said, “That was so incredibly helpful, Dad.” I literally had not said one word.

These days my daughter Megan runs my business. She has taught me how to stop and watch the confetti drop and celebrate with my team rather than just run onto the next goal. It’s good for a Performer to occasionally take a bow and take it all in.

Reality 2: The Gift of Failure

The second reality was veering into a financial failure. Performers are usually talented at navigating their way to success, and the thing we fear most is embarrassment.

The first time I came to work at Thomas Nelson I had some success but felt that there was more I could do. So I left and started a publishing company with a business partner. Everything was great … at first.

Unfortunately, our growth outstripped our capital. I didn’t realize you could grow and go broke at the same time, but now I know that’s possible. Because of all the money we put out in advances and inventory, we were illiquid. And when a big creditor called our loan, we couldn’t pay the bills and had to close it all down.

It was bad. People in my church were bringing us groceries. My kids were humiliated, which was really tough to watch. Yet from that I learned there’s life after failure, and I found out who my friends were.

That failure really dinged my confidence, but ultimately it was a gift. Before, I often thought I was the smartest person in the room. The embarrassment of failure opened me up for the first time to the notion that maybe I didn’t know everything. Maybe I didn’t have it all figured out. Maybe I needed to learn new things.

The uncertainty caused me to go back to the beginning. My whole approach to personal growth and productivity starts in that journey. It forced me to rethink not only how we do things, but why.

It also gave me a deep appreciation for my family and teammembers, and how to structure my work life so I could honor them and their role in my life.

I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything today. But if you want some of the same personal benefits without veering into the ditches yourself, I recommend Ian and Suzanne’s work.

Question: What personal discoveries have kept you out of life’s ditches?

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