That night we talked for almost an hour.
I didn't know until he called, but federal investigators had raided his business offices. He didn't say why, and I didn't ask. He said it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Still, he was desperately worried about what might happen to him and his company. He talked about that for a long time. I was encouraging and supportive but mostly just listened. By the time we got off the phone he sounded a lot more hopeful and positive.
The next morning, sitting alone on the patio at his house, he shot himself.
One day I happened to drive by his old offices. Without thinking I pulled over. He had spent tens of thousands of dollars turning an old building into a showcase for his engineering and construction management firm.
Now, a few years later, it's a day spa. I sat and stared, without really seeing, as the memories flooded back.
He was a client but we had also grown to be like friends. I say "like" because I liked him, but our friendship was definitely one-sided. I knew way more about him than he knew about me. I'm no psychologist but he seemed to have an emotional hole he could never fill and he reached--hard--for anyone who might help him fill it, even for brief moments.
As a result he could be uncomfortably candid. He talked about wanting a family, especially children he could cherish and spoil. He talked about wanting friends who liked him for who he was and not for his connections or influence or money. He talked about how his wife had committed suicide and whether he, without knowing at the time, was in any way to blame.
Finally I shook my head and drove away and wondered, as I often do, what was on his mind as he sat on his patio. As always I imagined he felt hopeless and alone, playing and replaying choices he wished he had made differently.
I think he felt so hopeless because his business life and personal life were inextricably tangled. He used his business as an extension of his personal life--in fact, as the basis of his personal life--to a greater degree than anyone I've known.
He often overpaid vendors, I think partly to feel larger than life but mostly because he could then ask them to spend time with him outside of work and they wouldn't refuse; he knew that few people are willing to upset the goose that lays the golden eggs. He put acquaintances and even, as I understand it, his preacher on the company payroll so they would be more closely tied to him. He created partnerships not because the underlying business made sense but because partners inevitably talk and interact and spend time together. He used his business to create a kind of a personal life, one he often said was unsatisfying and unfulfilling but was the only one he had.
I think his sense of hopelessness and despair stemmed from the fact that his business was in jeopardy and therefore so was every one of his relationships. Losing his business didn't just mean he would lose things. Losing his business meant he would lose all the people that he felt cared about him.
Without his business he had no one: no one to turn to, no one to lean on, no one who cared unconditionally.
No one to say, "It's going to be okay. I love you. We'll get through it."
If you knew you only had minutes left to live, what choices would you regret? Would you wish you had spent more time at work? Would you think about money you never earned, or markets you never entered, or companies you never started?
Would those be the kinds of choices you would want back?
Of course not: You would think about the people you love and how you wish you had chosen to spend more time with them. You would want to have told them how much they mean to you--again and again and again.
So, don't wait.
Contracts and proposals and fame and fortune can wait until tomorrow. Today, even if just for one day, flip your priorities and go home early.
Sit somewhere quiet with your significant other. Put aside any baggage or resentment you may hold. Strip off any emotional armor you may have put on over the years. Tell them exactly how much they mean to you. Say the things now that you would otherwise someday wish you had said.
You'll probably cry. They'll probably cry. Both are really good things.
Then spend time with your kids doing nothing; all they really want from you is attention and praise. Or call a friend you've lost touch with. Swallow your pride and be the one to reach out.
Can a business be like a family? Can a business relationship be like a real relationship? Sure--but the emphasis is on "like." No business family ever measures up to a real family. No business relationship ever measures up to a real relationship.
Go home early and strengthen yours.
Business will be there tomorrow.