Life Lessons: Change, Success, and Type A Behavior

by John Zajaros on July 29, 2010

Life Lesson: You Can Change the Spots on a Leopard!

I had an interesting experience the other day and I thought I would share something with you. Yes, this is yet another life lesson. My life seems filled with life lessons, many I’ve learned the hard way.

Other life lessons have come back at me at the strangest times and in the most unexpected ways. I suppose it’s a consequence of aging, at least in the sense that I am a bit more introspective and a lot more observant.

I have become a student of people, the people around me, how they behave, and how they interact. It is always interesting and a continuous source of knowledge and entertainment.

Who’d a thunk?

People watching leading to incredibly instructive Life Lessons? But it happens every day. You simply have to be open and receptive to Life, capital L, going on all around you!

Connie, my wife, is always smiling when we are out and about because: 1) She is a very happy person; and, 2) because she knows what I am doing most of the time and is amused by it.

Yes, I watch people! All kinds of people doing all sorts of things. I watch everything from the incredibly boring to the absolutely ridiculous and on to the really awesome…and I love it.

I take it all in, every Life Lesson, every morsel.

You see, for the majority of my life I kept people at arm’s length. I was likable but not really liked, I was successful without feeling like a success, and I was utterly and completely mystified by peoples’ reactions to me. Not the people who interacted with me for a moment, not the people I worked for and who signed my paychecks, not the people I was selling something to, they all liked me. I am talking about the people I worked with day in and day out, they are the ones I kept at arm’s length.

I never really connnected with them…nor did I want to.

I just didn’t have time for them and I certainly didn’t have the time to nurture friendships or relationships. I had a lot of acquaintances and virtually no friends. That may sound callous, and even a bit sad, and I suppose it was. It was the nature of the business or businesses I was in and how I was brought up.

I invested heavily in my family but beyond that I built a wall.

Life Lesson and Advice (good and bad)

My grandfather, a self-made multi-millionaire who started out as an elevator boy in the GM building, in Detroit, and went on to sit on the board of directors once said this to me:

“Don’t trust anything unless you see it in writing…and then doubt it. Don’t trust anyone, not even me!”

“Not even me!”

That was my grandfather who I worshipped and who I respected. That blew back my hair a bit. But he had made it! What was good for Gramps was certainly good enough for me. So became that person, a Type A Driver.

Never trust anyone?

“OK Gramps!”

Gramps’ Advice and Success In Business

From that point forward, in all and anything I did, I was the guy. And, if I wasn’t, I was busting my tail to get there. I was the top guy in the company or I tortured myself and everyone else until I got there.

I was making 5 figures a month and 6 figures a year by the time I was 23 years of age. I had a nice home and a 25′ Ericson sailboat. I bought the sailboat even though I had never been on a sailboat in my life. I had a Honda 1000 Goldwing motorcycle before I had a license to ride on it. I always had 2 new cars in the driveway, in addition to the one I got free from the company.

It was all paid for, cash!


Yes, I was a success, at least my parents thought so.

My Mom loved the local press I received and my Dad actually said he was proud of me for the first time in my life. That, in spite of being an Eagle Scout, junior class president in high school, a 3-letter winner in sports, student council representative, first chair in the symphonic band, the Top Teen named by the local, weekly Cleveland newspaper, a US Army veteran, a Life Member of the Disabled American Veterans, and a whole lot more.

None of that mattered!

It was the sailboat, the house, the motorcycle, the cars and all that defined success in my world, and that of my parents and grandparents…so I pursued the trappings of success.

And I hated every minute of it!

I hated working for someone else. I would eventually strike out on my own.

I hated sales. Swore I would never sell again in my life. Little did I know!

I hated the fact that I hadn’t finished college after discharge. So I went back.

And, I hated that I felt doomed to do what I hated for the rest of my life! Every day, each and every day I loathed the position I was in and felt helpless to do anything about it…so I worked harder, pressed harder, drove harder!

Was I a success?

Sure, just ask anyone!

Was I a success?

Not if you asked me, not if I was honest with you…but that was a stretch, at least back then. But deep down I was in pain, as much as any physical pain I had ever suffered.

The Good, The Bad, and The Driver

So, let’s stay in the mid-to-late ’70s. The economy was booming. The Jimmy Carter recession hadn’t taken hold yet, devastating much of the country and forever transforming the Midwest.

Life was good in the USA…for most anyway.

I was out of the US Army, a disabled veteran, young, married, cocky with a great job (public perception) and a rosy future.

And I was a Driver!

Meaning, I was not only a Type A personality. I was driven!

While the theory of the Type A and B personality has come under scrutiny over the years (its inception in the 1950s), most people still know what you mean when you refer to someone as a Type A personality.

Well, I was Type A on steroids! As stated, what I and many of my friends and associates called a Driver!

Forget about the controversy since its inception, if I walked up to you as a twenty-something young man, you would immediately know several things about me:

1) I exuded a sense of urgency, even impatience when it came to time…particularly wasted time. I got right to the point and immediately down to business. While this caused irritation and even exasperation in others, I also felt those emotions myself…constantly! Time was money and money was time. There was time for one thing…making more money!

2) There was a kind of hostility just beneath the surface, what some have referred to as free floating hostility. But it was more irritation triggered by a sense of urgency and the need to get everything done…yesterday.

3) I was super competitive and this made me goal-oriented to the point of obsession. Achievement, and being recognized by others for that achievement, was an integral part of my personality. I loved the accolades and placed undue stress upon myself; and, that stress carried over into everything I did because regardless of what it was, I had to be the best at it. Period!

Remarkably, there are still employers today who would read that and say, “So? What’s the problem?”

Well, this was great for my employers. I was driven and I worked 80 hours a week on straight commission.

Loved the money, hated the pressure, never told a soul.

As stated, it was great for my employers and it was also fantastic for my clients. I was always working without a net, early on for someone else; and, later for myself. I was motivated to deliver nothing but the best service, to be the best producer, the top salesman in the company, in the country, or the world.

As a marketing consultant? There was only outbound marketing at that time…although it was not called outbound marketing. I was the guy who brought in the biggest clients, kept them the longest, generated new revenue streams and referrals, wrapped everything up quickly so we could move on.

And then:

Close! Close! Close!

And so on, day after day, week after week, etc, etc, etc….

I can hear Yul Brenner in The King and I when I write that:


If you’ve seen the movie Instinct with Donald Sutherland and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (good movie BTW, especially for a physical anthropologist with an interest in primatology) this will sound familiar:

I worked very hard to make sure all the right people liked me and that I was always at the top of the heap. Mattered to whom? To me and to those who could impact my future, my upward mobility…and my bank balance.

Not a pretty picture, is it?

Yet this type of person, particularly in sales, marketing, certain aspects of the law, some brokerage firms, and in some sports, was not only valued, they (we) were all but deified. Amazingly, in some of life’s arenas they still are!

OK! Getting back to the Life Lesson and the reason for this post.

I ran into myself the other morning, that other self, that self from years ago…and it was interesting.

I have a friend whose husband is me, at least me 30 years ago, and it took me back in an instant.

Interestingly, I have recently come to know several Type A businessmen, some as friends, most as acquaintances (their choice), many now retired. These retired, Type A businessmen seem to be forever stuck in that mode, that miserable, self-loathing, Type A Driver mode…and it is very sad!

You know something, the guy I’m talking about? I did not like him, not at all.

The saddest part?

He is probably right where I was way back then…self-loathing, feeling trapped. Or, it may be too soon, he may still be in love with the power and the idea of becoming a “Success!”

One thing is certain, he is me and I was him.


Life Lesson: Breaking Free

What did it take for me to break the mold?

Was I doomed to this sort of driven behavior?

Was it part of my makeup, my personality, as so many would argue…hardwired from inception?

From birth?

“You can’t change the spots on a leopard”…or so they say.

Hence the Life Lesson!

I almost lost my life and in almost losing my life, in brushing with the ultimate reality, I discovered myself, my true self…and saved my life.

I am talking about my real life, the only life worth saving…because that other person had died inside a very long time ago.

I had actually started down the path to self-awareness in the mid-80s.

I had a brush with a very serious, often life-threatening illness and spend 12 weeks in one of the best hospitals in the Midwest. I was transferred there after a few weeks at a local hospital, the local hospital totally inept and unable to diagnose the illness. Interestingly, it took the “better” hospital just 48 hours to diagnose the illness and then a few more weeks to beat it.

Like anything, there are good and bad providers, there are experts and then there are experts.

I was lucky…I would be lucky again a decade later.

Interestingly, that second brush with death (the first was in 1972, the third in 1998-2008) put me on the road I am on now. That experience, facing my own mortality, allowed me enough time to disengage and to realize I was not doomed.

I discovered that my life had not been set on an unalterable course, and that what I had been told from the very beginning of my life, from its inception, was wrong!

I should and in fact had to change the course of my life…or I wouldn’t make it.

I almost didn’t!

So, I went back to school. I graduated summa cum laude, went on to study for my doctorate, and the competitive spirit lead me to immerse myself in something I loved. I found out that it was OK to be driven, as long as whatever was driving you was something you loved, something you had a passion for, something you actually could take control of and ultimately become part of and contribute to.

I guess I became a different sort of driver, one in control of my life and how it unfolded…instead of being someone else’s trained seal, performing to someone else’s tune, and living some else’s definition of success.

How awful!

Yes, I agree with the 12 Steppers of AA, NA, and CA…control is an illusion. But there are degrees of control. Ultimate control is beyond our grasp, there are too many variables to control.

However, if you love your life, what you are doing and who you are sharing it with…the rest seems to flow.

Life Lesson: Are there bumps?


Ultimately, the new life is a cakewalk compared to the old life, the life of a Type A driver, the life of a success, particularly someone else’s idea of success.

Life Lesson: You do have choices to make and regardless of how deeeep you are in it, (the ending of and the variation of a four letter word) you can always extricate yourself from misery and from a life that has gotten away from you.

You get a do-over !

Life Lesson: In my case, it took a Higher Power, a Supreme Being, God, Infinite Intelligence, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, or whatever you believe in, to take their fist and slap me up side the head and clear my thinking and my vision long enough to see the person looking back at me in the mirror.

The person I saw looking back at me the other day was not in the mirror, it was a real person, and he was an early 3o-something high powered, Type A Driver…and I didn’t like him…because I didn’t like me at that stage in my life.

How could I?

Success and Life Lessons: If you look in the mirror and the person looking back at you is someone you don’t recognize, or someone you simply cannot face, then you have failed.

Get busy!

Recreate your Self and your Life before you are on your death bed, as Sam Walton was, uttering those sadly tragic words:

I blew it!

If that isn’t the ultimate Life Lesson…I don’t know what is?

If people don’t look forward to your company, if you are annoyed in and by the presence of others, impatient and controlling? Rethink the direction of your life before it is too late, before you are gone. Because, there is indeed one instance when you can’t change the spots of a leopard (or your stars)…and that is in the last moments of life.

Do you want to remember an amazing life and be remembered as someone who was empathetic, compassionate, caring, loving, and giving?

Or do you want to be thought of as a Driver?

Life Lesson? I am glad I ran into that young man and I am sorry for him. He has a long journey ahead and, unfortunately, it will take an incredibly powerful force, event, or series of events to change the trajectory of his life!

Life Lesson: It can be done! I did it. He can do it. So can you!

The payoff is incredible!

I love my life now…and to think I almost didn’t make it!

You can too! But it is up to you and it takes desire, self-awareness, honesty…and a mirror!

Good luck to you!


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