When Bigger Isn’t Better

James was a major success story with a crazily-ambitious technology company that blazed trails everywhere it went. The technology in the Mars Rover? James’ company developed it. A gleaming plaque from NASA hung in the reception area. Journalists regularly called the front desk, eager to speak with the man who went from rags to riches.

James was a driven, hungry type-A with no formal business education: his guts led the way from ground zero and made him a millionaire. He went from owning one car to twenty-seven (complete with a full-time employee to take care of them). His company expanded from a few cubicles to two giant office buildings with an on-site gym for employees. His workers went from practically volunteering their time to making six-figures. Everywhere he went, big shots were begging him to sell the company, to cash out and become the stuff of legends.

In the meantime, China was creeping in – taking the ambitious technology and making it faster, cheaper, better. James felt the pressure from would-be investors as well as China hot on his tail.

Just as the business was set to peak (and the fourteen-hour days were taking a toll on James’ health), a seven-figure offer to sell the biz landed on his desk.  Coincidentally, he found out that competing companies were offering the same technology at less than half the price from China – and they were targeting his clients.

James had the choice: go big or go home. Selling meant the end of a dream, and while his dream wasn’t serving him anymore, it scared the crap out of him. “I’m exhausted, but maybe we can push through this China thing,” he thought. “I’ve got all our clients on our side. I’ve got NASA on our side! Surely my clients will stick with a better product, even if it costs more. I’m tired and my life feels out of control, but I can push through it. I’m gonna ignore the offer to sell, and try to make it big. I can always sell later.”

He went big. And lost big.

Can you relate?

James’ company went dead in fourteen months. All employees were laid off – including my father, who had worked there for fifteen+ years. The two giant office buildings still stand empty. Last I heard, James was living in an apartment after giving up his million-dollar home (and all twenty-seven cars). He now is the night-shift manager for one of the companies that started working with China.

Ouch.

We’ve all been there – we’re going along, loving what we do, when someone comes along with a game-changing offer that shakes us to the core. Maybe we weren’t ready for it – the promotion, the opportunity to sell our home/company, the option to relocate for work or lose out. But a nagging voice in our head repeats platitudes that we hear every day from people who don’t know any better.

By American wisdom, you should go big. More is better. Work hard. Push through. Take the risk. 

When the opportunity for more dangles in front of you, it’s easy to ignore the sirens going off in your head. The small voice inside might be saying, “Take some time to think about this. I’m not ready for the responsibility. I like where I am right now.” It’s replaced with the big voice: “More is better! More money! A company car! A bigger house! A better school for the kids! Stock options!”

Slow down, sweetheart.

When Bigger Isn’t Better

You know that promotion means tons of extra hours a week – time that won’t be spent with your family.

You know relocating will uproot the kids and place undue stress on forming new support networks.

You know the thrill of the faster car will wear off after three months. (Or when you get the maintenance bill.)

You know studies show that any income over $75k a year yields no addition to happiness.

You know the bigger house comes with bigger electricity bills, bigger maintenance costs and higher property taxes.

You know making more money means nothing if you don’t have the time to spend it.

Call to Action: Think About Your Favorite Vacation Destination

Paris. Rome. Hawaii. Barcelona. Santorini.

What appeals to you about these places? When you think of the people who live there, what do you see them doing?

I’ll give you my own example: I’m desperate to get to France. Why? When I close my eyes, I see people in cafes, talking together or sitting alone, reading. I see bike rides and long walks into the evening. I see deep conversations and views of rolling green fields. I see being able to hop on the train to see a new country in a few hours.

What’s so appealing about that?

Well, I’ll tell you one thing – no one wants to go to Hawaii to see the skyscrapers.

Let’s frame it another way. Why was Eat, Pray, Love such a runaway success?

Because Elizabeth Gilbert let go of her big, sprawling, expensive New York life and got to live a smaller, slower life among three beautiful countries. Eating gelato on a bench in Italy, meditating in India, riding her bicycle in Indonesia along the shore – what would you trade for that kind of life?

Why do executives dream of giving it all up to own a farm?

American wisdom might tell you otherwise, but we’re built to crave small. 

Why?

Small means connection. Small means time to read, to enjoy a meal, to prepare the perfect cup of coffee. Small means being able to finish the book in the bathtub with candles aglow all around. Small means being able to spend a luxurious hour making love, instead of getting it over with during a “quickie.” Small means you can actually hear the people you love talking, instead of waiting for your turn to talk. Small means discovering new music, new art, new ways of thinking.

Small means lightbulb ideas, fireworks exploding in the distance as you consider a new direction for yourself.

A big house holds all the material things you could ever want, but owning just a backpack of belongings holds enough to let you go anywhere. 

When have you said “no” to bigger?

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