Some people get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, clock in, do their job, clock out, and go home to their family. That's the path they choose. Not so for entrepreneurs, business owners, and those who climb to the top of the corporate ladder. For better or worse, they choose a different path.

There will come a day when you'll look back and wonder if you chose the right path--if that insane rollercoaster ride you used to call work was worth it. Here's a peek at how that inevitable retrospective is going to turn out for you.

The other day I got an email from a small business CEO who got her start at a famous semiconductor company called Mostek. Mostek was one of those rare companies that spawned dozens of others. Its leaders went on to become venture capitalists, CEOs, and founders of other ventures.

Most notable of those was Mostek CEO L.J. Sevin who, after selling the company in 1979, cofounded Sevin Rosen Funds, a venture capital firm that helped to create Compaq Computer and backed dozens of successful companies including Electronic Arts, Citrix, Lotus Development, Cypress Semiconductor, Ciena, and a Dallas-based microprocessor company named Cyrix.

Cyrix slugged it out with Intel and AMD for years. I was a marketing vice president there. L.J. and another Mostek founder, Berry Cash, sat on the board until we sold the company to National Semiconductor in 1997. I stayed on for another two years before finally moving on. Without a doubt, the Cyrix experience was the high point of my career.

So, as I’m emailing back and forth with this former Mostek woman, telling each other off-color stories that I unfortunately can’t recant here, she wrote something that got me thinking. She said, “Wish I had been older in those days and really understood what was happening and how it was changing the world.”

Sure enough, when you’re young and living in an exciting time, it does seem like a rollercoaster. Everything’s a blur. So I got to thinking, when it’s all said and done and you can finally relax and look back on it, what about the experience mattered most? When you put your heart and soul into a career, what do you really get back out of it?

For me, it comes down to four things:

Making a difference. We talk a lot about employee engagement and what motivates people, but one thing I can tell you for sure: everyone at Cyrix, and I mean everyone, was there to make a difference. We got to do great things. To compete head on with one of the most powerful companies in history. And we did it with a fraction of Intel's resources. I don't care if pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I know we're all proud of what we accomplished.  

The relationships. High-stakes, high-visibility competitive battles on a global scale really bring out the best--and the worst--in people. Besides just getting to know and learn from all those incredibly talented people, besides sharing the experience with them, the relationships are a gift that keeps on giving. We've been resources for each other in our subsequent careers and, fifteen years later, many of us stay in touch.

The ride itself. So, call me an adrenaline junky. For a time, I'd say that was true. But hey, I was young so, well, why not? And now it's great to have stories to tell. Stories with insightful lessons and stories that make people laugh out loud. It's all pretty great.

The journey of self-discovery. While I continued on as a senior executive for a number of years after that experience, I did so for practical reasons. I knew in my heart that that episode of my life was over. It felt good and right. It was time to find a new ride, perhaps a quieter, less harrowing one. As soon as it was feasible, that's exactly what I did.

If not for that experience, that wild ride, I'm pretty sure I never would have been able to close that door and open a new one. That's why I always tell people to take big risks and challenge themselves early in their careers. Later on, you can take a break--and tell all your stories.

Feb 27, 2013