What Happened to Bruce: A Lesson I’d Like My Son To Learn

I’ve known Bruce since high school. His family and mine, both extra-large Irish-American clans, lived less than a mile apart. Although we ran with a gang of kids who seemed destined for questionable futures, Bruce and I always had the sense that we wanted more. We both went to college. We both studied hard. We both traveled the world and took risks — and when we finally settled down into careers, we were hell-bent on becoming successful.

During his heyday, Bruce was a corporate vice president for several Fortune 500 companies. He was a natural leader with an interest in computer technology. During the ’80s and ’90s, he was at the head of his field. He was earning big bucks — three quarters of a million at one point — and was well-known and well-established. He had achieved the great American dream. The big house, the cars, the vacations, the corporate expense account. But then, suddenly, everything went wrong. His run of bad luck started when he switched jobs to take a more lucrative position with a high-tech company . . . just before the bubble popped.

Then, in the course of a year, he got divorced, saw his retirement portfolio collapse, lost his job, suffered a tragic death in the family, and had a stroke. “I was down and almost out,” he told me. Yet Bruce, who was and still is one of the bravest people I know, managed to fight his way up from the bottom. Problem is, he’s not happy with the job he has.

Bruce went to work with a man who promised him a partnership — but when the money started coming in, the story changed. “I’ve just brought in a client that is going to make this guy very rich,” he told me. “But he’s taking it all for himself. I suppose I could take him to court and fight it out. But I don’t have the heart for that sort of thing anymore. I’m willing to settle for less. I want a job that I can love, that can keep me close to my kids, one that can put me back in touch with people. I don’t need to make a ton of money. Just $150,000 a year will cover my needs.”

It broke my heart to hear him speak that way. This is a man who is perfectly capable of running a billion-dollar business. But he’s been banged up so unfairly and so often by life that he just doesn’t have the competitive spirit that he had in the old days. I told him that I thought the old fervor would come back to him once he got situated in the right job. “I don’t want it to come back,” he said. “I want to live a simpler life. I want to spend more time loving the things I do.”

I’m all for living a simpler, more fulfilling life — and having the personal and financial freedom to do just that. The career opportunities sponsored by ETR were all designed to help people lead that kind of enviable lifestyle — so I told Bruce about some of them. But he didn’t really want to work by himself. And he didn’t want to put in the effort to learn a new skill. Yet, he wanted to make good money — at least $150,000 per year. What kind of job was he looking for? “I’m really good with people,” he said, “leading them, getting them motivated, putting a team together and making it click.”

This statement bothered me. It was reminiscent of what I have so often heard from kids fresh out of college. (“I’m a people person.”) “That’s a skill,” I agreed, “but do you think it’s one that someone’s going to pay you a lot of money for?” He saw my point. I gave him a quick rundown of the idea we’ve talked about so often in ETR — that the best way to make good money and keep making good money (i.e., keep your job) is to learn and practice a “financially valued” skill.

I gave him my short list of financially valued skills: knowing how to market being able to sell being capable of creating a positive bottom line Those are the premium skills, the ones that — combined with being able to work well with people — will put you at the very top of almost any organization and assure your employment for pretty much as long as you want it. But there are other, less-valued but still valuable, skills — and I reminded Bruce that he has one: developing information technology. “That’s a liability,” he told me. “All the good tech jobs are in India. First, the entry-level jobs — the data-input and basic programming jobs — went. Then, the middle-level jobs. Now, even jobs at the top level are over there. American technicians just can’t compete.”

I thought of Liam, my eldest, who — despite my warnings — took his degree in computer programming. He recently got his first real job, working for a company in L.A. that does special effects for movies. And I’m sure his bosses love him. But he’s a technician — and, from a business point of view, a technician is a necessary expense, not a vital asset. “Even the most qualified engineer,” I told him, “is viewed by the CEO and shareholders as a cost of doing business. He may be providing a very necessary function in a highly skilled way — but until he can find a way to position himself on the profit side of the ledger, he will always work under these risks and pressures.”

The situation that Bruce is in right now proves that point. Bruce is too strong, too smart, too gifted a person not to be able to find a good job. But in order to do that, he’s going to have to make some changes. Instead of continuing to search for a high-paying a position where he can “work with people,” he’s going to have to perfect (maybe even learn from scratch) a financially valuable skill. When he sends out his next resume or has his next interview, he’ll have to be able to answer one or several of the following questions: “How will you increase our revenues?” “How will you reduce our costs?” “How will you expand our customer base?” “How will you increase our profits?” Bruce can make the transition. I hope he does.