During my career as a social worker I had the privilege of working with many individuals who found ways to overcome adversity. However, it is with my work as a business coach and consultant where I gained the greatest insight about people overcoming tremendous odds. This work spans over 30 years and included working with over 180 Start-Up businesses.
I have worked with business men and women who turned their backs on addiction, poverty, depression, and unemployment. Some were mothers and fathers who deeply desired to give their children a loving and secure home even though they became mothers and fathers too soon; and others had dropped out of school at an early age only to return at a latter age.
These were people who, in most instances, did not come from privileged backgrounds. They were unable to obtain bank loans, lacked financial resources and had no angels to back them. They were people who are often viewed as individuals who don't succeed in our society. Yet they did, and continue to do so.
As I reflect on my work with these business men and women I have tried to garner lessons about what sets them apart. Their life stories point to several common themes which I believe are the stepping stones to their success, and which are signposts for all of us who strive to better ourselves in business, at work and in life. Here are six of those signposts.
1. They made a clear choice. They made a choice to rise above their perceived limitations, and the limitations others placed on them. This was fundamental to their new-found freedom. As one couple told me, “we decided that we were not going to live like my parents and siblings. We were not going to live in poverty, and the only way we could see ourselves out of that 'jungle' was by choosing to move out of it and making a commitment to stay out of it. It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t, but we did it and we continue to do so.”
2. They took control of their lives with a sense of hope and optimism. They didn’t like talking about their past. Some were willing to share their story to those who lived in situations similar to the the one they had left so that they could be a role model for them. They were future focused, optimistic and full of hope. At times, some were slow to trust, but when they did they trusted whole heartily. They were not concerned about the downturns in the economy, because they knew they had reached their own bottom and had dug themselves out of it. When others talked about economic troubles they reflected on what they had overcome and understood what it meant to struggle through adversity. However, like most successful business people their optimism was also tempered with caution. They watched their pennies. They didn’t want to lose what they had gained.
3. They had a deep belief or faith in a power beyond themselves. Many of them were not religious or church-going people but they often pointed to a conversion or a healing process that was beyond their own making. Their stories were told both with a sense of humility and a sense of awe that can be described as “I have been blessed and I am thankful to be in a space where I am today, especially when I think about the bleak future I once faced.”
4. They had a sense of determination and tenacity born from overcoming a difficult time in their lives. They were concerned about slipping back, but that concern seemed to push them ahead. They were single minded and unwilling to let the challenges that confronted them, win. Their sense of determination and tenacity was often expressed in ways that affirmed their optimism such as: “been there, got the T-shirt, so this is just one more challenge to overcome;" or, “We face the world with optimism, we will overcome this too;" and, in a more vernacular language, ”sh*t happens. Let’s get on with it. I’m a determined bu**er, you know.”
5. They were eager to learn. They didn't pretend to know everything about their business. Sure, they made mistakes, mostly from a place of "unknowing" rather than from a position of “knowing it all.” They were grateful when a coach or a mentor came along to assist them with difficult decisions. They also surrounded themselves with people who compensated for their weaknesses. A common comment from them was, "I employ people smarter than me." Something that I often hear from most successful business people.
Openness to learning was one of the criteria our firm used when we screened those who wanted to start a business. Our experience and assessments determined that this was one of the essential ingredients for their success. It was also one of the most telling markers when we reviewed why they failed. Those that didn't make it unfortunately didn’t learn from their mistakes, read, or seek out a coach or mentor, and in general they thought they knew all.
6. They rejected toxic influences and celebrated their journey. Many faced one of their most difficult decisions - to escape from the milieu that pulled them down. For some this meant leaving a dysfunctional family, siblings, and/or relatives; for others, it meant turning away from so-called friends they knew for most of their lives. They had to make that hard decision and not to look back. They knew that if they didn’t reject these people they couldn’t improve their lot in life. More than one individual said (and I'm paraphrasing), “it wasn’t easy leaving family and friends behind, but if I didn’t I would be in the ‘hell’ they are in now.”
The most successful of these business men and women learned to become comfortable within themselves. They continue to project a humble self-confidence, give back to their community, have become role models for others, and often celebrate their difficult journey on the road less traveled.
None of them are saints, and all of them have weaknesses just like the rest of us. I have been enriched by knowing them, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for what they have accomplished in their lives and in their businesses.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere in ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in the wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by.
And that has made all the difference.”
Robert Frost, from The Road Not Taken.
Thanks for Reading
Richard P. Fontanie MSW. FCMC