When I came up with the idea to interview people for Live to Live, my goal was to highlight individuals from all walks of life who are pursuing their dreams, choosing a life of passion over convention, or accomplishing amazing things that many people might consider to be impossible.
My dad was one of the first people who came to mind. Not only is he one of the most steadfast and hard-working individuals I know, but he was also making a huge life change in order to follow his heart.
Witnessing my dad’s journey of self-discovery – culminating in his decision to retire early and focus on inventing – has been hugely motivating for me. My hope is that the stories on Live to Live will resonate with you, too, and will inspire you to follow your own dreams.
Meet Mark Stablein: “The Maker”
“Do not seek to make yourself important. Seek to make yourself useful, and therefore valuable.” This statement would become the theme of my conversation with my dad about his past, present, and future. It didn’t escape my notice that this sentiment was also shared by the great Albert Einstein, who once said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”
The similarities don’t end there. My dad is a “maker.” His love of fixing and creating things was present even as a child, when he and his friends would build cabins and rope swings, and make go-carts out of lawn mowers and scrap parts salvaged from the neighbors’ trash. “Any time something broke I loved fixing it myself. There were several occasions when I had to try many times before I made it work, but there aren’t many things I can’t fix when I put my mind to it.”
Growing up in a small industrial town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mark and his four siblings had plenty of space to roam. “There were ponds where we would fish in the summer and skate in the winter, and lots of kids to play sandlot baseball and football with.”
“It is and was a gritty town with gritty people who could drink a beer, get into a fight, and stand their own ground. They worked hard and were salt of the earth people.” In addition to the value of hard work, he learned the importance of loyalty and perseverance. “My father taught me to give my best no matter how hard things got. I was taught to stick with a job once I started it, and always stick with my people and back them up.”
After school, Mark pursued a career in mining engineering. “I liked growing up in a gritty town, and mining engineering was a gritty industry that also happened to pay well. It helped that I could wear blue jeans and flannel every day.”
As the years went by, he gradually became more interested in the design aspect of engineering, again fueled by his desire to understand how things work. “I had a wife and two kids to support and the mining industry was shrinking, so I made the decision to get out while it was still my idea. I went back to school to get out of the mines and get into something more mechanically oriented. I wanted to produce things…to work in an industry where useful products go out the door every day.”
He would spend the next 20 years working as a mechanical engineer and engineering manager for Fortune 500 companies and multi-billion-dollar corporations. With every company, every job, and every project, he stood by this philosophy:
If someone’s paying you to do a good job, you need to do a good job. You’re not working hard for them – you’re working hard for you. You owe it to yourself to do the best you possibly can.
Another key to his success? Asking the questions that nobody else would ask. “You need to think for yourself. Don’t believe something just because someone said it. If doesn’t make sense to you, always say, “Tell me more about that.”
But things weren’t always easy. In fact, the long hours and stress were taking a toll. “My dream was to invent, but I was addicted to a steady paycheck because I needed to take care of my family. I had responsibilities, and those responsibilities came first.”
He also struggled to recognize when it was time to quit. “I think of myself as a fixer. I always thought I could fix anything with enough time and effort, but sometimes I stuck with things longer than I should have. As a leader, you need to know when to call it quits or change directions.”
Fast-forward to 2018: In the months leading up to his 60th birthday, Mark made the bold decision to retire early and focus on his family and developing his own ideas. “As I’ve gotten older and have started to value different things, I recognize that life is short. I have less time left, and I need to make the most of it. I knew there were bigger things that needed to be done, and I was lucky enough to have a wife who encouraged and supported me.”
Now one month into retirement, how is the change suiting him? “I’ve been incredibly liberated emotionally and creatively by my retirement.”
When I’m out working in the garage, I don’t get tired. I’ve been out there until 2:00am without even realizing it. It’s so satisfying to be so focused on something that you’re not thinking about anything else.
Does he ever worry that he won’t be successful with this new path in life? “I don’t spend a lot of time questioning decisions once they’re made. If you make decisions based on your moral compass, you’ll never regret them. I also believe that hard work and dedication will always pay off.”
So what advice would he give to people who want to make a change, but they’re worried about making the wrong decision or potentially failing? “Follow your passion and remember that no decision is permanent. If it doesn’t work the first time, keep trying. If you take a wrong turn, just move on and redirect.
“It’s a big world out there, and there are lots of interesting things to do. I’ve redirected myself many times – going back to school in my mid 30’s, changing industries, and now retiring early.
“If someone said they’d pay you as much as you want to do whatever you want, what would you do? Think about how your current job can help you get closer to that passion, then pursue your dreams as quickly as you can. You still need to pay the bills and provide for yourself and your family, but don’t waste time.
“It’s also impossible to overstate how important it was for my wife to support me and believe in me and my ideas. Life and marriage are team sports. I likely wouldn’t have gone back to grad school or retired early without her help.”
It sounds as though life is pretty great these days. Does that mean he’s discovered his best self?
I think my best self is way out in the future. Tomorrow I’ll be a better person than today, and the next day I’ll be a better person than tomorrow.
“Right now I’m focusing on cherishing every moment and bringing joy, health and happiness to myself and the people around me.”
Huge thanks to Mark for sharing his story on Live to Live. Keep on living your best life, dad!