How a Biography Changed My Life

Writing this post requires some vulnerability and honesty. This is about personal development and how a book changed my thinking about business, revealed some dreams I didn’t know that I had, and affected the course of my life.

In 2011, I was a little bit lost. To properly explain this, I should start in 2010.

This was the year I had been planning on for a long time. In January, I started working for a governor’s campaign in Arizona. This wasn’t just a typical staff or volunteer role on a campaign. The candidate, Dean Martin, was someone I had known for years. He was the Senator who introduced Chris’ Law, and we had stayed in touch until I started interning for him at the Arizona State Treasurer’s office. Any other internship would have been grunt work, but because I was close to Dean, my role was much more involved. I sat in on big meetings, walked the capitol with Dean as he talked politics and policy, helped with everything and anything.

In fact, we were so close that when his wife, Kerry, died in childbirth in 2009, Dean and his family asked me to be a pallbearer. I haven’t been to many funerals, but I don’t think I’ll go to many more heartbreaking than that one.

When Dean decided to run for the Governor’s office, it was a natural transition to working as his right hand and being involved from early core meetings to our statewide bus tour.

We announced his candidacy in January 2010, and I was so passionate and happy to be involved.

In May, I graduated from Arizona State University. That was a big moment. The actual classroom work was never that difficult for me. What was difficult was paying for school, working my way through it, dropping out to take transfer classes at a community college so that I could afford them, and not ever having enough time for everything. On top of that, sometimes I felt a bit of disdain from my dad, not for going to university, but maybe for believing I needed to go. He encouraged me a few times to  decide what I wanted to do and take an internship from an expert and just learn that way, and that some of the world’s most successful people never went to school. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t proud of me when I graduated, just that he thought less of it than I did.

Three weeks after I graduated, I bought a home in Tempe, Arizona. Having worked in the Treasurer’s office, I was acutely aware of the financial and housing market, and that this was the perfect time to buy for first time homebuyers. I bought the home to be an investment property, and felt confident that I was making a good decision.

At this point in 2010, to put it lightly, I was pretty pleased with myself. I had a degree, the job I always hoped for, and a home.

* * *

Fast forward a few months, renovating the house was a much bigger project than I had ever imagined, and blinded me to damage I was doing to my closest friends.  I’ll always regret that more than the financial or time costs.

The great staff position on the campaign which would have lead to a very good job in the Governor’s office collapsed when the numbers turned and the race became out of reach.

So, 2011 started at pretty much the opposite of mid-2010. I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I think Chris’ Law blinded me to some of the realities of politics. After Chris’ Law, I had always thought that I would run for office and spend my life doing more good things like protecting children.

During the Governor’s campaign, I realized that most people in politics are out for their own gain, not for the good of the community. Every person was looking out for themselves, their own gain and their own good. (There was one person who was the exception to that rule, and so I followed him around until we became friends and now he’s a huge influence on my life and on the board of Daddy Read a Book.)

The deep realization that politics was not just people doing good for their community left a void in the plan of my life. I had always known there were corrupt and selfish people in politics, but this was a very deep recognition that being involved in politics was war, not building.

After the governor’s campaign, I was truly lost as to what I wanted to do with my life, and what career would allow me to do good, build an incredible place and provide a great product and delight customers/constituents. This is what I experienced during Chris’ Law, and what I expected to do politics.

Growing up, I was never exposed to business or entrepreneurship, so maybe it can be forgiven that I missed the very obvious indication that I should have been looking for a career in business, not politics.

This is where the biography comes in. In 2011, a few months into Yodle, I was starting to realize how much I enjoyed the business environment although it was still very new to me. I remember the late fall afternoon, as the day was winding down, the news broke that Steve Jobs had died. As a reader who enjoyed biographies and an Apple fan, I bought the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson.

Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. I blitzed through the book and enjoyed every page. Steve obviously had serious personal flaws and the way he treated people was often unacceptable.

What attracted me was his vision. The unrelenting drive to build an incredible system, to connect the world, to leave his mark on the universe.

I will never forget his words,

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

After Chris’ Law, I believed that great work meant going into politics and helping build a better community, city, state and world. I realized that working in politics was not the way to do this. Running for office is the best way I think to do this, and I think that I will do that someday.

My definition of great work was this: do good, build an incredible place and provide a great product and delight customers/constituents.

I was just looking in the wrong arena.

After reading Steve Jobs, I realized that he was doing in business what I had always wanted to do. He changed the world through his products, created a company where people worked with blood, sweat and tears, created some of the world’s most incredible products and delighted customers to the point of people waiting for eight hours in the cold to be the first to buy a new phone.

Seeing this for the first time changed my life. The business world was where I could do great work. I could do good in my community by giving back and by creating an incredible place to work. I could provide a great product and delight customers. I could actually do everything I had wanted to do in government.

I had found where I could do great work.

* * *

This great unveiling showed me a clear path.

  1. Learn & experience business. This means reading the classic books on business; working at Yodle and reflecting on the executive decisions and strategy; starting valuable things to practice creating culture and leading; and, finally, being formally educated by a top school.
  2. Do business.

So that’s what I’m doing now. Every night I go to bed tired and happy, and wake up with purpose every morning.

I’m on my way to doing great work, and that’s how a biography changed my life.

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Chris Cottrell

Chris Cottrell

Hi, I’m Chris, an MBA student at Georgetown. I write about business school, tech, and startups. Find me on Twitter.

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