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How to figure out if you’re being pushed or pulled in life — and do something about it

September 19, 2019

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

Do you remember the Doctor Dolittle stories? Dial the Wayback Machine back to the children’s books and the original Rex Harrison film version.

In these versions, there is a unique animal known as a “pushmi-pullyu.” This delightful creature was a descendent of the last great unicorn and looked as though the front ends of two such unicorn/llama critters were sewn together in the middle. It has heads on both ends. One side of it was always awake. You couldn’t sneak up on it and it never missed a thing. It could talk while it chewed without being rude. The mysterious part of pushmi-pullyu, at least in my childhood mind, was “who wins?” Does pushmi get to decide which way the animal is going or does pullyu make the call?

The pushmi-pullyu from The Story of Doctor Dolittle.

I picture pushmi-pullyu whenever I think about the mental gymnastics we all go through when thinking about a monumental change in life, such as a job or relationship change, retirement, and buying or selling a business. There are always factors that are pushing and pulling us in multiple directions, usually all at the same time.

In the world of marketing, there are also pushmi-pullyu-like concepts or strategies. With a “push” strategy, the positioning of the product is all about creating awareness of the product or the service and pushing the consumer toward it. The “pull” strategy is one of attraction, enticing the buyer to want and seek out the product. Marketers can use both strategies for the same product. Often the push leads the efforts and is then complemented by a pull strategy, attracting and persuading the consumer to move toward something that satisfies their needs.

The same is also true when thinking about our monumental decisions, such as exiting our business and moving on to something new. The International Business Brokers Association, M&A Source, and Pepperdine Graziadio Business School publish a quarterly Market Pulse Report. The report routinely cites the reasons that sellers sold their business. Retirement and burnout have been the top reasons quarter after quarter, and are, to my thinking, push strategies. Reasons of attraction or examples of a pull strategy, such as “new opportunity” and “unsolicited offer,” pop up every now and again, but are in the minority.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you have likely heard me reference the statistic that three out of four sellers reported “profound regret” for selling their company within 12 months, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. Reasons for this vary; one significant one is the fact that the seller had not thought through what they would do post-ownership. They had no answer for the question “what do I do?” There was not a plan for what and how would they replace the social interactions, intellectual stimulation, and day-to-day activities that they had pre-close.

In addition to not having thought those questions through, I believe another factor influencing their happiness has to do with their mindset going into the exit. Which side of pushmi-pullyu was driving the bus? (I told you, it was a magical creature!) The winner of that dynamic and where you are at on that spectrum makes a big difference.

When we’re pushed to do something, we’re often motivated by avoidance, psychologically speaking. We are doing it because we want to get away from something that is causing us, or we anticipate will cause us, pain and discomfort. We are wired to actively seek out ways to extinguish a current actual or anticipated pain much more than to proactively prevent a future pain. Once that active pain or anxiety is relieved, our motivation falters.

Conversely, when our motivation is pull driven, we are inspired by what we want to achieve, create, and/or experience. We find something that interests us, or that we want to do, and then go after it, whether it’s something small like helping a child or adult learn to read or something monumental like solving a major world problem. The energy is completely different, and our activities are framed around some quest, whether big or small. Completion fulfills our emotional needs and often prompts us to take on the next thing. Motivation does the opposite of faltering — it flourishes and regenerates.

There are certainly times when a business exit is pushed. Statistics suggest that about 50 percent of the time sellers are forced to exit from the business due to death or disability (yours or a significant other), divorce, disagreement, or distress.

However, that doesn’t mean that you are automatically on the pushmi side of the spectrum. That’s still up to you. You decide how you are going to frame it and what mindset you’ll take with you through the transition. If you are looking solely in the rearview mirror, wallowing in regret or running away from something, pushmi wins. If you’re looking and moving toward something, pullyu is your best friend.

It’s never too soon to design your own pull strategies for navigating the major changes in our life. In fact, it’s better to start sooner than later, especially if you are considering retirement or a business exit. If you’re consistently working a billion hours a week, your social circle is exclusively your work buddies, or you’re experiencing other symptoms of an out-of-balance life, take that to heart. Start taking steps to expand your horizons. Broaden how you spend your time and with whom. Explore and connect with those interests that give you energy.

Get in touch with your own pushmi-pullyu and power your pull.

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