Lessons from a (Career) Lifetime Ago: Take Every Opportunity

Back in the 90s, when I was still working at my corporate job, I had a colleague, Steve, who never seemed to travel to or from business events with the rest of our company. On a rare occasion when he ended up on my flight to a conference in Washington, D.C., I asked him why.

Steve told me that he always took the opportunity of a business trip to arrive a day or two early or stay a day or two longer so he could explore and experience the place he was visiting. Since the company was footing the bill for the flight, he figured he only had to cover a couple of extra nights in a hotel and any additional food and entertainment costs, to transform the trip into a mini-vacation.

Steve’s point of view was: You never know if you’ll have a chance to come back to this place. Why not explore it?

Steve’s viewpoint seemed like a luxury to me. If there wasn’t a specific reason to extend my trip, I always headed directly home. I was tired and inevitably, had a pile of work to catch up on that couldn’t be done during my travels – especially in those days before smartphones and Wi-Fi on planes. I had laundry and chores waiting at home. I missed my husband and kids. And besides, it seemed daunting to venture out and explore a strange city on my own.

A few years later, after I’d left my corporate job and started my own technology PR and marketing practice, I took a relatively new client of mine on a press tour. Back in the “old days”, product launches were accomplished by visiting all of the top research firms and technology and business publications, conducting a series of face-to-face meetings crammed into as few days as possible. That typically meant visiting New York, Boston, and Silicon Valley, with occasional stops in Washington, D.C. and Chicago thrown in. These whirlwind tours were usually completed in four or five days, with as many back-to-back meetings squeezed into each day as possible. 

This particular client was a start-up and I traveled with Paul, the CEO. We had a rigorous schedule planned with two full days in New York. On the first day, we had a last-minute cancellation in the middle of our day, leaving us with a couple of hours to kill before our next meeting. The driver of our town car pulled over so we could decide what to do with the extra time. I assumed we’d return phone calls from the back of the town car, or find a coffee shop where we could work and pass the time until the next meeting. The spot where we pulled over happened to be just a block or so from the Empire State Building.

“You know,” Paul said, gazing up the block. “I’ve been to New York on business hundreds of times. And I’ve never been to the Empire State Building.”

“Neither have I,” I said. I had a vague memory of visiting New York as a child, but the half dozen times I’d traveled there for business, I’d never ventured much beyond the airport and the hotel, viewing the city from windows only.

“Do you want to go?” Paul asked. 

I didn’t know Paul very well at that point, but he had always struck me as being all work and no play, so I was more than a little surprised at the suggestion. But we had time, and I couldn’t deny that visiting the Empire State Building sounded much more fun than returning phone calls. Our schedule was exhausting and it would be nice to take a break from the work.

“Why not?” I said.

We made our way down the block and spent a good hour exploring the Empire State Building, making our way to the top, and taking in the exquisite views of Manhattan.  

This short diversion seemed to invigorate and spark something within Paul. He declared that after our business day was done, and we got back to the hotel, he would look into tickets for a Broadway show because, again, he had been to New York so many times but had never actually taken in a show. 

We accomplished quite a bit on that trip – successful meetings that generated significant press coverage – but what I’ve always remembered is the trip to the top of the Empire State Building, some delicious dinners, and getting the opportunity to see CATS and Miss Saigon on Broadway. On the plane ride home, Paul seemed strangely peaceful and relaxed. I didn’t reflect much on this at the time. For my part, I was grateful for the opportunity, and once home and settled in, I sent Paul an email to that effect.

Just a few months later, at a seemingly healthy and fit 51 years of age, Paul suffered a heart attack while walking his dogs in his neighborhood and died. Beyond the shock and sadness, I found myself thinking back to our New York visit, as I’ve done many times since, thankful that Paul took the time to put aside work and enjoy the city, and that I was there to share the experience.

In January of this year, I found myself in New York again. My client was exhibiting at a large, international conference and when my manager was unable to attend at the last minute, I volunteered to go in his place. I participated in meetings, attended conference sessions, and walked the tradeshow floor. But I also rose early one morning to make the five-mile walk from my hotel to the conference center, enjoying the view of the harbor and Statue of Liberty, taking in the artwork along the High Line, and stopping for coffee and people-watching along the way. When I found myself alone without a business dinner commitment one night, I walked to a seafood place down the street and enjoyed a glass of wine and lobster rolls at the bar. I found myself thinking about Paul and feeling thankful for the lessons we both learned on that long-ago press tour.

January 2020 now seems like a lifetime ago, given all that has happened in this crazy, tumultuous, and difficult year, and it seems unbelievable that just 11 months ago, I could have been sitting in the Jacob Javits Convention Center surrounded by thousands of people from all over the world, all of us breathing the same indoor air in close quarters. But in a year where we’ve all been forced to stay close to home, many of us living, learning, and working within the same four walls, I’m more thankful than ever for that January trip – and even more so, for the lessons learned from my former colleague, Steve, and my late client, Paul. With 2020 finally — thankfully — moving into our rearview mirror, I’ll never regret the extra time spent exploring and experiencing a new place or revisiting a familiar one. As we head into 2021, hoping for better times, let’s never take for granted a single moment we have or an opportunity presented to us. 

Here’s to a better 2021 for the entire world. Happy New Year, everyone.