My spiritual journey started about ten years ago, at an unexpected time and place. At the time, my focus was almost entirely secular. I had my dream job, and I thought I was living a dream life. I had a great wife, two young daughters, and I was working at a Silicon Valley company that was literally revolutionizing human genetics research.
At first, the fact that I was working 90 hours a week did not bother me, and I took pride in my toughness. But my devotion to the workplace left me vulnerable, and I came to a place where despite my Ph.D. from MIT, I felt worthless. I felt like a bad husband, a bad father, and a bad employee. I was like an eggshell with all of the egg sucked out, hollow, dark, and empty inside. It started at the apex of my career – I was marketing the flagship product, and was leading the team developing the fourth generation, with the scope and features that everyone wanted. As luck would have it, this project was the first one with major technical hurdles and setbacks. We made our launch date because I was not going to let us fail. We worked every weekend and through almost every vacation for an entire year. We got to launch, we shipped the product, and it flopped. It flopped in every single customer’s hands. And management blamed me.
A few weeks after launch, I was sitting in a meeting with the top company leadership. None of the VPs and directors would make eye contact with me. Someone very senior started peppering me with questions: How much until this, how long until that, how many of this? I fumbled with my spreadsheets and she asked,
“Don’t you know how important this is?”
I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants and said in a quiet voice, “Yes.”
“Well, it is time to start acting like it.”
I walked out of that room with my shoulders down and said to myself in the hall, “Wow, I have really let the company down. I was the person in charge. This happened on my watch.”
The following week, I was at the largest human genetics meeting of the year. I was in a room full of our best customers and prospects when our featured speaker presented the product in a very poor light. I spent the rest of that afternoon at our booth in the trade show hall explaining over and over again that things would be just fine because we would have fixes for all of the issues.
That night, a bunch of us were walking to a bar to blow off some steam when my cell phone rang.
“Greg, it’s mom. Grandma died today.”
I stood on the corner with an umbrella in one hand and my cell phone in the other watching my colleagues file into the bar. My mother said to me,
“Surely you are not thinking of skipping the funeral.”
She was right. I was on the verge of not going. I walked back to my hotel room, and burst into tears, thinking how proud my grandmother had been of me. When the meeting was over, I flew directly to the funeral. They waited an extra day so I could make it.
A few weeks after the funeral, I was still really down. Now it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. The key thing on Yom Kippur is that we fast from sundown to sundown, we don’t go to work, and we spend the day in prayer and reflection. It was 3 in the afternoon, and I was sitting towards the back by myself. My head was back, and my eyes were closed. I was conserving my strength because I hadn’t had any food or water since the night before.
At the front, they were chanting from the Torah in Hebrew. I opened my eyes, and looked down at the translation: Don’t turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods. My immediate thought was, Idol worship, that ancient statue-worshipping thing is no longer relevant in the modern world… And then this phrase popped into my head. It was like a clear quiet voice saying, “You need to do what is best for the company.” My stomach clenched, and I started sweating.
We only used the phrase, “Do what is best for the company” to justify something that was unpopular, like a layoff, a canceled project, or asking someone to skip a vacation. I thought about the nature of the company, an amorphous entity with a brand logo. I thought to myself, “Doing what is best for the company is not the same as doing what is best. My God, have I turned my company into a false idol? I guess I can’t really be a family first person when I’m working 90 hours a week.”
I realized that my priorities were upside down, and I decided right then and there that I had to stop doing what is best for the company, and start putting people first. I needed to take care of myself, and I needed to take care of my family.
Within a year, I had cut my hours by a third without changing jobs. Not a single person at work noticed. In fact, my career was thriving because I was no longer strung out and exhausted.
My life at home became a joy. One afternoon, I walked past the door of the living room and stopped to watch my preschool daughter play with a friend. The scene was different from the wild rambunctious play that was the norm. They were sitting on the floor cross-legged, talking quietly to each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were so intense and serious. My eyes teared up as I saw this part of her I had never seen. I thought to myself “If I hadn’t been home, I would have missed this irreplaceable moment.”
The moment of change
For years, I looked back and wondered where those words that popped into my head came from. If you are of a certain spiritual bent, you may be thinking that those words came from God. The collective view of how God speaks to us has been influenced by the movie The Ten Commandments – a powerful deep voice, booming in a way that we can’t deny. While that makes for good Hollywood, that is not how these things actually work. Today, I have no doubt that God spoke to me, but it certainly was not what I believed back then. And you don’t need to believe it now to keep reading.
It doesn’t matter whether it was actually a message from the Divinity, because whatever the cause, that moment of quiet changed my life. I began to act differently, and because I was acting differently, I began to feel differently.
Spending less time working greatly improved my life, but it did not answer what inside me was driving me to work so much in the first place. I am a bit of a seeker, and I wanted answers to some of the bigger questions about myself, and life in general. Unexpectedly, the answers came from Judaism.
Judaism, as I perceived it at the time, was largely focused on rituals and traditions. I had not yet been exposed to the richness of Jewish thought that has developed through debate and scholarship over the last few millennia. Sages and scholars puzzled over great philosophical questions, AND how Jewish values can be applied in everyday life to answer those questions. It was the practice of Mussar that brought it all together for me, and helped me find the answers.
From The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions by Greg Marcus, PhD. © 2016 by Greg Marcus, PhD. Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd. www.Llewellyn.com.
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12 thoughts on “My Moment of Change”
Great post of clarity and realizations. I am an avid journaler. I find that when I have a problem or something I’m concerned about, all I have to do it write. More times than not, my clarity comes through my writing and I’m left with my mouth open wondering why I couldn’t think of the solution on my own!
Amanda – great point. Journaling really helps me too, and is an important part of Mussar practice. I am always focused on a particular soul trait, which includes things like Humility, Patience, Truth, and Trust. I write about how I was challenged that day for the soul trait, and how I answered the challenge.
Yes, i believe there’s always the way. All you have to do is just listen. Be optimistic i do understand it is difficult more of impossible but sometimes thinking out of the box can make you spectacular. If things have happened it is for a reason and it remain like that unless something to be done.
Thanks Brinda. I feel very fortunate that I listened to the signal I was given. I am absolutely convinced that if I didn’t change my life, I would have had a major health issue.
This is a truly heart touching story that I could relate. I have been on the both side of the extremes. I was just like you, focusing on my career and business, and losing my marriage in the process. Then I flipped to the other side.
I was always giving to charities, community projects and disregarded my own well-being. At one point I realised that this isn’t the right way to move forward. Maybe I was seeking a redemption or something but not in the right way.
Now I pursue balance in life. Fulfilling my spiritual purpose and my worldly commitment. This is the better path.
Congratulations Kenny on making that recognition. It is a process, and the first step is realization. It strikes me that in each case, you were giving to something else at your own expense. One of my teachers Alan Morinis wrote that we all have our personal spiritual curriculum. We’ll keep getting the same test until we learn to pass it.
“Doing what is best for the company is not the same as doing what is best.”
If this could only be broadcast and brought to all of us so much earlier in life. This story sums up so incredibly well why I feel that so many of us spend a criminal amount of our lives chasing the wrong things because we don’t know any better. I too shared a similar experience, not even realizing prior to it that I wasn’t happy – I just thought it was the way life was supposed to be.
I love this story and its message. Thanks for sharing it.
Thank you so much Kevin. I really didn’t know any better. Knowing helps. as does my Mussar practice to help keep me from making those same mistakes again.
Well-said, Greg Marcus! Our culture often values productivity and “success” over family and health. I appreciate your wisdom!
You are very welcome Tracy. “Success” – the quotes say it all
Greg, WOW! Your post brought me to tears at the part of your story where mom was on the other end of the phone telling you some tragic news. You tell a great story through your words and I just want to say thank you for sharing. I believe the change you made was and is for the best. It’s like you said, in the moments where you can watch your daughter play, those are the moments to cherish, that you can never get back. I’m so glad that out of sad news, there was a positive outcome for you and your family. Many blessings and success in life to you.
Thank you Monique – I’m glad my story reached you.
As an FYI, my story doesn’t end here. Each chapter of “The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions” I share a bit from my journal, to show how each of the soul traits has interacted with my life. You can see the arc of how Mussar helped me bring my life towards balance. You are heartily invited to pick up a copy. You’ll love it.