How My Brush With Death Led Me to My Life's True Work

How My Brush With Death Led Me to My Life's True Work
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President Jimmy Carter recently learned his cancer is gone. Thanks to breakthroughs in immunotherapy and other treatments, he now has a new lease on life. As a brain tumor survivor, I know how exciting it is to get another chance.

I've learned to walk twice during my life. The first time, I was a toddler, like most everyone else. The second time, I was a 22-year-old who'd just had a brain tumor surgically removed. The procedure left one of my legs paralyzed. I started therapy a few days after surgery and slowly learned to walk again over a matter of weeks. It was tough. I knew how, but my body didn't want to cooperate. I wasn't then at 100 percent -- and I'm still not there -- but I was alive. I had a future. 

Plans change.

I was supposed to go into the family investment-banking business, taking over the company from my father. I remember sitting in a classroom at Arizona State University after I'd recovered. In the midst of my macroeconomics class, a moment of clarity hit me. I was so busy “preparing for life,” and I realized I needed to start living it. I left the family business to do exactly that.

At first, I was restless. I floated around and held a variety of jobs, looking for what would make me happy. Sports and hobbies were my outlets. I'd take up a new pastime, practice long enough to get good at it and then move on to something else because it was no longer new. I had it figured out -- or so I thought. I believed I was living life to the fullest, but I wasn't satiated in a meaningful, intrinsic way. 

I realize now I was focusing on the moment and looking to external forces to make me happy. I still think I was right to leave my father's firm, but I was going about my search all wrong. Life isn't about finding external gratification; it's about opening ourselves up so we can discover internal serenity.

Related: Are You Living Your Most Authentic Self?

Peace comes from within.

I truly found peace in 2009, as two more life events aligned. When my internet business dried up, my wife, Sim, said I needed a job. It took only 10 minutes of reading want ads to realize I never wanted to work for someone else again. The second event was seemingly less dramatic: Sim needed a new patio table. I knew what she wanted and where she planned to buy it. I also knew it would be expensive and probably wouldn't last. So I made her one myself, with a welding machine she'd bought me for Christmas.

Sim loved it. I did not. I'm an obsessive type. I need to be the best at whatever I do. All successful entrepreneurs share that obsession, I think. It’s what drives us.

When I looked at Sim's table, I saw imperfections -- things I could do better. So I made another table, improving my process and my product. And then I made more and kept improving. I'd started making furniture as another of my hobbies, but by 2011 it had become a full-time job that required 20,000 square feet and other craftspeople to support my work. Three years later, we moved to a 65,000-square-foot space. We've since grown to 23 employees. 

Not long after making my first table, I realized I gained a deeply personal peace through creating something with my hands. Making furniture and watching an idea come to life met my internal drive for perfection. Today, I come home from the shop at night and discover I'm still designing or researching the next project. I love what I do. 

Related: The 6 Internal Motivations of Pure, Unadulterated Ambition

Loving what you do is crucial to success.

It took a near-death experience and quite a bit of soul-searching for me to find my path. I hope others understand it shouldn't take nearly dying to find the courage to pursue life's passions. I'd rather struggle as a furniture builder than be a financial success as a banker. Fortunately, my work brings both financial success and emotional contentment. Most of the time, I don't even feel as if I'm working. 

Even better, our employees love what they do as well, though I struggle with the word "employees." We're much more like a family here. We've created a culture in which every person has buy-in. While many corporate cultures might be fear-based, threatening workers with a Big Brother who builds a case to fire them, we look out for one another.

The reason is simple, and it needn't take a brush with death to realize: We all are people, and we all want to love and to be loved. It's the single best thing I could offer to other entrepreneurs. Finding the big thing that inspires you and gathers good people around you brings peace. The success will follow. We started Vintage Industrial in my backyard, and our designs have been featured on television shows including "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "The Big Bang Theory." I know we'll be making furniture for some time to come. 

Related: 7 Tips for Loving Your Career and Working With Passion