It's been a tough couple of weeks for me, with a wrenching series of the unexpected deaths of friends--all entrepreneurs and/or educators in their own way--aged mid-50s to mid-90s. Several died abruptly without the slightest indication of illness--brutal bolts from the blue. Others left us at a time when we earnestly believed that they were in the midst of bouncing back and regaining their strength. So much the sadder given the immense struggles that preceded their demises.
These are frightening episodes for those of us of a certain age because they are the most immediate and stark reminders of our own mortality. Whatever anyone else tells you, these painful passings are never expected or easy, in terms of being prepared for the event, ready for the surprising and palpable pain, or able to deal with the sinking sense of loss. Nor do we exactly understand the mixed feelings of relief that we experience in some morbid fashion on the putative behalf of the deceased. Every death, by definition, is unfairly premature and always comes too soon. This is never about getting over such things; just a matter of trying to successfully muddle through them with some semblance of grace and respect. The pain may eventually lessen and the scars start to heal, but the wound remains forever.
But in those first and early moments of the searing knowledge-=before the procedures and the protocols kick in, before life resumes and the rush of essential events takes over and moves things along with an irresistible (and grudgingly welcome) force of their own--you have a brief window of reflection. You realize that, while death may end a life, it doesn't extinguish the long history, the many mixed emotions, the complex connections, and the underlying relationships that were a part of your life together and which withstood the many trials and tribulations of time.
And, if you permit yourself, your exploration often extends beyond the immediate losses of certain individuals to recall and remember (and perhaps cerebrally celebrate) others who are also no longer a prominent presence in your life, but to whom you owe much. I've written that entrepreneurs are lousy at saying thank you, but there seems to me to be an even deeper deficiency. It's not enough to thank our employees and our investors and random others, if we don't also remember to reach out to thank the critical contributors who were steadfastly there at the start.
At our business schools, we regularly debate the "nature versus nurture" controversy, essentially discussing whether entrepreneurs are just born a certain way and destined to pursue new ventures, or whether anyone with an interest (and hopefully some measure of passion) can be taught the critical skills for startup success. I'm firmly in the "it's in your genes"" camp, except that I don't really think that heredity explains everything or that entrepreneurs themselves give enough credit to the critical importance of the roles played by their parents, professors, mentors and, to a much lesser extent, their peers.
And, by the way, I don't mean to suggest that the role and the impact of these other parties is necessarily a positive influence or a supportive one--just that it's often a very powerful one that is under-appreciated and only occasionally acknowledged. Everyone you encounter on the journey teaches you something--some are good examples and role models and others are important warnings about what not to be or do. Sometimes a blessing, sometimes no more than a passing breeze, and sometimes a boot.
But for so many entrepreneurs, the real start and the best part of the journey was when they were kids at home. Home, where they have to take you in, home, where the support and love is unconditional, and home where many of the essential habits, attitudes, and values are initially built, regularly reinforced and eventually absorbed. Who doesn't have half a dozen mottos, slogans or aphorisms burnt into their brain from Mom or Dad? These aren't just pithy phrases or clichés. It turns out that they're pretty important life lessons. And, although GEICO's ads make light of it, maybe turning into our parents in some ways isn't the worst thing that could happen. After all, they raised us and we turned out pretty well, so how bad could they have been?
So it's worth a moment from time to time, especially if you still have a chance to say it to their faces before they're gone, to think about and thank your parents for their patience and thick skins, their perseverance at times when you were clearly a lost cause, and their persistent part in your eventual and plentiful successes. No time like the present and never too soon or too often. Don't wait for a fire or a funeral and, for sure, don't wait until it's too late.
After all, they're the ones who taught us that it's not the tears and sadness, but the desire and the determination to move forward that ultimately makes the pain of loss bearable. So find an opportunity over the holidays and make it a moment of celebration and not sadness.
As the Boss says in The Wish: "Well tonight I'm takin' requests here in the kitchen. This one's for you, ma, let me come right out and say it. It's overdue, but baby, if you're looking for a sad song, well I ain't gonna play it."