EMPLOYEE REFLECTIONS

TOM KEENAN : WHY I HAVE LEARNT TO GO WITH THE FLOW

  • Tom Keenan
  • Published: 12 August 2019

I was born in New York City and grew up in rural Rhode Island, USA into a family that was a mix of old Swamp Yankees who trace their roots to the Mayflower and poor Irish immigrants to Boston. My parents and extended family were my early inspiration; they taught me a lot. I would like to share with you some of their wisdom and some I have gotten in my 48 and some years here. When you are this young, you realise you have likely lived more than half of your life, so you become focused making what’s left of it count.

Historically and statistically speaking, I should live within 20 miles of where I grew up and doing something like my parents who were both medical professionals. So, there must be a story as to how I ended up more than 8012 miles away and doing something completely different.

We live in exciting times of innovation and political uncertainty as our politics slow catches up with our demographics in most Western societies. When I read about my own family history, most of my family did the same thing (career) throughout their lives, they were subsistence farmers or servants. With all the changes of the 20th century, we have needed to adapt to war and technology gave us the chance or obligation to change our jobs and careers many times. In my relatively short time here starting at the age of 12, I had the job of golf caddy, tractor driver, McDonald’s burger flipper, warehouse order picker, English teacher, shipping manager, production manager, purchasing manager, vacuum cleaner product manager, baby stroller salesman, entrepreneur, company chairman, lawyer, litigator, Australian army officer and now legal counsel of Capco APAC. Those Mükava ergonomic tables in the London and New York meeting rooms are what I invented for my mother; I turned it into a business.

I have two initial points here. The first is that life is a journey, and despite our best plans, sometimes life takes us to places we cannot imagine. When I was 22 and just graduated from a good university, I thought I had it all mapped out. But fate had other plans for me. Instead of finding a job in New York, which was my dream, in 1993 I found myself as the only foreigner in a fan factory in Shenzhen, China as a shipping and production manager playing a mean game of ping pong every night for two years against my fellow factory workers. It wasn’t what I planned, and it was really tough, but in hindsight I wouldn’t change anything. I have learned to go with the flow; the universe has other, better plans in store for you. My second point is that we live in a world that is not static and that if you work hard and conscientiously, opportunities will present themselves to you constantly; you must choose wisely at each juncture by knowing yourself well.

I try to live my life by some principles that I have learned through mistakes on this journey. The first thing I say is that the greatest gift that you can give yourself is to know yourself. Be honest with yourself. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses and seek help when necessary. Pride (face) can be a two-edged sword so remember not to let it hinder your personal growth. Making yourself vulnerable (be humble) makes life taste better and you will grow faster.

The next thing I would say is have the courage to fail well. I have found in life through many, many mistakes that it’s not the mistake itself that is important, it is learning the right lesson from it. That’s the tricky bit. You need to learn how to do that yourself. Losing everything in life is a great way to learn what was important and what is not. 

I came to know myself through travel and by trying to connect to people around me. For a shy person, that is not easy. Many of my experiences thrust me into public speaking roles and leadership positions that I wasn’t always ready for. Sometimes having no choice is better than having choice when it comes time to seeing what you really can do.

David Brooks writes in his new book The Second Mountain about the rat race that we find ourselves in our modern world. He defines the first mountain as the climb to achieve those individualistic goals that society presents and expects of us; going to a good school, having a great career and a beautiful family and a dog. He defines the second mountain has our search for moral joy; the creation of interconnected communities where we find happiness not in serving ourselves, but others. For me, that first mountain was climbed many years ago in a very senior role in corporate life while I was in France. I realised that the top of the first mountain didn’t bring much personal satisfaction, only pressure, and my work relationships with others that were largely predicated on my position and I found myself doing things that were against my own moral code. I needed something more.

I realise now that for a while now I have been climbing my second mountain and have translated that to a personal philosophy that I try to help others to be their best selves. Giving with no expectation of anything in return requires a leap of faith but you will be amazed how it changes your own happiness. Our normal workaday world causes us to view the world through a utilitarian lens. It is a constant struggle to see life through a moral lens; but it is worth it. The central journey of modern life is moving self to service. We start out listening to the default settings of the ego and gradually learn to listen to the higher callings of the heart and soul.

I am often asked why I am so happy and positive. I think that having been through several traumatic events has made me inherently grateful just to be here. I had a very serious illness 10 years ago that could have killed me. I wake up each day happy just to be alive. I also abide by the philosophy that I always can find satisfaction in the simplest of things; a good view, a glass of wine or a good conversation. I am infinitely curious and always want to know the why behind everything.

Your generation will have even more choices and possibly more careers than mine. Who knows what I will do next? Who knows what you will do next? But I'll leave you with this: if you know yourself, embrace change and push yourself to grow as a person and serve your community, you will find happiness.