When we last left my rags to rags to rags to riches story (Read: Degree. Fired. Quit. Quit. Fired.) , I had co-written a bestselling book on career success, and my own career had just crashed and burned.
Fortunately, I had an idea... a small idea that would soon become a very big idea, catapulting my life from ordinary to extraordinary. The idea was this: to create the most influential network of top level executives in the world who would come together to share, debate and collaborate around their most critical issues, and each of whom would pay me tens of thousands per year just to join and participate. I only had one problem: I didn't have a clue how to make it happen.
My wife and friends thought I was nuts, most likely shell-shocked from being middle aged and suddenly unemployed. If it was such a great idea, wouldn't it have already been done? And who was I, of all people, to attempt to pull it off? Undeterred, I hosted a dinner for some of the most successful people I knew, and pitched the idea to them. Collectively, they were unimpressed. Discouraged, I put together a six-page PowerPoint presentation and sent it to a top management consultant and former mentor, whose opinion I greatly respected. Of all the people I knew, surely he would get it!
But instead of providing the affirmation I was so desperately seeking, he responded with the devastating suggestion that I might want to focus on something "more realistic."
Perhaps I was crazy, and just grasping for straws rather than facing the fact that I had been cast out to the cold, cruel exile of middle-aged out-of-work professionals.
As a last-ditch effort, I decided to email my six-page summary document to Carl Gustin, the Chief Marketing Officer of Eastman Kodak. I had met Carl on a plane about seven years earlier. I was sure he wouldn't remember me, but I had kept his business card. I sent him the document, along with a request that he might hopefully find time on his busy calendar within the next several months to discuss it with me.
One hour later, a return message from Carl appeared in my email inbox. I stared at it, unopened, like a high school senior who dreads finding a skinny envelope from their favorite school's college admissions office. Taking a deep breath, I opened Carl's email:
I am involved in many groups like this. However, I know of nothing like this in terms of scope and scale, and think other marketing executives will find it incredibly valuable. Where do I sign up?!
Perhaps, just perhaps, I did have a great idea. Two months later I had begged and borrowed my way into contacting 16 of the most influential marketing executives in the world, and 15 agreed to join. The first group of 50 was filled and sold out within six months.
With this initial momentum, I recruited a talented and experienced staff and attracted even more influential people to join our adviser network. I then quickly launched similar exclusive groups for heads of human resources, global general managers, supply chain executives and others, receiving overwhelmingly positive response from each group. The business was becoming an unequivocal success. I had accomplished what almost no one thought was possible: I, one of the least influential people in the world, had put together one of the most influential business networks in the world.
And in the process, I made the leap from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
How could this happen? I had no experience as an entrepreneur. I hadn't even wanted to be an entrepreneur! I had no business plan, and my initial outline was shot down as ridiculous by nearly everyone whom I respected. I also had no money. In fact, with three young children, I was gravely worried about how I would continue to pay my mortgage.
But somehow it happened. And almost immediately, something changed. Not in myself, but in how others treated me. You see, as I bounced from starts to slumps in my career, people were quick to label me as average. But as soon as I had unexpectedly met with success, they labeled me not as above-average, but different -- someone that had always been destined to succeed. Someone who must have been given exceptional opportunities and advantages. Even in the reader comments posted about my first blog, it is clear there are many people out there who immediately gravitate to the "oh here we go, another child of privilege telling about his struggle to avoid choking on the silver spoon while he predictably becomes successful."
I am the first to give thanks for my relative leg up in life. I grew up in a very stable household with supportive parents. My grades in public school were good enough to get me into a good state university, which my parents helped me pay for. And I was lucky to not be emotionally burdened with inheriting a family business. Or an estate. Or lunch money. But I was also gifted with a naïve optimism that almost always led me to the question, "Why not?"
Nelson Mandela once said, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be?"
We spend far too much time rationalizing who we currently are, and far too little confronting the question, "Who are you not to be?"
When was the last time you stood tall in front of the mirror and faced the fear and opportunity of this question?
Who are you not to be?