Recently I was reflecting on my career, life and what on a “long strange trip it’s been”. I came to the realization that everything that I have learned, worth learning was a result of some mistake I made or loss I suffered. I can literally mark the epiphanies that I have had to my periodic self-immolations.
My first real life lesson came when I was about 18 or 19 and I was working in the construction industry for my “quasi-uncle” Pork (not his real name). I was made a salesman/estimator/supervisor after it was determined I was not to be entrusted with power tools. I was given a pad and a pen instead.
I was assigned a fire restoration job with smoke damage and some other small renovations. I wrote the estimate, priced the job, hired the sub-contractors, and ran the job. (And ran the job… and ran the job…and ran the job). I was great at getting started but lousy at completion, I guess I lost my attention along the way.
One day Pork pulled me into his office and proceeded to question me in detail about the status of the job. The more I explained what was going, the more his face took on the look of the cartoon character “Droopy”. His eyes began to sag further and further, his ever present cigar began to dangle precariously from his lower lip.
Pork recovered his composure and promptly berated me calling into question my credibility what I remember goes something like this, “That is the biggest load of bullshit excuses I have ever heard in my life, now get the hell out of my office and finish that job…you have zero…and I mean ZERO credibility!”
I wanted to jump over his desk and strangle him. The more I thought about it the more I realized he was absolutely right. The job is either done or it’s not, there are always delays but it all comes back down to doing what you say you’re going to do. You are either credible or you’re not!
This used to be a really tough one. I have discovered that the older I get the dumber I was. I can recall sitting on my 30th birthday and looking back and thinking what a dumb ass when I was 20. I have had similar revelations on my 40th birthday, 50th birthday, now I just look forward to getting smarter.
The Pennsylvania Dutch have an old expression “Too soon old…to late schmart” it’s funny but it’s the absolute truth. I remember being in my 20’s and being certain that I knew everything that I needed to know…I was mistaken.
Years later I was working in a clothing factory and because I was articulate (and nobody else wanted it) I got elected as union shop steward. I was elected to represent the ACTWU Local 399A (not to be confused with the ACTWU Local 399b) in wage and benefit negotiations. To set the stage properly I have to describe the cast of characters.
The lead role in this lesson is played by a guy named Stanley. Stanley is a New York attorney, raised in Brooklyn, went to NYU and was one of the toughest negotiators I have ever. The factory was owned by three generations of one family and was founded by the grandfather and his mother in the early 1900’s.
The father looked and sounded like Mr. Burns on the Simpsons television show. He used the factory workers to perform menial tasks around his home like washing and waxing his car mowing his lawn. The grandson had regularly scheduled mental breakdowns due to the stress of running the company.
Competition in the textile industry was fierce, imports were flooding the market and many companies closed. The company had survived a depression and two world wars and they were determined to survive this new threat. Even if it meant the workers had to pay for it!
I got locked in a room with Stanley for 8 hours a day for the next week. Stanley browbeats me with company demands, no over time, no sick leave, no paid vacations, no nothing. I do the best I can, and go back to report to the rank and file…(what an appropriate name)! After a week of getting brutalized I walk out with an agreement that is acceptable to the proletariat.
Stanley and I shake hands (I suppress my homicidal urges) and Stanley says “you didn’t do bad in there kid…lets go get a beer and I’ll tell you what you did wrong” The last thing on earth I wanted to do was enjoy an adult beverage with Stanley. I arrive to find that the guy who had been beating me senseless for two weeks had been replaced. The gentleman I was meeting with was soft spoken, gracious, and urbane.
Stanley told me about all the mistakes that I had made during the negotiations. I took the process personally; I didn’t know about the needs or desires of the owners. But by far the worst part was thinking I knew more that I did. Stanley told me that if I practiced, and learned about negotiating he felt that I could be a good negotiator. I had suffered from the Greek sin of Hubris!
Dealing with adversity
Life’s not fair! As sales manager for a commercial real estate firm I had an associate who would come into my office when something went wrong. I could tell by his expression what was coming next…”Life’s not fair”
He said it so often that before he would walk into my office I would hold up my hand and say…”I know…it’s not fair” in the whiniest voice I could muster.
There are thousands of platitudes about when the going gets tough…hard times don’t last…blah, blah, blah. Here’s the reality, life is going to absolutely, positively kick your ass! Guess what it kicks everybody else’s ass too! While your good and banged up take stock of what you have got…what you have learned, and what you’re going to do about it.
I had just gotten married (for the second time, that’s an entire story unto itself) and was in the process of losing my construction company through a series of bad decisions and having a reach that exceeded my grasp.
All of my friends from the gym had gone out of town to a big powerlifting meet. I had to stay behind to try and salvage what I could of my company. I decided that it wouldn’t be fair for my new bride to miss the event so I asked one of my gym buddies to escort her to the event.
About two a.m. Saturday morning my phone is ringing off the hook so I finally answer the call. A woman begins screaming at me that my wife is sleeping with her husband, how I could let this happen and that somehow I’m responsible. I explained that it was impossible seeing as we had just gotten married a month ago and we were in love.
I call my wife’s hotel room and there is no answer. I get frantic, I try my friend who escorted her he does answer his phone but is incoherent and hangs up.
Sunday my new bride returns and she proceeds to tell me that she is having an affair because the pressure and stress of my job made her. She asks me to move out so that she can contemplate relationship.
I ask my closest friend if he would help me move my things out of our house and into a small apartment. I explain the situation to him empathizes and promptly moves into my house with my wife!
In three weeks I lost my house, my wife, and my company. I was depressed to say the least, I didn’t think I would recover and ever have a company, career, or love life.
I found a job, started training at a different gym. I changed my circle of friends and moved to a different town. A funny thing happened, I was so busy working and working out that the “agony of defeat” soon faded. Since then I have bought and sold real estate, started companies, fell in love, gotten married, raised a daughter…in short recovered.
I learned that adversity sucks…it happens to all of us…and like the old expression go’s “this too shall soon pass”. So, when “life isn’t fair” I look at what I need to learn then get off my ass and go do something! I learned that no matter how bad things got there was always someone worse off than me!
Bad decisions lead to lessons learned
There is a story that gets recycled about an employee who is given an assignment, fails and cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. The employee discovers the size and severity of the mistake tenders their resignation. The Boss tears up the resignation letter refusing to accept the resignation and tells the employee “I just paid several thousand dollars to educate you and you’re not getting fired”.
In business and life if somebody accidently wins they think did “it” and that their skills, charm, or good luck won the day. Wrong!
As an example I have a rule that I never show a property without confirming the commission payable. If I cannot get an agreement I will not show that property.
I break my own rule! I have a tenant looking for space so I line up four or five candidates call all of the brokers and discuss the commissions and terms. I send them each an agreement to autograph and return for my file. I schedule the tour and away we go…I take the tenant to all five and he falls in love with one space in particular.
We draft a Letter of Intent and quickly come to an agreement. The lease is drafted, the tenant moves in and I am a hero for finding it so quickly. I prepare my invoice for the commission and present it to the Landlord. The Landlord then informs me that they never pay commissions in advance, I would be paid in arrears only the if tenants check clears and only while he remains in the space.
Postscript to that story is I got $37.65 a month each and every month for the next 60 months. Lesson re-learned never show a property without a written commission agreement up front. I was so busy I didn’t follow up on that one letter , I made the decision to show it in the absence of that letter agreement.
Flash forward about 20 years. I have a similar situation I am showing a national credit tenant space. I find the perfect space, it couldn’t have been any better had the hand of god stretched forth from the sky and a voice said here is your space!
I have a commission agreement in place, a ten-year lease is drafted to the tenant’s satisfaction. We get the lease signed and back to the Landlord along with an invoice for the ten-year term. The landlord’s agent calls to tell me that the landlord has decided to pay on the first three years and then each year annually thereafter.
I mentioned that was not what we agreed upon and they needed to honor the agreement. The landlord then goes to the tenant presents a new three-year lease containing an additional 7 one year options. They sign a new lease and the landlord sends a check for the full commission on a three-year lease.
We learn infinitely more from our mistakes than we do from your victories…Tony Robbins say’s “When we win we party…when we lose we ponder”. I think about how many times have “blown my own legs off” analyzed what happened while swearing to yourself…”I’ll never do that again”.
I almost hate to bring up these extremely time worn and oft repeated examples…but!
The story goes, Thomas Edison was questioned about the number of attempts he made before making a working light bulb. When asked about his failures he is reported to have said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”
Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, a .342 batting average in his career he also had 1,330 strike outs. That means that he only got a about one third of the time! Yet for nearly a century he was a hero and legend.
We learn infinitely more from our failures that we do from our successes. We dissect them, ruminate over them and then swear “to never make that mistake again”. I operate from the “ready…fire…aim…fire some more” school of thought. I would rather err on the side of getting something done than being incapacitated by getting it perfect firsty. Sometimes good enough is just that…“good enough”. Usually there is no benefit in spending hours, days, or weeks to get a small incremental improvement that don’t make a difference.
“Ever tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better!” Samuel Beckett