Personal Horizons and Presidents

August 28, 2016: All the muddled news of this past week about the health of our presidential nominees suggests a look at career horizons. We talk at lot about investment horizons; many VC partnerships are set up for ten years, on the theory that the money is put to work early and all the portfolio is exited by the tenth year. I can name a few companies in the 16th year of one of these arrangements, with no end in sight. They’re all too stable to fold up and be gone, or they are growing steadily but not fast enough to bring a meaningful outcome into view. Management hasn’t grown weary and is getting paid reasonably. So, investors have no choice but to stay along for the ride.

Similarly, when you take on an assignment with a startup or any tech growth company, you may have put yourself into a very unpredictable horizon. I thought I would be doing at most a few months of part-time advising on my biomedical startup in Georgia, and that was in the spring of 2015. Having no relevant background and being nearly as old as Trump, Clinton, and Reagan (when he was the nominee), I expected fairly quickly to hand off my duties to a person from the bio industry in the prime of his or her career. I’m enjoying the work and am certainly not complaining, and I have the sense that the investors in part are betting on me and aren’t about to let me escape. The project is rather consequential, and it’s far more productive than working the Jumble, Soduku, and crossword every morning, which I do anyway.

No one’s health is guaranteed from one day to the next, but as long as mine is, like Trump’s, “astonishingly excellent,” I’m fully committed to this rodeo. Our team is scattered around the country, so I can be productive from Austin and can easily get to Atlanta about once or twice a month if needed. I’m in a low-maintenance phase of life where the kids are long out of college and doing well, and I’ve “de-contented” my abode so I can just lock the door and operate from anywhere that has decent Internet, including airports. If I had to supervise a bullpen of worker bees on a fixed daily schedule, I’d probably be the wrong guy for the job. But, in this case I can handle the high intellectual work and the grunt routines of a startup effectively while maintaining my other jobs and my avocations like cycling. The magic of modern collaborative tools enables much of this flexibility; everyone on the team knows each other well enough that we can argue without being physically in the same room. And, although we may be subject to call on “surgeon’s hours,” we don’t have to punch the clock and lose our time flexibility.

However, this business is going to play out over some number of years, and, with both the founding doctor and myself born in the same year, we have to give some thought to age issues. I have many friends who are as active as ever in their businesses well into their 70’s, but I also have many others who are starting to suffer the inevitable health issues of advancing age. Ronald Reagan made it through his tenure, narrowly surviving a gunshot, perhaps ending with only the early stages of dementia, but you need only look at how Obama has aged in 8 years to picture how extraordinarily fit and fortunate either of the current major party nominees will have to be to keep up the pace into their late 70’s. Both VP nominees are rather more important this year than in many election cycles. Having just toured the LBJ Ranch, I am reminded that he died young at age 64, 4 years out of office; his diet, smoking, and work habits certainly put him far out on the mortality risk curve. You’ve seen his pictures, and possibly the recent Brian Cranston movie; would you have guessed he was only in his early sixties when he left office? Dwight Eisenhower, in the photo with LBJ above, died at age 78, 8 years out of office. Both of those Presidents succumbed to cardiac disease.

So, I am obliged to think about horizons with respect to my business and personal affairs. I want to accomplish all my current missions, but I am well aware the runway ahead of me is much shorter than the runway behind. Alzheimer’s lurks in my immediate paternal ancestors, and, unless there is a cure found in the next decade, I may well be on the doorstep of that. I can’t reasonably make a 10-year commitment to a task without having a personal exit strategy that is fair to the company and to my family. But, what I bring to the party for now more than offsets that inevitability. A certain level of maturity enables everything I’m doing at UT Austin, the biomedical business, and my other board and advisory roles. I have a calling that matches my age and station.

Two special advantages of a long career in technology are the gift of many trusted mentors and a large cadre of relationships that you form and that grows along with you over the decades. One disadvantage is there comes a point where they start retiring, moving to the beach, or dying, and they’re irreplaceable. The highest traffic I have ever received on a TechDrawl essay was my tribute to John Imlay in March of 2015. I don’t write obits for hits, but I know that many more will follow. The torch is gradually passing to those who are peaking in their 40’s and 50’s and who have built their own personal networks that are generationally in step with them. My network is still quite extensive, but we have already brought into our team folks in those peak years where they have established their own followings and valuable connections.

The cycle of career horizons for those in the startup world is something like this: (1) the no-overhead, newly-minted graduate who has all the time in the world, (2) the family formation stage where work/life balance becomes paramount, (3) the early empty nesting period where most are still young enough to go all in on a long-term project and not have to worry about the daily burdens of parenting, and (4) the final chapter, where planning has a finite time line and personal health becomes much more unpredictable. Will I reach 90 in relatively sound condition to see my grandson graduate from college? I hope so, and I’m doing what is in my control to improve the odds, but that’s all I can do. I wish I had some Jimmy Carter genes in my family tree.

<Public Domain image from LBJ Library: President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower aboard Air Force One, 1965, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.>

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