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Friday, February 3, 2017

Just What Is Success?

I had a very unusual experience earlier this week and I have been given permission to share it with you.

Alone in my office, I was putting together some notes for an upcoming lecture. A man about 60 years old knocked on my open door. “Excuse me, are you Don Cole,” he asked. I said yes and shook hands with him. He started to tell me that his son had had me in class and I interrupted him quickly saying that I was not allowed to talk about his son’s academic performance. “You don’t understand, you had him three years ago. He just suggested that I talk to you about business.” I said okay and invited him for a free cup of coffee at Starbucks which is only a few hundred steps away.

We sat down and he told me his life story. It would have made a great novel. He dropped out of college saying he was bored. A stint in the Army followed which allowed him to see a bit of the world but the regimentation was difficult for him. After he was discharged, he traveled to Africa and started a small business but left broke and in a hurry when a revolution made it uncomfortable to be an American there. After a year of bouncing around in Boston, he made his way to Argentina and bought part interest in an import/export firm. One of that nation’s hyperinflations wiped him out so he headed home to America.

He fell in love and married a woman who was supportive but encouraged him to settle down. So, he took a sales job and picked up an accounting degree at night and soon a child was born. An accounting firm hired him and he was okay at it but described it as “slow death.” As soon as he was able to get a grub stake together, he opened up a restaurant with a couple of friends. Two years later, despite their Herculean efforts, the place went belly up as many new restaurants do.

His wife took a full time job as soon as the younger of their two sons went off to school. With some stability now, he headed for British Columbia to work as CFO for a developing gold mine in the far north.  I started laughing. When he asked what was so funny, I conjured up Mark Twain’s famous line that, “a gold mine was a hole in the ground with a liar standing on top of it.” He laughed along with me and said that Twain was right.

He came back to the Mid-Atlantic area and did tax returns out of his house for a few years but he was getting itchy and once more took the plunge in to the restaurant world and this time lasted less than a year.

The purpose of his visit was to ask me what I thought of his idea for a new entrepreneurial venture. He outlined it to me with great enthusiasm and I began to get nervous. Did he want me to be an angel investor or refer him to friends? The idea was a bit far fetched and I outlined several reasons why I thought it was a non-starter in the world of 2017. He did not seem annoyed and told me that my comments were similar to others that he had heard.

Why do I tell you this story with his permission? It is pretty simple. The man was completely fearless. He admitted that sometimes he had bad luck (revolution and hyperinflation) or poor timing but he did not blame anyone or anything for his failures.
He struck me as having the spirit of an Elizabethan adventurer stuck in the wrong century. At one point, he said that his in-laws have always considered him a failure. I countered with, “Maybe, but you have lived more than the rest of us.” He loved that.

The man is no longer young but his dreams will not die. He will likely not leave his wife and children much if any money nor will he endow a charity. Yet his children will have been parented by a man with a sense of life that few of us have.  In many ways, the man is a success. He has lived life on his own terms, never was stuck in a rut, and laughs easily. He is more alive than almost anyone that I have ever met. After he left, I thought of what Winston Churchill once wrote. The great man described success as “stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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