About Davidimage003

 

The Long Version

My early years were spent in a small town, with all the pluses and minuses that can bring: knowing everyone, knowing the limits of the world, knowing what is expected, but also feeling confined, limited, that there was a much larger world out there to see and experience.

School was easy, and I studied just enough to make good grades — using most of my time and energy for sports, clubs, and organizations of all sorts. I liked to do things, enter things, join things, and win things. I won a lot, both honors and competitions, was Valedictorian and Most Likely to Succeed, but I was also shy in some way, and insecure in several ways as well, so I was always pushing myself to be active, to make friends, to succeed — partly in an attempt to overcome the shyness and insecurity (but making little progress in this during my high school years).

Then college. Ah, college. College seemed like a great and grand new world. There were so many different ideas, values, kinds of people, possibilities. Since I knew almost no one, I could be a new person, live a new life, create a new me. I set off on this task with great excitement and energy. I could not banish the frequent bouts of teenage angst, but I could create many moments of romance, fun, achievement, success, intensity, excitement, and friendship to go with them. College was a marvelous time, and I made the most of it, staying 6 years, earning two degrees, trying 7 different majors, exploring intimate relationships, having countless deep conversations, joining dozens of clubs and organizations, and developing leadership skills (president of the Student Government, of my fraternity, and perhaps a dozen other clubs and organizations as well).

After college, I continued living a collegiate lifestyle, working in political campaigns and in a couple of educational and governmental positions, but operating from the energy and patterns of college life: few possessions, late nights, moving often, intense projects, no long-term responsibilities or commitments.

Then, at the age of 26, I dove into the waters of the entrepreneurial ocean, taking on the full-time duties of chairman and president of two fledgling companies — companies I had started with three friends. (I saw no problem in starting two companies at once; I would just work eighty hours a week instead of forty).

After five years of round-the-clock effort, as I reached the age of 31, we were finally learning to swim in the treacherous currents of competitive business. (We were amazed, and a bit chagrined, that it had taken us so long to succeed, because: 1) we were young and naive and almost completely oblivious to the time it takes to accomplish anything in the real world, and 2) we were extremely ambitious as well as young and naive, so we had set outrageously ambitious goals for ourselves.)

I mustn’t skip over those five tortuous years too quickly. After the fact, it is easy to look back and see them as a steady progress toward success — but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the feeling was often of hanging over a precipice, looking down into the abyss of complete failure — of imminent, total collapse — framed by occasional bursts of bravado, escapism, gallows humor, and infrequent but precious outbreaks of youthful fun.

What strikes me now as I think back on those five years is a sense of continuous effort, almost without a break, without a pause — without coming up for a breath of air. (It was dangerous to surface, you see, for there were bankers and creditors banging on the top of the pressure cooker we had created, asking, not always politely, what was going on in that money-eating cauldron we had built.) We often felt like we were in a war, which fortunately included the camaraderie and bonding that risky or difficult team effort can bring. Hanging on for dear life during those five tortuous, exhilarating years, we finally began to turn the corner.

The next period was filled with steady progress and many victories. After four more years of effort, as I reached the ripe old age of 35, we had a fantastic success on our hands, were starting to make substantial profits, and our business prospects seemed unlimited. To mark those achievements, as well as honor the feeling of importance associated with entering mid-life, I sold the majority of my stock in the companies and retired.

 

What Is There to Do When You Retire at 35?

For a young man who had worked night and day for years, retirement seemed like an incredible luxury and blessing. Having made enough money to be free from work — if I managed the money wisely — I could explore all those things for which there had been no time during the frantic years. I could read, travel, romance. I could do nothing for a while. I could sleep. (And sleep I did, staying in bed as late as I wanted each day.)

As it turns out, there is an incredible feeling of freedom associated with being able to stay in bed every day until you are ready to get up. Perhaps that’s why the French philosopher René Descartes stayed in bed to work on his philosophy: it gave him a sense of freedom to think new thoughts. But staying in bed every morning also feels decadent, as if one is putting oneself outside the natural human condition, is setting oneself outside the normal human pattern of life. (Perhaps that’s why the sin of sloth was created: to drive us decadent types back into the “normal” fold.)

For me, as the weeks and then months rolled by, a very interesting thing occurred: I began to realize that the model around which I had formed my image of retirement was that of a vacation. Then slowly it dawned on me that a vacation is only a “vacation” when you are getting away from something, are taking time to “vacate” from the primary thing you are doing. Retirement is quite different, for in retirement you have no external identity, no role in the world – there is nothing you are going back to which will give structure to your days, or a definition of who you are and what your life is about. There is nothing from which you are “vacating.”

Most ominously, you don’t have an answer to that terrible “What do you do?” question. (That insistent, probing, monster of a question that everyone you meet enjoys torturing you with – to see you squirm: What do you do? What do you do?) If you don’t have a good answer, such as “Oh, I’m a lawyer — I’m just taking a long vacation,” then the moorings of your world begin to shift. You begin to feel the pressure to Do Something, to Be Somebody — from friends and family as well as strangers. (I quickly learned that many people in our culture simply do not know how to relate to, or place in the social hierarchy, a person who has “retired” at 35.)

After more than a year in this limbo, I began to consider finding another job or creating a new career. However, I had already considered and rejected many career paths before my business days. For instance, educational administration was a field I had considered during college, so immediately after graduation I accepted a job on the administrative staff of my alma mater as assistant to the dean of students. It was interesting, but after a year it was clear that this was not for me. I had also attended law school for a while, and found that it was a good fit for my skill set, but inside it became increasingly clear that I did not want to travel that path.

How about politics and government? If anything had seemed like my calling when I was growing up, this was it. Before the entrepreneurial phase I had pitched myself headlong into Howard Baker’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. And he won! (There’s nothing like that first successful campaign for a political junkie.) After the victory, I worked part time on Senator Baker’s staff while finishing a master’s degree in history and philosophy. Then I moved to the national scene and became the head of a division of Nelson Rockefeller’s campaign for president. (To keep things in perspective, I should convey that it was a very small division: my role was that of Director of Special Groups for Rockefeller, better known as “famous people for Rockefeller.” I wasn’t famous, of course; my role was to line up the endorsements of people who were.)

During the campaign I met Dr. Henry Kissinger, Rockefeller’s foreign-policy advisor, and roped him into recruiting other famous scholars to provide endorsements for the campaign. (Notwithstanding all of the endorsements, Rockefeller lost. It almost seemed that the populace wasn’t paying attention to what these famous people were saying — or to my labors. How could that be?) Anyway, after the election Kissinger became the foreign policy advisor for Richard Nixon (the candidate he had opposed — isn’t it fascinating how these things work?), and I joined his team at the White House as a member of the National Security Council staff.

What an incredible experience for a young man of 25. I can’t say anyone paid much attention to my opinions about foreign policy, but I had a fascinating perch from which to observe how the presidency works, and how foreign policy is made. After a year at the White House, as if riches were tumbling forth from the horn of plenty, I was asked to serve as campaign coordinator, chief speechwriter, and issues director for Winfield Dunn’s gubernatorial campaign in Tennessee. He had just won the primary there, and three of us met in Nashville to put together the statewide campaign for the general election, which was less than four months away. (Four months to create a statewide campaign – now that was an intense time.)

Deciding to leave the White House was a hard decision, but I was interested in running for office myself, and working in a campaign in my state seemed like a good place to start that process. A few months later, when Winfield won, I had another wrenching, life-changing decision to make: whether to accept a position on his staff, or take the entrepreneurial route to make my fortune. (Political power or wealth, which should an ambitious young man pursue first?) As you already know, I chose to seek my fortune.

However, my strong interest in politics and government didn’t disappear as I took the entrepreneurial plunge. Governor Dunn appointed me to the Tennessee Board of Regents (the ninth-largest system of higher education in the country), and before long I was spending a good bit of time as Chairman of the Academic Affairs Committee, and then Vice-Chairman of the Board. (The Governor served as Chairman.) As we began to turn the corner in our business ventures, I joined numerous other civic organizations, and worked in several other political campaigns. (I had to find something to do with the extra twenty to thirty hours a week freed up as I cut my business hours back to only forty or fifty a week.)

By the time of my retirement, these political and civic activities had led a number of people to encourage me to run for public office, including mayor of Knoxville, and later the U.S. Senate. When good friend Lamar Alexander announced his gubernatorial campaign in 1977, I energetically supported his efforts, wondering if I would run for statewide office in the next few years myself. Lamar was elected in November of 1978, just as my business retirement was being finalized, and he asked me to join his cabinet.

The preceding list of achievements is partly bragging (I can feel it as I reread what I have written), but it is also to provide you, the reader, the context for what was to happen next. During the above-chronicled years, while exploring several career alternatives and developing numerous life-options, I also had a growing sense that neither politics, nor business, nor law, nor education was right for my life. The why of this feeling wasn’t clear, but the feeling was strong, and something in me decided to honor it. I therefore declined a cabinet position for the second time, and headed into the mysterious land of the inner journey at the age of 35.

 



Seeking Wisdom

I hadn’t traveled far into this unknown territory until I began to realize that if I didn’t have a regular job, I had to find a definition for my life that seemed meaningful — at least to me. I had to have a reason to get up each morning that seemed worthwhile. To fill this need, I began exploring some of the aspects of life that had been pushed aside during the preceding, ambitious years.

I began to spend more time on relationships, both fraternal and romantic. I had many long conversations with friends about the meaning of life, and for the first time began to feel I had enough time to consider marriage. Within a few years I was married — to a brilliant woman who was in the process of changing careers to become a psychologist. We bought a house in the mountains, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the daily world I had been completely immersed within.

We traveled extensively: I had always wanted to see the world, all the magical and mysterious places one reads about, sees in movies, and glimpses on those glossy travel posters. So travel we did, marveling at the incredible diversity of people and places this earth of ours is home to.

And I read! exploring the fantastic array of images and ideas that we human beings have constructed for our edification and enjoyment. I renewed my acquaintance with an earlier love, philosophy, and attended workshops with and read widely in the works of Joseph Campbell. I spent a lot of time exploring the psychology of Carl Jung, and attended many conferences and spiritual retreats at monasteries — Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist. Gradually the realization dawned that I was following that age-old admonition of Socrates and the ancient Greeks: “Know thyself.” And I was contemplating why Solomon, when asked what he most wanted, replied “Wisdom” (and realizing that the good things that came his way in life hinged on his choice to make that lady his primary purpose and aim).

Let me hasten to say that this journey was not always pleasant, or easy, or fun. There were many struggles along the way; about how to live, what was right, who to be. There were many buried issues to confront: a desire to be perfect, wanting always to be right, feeling unappreciated, much concern about “what people might think.” There were numerous fears and anxieties with which to wrestle, and much time vanished down the bottomless pit of frustration, escapism, lack of focus, lack of discipline, computer trivia, and just plain laziness. There was a painful divorce after 25 years with my wife.

I should also make clear that there was not a clean line of demarcation between the inner search and the rest of my life. The inner quest actually began in my teen years, and during the in-the-world times was always hanging around, popping up in the books I was reading and in conversations. The inner and outer currents have always been mixed in my life. When I retired, and the inner search began in earnest, I continued for a while to serve on various civic, educational, and political boards. (At one point early on in retirement I was on at least a dozen, headed 2 or 3, and was spending many hours a week on these volunteer activities.) Additionally, I had taken over management of my investments, and was constantly trying to fend off that swirling black hole of financial research that feels “crucial,” that it must be done right now – a black hole that can suck into itself many more hours than there are in a day. For good measure, I felt I “had” to build a small residential enclave in the mountains to protect the land around me from commercial development.

All this was much too much, of course, so I gradually withdrew from many in-the-world activities, and concentrated more and more time on my inner journey, and sharing what I was learning with others. Having given people books on the things I was interested in for years, I realized that two common responses were: “This is pretty difficult, and “I just can’t get started in this book, because I don’t see how it relates to my life.” One morning I woke up and thought, “OK, I’ll see if I can write something that is more accessible to people today,” and began the manuscript of The Quest for Meaning: The Inner Journey of Odysseus. When the draft was finished, and friends kept asking what I was studying and writing about, I developed a workshop using Odysseus’s story as the jumping off point.

Many workshops later, my inner journey and the sharing of that journey have merged into a single stream. So on this web site I will share some of the lessons I have learned, and a few pieces of wisdom I have collected from others along the way in a new book: On Being Human: An Operator’s Manual. May it be of service to you as you travel life’s way.