Helping navigate a path through life with intent

When I was a little boy, I was not interested in Spiderman or Batman… there were two cartoons that I was interested in – Johnny Quest and Commander McBragg – a little boy and an old man who traveled the world, had adventures and gathered the most wonderful stories. I knew that that was what I wanted out of life. People who know me today can’t fathom how unlikely it was for me to become a world traveler, when I was a 10 year old boy.

Recently, at a party, one of my north shore Chicago friends raised the subject of recreational vehicles. I mentioned that I had once lived in a trailer. “Was that some kind of family adventure?” she asked. “No” I laughed, “that was extreme poverty”.

When I was 11, my family was evicted from an apartment and we ended up living in a trailer. Not one of the nice double wide mobile homes in a park with a playground. This was a 29 foot trailer on cinder blocks behind a gas station in rural Pennsylvania. We used the gas station rest room and my sister and I would ride our bikes to a community pool to shower a few times a week. To this day I have no idea what my parents did for hygiene that year. During these years of my childhood, it wasn’t uncommon for us to live, often for weeks at a time, on bulk pasta, margarine and garlic powder for dinner and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.

When I was 15, my father came to my room one night, having packed a duffle bag. He said “I think I have done everything that I can do for you, do you mind if I leave now?” and from that point on, I was on my own, taking away even the thin layer of security and support that I had had until then.

I am not a wealthy man, but I live a very comfortable life. I have lived on 6 continents and traveled in more than 130 countries, fulfilling a childhood dream. I have attended and lectured at some great schools, when neither of my parents finished college. I have stayed happily married to a wonderful woman for more than 20 years when my parents and my grandparents were all broken families. I have wonderful kids who are successful at what they do and we have created a strong family culture. By the time I was in my mid-twenties I had checked off all the items on a bucket list I wrote in my teens, and I have made and checked off two additional bucket lists by the time I was 50.

None of my childhood friends have been able to navigate the path from where we started to where they wanted to end up, as I have. It is not as easy as it may have been in the past, or as it can be portrayed in movies, to achieve the American dream. Many people do not take this navigation with intent, and I believe that this is what often limits people’s ability to achieve their dreams.

I served in the military as an airborne scout. While we did a variety of other activities, our primary activity was to navigate a path and act as a pathfinder for our brigade in time of war. For thousands of hours, we learned to read maps and the terrain and relate the two to each other. We had to make sure that the bridges and the roads could support our vehicles, that there were no surprise changes of elevation that would slow our movement, we had responsibility for our unit getting to where it was supposed to be at the time it was supposed to be there. This was the burden that I volunteered to shoulder at 18.

We would carefully study the topological maps and the aerial photos and we would plot out how to move. We would take into consideration the gradient of the land, the enemies line of site, obstacles like fences and rivers, we would consider the burden on the troops, how much weight they were carrying and how fatigued they would be.

Down the street from the gas station, behind which our trailer was propped on blocks, when I was 11, was a flea market. I wondered down to that flea market and I got a job selling factory second cutting blocks and welcome mats, the provenance of each was unknown. I would spend every day after school and weekends in the flea market. One day my boss called me, laughing, and said “this gentleman has a complaint about you”. I approached with my stomach in a knot, and I saw a large red faced tourist with 2 of our top of the line $30 cutting boards under his arm. As I approached, he said to my boss “I don’t want him to say anything… my wife bought this crazy expensive cutting board from him and when I came to return it he sold me another one, if he starts talking I don’t know what I’ll buy just give me my money back for one and I’ll go”.

I realized then, at the age of 11, that my skills lay in selling and that was how I would make my living in life. In rural Pennsylvania, with parents who were on their way to a divorce and without college degrees, the realistic career path for me would have been to hope for a job as a regional sales manager for a soft drink or beer company, and that would have represented a reasonable level of upward mobility.

I realized, however, that if I wanted to leverage my abilities to become a world traveler, I would need a college degree, and I should be aiming at a VP of sales job with a corporation. While I could make a reasonable amount selling factory seconds to tourists, I wasn’t going to pay for college that way.

The only real way I could see to pay for the education that I would need to achieve the career that would give me the lifestyle I wanted was the military. So as an early teenager, I decided that I would serve in the military. During my junior high and high school years, I worked to support myself, I took care of myself (cooking and doing my own laundry etc.), kept my grades high enough for a reasonable college, and I put effort into getting into the type of shape that I would need to serve as an infantry sergeant, the specialty that I decided would best help me achieve my goals.

This involved a lot of road running and lifting a 25 kilo metal ingot, which I had found in a trash dump, like it was a barbell.

All this work paid off, I was able to leverage my leadership experience from the army to get my first job and use the benefits and saved money from my service to get a good education.

In my twenties I did a little more course navigation – I realized that if I wanted to be the VP of Global Sales of a corporation when I was in my 40’s or 50’s, getting broader regional experience in my 20’s would be important. So, 4 times I took a lateral shift in a job, going from regional manager to regional manager job and postponing advancement in order to better prepare myself for a senior manager position in the future. I also realized that there were many administrative jobs that would report to this position, and it would be helpful to understand some of the things that they did, so I went back to community college to learn some of the administrative jobs that an international sales organization needed but were seldom understood by upper management.

By the time I was 30, I was in charge of sales for South Asia for a fortune 1000 multinational corporation and I was considered a rock star, having driven 4,000% growth, using all of the things I had learned and all of the skills I had developed over the years.
We all want what is best for our children, and we often tell them to pursue their dreams, but we don’t tell them to put intent into that pursuit.

We can achieve our dreams, I am a perfect example of that. But we can’t achieve our dreams by following them blindly without a plan or a map. In the same way that if we want to get from point A to point B across difficult terrain, we need to carefully plot out a path, from point to point, that will lead us from where we are to where our dreams lay.

After reaching my goals, now I help others reach their life goals, by helping them navigate this path.

By Zach Selch |

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