Pivot Points: How They Shape Us and Even Change the Entire Direction of Our Lives

Every town in America, if it's lucky, has at least one person living in it like Malin Burnham. A person who spent his life committed to helping his town prosper, be it through a business or other enterprise. San Diego is Burnham's hometown, and most people living there know his name. Many also know the man. And love him.

In his autobiography, Community Before Self, Burnham dedicated the first chapter to the "pivot points" of his life. "Choices big but often seemingly inconsequential that turn out to have changed the entire direction of your life," as he describes them. "They can be easy to identify in the rearview mirror, but they're mostly invisible through the windshield."

A big pivot point in his life came at Stanford University, where he had to choose a major. He chose industrial engineering, which would help him throughout his professional life in real estate because it emphasized the practical versus the theoretical and stressed empirical analysis as the primary decision-making tool.

Burnham's second most important pivot point came when he decided to retire early. It is something most successful people fail to do, but Burnham's ability to do it unleashed a new and even more fulfilling post-work life, a large part of which was dedicated to giving back to the city he loved.

His father's advice and example played a part in both of those pivot points. In that respect, my life and Burnham's have much in common.

In the 1940s, a boy runs after a ball into the street, oblivious to an approaching car. Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Looking back on my life through the rearview mirror, three pivot points come to mind. The first came after being hit by a car in my small hometown in New Jersey. I was 10 years old and playing basketball in a friend's driveway. The ball made its way into the street, and I darted behind a parked car, without looking, to retrieve it. I never had a chance. Neither did the driver. I was sent soaring into the air, and soon I was speeding to the hospital in an ambulance.

My left leg was shattered and my head was banged up, but I escaped life-threatening injury. I was on crutches for 10 months, but it could have been worse.

A few weeks later, my family got a visit from a lawyer. It was back before personal injury lawyers could advertise on TV, and they had a nickname, ambulance chasers, because that's how they got their business. This lawyer had managed to find out about my accident and came to our home to talk about the case he thought we had against the owner of the home where I was playing basketball unsupervised, as well as the driver who struck me. As it turns out, the driver was speeding slightly, from the looks of the skid marks at the accident scene.

The lawyer, whose name I have long forgotten, spoke to me briefly, along with my mom and dad. Soon, I was asked me to leave the room so the adults could talk. As kids often do, I left but positioned myself in an adjoining room where I could overhear their every word.

The lawyer began his pitch, asking questions about the medical bills and other things that had to do with my future. He assured my parents that if given the chance, he could garner a hefty settlement from the insurance companies representing the property owner and the driver, a settlement that would help pay for my college—or help out our family with bills.

God knows there was no college fund and plenty of bills. At the time, my dad was a teacher and basketball coach in a neighboring town, and my mom worked part time in a clothing store. Needless to say, they could have used the money. And the man was talking about real money: $50,000 or maybe more for my injuries and my pain and suffering.

I nearly gasped when I heard that number. I'm rich, I thought to myself. We're rich!

Then it was my dad's turn to talk. "We're not interested in suing people in our neighborhood," he told the lawyer calmly. The accident, my father pointed out, was my fault. I'd failed to look both ways before crossing the street, and the driver had no way to avoid the collision.

"I don't want to reward my son for his own negligence," he told the lawyer. "So thanks, but no thanks." And with that, the conversation ended. In one last plea, the lawyer asked my dad to keep his card in case he changed his mind. "That won't be necessary," my dad said. And that was the end.

It was an easy decision for my mother and father, who were in lockstep on matters like these. In the weeks that followed, they never mentioned the talk with the lawyer. Or the settlement figure they'd rejected.

I didn't have the guts to ask my parents about that day, and I certainly didn't want them to know I'd eavesdropped on their conversation. But I wasn't happy with their decision. They'd chosen to turn down money—real money—that was lawfully mine. I couldn't understand it. It was, after all, the insurance companies that would be ponying up the money, not the two families in town the lawyer was planning to sue.

After a month stewing about their decision, I finally mustered up the courage to talk to my dad. He told me everything, including the number.

"But Dad, that was my money," I pleaded.

"People shouldn't be rewarded for doing the wrong thing, and people shouldn't be punished for things they didn't do," my dad told me. "And that's the last time we're talking about this, do you understand?" There was a pause. He tousled my hair, and we headed out to play a game of HORSE. "You'll understand one day," he said.

And in a moment, my anger was gone. Because Dad was right. I did nothing to earn that kind of money. My friend's parents did nothing wrong letting us all play in their driveway. And that driver did nothing wrong either. I practically ran into his car, for God's sake. And he had to live with the recurring vision of hitting a young kid chasing a ball and injuring him pretty badly.

What my dad taught me that day was a lesson about integrity. About doing the right thing, even if it costs you. And doing it with ease, as if it were the only thing to do.

My anger was soon gone, replaced by a bit of shame for coveting something I never deserved. And over time, the feeling turned to pride over being part of a family that did such things. That did what was right—even when it was hard. And without anyone else knowing but us. And that lawyer.

Fast-forward to two events around the time I applied for and then entered law school. I was in my late 20s and a bit lost, having tried my hand at a few jobs that neither inspired nor moved me. I decided to apply to law school. I had great grades in college, but when my LSATs came in (the SATs of law school), it was not the kind of score I needed to get into the school I was shooting for, the University of Virginia.

I talked to a former college guidance counselor, who suggested I use my ethnic heritage—I am one-quarter Arabic—to game the system. It didn't sound like a good idea. I went home and talked to my dad. He didn't like the idea either. Then he came up with one of his own. "Why don't you just take a few months and concentrate on improving your LSAT and I'll pay for it?" he implored. "Then you'll know you got in fair and square."

For the next three months, I parked myself in the local test preparation center and brought my score up above the 95th percentile. Six months later, the acceptance letter came, and I was moving to Charlottesville.

Those three months doing practice LSATs taught me a lot about doing things the way they should be done. About doing the work and not taking shortcuts.

One year later came the biggest pivot point of my life. I was struggling in law school and wasn't happy, and a life reading law cases and drafting legal briefs didn't appeal for me.

I called my dad. I told him I was thinking of quitting. "I don't care if you ever practice law," he told me. "But finish what you start. You won't regret it."

He was right. I came back to Charlottesville with a new attitude, committed to making lifelong friends and studying the things I loved, like history and economics. The next two years were the best of my life, and the most important. Friends I met in law school would help me in nearly every walk of my professional and personal lives. I can't imagine life without them.

There were other pivot points in my life. But these three had a lasting impact on my character and my life. If we're lucky—and Burnham and I were lucky indeed—they help us to shape better versions of ourselves.