Tom Lewis knows what it takes to find success and happiness in life. He’s a living example.
As founder of the T.W. Lewis Co., an Arizona-based real estate investment company known for its outstanding quality and customer service in the homebuilding industry, Lewis built a thriving business while being a devoted dad. Now, he’s sharing his lessons in the book “Solid Ground: A Foundation for Winning in Work and in Life.”
Lewis is a supporter of The Heritage Foundation whom I’ve had the opportunity to get to know over the past few years. He joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share his insight and inspiration for writing the book.
Listen to the episode or read a lightly edited transcript.
Rob Bluey: I want to begin, before we get to your book, by having you share more about your amazing life. You have been a successful entrepreneur in real estate. You also have a beautiful family. You’ve written this amazing book, which has so many life lessons, but before we delve into some of those, tell us about your own experience, maybe some of the successes and failures along the way.
Tom Lewis: I started off as a Navy brat and moved around a lot. I was born in Utah, moved to Rhode Island, then went to Pensacola, Florida, then Jacksonville. Then my dad retired from the Navy.
But my mother used to say, “Grow where you’re planted,” and that was always a good message for me. As a military kid, you learn to adapt, and I think the big lesson there was just being open to experience. That’s something that really just helps you learn and grow and be happy.
We learned to do that early as a military kid, but we always knew where we were from. Our family was from Kentucky, and we would go back there every summer, spend time with the grandparents. In hindsight, that made a big impact on me, just the small-town values, the Christian values. My grandparents were wonderful people. That was formative for me.
But then I got to high school, played high school football, and that taught me a lot of lessons—just teamwork, learning how to lose, had great coaches, really character-builders.
Then I went to college and joined a fraternity, and again, that was a lot of fun. I got involved in campus activities, got to know the president of the university through those things, and just kept having new experiences. Traveled a lot, did a lot of fun things, went to the Mardi Gras a few times, things like that you’d do in college.
But then I majored in engineering and that was not for me. I was good in math, but just engineering didn’t float my boat, and so I knew I was really born to be in business. I went straight to graduate business school at North Carolina. That really was a wonderful experience for me, again, taking the next step, running into B-school faculty, which were amazing people, great role models.
I met a lot of good friends there that are lifelong friends, and then I started my career. Probably the best thing about my career is I changed jobs every two or three years. Every time you change jobs, you get a promotion, you get a new experience, you get a new city, you get a new boss. It’s just a lot of learning going on.
That’s my message in the book, really, in terms of career, is, keep moving, keep learning, keep growing. Don’t worry about your salary. Don’t worry about your bonus. Don’t worry about your office. Just worry about who your boss is and what you’re learning. I somehow knew that.
My father filed bankruptcy when I was 16. That, I think, had something to do with the drive that I had. There’s a chapter in my book on drive, and that’s something that you don’t see in a lot of books, but looking back, I tried to connect the dots for myself. At age 65, I said, “How did I get to where I am? What did I do differently?”
We had our 50th high school reunion. And you go back to your 50th high school reunion and you see a lot of your old friends and most of them didn’t do very well. You wonder, “Well, why did I do well? What did I do differently?”
Borrowing Steve Jobs’ “connecting the dots” phrase, I looked back and tried to connect the dots. What did I do that helped me along my road to achieve success and a good life? So, I put together this book based on 10 principles, and it starts with personal character.
Bluey: And thank you for writing it. It is incredibly valuable. You’ve had so many high-profile endorsements of the book that, obviously, it’s had a positive effect on so many individuals. As somebody who loves these types of books myself, I highly recommend it.
Before we get into to some of the details and the different chapters and the content of the book, what was it that inspired you to tell this story and to provide this advice, particularly, I think, to young people who are maybe struggling right now in our culture with so much doom and gloom out there to have a path forward for their future?
Lewis: Thanks for asking that, because we also gave a lot of scholarships back when we first started our foundation. My wife and I would interview these kids for an hour, one on one. We started to see the change there in how the millennials, or during the 2010s, I’d say, we saw a change where kids were beginning to show this anxiety.
Then through my involvement with the University of Kentucky, they would tell me that a third to a half of the kids in college were taking anxiety medication. I thought, “Wow, that is sad. What are they anxious about?”
Well, they’re anxious about what they’re going to do, about who they are, about what their talents are. I mean, what they’re going to do with their life. It’s not obvious right now with the way the world has changed. I’m not sure what I would do if I was 19 right now.
This book is really written to try to calm their nerves and hopefully reduce or eliminate their anxiety by understanding a real model that’s based on truth and experience. It’s not all the nonsense that they’re hearing in pop culture.
No. 1, I thought I had a message to give, and I guess the biggest reason was that there were so many bad messages that just bothered me a lot, like, “follow your passion,” “do what you love,” “live your dream.”
I heard these kids say that, and I say, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” “I’m going to move to California.” That would be their career plan. But so this idea of just focusing on yourself and on your happiness. And I’d say, “How important is career success to you?” They’d say, “Well, it’s not so important that I would give up my happiness.”
So they thought success and happiness was a choice and that success meant money and you had to work and then you lose your happiness. Well, that’s not true. You can be happy and successful or sad and broke, but it’s not one or the other.
I tried to give this, what I call wisdom, to people that was really based on truth and experience and to try to give them a path forward that they could count on.
Bluey: Well, I’m glad you mentioned some of those items there, because my next question focuses on what you call the popular myths about building a successful life. I want to go through a few of those with you right now, because that’s my favorite part of the book.
I really appreciate the time that you spend talking about these, and let’s begin with the first one, which is, “Successful people are just lucky.” What do you have to say about that myth?
Lewis: There’s a few people that win the lottery, and they’re lucky. But other than that, if you ever talk to a person that is successful in business, in sports, in radio, in philanthropy, they will tell you how hard it was and how much harder they had to work. I think successful people just put in more time, they put in—it takes more hours.
If you do a good job, it takes 40 hours a week. If you do a great job, it takes 60 to 80 hours a week. The successful people are putting in the 60- and 80-hour weeks, and nobody’s seeing it. Even Michael Jordan put in overtime when it came to developing his skills.
You start with your natural talent and successful people are—there is some good fortune there. I mean, Malcolm Gladwell talked about good fortune, but it’s a lot more than good fortune.
Another reason I wrote the book is that in the world of success books, which I, like you, Rob, have been a fan of, and I’ve read most of them—Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey. Dale Carnegie had 12 rules. Stephen Covey had seven habits. Then came Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” and he had three things—10,000 hours, good fortune, and talent, I think, and then came grit. That’s the one that really bugged me because now success has been boiled down to one trait. You just need grit, and that’s it.
Well, that book was published in 2016, and that’s when I started writing “Solid Ground.” I went back to 10 things, personal character, hard work, goal-setting, self-awareness, helping other people. I think that’s a big part of success, and so I tried to make it not so simple anymore.
Bluey: Tom, thank you for sharing that. I’m not going to go through all of the myths, but another one I did want you to cover was, “You have to choose between success and happiness.”
Lewis: Yeah. I mentioned that earlier, because I would ask students, “How important is career success?” And that was a trick question. I wanted to see what they had to say. Initially, I’d say back around 2000, they would say, “It’s everything. I’ve got to be successful. My family is depending on me.” But then it started to become, “Well, it’s not. It’s kind of important … ,” they would all say this, “but it’s not so important that I would give up my happiness.”
They’re saying that they thought there was a conflict between hard work and success and the happiness, and if you worked hard and were successful, you had to sacrifice your happiness. Well, that’s not true.
Dennis Prager wrote a book 20 years ago called “Happiness Is a Serious Problem,” and that’s a great book, but it talks—happiness is so important, but there’s so many myths about it that just aren’t true.
If you go to Africa, those people are the happiest people on the planet and they have nothing, so success and happiness are unrelated. They’re two different things. You can have one or both or neither. But these kids thought, “Well, I can either be successful or I can be happy. I’m going to choose,” and they’re being told to choose happy.
Bluey: Tom, why is that though? Because I believe you’ve identified particularly the millennial generation and maybe every generation that’s followed millennials as having this different outlook that maybe previous generations didn’t. Is it the parents? Is it the schools? Is it something else in our culture that is directing them toward this happiness?
Lewis: I have to say that, I guess the baby boomers, which I’m a member of, I think we went after success and wealth. Then we kind of spoiled our kids, I think, in general, and then they grew up spoiled and then they’re spoiling their kids. Then you got the school infiltration, and then you have tech and all the nonsense that you get out of that.
Really, you feel sorry for kids that are getting drawn into the social media thing, because it’s such a negative influence on them because you see all these perfect people out there, and then you start thinking, “Well, I’m not perfect.” Then you start feeling like you’re not good enough. And so many kids feel that. That they’re not pretty enough. They’re not thin enough. They’re not perfect enough, and their ears are too big or whatever.
They’re getting all that nonsense just on their phones, and they’re spending way too much time on their phones instead of face-to-face talking. I think there’s a lot of trends there, but I think they’ve come together and created a generation that is really lost.
Bluey: That’s why I think it’s so important for people to take to heart what you’re writing about here. Passion is another topic that you cover in the book. You are very humble, and when you are talking about the number of hours that somebody has to work, I mean, you, yourself, … I believe from what our previous conversations and other interviews I’ve listened to, you were regularly putting in 80 hours a week in your job to be successful. Why is it that talent and hard work and persistence are the key to success?
Lewis: There’s some magical things that happen. The first one I’ll say is personal character. There’s a quote in there that says, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters, and if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” So, if you build a reputation for integrity through just doing the right thing, that reputation follows you around.
In the book, I talk about all these opportunities that came to me because of people I’d known in the past that knew me, that liked me, that respected me, and that then offered me opportunities. Had I not impressed them or made friends with them, opportunities wouldn’t have come my way. But I built a large bank of friends and advocates, if you will.
Then the hard work, what people think about hard work is they go, “Oh, that’s hard.” But what happens when you work hard is you build your resilience. First of all, because you tackle, I say, doing hard things, you create resistance and it’s not easy. Then you keep pushing through that, and by the time you push through it, you’ve built your resilience. You’re not afraid of hard work anymore. But that’s resilience, and that’s what’s really missing a lot in this generation.
Then with the resilience and the hard work comes the self-esteem, that you’re prouder of yourself, you feel better about yourself. And it’s the same way with helping other people. When you help other people, you feel good. If you help an old lady across the street, she thanks you, but you feel better than she does because you just did something good, and you know it was good. You know what was right.
So, doing these kinds of things helps build your self-esteem, and hard work builds your resilience and your self-esteem. Those are two things that are missing in this generation and as a generality. Part of it is because they’re being discouraged to work. They’re saying, “I don’t want to work that hard. I’ll lose my happiness.”
Bluey: That’s so true, and I think it has serious implications for what the future of this country is going to look like, particularly when they are in a position of leadership. How then do they advise the people who are working for them, or what does it mean for the future of entrepreneurship in our country? So, a whole number of potential challenges there.
Tom, you illustrate your advice in a pyramid form in the book. I want to talk about those three levels of the pyramid, what goes into each one and how to build on the others. The first level of the pyramid is the foundation of success, so goal-setting, personal character, self-awareness, hard work, helping others. Let’s start there before we get to the second.
Lewis: As a homebuilder, I know that the foundation is so important, and if you have a bad foundation, you cannot have a good house. I mean, a bad foundation is permanent, and it ruins a house and it can ruin a life. A serious breach of character can ruin your life. So, you have to worry first about your foundation, and your foundation will keep you secure through hardships.
You have to have that solid foundation, and your family is part of that foundation, which I didn’t really talk about, but it’s really what holds you together. But these traits are foundational, the personal character, their discipline, really.
Then the second tier is really what I call reaching your potential, and you see a lot of really talented people. I told a story in the book about a guy I knew that went to Harvard and was a White House fellow and all these honors and high IQ and all that. But he burned out in his 30s or 40s because he just … didn’t take risk.
When I go into the reaching your potential, you have to take risk. You have to make good decisions. Nobody talks about how important good decisions are in your life. Good decisions are really more important than talent. If you have talent and high IQ and all that, but you make bad decisions, your life is not going to go that well.
So taking risk. A lot of people are afraid of risk. That’s another thing that young adults or millennials are being told, to be safe out there. I went through a fast-food place a few months ago and these kids in the window, instead of saying, “Thank you,” they say, “Be safe out there.” I mean, so what do I have to worry about?
So, there’s this fear of taking risk, but risk is necessary for reward. Entrepreneurs, successful people take risk.
Then the other traits in that category are what? I can’t—
Bluey: Talent, decision-making, risk-taking, drive, and execution.
Lewis: Talent is a big one. What I say is, forget your passion, find your talent, because passion, I think, if you have children, comes at the end. When I started my homebuilding company, I wasn’t passionate about building houses, but 25 years later I was. The day our children were born, I didn’t know them, but 20 years later I had suffered so much.
Passion comes from the word pathos, which means suffering, and like the passion of Christ. Once you suffer through something, you then have passion for it. The passion doesn’t come at the beginning, it comes at the end. Hard work comes at the beginning.
Bluey: That’s right. And then the top of the pyramid, life’s greatest achievement, success, purpose, meaning, wisdom, and happiness.
Lewis: I’ve always enjoyed those subjects, and I’ve learned a lot from Dennis Prager on some of those subjects. But purpose, it’s funny, a lot of high school kids are being told, or college kids, to find their purpose. Well, I don’t think you can find your purpose when you’re in college.
I found my purpose when I was in my ’60s. It never really hit me that, but I ask, and I’m a spiritual fellow, but why did God give me the skills he gave me? Why did he put me through the experiences that I’ve been put through, the good and the bad? What was he preparing me for? That’s my purpose.
It’s really not my purpose at all. It’s his purpose for me. That’s how I feel about it.
So, you can’t find your purpose when you’re 22. I think you have to live it out and it comes at the end. So, when you’re 22 and you’re in college, don’t worry about your purpose, find your talent. I mean, find out, work on that, find out what you’re naturally good at with little or no effort and work on getting better, because that’s your gift. …
It takes some of us longer than others, and some people never find their talent. They might be in the wrong job. One of the parts of reaching your potential is changing jobs to make sure you don’t get stuck in a job that doesn’t really use your best talent. And we all have talents, they’re just different.
Bluey: I encourage—and so many things that I want to follow up on there, but just a couple of points. No. 1, the importance of taking risks. And entrepreneurs, obviously, not everyone’s built to be one, but it’s so critically important to be in a position where individuals do take those risks. When they sometimes feel challenging and outside of your comfort zone, it’s still something that I would personally encourage people to take a look at.
The second thing you said, you talked about making decisions. You also have a section of the book where you talk about some of the steps and questions you should ask yourself when it comes to making important decisions, particularly about life, not just day-to-day decisions so much.
Walk us through some of those aspects. I think particularly for maybe our younger listeners who are struggling with maybe the direction that they want to go in their life, what are some of the things that they should be thinking about?
Lewis: One of the harder decisions to make is changing jobs. And that is very hard, I acknowledge that. And I’ve done it five times. But so, you’re in a job. You’ve been there three years. You’re 28 years old. I like to say, Year One, you love your job. Year Two, you like your job. Year Three, you’re starting to see some things you don’t like.
Let’s say you think it’s time to move, but you’re afraid your boss is going to find out you’re looking for a job and will fire you. You sneak around and then you just postpone it and postpone it, and then now, next thing you know, you’ve been there 10 years, and you’re 36 years old and the clock’s ticking. You can move when you’re in your 20s and even in your 40s, I think, but once you get into your 40s, you need to be in the right industry. Really, you need to have found your talent and be using it.
That’s a tough decision. I understand that. But there’s a way to go through that. And you can’t make a decision until you have options. You can’t sit there and say, “Well, I’m having trouble making a decision about a new job.” Well, what are your options? You can quit now and just go find one. That’s option A. You can call a friend or call somebody or start doing—there’s alternatives you can start doing right now.
But making those decisions are, those are tough decisions, but that’s the kind of decision—and they’re also risky. They’re risky, but right there, it needs to happen if you’re really going to develop and manage your career.
I talk about the difference between jobs and careers, a job is anything. It could be anybody doing anything. That’s a job. A career is a series of jobs that build value in the individual and turn into something meaningful and valuable. That’s what you want to create.
But I think the important thing is choosing the right industry, because bouncing from one industry to another, you start over because there’s a lot of industry knowledge that you need to learn.
I got on the right target, I think, when I picked the real estate industry right out of grad school. I stayed in that industry, although I did a lot of different things in that industry with different companies.
Bluey: You sometimes encounter challenges along the way and failures along the way. There are things that I think we’re so afraid sometimes to confront those failures or don’t want to take the risk because of the chance that we might not succeed that it paralyzes us. I appreciate you giving our listeners that encouragement.
By the way, Tom, I neglected to do so earlier, but I really encourage people to go to solidgroundbook.com, where they can order a copy and find some other great information on the website there.
A couple other questions that I have for you. You mentioned family earlier. I think that’s one of the things that, as a father myself with three young kids, it’s a struggle, balancing a busy work life—particularly in the communications field where it’s a 24/7 operation, there’s news always happening—and finding that time to devote to your family. What’s your advice on that and how did you manage it in your own situation?
Lewis: I rarely missed a dinner at home. Family dinners were very important to us, and I was always there for dinner. I usually worked late. I started early, I might work till 6 o’clock or something, but I was always there for dinner. I had a great wife, I have a great wife, and she took care of the home and the kids during the day.
Also, got very involved with my kids in their sporting activities and in their school and all that. So I was engaged with them, coaching them in Little League sports until they’re about 12 or 13, and that was a lot of good memories. Then taking family trips. I think making memories with your family. My mother used to talk about when she was a kid back in 1928, I think, her father took the family to the Chicago World Fair, and she never forgot that. That made an impression on me.
You need to make memories with your family. Take trips, do things with them. I think trips is a big thing because kids remember that. We did a lot of family trips. We did, I think, 25 years in a row, we did family vacations every summer. It was just automatic. And we’d plan where to go and we’d go somewhere for a week. So those kinds of things, but you have to stay engaged. But when they turn 13, Rob, it gets harder.
Bluey: I know.
Lewis: Because their friends become No. 1 and their parents become last.
Bluey: That’s right. Well, in my case, I think that’s great advice. I try to spend every weekend, pick a day to take the two older boys golfing. Since the pandemic, they haven’t done baseball. I was passionate about baseball, thought I was going to be a professional baseball player when I was probably 10 years old and realized that was—
Lewis: Oh, really?
Bluey: … I should not follow my passion. I should follow maybe what I can work hard at and succeed at. But no, I think that time that you spend with your kids is so important, I think particularly because we have come out of the pandemic in a situation where parents are obviously looking at having more control over their kids’ education and just more say in the various things and some of that means pulling them out of public schools and putting them in home schools or whatever that situation might be for that person.
Lewis: I have a comment there on raising children. I think there’s really two ways to raise children. There’s two schools of thought. One is to make them happy, and the other one is to make them strong. I really think that too many families try to make their kids happy. They try to please them, “What would you like for dinner, dear?” Then just giving them everything to try to make them happy. And that really spoils them and makes them unhappy.
I think what kids really want is discipline. They want to know their boundaries, and it should be king dad, queen mom. If anything, kids should make their parents happy, but you need to make your kids strong. The way you make them strong, and I think we did this with our boys, is we made them work at age-appropriate things. We made them earn what they get.
One time, one of our sons asked me if he could get a new bike, and I said, “Well, you just got a bike for Christmas six months ago.” He goes, “Yeah, but I’m tired of it.” I said, “I’ll pay half, you pay half.” He goes, “Nevermind. I didn’t want it that much.”
Bluey: Amazing when you get that kind of response.
Lewis: But you can make your kids work. Make them earn what they get, and then that’s a life lesson that helps make them strong because you want your kids to be strong so they can handle things. The problem with our generation right now, or a lot of them, is that they’re not strong. They’re weak and they’ve been spoiled. They’ve never built that resilience. They’ve never been forced to work.
Bluey: I think you’re spot-on with that analysis. Tom, one final question for you. You have a list of recommended books and inspiring quotes at the end of “Solid Ground.” How did you compile these and why was it important to include them?
Lewis: I just thought, I’d been influenced by all those books—and the Bible was No. 1. Dale Carnegie’s book, I read that. “As a Man Thinketh” by James Lane Allen, that was the first success book I ever read. It was about 20 pages long, “As a Man Thinketh.”
And everything starts in the mind. Those books really influenced me as I was growing up. Then Stephen Covey’s and the whole list of books in there. I just I’ve read a lot of those books, and I just wanted to put a list of books.
“Happiness Is a Serious Problem,” I read that book and became happier, just because I understood that I was making myself unhappy with silly little things, like looking for what’s wrong versus what’s right. So, you get a lot smarter when you read books and—
Bluey: You certainly do. I strongly encourage—I know that’s a challenge in our busy world, but it’s so important to find the time to do that.
Lewis: Then the quotes, I try to make the book inspirational, and the quotes are all that. I mean, there’s just, there’s something about a quote that just has a ring to it, and you’ll remember the ones that really resonate with you. I think there’s 200 quotes in the book, and they’re all inspirational.
Bluey: They are. They’re great. Well, and Tom, you are inspirational, so thank you for writing the book. We’ll be sure to include a link to it in the transcript and the show notes for this podcast. We appreciate you telling us your story and sharing the advice with us. I think that this is, for those parents out there who are looking for a way to not only become better parents, but maybe motivate their kids to succeed in life, this is an outstanding read. Thank you, Tom.
Lewis: Thank you, Rob.
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