BY JILL KONRATH
” When my husband kissed me goodbye at the airport on November 6th, I had no idea it would be for the last time.
I was flying home for a day and then on to Boston to speak at HubSpot’s big INBOUND conference. Fred was staying at our condo in southern Utah to spend a couple weeks golfing.
That’s not how things turned out. Two days later he died of complications from PSC, an autoimmune liver disease. I made it back to say good-bye; so did my kids. It was tough. We all miss him—a lot.
As I reflect back on our life together, I realize how much Fred changed the trajectory of my life, reordered my priorities and modeled behaviors that I wanted to emulate. That’s why I want to share them with you.
Life Lesson 1. Winning is always possible.
When I first met Fred, he was the head football coach in White Bear Lake. By the age of 33, he’d already won two state championships. But in between those seasons, his teams really struggled.
I’ll never forget the time his team played Stillwater, the reigning state champs who had a 6-0 record. White Bear still hadn’t yet won a game. Over the weekend, Fred and the coaching staff spent hours watching game film. Their challenge? Figuring out how to stop an unstoppable offense and how to score against an impenetrable defense.
We went out for dinner mid-week. He was excited about what the team was working on. He used the placemat to draw up their offensive plans and blocking schemes. He diagramed how they were going to keep Stillwater from scoring.
Shocked, I finally said, “You don’t actually think you’re going to win, do you?”
Fred answered, “Yes. I do. We’ve got a good game plan. And, if we can execute it and they have a bad night, we can win.”
On Friday night, White Bear came out on top, winning by a score of 7-6. This was only possible because of the hard work put into figuring out a “win strategy” and near flawless execution.
Life Lesson 2. Be a cheerleader.
Any time you learn new skills or go beyond your comfort zone, fear and doubt creep in. As a life-long coach in both sports and business, Fred knew that the young people and adults he worked with needed to know the “why’s” and “how-to’s” first.
But, to be the best they could be, he knew that people needed someone to believe in them. When he was coaching, whenever kids did anything right, Fred was always the first one there, patting them on the back and saying, “Atta, baby!”
And, when people screwed up, he pulled them quietly aside to show/tell them what to do differently. Then, before he sent them back to work (or into the game), he’d pat them on the back and say, “You can do it.”
When I was thinking of starting my own consulting firm, I was a bundle of angst, worrying if I could actually make a go of it. When I told Fred my fears, he said with a 100% conviction, “I’d bet on you any day.” It’s what I needed to make the leap into entrepreneurship.
In short, Fred wanted people to be the best they could be—and this was how he helped them achieve it.
Life Lesson 3. Always have fun.
When I first watched my husband coaching the high school kids, it was clear that he was having more fun than anyone else on the field. He loved what he was doing and his enthusiasm was contagious. I saw him do the same thing when he coached both our kids. He made practice and drills fun, while working the team hard.
When he ran his leadership development program at Thrivent (a financial services firm), he spent hours at a magic shop figuring out what would be fun and surprising to the attendees. His favorite was setting a big glass of water down right in front of big table as he was talking.
Then, when he was gesturing wildly with his hands, he’d knock it over. Everyone would jump up to avoid getting soaked and quickly grab their workbooks, purses and devices. Except, no one ever did. When they weren’t looking, he’d dropped some “potion” in the water that turned it into a gel.
For me, Fred was my playmate. While I was working, he was busy planning what we’d do next. As I write this, I’m at our condo in Southern Utah. Every day, when I was done with work, he’d have an idea about where we should go hiking or a new restaurant to visit. He was always on the lookout for cool activities or incoming shows.
Fun matters. Fun makes everything better. Mary Poppins once said, “In every job that must be done, there’s an element of fun. And when you find the fun then snap, the job’s a game.”
Life Lesson 4. Learn new things.
When my husband decided to retire early due to health reasons, I was worried that he’d become a couch potato and lose his oomph (like so many retirees). After all, research shows that if you want to stay vital in life and work, learning new knowledge and skills is essential.
I shouldn’t have been concerned. The first project Fred tackled was earning his instrument rating, a special designation held by only 5% of private pilots that allows you to fly when visibility is near zero. It took a full year.
Then, he decided to re-do his prized possession, a 1966 Corvette. He literally took it apart piece-by-piece, putting every nut and bolt in a little plastic bag, labeling it and hanging it on a wall in the garage. When it was stripped bare, a welder fixed the corroded frame and then Fred started reassembling it.
He spent hours watching YouTube videos to figure out how to put it together again. He was a frequent visitor to Corvette forums, reading how others fixed problems, found good replacement parts and more. Four years later, after it was finally running again, he was proudly showing it at local car shows.
Finally, Fred was a golf lover. Even as a retiree, he was determined to bring his handicap down. He religiously read golf magazines, watched videos and experimented with new techniques. When the weather permitted, he practiced daily. Putting, chipping and ultimately, the drives. Shortly before he passed away, he shot a 78!
Life-long learning is essential for all of us. We feel better. We’re challenged. We stay at the top of our game.
Life Lesson 5. Create memorable experiences.
My husband loved planning events of all sorts—the kind that wouldn’t be forgotten. My surprise 40th birthday was filled with an assemblage of friends from every decade of my life. Anniversaries were carefully-planned romantic dinners. This fall, Fred pulled together a 5-day trip to the Columbia River Gorge to celebrate the completion of my newest book.
With my daughter Katie, he created a tradition of going to one big horse race each year. Together, they completed the Triple Crown series by going to the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont and the Preakness. They also looked forward to watching horse racing at a small local track, where they’d bet against each other for fun. When the track was closed, they’d visit the Science Museum, then go for dinner and gelato at a favorite Italian restaurant.
Memorable experiences with my son Ryan centered around football and flying. This fall, a few weeks before Fred died, the two of them went to UND’s homecoming game where my son played college ball. In previous years, they went to watch home games of the Oregon Ducks and Miami. They’d also make annual treks to the Oshkosh Airshow, camping out on the tarmac and spending their days looking at the planes.
In business today, customer experience is the #1 emerging trend. As leaders and sellers, it’s essential to think about this at work now too. But I’d also suggest you make it part of your personal life as well.
Life Lesson 6. Choose your attitude.
My husband had numerous health problems throughout his life, but most people didn’t have a clue. He was always so active and upbeat. Over the years, he had ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, bad headaches, severe curvature of the spine, Hashimoto’s disease, skin cancer and multiple operations.
Most recently, Fred had quadruple by-pass surgery (where he almost died), a hip replacement and was undergoing experimental procedures for neck pain. All the while, the PSC was slowly destroying his liver.
Yet Fred always got up with a smile on his face and plans for doing something that mattered. He always had some project going on to help others, improve the house, or to brighten someone’s day. And, he’d try to get some physical activity in as well, knowing it helped him stay healthier.
By evening, Fred was often exhausted and would collapse in front of the TV … but he felt good, like he’d accomplished something meaningful and enjoyed the people in his life.
Life Lesson 7. Your job is not your life.
After experiencing early success in sales at Xerox, I was hooked. I loved making my numbers, hitting 135% of quota, then even higher. I loved competing against the “A” players and beating them on the leader boards. I loved winning Sales Rep of the Month awards and the quarterly contests. All I could think about was getting promoted, the faster the better—and making even more money.
Today, I feel fortunate that my husband fought for my soul. While he was happy for my success, he continually challenged on the fact that my self-image was so wrapped up in being “successful.” Initially I hated him for it.
But the reality is, he was right. I could have easily become a bigwig executive making boatloads of money. I could have been so wrapped up in my job that I’d have lost the important relationships in my life—and all the priceless moments that go with them.
Fred helped me stay grounded in what matters. Family. Friends. And, doing work that matters.
Finally, I’d like to share the credo my husband lived by. Katie and Ryan heard him say it endlessly. As a coach, he always shared it with the kids on his teams. I think he got it from Lou Holtz, a legendary coach who once asked Fred to join his football staff.
Do what’s right.
Treat others the way you want to be treated.
Be the best you can be.