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5 Critical Decisions

If you think about the decisions you make between the ages of eighteen and thirty, you’ll realize they have a fundamental impact on where your life actually ends up.

I thought it might be fun to talk about five critical decisions I’ve made—in some cases for the better, in some cases for the worse—and explain how I decided what I did and the effects of those decisions.

1. Education

One of the most important decisions I made was to get the best education that I could. I completed my undergraduate degree at BYU and wanted to continue and earn a graduate degree. While I was in school, the type of graduate degree I intended to pursue varied with the girl I was dating. I dated a girl whose dad was a doctor, so if you look at my transcript from BYU, you’ll see I was taking pre-med courses. The next girl I dated, her dad was a lawyer, so I took a couple semesters of English and political science. Then, fortunately, I started dating my wife, Cathy, and her father was a businessman.

I was not completely directed in the choices I was making as an undergraduate, but I did know that I wanted to go to graduate school. The very last class I had at BYU was taught by Professor Lambert, and the essence of the course was to pull together everything you learned in business school.

After finishing a blue book exam for the course, I walked to the front of the classroom where Professor Lambert was sitting and turned in the exam. Professor Lambert asked me, “What are you doing after you get out of school?” I said, “I’ve really been thinking about going to a graduate school in business.” He said, “Well, I think that would be a terrific thing to do. Where are you thinking about going?” I said, “I’d like to go either to Harvard or to Stanford.” He looked at me and said, “If I were you, I’d broaden the list.”

But through some miracle that is not yet totally clear to me, I ended up going to Harvard Business School and had a series of great experiences there. Before I left to go to business school the only job that I’d had was at my father’s paint store—delivering paint and waiting on customers. Harvard Business School held a reception before classes began so we could meet our classmates, and I met a person who had spent a few years working in global tax and another who’d worked for the FBI and another who’d been at General Motors. They asked what I’d done, and I told them I’d delivered paint for most of my career.

I was incredibly nervous my first day, because I learned that half of your grade is based on what you say in class, and I was not about to reveal just how stupid I was. I sat through that first semester and every once in a while would raise my hand and say something that was perfectly safe to say. Then, when we had our first round of tests, it turned out that everybody in the class had done about the same. It occurred to me that everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time, and I didn’t feel quite so intimidated.

A good friend of mine in the Harvard program was Darrell Rigby; he worked for Bain & Company as a consultant during the summer. I had no idea what a consultant did, so I asked him one night. He said, “I get in an airplane; I fly around the country; I sit down with people; I ask them questions; I write down their answers. I then put it all together and tell them what they told me.” I thought I could do that. So largely on his coattails, I got a summer consulting job at Bain & Company and ended up spending the next twelve years there.

The point I want to make is that through those educational experiences, I formed many of the professional relationships that I have today. You’ll realize it is a very small world of people that you come to know during the course of your professional pursuits early in your career. It’s still not at all uncommon for me to get a phone call from someone who was part of my class.

The things that you’re doing now actually matter. If people perceive you as being a decent human being, a good colleague, honest, thoughtful, and hardworking, those labels will follow you throughout your life. It turns out that the things about you that are not written on a résumé end up being much more important than what’s on paper.

Get the best education you can even if you don’t have much money. People said that it would be alright to take out student loans, because once we finished and started earning a salary, we wouldn’t even notice that monthly payment. Well, I noticed it every month—$84.63 for ten years. You do notice, but in spite of all that, getting the best education you can is worth it.

2. Marriage

The second thing is to marry the right person; it makes absolutely all the difference. Let me tell you how I met Cathy. I participated in BYU’s Washington Seminar; my job was to be an errand boy for the secretary of agriculture for a semester. Cathy, on the other hand, had a real job. She worked for a senator in Washington, D.C. I was starstruck that she had this great job.

It turns out she was a phenomenal typist, and there was a guy who asked her to type one of his papers for him. After she had spent hours and hours typing this paper, he came to her and said, “There’s a little bit of bad news; I actually don’t have any money to pay you.” He continued, “But what else could I do for you? Is there somebody you’d like to go out with? I could try to set you up with somebody.” It turns out she picked me. He called me, and I’d already noticed Cathy—I thought she was very cute. We went out on our first date, and he was supposed to double with us, but he couldn’t find anybody to go with him. So there were three of us on our first date; but we did drop him off before the end of the evening and got our first chance to get to know each other.

Our relationship evolved, and I talked her into coming back to Provo at the end of the summer. And, as they say, the rest is history.

She is the heart of our family. I have little idea of what is actually going on at any point in time in our family, but the good news is I have a direct line through Cathy, our air traffic controller who knows where everyone is at every moment of every day.

Cathy does a wonderful job of keeping the family—which is spread out all over the United States—intact. She has followed me around the world to Germany, the Northeast, and Chicago. She has also been my partner in much of my service in the church. I was recently released as a stake president, and it was typical for her to go with me just about everywhere I went. I’d have a meeting somewhere, and she would sit on one of those green, flowered couches that we’ve all come to know and love in our church buildings, and she would be her normal, sweet, loving self to anyone who came by. The love she shared made all the difference in the way people felt about our stake and has made all the difference in my life. I’ve been changed for the better by the wonderful associations I’ve had with her for the last thirty-three years.

Marry the right person. Pick somebody who’s righteous and treats you well. If you’re a young woman whose boyfriend doesn’t treat you like a princess or a queen, don’t marry him. Find the right guy or gal, and put your hearts and minds together. I hope it can be as happy for you as it has been for us.

3. Risk

It’s my experience that you need to take risks to make progress. I was a partner at Bain & Company and enjoyed it, but then the opportunity came to take a job with a company called Filene’s Basement, a downtown Boston retailer. If I joined this leverage buyout, my salary would go down by 70 percent. We had all these little kids and a mortgage, but we thought there were a lot of good aspects to this opportunity. We fasted, prayed, and made a decision to do it. I can remember when I got that first paycheck. I looked at it and thought, “There’s got to be a digit missing here somewhere.”

Fortunately, during the next two and a half years, the company prospered, and we ended up doing an ipo and a secondary public offering and were able to sell all of our ownership in that business. It put us as a family on a completely different trajectory than we would have had if we hadn’t taken that risk.

Once I sold my ownership in Filene’s Basement, I joined a company called Melville Corporation as their chief financial officer. It was a retailer that had lots of different businesses—cvs, Marshalls, Olsen’s Leather. The company had not performed well for a long period of time; stock prices had basically been flat.

I came in, and after a couple of months I realized there was only one business the company really knew how to run. About that time, Cathy and I were invited to the company president’s house for dinner. As we sat down he said, “So, how do you like your first few months?” I said, “It’s been really great.” He said, “What do you think of the business?” I said, “Well, as I’ve looked at it, we only know how to run one of these businesses. We’re fouling everything else up.” He said, “Yeah, things aren’t going very well, are they?” Then he said, “Well, what do you think we should do?” I said, “I think we should break it up into its constituent parts.” And he said, “Over my dead body.”

We ended up having a very nice dinner that night, but business continued to not do well. Down the road, when we were in a board meeting, another board member said, “My view is we only know how to run one business here.” Eventually, we split up Melville Corporation, and in about twelve months, the stock price went from $27 a share to $68 a share.

As a result, I worked myself out of a job, because the holding company didn’t exist anymore. But it was the right thing to do for the business. The risky thing was the right thing to do. My experience has been that as you take risks throughout your career, in the end everything actually works out.

4. Exercise

When I graduated from Harvard Business School and joined Bain & Company, I traveled a lot, and the company paid for my hotel bills and meals. I thought, “This is too good to be true. I can go down to the hotel restaurant and order anything I want.” And so I did—steak, onion rings, milkshakes. Within about six months from the time that I started at Bain, I had become very prosperous and couldn’t get my jacket buttons latched.

About six or seven months into my career, I was working on a project with a partner at Bain. During my first performance review, he said a couple of things to me that if anybody today said in a performance review, I would strangle them with my bare hands. It was completely inappropriate, but he said it nonetheless. He said, “You know, you’re fat.” He continued, “You’re not going to go anywhere if you stay fat.” Then he said, “And you have to stop wearing yellow shirts and brown suits.”

Though caught off guard, I decided to take his advice. The shirt and brown suit thing was easy to solve, but the other part was a little more difficult. I went home that night, and Cathy and I went into our little bathroom. There was a scale there I had not been on for a long time. I took my shoes off, as though that would make a difference, and learned I had gained roughly fifty pounds since graduating.

The next morning I laced on my running shoes, ran around the block, and just about died. I did that for six days, and I had shin splints so bad I could hardly move. I took the next week off to let the shin splints heal.

During that week I heard that if you ran farther you would feel better than if you ran shorter. I went out the very next day, and instead of just running around the block, I ran for twenty minutes straight. I felt like I was going to die. Then the next day I ran twenty-two minutes, and then twenty-four minutes, and then twenty-six minutes, and so on. That’s what started my romance with running.

Heavenly Father has given us wonderful bodies we need to take care of and to utilize in a way that we can fulfill His purposes here on earth. I have often thought that the physical aspects and spiritual aspects of each of our lives are intertwined. We can become out of shape spiritually, and with the daily application of spiritual efforts, spiritual exercise, our lives can change just as they can with physical exercise. In the same way we create that physical sense of well-being, a sense of spiritual well-being comes from the daily application of principles that we’ve all come to appreciate.

5. Obedience

The decision whether or not to be obedient is a decision we all continue to make. A few years back when I was serving as a bishop, I got a phone call from a hospital at about 3 a.m. A mother had delivered conjoined twins, and her grandmother was agitated with trying to get a priesthood holder to administer to these twin girls.

I called a friend of mine, Darrell Rigby, who I’d met at Harvard. You can imagine how delighted he was to hear from me at three in the morning. But he agreed to go to the hospital with me and administer to the twins.

I picked him up, and as we drove we engaged in the natural kind of banter that men do—men don’t ever really talk about anything serious. We got to the hospital and it dawned on both of us what we were about to do: use the priesthood that we’ve been blessed with to bless these two little girls. We stopped in a hallway closet in the hospital, knelt down, and asked for guidance. Then we met the mom of these little twins and gave the girls a blessing. The children were separated and ended up doing just fine.

The interesting thing is that after we finished and were driving home at about 4 a.m., neither of us said a word; there was absolute silence for that twenty-five-minute ride home. There was this wonderful feeling existing in the car that comes when you’ve done just a modest part of service in your life, when Heavenly Father blesses you with that warm feeling. It’s wonderful to experience that feeling as we are obedient in a small way and get paid back in a big way.

I was in a sacrament meeting recently where a new convert to the church was blessing the sacrament. As he knelt down to say the sacrament prayer for the first time, I thought, “Please, let this go well.” He went through the prayer the first time and didn’t make it. My heart went out to him, and I felt so sorry for him. He tried a second time and didn’t get through it. The third time, however, to his credit, he got through every word absolutely perfectly.

The thought crossed my mind that there are a few gospel ordinances that have to be done perfectly—temple ordinances, baptism, and sacrament prayers. I realized that doing these ordinances perfectly isn’t to make it difficult or embarrassing for people. Heavenly Father is trying to teach us that we can make a mistake and it will still be possible for us to do it over again—as many times as we need to until we get it right. And in the end, Heavenly Father has promised us everything that He has, if we’re obedient to His commandments. It’s never too late for anyone to start over and figuratively repeat that sacrament prayer until we get it just right.

What a wonderful place this campus is. You feel a wonderful spirit here. I want you to know I have a testimony of this gospel. I’ve been blessed to know that Jesus is the Christ; He is the Son of the living God. Joseph Smith restored the gospel of Jesus Christ in the early 1800s, and we are all the beneficiaries. I leave you my testimony, my love, and my appreciation in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


Speech by Gary Crittenden
Illustrations by Rich Lillash

About The Speaker
Gary Crittenden has been CFO of Citigroup since March 2007. He was executive vice president, CFO, and head of global network services at American Express from 2000 to 2007. Previously, he was CFO of Monsanto and of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Crittenden began his career at Bain & Company after earning a BS from BYU and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

This article is adapted from the 2007 Marriott School Honored Alumni Lecture given by Crittenden 20 September 2007.

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