It has been said that we learn the most in the times of our greatest challenges, and in my case that turned out to be absolutely true. Beginning in 2007 I experienced the most devastating time of my life in almost every way -- personal bankruptcy, financial ruin, embarrassment, and self-doubt.
And, at the end of the worst of it, I found a new direction and frankly I'm not sure it would have ever happened if I hadn't had this nightmare experience.
My personal tragedy played out in a South Florida courtroom in front of a small, agitated audience of my creditors. You could hear the summer heat sizzling through the windows, but the room was as cold as a meat locker. My wife, Cadey, and I, had filed for bankruptcy back in May of that same year, and now here we were at our 529 hearing in which a complete stranger, a trustee of the court was to decide the fate of everything we owned.
Without changing expression even once, the trustee mandated that I sell Cadey's ring along with all of our other assets to pay the creditors sitting in the courtroom watching me silently, and others who weren't there. If I wanted her ring back, I'd have to buy it. "With what?" I asked myself. In an unforgiving, rehearsed and somewhat distracted tone he explained that I'd have to get it appraised so that they'd have a value for it when I bought it back. He didn't even look me in the eye when he made that proclamation.
Later that afternoon when we left the courtroom I had to ask Cadey for her engagement ring so I could drag it around to the various pawnshops to have it appraised as the court had instructed. This was going to be tough. She hadn't taken that ring off since the day I'd asked her to marry me. She didn't say a single word when she slipped it from her finger and handed it to me, but I saw the tears well up in her eyes and stream silently down her cheeks.
I drove Cadey's ring all over town trying to get the cheapest appraisal, knowing that they all would be averaged and that each quote would affect the price I'd have to pay to get it back. The last pawnshop I went to actually told me the ring was a fake! I asked what he thought it was worth and he said, "Maybe five hundred bucks." I smiled and asked for the appraisal on paper. He gave it to me, not knowing that he'd just helped me by lowering the price I'd have to pay to buy the ring back. When you have nothing, every dollar counts.
Moving on (however slowly)
At that moment it was pretty hard to imagine ever being successful again. Our immediate goal was simple: survive. But soon afterwards when I'd had a few days to recover and ponder it all, I came to a realization that would be transformational for me and Cadey and would impact everything we were about to do next with our lives: Our fate had been in our hands all along, and always would be.
During this time, my good friend, Alan Waxman gave me this very direct advice: "Alex," he said, "You chose it. Now own it."
And eventually I would. Going forward from that meeting with the trustee, I decided that I only had two options, really: stay stuck right here and feel sorry for myself, or move forward and set some slightly higher goals. I chose the latter and here's what I saw in my future:
Over the next few years, we would achieve these goals and more. And, it didn't take long: from the time our bankruptcy was finally discharged to our building a near 10 million dollar business that hit number 21 on the Inc. 500 was 48 short months.
Over the next few weeks and months, I plan to write a regular blog and lay out the steps I have taken that I've found to work. I'm hoping that regular readers will:
I look forward to sharing all of this with you. The only things worse than going through difficult times is not learning anything while we are there and not helping others with the information we glean from our struggles.
Sharing it is my privilege.
Alex Charfen is CEO of The Charfen Institute, one of the fastest growing small businesses in the country. He is also a noted speaker and author. Learn more about Alex at http://www.alexcharfen.com/