At the second annual Life is Beautiful Festival, Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias joined Kanye West, Penn & Teller, Cat Cora and other celebrities on stage in Las Vegas to revisit his experience as a passenger on Flight 1549, which crash-landed in the Hudson River in 2009. For the first time, he shares how this experience affects the way he runs his business:
Six years ago I was given the ultimate gift. I was given the gift of knowing – without a shadow of a doubt – that I was going to die.
I was given 90 seconds to take inventory of my life without any suffering, without any anguish, and I was given a chance to come back and do it again.
January 15, 2009 was a frigid day in New York City. That day I was flying back home to Charlotte. As we were climbing to our cruising altitude, I heard a loud explosion. Bam!
I had a great seat that day. I was sitting on 1D. I was the only one who could really see the flight attendants. So immediately, I looked at them, because I wanted assurance. The flight attendant looked at me and said, “No problem, we probably hit some birds.” And she was probably right. We had already turned the plane around, we were heading back to LaGuardia, and you could see New York City. But the plane was filling up with smoke; it smelled like bad barbecue. So it truly was birds. And you could hear the engine struggling, clack clack clack clack.
For the next two minutes, a true hero, Captain Sullenberger, made decision after decision – any which one he makes differently, and there’s somebody else talking to you today. I love reading the transcript of his conversations with the tower because it gives you insight into the brilliance of the kind of decisions he made in split seconds that not only saved 158 lives, but perhaps hundreds if not thousands on the ground.
He first called the tower of LaGuardia: “I’m looking for clearance to return. I’ve hit some birds.” Within 10 seconds, LaGuardia said, “Everything has stopped. The runway is waiting for you.”
Next: “I’m not going to make it to LaGuardia, can I go to Teterboro?” (on the other side of the Hudson River)
Within 10 seconds, they come back: “Runway 103, Teterboro, clear.”
After 3 seconds: “We’re going in the water.”
The tower was not used to hearing people talk like that, so there’s a 5 second pause. Then the tower says, “Could you repeat?” But by then, Captain Sullenberger was done with protocols. He was done with due process. And he was solving the next challenge – Quite the entrepreneur.
A pilot who was listening to the conversation from a different plane waited 10 seconds or so, then said, “He said he’s going in the water.” And those were the last words spoken on Flight 1549.
Now, Captain Sullenberger did 3 things in 90 seconds before we hit the water, all at the same time.
1. He lined up the plane with the Hudson River. (I’ve been to New York maybe 100 times. There is no runway on the Hudson River on the West side, I promise you that.)
2. He turned off the engines. So for sure, we weren’t going very far. The clack clack clack clack went away. It was amazing. This massive cylinder, floating in the sky. So peaceful. No noise.
3. Then he said 3 words. Just 3 words. The most unemotional 3 words I had ever heard.
He said, “Brace for impact.”
I didn’t have to talk to the flight attendant anymore. I could see it in her eyes. She was terrified. “Brace for impact,” I came to learn after that, was code word for “We ain’t making it to an airport.”
Those 90 seconds – from the moment he said those words to the moment we hit the water – were the most magical 90 seconds one can ask for. My first thought was: Wow, wait, wait! It’s not time yet! I’m not ready! It had all changed in an instant, and I never thought that could ever happen.
I spent the majority of those 90 seconds thinking of all the things I would do differently, but now it was too late. I spent the last 90 seconds of my life with complete conviction. As a matter of fact, I wanted to blow up! I didn’t want the plane to break into pieces; I thought blowing up would be a more humane death.
I thought only about regrets. Interesting. The first regret for me was a sense of, “Wait a minute, I have a bucket list!” I have places I want to go; I want to meet people I haven’t met; I should say thank you to a few people; I need to apologize to a bunch of people – and I thought I had time. I had a wine cellar full of amazing wine – and now somebody else was going to drink my wine! Why had I waited so long? Why did I think life was open-ended? It was over!
I realized I was living my life in a very busy way, but I was living for the future, and not the present. Now, in the last 6 years, I’ve had to replenish my bucket list a few times because I am living so intensely and so purposefully from that experience. On the personal side, that’s pretty straightforward. On the business side, not so much.
I had about 400 employees at the time. My business was thriving and very profitable. But I also was living for the future. My goal all along was to make x amount of dollars, and when I get to that number I’m done. (By the way, that number kept going up.) But deep inside, I loved what I was doing. I was passionate about it, but I was conflicted. Here I was living for the future, but I was really enjoying the present.
I made a decision: I will no longer think about an outcome. I don’t want to go public; I don’t want to sell. I want to enjoy building a company.
Crazy enough, fast forward to today we have 2,200 employees. And I would argue that that success only happened because I let go of the outcome and I focused on the climb.
Now, in the process, I built a basketball court in the middle of it, I have two great restaurants, I serve the best coffee – because I’m going to enjoy my life — in the present, in my business.
The second “A-ha moment” for me happened as we cleared the George Washington bridge – and not by much.
I remember thinking: Wow, I wasted an incredible amount of time in my life.
I wasted so much time on negative things with negative energy. Not being in harmony. I wasted time on things that did not matter with people who did. Why? Why did I allow my ego to become so active? Where was that humble kid from Puerto Rico who got here not knowing any English? Where did he go? Why was I now so important?
I decided that now I choose happiness over righteousness, every time. I’m quick to apologize, even if I don’t know what I did wrong. I am quick to empathize. Everybody has a story. But as important, I am quick to let go of negative energy. If you’re a negative person I don’t want to be around you. And personally, I can control that. In our business, it’s a lot harder.
Of the 400 employees we had at the time, one third were engineers, designers, coders – and they loved going to work. But two thirds of our company was sales people, and for them it wasn’t a great company to work for. Under my watch, we had become two cultures. Under my watch, some people were treated especially well, and some people felt like our business was not a great place for them. I decided that for me to be true to my experience I was going to create one culture. I called an emergency meeting with my senior leadership team, and I told them we’re going to fix this. Either we fix this, or we get a new CEO, I am that committed to this.
We are either one culture, or we don’t exist.
My last “a-ha” happened as the plane was going down. You know what’s interesting? Dying. For me, at least. It wasn’t scary like I thought it would be. It was really sad, I did not want to go. I thought of only one thing in my life I would miss, one thing that would really matter: Seeing my kids grow up.
Two weeks later I’m at a kindergarten performance for my daughter – and I’m sitting in the front row, crying uncontrollably. I’m sure everyone around me thought I was crazy. I was crying because I was watching my girl grow up. I felt like a ghost, I was so emotional. That’s when it made sense to me. That’s my life’s purpose.
The way I’m going to transcend in this world is helping my kids be the best they can be. From here on forward, I’m going to prioritize them above everything. I work really hard, by choice. But I am Dad, and I am husband first and foremost. And I love that a lot more.
But what was our company’s purpose? I no longer care to go public, I no longer care about the financial outcome – So why did we exist? To me, it’s this:
I’m going to judge our success as a company by what our alumni do in the world.
Our only job is to help the people who come through our culture find something that they wouldn’t find otherwise, something inside of them. I meet with our new employees every week, and I always tell them the same thing: “Today you drove in here for the first time. There will be a last day. But my promise is that when you get in your car on the last day, whether it’s in one year or in ten, when you look in the rear view mirror you say, “This was the best experience in my life.”
We’re going to challenge you, we’re going to give you a chance to fail, we’re going to support you, you’re going to make great friends, you’re going to have a great experience, you’re going to build real intuition. And I love it. We have a vibrant culture, because this purpose is very clear.
I hope that on the day my life ends I have a moment of clarity, when I can ask myself one very simple question: “Did I make the most out of that gift? Did I live without regret?”
If the answer is yes – if I’ve taken this gift and put it back into humanity – then it was well worth it.
Watch Ric’s 2011 TED Talk here, and learn more about Life is Beautiful here.