WHAT OTHERS SAY ABOUT CONNECTING PEACE, PURPOSE & PROSPERITY
“Rob’s story is not just about the exploration for success, but also about the pursuit of faith, deeper meaning and significant truths.”
—Ward Brehm, author of White Man Walking
“Rob Severson allowed me to laugh with and at myself
more than any other human being, but always with a little life lesson to be gained.”
—Dean E. Johnson, former Minnesota State Senator
“Rob has a genius for expressing profound truths in simple ways, and there is much wisdom to be gained from the reading of this book.”
—Dick Amundson, CEO of Tentmakers
“I really admire the way Rob has transposed his life experiences into something of value to others.”
–Mike Conley, Chairman and CEO of Conley Family Foundation
CONNECTING PEACE, PURPOSE
A SURVIVAL GUIDE & Memoir
I’ve Been Thinking Press
© 2009 Rob Severson All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the author.
First published by Dog Ear Publishing
4010 W. 86th Street, Ste H Indianapolis, IN 46268 www.dogearpublishing.net
Library of Congress Control Number: 0000000000
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Printed in the United States of America
To Cathy, Al, Sadie and Carly
Kirsten, Mike, Kieran and Ethan
“He can’t even run his own life,
I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine.”
—Lyrics from Sunshine by Jonathan Edwards
No, I am not going to tell you how to run your lives, nor am I going to claim that I can run my own. I want to share with you some things that I have experienced in my 61 years and what I have learned from them. I am confident that what I have learned works, as it has survived the test of time. I hope you enjoy this book—it is for you.
TAB L E O F CO NTE N T S
PREFACE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .ix
PART ONE – PEACE
1. Fundamentals: Three Keys to a
Peaceful Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3
2. Control: Knowing Who is in Control . . . . .8
3. Baggage: Lightening Your Load . . . . . . . .22
4. Relationships: Understanding Others,
Living to Serve and Serving Others . . . . 27
PART TWO – PROSPERITY
5. Work Ethic: Applying Yourself and
Keeping the Doors Open . . . . . . . . . . . . . .38
6. Problem Solving: Persevering
Toward Solutions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50
7. Sales: Marketing Your Skills and
Proving Your Value . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56
8. Money: Managing Financial Stability . . .60
PART THREE – MISSION
9. Be Guided by Purpose . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68
10. Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .75
I wrote this book for my family. I want to pass on to them the fundamentals of survival—for both good times and bad. My adult children seem to be doing well, but anyone is prone to surprises down the road, just as I have been. My grandchildren are very young and don’t need to make important life decisions yet, but eventually they will need to.
The need to share my ideas with my family grew out of my observation that many people, as they go through life, lack basic survival skills. When trouble hits—like our current national financial crisis as I write this—people get angry, adopt a victim mentality and look only toward government to help them out. Many of our problems can be solved by us, as individuals, if various approaches to problems are met head on. How to find and keep a job. Handle difficult relationships. Be open to learning new skills. Change course before the storm hits. Loosen the baggage that hinders progress. Learn to put control in the right hands. Make wise financial decisions with an eye toward the future. My own experiences have shown me that there are certain fundamentals that need to be practiced in order to survive. That is what this book is about. I believe that by constantly practicing those fundamentals we build the foundation from which we can begin our quest for peace, purpose and prosperity.
The main goal of this book is to provide a guide and inspiration for my family, but the ideas here are also for anyone struggling with making sound decisions whether related to career, finance, or meaningful life choices. What I’m saying isn’t new; many of the principles are based on The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Bible. There are also plenty of real-life accounts that reveal my attempts to make do and make better, and ultimately, how I learned to find that path to peace. I could not have found this place without the fundamentals of survival as I have come to know them.
Three Keys to a Peaceful Life
“Most people are about as happy as they decide to be.”
t took a long time to figure out that giving up control, being able to accept and offer forgiveness, and learning to be others-centered are the key touch points to a peaceful and purposeful life. I believe that if we strive to master these fundamentals, we are able proceed in life, bypassing the roadblocks that trip us up on the way.
Tiger Woods may be the greatest golfer of all time. What impresses me most about Tiger is his attention to the fundamentals of the golf swing. He has had the best coaches and teachers that money can buy and obviously, they are the best in the world. He constantly studies the game and still takes lessons. I have read that when he is with his teachers he focuses a lot on the fundamentals, from
4 Rob Severson
grip to follow through. He probably also practices shots that most of us can only imagine, but clearly he incorporates the fundamentals into all that he does. If you watch live golf tournaments or on TV, you may notice other players checking their fundamentals, from backswings, takeaways and follow through technique, to examining and checking their grips when they are waiting to play. Most golfers on tour use a set of tried and proven fundamentals that produce very similar looking swings with some minor variances.
People like me also take lessons to learn the tried and true way, but we still revert to “our way” which is a method we have developed ourselves that works sometimes, and other times does not, because we cannot achieve the consistency of a replicable swing. I would wager that when Tiger and the other top-notch players begin making poor scores they return to sharpening their fundamentals. They do not want to quit the game—they want to improve.
I learned a tried and tested worldview when I was younger, and then there was a time recently when I strayed from it. I had not been doing too well organizing my life toward purposeful goals. I was spending a lot of time with alcohol mostly to pass the time at night when I had nothing else going on. I got my wake up call when I ended up in the emergency room with severe vertigo, and I could barely stand up. Later I would learn that the medical profession is correct when they tell us not to drink alcohol when taking prescriptions for most ailments, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and depression. Go figure. They were right and I finally decided to listen. I chose to quit drinking with the desire to live longer, and I became committed to eliminating some things that could possibly shorten my life.
To get motivated, I considered going back to Hilton Head Health Institute, a “fat farm” I attended several years ago. I thought a couple of weeks of exercise and weight loss would get me restarted, refreshed and on my way again. Then, a counselor I knew talked me into going to Hazelden, convincing me I could lose weight there and learn more about the negative effects of alcohol. I did not lose weight, but I learned new things and met people I will never forget. (For example, Pedro, who delighted in annoying his roommates by peeing on the toilet seat. That was new to me.) Hazelden uses The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in their process of helping people rebuild their lives from the abuses of drugs or alcohol. I found it to be a great path for anyone in their pursuit of happiness. I have taken the liberty of reducing the steps in these fundamentals by focus-
6 Rob Severson
ing on control, seeking and offering forgiveness and being others-centered. To me, The Twelve Steps are more than just about giving up drinking: They are about finding God and learning to live in peace.
What Hazelden and AA leave open concerns the idea of “God as I understand Him.” I went to Hazelden because I wanted the best program I could find, and in doing so, I realized that I already understood much about God, so I had the best there too. For this, I have continued to seek answers by relying on the big book, the Bible. In it, I have located key pieces I had misplaced, and I reassembled them, much like putting together a puzzle. The picture is becoming more real and clear to me as time goes on. I realized that drinking was just a bad habit that was holding me back from engaging in what I truly wanted to do. It was also potentially shortening my life. I want to be here as long as I can for you and the grandkids. While the Hazelden experience and my ability to gain positive insight from the Bible helped me find and place some key pieces to my life puzzle, I am not done yet. The puzzle is not yet complete. It is a process, not an endpoint.
With the discipline of learning and practicing the proper fundamentals we can use them going forward when starting our lives or entering a new phase in life, and we can fall back on them when we get into trouble. When we make mistakes we get angry, frustrated, and sometimes feel like loafing our life away like I was doing; but if we employ these sound fundamentals they will get us back on track.
So what are these “fundamentals” or “worldview” that I am talking about? Giving God control of the things we cannot control, accepting and extending forgiveness, and being others-centered are the ones I feel are most important and good ones to start with. They bring self-control and meaning to life, and will help you in your pursuit of happiness. There are many more fundamentals in the Bible, which we gave you early on in your life. I highly recommend that you get involved in groups to study and learn from it, and expand your knowledge of God’s will for you.
You may not be “smiley” happy all the time, but you will learn to cope by connecting with what the Bible has to teach. All those problems we live with like health insurance, high gas prices, and the economy will be easier to deal with when we have inner peace. You cannot control problems such as these, and many others, but you can control your reaction to them.
Knowing Who is in Control
“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.
We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
The word “control” is fascinating to me. Synonyms include manipulate, dominance, power, master and many others. Driving a car, taking care of our homes, and managing our finances are examples of where we need to try to be in control. If we lose control of these things the outcomes could range from death to bankruptcy. Things like other people’s driving, weather, and the economy are all examples of things that are out of our hands. The outcomes of these things are similar: from death to bankruptcy. Our reactions might include anger, frustration, worry, self-gratifying spending, excessive alcohol consumption and other obstacles to our well-being.
Taking responsibility for what we do is a choice we then make; either that, or blame someone else for what has happened to us. I believe the “blame game” just frustrates us more and de-motivates us to succeed because someone or something is holding us back from doing so. Taking responsibility and solving any problems is a positive approach to correcting what we have failed to control. Taking responsibility for what we cannot control can bring unearned feelings of failure, frustration and de-motivation.
The opposite of control is “surrender” which is the act of relinquishing control to somebody or something else for the outcomes. This can be difficult for us because by nature we think we know the solutions to everything we deal with. A simple example is when we try to assemble a complicated toy for a child on Christmas Eve, and we can’t do it. This is frustrating as we believe we can figure it out on our own, as we know what we are doing. We must make a choice: Maybe have another beer and do it in the morning, (that was me!) but since it’s Christmas and we want to make the kids happy, we finally give up and turn to the directions the manufacturer gave us to get help. The directions become our “higher power” and it makes assembly easier. Control breeds stubbornness and lack of ability to ask for help.
This is my story about me in control.
In 1987 I was promoted to President of a finance company, a subsidiary of a major bank. It was a position that I never thought I would obtain and I was eager to prove myself. It was the culmination of 15 years at that bank, where I had audited internal controls, data processing controls and had been in charge of various assignments. In my mind, I was ready to assume control of a subsidiary of the bank.
It did not take long for the surprises to come. I found out that we had several large credit problems left unattended by our credit people. Not wanting to rock the boat and make our former president excited, they just let the loans “dangle” and sat back to see how they would turn out. When I became president, the dangling loans fell on me like an avalanche. The total dollar amount was significant. Furthermore, our loan portfolio had also decreased due to loan repayments that would result in lower interest income from the lower loan balances.
With all of this, I was in a tough spot, yet I believed it was fixable, because I was, after all, a proven “fixer” and was now in control.
Because of the situation I had inherited I made little progress my first year in my new position. My subsidiary reported poor earnings and large credit problems. In many banking businesses, a new president is allowed to exclude all the evident loan problems within the operation for which he assumes responsibility. This policy ensures that he is not left holding a bag of someone else’s problems he did not create. The trick in this situation is to list as much as you can possibly justify to protect yourself as well as to “seed” your portfolio with loan recovery opportunities, to demonstrate future income and be rewarded for the earnings. I have seen this at several banking firms when a new CEO had been brought in to turn around the corporation and non-performing loans are a big part of the problem. In a few years the recoveries on the reserves provided exemplary earnings for the bank, and with the other changes implemented, the CEO is a hero. Now bankers are building large loan loss reserves again with sub-prime mortgages. I hope we see the turnarounds again. The group I reported to did not have that same policy, and when the problem loans became losses, it was my responsibility.
I had no chance to be a hero.
My first year was dismal. At my first review, my rating was as low as one could get, and was warned to get things turned around or I would be out of the position. My boss recognized that the situation was not because of my actions or decisions—but because of his own during his term as president. He admitted this to me, but it did not make any difference in that culture. If the surprises had been good ones, I would have been a star and gotten a large raise. I learned that I was responsible even if it was not my doing, as I had no control of what had happened prior to my presidency. This was a tough lesson, but I eventually got the operation turned around and growing again.
I learned to be responsible for anything that may happen, even the things in the past that I could not control. In hindsight, that was a good business culture lesson, but a bad life lesson. I had learned to be responsible for anything that happened, even if it was outside of my control. That set me up for a lot of self-punishment.
In 1990, my group was reorganized, and you will remember what happened to me. The new people came in, examined our portfolio, and quickly found the bad loans that I had inherited. Eventually I was hung with those previous loan problems and was removed from my job as president, and was replaced by someone who was a more detailed credit guy from the banking group. I admit that back then, I was a better leader than manager. I had delegated a lot of the work to others, but had not been on top of the actual work on loans in the way that my new boss expected me to be. He knew I was a good leader, which was evident by the support I had from some great people reporting to me. I had been good at creating goals and empowering others to do their jobs with little interference from me. They welcomed that approach and responded well to it. In addition, we had fun at work including many laughs. I built one of my best friendships with one co-worker that continues to this day. We call each other for our daily belly laughs to keep our sanity. We laughed often about how I had convinced him that if he had a low salary, he would be the last to be laid off in a downturn. One of the other guys was smarter than to take this kind of advice, though. He once told me that he did not want my job because I was not paid enough for the risk. He was right.
In the end, management wanted a tough detailed credit guy, and it turned out that I wasn’t that guy. I recognized that there were necessary punitive actions to customers in certain situations in that business, but somehow I could not relate to that. It did not feel natural. I had gotten interested in the asset-based lending business because in that industry, you lend money to businesses that really need it in order to survive or grow. This is much more risky than commercial banking. I got the most satisfaction out of financing these businesses so they could find success. This desire and motivation was probably too altruistic for a banker. The people that removed me from the position are still there, continuing to do well for the bank, and I do not begrudge them anything. My boss was very fair about dismissing me from the president position and in giving me 30 days to find another job in the corporation. He also allowed me to continue making all the decisions at that subsidiary during the interim. I really did appreciate the trust he had in me by letting me continue to make decisions knowing that I was getting the boot—I think that was unusual. Fifteen years later, he also gave me a strong recommendation to return to the bank in a different capacity, which I had been considering. I did not pursue it, but it was gratifying to have him behind me; I am glad I did not burn that bridge. My view is that he wanted a “blocking tackle” in the game; he did not need another “quarterback”. I had gotten used to calling the plays and directing the action, so I thought it best to take the severance offer and go out on my own. I also knew that the subsidiary would never lose any money on our loan portfolio (and it turns out they did not) so I was not leaving the mess they thought they had.
I believed I had gotten much smarter and could control my life better on my own from there. In 1991, I “hung up my shingle” and started helping businesses work through their financing options. This was the start of my consulting career.
Then I made the big discovery: I could not actually control my life as well as I had begun to believe I could. When I was young and on my way up, I let God control my life and I focused on learning, my career and family. At that stage with little confidence, knowledge or skills, I needed God and knew it. Then I found myself with 20 years of solid business experience and I thought I knew a lot, being that I was a consummate problem solver, and I could even sail through a rough transitioning phase after having gotten fired from a sought-after position. I had some money in my pocket, so I was not very concerned about my future.
We did not have a lot of money when you guys were little, but things were okay. I still remember when you badly wanted designer jeans but I did not buy them for you. When I showed up wearing a pair of them years later after you were out of school, you razzed me for weeks. When you were kids, my focus was to do the best I could at the bank, being involved with your activities and with my church. I know you remember well your fun in the church youth group, and we were happy to support you in all you did there. It was right on plan that you made good friends and stayed out of trouble, which was our intention at the very least.
While moving up the ladder I began to believe that I had come up in the world concerning income, knowledge and confidence. I could now buy some material things that looked good to me. I was now in control with some money and freedom to do what I wanted to, whenever I wanted. I did not even realize that I was starting to get self-centered, and putting myself in control of my life instead of God. At first that felt good, then I started failing at some things.
I had not ever gotten to the point where I thought I knew more than God and that He doesn’t control what happens to us here on earth, but I was starting to believe that I was now smart enough to run many things myself. I am great at looking back; everyone is. I now recognize that I was better off when I was trusting God than when I was making the decisions for myself. I learned that I should have continued learning instead of stopping when I thought I had learned enough. I learned that I should have continued studying God’s Word and learning His Will as I had done in the past. I learned that it is easier to do it His way than it is to look for loopholes. I learned that I still needed Him for things other than salvation; I had given Him credit for my promotions, career and my financial stability, but I had outgrown the daily need because I thought I was in control of everything. I had forgotten to examine and consider the role He has in my life. I had started to adhere to humanist teaching: I made my own rules, and thought that the mantra of the 60’s was right: If it feels good, then do it.
The best part of surrendering to God is what He gives us back: Among these many things is selfcontrol. I used to have a lot of self-control before I obtained a certain level of success, and then I started losing it as I was making all my decisions based on my will, and not God’s. As you know, I am not a very pious person, but I do have a meaningful relationship with my savior, Jesus Christ. That is what counts.
Regaining self-control helps me in many other ways than defeating excessive drinking, including managing my finances and life in general. I find myself content with what I have and I’ve less desire to buy things that do not satisfy which, in fact, just make me crave more things anyway. This is not to say that I advocate that you all take an oath of poverty, and certainly, I have not done that myself. I will still buy the things I need and want (even if that means a new convertible!) It might not make practical sense to indulge like this occasionally, but I still believe in having fun. Ultimately, I know my priorities and I know enough about selfcontrol to make the fun stuff wait until it I can afford it.
From my days at the bank, I learned that if I had control of a particular thing, I was responsible for everything that happened in relation to it. Being able to own up to responsibility is a good and necessary quality and I believed we should be responsible for our actions. My counselor once exclaimed to me, “Rob you can’t be responsible for everything that happens!” I had forgotten that. I knew she was right, and learned it first hand when I got involved in a manufacturing business along with my consulting business. I think I got involved in that because I just wanted to have a business—any business—and build it to be as successful as the ones I had financed over the years. That business was dead when I found it, but I tried everything I could think of to resolve it. I guess I thought I could solve any problem, but in this case, I became entwined in a frustrating, hopeless situation from which I could not retreat. Looking back, I believe I took on more responsibility for its failure than was justified, but had been trained to deal with situations in that way. What goes along with controlling things yourself, you rely only on yourself. I eventually got out of the business before it failed completely. Actually, I learned a lot from the experience, and I survived very well financially with my stock portfolio investments. I returned to my consulting business where I should have stayed. I have been successful since, so this adventure was not all bad. I learned something.
We as a family also learned a ton about control with Sadie, Cathy and Al’s first daughter, Kirsten’s first niece, and Judy’s and my first grandchild.
Sadie’s birth was a major event for all of us; we celebrated her arrival, held her, and just looked at her in her innocent beauty. (Okay, I am a grandpa!) Within about two months though, Cathy and Al realized Sadie was losing weight and not retaining food very well. Thus started a marathon at the Fairview University Hospital intensive care unit where Sadie spent most of her first six months of life. She was diagnosed with “failure to thrive” which a doctor friend of mine said was basically, a failure to diagnose. It wasn’t for lack of tests as we all remember the awful experiences with the tests and surgeries this little seven pound baby had, yet could still give us a smile when she was awake. Those were tough times for all of us, especially for Cathy and Al—but I know Kir suffered too, not to mention Grandma and Grandpa. Emotions ran rampant as Cathy stayed at the hospital at night and Al during the day. We experienced all the tough emotions: Anger, fear, worry, sorrow, frustration, you name it; we had it. Many times, I would leave the hospital after visiting and the tears would come as soon as I was away from my family. None of us could push the button to make Sadie well—nor could the doctors. We had no control, and we knew it. I know all of us, and many others, prayed a great deal for Sadie—we knew we needed His help for this one. After two years of feeding Sadie through a stomach tube and administering life support nutrients that went in to her system via an intravenous device, she began to get better. Through the demands of constant care, Cathy and Al literally became paramedics, and Kir and Grandma helped all they could with it too. Most importantly, I think we all learned to let God have control over Sadie’s outcome and we just did our best to care for her. The doctors never did figure out what was happening, but eventually there was an answer to our prayers. As I write this Sadie is nine years old and in the third grade. She is bright, articulate and healthy. I believe God solved that one for us with the answer we all wanted, her continued life. We will never understand why God heals some and not others, but we learned to trust Him, care for her as well as we could, and live in peace despite the stress. Many think faith in God is just about being “good”; it’s not; it’s about having hope and trust in God’s perfect will and obtaining His peace in dealing with what life gives us. If Sadie had not survived, I believe God would also have given us the peace to cope with her loss. He can get everyone through anything. I also believe God has a special plan for Sadie in that she must have survived for something. But aren’t we all are here for something? We just need to listen to God and trust Him to lead us to whatever that may be.
Like all of us, you will continue to have problems and sadness in your lives. If you learn about
Connecting Peace, Purpose & Prosperity
the will of God and trust him to handle life’s outcomes, you will learn to achieve a sense of serenity that I am learning: less stress, calmness, and constantly seeking the will of God for my life. Looking back, even with job losses and failures, I have learned that He did well for me. Without those experiences, I would have missed a lot.
There will always be other issues that will create anger and frustration, such as high gas prices, natural disasters and a troubled economy. Government may find remedies for some of these things and I hope it does, but then other problems will pop up soon enough, perhaps even caused by the changes our government makes. As an example, the well-meaning idea of making mortgages more affordable to everyone resulted in a mess mostly because fundamental credit standards were ignored. Now the government is bailing out financial institutions, and who knows what will happen with that solution. We need government, but not as our Higher Power. Then government will be our God and we will be missing the highest power of all. Even government cannot control everything nor can it eliminate our pain. God can.
One of the most valuable realizations I found in AA was to pray to God to show me his will, and not for me to show Him mine. Giving God control over issues is different than just “not giving a damn” about things. It will bring you peace.
Lightening Your Load
“We have to put everything aside because the last thing we want to do is carry baggage from one game to the next. It’s too late in the season for that.”
former manager of the New York Yankees have heard that drinking alone is comparable to wetting our pants in a blue suit. At first, we feel warm inside, but no one notices it. Then it starts to smell and makes us uncomfortable, and maybe crabby. Hate and resentments are the same way except you do not feel warm inside—just angry. The people we resent usually do not even notice it; they just leave us alone. Then others notice it, but avoid us because of our griping and the negative attitude we adopt.
Much of my baggage came in 1992 from my bad decision to engage in the manufacturing
Connecting Peace, Purpose & Prosperity
business, which I described earlier, along with my consulting business. As mentioned in the previous chapter, that business was dead when I got involved, but I accepted unwarranted responsibility for that after getting involved. The ensuing failure left me with guilt over wasted time and energy, and it involved wasted money and lost friendships. My last mistake was accepting a note from my partner for money owed to me. I was aware of his financial situation and should have known I would never collect it. Being betrayed was more disappointing than not being repaid the money I was owed (I didn’t lose much at all and had enough money without it) and I was frequently dwelling on how to avenge and recoup my losses. Being a control freak at that time made it even worse: How could I control this situation? I could not.
Several years later, I learned about a solution to this problem. The process simply involved telling someone about the problem, and then asking God for forgiveness for my role in the issue. I learned that in order to find forgiveness, I also needed to forgive. I was taught that I should pray for the person, even if at first it was not sincere, and that eventually the resentment would go away. I tried it, and miraculously, it worked. I eventually got rid of my baggage and was back on my journey with a lighter load and easier travel.
You will make many mistakes, some minor, some major. You may even find yourselves making mistakes that surprise you and bring feelings of guilt. Guilt is natural and often justifiable. If you never experience it, spiritually you are dead. However, when you do feel guilty about something, do not forget that God will forgive you. You do not need to carry any more baggage than necessary for your life journey.
The relationship problems we had with your mom’s parents were the cause of some guilt, stemming from the fact that Judy was pregnant before we got married. We knew God’s way, but we thought we knew better, and we did what felt good to us. Making up our own rules is not new. The Bible has many accounts of people that get too smart, wealthy or powerful, and then they fail and return to God’s way. That mentality still exists as we try to rationalize God’s rules even to the extent of making them appear irrelevant to the times we live in. I believe we do this to in order to try to eliminate the feeling of guilt rather than to accept the powerful ability God has to change our lives if we listen to Him.
Rather than just desert her parents, your Mom hung in there and tried her best to reconcile with them. Gradually their relationship and respect for one another were restored. Things also got better as
Connecting Peace, Purpose & Prosperity
I became more successful, but much of the reason for the reconciliation of differences is because of the two of you. I will always remember your Grandpa Floyd’s pride in seeing his two granddaughters Cathy and Kirsten graduate from Luther College, the first of his grandchildren to complete higher education and earn a degree. As they aged Judy’s parents understood that we were happy and successful as a family, and that was the most important of all. Unbelievably, I think they even learned to appreciate me. Floyd and I became fairly close by the time of his passing.
I think we all carry some baggage in our trip through life. Is it possible to travel without it, when clearly we have needs for our journey? The problem comes when some of what we carry is an unnecessary burden that only bogs us down. We have a hard time admitting that we made a mistake bringing it, so we plod along and carry it to the point of exhaustion.
You may end up carrying too much baggage one day too, such as living with the repercussions of wrong decisions or harboring grudges and resentments. You have several choices: Rationalize it, dwell on it, or dump it. I believe the rationalizations pile up and bother you more over time, and dwelling on it will drive you crazy, so I suggest you try this process, which has worked well for me:
Dump it! Otherwise, it will only hold you back. Baggage will also contribute to poor money decisions that come from your self-pity, guilt or resentments. How many times do we buy stuff just to make ourselves feel better? I know I have. It doesn’t work and only hinders your progress to prosperity.
God is willing to take any baggage you have, so give it to Him. He will make your load lighter and easier. Do it every day so the stuff does not pile up.
Understanding Others, Living to Serve and Serving Others
“I never met a man I didn’t like.”
About 25 years ago, I landed a transfer to a position in sales at the bank. I had been hired by a man I will call Fred, the person who hired me for the commercial loan manager position several years earlier. With the success I had there, Fred became a mentor and friend. He was instrumental in moving my career forward; I was fortunate to find that kind of support. In 1983, he asked me if I was interested in making a move to the sales position. A few weeks after I arrived, I was shocked when my mentor was transferred to another division. In my not so humble opinion, his replacement was the most ignorant guy I had ever met. My mentor was gone, and now I had to deal with a person I’ll call Pete.
In his role as president, Pete also led our credit committee whose main function was to approve new loans, and I was a new loan guy. Up to that time, I had worked with people who had expertise in commercial lending and I could count on looking up to them. I wondered how did I end up with this guy Pete as a boss, whose experience was only in consumer finance making him the lowest on the food chain to us “more sophisticated” corporate finance guys? What were they thinking putting him with us?
As you may well know from your own careers in finance, many credit people like to beat up on the loan sales people, question them, and bring them to their knees until we humbly ask for approval on our unworthy deal. No question is out of bounds regardless of its validity or pertinence to the proposed loan. These people generally assume that borrowers are knocking at our door looking to borrow money at high rates and all we needed to do was screen them a little before offering a proposal. Little did they know what alternatives the borrowers had, and it seemed as though the credit people cared even less. I quickly learned that Pete would top even the seasoned credit antagonists with even more ignorant questions of his own than they could come up with. His understanding of financial statements seemed to be limited to being able to read the company name, and after that he was lost. In my first credit meeting, I was prepared to deal with most questions I knew would come up, but the credit regulars did not even bother when Pete started his questions. One of them quietly even answered a question for me that had brought the room quiet when Pete asked it! Pete wanted to know how much more the prospect would have lost if they had paid all their bills. Of course using the accrual method of accounting, those bills were noted in the loss. This is basic accounting. Everyone was stunned until someone answered him as politely as he could. Eventually, the deal was turned down, and I was livid. After an hour of ranting and raving to our Sales VP, whom I will call Joe, (who agreed with me but just laughed at my rants) one of my coworkers took me out for a drink to settle me down. I very seldom had a drink at noon. We spent the lunch hour dreading that we had to work with Pete.
Then the unthinkable happened at year-end, a few months after he had arrived. He had the audacity to threaten to fire all three of us sales people. We felt that he had no idea what “prizes” he had in us capable guys who understood the business well. When Pete got excited, his voice went up an octave or two, but when he was really angry, it went down several octaves. Using his high voice, he berated all three of us accusing one of creating more problems than he solved, me of not doing anything, and one of being the equivalent of a Fuller Brush salesman. During the course of his lecture to us, I of course, had several wise remarks to offer which brought his voice to a very low octave, which was a signal that Joe quickly recognized, and then he got me out of there before I really did get fired. Then I spent another hour complaining to Joe about Pete’s lack of understanding of commercial finance, and we enjoyed laughing at the situation again. Even though this was frustrating and puzzling to me, I managed to find some humor in it overall.
A few months later Joe announced he was leaving the firm to go to another bank. This move was no surprise to most of us because we all knew he wanted to run a shop of his own, but this wasn’t it. I was surprised to learn that our senior credit guy, whom I will call Mike, had recommended that I get the sales manager spot. That made me feel good as Mike was known as a tough guy in the office, and though many employees feared him they also highly respected him. Having his support meant a great deal to me.
Because of Mike’s recommendation, I soon met with Pete to talk about this and he had a different tone. He told me that even though I was the logical successor for the spot, and the rest of the management team supported me for the promotion, he wasn’t convinced of the move. Begrudgingly, he agreed to work with me for a few months to see how I fared with him in sales management. I was eager for the position, but also hesitant wondering how this would all play out.
During this time, I had no choice but to get to know Pete. I found that he was still ignorant in corporate finance matters, but he was learning how to read financial statements. He was making an effort. Reporting to him now, I had to start listening to him a little bit. Gradually I began to learn that he was not so “dumb” after all, but just lacking knowledge in the areas of corporate finance and accounting. While we were lending millions of dollars, the consumer guys were lending hundreds of dollars. The fundamentals and components were the same: collateral, cash flow, and people. I learned a lot about people from Pete as he had dealt with more people in consumer finance than a corporate lender deals with in a lifetime. I developed an understanding of where he was coming from both personally and professionally. We actually became friends, played tennis and traveled together to several conferences. I also discovered that he had a great sense of humor, too, and we had many laughs together.
Up to that time, I had never seen a manager totally reverse his opinion of a subordinate before, and I respected him for his willingness to be open and get to know me and what makes me tick. It was a two-way street and I knew that I needed to do the same. There is a big difference between “butt kissing” and really getting to know someone to make things work. I now realize that it was my willingness to listen to and understand Pete which resulted in my getting the sales manager position.
In 1987 when Pete got promoted to a top management spot at our parent company, he promoted me to president of the subsidiary.
Other Relationship Lessons
I have friends both personally and professionally. Many grew through you two, by meeting parents of your friends. Now you too are meeting parents of your kids, and I am benefiting from your friends through your kids. For example, Sadie met Nadine Manske in kindergarten, from that Cathy and Al met her parents Kipp and Maria, and eventually I met them. I learned that Maria works with authors, and I contracted her to help me with this book project. How else could I have found that great resource without the relationship that started in kindergarten with Sadie and Nadine? Some things are there for the taking; we just need to know how to seek and find.
In 2003, I met Dick Amundson at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. Dick is CEO of Tentmakers, a Christ-centered leadership training company. While they specialize in youth, they also have adult leader training as well. Dick got me interested in their program and I attended the three-week Nehemiah leadership course. I was so impressed that I left my well paying job at Minnesota Investment Network and joined Tentmakers for two years. Tentmakers trains people to use fundamentals for leadership including communications, selling, recruiting and more. The primary focus is to learn to be “others-centered” in all you do, whether it is meeting with, recruiting, motivating or selling to people. It sounds simple, but in the contemporary “me” culture it’s easy to get off track. Tentmakers also teaches “relationships are made when we reveal ourselves to others and they reveal themselves to us.” Everyone we meet need not know our entire life story, nor do we expect to hear theirs either. However, if we want close relationships we need to learn to know each other. That is not easy, especially if we are self-centered and do not want to share ourselves with others. It should happen judicially and with trust on both sides. I know when I learned more about Pete, I found myself liking him and obviously, with my promotions, he respected me as he got to know me.
The Value of Being Others-Centered
Looking back, I am happy to say that many of my business relationships came from those that I had helped along the way. Besides the practical benefits in business, being others-centered also is the key to building and maintaining personal friendships and relationships. It is also important to recognize that we too need to ask others for help some times because we do not have all the answers to everything. Selfishness breeds the belief that we know everything and we lose the ability to benefit from other people’s knowledge.
Our relationship priorities are God first, others second, and finally, yourself. The chief commandment of the Bible is to “Love God and then love one another as you love yourself.” In my mind, this cannot be overstated.
The process of finding out about others will also divert you from dwelling on your own problems, no matter how big or small they may seem. You will understand that everyone has problems, some bigger and more life influencing than your own. You will also learn that it is difficult to carry the baggage of resentments if you understand the reasons and perspectives of other people that disturb you. As I said, when I finally decided to listen to Pete and figure out how I could meet his needs and goals things started to click.
Along with the others-centered mentality with your business colleagues, friends, and family, I am an advocate of meeting and helping the less fortunate too. Being involved in learning of the problems and issues facing other people will open your eyes. You may find that you do not have it so bad, and you will be thankful for what you do have. You may also discover that you are not much different than they are because in the end, we all have similar wants and needs. I am writing this in the hopes that you can find answers to your wants and needs; I hope you will share your success with others. I also hope that you will be compelled to share not only your knowledge but also your material advantages.
I am learning to put this belief into practice in my current volunteer work at the New Hope Center, an addiction recovery facility that has helped many people rebuild their lives. I do not really do much there; my role is small, but it is rewarding to be among men that are working on improving their lives. If I can listen to them and encourage them that may be enough. Overcoming past mistakes and moving on is not easy. Especially if one attempts to do it alone.
To think that you can let go of the natural selfishness I believe we all have is a tall order. I find myself fighting it constantly, sometimes with success, sometimes not. Selfishness creates unending desires that never cease and only cause more stress, anger and frustration when we cannot attain the material things we want. No, I am not saying you should stop shopping or having fun; just don’t get carried away with self-gratification. Greed is an interesting thing; it has no class boundaries and is insatiable. In some cases, there is no end. Wealthy people want to keep their money, and some of the less wealthy think they should give it to them. Many truly contented people have found a way to be happy with what they have, even if it is not much. “Much” is a relative word.
Once again, most of the problems we hear about in the world relate to money: Who has it, who wants it, and who wants more. Yet we still say that money does not bring happiness!
Developing an others-centered and servants mentality will give you purpose in your lives in all that you do. Live to serve.
Applying Yourself and Keeping the Doors Open
“Don’t worry about how much you are paid per hour:
Worry about how many hours they will give you.”
—My father, Orville Severson (1908-1983) am not sure I completely agree with my father’s advice on this one, but I have to admit that it did work for me. During high school and my early college years my job was working at a drug store as a soda jerk, and it is possibly the best job I ever had. My hourly rate was about $.50, compared with baling hay, which paid twice as much. I soon learned that working 55 hours per week all summer was much better than working sporadically for farmers and logging in as little as 10 hours (on average) per week. I also had little time to spend any money and even less to get into trouble. (I think the latter is what my dad liked most about the situation.) Rather than debate the merits of his advice, I do believe there is much to gain by hard work.
My brother Tom often says that the first goal of a small business is simple survival. I believe that is true for us on a personal level as well. In the old days in the Midwest, the farmers would plant crops, raise animals and have food to live on. They built their cabins and learned how to survive, hard as it was. As they grew their farms and ranches, many of them eventually prospered and became wealthy.
Many Minnesotans brag about our work ethic because we believe in it, and we put it into practice. This tendency to know the value of hard work probably goes back to our ancestors who came here to farm, start businesses, and make an honest living. For the most part, the homesteaders and entrepreneurs did not come for gold or to get rich quick, they came for opportunity to improve their lives. Some also became wealthy through their hard work.
Today is very different in many ways, but the building blocks of survival are the same. We need to figure out what we need and then figure out how to obtain it. We need to add up what it costs to live, and then find a job that will provide the income you need to meet those costs. Most of the needs are the same: Food, lodging, transportation and clothing. Today we also have to pay taxes and have health insurance, and together both costs have raised the cost of living.
In order to survive, I believe in following a simple rule: Take in more than you spend.
As simple as it sounds, I confess that I have violated the basic rule many times myself, betting that my income would go up and I would be okay and be able to pay off credit cards. Fortunately, we came out okay, but there were times when I had to figure out some creative financing to get through.
In today’s world, we have the entitlement mentality, which is based on the belief in redistribution of wealth, or “pooling of wealth” for the common good. This is not a new concept. The early apostles did the same when they started spreading the word about Jesus. They sold their assets, and pooled their money, which was for communal living. The money ran out because some did not want to work any more, and that is where their economic problems began. The apostle Paul later wrote that they needed to enforce the rule: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” This is accounted in the Book of Acts and Thessalonians. (I will not quote the verses here, with the intention that you can go and find them yourselves and learn more.) Paul himself worked as a tentmaker to provide for his living while he spread the Gospel. How far are we from that kind of society when we talk about redistribution of income, vast entitlement programs and people wanting more support from their friends and neighbors via pooling of resources? Will we lose the motivation to provide for ourselves and just do what we want to do? The answer I believe is obvious: Some will, and some won’t. Does this concept conflict with what I said about being others-centered? Absolutely not. If we are truly others-centered, we do not want to live off others and take from them continually. I know fully well that you both had early goals to get off Judy’s and my payroll. You wanted to be independent, and you cared enough about us that you did not want to deplete the resources we had. I’m very proud of what you have accomplished.
There are people on welfare, food stamps, or unemployment who make earnest efforts to become self-sufficient and thrive on their own. They do not want to live off their friends and neighbors, and they want a better life than the subsistence income that many entitlement programs provide. They do not want to be “owned” by anyone. They may be short-term “victims” but they are working to overcome this contentious status. There will always be those that believe food stamps or other “government benefits” are there for the taking, and they are entitled to them because they have many kids or are pursuing their dream to change the world. This is a selfish existence, ignoring whatever one needs to do to provide for their family.
That is not to say that we do not have a responsibility to help the poor. There always will be people that cannot work, and they deserve our help, but we should be very careful with programs that only encourage those who choose not to figure out a path to independent survival. We are depriving them of obtaining the self-esteem that comes with self-sufficiency. I do not believe it is only the very poor that are in this situation. It seems that many people simply lack critical financial survival skills. Many live precariously for a few years until they decide to strive for a future, make a living, and provide for themselves. I’m referring to those who are without health insurance, have “maxed out” credit cards, and have a low paying job even if they do have a college education. Supposedly, in college, people are shown tools needed for success, but many have difficulty assembling these tools for their own survival once they’re out on their own. I believe that motivation is the key to survival, and not education alone. I also believe that if you are motivated that you will get the education you need to survive. Education is not an end; it is a means to an end. You can also learn by reading, which is free. Formal education is overrated and reading is underrated.
I think you both have figured this out. You may have experienced trials and failures, but ultimately I believe that you have the survival mentality, because you have proven that you can support yourselves and families. Please pass that on to our grandchildren.
I wish both you and your mom had known my mother, Evelyn (nee Christianson, 1908 – 1967.) You would have liked her and she would have loved and been very proud of all of you. I learned things from her that have inspired me (even more so than the long hours of work my Dad recommended.) Her favorite book was The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. I am including here her favorite quote from the Bible, which encourages us to do what He calls us to do, and He will help us. It is a great confidence builder for all.
“I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13
In June 1970 I needed to survive, and I needed God to help me—and He did.
I was fired from my first job at a CPA firm. There had been some layoffs at the end of tax season and I was warned that I might be next on the list if business did not improve. Rationalizing the situation and circumstances softened the blow somewhat, but I also knew that my name came up because I had not been too good at what I was doing. I was not all that surprised when I learned that I was chosen to go.
At that time I had about $1,000 in the bank, with rent and basic cost of living totaling about $500 a month. I was naïve enough that I was not too concerned about my future. I was not even too worried about my family even though I was the provider for baby Cathy and Judy, and had just signed a lease on a new apartment.
At Luther, I had majored in ping-pong, pool, cards, beer drinking and eventually Judy Brimmell, your Mom! Other than your Mom, there is not much demand for the other arts that I picked up. My “minor” was in accounting and economics, but I could never quite motivate myself to study. It bored me. Years later, I discovered that some people simply have learning differences, and while one teaching method is good for one student, it might prove to be useless for another. What I had experienced could not be changed. It was what it was.
I do not think your Mom was the greatest student either, but she was the great people person back then that everyone knows today. She majored in elementary education because of her passion for kids, something that has continued all of her life. She was also a great singer, and while at college was invited to join the Nordic Choir at Luther. She didn’t stay in choir because she believed the extra cost of voice lessons would be an unneeded hardship for her parents; she appreciated all they were doing for her by helping pay for school and that was enough. She was unselfish even then. I was interested in her from the first day I saw her at a class, pretty, giving me a sparkling smile. There were several guys hanging around her so I didn’t talk to her then. I was shy with beautiful girls, and if I got a smile from them that was great. (I have progressed since then, because now they see me and laugh out loud! This is progress?) I eventually met Judy at a campus coffee shop and the rest is history.
I did manage to graduate with a “stellar” 1.95 grade point, maybe the lowest ever at Luther. My roommate had better grades; he had a 1.97 grade point, therefore making him a lot smarter than me! No one had more laughs than we did, but we both sucked at studies. We became serious during our senior year, studied the college manual, found a loophole and graduated. We were serious about getting jobs, the sole purpose for going to Luther in the first place. I got a position in accounting, but my roommate did not get any job offers. Instead he went to a seminary, eventually became a pastor, a prominent Minnesota State Senator, and a Brigadier General in the Army Reserve. He had not been encouraged at Luther, but eventually someone encouraged him, and he succeeded. My career paled compared to his, but we both managed to find our purposes and survive. That may be why I never questioned you two about your grades; I am convinced that it’s not what you learn, but how you use the experience of learning. It is not about the past, but about being an overcomer and a seeker as you go forward.
My college achievements are disputable— ping-pong and darts aside—but the one thing I excelled in was finding a wonderful wife, your Mom. Without her support and encouragement, I often wonder where I would have ended up. And how.
In 1970, I soon learned that the job market was tight for accountants. Most of the firms that were hiring looked only at college grade points, which automatically made me an easy pass—along with the fact that I carried the stigma of losing my job once. In public accounting, most firms figured I would never pass the CPA exam so I was a poor investment. At the time, I thought potential employers and my professors at Luther saw me as a below-average thinker who would never amount to much. They had almost convinced me that I was a dummy, especially when I was canned. I had a self-image problem to overcome too.
At first though, I was not too concerned about this situation, so we went to visit your Mom’s parents a few days after I was canned and I told my father-in-law about it. He quickly yelled up stairs to my mother-in-law, “Jean, your son-in-law got fired!” I realized then I probably was not their first choice for their daughter (and probably not even on the list.) They were not exactly excited about me at first, especially when they learned that Judy was pregnant and was going to marry a guy they hardly knew. We were planning on marriage anyway, so it was not that big of a deal to us. My Dad did not get upset because he was thrilled to be a Grandpa, and he had more life experience than Judy’s parents. Back then, pregnancy before marriage was frowned upon, much more so than in the present day. My father-in-law even hinted that he could take your Mom to South Dakota where they can “take care of these things,” but your Mom would not hear of it. Both of you have brought us great joy and we would not have wanted to be without either of you. However, in Cathy’s case, I often think of how much joy and laughter that she has brought to all of us—think of what we would be missing if we had “flushed her down the toilet.” There may be a life lesson right there. It would take a few years for your Mom to restore her relationship with her parents. She was able to make amends because she is an overcomer. It took me a little longer for my relationship to develop with them. So after having been fired, I felt that I really had something to prove to Judy’s parents.
After a few months without a job I got a call from a headhunter asking if I was interested in a position as an internal auditor at a bank. I had never had any interest in banking, (Banks were the only recruiters on campus I passed on at Luther, which is ironic since I’ve made my career in banking and finance.) I never wanted to be a banker because I had always heard it paid poorly, and it was boring. Now of course it seemed like a good idea because it involved a paycheck and insurance. I took the interview and got the job. Life was back on track in one sense, but I now I had some things to prove.
Learn how to do something
Because I had not excelled in college, I had a lot to learn. It was 1971 and time to get started. I was very determined to get back on track when I got the job at the bank. There I was given the opportunity to be in a small group that would be trained in an audit software program, which had been acquired to analyze bank files for audit purposes. I had recently taken a computer course at the University of Minnesota for which I received an A. My supervisor had gotten a B, and my co-worker a C, so all of a sudden I was smart in their eyes. (Little did they know it was my first “A” post high school). I was chosen to learn to write programs using audit software with ten others who were much more experienced in the organization than I was, but not in computers. Programming is very logical and I picked it up quickly, to the extent that I came out on top on the final test at the end of the training. Could it be that I was getting smarter?
I also went to work and studied for the CPA exam through a review course at the U of M. In 1973, after my second try, I passed. I had almost given up after the first time when I had failed by a slim margin. At my second try I prepared and focused more than I ever had in my life, sat in the front row in classes, had perfect attendance and listened carefully to every word the instructor said. When the letter came saying I had passed, we were ecstatic.
The point of this story is I learned that I could apply myself when I chose to with a specific goal in mind, and I came to realize that I was not as dumb as everyone thought I was. It was liberating finally to have a credential and to be worthy and capable in both my personal and professional life.
Persevering Toward Solutions
“I am not a genius. I just stick with the problems longer.”
t the bank in the 70s I attended a seminar that dealt with decision-making and problem solving skills, and it was one of the most interesting courses I had ever taken. It offered specific tools and an approach to use for messy problems. The best part of the course is that it dealt with logic, which I enjoyed. Unlike studying history or English in college that required reading and memorizing material I did not care for, here were some practical tools to make decisions and solve problems. The process involved practical application, and I caught on quickly and proved to be quite good at it. In the following years I think every one of my promotions and opportunities resulted from my willingness to tackle problems—even tough ones—and the ability to simply figure things out. I also found that I had retained much of my traditional education at Luther, and I was able to employ it in these processes. I had a phenomenally good memory, even though when in college, I had equally phenomenally bad academics.
In my role as a systems auditor I soon became known as the guy who understood how the programs for installment loans, real estate loans and savings accounts worked in their computations of interest and other details. Banks often called on me to figure out why their numbers fouled up after a conversion to a new system that had gone unexplained by the computer people. I liked riding the “white horse” even before I had a hat!
I also wrote a simple audit software program for the conversion process of a commercial loan management information system that ended up saving a lot of time and money. I came up with an “out of the box” solution by employing a simple formula: I=PRT: interest equals principal multiplied by rate multiplied by time. Later I would realize that much of accounting is similar in that there are simple fundamental formulae from which we can derive most of what we do in that field. The accomplishment and recognition I received for solving the conversion problem helped me win an
52 Rob Severson
opportunity to move into commercial banking. This happened through an interim promotion to a project manager position that entailed implementing the commercial loan system. The bank’s Senior Vice President of Credit had hired me for the spot, and as part of my negotiation for that job I told him I was interested in moving into commercial banking. He promised that would happen if I was successful with the commercial loan system, and if I showed I had promise in the lending field. I proved myself, and this led to a spot in the commercial banking training program at the age of 33—which was not old by any means—but most commercial bankers were recruited right out of college for this program. Very few operations or audit people were eligible for this kind of job with the “elite” commercial bankers. They used to think they were the “chosen few” and ran the place. Therefore, in a sense, I felt that I had broken a glass ceiling.
While managing the commercial loan project I also got involved in solving a bank regulation problem. Regulation Z is a dictate for disclosing true annual percentage rates (APR) to borrowing customers at the time a loan is closed. It sounds simple and many thought it was. Bankers had no intent on fooling anyone, they just wanted to do it right and keep the Feds off their backs. The problem arose when the examiners were given handheld calculators to test the APRs, and found errors in the disclosed rates. The documentation for Reg Z was in the form of charts and mathematical formulas that worked in generic situations, but not in ones that were more complicated. The examiners’ hand held calculators tested APRs but they did not consider payment schedules out of the norm, so they were noting disclosure exceptions on many of the APRs. They could not figure out why; they just noted the differences as exceptions and it was the bank’s responsibility to fix them. The corporation would have to make restitution to the borrowers for the differences unless we could come up with a valid explanation. If we could not it would cost the corporation a lot of time and money. No one was figuring this out, but since I was involved in the computer game my boss asked me to look in to it for him and find out what was happening. The problem turned out to be simple mathematics (back to I=PRT again). I figured out the solution to the problem and explained it to the Feds, the lawyers, and the banks. Once again, I had resolved what could’ve been a costly systems issue, and it did not go unnoticed. It brought more recognition and success, but the ultimate satisfaction for me was when one of the bank’s lawyers with a Harvard Magna Cum Laude degree hanging on his wall called me to explain to him the math logic I used.
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Develop transferable skills
It is important for everyone to remember that by trying and learning something new you develop transferable skills applicable in diverse work settings and industries. It is up to you to seek opportunities and apply your skills. It does not matter where you are at in your career, or how old you are. This basic principle will ensure that you can survive.
I was lucky. Even though my initial goal was to be an accountant and I became one, eventually I learned that accounting wasn’t my final calling. By accident, I learned that having a CPA certificate in fields outside of the accounting environment created many opportunities for me. People thought I was smart, I had some skills they may have lacked, and I acquired some sense of order in what I did. (Another blessing is most people did not discover that I was not as smart as they thought I was). Salespeople seem to have many transferable skills, because as they say, nothing happens until you sell something. However, even salespeople need to keep their skills current. An example is a medical product salesperson that loses his position and needs to find a new job selling something else. His contacts are now worthless and he needs to refocus his career to another field. Salespeople have an advantage over other positions in specialized areas of a more complex business where there are few opportunities to transfer to other kinds of jobs. That is not to say that those kinds of positions are not worth seeking. They can be very rewarding both financially and within one’s purpose. The issue is, if the positions are eliminated, how does one get a new job? Without the ability to learn something new and/or transfer skills, many people end up in a downward spiral.
So, how do we avoid becoming “white elephants” in our fields? Various government entities provide re-training for us if an industry dies or has mass layoffs for any number of reasons. That may work for some, but I believe we have a better chance of survival if we manage and improve our skill sets, and keep them fresh according to current trends and needs of the industries we work in.
Many work just for the paycheck which is fine if it allows them to accomplish a mission that is outside the realm of providing income, but they too need to keep marketable to assure their survival in order to do what they want and have the freedom to do it.
Marketing Yourself and Proving Your Value
“When one door closes, another door opens, but we so often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
—Alexander Graham Bell
or most businesses, sales determine the ultimate success of the company. Being able to manufacture and deliver the product, and obtain smart financing is only half the battle. Without sales, businesses fail. In our personal lives, we can look at ourselves in the same way. We are in the service business in that we sell our skill sets, knowledge or expertise to an employer or to others. If we own a company, we are serving our customers. To sell our services we need to know what our customer (employers) want from us. To do that we need to continue our “others-centered” mentality in that we exist to provide something that someone else needs in order for each of us to make a living. If we get too self-centered, we focus only on what we are doing and the risk is that we may become obsolete to others. If we are working for someone, we need to provide as well as we can the service we are offering, in addition to new things such as ideas or product lines. As in any business, good service is rewarded with continuous customers or other opportunities. If we practice selling our services, we are also prepared for uncontrollable changes in our employment. This is the first step in getting a job as well as keeping the job. I learned the hard way. Selling “me” in my first job pursuit was difficult because I lacked strong qualification skills. I needed immediate income so had to find something as a wage earner rather than a commissioned salesman.
Selling yourself is something you will need to do almost constantly. This does not mean you have to kiss anyone’s butt, instead just look for ways to “sell” more services to your employer. Also, be prepared to sell them to another employer if you need or choose to. This is key to survival.
Selling is about relationships and dealing with people. It is important to continuously work on your relationship skills and develop a contact database. There are many ways to further your
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relationship skills utilizing books, seminars or events. Find time for ones that will give you an advantage in your field. The value of relationships comes from listening to people and learning from their experiences and approach to life. With customers, it is about identifying their needs and then showing them how your product or service can meet those needs. With employers, it is similar, and you should be looking for “needs” your employer has and find a way to show him that you can fill them. Prove your value to the business. Some have difficulty transferring what they learn from sales skills in to their lives. Do not be one of them: Always be selling something. Then build relationships with those to whom you sell your services.
It is worthwhile to invest in managing your contact database. Keep it current and keep a copy at home where you will always have it. You build it by getting contact information from every person you meet, no matter where you might meet them. As I mentioned earlier, my contact database is my most valuable asset, the source of my business referrals, and often it can provide the solutions to my problems. I used to have it organized by category such as accountants, lawyers, or bankers, etc., and I would send letters to each group giving them reasons not to forget who I am and what I do. It works well for me as it does for many—this is certainly not a new idea. Include your friends, people you work with, people you meet at conferences, customers, anyone that you think you may want to contact some day. Even if you don’t think you will, you may have a surprise in the future that will trigger a memory of someone you met that may know something you are trying to figure out, or be someone your organization may want to hire, or a potential customer. Better yet, see if you can organize it in such a way so you can do things to help them by sending articles, birthday greetings or just check in to let them know you are thinking about them and find a way to encourage them. Be sure to do it sincerely and only when appropriate (emails flood us, and many are unnecessary.)
There are many software programs for organizing and managing your contacts. I use Outlook because it is free with the Microsoft package, captures all the data I need and allows me to send group letters and emails. If your needs increase there are more sophisticated ones out there, but I highly recommend that you build a database, keep it current and use it.
Financial Management and Stability
“More and more these days I find myself pondering how to reconcile my net income with my gross habits.”
— John Nelson
When I started working at the bank in the
‘70s, the bankers frequently told us that it was not about how much money you make, it is about what you do with it. I was always suspicious about that concept. It seemed they were conning us. The truth behind that theory is that we must learn how to prioritize our spending to first meet our basic needs and survive, then spend it on our wants. To do this we need to fight off our natural selfish desires and focus on what we need for our families and our future. Many people know more about personal money management than I do. I confess that I would probably be in trouble had not your Mom and I inherited some cash from our parents years ago. I hope to do the same for you, but time will tell. I am not going to belabor the value of personal money management other than to give you a few things to think about.
First, you need to face the fact that you’ll have to pay taxes. You need to budget your taxes so that you know what you are paying rather than working off take-home pay for a budget. Years ago someone bet me that 99% of the people we meet could tell us what their tax refund or amount owed was for a given year, but fewer than 10% could tell us what their total tax liability was for the same year. It is important to know this overall amount as it affects tax planning and your understanding of the cost of government. Tax withholding began only about 60 years ago. Many small businesses were concerned that people would eventually come to look at their net pay as their compensation rather than their gross pay allocated by their employers. They would forget about how much they were paying in taxes, and consequently blame their employers for their lack of money. I think those small business guys back then were right. It appears that now few people know what they are paying in taxes, or even seem to care. How can we expect our governments to be accountable to us when we do not know how much they are costing
us? This is not a politically partisan stance; I think everyone wants accountability from government.
You need health insurance. Especially when you are young, costs are reasonable, and much cheaper than paying for an emergency operation or broken bone. This is consistent with being unselfish and others’ centered as if you do not have insurance you are relying on your parents or your friends and neighbors for your support. Many people who complain about having no insurance simply do not prioritize or even include this expense in their budgets, but it is available even to minimum wage earners through places like Minnesota Care here in our state. If you cannot afford it, Minnesota Care has other options. If you truly want to be free and independent, you must have health insurance.
If we do not plan to give, we will not ever do it. Making regular contributions to charities and organizations helping people in need is a worthwhile and rewarding effort. I recommend supporting a church that teaches the Word of God and supporting charities that help people become self-sufficient and with turning their lives around. For example, many homeless people are addicts, mentally ill, or come from abusive family backgrounds. We need to support addiction programs and similar recovery-based efforts that offer ways for these people to build a chance at life again. I also recognize that there will always be the poor that may never be able to support themselves, so we need to back the organizations that try to eliminate the causes of poverty and support programs that address those needs. We should also plan to support some people who will never be able to survive on their own. I accomplish my giving goals primarily through my church, which supports many programs like these. Giving is tax deductible and lowers taxes owed. Many of us gripe about government entitlement programs, including myself, but I recognize the need to help people change their lives so they can get on a path of self-reliance and self-esteem. Programs with proven success in these areas are the ones to support. I would like to see the faith community to do more of this to bring real change to these people, and not those who fill just a quick-fix food and lodging need that is merely a Band Aid on the overall problem.
I used to be a tightwad. Maybe I still am, but not in a selfish way. I just watch what I spend. Most of us will never have “our ship come in,” so we need to be prudent with how we use what we have in order to obtain financial freedom some day.
Below is a simple illustration that shows the value of being frugal:
30% tax bracket
If you want You must And pay To have to spend earn taxes of what you
want to spend
$100 $143 $43 $100
$300 $429 $129 $300
$5,000 $7,143 $2,143 $5,000
The above chart is an example of a different way to look at the money you spend. The 30% tax calculation is an estimate based on what we pay for Federal, State and FICA taxes. In the chart we see how much gross income we must make in order to make a given expenditure. For example if we are in the 30% tax bracket and wish to spend $300 on something, we must earn $429 in order to do so. This ties in to the understanding of taxes that I noted above in that it helps us stop and think about what we need to earn to make that expenditure. Before any purchase you make, you need to decide if you want to dedicate that much of your gross earnings for that purchase, or dedicate that much to repay debt incurred to buy that item.
If you want to retire some day, you had better start planning for it. If you have a 401K put as much money in as you can each paycheck. If not, start maximizing your IRA options. You will need it someday for financial freedom to do whatever you want to do. That is my definition of retirement. I am doing it by continuing my financial coaching, writing, and having fun. You need cash to live all your life, so either plan on working all your life, or start saving now. Most of us get our nest eggs a little bit at a time and not in huge amounts—unless we win the lottery. So, start early and keep with it. You can be financially free some day if you do.
Mortgages and Debt
Yes, you will need to borrow money some day. There is so much written on this subject that I will only make two comments. First, you don’t need to buy the most expensive house or car just because you qualify for the payments. Second, rates will increase on ARM mortgages. Be careful and be sure to understand any loans you get and ask questions of anyone that knows if you don’t understand something.
FINDING A MISSION
Be Guided by Purpose
“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”
—John F. Kennedy
Successful businesses have a mission statement that explains why they exist and what problems they solve, or what products or services they provide and why. Many businesses spend hours or years developing their mission statement in order to stay focused on their purpose and value to their customers. Smart companies invest their money in those things that will help them accomplish their mission.
The most successful business owners I have met also truly believe that they can accomplish the goals in their mission statement. This is what keeps them going during tough times and helps them to
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stay competitive even when revenue is up. The approach your Mom takes with her own preschool business is a clear example. She has a strong passion for the pre-school, driven to make it succeed. Though the monetary reward doesn’t match her efforts, it’s the mission and purpose that keeps her going, and, ensures the success of the school.
I realize now that my early mission was to just survive, take care of my family, and learn about the banking industry. I also recognize that I was serving my employer in any way I could that would add value to them and provide me with opportunity to do more for them. I now have a more complete mission statement for myself that includes some of the former but provides more clarification:
“To serve God by serving others through skill sets derived from experience, education and logic to help people solve their business and financial problems.”
Looking back at this statement, I discovered that I have been doing this all my life. I actually had a mission all along which I did not realize. What makes this even more poignant is that I see God’s will in my mission too, which is to help others. Now this is something that I can continue to do all my life (or at least until I get senile. Then you can take care of me and change my diapers—a parent’s ultimate reward.) I am also doing more of helping the less fortunate on a pro bono basis, where I volunteer my counsel. This is very rewarding. It is great to give.
I recently met Ward Brehm, the author of the book, White Man Walking, an account of taking a trip to East Africa with his church. The book is a first-hand account of how this experience changed his life. At that time, Brehm was a very successful businessman, but not very much involved in his faith. In the book, he describes witnessing the bad conditions, including young people dying of AIDS and other maladies, all of which profoundly awoke his sense of compassion for the African people. Since then he has become Chairman of the United States African Development Foundation, which is a government agency that makes direct investments in Africa, and whose goal is to help the poor through business development and job creation. The final message to the reader in his book is the most haunting: “Find your Africa.” That is what we all need to do—find out where there is need here on Earth and answer that need.
You may consider my mission and adopt something similar in your lives, if you have not already. The first part can be the same as mine: “To
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serve God by serving others through_________” and then go from there to include what means most to you. For example, serving your families, your employers and your friends using whatever disciplines you learn. You all have jobs working in business finance. You should recognize that you are serving the ownership of those businesses by doing your part to make them successful. You have customers to serve by providing them cash flow so they can operate. You have families that you serve by supporting them as well as nurturing each other and developing your kids. It is my wish that your influence and good habits I prescribe here will in turn have a good affect on my grandchildren. So, get it right! (Just, kidding; you are doing well with them already.)
This simple concept of finding and living by a mission or purpose of helping others is good for anything you choose to do. It will move you towards unselfish goals and you will find that you will have even more success than you already have by doing this for everyone you meet.
How can I tell what I really want to do? What is my purpose?
How many of us knew what we wanted to do when we grew up? How about at the ages of 18, 25, 35, or 60? I thought I wanted to be an accountant when I went to college. I became one and got a CPA certificate, but I soon discovered other things that interested me more than accounting. I had an early advantage though because I could jump right in to a field and grow from there.
When meeting many young people I hear the typical lament that they do not know what they want to do with their lives. Part of the reason, I believe, is that they are somewhat frightened about living the work lives of their parents. Many think we are slaves to our careers or businesses, and that is reinforced by complaining about work, and being stressed out about our quest for money. Most of us are in that fix because we are not living our lives with a purpose other than a selfish one; to acquire as much as we can, have as much fun as we can, then have more than we can afford to have more of the same. Then comes the frustration of enslavement to a job that we do not want other than to try to pay off bills with the income. So, who can blame our children? What should they do, or better yet, what should we do?
The two most difficult jobs to obtain are your first one, and then the one you need if you get fired. I know, I have experienced both situations. In the first case, you have no experience and in the second, you have baggage. Every one faces the first job problem and many of us will face the second so we need a plan to deal with them.
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If you find that do not know what you want to do and are without a purpose or mission, the first job is going to be a struggle. Many look at that first job and think that they don’t want to do this for the rest of their lives. I often suggest to young unemployed people that they should apply for a bank teller job. The turnover is high so jobs are plentiful, and the cream rises to the top quickly in that role. With a paycheck and access to insurance, you can survive. I have yet to find anyone that wants to take me up on this suggestion; no one wants to be a teller. They do not seem to understand the concepts of getting started in something, having opportunities for advancement, and building a record of accomplishment. It may be hard for these people to hear, but “you have to start somewhere.” I do know of some that did take this route in order to survive, and they rebuilt strong careers in other areas of banking or other fields by getting a first or second start. Without taking that first step— maybe even a tedious job—it is difficult to move on to the next step.
As I quoted earlier, my brother Tom says that the first goal of any small business is simply to survive. That is what we need to focus on in our early careers. In order to survive I think it is important to keep two goals in mind. First, get a job where you will learn something useful, and learn to find opportunities in which you can excel, and get your financial affairs in order. Secondly, figure out what it will cost you to maintain your ideal lifestyle, and then work out how to pay for it. By getting your financial affairs in order, I am referring to getting any school loans or credit cards repaid or under a good plan, build some savings, and learn how to manage money. Sounds easy, huh? (I’m not that old!) We all want to have a fun lifestyle whether it is going to sports or theatre events, to the taverns, playing golf, and many other pleasures. We live in an instant gratification world where toys can became the most important things to us. What we forget is that freedom is more important than the parties and toys that can take away freedom. Most of us have probably lived above our means at some times in our lives (sometimes I think I still do) but the earlier we learn to control what we can control the better off and happier we will be. The best part is that when we find a vocation where we can accomplish our purpose and we get the passion to pursue it, we will be free to do so. We will be able to afford to do so, and that is a big thing that precludes many from their dream, they are stuck where they are.
“When you seek happiness for yourself it will always delude you. When you seek happiness for others it will always serve you.”
—Dr. Wayne Dyer
This quote accurately sums up what I have tried to write here. Learning unselfishness and finding peace will help you prosper and pursue the goal of being happy that Judy and I have for you. Using this ultimate goal of happiness for every decision you make including vocation, money management and relationships, you will be on a successful path to that goal. The things I have presented in this book come from many sources, including my own experiences, Tentmakers, the Bible, and the biblical concepts reflected in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most are not my ideas; I have just tried to show how they might fit together for you. What Judy and I want for you is to have the best that life offers and to be happy, and I have found no better guides than these. They include tried and proven fundamentals
that have survived the test of time for thousands of years. I have seen lives change or improve drastically when these things are adopted. AA, for example, has taken biblical truths and has helped millions, and this program has only been around for about 75 years. This stuff works.
Many in this country think the problems we have come from the deterioration of families. In that vein, I am starting with my family with the hope that we can find peace, purpose, and prosperity for ourselves, and help others learn these principles too.
Many people do not get family support, so we must reach out to those we meet to encourage and help them along the way. One of my most touching moments came when I was at a youth camp run by Tentmakers a few years ago. I was standing in line for lunch the first day and met Jason from Nebraska who stood behind me. Jason was sort of shy and unsure of himself, so I struck up a conversation with him. I turned to him and asked him questions such as where he lived, what interests he had, about his family and other things. At the end of the week, along with the kids, I had to tell my life story to everyone attending the camp. As a part of the Tentmaker custom, the leader then asks the group if anyone wanted to say anything to affirm me. Jason’s hand immediately flew up and he said
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“The first day I was here Rob was interested in me and talked to me.” I came close to tears hearing that, wondering if he is ignored at home and school. If that is all it takes to help and encourage someone, then we can all do it.
The things I had to overcome may seem minor to many, but to me they were major obstacles I had to face. If I can do it with God’s help, anyone can. And I will help anyone I can along the way. I will use the God-given gifts and tools from my experiences to help others in any way I can. I have learned that I am a better coach than a player, so I will stick with it!
I had no idea what I was getting in to when I started this book. I had a story I wanted to tell and that was about it. I ended up spending much more time than I anticipated as new ideas and thoughts kept me writing more and more for several months. As any reader may suspect, I ended up learning far more from this process than any of you will by reading it.
I now have a book that I am proud to leave my family, and I would not have had one without Maria Manske of Linwood Book Group. She knew when to encourage, when to correct, and she understood my ideas and helped me express them. I would highly recommend that everyone of my vintage write their story for their kids, and would highly recommend hiring Maria to help you get something you will be proud to leave them.
I also want to thank the following for their advice and counsel in this process: Mike Conley, Ward Brehm, Dick Amundson, Dean Johnson, Peter Rennebohm, Pastor Dan Sollie, Steven Larson and posthumously, the late Georges Yared who
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encouraged me to continue this project when I was tiring of it because he believed I had a story to tell.
One other thing:
The people I have referred to in this book are real people, but in some cases, I have given them a pseudonym to protect their privacy. While I have nothing but respect for all of these people, I want to avoid any misunderstandings from any reader. I consider them all friends.
Rob Severson, March 2009.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Since Rob Severson graduated from Luther
College in 1969, his life has taken many turns and he has played many different roles: Belowaverage college student, young father and provider, and challenged career climber. Throughout the past several years his quest for knowledge—whether career- or faith-related—has brought him to a place of peace, prosperity, and purpose.
Rob has run a successful financial consulting business for over 18 years. Prior to that, he held several executive positions in the banking industry, where he helped businesses build successful solutions toward growth and opportunity. Rob volunteers at his church and at the New Hope Center in Minneapolis. When not working or volunteering, Rob enjoys traveling with his family, playing golf, making new connections, and trying on new hats. He lives with his wife Judy in Deephaven, Minnesota