Holladay Speaks on Finding Authentic Meaning in Life

J. Douglas Holladay once called William B. Harrison, then CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and asked him to host his friend from Ethiopia — and he didn’t really give him much choice in the matter.

Holladay told Harrison what time Abraham Fiseha would arrive at the airport, then he hung up — forcing Harrison into a situation he was completely unprepared for.

But the spontaneity was all part of Holladay’s plan.

Later that week Harrison sent his limousine to the airport to pick up Feseeha, an Ethiopian native who didn’t wear shoes until age 12, and brought him to his mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut. What began as incredibly awkward small talk turned into thoughtful sharing, and is now remembered as an amazing weekend for Harrison and his family. The bonding experience sparked a new passion within Harrison, who proceeded to take his family on service trips to Ethiopia that changed his daughters’ lives.

Holladay is a co-founder of PathNorth, a not-for-profit organization that aims to push CEOs and business owners out of their comfort zones and to define success more broadly. At 2 p.m. July 4 in the Hall of Philosophy, Holladay will give a lecture titled “The Unintended Consequences of Money and Power, and the Corrosive Effects on the Soul,” to kick off this week’s Interfaith Lecture series “Money and Power Through a Spiritual and Ethical Lens.”

Holladay’s lecture will detail some of his suggestions on how to lead a more authentically fulfilling everyday life.

“In a quest for power, money, recognition — these are all part of your identity. You’re trying to figure out really who you are, and sadly the unintended consequences of that pursuit can leave you disconnected, alienated and further from your goal,” Holladay said. “My goal in this talk would be to say there are some things you can do to create a different narrative for your life.”

Holladay’s own life has been atypical. Born in Washington, D.C., Holladay grew up in a house six blocks from the White House in a family that was passionate about politics and discussing new ideas. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, always with the intention of using global knowledge to make the world a better place.

But after college, Holladay spent a year living and working in Ethiopia, and it was that experience that really changed him, he said. He did various types of work there, including teaching skills education programs for homeless children. Holladay now always aims to integrate that desire to help others into every aspect of his life.

“I believe you can’t talk theoretical about this stuff — you have to see it, smell it, feel it, and so that’s just an example of what shaped me,” Holladay said. “What I try to do is bring all these experiences. I don’t compartmentalize.”

Throughout his life, Holladay went on to hold senior positions in both the White House and the U.S. Department of State. He was appointed as special ambassador by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 to help the U.S. handle public relations after Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Holladay also worked in the financial sector as a senior officer at the international investment banking firm Goldman Sachs Group, and later co-founded private equity firm Park Avenue Equity Partners. But while working in corporate America, Holladay continued his attempt to integrate his life by founding One to One Mentoring Partnership, a program that prompts members of the New York financial community to imagine solutions to America’s urban youth challenges.

Holladay received a master’s degree in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary as well as a master’s degree in Philosophy from Oxford University, and currently teaches business courses at Georgetown University. When he’s not teaching, Holladay is focused on not-for-profit efforts: ABC² (Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure) works to find a cure for brain cancer; PlayPumps works to solve clean water problems in Africa; the Buxton Initiative sponsors interfaith dialogues; and PathNorth helps business executives look at their lives with new perspective.

“PathNorth is about ideas, it’s about relationships, it’s about putting yourself in uncomfortable situations so you can learn,” Holladay said. “It’s about redefining success. What is real success? How do you define it for yourself?”

Holladay said his work at PathNorth is especially rewarding because he gets to put his constant influx of creative ideas into action. Every year he takes 50 CEOs on a silent retreat to a trappist monastery where they are not allowed to speak for three days. In the past he took corporate executives to a restaurant owned and run by blind people, forcing business leaders who thrive on high levels of control to become completely reliant on a blind waiter for two hours.

Holladay said those experiences spark an honest conversation between executives discussing what they learned about themselves, and he is always experimenting with new ideas.

“Men [especially] have lots they’re thinking about, but they don’t know how to discuss things,” Holladay said. “So I tried to create PathNorth to create a safe table where we can talk about what truly matters in life. I’m constantly trying to put the members of PathNorth in situations that challenge them.”

Holladay himself spends every day attempting to find more meaning in his own life, regardless of where that goal takes him. If he ever follows a plan, it is constantly changing along the way.

“Nothing makes sense in my life,” Holladay said. “I wish I could tell you it’s a straight line, but it’s more that I feel like I’ve been on a journey, and the journey is one of trying to be a better version of myself and be grounded spiritually, that’s at least my goal. So everything I do, I’m doing it to become a deeper, better person.”

Madison Rossi

The author Madison Rossi

Hailing from Chicago, Madison Rossi is the 2016 Interfaith Lecture preview reporter. She is a class of 2018 journalism major at Northwestern University with minors in marketing and religious studies.