A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
“How much would you pay to have dinner with a lost loved one?” This was a question that my friend and mentor, Bob Wood and I recently discussed during one of our epic bike rides. We both concluded that we would sacrifice an absurd amount of our wealth to spend a few hours with the dear folks we have lost to old age and illness.
This conversation caused me to ponder the obvious reality that busy people, especially entrepreneurs who are building companies, often optimize their time completing short-term operational tasks and lose sight that tomorrow is promised to no one.
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Going Public And Losing A Father
When I was in my early thirties, I was fully engaged raising my young family and creating Computer Motion (NASDAQ: RBOT, sold to Intuitive Surgical for $150M).
Each Holiday Season, my wife and I made a perfunctory, whirlwind trip home to the East Coast. We raced from house to house, ensuring that we gave each of our parents the same amount of time with their grandchildren, but seldom slowing down long enough to have thoughtful, memorable conversations.
When I was 35, my father was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer and given a couple of months to live. At the time, I was heading up Computer Motion’s efforts to go public, writing the S1, orchestrating the all-hands meetings, etc. I felt an incredible pressure to continue this process, coupled with the guilt of being thousands of miles away from my mom and dad and unable to provide hands-on aid and comfort.
As any decent soul would do, I dropped everything when I heard the news and I headed home. When I walked into my dad’s hospital room he smiled and said, “Wow. I must really be sick.” After a couple of days of hanging around with him in the hospital, I recall him waking and wryly saying, “You sure did fly a long way to watch an old man sleep.” I can only hope that I will be cracking jokes when facing down death.
My father was discharged during my visit. My feelings of hopelessness were beyond words. I took him to a few chemo sessions, but after another week or so, I rationalized that there wasn’t much I could do to help and I returned to California to continued my march toward our all-important IPO. I called my parents often as the weeks rolled on, but it was obvious that the sort of miracle that is commonplace in Hallmark movies wasn’t going to happen.
About six weeks later I received the call that everyone dreads. “John, you better come home if you want to say ‘Goodbye’ to your dad.” I was fortunate to spend the next few days with my father before he painlessly passed away. We had a good relationship, so there was no need for deathbed confessionals or dredging up long suppressed feelings of guilt or resentment.
Later that year, Computer Motion went public, yet I felt a deep emptiness that I had not anticipated. On paper, I was a wealthy young man, but I felt anything but “rich.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but I never gave myself a chance to grieve, because I was felt that my demanding job didn’t allow for such luxuries.
My feelings of loss after our IPO were accentuated by the fact that my father was a successful amateur stock trader, long before eTrade made day-trading a common and convenient occurrence. Nothing would have pleased him more than to have seen his son take a company public. At the time, I didn’t realize that our IPO was the first of many personal and professional accomplishments that I would quietly wish I could share with my dad over the following decades.
If I had a do-over, I would take the time to visit my parents outside of the Holidays, without my lovely family in tow. Going alone would have allowed me to enjoy intimate, non-hectic time with my parents. Absent the chaotic, fun madness that accompanies every family traveling with young children, my parents and I could have nurtured and explored our relationship.
Bad News: It’s Unlikely You’ll Live 10,000 Years
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and amateur Philosopher
My message is not new. I don’t claim to have uncovered an amazing insight overlooked by others. Rather, my intent is to remind young entrepreneurs that someday they will be in their fifties (as I am) and many of the important people in their lives will be gone.
Heed what matters most now, not “someday.” Is it more important to close one more deal or spend the weekend with your aging mom, dad, grandparent, aunt or uncle? Practicing what I preach, my adult daughter and I recently spent a delightful week with my mother. It was a priceless opportunity for the three of us to spend intense, high-quality time reminiscing and sharing family lore.
I can tell you firsthand that it matters little how much money you would spend to recapture an embrace with a lost loved one. Such priceless moments are gone forever, unattainable by even the wealthiest souls on the planet.
Time for you to book a flight home and give someone you love the precious (and deliciously unexpected) gift of your presence. You will never, ever regret it.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.
Image credit: Dolly Nobles