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Goodbye Career, Hello Success - An Interesting Read.
If you want to land the job of your dreams—even if you want to become a CEO—rid yourself of raw ambition. Avoid promotions that make perfect sense.
Accept work based on friendship alone. Trust your gut. Then watch whathappens: prosperity of the heart, soul, and—yes—the wallet.
By conventional standards, my résumé is a disaster. Eleven companies in 25 years, not to mention a crazy quilt of jobs: community development manager, music promoter, corporate lawyer, CFO at a technology start-up, and chief executive at a video game company, just to name a few. I zigged, then I
zagged, then I zigged some more. By my résumé alone, no one should hire me. Except that these days, plenty of companies would. And they do. At last, my "non-career" career makes perfect sense—to them and to me.
Right now, I'm a "virtual CEO." That's a job title that was cooked up for my business card two years ago to describe my latest incarnation. I work with flesh-and-blood CEOs, mainly of Silicon Valley start-ups, to set strategy, raise money, and put a dynamic organization together very quickly. I work with five or six companies at a time, and I'm paid largely with equity. That
way, everyone can be sure that I'm earning my keep. So far, being a virtual CEO has been a blast—fun, exciting, interesting. Everything you could want in a job.
But how did I get here? By not having a career. Now, that wasn't
intentional. Like every other ambitious, Ivy League—educated baby boomer, I set out to have a career. I longed to impress friends, relatives, and former roommates with my titles and authority. I craved the chance to march up a corporate ladder—any corporate ladder at all. And I tried, I really did. But I just couldn't. My whole life, I have been constitutionally unable to playthe career game by its rules. So I ended up following another route: taking jobs that, one after another, made me happy. Jobs that sparked my passion. What a lucky accident that was.
While it was in full throttle, my career made no sense looking through the windshield of the car. In fact, for many years, I couldn't fully explain my professional path to anyone, especially not my family. But today, looking in the rearview mirror, my career makes enormous sense. After all, it ultimately landed me in *my* perfect job. Sometimes I feel as if I couldn't have become a virtual CEO any other way. I'm not going to argue that a "career" like mine is for everyone. It's not, especially with its emotional and financial ups and downs—and its unnerving
lack of a safety net. But a passion-driven career does have some major virtues that perhaps make it a good choice for more people than suspect it themselves. First, it's never dull. Scary, yes. Confounding, often. But boring, never. You're always learning about yourself, other people, business, and the world, and that feels terrific. It feels meaningful. Second, a passion-driven career is good for the companies you work for because you're there for the love of the work. You can feel some satisfaction from giving your all to an organization. Third, a
passion-driven career, with all its fluidity and flexibility, actually happens to make supreme sense in the ever-changing landscape of the new economy. Conventional careers require that you put one foot in front of the other, steady as you go. First you get one kind of experience, then you get another. Inch by inch, you march forward. The noncareer career doesn't involve much marching. Instead, when opportunity calls, you leap. And when opportunity dries up, you move on. You also tango, roll around in the mud, and jump for joy. It all depends on where you have taken yourself.
But the best thing about a career like mine is that it isn't a career at all. It's a life. Several years ago, just when I thought my job history couldn't get any more unconventional, it dawned on me that I had to stop separating Randy Komisar into two boxes: work and personal. I realized that one person went to work, and one person came home and laughed or cried about how work felt. So, only one person had to make decisions about which jobs to take and which jobs to leave. There couldn't be a distinction anymore between my career and my happiness, or my career and my identity. They are all pieces of one life—my life.
When you lump together career goals and personal goals to get life, you are certain to find at first that day-to-day existence is more confusing. It's definitely easier to compartmentalize, to do whatever it takes to get the money at work and make excuses later to your family and friends. "After all, it's only business. I'm not really like that," you say. But over time, I've also discovered that when you stop distinguishing between work life and personal life, you stop caring about a lot of things that used to seem so important—like the title on your business card. At the beginning, that feels frightening—and humbling, too. But it also feels authentic. Better yet, it feels sustainable. I'm 45 now, and I feel as if, finally, I don't have to survive solely on adrenaline, speed, and agility. I can just follow one passion—one job—to the next and call it life. Father's Footsteps
My career started out just as it was supposed to. I was a young
overachiever. I grew up in a comfortable suburb of Rochester, New York, where I excelled in school and participated in all the right extracurricular activities. Right on schedule, I got into Brown University. After that, I figured, all I needed was a great job, and I would be on my way to career fame and fortune.
But there was one distinct impediment to my plan, and it was buried in my genes. My father was not what you would call a career man. He never seemed to be at the same job very long. He owned a restaurant, a used-car lot, a gas station. He was an independent sales rep for paint, lighting fixtures, and jewelry. He started many little ventures, met early success, got tired
of each, and left them to wither. Between those endeavors, he would sell anything he could get his hands on: water purifiers, burglar alarms, even Nigerian dried fish.
My father was also, let's say, an avid gambler. The casinos thought enough of him to regularly fly him into their clutches, and when he wasn't in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, he would find a good game of poker in town. Risk taking was in his blood. Now, I realize that it is also in mine—although it has played itself out in very different ways. I like to gamble, but not with money. I like to gamble with ideas, as many at a time as is humanly possible. I like to pour energy into them and see if they'll ignite.
Even though I entered Brown with dreams of a high-powered areer in something—anything—the school itself did little to send me on my way. I mean that as a compliment. With few required courses, the opportunity to invent your own majors, and a pass-fail option throughout, Brown left me to navigate my own education. I quickly realized that other students were my
best teachers. I fell into an eclectic group of free thinkers who, after a day of classes, sat around into the wee hours discussing their passions: union organizing, human rights, theater, writing, music, filmmaking. By graduation, I had been exposed to dozens of ideas and occupations, any one of which could have taken me a lifetime to pursue. I was intrigued by them all.
I was an economics major, and, for a while, I considered a career in the field but wasn't exactly sure what that would entail. I was on the verge of dedicating my senior year to earning a master's degree in economics when at the last minute I became excited by something old, literature, and something new, computers. Forget the master's degree, I decided. There were ther interesting worlds out there to investigate.
Upon my graduation in 1976, I had no idea what to do next. I applied to Harvard Business School, which had the good sense to reject me. I then applied to big banks and advertising agencies, mostly in New York. I didn't know a thing about either type of business, but from 10,000 feet they looked interesting. Chemical Bank took the bait and called me in for interviews.
But officials there quickly realized what soon became clear to me as well: I was not a banker. The ad agencies saved themselves the trouble and didn't respond to me at all.
I thought IBM might be interested in me because I had taken a computer course in my senior year and was well versed in punch cards—quite an unusual skill at the time for someone other than an engineer. I applied at the company's Providence, Rhode Island, office and took some kind of personality tests in the morning before my afternoon interviews. When I returned from lunch, the results were in, and they politely, but firmly, informed me that an interview would not be necessary. My high-powered career wasn't off to a promising start, but I wasn't worried. I just needed to find the right jumping-off point, I figured, and the race would begin. Then, one summer day, long after most Brown students were off to their jobs as White House interns or astronauts in training, I spotted a small notice
on a bulletin board in the placement office. It advertised a job in the planning department of the Providence Mayor's Office of Community Development. One interview later, I was smitten with the prospect of working to improve the city. I would be doing some economic analysis, working with a nice group, and helping poor people get a fair break with housing. Plus, the
pay was okay, and the job came with a desk. I took it.
The city hall gig was fascinating, but it didn't fulfill my passion for business—for making deals. Not that I knew that deal making was one of my passions at the time. (Who used the word "deal" in 1976?) I soon found a second job to fill my nights and weekends. I attached myself to the Banzini Brothers, a small operation that staged rock concerts and other performances in the area between Boston and New York. In short order, I learned that
there actually were jobs where people made money while thoroughly enjoying themselves. You have to remember, these were the days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Crazy as it may sound, my two jobs didn't satisfy me completely. I had an idea that teaching might be an interesting career direction. So, in this same period, I became an economics instructor at Johnson & Wales College, a small liberal arts school in Providence. There, I taught one evening class per term, mainly to returning Vietnam veterans.
I kept at these three parallel "careers" for much of two years, and along the way I picked up knowledge that still guides me today. I learned about the byzantine politics of government organizations. I discovered what aroller coaster the entertainment business could be and realized that our
cultural heroes could have childlike egos and one-dimensional personalities. And at Johnson & Wales, I saw that credentials could be bestowed for a price. Still, the polygamous nature of my professional life just didn't feel right. I knew none of my current jobs was going to pan out into the "big" career I had dreamed of. Plus, I wasn't suffering, and as far as I could tell from my college friends who had landed jobs with *Fortune* 500 companies and the like, real careers involved a great deal of pain and angst.
I decided I had to get serious. In 1978, I applied to Harvard Law School, convinced that my business intuition would substitute for an MBA. (Little did I know that the sum total of my business experience at the time actually amounted to the equivalent of running a lemonade stand.) The law, on the other hand, was something that I needed to crack; it appeared to me that
lawyers were the real movers and shakers. They were the wise consiglieres at the mayor's office, the fixers for the Banzini Brothers, the real-estate developers in the community development program, and the agents for the stars. Many of them impressed me with their structured, deductive thinking.
All I needed was a good dose of that, and my career would be on its way.
At Harvard Law School, I threw myself into my studies. But even with my eyes fixed on the prize, I felt out of step. My peers roamed the campus in Brooks Brothers suits, scoring interviews at prestigious law firms. I couldn't bring myself to join the fray. The summer after my first year, I successfully avoided the huge salaries of private practice and found a work-study job in the San Francisco district attorney's office, prosecuting white-collar crime. My second summer, I deviated from the norm again and worked at the Federal Trade Commission.
During the school year, I made ends meet with a work-study stint at MassPIRG, Ralph Nader's public-interest research group in Massachusetts. The job injected a shot of passion into my otherwise sterile law school existence. And that gave me an idea: I could piece together the high-powered career I had dreamed about by working a dry, prestigious job during the day
and by nurturing a rich, satisfying life of public-interest work—or whatever else excited me at the time—at night. Not perfect, I reasoned, but close.
My what-if scenario made even more sense when Ronald Reagan was elected president. My law school adviser pulled me aside soon afterward. "The money that funds public-interest law firms is going to dry up," he warned. "You might want to take a job with a big-time law firm for a few years, learn the ropes, build a résumé, and then get back into it." I agreed that sounded like a good plan.
It was a boom time for private law firms, and they needed Harvard grads—even oddballs like me. I joined one of the biggest old-line firms in Boston,Gaston Snow and Ely Bartlett, as a litigation associate. Little did Iunderstand then that the practice of law was transforming from a profession for generalists to a business for specialists. Litigation meant wading through piles and boxes and cabinets of documents. Creativity was reserved for twisting recedents and looking for loopholes. My 9-to-5 law school drudgery became an 8-to-8 weatshop, six days a week. So much for my rich and satisfying after-hours life of volunteer work.
I was unhappy at Gaston Snow, but not enough to be looking for a new job. I was suffering sufficiently—I figured I had to be on the right track. Just stick it out for a few more years. But then love intervened. My wife-to-be, Debra, was graduating from Harvard Business School and was heading to Palo Alto, California, to work at Hewlett-Packard. Gaston had an office just down the street in Silicon Valley. I maneuvered for a job there, got it, and off
Adventures in the Valley
It was 1983. All that I knew about Silicon Valley came from a *Time* cover story about Apple Computer. But as soon as I arrived, I realized I had landed in a place where important things were happening. Silicon Valley was a haven for independent thinkers. Better yet, it was a place where people liked to come up with, and bet on, big ideas. If you bet right, you could win big—no matter your age, title, or years of experience.
My new environment felt exactly right, but I still had that messy career question to work out. Sure, a bright young person could get ahead in Silicon Valley—but what about a bright young lawyer? I wasn't optimistic. More important, I wasn't even sure that I wanted to continue being a lawyer at all, stuck in an office, doing the dreary paperwork of a legal specialist while, outside, intellectual fireworks were exploding.
Right from the beginning, my clients at the Palo Alto office of Gaston Snow were mostly young software programmers. They weren't astute businesspeople by and large, but they had talent, and they were inventing the future in their garages. From my days managing rock musicians, I had a good sense of how to relate to programmers. I knew what made them tick—their love of creative work and their uneasiness with commerce—and how I could help them build success from their ideas. We were a good match.
But Gaston Snow was struggling. Within a couple of years, I jumped ship to another firm, San Francisco-based Farella Braun & Martel. The partners there valued their personal and intellectual freedom; they often changed specialties when they became bored, even at the expense of the bottom line. Perhaps I had found a high-powered, prestigious law firm where I fit in, I told myself.
I had the good fortune in my first year to land a big client and a big deal. George Lucas was selling Pixar, then a high-end graphics hardware business, to Steve Jobs, who had recently left Apple. By that time, I had transformed myself from a litigator into a "technology lawyer," which is another way of saying I was a jack-of-all-trades who could define, protect, and trade in intellectual property. I had worked my way into a hot specialty.
In the midst of the Pixar deal, I warmed to the idea that I had finally found a kind of law I could practice. But looking back now, I realized I was just basking in the glow of the deal's celebrities. In the end, it was too distant.
I remember the night the Pixar deal closed. There was a party in the firm's fanciest conference room. Champagne flowed, people laughed and congratulated one another. But while the clients joked and cavorted, I was elsewhere—in the document room down the hall, to be exact—making sure the deal's i's were dotted and the t's crossed. As I looked at the party through glass walls, I stewed. I wanted to be in their room writing the script, not in another room filing it.
If I had had an inkling about my true self, I might have moved on right then. Instead, I just persisted in a state of confusion. I told myself I had found an area of law in which I was skilled. I liked my coworkers. I was making more money than I needed. But I couldn't deny that I was unhappy. I was marching along to someone else's drummer.
Again, my plan was to stick it out, but it just so happened that counsel for one of the other parties in the Pixar deal noticed my work and recommended me to Apple, which was looking for in-house counsel. Even though I had no intention of taking the job—if anything, I wanted Apple as a client for my firm—I went on the interview. After all, I was a Harvard lawyer, and I had been taught well that the high art of law took place in private firms.
In-house practice was for attorneys who couldn't hack it. The problem was, the people at Apple were infectious with creativity. They believed they were changing the world, not just selling computers and surely not just researching case law. Unexpectedly, my resistance to working in-house started to melt away. How bad could it be?
Very, according to my colleagues at Farella. When I told them about my offer from Apple, they were aghast. How could I jettison such a promising career? I would never be able to get back on the high road, they warned. I was settling for mediocrity. If I just stuck with private practice, they argued, all the bounty of being a prestigious partner would eventually be mine.
The next day, completely at a loss, I rode my bicycle mile after mile through the golden hills of Marin County. I have always been an avid rider and do some of my best thinking in the saddle. But 75 miles later, I had no better idea of what to do.
The answer came to me first thing the next morning. I walked into the office and, in a glance, saw my future. There, lining Farella's hallway, were the offices of the associates, then the junior partners, followed by the senior partners, crowned at the end by the managing partner. Nothing about the tidy scene excited me. In fact, it made me groan. I yearned for the energy that Apple was offering me. I quit that week.
In Apple's Core
In 1986, Apple was on a tear. The Macintosh was going strong, and the company was ripe with opportunities. Officially, I was a lawyer working in the firm's small but efficient legal department. But with encouragement from my boss—and Apple's senior managers—I dove into deal making.
With every deal, with every day, I learned more. I learned about the high-tech industry. I learned how large organizations think, make decisions, and operate. I had never been exposed to a corporation's internal machinations before, and I was senior enough in the company—eventually becoming senior counsel for half the business—that I was exposed to it all.
But the fun was over almost as quickly as it had started. A year after I joined, Apple decided to reorganize its internal legal function to reduce costs. I could stay, but I'd be back to practicing law. No way. I had been bitten by the business bug. For the first time in my career, I decided I would actually go in search of new work. I'd change directions. That was okay.
But before I could start sending out résumés, I got a tip: within days, Apple would announce the spin-off of its software applications group. It would be run by Bill Campbell, then Apple's executive vice president of sales and marketing. (Campbell is now chairman of Intuit.) Its mission would be to free Apple from its dependence on Microsoft software.
I knew Bill only by reputation. He was called "The Coach," ostensibly because he had been a coach of the Columbia University football team, but really because he was known to be an ardent mentor to his direct reports. He had a no-nonsense style—tough and tireless but warmhearted, too. I decided working for him might not be a bad idea.
When I finally got to meet with Bill, he was on the run, as usual. He pulled me into a dark conference room, and, without turning on the lights, gave me the three-minute pitch. He was going to build a world-class software company focused on the Macintosh and using the products that Apple was making. The new company would have its own culture, compensation, and infrastructure, and within three years he expected to take the company public. Was I in?
Three minutes in the dark, and this guy wanted me to make a life-changing career decision. He hadn't discussed my title, salary, or even my role. With only a moment's hesitation, the word came out of my mouth. "Yes."
"Great. You're the first co-founder," said Bill, his voice trailing off as he took off down the hall. "Let's get moving."
Intellectually, I knew what I had done was insane. But I was enamored with the idea of joining a start-up. And, I asked myself, if nothing careful or planned had ever worked in my career before, why start now? I would just have to get used to feeling uneasy.
But what a great move I had made—in fact, it was one of the best of my life. First, I learned more about business in the three years that followed than most people learn in 20. Second, I found a lifelong friend and mentor in Bill. Third, and as important, I learned the virtue of following your passion, of obeying your gut. Bit by little bit, I was letting go of the notion of a linear, logical career path.
The new company was called Claris Corporation, and it opened up for me a universe of experiences. I kept my legal role as some basis for credibility on the management team, but I grabbed every other function or job that wasn't taken or promised. I secured a facility, set up the compensation and benefits plans, and negotiated the separation agreement with Apple. I bought companies, like File-Maker, that became mainstays of the business. I bought
products, like ClarisWorks and AppleWorks GS, that made us a full-fledged software player. I helped strategize and structure our international operations and offices. And as secretary to the board, I learned how that critical body works.
Best of all, I got to work closely with Bill, and that taught me the importance of attaching yourself to great people, great teachers. Before, I had focused on jobs and opportunities. Now, watching Bill in action every day, I realized that it mattered just as much—more, even—to find a talented, experienced mentor who is willing to invest the time and effort to develop you as a person and a businessman. Not that working with Bill was always
easy. In fact, we often clashed at the beginning. After all, I was still a lawyer at heart. I wanted things to be buttoned down, methodical, and tightly structured. But Bill always put people first. When I wanted to talk about deals, he counseled me to think about relationships. When I wanted to focus on the bottom line, Bill urged me to think about individuals. He should have fired me a hundred times. Instead, he invested countless hours
into making me realize—slowly but surely—the error of my ways.
Bill showed me the power of leadership. I often wonder, if I had followed the career path ahead of me at Farella Braun & Martel, or even as an in-house lawyer at Apple, would I have ever seen that light? Maybe—but perhaps not for a dozen more years. There are just not that many exceptional leaders around—particularly not in the legal field, where most firms are
loose confederacies of individual contributors. But when I took that leap of faith to follow Bill, I dove, too, into one of life's most important lessons. People will deliver the impossible if you inspire them. And inspiration is a subtle art—a mix of empathy, respect, and love. You can only learn it from a master.
Bill was and still is a master. Under his leadership, Claris grew in three years to a profitable global company, with nearly $90 million in revenues and more than 700 employees. We decided to go public in 1990. Goldman Sachs worked with us to prepare the offering. But in the process, Apple realized that to be successful as an independent company, Claris would have to sell Windows products as well. Apple panicked and exercised its option to buy
back Claris at a premium. At first, members of the top team were overjoyed with the news; we were all going to be wealthy. But in a matter of days, those feelings were mixed with sadness. We realized that we would never work together again—the magic was over, and it was priceless.
In the aftermath of the sale, Apple offered me a sizable raise and promotion to stay on at Claris in a business role. That was good news, I reasoned. It proved I had established a career path in the high-tech industry. I would now rise through the corporate ranks in one of the most visible and dynamic companies of the new technology era. A career at last.
Wrong. I just could not stay on a career path to save my life. As I weighed the Apple offer, I got a call from Bill Campbell, who had become CEO of GO Corporation. At the time, GO was full of hype, talent, and money. It was going to revolutionize the PC business by introducing the first pen-based computer. Did I want to come along for the ride? Bill asked.
This time I paused long enough to ask what my position would be. Bill thought for a second, then said CFO. I was shocked. I had a rudimentary understanding of FASB and GAAP, but I had no accounting or systems experience. When I asked Bill to explain himself, he told me he was looking for a partner—someone to make deals and help manage internal operations
while he drove the company externally. I would be able to hire all the expertise I needed. What he wanted was my broad experience, my deal-making ability, and my friendship. "You've got it," I told him.
This time, my gut steered me into a tidal wave of stress. Within days at GO,I realized we had six weeks of cash left. Six weeks! And this was in the high-tech venture-capital depression of 1991, not the euphoric Internet capital markets of 1999. We scrambled. First, we decided to exit the hardware business and mimic Microsoft. I spent a harried weekend learning to run a spreadsheet, grabbing every Microsoft 10K and 10Q form I could get my
hands on, and modeling GO's software business all the way down to the product level. We also decided to sell GO's hardware business to a new venture with AT&T—for exactly $10 million. We closed in the nick of time, and I hoped that my fund-raising days were over.
They weren't. GO's product was delayed, and we needed a truckload more money just a few months later. Eventually, we raised $75 million, but we never managed to ship a commercially viable product. From the start of the second year, I couldn't see how we could continue to raise these huge sums of money. We had to sell, which we did in 1993.
At GO, despite all its difficulties, Bill had groomed me to be a CEO by giving me a diverse set of management responsibilities. But the fact was, I no longer had the compelling drive to be a big gun. At age 39, I was struck by how little time was left for the rest of my life. I was always sprinting, always on deadline, always in the critical path, subsisting on adrenaline and caffeine. I had no time for reading, cooking, traveling, music, and art,
and little time for my steadfast wife and lovable hounds. If you looked in the bank, I was well off. But I still felt poor, incomplete.
From my vantage point today, I see that my exit from GO was the beginning of my slow realization that life cannot be compartmentalized. I was working like a madman but spending very little time on things that mattered to me. In society, we call obsessive-compulsive behavior a disorder. People take medication to combat it. But when we demonstrate obsessive-compulsive behavior about work and making money, it is considered completely normal, a "sacred hunger," and is amply rewarded. I was a case in point, and somewhere
deep inside me, I was starting to ask, "What is wrong with this picture?"
No happy ending—not yet. My musings about life and work—and balance—came to an abrupt halt with a call from a headhunter. He wanted to know if I would be interested in meeting with LucasArts Entertainment, the digital products division of George Lucas's empire. LucasArts made games and "edutainment" products. Finally, I thought, here's my chance to take that next step up the ladder and be the CEO that I had been groomed to be. My life could wait.
I donned an ill-fitting, out-of-fashion suit from my lawyer days and interviewed with the hiring committee. On paper, I did not meet their specifications at all: not a game aficionado, no real P&L experience, no background in the entertainment business. Still, they invited me to meet with George Lucas at his Sky-Walker Ranch a few days later. We had a highly spirited exchange about the future of the gaming and entertainment industries, two topics I found fascinating despite my relative naiveté. I left the session not knowing Lucas's predilections toward me, but a few days later, the job was mine to refuse. I grabbed it.
LucasArts presented a very different challenge than Claris or GO. For one thing, I had no mentor. George controlled the company, and the board was much more of a kitchen cabinet than an independent-minded group of advisers. Entertainment was also a new industry for me, and the aggressive, equity-based approach to building businesses that I learned in Silicon
Valley was at odds with the cautious, cash-flow mentality of the film business. The LucasArts culture was insular, and I had an uphill battle establishing myself in it.
Still, I loved the people at LucasArts, the highly creative writers, animators, musicians, artists, and programmers. There was a buzz about the place that kept me electrified. We made bold moves, restructuring our distribution system and installing our own sales force. We experimented with CD-ROMs and entered into a strategic partnership with Nintendo. It was a lot of change for the conservative businesspeople at LucasArts, but it worked.
In less than two years, sales more than tripled and profits soared even faster. I was liking this CEO thing.
But there was a dark side. George was focused on the *Star Wars* movies that were in the works. The company was doing so well that, despite his initial promises, it looked unlikely that LucasArts would go public or be spun off; in other words, I would never have the autonomy I craved. And much to my chagrin, the board blocked any acquisitions that I suggested.
When a headhunter from Crystal Dynamics called about the CEO job at the three-year-old video game company in Silicon Valley, I was ready to listen. I would have lots of independence, I was promised, plus a higher salary than at LucasArts, and more stock, too. As an added bonus, Crystal was a mere 15 minutes from my home rather than the 75-minute commute each way to LucasArts. This would be my most logical career move yet—CEO to CEO, game business to game business, back in the Valley, and a raise to boot.
It turned out to be the worst career move I ever made. Production schedules that had been set before I arrived were ridiculously tight; we couldn't hit them. Crystal's board was unwieldy—a nine-person collection of founders, venture capitalists, ex-Crystal CEOs, and industry partners. But the biggest problem was that I had no passion for the business. I wanted to transform Crystal into a creative leader in cinematic digital entertainment, more like LucasArts. Given the exigencies of the marketplace, however, the smart move was to shrink it into a niche video-game maker. One year after I arrived, I resigned. Time Out
It was 1996. I was 42. And I was in free fall. After all, I hadn't left Crystal with a gold star on my forehead. I'd bailed out after posting a less than admirable performance. Who would want me? What next?
One option was to commit myself full time to serving on boards. I was already sitting on a handful, and I could easily ramp up. But that idea didn't excite me. I didn't want to go out to pasture, not yet. My career wasn't over—I wasn't even sure it had begun. The other option was to say yes to any one of the headhunters calling me about CEO positions in the Internet
ventures that were springing up like California poppies in April. Again, the answer was no.
Finally, after incessant years of go, go, go, I wanted to pause. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to be. Without actually realizing it, I had given up on the idea of a career. What was a career anyway? I had had a lot of fascinating jobs; I had built a life to be proud of. It was time to let go of the notion of climbing and just accept the fact that I was on a long and winding journey. Where I went next was entirely my choice.
So I was free to decide my next step. Did that make me feel great? No—I was scared witless. For the first time in ages, I had no identity. No company to attach to my name at parties. No title to bring with me when I left the house. I dreaded meeting new people and having to explain myself without a flimsy two-by-three inch card stating that I was "President" or "CEO."
Months of thinking went by. My terror ebbed and flowed, mostly flowed. I wondered if I was going to fritter away the rest of my life considering my alternatives. I wondered if I should go back to the manual labor that had made me so happy during my part-time jobs in high school and college. Maybe I could be a chef, I thought. At least then I'd have medical benefits again.
I'd have a job title.
Then, one day, I got a call from my old friend Steve Perlman. The CEO of WebTV at the time, Steve was a highly charismatic visionary who had never run a company before. I was already on WebTV's board, but Steve asked me if I'd do more—if I would support him day-to-day as he built his company. The role we agreed on was supposed to be part-time and temporary. I'd be an adviser, a mentor, or something like that. We'd figure it out as we went.
As it ended up, I loved the work. I got to spend all my time doing the 20%of the CEO role that was truly exciting to me—strategizing, building relationships, making deals, and mentoring teams. And I didn't have to get near the 80% of the role that I found so tedious and draining—the tactical stuff. Six months in, I decided I loved the work so much that I should do more of it. I could be a virtual CEO for a portfolio of companies—if I could
I did. Since I put out my shingle as a virtual CEO, I have had the opportunity to look at hundreds of new businesses. I choose my jobs based on one thing—call it the thump factor. If an entrepreneur and his plan make my heart pound, I sign on. So far, I've worked with an Internet chat community,a digital animation studio, an on-line party-supply store, a personalized television company, a Web promotions service, a small-business applications
service provider, a nationwide on-line infomediary for child and elder care services, a broadband and broadcast TV news syndicator, a Web-based customer-satisfaction business, an Internet invitations service, and a streaming-audio audience measurement and targeting company. Some of the ventures have taken off, others have floundered, but all of them have
captured my heart and imagination. In return, I've poured myself into each of them.
What, then, of that life I wanted—with cooking, reading, and the like? I do a lot more of those things now. In fact, I try to travel for pleasure a couple of months a year. I call my life "integrated." I don't have a job, I have work that weaves in and out of my life as I guide it.
In arriving at my noncareer career, two major issues have become clear for me. First, I have had to learn to live with a murky business identity. Few people get what I mean when I say "virtual CEO," but that's part of the price I pay for my choices. There is no "handle" that excuses people from actually getting to know me—Randy Komisar, the person, not the title—if they want to work with me. Second, I have come to see that living modestly must
be a deliberate choice in this time and place—it's like a discipline. Here in Silicon Valley, we live among centamillionaires and billionaires. There is intense pressure to keep up—to live very large. But part of letting go of career chasing is also letting go of status. That, too, can be a shock to the system at first, but it quickly begins to feel fantastic—utterly liberating. Today, my comfortable lifestyle is dictated by what I need to be happy, not what society prescribes as the trappings of success. I don't have
a big, fancy house. I drive a used motorcycle; it was a great deal. When I eat out, which I do a lot, I favor ethnic restaurants over Chez Panisse. I travel economy, not first class. None of these feel like sacrifices. They feel like rewards for the life that I've remade. They reflect who I am, not what others say I should be. Once you have an inkling about what truly makes you happy, it becomes a lot easier to reprioritize and spend your most
precious asset—time—on the qualitative experiences that fulfill you. And that's more satisfying than squandering time on meaningless work just so you can acquire the redundant artifacts of material success.
When all is said and done, perhaps I am not really in a great position to give career advice given the fact that I haven't had one. But for what it's worth, here's a final bit anyway: If you can do anything setting out, or along the way—because it's never too late to start again—figure out who you are. What do you love to do? How do you want to live? Then, don't let a career drive you, let passion drive your life. That may not get you up any
ladder, but it will make your trip down a long and winding road more interesting. And in the end, if it makes you feel better, go ahead and call it a career. It doesn't matter. A career is what you make it.
Copyright (c) 2000 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Written By *Randy Komisar* is a "virtual CEO" based in Portola Valley, California,
where he helps incubate and guide start-ups. He is the author of *The Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur,* which will be published by Harvard Business School Press in May