Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Courage to Make Big Life Decisions

Loyal reader (yes, they do exist) Chris H. sent along an excellent article from The New York Times about Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens' decision to leave his comfortable, secure job at a pharmaceutical company for an uncertain career as an unpaid graduate assistant basketball coach. For those of you that don't want to read the whole article, Stevens worked at Eli Lilly for a couple of years, but continued to explore his passion for coaching. He volunteered as a coach on nights and weekends, and coached at basketball camps, where he eventually was noticed by then-Butler coach Thad Matta. Matta offered Stevens an unpaid graduate assistant coach position.

The only problem was, Stevens was, by all accounts, a rising star at Eli Lilly. He impressed co-workers and superiors with the ease with which he worked, and he rarely made mistakes. Stevens agonized over his decision for days. He finally went to a superior, Kevin Hanna, who asked him three questions:

"Is being a coach what you think of when you wake up, something you want more than you want to eat and sleep? Stevens said yes. Are you going to be able to feed, clothe and shelter yourself? Stevens said yes. And finally, Hanna asked, do you understand the difficulty of what you are about to try to do? Hanna told Stevens that he would need to set realistic goals and that if he did not meet them in a given time frame, he should feel comfortable walking away from coaching."

Shortly after having this conversation with Hanna, Stevens resigned. He has since twice led an underdog Butler team to the NCAA finals, and will lead Butler against UConn tonight for the national title. If he wanted to, he could take a job at a school like…say…Missouri, which would likely be willing to pay him over $2 million per year.

So what lessons can we take from Brad Stevens? First of all, he identified his passion and aligned his life to follow that passion. He kept coaching for free, trying to establish connections in the industry.

Second, he put himself in a position where he could comfortably make a career change. This could involve saving up a pile of cash to make it through a few years as an artist, or taking classes to give yourself a new skill-set for an exciting new career. It also involved continuing to make connections in his field, and doing well enough when he was put on the spot to be noticed by a key decision-maker.

Third, when he identified an opportunity, he gathered as much information as possible and performed some deep soul-searching. The three questions that Kevin Hanna asked him are incredibly important to ask yourself before making a big life decision like a career change. They could be tailored for anything, like, "Is this person the right one for me?" or "Am I ready to have kids?" The three questions also point out that he asked trusted advisors for their opinions on his plans. I assume he respected Hanna, so he went to him for his opinion. If you ask me, he got some good advice in return.

Perhaps most importantly, he had the courage to make the decision that he knew was right in his heart. Plenty of people would've made the safe choice to stick with the secure paycheck, and these people aren't necessarily wrong. There's a lot to be said for security, especially if you have dependents to look after. But Stevens knew what he wanted to do in his heart-of-hearts, and decided to make the leap, even though there were no assurances that he would succeed. He identified a shot, calculated the odds of making it, and took it.

Was Brad Stevens lucky? Maybe. But his luck resulted from each of the factors above. A lot of people liken succeeding in difficult careers to somehow winning the lottery. I'll admit, there is some element of luck involved, but it's not pure luck. If you are truly talented, research the field sufficiently, and put yourself out there so that others can recognize your talent, you have a much higher likelihood of success than those that don't follow those steps. Sure, it may take a long time, and not everyone will make it, but even if you don't, at least you tried. And no matter what, you'll always be glad that you had the courage to make the jump.

Have you ever "taken the leap?" How did it work out for you? Let me know in the comments.

Also, potentially big news coming for me on a similar front—hope to post more about it Wednesday. If you have tips or ideas for articles, send them to me via e-mail (, twitter (@djgelner), or my facebook page.

Questions? Comments? Amazed I have regular readers? E-mail me at Follow me on twitter @djgelner.


  1. Not only do you have loyal readers, you have loyal readers across the globe (or at least in Mexico)!


  2. Thanks Josh--hope things are well in La Ciudad. I assume the (for lack of a better term ) drug wars aren't too big in the capital? Hope you and the family are doing great--thanks for reading, and tell your (English-speaking) friends!


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