Google CFO Patrick Pichette announced last week he is retiring, in his mid-50s. He’s staying on until a replacement can be found. Nothing new in an Exec deciding to step down after a fulfilling stint, but what caught my eye was the man wrote a lovely note about a beautiful moment atop Kilimanjaro, about working and making time for the rest of his life. Here it is in full.
After nearly 7 years as CFO, I will be retiring from Google to spend more time with my family. Yeah, I know you’ve heard that line before. We give a lot to our jobs. I certainly did. And while I am not looking for sympathy, I want to share my thought process because so many people struggle to strike the right balance between work and personal life.
This story starts last fall. A very early morning last September, after a whole night of climbing, looking at the sunrise on top of Africa – Mt Kilimanjaro. Tamar (my wife) and I were not only enjoying the summit, but on such a clear day, we could see in the distance, the vast plain of the Serengeti at our feet, and with it the calling of all the potential adventures Africa has to offer.
And Tamar out of the blue said “Hey, why don’t we just keep on going”. Let’s explore Africa, and then turn east to make our way to India, it’s just next door, and we’re here already. Then, we keep going; the Himalayas, Everest, go to Bali, the Great Barrier Reef… Antarctica, let’s go see Antarctica!?” Little did she know, she was tempting fate.
But then she asked the killer question: So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time? The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.
A few weeks later, I was happy back at work, but could not shake away THE question: When is it time for us to just keep going? And so began a reflection on my/our life. Through numerous hours of cycling last fall (my introvert happy place) I concluded on a few simple and self-evident truths:
First, The kids are gone. Two are in college, one graduated and in a start-up in Africa. Beautiful young adults we are very proud of. But the reality is that for Tamar and I, there will be no more Cheerios encrusted minivan, night watch because of ear infections, ice hockey rinks at 6:00am. Nobody is waiting for us/needing us.
Second, I am completing this summer 25-30 years of nearly non-stop work (depending on how you wish to cut the data). But as I count it now, it has also been a frenetic pace for about 1500 weeks now. Always on – even when I was not supposed to be. Especially when I was not supposed to be. And am guilty as charged – I love my job (still do), my colleagues, my friends, the opportunities to lead and change the world.
Third, this summer, Tamar and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. When our kids are asked by their friends about the success of the longevity of our marriage, they simply joke that Tamar and I have spent so little time together that “it’s really too early to tell” if our marriage will in fact succeed. If they could only know how many great memories we already have together. How many will you say? How long do you have? But one thing is for sure, I want more. And she deserves more. Lots more.
Allow me to spare you the rest of the truths. But the short answer is simply that I could not find a good argument to tell Tamar we should wait any longer for us to grab our backpacks and hit the road – celebrate our last 25 years together by turning the page and enjoy a perfectly fine mid life crisis full of bliss and beauty, and leave the door open to serendipity for our next leadership opportunities, once our long list of travels and adventures is exhausted.
In the end, life is wonderful, but nonetheless a series of trade offs, especially between business/professional endeavours and family/community. And thankfully, I feel I’m at a point in my life where I no longer have to have to make such tough choices anymore. And for that I am truly grateful. Carpe Diem.
So Patrick is hanging up his boots having been an integral part of the incredible Google story. The phenomenal success and celebritisation of tech entrepreneurs like Google founders Schmidt, Page and Brin has created a wave of startups. The allure of fame and fortune has attracted many, but as attractive as the siren of fortune may be, its sole pursuit of money that can sow the seeds of destruction for any new venture, and as Pichette says elsewhere, it’s never been about the money.
A strong sense of individualism and persistence are essential attributes of successful entrepreneurs, but most research concludes that financial gain is not the primary driver of great entrepreneurs. It is both too rare and, according to the research, actually impedes an entrepreneur’s ability to build a team that would produce great returns.
The fact that entrepreneurs continue to take extraordinary risks for a small expected return (from a probabilistic standpoint) indicates that something else is balancing the scales. The answer lies in what are becoming known as extra-rational motivations, the psychological rewards of being an entrepreneur and include benefits derived from:
- the thrill of competition
- the desire for adventure
- the joy of creation
- the satisfaction of team building
- the desire to achieve meaning in life
Ask any entrepreneur how much blood, sweat, tears (and soul) they’ve put into their startup, and you’d get an imprecise answer at best. The long hours often make the venture a one-time enterprise. They are more driven by success, more likely to take course of action that is uncertain, and to do something unproven. It’s because the challenge exists, it’s because it’s there.
Those three words, Because It’s There, were the drivers of George Mallory. The Fight for Everest is the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared near the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they had reached the top of the world.
The book’s black-and-white photographs and fold-out maps capture the imagination and carry you away to the Himalayas. You can see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes.
I have marked the passage of the book that etched an enduring memory, the description by Noel Odell, the expedition geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, 800 vertical feet from the summit on June 9, 1924:
There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud…
No evidence, apart from this testimony, has been found that they climbed higher than the First Step (one of three final physical stages to the summit) as their spent oxygen cylinders were found shortly below the First Step, and Irvine’s ice axe was found nearby in 1933. They never returned to their camp and died high on Everest.
On 1 May 1999, a frozen body was found at 26,760 ft. on the north face of the mountain. Name tags on the body’s clothing bore the name of G. Leigh Mallory. No subsequent searches have found either Irvine or a Kodak camera, known to be in their possession, which could hold the answer as to whether they were on the top of the world 30 years before Hilary and Tenzing.
Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing. Whether it will be proven that he reached the top or not, he certainly had climbed to an altitude of at least 28,000 feet in 1924 with clothing and equipment far inferior to what is available today, a remarkable feat.
Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s, joining the 1924 Everest expedition believing that at 37, it would be his third and last opportunity to climb the mountain. Mallory’s grandson, also named George Mallory, reached the summit of Everest in 1995. He left a picture of his grandparents at the summit citing unfinished business.
For Mallory, this was not recreation or physical challenge, he pursued the pure adventure of climbing. It was Mallory with the famous aphorism that, to this day, best summarises the avid climber’s pursuit, quoted as having replied to the question Why do you want to climb Mount Everest? with the retort Because it’s there.
President Kennedy quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, his own words with the same sentiment of ambition: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
While today climbing Everest is almost commonplace, back then it was the most daunting physical challenge available. The highest peak that had been ascended was Montblanc, at 15,000 feet. Remember this was the 1920s, Mallory had to hike through miles of uncharted Nepalese jungle. He is so revered that the ice-wall on the North Col which must be climbed for all who summit Everest via the North Route is named after him, the Mallory Step.
Mallory epitomises the same unwavering entrepreneurial ambition and attitude to succeed – focus and clarity on his goals, a tenacious will-to-win. Starting and running a small business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:
- Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed, they see the bigger picture, set massive goals and stay committed to achieving them regardless of challenges that arise. Mallory had this in abundance.
- Strong self-belief Entrepreneurs have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe in their ability to achieve them. Mallory had this confidence.
- Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas first to market. Both are pioneers in their aspirations and approach to the risk and opportunity before them.
- Competitive Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals is to be the best they can be. Mallory’s wasn’t competitive with other climbers – but with himself and the mountain before him.
- Highly energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high energy, restless and always trying to get to where they want to get.
- Accepting of obstacles Entrepreneurs are on the front line and hear the words it’s never been done, it can’t be done as opportunity. They readjust their path, obstacles are an expected part of the journey. Everest was both a physical and mental obstacle in Mallory’s journey.
So back to Patrick Pichette’s exit note. Sometimes you need to remind yourselves as to why you’re working so hard every day. If you haven’t looked up from the grindstone for sometime, your vision can get cloudy. Mallory’s story and attitude reminds me that there’s a purpose and a reason for your dedication, discipline and hard work, and Pichette’s note tells us to keep checking in that the motivation and purpose is still there, you’re not just going through the motions on autopilot.
Don’t get lost in life’s busy shuffle. Both Pichette and Mallory remind me not to just ‘do things’ but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off a list but for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it makes a difference.
As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamt since I was a boy of standing atop this mountain, and it’s worth it to risk your life to make a dream come true. Business life isn’t as risky to life and limb, but there is no finishing line, just keep reaching out and pushing yourself, and ask yourself why do I want this?
I guess Pichette once had the same answer as Mallory, Because It’s There, but now it’s time to move onto the next phase of his life.