I don’t remember exactly when my dad told me to “measure twice and cut once”, but it must have been right before I nearly sawed my fingers off doing one of our many tenement improvement projects. My family and I immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union. We lived in a small Brooklyn apartment where everything always broke, but would never know the joy of being fixed by a licensed professional. Instead, there we were – my engineer dad and I, wearing our irregular Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, poking, prodding and making sparks, like a pair of Iranian scientists trying to launch a chimp into space. We installed air conditioners, fixed pipes, and used a geriatric Soviet drill that would deafen Metallica. It’s only recently that I realized my dad’s advice was both the greatest and worst thing I ever got. And, it’s cast a huge shadow over my life and how I view business…and the world.
Escaping Soviet rule was the last daring thing my family ever did. After arriving in the US, my parents made the Amish look like The Sex Pistols. Growing up, I had more in common with veal than with other children. In fifth grade, my parents bought me knee pads to play basketball. When a high school football coach asked me to join the team, my mom and grandmother agreed but only over their dead bodies. If my parents had their way, I would be an accountant, never leave my apartment, and somehow find an agoraphobic wife to produce the tender veal-children they desperately craved.
My dad is a recently retired engineer with incredible patience. He could learn anything by taking things slow. Whatever he finished was always done right, unless it involved his archenemy, the VCR. A few years ago, he even passed the real estate broker exam on his first try – undeterred by limited English…or the surplus of unemployed brokers.
My dad’s discipline was not always rewarded. He could give a thorough tour of Brooklyn just by showing you the houses he almost bought. He has a similar list of countries he would have visited and businesses he could have invested in. He measured his way out of every possible loss. I understand why he did it. But I now realize that most of life’s victories and experiences lie in the cutting, not the measuring.
After marinating for two decades in my parents’ fears, they finally wore me down. I abandoned my dream of studying broadcasting at Boston University. Instead, I fired up the abacus and became an economics and accounting major at NYU. From that moment on, I felt exactly like Kate Upton – if she were forced to marry a Hasidic rabbi. And so began my long struggle for emancipation.
On the surface, “measure twice, cut once” served me well. My career kept advancing as I balanced my father’s discipline with wilder, creative tendencies. That feeling of controlled danger made prospective employers swoon with endless possibilities as if I’d slipped roofies into their macchiato. But subconsciously, my life became a massive turnaround exercise. My LinkedIn profile and bio betray a lifetime spent inching my way towards something bigger and more meaningful, but I had no clue what. So I lived below my means, delayed having a family, and squirreled away money like I was on a Doomsday Prepper reality show. I wore my self-denial about as proudly as all those pre-owned sneakers I snagged from the $6.99 pile as a kid.
One day, I woke up to an uncomfortable truth. I had become my father. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if I were at all like him, but I’m not. The bold, fearless innovator was still afraid. Why? I’d hoarded every credential I’d ever need. Brand names dangled off my resume like Christmas ornaments. And my unruly list of contacts kept breaking Google sync. So what was I waiting for?
Ironically, it took losing a huge chunk of my savings in the market crash to rekindle my interest in economics and inspire me to write my first book, Econovation. I felt a strange mix of pride and guilt that something so destructive gave me such clarity and purpose. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a mass extinction or zombie apocalypse to inspire my next book…
Finally, I was done measuring. I made the big cut. I left American Express the month my book came out. Since then, I clawed my way into media – without that broadcasting degree. I’m a regular on radio, TV, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, LinkedIn and elsewhere. I get paid to speak about the future. And, I have a growing business helping companies create breakthrough innovations that launch before osteoporosis sets in – by partnering with agile startups.
This new life is much less predictable than my last one, but for now it beats being married to that rabbi.