Saturday, October 23, 2010

Million Dollar Question

The window of our room at the Best Western, Saratoga Springs looks like an ancient black & white television as an uninspired, monochrome dawn slowly gains luminosity filling the space around me with the kind of pure, clean light that reveals everything just as it is, the kind of light you'd never see in the movies. Preparing for her 10K and wondering why they decided to start it so late, Iris is bouncing about the room like a kid waiting for the UPS guy to knock on the door with a long awaited prize.

Last night, we had an amazing dinner with my daughter Eila and her boyfriend. Eila is now twenty-eight, well established in her career. Nonetheless, I thought it would be fun to play with some of the questions that Faith outlined in her post, Crystalize Your Vision Before College. So I asked Eila, "Let's say that you were going to appear on Oprah tomorrow because you'd just won a contest to receive a million dollars that you could invest anyway you wanted. You could start a business, you could go to school, you could purchase property. The only catch is that you'd be required to use all the money within five years. What would you do?"

Since they arrived on Thursday, Eila and her boyfriend had been talking about opening their own restaurant. Eila is the general manager of a large, successful restaurant in Harvard Square. She's saturated herself with hands-on experience in all aspects of running a restaurant from working barehanded along side the macho cooks in the high-pressure, high-volume kitchen to recruiting and training wait-staff to book-keeping and accounting to serving on local civic commissions. Her boyfriend is a cook who's learned not only how to prepare food well, but also how to maximize the revenue per item served. He's become a walking encyclopedia for the production cost of all foods Italian, considering not only the cost of materials, but also, labor, rent, machines and maintenance.

Together, they make a great team and since they'd been talking for a couple of years about the day they open their restaurant, I figured that Eila's plan for Oprah would have been laid out in that zone. I waited for Eila's crisp, clear and well considered response. And waited... And waited...

Finally, she mustered, "Uhhh... Uhmm... I don't know."

And the conversation was afoot. We talked about determining "what" before worrying about "how" and the pitfalls of confusing or commingling the two. We talked about sunk-cost decisions and avoiding the trap of making next-step choices based on previous-step choices. We talked about aspirations from childhood. Finally, I asked Eila, "Let's say it's time to turn over the game board and start all over, you might not even choose the same game. What would you do?"

Eila finally said, "Well dad, I know this may sound ridiculous, but I'd become a veterinarian. I love animals and I'd love to be able to work with them and help them."

Eila went on to describe how, since she was a child, she'd wanted to be a veterinarian. It had been her dream. Since then, Eila's path has taken her from academic achievement to music and acting to fashion design, living in Florence, Italy and on Union Square West, to waiting tables and now running a restaurant. She's done well and invested a lot in getting to where she is. To walk away from all that would be... irresponsible... stupid... wrong... right?

As our conversation progressed, Eila's boyfriend remained undeterred in his restaurant plans. He chimed in mentioning Eila's squeamishness regarding blood and trauma, suggesting that she may aspire to being a vet, but that she doesn't have the stomach for it. So, I asked him the same question that Eila had started with and he was quick to answer, "I'd open five restaurants instead of one and then I'd grow them to make a lot of money."

So I asked him, "OK, what if it were ten million dollars, instead of one million dollars?"

He stopped asking, "So, I could spend it any way I wanted? Could I spend it in ten years instead of five?"

I said, "Yeah, sure."

He said, "Oh, well then I'd go back to school and become a doctor specializing in internal medicine."

Eila, Iris and I all looked at him and then at each other, smiles forming on each face. I said, "So wait a minute. You guys are both working hard to open a restaurant when, if you had all the resources, one of you would become a vet and the other an MD?"

From there we spun through notions of practical versus impractical, the causality of beliefs, and not looking to statistics when trying to determine your personal likelihood of success. It was a lot fun.

I don't know where they'll end up, but I'm sure that Eila and her boyfriend had an interesting conversation driving back to Cambridge last night.

Faith, thank you for your inspired, playful questions. Even if nothing changes for Eila and her boyfriend, everything changed. I can see that your questions have no expiration date; they can be useful to anyone at any age.

As I talked with Eila last night, I also realized the importance of one additional qualifier: being able to turn the board over, to reset the game. Even with unlimited resources, it's easy for our past decisions to limit our current decisions, like someone who's spent months using a hand shovel to dig a foundation for a house refusing help from a friend who just bought a backhoe because he'd already got halfway there.

Saving the how for later, what would you do with a million, no, make that ten-million dollars and a reset button?

Happy Saturday,

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