It sounds like the plot of a movie. Super successful CEO has a great job but is feeling burned out and never get to see his family and friends because of his career success. So he decides to drop everything and move to Bali. But this isn’t a movie plot. This is what Ben Feder, the entrepreneur behind Take Two Interactive and the now President of International Partnership for Chinese internet titan firm, Tencent did.
Risking his job, Ben and his wife Victoria and four young children, dropped everything and moved to Bali for the better part of a year. Through this journey, he learned how to find more than balance but how to live again. He tells his story of rediscovery and reconnection in his new book TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES: From the Boardroom to Bali and Back.
Now not everyone can totally quit their job and uproot to Bali but as Feder explains, there are changes everyone can make to be more connected to family, friends, and happiness while still being successful. Ladders obtained an excerpt from TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES: From the Boardroom to Bali and Back:
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I took time to let the fractured bone in my foot heal and considered carefully the opportunities that came my way. Instead of saying yes to many of them, I was highly selective. Like the meditative wisdom that every wandering thought is an invitation to reorient, center, and restart, I decided to begin again.
At first, I mentored and coached CEOs as they built their companies for themselves and their investors. I relied on my expertise and experience to help young technology companies grow. Periodically, in introductory meetings, my sabbatical story came up. It didn’t connect with everyone, but with those it did, I developed a quick and easy bond that was deeper than usual. It was like a secret handshake with men and women who were curious and sought meaning beyond success and winning at all costs. When Steve Christian, the entrepreneur from Java, asked me to invest in a venture of his in Indonesia, I jumped at the chance. What excited me was not just the nature of the opportunity or the off-the-beaten path angle but the ability to be in business with creative people I liked and admired. And I wanted to keep a business toehold in Asia.
I followed Julia Cameron’s advice in her powerful book on creativity, The Artist’s Way: I devoted two hours a week to go on an “artist date,” time spent taking a solo expedition to explore something that interested me (I focused on the art galleries in Chelsea).
I also wrote “morning pages,” three pages of stream of consciousness designed to clear the mind and chase away the self-critical voice that was so disruptive to creative flow. After a few sessions, I realized I wanted to add structure and direction to the exercise and write a book. This book. If others learned something from it, good. Besides, trying something new and creative, without regard to success or failure, would be applying directly the lessons I had learned on sabbatical.
As I engaged at work, my animal spirits stirred again. One day, I came across an opportunity with a large public company in the internet services sector that I thought was terribly managed. Investor sentiment was decidedly negative. Since its CEO had taken the helm eight years earlier, the stock price had collapsed over 80%. I dug in, analyzed the company, and developed a plan for change. I approached a board director whom I knew with a long-shot proposal.
“Here’s the way I see it,” I said. “If the company doesn’t make a serious change now, the train will leave the station, and the enterprise will be unsalvageable. On the other hand, if the company acts now, I think the upside could be really exciting. I can turn this company around, create a vehicle for growth, and add a ton of value along the way.”
I wasn’t expecting a resounding reception. Boards of directors tend to be weary of outsiders with novel plans.
“That sounds like a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Let me run it by a few other directors and get back to you.”
Two weeks later, he called me back. “The thing is, the sitting CEO still has the board’s confidence.”
I felt my indignation rise. If management wanted to run the company into the ground, then the current CEO was the man for the job.
I wasn’t about to give up. I called some hedge funds I knew and set up some meetings. We talked about possible courses of action. I was back in activist-shareholder land. Inevitably, proceeding would require waging an expensive fight, and any fight had the potential to turn nasty.
This time, I paused. This may have been a situation where a nasty fight was required, but did it have to be me to enter the battle? Did I really want to be hostile if I didn’t need to be? Perhaps I would re-engage later in that sort of activity, but with my Bali experience so fresh, I knew the answer. I called the funds I had been talking to and dropped the matter.
Throughout that experience, I noticed that the character of my ambition and aggression had changed; it was no longer an overbearing imperative. My well-being did not depend on the next achievement. I realized that to compete, I needed to draw more on the wisdom of my experience than on the brute force of the mettle I’d developed in earlier years. The ethos of intention, presence, and creativity was as important to me as the culture of material success and accomplishment. Now when I needed to be tough in a business situation or negotiation, an appropriate aggression came naturally, though the edge had softened. I felt that I had become a better leader, entrepreneur, and executive.
It was as if I had rewired myself into a certain kind of professional grace.
As I went about my days, I strove to strike a balance of surrendering to what the world had to offer while fighting to tear opportunities from it. I sought to integrate the parts of me that wanted to engage, be effective, and compete with those parts that sought meaning, gratitude, and presence. I realized it was the intention to synthesize, not the synthesis itself that motivated me. Like the peaceful warrior, my attempt to simultaneously engage and surrender would be ceaseless. The practices I’d cultivated in Bali, which by now had become routine, centered me.
I meditated daily, sometimes for three minutes, other times thirty and longer. I made yoga practice a near-daily part of my routine. When I got the call or message that business executives inevitably receive, the one that could ruin their entire day, I rolled with it better. When unhelpful thoughts conspired to commandeer my mind, as they still did periodically, their currents didn’t carry me off. Instead, I stayed on the banks and watched them float past. I created space and recognized they were only thoughts that I didn’t need to believe. By regularly taking time to fall back from fierce engagement, I had opened myself to a strength I had not previously known.
I found a studio in SoHo that, like Pranoto’s, attracted artists to life drawing sessions. When I could afford the time, I drew to clear my mind, now in charcoal instead of graphite. Charcoal had depth, mood, and character that were absent in graphite, and it didn’t leave a sheen on the page the way graphite did.
On Father’s Day, Victoria’s gift to me was a few sessions with a painting teacher who introduced me to oils. Alex Shundi was part painter, part chef, and part philosopher. And a gifted teacher. In just the way drawing opened my eyes to line and edge, painting opened them to color. Color became vivid to me. I could see its complexity just walking down the street, my mind breaking down colors to their components, like factoring numbers. It was as if parts of my brain were lighting up for the first time.
I still found my own drawing and painting difficult but enjoyed the challenge and deep concentration the work required.
I recognized my inner critic and greeted it like a friend. When that inner voice peeped, I noticed it and deliberately shifted my thought pattern. I took a beat and reminded myself that almost any complex creative work looks wretched in its early stages.
With enough practice and the proper intention, I knew my eye would get keener in its observations of light and edge and my hand would become truer in its production of image.
Still, meditation, yoga, and art were not a cure-all.
One morning, I woke to a news story from Indonesia. Two of the Bali Nine had been sentenced to death and executed. Just when I was taking in the dawn of a new day, I felt as if a dagger had ripped through my heart. All the meditation practice in the world could not protect me from the anger and grief that I felt for men and families I had never met.
One day, I received a call from a professional friend who was a cofounder of one of China’s most successful and, I thought, exciting technology companies. He pitched me on joining the company. “It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” he said. And the role he had in mind was a hand-in-glove fit with my interests and skills. More important, the company had a collaborative culture that openly promoted a positive optimistic outlook and a long-term orientation. Demanding without being threatening, patient without being foolish, it became successful, I concluded, not out of pure ambition but from an interest in exploring new areas and a willingness to try new approaches even if failure was a realistic possibility. It was the corporate version of Dweck’s open mindset.
I thought long about the trade-offs and adjustments that I would have to make—working in another culture and language, the time and attention away from family because of travel demands, working in multiple time zones, and the general pressures of a fast-growing enterprise. It seemed as if I could be headed back into the situation I had left.
Still, the opportunity to learn and grow while working with some extraordinarily smart and capable people appealed to me.
I equivocated about the decision, but in the end, it was Eric who convinced me to join. “Even Thoreau had to return to Boston.”
I realized that my quest would end like so many others, with a return home and a new sense of mission. Like the animal that had shed its skin, I was reborn. I accepted the offer and dove in with wholehearted intention. I even undertook to learn Chinese, again challenging myself to learn a difficult, even daunting skill.
Some of my earlier habits returned. I was traveling again, taking late phone calls, and missing dinners. But I realized that everyone needs to practice their trade. This is what I did. Yet I did it with a new perspective — more mindfully, as a meditation teacher would say—with less angst and stress, and always with an eye on where I was going. Not in conflict with my family but always looking to dovetail our endeavors and lives.