I don't want to pretend that, because I was lucky enough to survive something traumatic, I suddenly have divine insight and clarity on the meaning of life. However, it wasn't until I thought I was down to my last few weeks that I began to fully understand what life was all about, and how business and work should fit into it. I developed the idea for my latest company after a violent reaction to an antibiotic left my muscles, connective tissue, and central nervous system severely damaged. My condition worsened over the course of several months and doctors couldn't find a solution. I wanted to find a way to leave video messages for my wife and children and there wasn't one, so I developed my own and asked my wife to deliver them to our kids at certain times like birthdays, graduations, etc., after I was gone. Five years later, I'm still not 100 percent, but I was fortunate to make a dramatic recovery and learn a few things.
Along my journey, I've worked in many different industries and held various job titles, including attorney, talent agent for Japanese baseball players, COO of an investment banking firm, partner with one of the FBI's most famous spy catchers in U.S. history, CEO of a global TV production and distribution company, and founder of several nonprofits. However, my latest company, KeepTree, has been by far my most successful and I owe that to what I learned and discovered during my darkest days. From that transformative experience, there are seven important things I learned about running a business that I've been lucky enough to implement after being given a second chance at life.
1. Be economical with your time -- you don't have as much of it as you thought.
It turns out that it's true that nobody lives forever, but until we are forced to face our own mortality it's easy to think we're invincible and have all the time in the world. Now that I understand, at best, I have another 45 years on earth, I divide those years, hours, and minutes up very carefully.
How much time do I want to spend with my family? Simple answer: as much as possible. When you can see the end, you realize that family is not "top of the list," but the only thing on the list. Everything is about your family, and everything else is about supporting that family.
How much time do I want to spend on business? And whom do I want to spend that time with? Since learning that my time is limited, I have said no to working with certain people, even when it has resulted in a financial loss. There is no amount of money that makes being miserable a wise decision -- not if you are focused on the economy of time.
How much time do I want to spend on preserving my own health? The answer to that is easy: as much as is necessary to achieve my first goal, to have as much time with my family as possible over the next 45 years.
2. Don't use the word "emergency" in a business setting.
We've spent a lot of time in our lives learning what language to use and when not to use certain words. No profanity in a place of worship. No slang at a business meeting. But there can be other words that are offensive in various settings. It's important to remember that in business, deals come and go, opportunities pop up and disappear. This will happen time and time again, but none of these cycles warrant the use of terminology like "emergency" or "life or death." I would venture to say that the use of those terms in relation to the gathering of wealth is just as profane as any words spoken anywhere.
After I was sick, when people came into my office with "that look" on their face, I would ask them "before you speak, did anyone die? Is anyone dying?" If they answered no, I would suggest taking a breath and then sitting down to discuss the "challenge" and how to solve it. Keeping things in perspective is a key factor in being successful and being happy. I realized years ago that nothing is ever as bad as it seems, and nothing is ever as good as it seems. Reality lies somewhere in the middle.
3. Take fear and anxiety out of business to be more effective.
After going through what I went through, I realized that even in the worst case scenarios of business that life would go on. If you have your health, there is almost nothing you can't get through in the workplace. I didn't realize how much time I spent worrying about scenarios that would never happen, or how many sleepless nights I spent wondering "what if this happens?" or "what if that doesn't happen?" It is absolutely necessary for businesses and executives to have contingency plans for foreseeable and unforeseeable crises. However, there is a fine line between planning and worrying. Make your contingency plans and then stop thinking about them. Identify the threats and take specific action to avoid or mitigate them. Other than that, any time spent on worrying is wasted time.
I've also been told that my lack of fear and worry have made me a more effective negotiator. It seems people think I am "holding aces" all the time, because I'm just not worried about losing any particular hand. It's not something you can fake. If you are nervous, your opponents will see the signs. If you are not nervous, it makes the people you are doing business with more comfortable with you, and sometimes is makes your adversaries nervous!
4. If you have to try too hard, maybe it's a bad idea to begin with.
After recovering and getting back to work, I was able to see certain things more clearly. One of them was that if you have an idea that is simply not getting traction, it could actually be that the idea is not as good as you thought. We're taught in business to never give up. That makes sense when you are sure you have a good idea. But there are many ways we can spend our time, and sometimes it's better to let something go than to push it uphill for too long. Since launching KeepTree, we've had several products that have really appealed to partners and didn't take quite as much selling as with prior companies. Perhaps it's because our products were born out of a real need, as opposed to artificially developed. Or perhaps they are just the right ideas at the right time.
5. Laugh about everything.
One of the only things that got me through my darkest days was actually being able to laugh at my own misery. I woke up one day to discover yet another part of my body no longer functioned. I laughed, and I felt better. Like a true New Yorker, I asked out loud, "What the hell else is going to go wrong today?" I try to laugh as much as possible each day, and I try to get my colleagues to laugh too. You have to be able to laugh every day no matter what is going on around you--otherwise, what's the point?
6. The journey is the destination, so enjoy it.
My career path has been very unconventional, and some of the most rewarding experiences I've had came from seizing opportunities that were off the beaten path. Early in my career, I worked with the biggest talent agency in Japan, bringing Japanese baseball players to play in the U.S., successfully placing players with the Dodgers, White Sox, and my hometown Mets. Though it was a huge departure from the work I was previously doing in media, I had a lot of fun and made great relationships -- many of which turned out to be extremely helpful in launching KeepTree. Sometimes life is unexpected, but deviating from the plan and being open and flexible to new things can lay the groundwork for bigger opportunities down the road. The most important thing when embarking on a new project is to be honest with those around you about what you know and don't know, and supplement your weaknesses with people who have more experience in those areas.
7. Remember, things are rarely as bad as they seem (nor are they as good as they seem).
This is perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from my experience. There was a two-month period when I was sure I was a goner. Well, I'm not gone. We've all had times in our careers when we thought something was an existential threat to our business, but we got through it. You will survive the loss of a major client or top talent. So if there were 10 times in the past 10 years I thought one of my businesses was at its end, I guess I was wrong 10 out of the 10 times.
Since I was sick, I have been able to remain disciplined in this regard, and never categorize a threat as anything more than today's challenge. The same can be said for when you receive great news or launch a new product. You might think this is the breakthrough you needed. Well, it might be, but it's important to stay grounded and realize it might not be. The same can be said for your health, and it certainly was the case for me. I thought a big part of who I have been throughout my life was over, but five years later I can tell you without a doubt it wasn't over. It was just another challenge I was able to overcome (with the help of many others), which has prepared me for whatever difficulties I may face in the future.
As I said, I'm not trying to preach or pretend to have all the answers, but what I've learned from all this is to stay the course, work hard, plan for the worst and hope for the best.