by Mark Achler
This blog post is adapted from my remarks delivered at the Purdue University School of Liberal Arts Distinguished Alumni Award ceremony:
Maturity (or the lack thereof)
I have always looked younger than my actual age. It’s nice now, but when it really mattered – when I was in High School and College, I looked several years younger than my actual age. I was 4 foot 11 inches and 93 lbs going into my freshman year of High School and looked like I was ten. And unfortunately, my maturity level matched my looks not my chronological age. I was really immature for my age and never took anything too seriously. Though I did well, I just kind of goofed my way through school.
Somehow I got through my school years and after graduating Purdue, I had several adventures and I ended up in St. Moritz, Switzerland where I built a bar made out of snow and an igloo on top of a ski mountain. I was the friendly American bartender. People would ski right up to my ski bar. The goofiness and the good times continued – until one day it melted.
So I packed my bags and came home. Still not ready to be serious, I took one last summer as a Unit Head in an overnight Summer Camp in the woods of Wisconsin – where I met the love of my life. But there was a problem. We had a huge maturity gap. My now wife of 33 years had been a practicing Social Worker for a couple of years dealing with serious issues such as teenage pregnancy, poverty and drug addiction - while I was basically still a goof. We had a Grand Canyon-sized maturity gap.
How immature was I, you ask? I was the unit head for a group of 10 and 11 year old boys. Sometimes in the dining hall I would lead them in who could be the grossest with chocolate pudding; or shooting peas out of our noses. Now I know what you are thinking… I’m never eating a meal with him! We told our daughters this story recently and one of them turned to my wife and said, “And you thought HE was a keeper?” But I have to tell you; it killed with 10 and 11 year old boys. Not so much with a serious, mature Social Worker.
But I made her laugh and I read her poetry that I had written and somehow I won my way into her heart. Guys I’m telling you. Poetry, it works. And let’s hear it for a Liberal Arts education! So for the love of a good woman, I grew up and got serious about life.
I’ve always been fiercely independent and bristled at authority when parents, teachers, or coaches tried telling me what to do. When I got to college, I loved the freedom and followed (most) of the rules that weren’t too onerous. Then after graduation – FREEDOM. The freedom to roam the world and be the master of my own destiny… until I got married…
But it was OK. Having a life partner is fantastic. Life is difficult, and messy, with lots of twists and turns, good days and bad. I couldn’t imagine going through it without having my wife by my side to be with me through all the ups and downs.
Then your first child comes. I’ll never forget a particular afternoon when our first daughter was 9 months old. It was in the middle of the day, and it was pitch black because there was a torrential rainstorm. We were lying on the couch and she was on top of my stomach.
We were trying to get each other to giggle. And every once in awhile I could get her to belly laugh – I LOVE baby belly laughs – they are the best. After a bit we settled down and she fell asleep on top of me. Pretty soon she was taking deep, long breaths and I began to match her breathing. Before I knew it, I was asleep as well.
I woke up after a brief catnap and was staring down at her smiling face without a concern in the world, when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I would do anything for her. I would move heaven and earth, work extra hours to provide for her, and even watch Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid hundreds of times, and be the very best Dad I could possibly be for her. As an aside, being a great Dad also means teaching your children your values, providing discipline and guidance, and holding them accountable for their actions.
Younger generations need to know that your parents love you unconditionally and have sacrificed your entire life for you. I know that this may be a shock to your world-view, but it’s not always about you…The next time you get frustrated or irritated with them you might remember that. And know, that while we love you unconditionally, it’s also nice when that love is earned.
So, from my wife I learned maturity and from my children I learned the lesson of true selflessness.
I have had a pretty varied career. My joke is I think I have had an interesting and eclectic career and my wife thinks I can’t hold a job. Some of my businesses worked and some didn’t. Some of my investments worked, and some failed. Then one day I found myself at 50 years old taking a job to head up Innovation at Redbox.
It was a great job. I learned about the movie industry, the video game world, dealing with big retailers, and scaling a business to multi-billion dollars. I took this opportunity to re-invent myself once again.
Prior to Redbox, I was, frankly, a mediocre boss. I spent more time worrying about my own personal success than my employees. I decided to take this opportunity to study management and to become the very best boss I could be. All of a sudden it wasn’t about me anymore – it was about my employees. I was completely invested in their personal growth, their success, and their happiness. We were small but we were mighty. I would do anything for my teams and they reciprocated in kind.
Today, I help manage a Venture Capital fund. Every day entrepreneurs come pitch us to invest in their businesses. While we don’t invest in most of them, we always try and help anyway we can. Our philosophy is, “It’s not about us”. Our job is to provide whatever assistance we can.
I told you I was a slow learner. I learned in my 50’s the primary lesson of Kindergarten – that kindness is an excellent life strategy – not only because it is the right thing to do – but it will also help you be more successful.
Last Word - Gratitude
I will leave you with one last word – gratitude. I am incredibly grateful for my time spent at Purdue and my amazing professors, for my family and friends, for my business success, and for this honor here tonight which means the world to me.