We’ve all experienced crossroads in life, but is there a way to know when you’re making a good decision?
Ray Zinn has seen more than his share of turning points and crossroads, and in this edition of the Tough Things First podcast, Ray discusses the art of making the right moves.
Rob Artigo: Welcome back to another edition of the Tough Things First podcast. I’m your guest host, Rob Artigo, writer and entrepreneur in California. Hi Ray.
Ray Zinn: Hello Rob. Good to be with you this morning.
Rob Artigo: It’s great to be back. I’d like to pick your brain a bit about life experiences that influenced you. If you remember, maybe you’ve heard this quote before, legendary New York Yankee Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” You recall that one.
Ray Zinn: Oh yeah. But that was a real thing because it was literally you could go on either road to get to his house. I was on a open house he was having and he just said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” It applies to life also. It’s those forks in the roads that we said, “Well do I go left or do I go right?” The yin and yang as they say.
Rob Artigo: Were there some interesting crossroads that you came to in your life that sort led in directions that you just didn’t expect?
Ray Zinn: Absolutely. Life is that way. It’s a constant round as they say and we deal with the changes as they occur. I was born and raised on a cattle ranch and so my background is really more agrarian. Working with animals, agriculture. Never did I think at the time when I was growing up that I would ultimately end up as a CEO of a semiconductor company in the Bay area, Silicon Valley and being Silicon Valley’s longest serving CEO. Hindsight’s 20/20 so when you’re growing up, you don’t really know what’s going to happen but you do is you hope for the best and then expect the worst and then solve problems as they come up.
Rob Artigo: It is interesting to see that, that juxtaposition. Like I said, when you’re a child, when you’re growing up, you have no crystal ball to look down the road and see this amazing place. For example, being on your ranch right now, you probably couldn’t even imagine the ranch or being at home in the Bay area, talking me on the computer. You would never have thought about that sort of thing. If you look back at your childhood now, can you remember one time when you made a certain decision that you didn’t know was going to lead you to be a CEO of a major silicon chip manufacturing company? It just seems inexplicable.
Ray Zinn: I don’t think it’s one thing, I think our life is the sum of our experiences. I’m the oldest of 11 children and so I was raised in a very small home. The total square footage of the home was less than 1,800 square feet for 13 of us in very close proximities. I think that that helped because I had to learn to get along with people and being the oldest, I was expected to do a lot. I was expected to take the lead on everything. I think that experience helped me. Not being an only child, as some of you are, I had to learn how to do everything. I learned how to wash clothes, do dishes. Back in those times, we didn’t have a dishwasher, electronic one. We had people doing it. We didn’t have the fancy vacuum cleaners and the ways to clean our homes and stuff.
I had to learn how to work. I actually recall working at the ranch baling hay at the age of 12. My mother sent me to the store to get milk and eggs and bread when I was four years old. No one would think to let their kid go down the street now at the age of four. I learned to take responsibility at a very early age. Had a drivers license when I was 13. I knew how to drive a tractor and bale hay and do all the agricultural things when I was not even a teenager.
Work became a very prominent part of my life. As they say, work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Well I’m surprised I grew up to be other than a dull person because I didn’t get to play much. Work was the primary role that I had and maybe because it was back in the 50s, and times were different then, but I had to learn how to work and work became part of my hallmark.
Rob Artigo: Obviously crossroads are about decision making and there must have been a time when you made a decision about what you we’re going to study in college or a job you we’re going to take that maybe was the beginning of the road that brought to Silicon Valley and led you to be a CEO.
Ray Zinn: That’s an interesting story actually. My neighbor who I enjoyed flying model airplanes with, was a civil engineer. I didn’t want to work on a ranch, I wanted to be an engineer because he did those fun things like flying radio controlled airplanes and that sort of thing. I said, “Hey, I’m going to be an engineer.” When I went to school, went to college, that’s what I studied. I studied engineering. But trying to decide which engineering to study was kind of the funny part because he was a civil engineer and so I thought well, civil engineers tend to work outside and so I said, “Well, I don’t know if I want to be outside because I’d like to be inside.” Because I’d worked outside most of my young life and so I said, “Well maybe I’ll be an electrical engineer.”
Electrical engineers I thought worked on power poles and I got shocked as a kid putting bobby pin in an electrical socket so I thought, I don’t know if want to be electrical engineer. Maybe a mechanical engineer but then when I thought about my friends and working on our cars, we were greasy all the time, or getting dirt our nail, ah, I don’t want to be a mechanical engineer. I ended up studying industrial engineering and that’s what I graduated in. Industrial engineering’s a general kind of a course.
Rob Artigo: Can I tell you a story about a crossroads for me that I’d like to get your reaction to?
Ray Zinn: Sure.
Rob Artigo: It was, I had been working in Reno Nevada as a reporter and I had interviewed Kenny Guinn, the former governor of Nevada. He’s passed on now but he was governor for I think two terms. He was in his late first term when I had a chance to talk to him. Maybe third or fourth time I was interviewing him. We were just having small talk and I just said, “By the way, I’ve been offered this job at a radio station in Fresno.” And he put his arm around me, very fatherly and he said, I think he might have been 70 years old or something at the time, he said, “If it’s a step up, take it. If it’s not a step up, don’t take it.”
I reflected on that seriously and I realized, it was a step sideways. It was really no improvement at all. It wasn’t a step down but it was not an improvement and I didn’t take it. Had I taken it, my career trajectory in radio would have been significantly different. In this case, making a decision to stay the course, and stay in Reno at that time, was a much better decision than leaving and I valued that advice from the former governor of Nevada. It was very, I still remember it. I’m sharing it with you right now because I remember it.
Crossroads become very important to us as we grow up. If we recognize that we’re in critical moments like that, correct?
Ray Zinn: Absolutely. When I graduated, I found a girl and we got engaged and she was from the Bay area. That was another crossroad was actually getting engaged to a woman who was from the Bay area. And I moved to the Bay area because of that, because that’s where she wanted to live. I said, “Okay, why not? The Bay area’s a nice place to live.” Because of her, I move to the Bay area and because of moving to the Bay area, I got exposed to semiconductors and ultimately that became my career.
There’s a way a crossroad works. I ended up not marrying her. We ended up splitting up and found my current wife, married 57 years, in San Jose. You can see how that worked out. Her father was working for Fairchild Semiconductor and that’s how I actually got exposed to semiconductors was because I got engaged to a girl who lives in the Bay area, we ultimately broke up, married a girl from the Bay area whose father worked for Fairchild, that’s how I got involved in semiconductors.
You can see how that path kind of weaves in and out and we end up where we are because of just these crossroads.
Rob Artigo: That’s amazing, yeah.
Ray Zinn: Things in our life, we have to take advantage of them when they come up. That’s actually how I ended up in semiconductors was through that path. I can see it led all the way from when I grew up in the Imperial Valley in Southern California.
Rob Artigo: No pun intended here, but let’s take this whole thing full circle, back to the quote from Yogi Berra, when you come to fork in the road, take you. You were saying that at his house, if you took the fork to the right or the fork to left, you still wound up at his house.
Ray Zinn: At his house.
Rob Artigo: We don’t have the luxury of knowing that if you go right or left you’re going to wind up in the same place and oftentimes you won’t but guess what makes crossroads in life exciting? You don’t know where they’ll lead but if you are following your heart, following a spiritual path or whatever, however you’re approaching life, it’ll work out.
Ray Zinn: Absolutely.
Rob Artigo: Thank Ray. Really appreciate the conversation today. This crossroads conversation could go on and on and on but we should call it quits at least for this podcast.
Make sure you contact Ray Zinn with your questions at toughthingsfirst.com. You can continue your education in the conversation with all the podcasts there, blogs and links to information about the book, Tough Things First. If you haven’t gotten it already, you should get out there and get Ray’s book. Ray also has a new book, The Zen of Zinn, which is out there for sale. You can get that on Amazon and that book there is very interesting because it’s a collection of writing on interrelated topics of entrepreneurship, leadership, management, discipline, determination, society, people and life. It’s called The Zen of Zinn. Go out there and get it.
Thank you very much Ray.
Ray Zinn: It’s a book for everyone. it’s not just a book for business people. It’s a book for everyone.
Rob Artigo: If you want to discern your crossroads, you probably can find some advice in Zen of Zinn to get there, right Ray?
Ray Zinn: Exactly.
Rob Artigo: Thanks again.
Ray Zinn: You’re welcome.