Todd Wagner describes people trapped in jobs as doing “the walk of the living dead.”
He’s experienced it twice, and both times, career counselor Helen Harkness came to his rescue. She and Mr. Wagner first crossed paths in 1991, when he took her informal course at Southern Methodist University called “Running from the Law” – sort of group therapy for disgruntled lawyers. At 30, he fit the bill. He’d gone to law school for lack of anything better to do and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1986.
At first he liked carrying a briefcase, acting like an adult and driving to the downtown Dallas office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. But that was fleeting. Three years later, Mr. Wagner tried switching to another law firm, Hopkins & Sutter, hoping things would be better. “I discovered that had nothing to do with it. I just wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer,” he says. “But like so many people, I still didn’t do anything about it.”
By 1992, he was a partner, pulling down $200,000 or so, but he was miserable. Dr. Harkness hounded him about escaping. The warning that finally stuck was: “If you don’t quit, you’re going to be dead of a heart attack or something by the time you’re 45.” He realized she was right. “When the pain becomes greater than the fear of the unknown, that’s when you go,” Mr. Wagner says. “Finally the pain was so great, I didn’t care if I swept floors or bartender, I just wasn’t going to do that anymore.”
When he resigned to explore “this thing called the “Internet”,” the senior partner of the law firm told Mr. Wagner he’d never make it as an entrepreneur. “I was scared because I didn’t know what I was going to do next,” Mr. Wagner recalls. “But you know what, I was really exhilarated, too. It was the happiest time maybe of my whole life.”
Well, perhaps the second happiest. When he and his college-buddy-turned-partner Mark Cuban sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo, they pocketed more money than either could spend in two lifetimes. Ironically, this good fortune led to his second career crisis. In a remarkable move, Mr. Wagner turned down Yahoo’s offer to stay on as chief operating officer. He also turned down Mr. Cuban’s offer to go halfsies in buying the Dallas Mavericks. He needed soul renewal, not to jump into another business inferno.
Instead, he started his charitable foundation, which focuses on helping inner-city residents—partly to salve his conscience. “Look, I’ve been incredibly lucky, beyond lucky, and I needed to do the right thing,” says Mr. Wagner, who calls himself a social entrepreneur. “Giving money is the easiest thing on the planet to do. I’m giving my time and trying to make a difference for other people as well.
“It helps me feel that it’s OK for me to live, let’s face it, this dream life that I now have. After nearly five years, Mr. Wagner says he couldn’t be happier with where his life is heading. “I’ve re-engaged back on the entertainment and for-profit world again in the last two years. But it feels good because it’s a good balance.” — Cheryl Hall (from a copyrighted story in the Dallas Morning News, July 11, 2004)