I’m coming home late from the airport again. It’s close to midnight as I pull into the driveway. The house is dark. Everyone has long since gone to bed.
I wrestle my suitcase out of the back seat. There isn’t quite enough room for two cars and a grown man in this garage. I pull the door closed behind me. The doorknob is still sticking; I forgot to call about the replacement. I need to put that on my list for the weekend.
I haul my stuff upstairs where I do my regular scan of the living room. There are some socks on the floor, probably my oldest son’s. I grab them and stuff them into my coat pocket. There are some headphones, too, and a paperback book. I stack them into a nice pile on the coffee table. A throw blanket is on the floor. I stoop down to fold it, almost unconsciously, in the dark.I set my briefcase down, throw the socks in the laundry basket, and start to head up to bed.
I’ve done this ritual dozens – no, hundreds – of times now over my career. Always late at night, always in the half-light of a single lamp left on to welcome me home. I am motivated not so much by a need to be tidy as by a desire to leave the room looking well-attended for the people who will come down in the morning to mess it back up again.
Recently I’ve started to notice a change in the things on the living room floor.
For what seemed to be endless years, I picked up binkies – pacifiers left in the middle of the floor, evidence of a toddler’s ability to drop into instant sleep whenever, wherever his or her energy runs dry. Some nights I’d make a pile of three or four pacifiers, knowing they’d be widely dispersed by the time I got back again. So many pacifiers, for years.
And yet quite quickly the pacifiers faded into blocks and Tinker Toys and Hot Wheels. More than once I nearly broke my neck tripping on a miniature Camaro or Cutlass Supreme. There were piles of picture books, too, spread across the floor.
Just as suddenly, the cars and picture books became Legos and stuffed animals – often configured into elaborate displays abandoned mid-adventure at bedtime, good guys facing down the bad guys. I could look at the suspended battles and see my kids were learning what we tell them: The good guys always win in the end.
There are still Legos now, but far fewer, and they are much more organized. I’m just as likely to see an iPad, although those seem to find their way up to bedrooms. Imagine that. There’s homework left out, but the piles are quite orderly. There’s a novel, perhaps, usually teen dystopia – the latest Hunger Games or Divergent or Maze Runner.
The pacifiers are gone, long gone. On vacation this past summer, my wife found one in a suitcase, stuffed in a front pocket. She brought it to me in tears, saying, “What a nice thing to find.”
I love my work, intensely – it has chosen me as much as I have chosen it. I have spent my life honing my craft and my firm, motivated by an audacity to believe we can offer something to the world and a humility to know we need to offer more.
And yet tonight as I tidy up the living room, something stops me. I turn back from the stairs and sit down in the shadows. I begin to thumb through a photo album. There are pictures of much younger faces, theirs and mine. And I can remember every single photo – where I was, what we did, how I felt behind the camera, thinking “Save this day, save this day, save this day.”
As much as I love my work, I can’t say the same about all of the business trips. I can’t look at a ticket stub to Dallas or Washington ten years later and instantly recall why I went there or what I did. About what seemed so important that I had to miss the daytime actually spent living together in the living room, instead of being the nighttime cleaning crew picking up after it.
I go to bed troubled and anxious, unsure how to balance the desire to achieve, the need to provide, and the longing to spend time with those for whom we provide it.
In the morning over breakfast I look over at my toddler. Only he isn’t a toddler. He’s thirteen; he’s taller than my wife; he looks more like a man than a boy. He says, “I’m so glad you’re home, dad.”
I am thinking of my thirteen-year-old toddler when I get to the office later that morning. The phone rings – it is one of my friends in the industry. I am blessed in so many ways; one of the biggest is that because of the exploration we do together on our engagements, our clients start their relationship with us as customers and emerge as friends.
She says, “Jeff, I’m calling with an opportunity. Our annual national conference is coming up, and we're doing a large session on leadership and change. You would be perfect to lead it. Will you do it?”
I’m flattered, and excited. “Sounds fantastic. What are the details?”
She says, “Well, it would be three hours, so you’d really be able to get into the material. Now, you know us – I’m not sure we would be able to pay you for it.” I make a mental note to write a blog post about the value of free advice.
“Wow, don’t sell me all at once,” I tease her. “When is it?”
“Well, that’s the other thing,” she says. “It’s on Saturday morning, so you wouldn’t have to disrupt the rest of your week to come.”
Across my desk is a picture of my family. We took the picture just last weekend, which somehow became five years ago. In the picture, my oldest son is eight. He’s wearing a tie and a blue blazer. I can remember how bright it was that day.
I draw in my breath. “Here’s the thing,” I say. “I’m sorry, but the answer is no.”
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These Stories on Inspiration
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