Defining Moments

A Life Shaped in Moments

My name is Michael J. Mikuliza, and I own a digital content company called Sand Key Ventures.  I believe that everyone is a product of their experiences. The truths we believe in, the fears we hold, and the stories we tell ourselves all come from the experiences we’ve had in our lives. Most experiences are fleeting, lasting only moments. Many moments are forgettable, but some make a lasting impact. These are the defining moments that mold our character, determine how we see the world and create a trajectory for our future.

We all have defining moments in our business and personal lives. Here are some of the moments that defined my business life, the lessons I learned, and how they impact my professional life today.

My passport photo from 1993, the stage
in life when many defining moments happen.

Details Matter the Most

"Nobody Ever Cuts You Slack
on the Details."

High school was not an academic challenge for me. I wasn’t particularly smart, didn’t know how to study, and certainly didn’t learn how to there. Still, I graduated with a decent grade point average. After a couple of years in college, I declared my major and enrolled at the Fisher School of Accounting at the University of Florida. For the first time in my life, school was challenging, and I struggled.

One of my classes was Cost Accounting, taught by Dr. Linda Bamber. She was a brilliant accountant and was tough on her students. After scoring a 75 on a midterm exam, I went to see her in her office. She told me that a 75 was a failing grade and that I would never get a job in accounting if I continued to get 75s on exams. 

We started to go over the essay question portion of the exam, and she explained why she scored my answers so low. I understood the accounting principles but failed to apply them properly. I said to her, “I understand the concepts, but I just made some mistakes on the details.” She paused,  looked at me, and said, “But that’s a problem. It’s the details that matter the most.”

I will never forget that. I thought if I got the big stuff, she’d cut me some slack on the details. The lesson I learned that day is that nobody ever cuts you slack on the details. I failed out of accounting school because I didn’t pay attention to the details. Throughout my entire career, and to this day, I focus on the details of every project. That goes for every writing assignment, raw photograph, and website. 

It’s been over 35 years since that day in Dr. Bamber’s office, but the moment defined how I approach projects throughout my career and has served me well to this day.

How You Recover is More Important than How You Fail

"Mistakes are going to happen. Just do the next right thing and everything will be fine."

Early in my sales career, I worked for a man named Barry Newman. Barry was at the end of a long and colorful career in television. He saw something in me and gave me my first sales job. One day I sat in his office in agony.   I don’t remember exactly what I did wrong, but I made some mistakes and took it particularly hard. 

He tolerated my explanation of the situation and my self-loathing only for a few moments. Then he raised his hand, signaling me to stop talking. The room fell silent, and he said, “Mistakes are going to happen. Shit will hit the fan. It’s okay. Just remember to do the next right thing, and it will be fine. If you do the next wrong thing, you will compound the problem, and things will get worse. So just go back to your office and do the next right thing.”

And that’s what I did. Those five little words, “Do the next right thing,” have stuck with me since. I have passed along Barry’s advice to countless employees and colleagues. Whenever I make a mistake, I softly repeat those magic words to myself, “do the next right thing,” and everything turns out okay.

Buy Tomorrow with Today

"Whatever my plans for tomorrow are, I can only realize them if I lay the groundwork today."

I never aspired to sell television advertising. I got into it as a means to fund a Ph.D.  But after a few years, I was making a lot of money and never looked back to higher education. I wish I could remember who told me, “You buy tomorrow with today,” but I can’t. This is another expression that stuck with me.

To me, it meant whatever my plans for tomorrow were, I could only realize them by laying the groundwork today. If I wanted to play tomorrow, I had to work hard today. Spending money tomorrow, meant I had to earn it today. If I wanted to have a close relationship tomorrow, I had to invest in it today.

So from an early age, I started working on my future. I lived below my means so I could save and invest money. I maxed out my retirement savings plans every year, and I bought a home to build equity. Mortgage payments got accelerated and I retired from corporate America at the age of 52, never having to work for money again. Sometimes people tell me that I’m lucky to have my life. The truth is, it has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with making responsible choices and the time value of money. I made a lot of money throughout my career in television, especially in the last decade of it. But what fueled my financial independence were the small investments I made in my 20s, not the big investments I made in my 40s.

This is one of my most important defining moments.  I still believe you buy tomorrow with today.  And while it’s important to enjoy life right now, I continue to work hard every day so I can enjoy the future I want tomorrow.

Show Up and Follow Through

"Learn every aspect of your job, obsessively check the work, and follow through to make sure everything is done properly."

One of the first accounts assigned to me was an electronics retailer called Sound Advice. The buyer was Laurie Nicolas. One day she called screaming. A recent order had not been fulfilled properly, and she was livid. No one had ever yelled at me like that before, and during the call, I turned and looked behind me for a video camera. I was sure the call was a joke, and my reactions were being caught on tape—no such luck. We had run the commercials wrong, and later I learned Laurie was angry because our mistake cost her company a lot of money.  

It took a few days to sort out the mess and truly understand what happened. That’s when I learned that, even though others in my company were responsible for scheduling the commercials, I needed to check their work. I needed to take responsibility for every aspect of the process to make sure things ran correctly. Most importantly, I never wanted to be on the receiving end of a phone call like the one from Laurie or anyone else.

The next right thing to do was visit Laurie in person and apologize for my mistake. I flew to Miami and drove to the Sound Advice corporate offices. I got there around 1 pm, introduced myself to the receptionist, and asked to see Laurie. She called Laurie’s office. She asked me, “Do you have an appointment.” “No,” I replied. She told me Laurie was busy and to wait.

I waited for 3 ½ hours. Finally, Laurie came down the staircase, walked over to me, and said, “I didn’t think you’d wait this long.” I took full responsibility for the mistake and apologized. I never asked her for another order. She shook my hand, and I left. About a year later, I got another chance to earn her business, and this time, I micromanaged every detail. The commercials ran exactly as ordered. Because of this experience, I developed recognized disciplines that serve me well to this day.

This defining moment taught me the value of showing up, not just in body, but in learning every aspect of your job, obsessively checking the work, and following through to ensure everything is done properly. I have great respect for Laurie Nicolaus and appreciate the experience I had to this day. It made me a better salesman then and a better craftsman now.

If you’d like to learn more about me, read my story.