On The Deferred Life Plan: An Introduction to Randy Komisar

September 26, 2009 § 4 Comments

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photo: Edyson

“What do you mean the book is here? I checked and its not on the shelf!”

“Sir, the book is indeed here in the library. It was returned today but hasn’t been placed back on the shelf yet.”

“Which still means you don’t have it.”

“The book will be available for borrowing in about an hour’s time.”

So much for customer service. I’ve been waiting to borrow this book for a week, here at the National Library. My impatience to read this book was getting to my head. Bookshops everywhere didn’t stock this book, or have sold out of it. I got my hands on the book eventually though, at another library, which had that same problem, and had me sit through the same situation. Only that I was more patient this time.

Why all that fuss for The Monk And The Riddle?

Written by Randy Komisar, a Virtual CEO who as worked with companies such as WebTV and TiVo. During the nineties, he was CEO of LucasArts Entertainment and Crystal Dynamics, CFO of GO Corporation, and one of the founders of Claris Corporation.

With a shaved head and cowboy boots. this man with a BA in Economics from Brown University and a JD from Harvard Law School would probably be hard to miss in a crowd.

For too long I have been mulling over questions about my own life plan and career, and no one source has yet to provide a reasonably good answer. Until I remembered about a certain book that was handed to Tim Ferriss as a graduation gift from his professor at Princeton.

As author of The Monk And The Riddle, Randy Komisar’s lessons about the difference between “passion and drive” and “professional and personal success” hit me the most.

In it, he defines the Deferred Life Plan as having to divide your life into two parts.

First Part of Life: Do what you have to do

Second Part of Life: Do what you want to do

He’s been a mentor to many successful startups, and in his philosophy of business and capitalism, its easy to see why. Here is a small excerpt from the book, and for those who are confused about their career plans, stuck in a job you hate, or working on something you dislike now, in hopes that you will do something you love in the future, this is a gem for you.

Excerpt from The Monk And The Riddle – Randy Komisar

I encourage people to think about all the risks involved – personal risks as well as business risks. When I talk to candidates as part of recruiting outside management talent to the Valley, the issue of risk often comes up. Prospective managers usually fear that the venture won’t be a blockbuster or, worse, that it will be forced to close its doors. Some recruits fixate on that business risk to the point of indecision. They strain to research all the facts, but at some point no additional information or assurances will offer them any further clues into the business’s ultimate success or failure. Uncertain, they freeze and stay with the status quo, no matter how unsatisfying it is. After all, it’s what they know.

But when I drill down, I inevitably find personal risks that need to be considered along with the business risks. Personal risks include the risk of working with people you don’t respect; the risk of doing something you don’t care about; and the risk of doing something that fails to express – or even contradicts who you are. And then there is the most dangerous risk of all- the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.

Several years ago when I pondered the offer to join Apple, and I looked down that long corridor at my law firm, the answer was clear. I was not concerned with whether Apple’s business would succeed or fail or whether my options would be valuable or not. What I had to weigh was whether I should remain on the well-defined path to professional and financial success as a lawyer or venture into a creative life in business with no specific destination in mind. I was not hesitating because of business risk; I was wrestling with personal risk, a different game of chance in which we have far more control.

When I considered the risk of staying at my law firm, I had to face the possibility of an unfulfilled life, of working endlessly on things that did not matter and that at times violated my core values. I had to face subordinating my creativity in order to become a specialist, channeling myself too narrowly. To me these were graver risks than whether Apple succeeded or failed. Ultimately I chose to pursue what seemed most important to my life at the time.

In theory, the risk of business failure can be reduced to a number, the probability of failure multiplied by the cost of failure. Sure, this turns out to be a subjective analysis, but in the process your own attitudes toward financial risk and reward are revealed.

By contrast, personal risk usually defies quantification. It’s a matter of values and priorities, an expression of who you are. “Playing it safe” may simply mean you do not weigh heavily the compromises inherent in the status quo. The financial rewards of the moment may fully compensate you for the loss of time and fulfillment. Or maybe you just don’t think about it. On the other hand, if time and satisfaction are precious, truly priceless, you will find that the cost of business failure, so long as it does not put in peril the well-being of you or your family, pales in comparison with the personal risks of not trying to live the life you want today.

Considering personal risk forces us to define personal success. We may well discover that the business failure we avoid and the business success we strive for do not lead us to personal success at all. Most of us have inherited notions of “success” from someone else or have arrived at these notions by facing a seemingly endless line of hurdles extending from grade school through college and into our careers. We constantly judge ourselves against criteria that others have set and rank ourselves against others in their game. Personal goals, on the other hand, leave us on our own, without this habit of useless measurement and comparison.

Only the Whole Life Plan leads to personal success. It has the greatest chance of providing satisfaction and contentment that one can take to the grave, tomorrow. In Deferred Life Plan there will always be another prize to covet, another distraction, a new hunger to sate. You will forever come up short.

Work hard, work passionately, but apply your most precious asset-time-to what is most meaningful to you. What are you willing to do for the rest of your life? That question would be absurd, given the inevitability of change. No, what the question really asks is, if your life were to end suddenly and unexpectedly tomorrow, would you be able to say you’ve been doing what you truly care about today? What would you be willing to do for the rest of you life? What would it take to do it right now?


The last time I was in Amsterdam I spent an afternoon in the Rijksmuseum studying the Vermeers and Rembrandts. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch particularly impressed me. Like many of the Dutch Masters, he painted it on commission for a group of well-helled patrons. The work portrayed a dozen or so elaborately attired commissioners, reliving the past glory of their civic militia, arrayed according to their financial contribution and status. These were some of the many movers and shakers of Holland’s economic Golden Age, affluent and prominent, seeking immortality on canvas. But I was struck that I didn’t know any of them, nor did it matter. They were just characters in another man’s masterpiece. The only person of importance, the only one whose fame had lasted beyond that period, was the eventually penniless artist – Rembrandt.

Think about The Night Watch today, when so many people push and shove with their wealth, fame, and power. In a few hundred years, all of today’s movers and shakers may be reduced, at best, to another group of supporting charaters on a canvas.

That painting brings to mind a headline from a few years ago: Sam Walton had died the richest man in America, making him, I realized, only the latest in an eternally long line of such record holders. As John Maynard Keynes postulated, in the long run we’re all dead.

Time is the only resource that matters.

-Randy Komisar

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