Sitting in a classroom at MIT’s Executive Education Center in the autumn of 2019, Chris Roth (pictured below) had a revelation: Instead of growing the Las Vegas-based heating and cooling company he’d been building for eight years, why not sell it and focus on the business he was really passionate about?

Chris’ decision to exit his business caught him by surprise. He had just completed day one of the five-day Birthing of Giants Fellowship Program and was staring at the results of the first exercise the group worked on. How could his plans for the future have changed so much in just a few hours?


His epiphany challenged what Harvard Business School professor Thomas J. DeLong calls “the paradox of excellence.” Most entrepreneurs, DeLong explains, have their identity (not to mention net worth) so wrapped up in their business that they settle into established routines on their path to success.

When Chris and his cohort arrived that morning—before any welcome speech, before meeting one another or even learning what would be in store for them—they had to take out their laptops and send emails to 10 people in their business network who know them well. In those messages, fellowship candidates asked their peers, clients, mentors and subordinates this question: “What am I best at?” I first wrote about this exercise in The First Habit: The One Technique That Can Change Your Life. It changed my life as much as it changed Chris’.

Chris launched Climate Control Experts in 2012 as a one-van operation. By 2020, it was one of the largest residential services providers in the Southwest, serving six states and generating sales and profits that put it in the top 10 percent of the industry. This dramatic trajectory led Chris to receive an invitation to the Birthing of Giants Fellowship program.


Residential service is a grueling industry. Customers are notoriously difficult to please, and Chris had hundreds of competitors ranging from sole proprietors to large regional companies. Finding employees with the technical and communication skills needed to compete successfully was a major challenge. The only way he could deliver on his promises to his customers was to create a steady supply of capable technicians that he trained himself—so he launched his own trade school in Las Vegas in 2018.

As he read through the responses he received from his email exercise, Chris was struck by their consistency. The message was clear: Chris’ skills were a better fit for his trade school business, and the opportunity there was much bigger than his HVAC business. Even though the trade school business was one-tenth the size of the HVAC repair business, Chris couldn’t ignore the results of the exercise.

That night, he signed a letter of intent to sell his business to a buyer who expressed interest just a few days before. Then and there, as a result of that morning’s email exercise, Chris broke out of his own paradox of excellence and began a process that would result in the sale of Climate Control Experts 90 days later for an estimated $40 million. He then shifted his attention to the fledgling trade school business, National Technical Institute, focusing on expanding its digital learning platform with an ambitious goal of building a $100 million business in five years.

That was in October 2019, months before the word “coronavirus” entered the popular consciousness. Within a year, National Technical Institute had exceeded every milestone he’d set for it, fueled by the global pandemic and its impact on the career plans of millions of American workers. He reached his five-year enrollment goal by the end of year one. He achieved all of this by taking a fresh look at his skills and passions, seeing himself the ways others saw him and focusing his time, energy and passion on the thing he does best.

Do you have the same clear-eyed view of your business and your relationship to it? Are you leveraging your own skills and passions to create a business that works for you instead of the other way around? With a few minute’s effort, the answer could be sitting in your inbox.