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Blog / From Smoldering Discontent to Making a Difference: An Interview with Dean Niewolny

From Smoldering Discontent to Making a Difference: An Interview with Dean Niewolny

Dean NiewolnyWhat does it take to feel good—and do good—in work? More money? Money falls short, says Dean Niewolny, whose finance career, four houses, boat, plane, and astronomical paycheck still left him restless. Call it smoldering discontent. Like most achievers, Dean found himself craving work that matters.

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Bible Gateway interviewed Dean Niewolny (@DNiewolny) about his book, Trade Up: How to Move from Just Making Money to Making a Difference (Baker Books, 2017).

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What’s the meaning behind the title “Trade Up”?

Dean Niewolny: The business term trade up means to lose the status quo to gain something superior. In this case, it’s a call to upgrade from business as usual to living with clear calling, meaning and purpose in all you do. A person can go from success to significance, from just making money to making a difference, and that’s some trade.

How is Trade Up different from the book Halftime by Bob Buford?

Dean Niewolny: Halftime was Bob Buford’s first-person story about his path from making a lot of money to using his work skills to refocus on kingdom impact. Believe me, that doesn’t just happen. He was his own guinea pig as he tried this and that, using his business disciplines to better know himself and to pursue God. The trail Bob blazed for himself and what he learned in the process evolved into the Halftime Institute, and 20 years later, Trade Up is the seasoned insight of not one but many Halftimers, and the best practices as the Institute took shape. Most important, Trade Up is a highly desirable how-to: it’s Halftime from the inside out.

What was the “smoldering discontent” you experienced in your life and what did you do about it?

Dean Niewolny: My years of “smoldering discontent”—living with dissonance between my daily situation and a sense that God was calling me to something else—led to what I now call my “40th-floor moment.” That was the day I glared out of the office I’d worked decades to get to and said out loud, “There has got to be more than this!” No matter how much I achieved at work, I couldn’t shake that feeling. Now every time I speak to groups and use that term—smoldering discontent—heads nod. Too many people know what it means to get up in the morning, get dressed, and leave for a day of meetings, busyness, deadlines, phone calls, emails . . . and no meaning. That’s the start of smoldering discontent.

Walking home one night in Chicago, you were held up at gunpoint. What happened and how did that affect your long-range thinking?

Dean Niewolny: A buddy and I were strolling home after a night on Rush Street, just a couple of guys walking in creased slacks and blazers. I looked over and saw a commotion across the street. Then a guy is on the sidewalk; another guy is running toward my buddy and I, and he has a gun. The next thing I know, the gun’s at my temple and he’s demanding our money. That night on Rush Street, I handed over several credit cards and gained two big impressions about life. The first was that my body mass index, of utmost importance to me until then, could not prepare me for death. The second regarded control, which I certainly had none of that night. For years, my world had turned on workouts and my control-everything work ethic. And now, with a gun barrel pressed against my temple, neither one could save me. Did all this affect my long-range thinking? You bet it did. It left me with the short- and long-range question, “What does matter?” I realized that I had been focused on me, and not on God and on others.

In Trade Up, you focus on the question “Is there not a cause?” Please explain.

Dean Niewolny: I once wrote a blog with that title and it drew the most response I’ve ever gotten. We humans crave work that matters. We crave more than the standard trophies: house, portfolio, right schools, right vacations. We long for a cause; to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Something that says, “more than here, more than now.” When I speak to groups about having a cause, I ask what I call the Three Disruptive Questions, which can jumpstart the cause thinking:

  1. What is all your gaining costing you? (In my case, the big income and multiple homes were costing me my health—I had hives—and my core relationships, because I was seeing too little of my family.)
  2. What in your life is priceless, and what are you doing to protect it? (Do I give priority to my priorities—usually people—or do I respond to the immediate and hope for the best?)
  3. If you were to reorder your life to finish well, what measurable evidence would confirm this was the right track? (In my case, the “measurable” evidence would start in the happiness, confidence, and purpose of my wife and kids; it also would show in my own health because right values go a long way toward joyful work, real rest, and all their benefits.)

What role did the Bible play in changing your life and career perspective?

Dean Niewolny: The Bible is my bottomless resource, my endless exploration. At varied times, it is both mystery and answer, but always a light. Not long after I gave my life to Jesus, I attended a daylong workshop on prayer and meditation. About 12 men were given a Bible and a full day for reflection. When I opened to Ecclesiastes, it was like reading a hybrid of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and The Economist. Talk about between the eyes! Solomon was a man who had everything, he was at the pinnacle of life, and yet he regarded it all as “Meaningless, meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” This spoke so profoundly to me in a place of smoldering discontent despite my success. Since then I’ve never wondered about the Bible’s ability to speak from thousands of years ago into events this week. I also lost any skepticism about the importance of solitude with God.

For people who’ve been hurt by misuse of the Bible, I say to get into a Bible study or ask someone to spend time with you and the Bible one-on-one. Don’t give up and miss the riches. Don’t miss the love. And don’t feel as if you have to “get” something every time. In the words of Eugene Peterson, it’s “a long obedience in the same direction” that brings wisdom, and life, and maturity.

How does a person who doesn’t make a seven-figure income benefit from your book?

Dean Niewolny: No seven-figure income is necessary to be mentally fixed on money and personal success. You don’t have to be handsomely paid to overwork and miss life. You don’t have to be rich to crave purpose; and everyone can benefit from identifying their strengths and gifts and passions. Everyone can benefit from a “personal board of directors” or from narrowing your efforts and multiplying your impact with a personal mission statement. You don’t have to draw a rock-star paycheck to ingeniously use your work to help others. Trade Up opens the conversation about how to move from just making money to making a difference. No minimum income required.

Unpack your chapter on beginning with the end in mind.

Dean Niewolny: That phrase may seem obvious—I think I first heard it from Jim Collins—but it makes every difference, and no one can afford to miss the reminder.

With that in mind, Trade Up asks the reader to imagine his or her 80th birthday. You walk into a restaurant and see 200 or so of the people in your life: family, associates, neighbors, others. After dinner, these people line up at a microphone and, one by one, they tell you what your life has meant.

At that 80th birthday toast, what would you hope to hear? Granted, at first you may eat more crow than cake, but this mental exercise is high-value. If you can do the work to articulate your end, then you can better direct the moments between now and getting to it. What impact would you have had on those you care about most? What impact would you have had on the kingdom? We must keep the end in mind.

What is solitude with God and why is it important?

Dean Niewolny: In my often-halting walk with God, one sure step has been the times I’ve done nothing. I lob out that word, nothing, for effect, obviously, because to the untrained eye or to the overworked exec, solitude looks a whole lot like wasting time. To doers, it can feel like a sentencing. Yet for this recovering doer, it’s been the secret to knowing and hearing from God. As it happens, Jesus set the example.

For all the other ways to seek God—fellowship, church, worship, study—in my walk with God, the game changer has been stillness. Solitude. But as rewarding as it is, as profoundly as it affects my understanding and love, it remains a discipline. And like every discipline, to neglect it “just this once,” can slide into missing it indefinitely.

It’s never gotten easy, by the way. And it’s never failed to reward me at the time or sometime later. And of course, the Bible says to come near to God and he will come near to you. My point is to tell my fellow doers that in intimacy with God, as with others, listening is paramount.

What do you say to people who don’t know what their passion is?

Dean Niewolny: With no hesitation, I say, “What makes you mad, sad, glad—or indifferent?” We get so deep in daily work we lose sight of ourselves, and it’s astonishing how hard those questions can be. Read USA TODAY for a week, we say, with that multi-part question. One of my favorite stories is the guy who came back from a week with the paper and said, “It’s no use. Every time I pick it up I go straight to the sports section.” Boom. The guy who loved sports ended up creating an inner-city youth sports program. Another Halftimer said, “I have no passion,” but in that conversation, he regretted aloud that he had an easy path to a good college and so many kids don’t. Bingo. He opened a program to help underprivileged kids get into good schools. It’s not always that one-two-three, but you’d be surprised how far that question can take you.

Trade Up urges readers to form a personal “board of directors.” How do you get one? What can it do?

Dean Niewolny: When you can’t look at yourself—and no one can—you must see yourself in the eyes and minds of wise people who know you. So in the way public companies have an independent panel to ensure they act in their shareholders’ best interest, our clients at the Halftime Institute build a board, official or un-, to help them act in their own best interests—and to stay on mission.

The idea comes with a good pedigree. King Arthur had his roundtable. Franklin Roosevelt had a kitchen cabinet. It’s why brain trusts and think tanks exist. Proverbs 15:22 says “plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many counselors they succeed.”

The chapter on this in Trade Up says much more, and better, but basically:

  1. Make your first and second directors your spouse and your coach (if you have one).
  2. Never mind age—get people who are spiritually mature, able to know you at your worst and believe the best, who know your field, can give good counsel, and are committed to your wellbeing.
  3. List your candidates and pray about them.
  4. Approach them openly with the idea. Don’t expect 100 percent participation.
  5. Set up an initial conversation and make it fun. (It can be one-on-one or at a barbeque.)
  6. Set meeting parameters—when, where, how often.

What’s a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Dean Niewolny: You’re rolling the ball to me. Ephesians 2:10 frames my work and my life. For the Halftime Institute, it’s the North Star: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” It’s worth getting clear on our strengths and gifts so that we can do those good works with our very best selves.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Dean Niewolny: Another easy question because no one can work for money alone any more than we can live by bread alone. We need the people and stories and truths in Scripture by which we see and know God—and therefore ourselves. Few people I know keep a Bible in-hand at all times, but few people go even to the bathroom without a cell phone. And that’s a big part of my love for Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App. Especially on a drive, you can just turn it on and listen.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dean Niewolny: Just thank you. And for anyone who’s interested, 20 years of changed lives from the Halftime Institute and a whole lot of lessons you don’t have to learn the hard way make up this little how-to called Trade Up. If you’d like to know what Halftimers know, from the inside out, visit or

Bio: Dean Niewolny, author of Trade Up: How to Move from Just Making Money to Making a Difference, spent more than 20 years in executive roles with three of Wall Street’s largest financial firms, finishing his career in the financial sector as market manager for Wells Fargo Advisors in Chicago, where he oversaw a $100 million market. In 2010, Dean traded his marketplace career for The Halftime Institute to help more people who, like him, wanted to expand their own “first half” success and skills into passion and purpose for meeting human needs and making a significant difference. Dean joined The Halftime Institute as managing director and, in 2011, became the CEO. He speaks at events around the world, encouraging business leaders to channel first-half achievement into a second half defined by joy, impact, and balance. He and his wife, Lisa, have two children and live in Texas.

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Filed under Books, Discipleship, Interviews, Leadership