“Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you.” ~from the Velveteen Rabbit
When I was g rowing up, my dad, a high-level educator, had all the leadership books of the greats: Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey etc., littered around our house. These books clogged the stairs, were strewn about casually on coffee tables and spilled out from magazine racks. I came to know leadership and success principles by osmosis. I was surrounded by these jaunty pictures of smiling men in suits whose very essence seemed to shout from the pages with tireless encouragement about thinking big and being bold.
My mom was one of a dying breed. In the days before the term “stay-at-home mom” or even “homemaker” she was of the old-school variety ‘housewife’ and ‘mother’ and she embraced and executed those roles beautifully. Over the years, she’d add artist, interior decorator and grandmother to her repertoire. Home was her office, her queendom and her arena to play with success. For her, successful leadership could mean a day with few sibling squabbles, the clean dinner dishes put away and nodding off gently in front of Masterpiece Theater.
None of these books, (in the 70’s or 80’s anyway) had women on the covers. Nowadays we have so many strong, business-oriented, female role model offerings: Suze Orman, Oprah, Hillary and Louise Hay to name a few. I can honestly say that my journey with success and leadership has had very little to do with any of the people on the covers or in the pages of these success books, but everything to do with the learning that was acquired directly from the people in my own life: teachers, aunts, uncles, my parents, grandparents and even TV characters. But more important than any lessons that any of these people imparted…. my greatest teacher, the one I owe the most to, including my life… is FAILURE.
Every time I failed in my early life, my heart broke open a bit and let in some light. Each failure gave me the freedom and permission to pick myself up and try again in a different way. If I lost a job, a relationship ended or a dream died, I learned. From ALL of my failures came my greatest successes. The greatest leaders of modern day often have many failures along the way.
Now I simply look for the lesson in the failure as if it were not merely the silver lining… but the whole point. This goes beyond making lemonade or looking on the bright side. It’s more than enduring rejection or building character or any of that other stuff people told me along the way. I learned from the wins and the gold stars and the back pats and the A’s as well. They were shiny, they felt good, but ultimately were fleeting and sometimes even empty. I had to tune into my own inner compass and let it steer me in the direction of my dreams.
Understanding leadership in my life started by taking myself and the very concept of failure and success with humor, grace, and huge grains of salt and allowing myself to learn from each circumstance and opportunity that came about because of my choices.
One of these “failed” dreams was moving to San Diego from Boston. A New England girl born-and-bred, I often recalled being about three years old, sitting on my dad’s lap in the car in our driveway and pretending to steer the wheel. “Where to, Courtney?” my dad would ask… “We can go anywhere you like.” “CALIFORN-JAH DADDY, CALIFORN-JAH!” I’d burst his eardrums with my enthusiasm for this sunny place I imagined far away. In my mind I saw a place with nothing but blue skies, endless ocean and the sun winking playfully over all. (Even at three I felt that snow was overrated.)
Fast forward to twenty years later, I’d graduated college, lived and studied in Spain and was now ready to move to “Californ-jah”. I packed up my meager belongings and moved out there. No job, no car, very little savings. I was going to become a screenwriter. I had a gleam in my eye, a dream in my heart and a ton of hope… but no real PLAN.
A few weeks into my stay I was still looking for a job and had come to realize that my new roommate and her boyfriend were going through a VERY messy breakup. I felt completely caught in the middle and ended up calling 911 when her beau threw my trunk down three flights of stairs in a fit of rage because she was leaving him. (Not exactly my vision of a shiny, happy place.) More like a nightmare come true. So I tucked my tail between my legs and moved home after a month of drama, dwindling money and ever dimming hope.
Life had zapped me into a new level of understanding of what my once alcoholic grandfather had meant when he used to say, “Life is hard and I’m soft.” But grandpa got clean and then helped hundreds of others onto the path of sobriety, too. He was a success story of an unconventional kind of leadership. Unintentionally, he was an example of leadership in my life. An example of making a choice to lead one’s own life and overcoming hardships then turning around to help others.
I tried to chalk my time in California up to bad timing, lack of planning, naiveté, etc. I just couldn’t make my dream fit my memories behind the steering wheel no matter how hard I tried. Finally, out of money, out of faith and out of the blue I got the sudden realization, “I don’t have to cling to a dream I had when I was three. My life is not a fairy tale or a fantasy, but it is MINE. I can just go home and start again.” In that moment I stepped up a bit to redirect and lead my own life.
When I was 27, I had another brush with failure. It was during a meeting my well-intentioned father had set up for me with one of his influential friends who had millions of dollars and was supposedly a patron of the arts. I was going to talk to him about my writing. It was an enlightening experience. Waiting 35 minutes to meet with the self-made Real Estate mogul in the plush downtown office, I shuffled through papers wondering what I was doing there. Seeking information, advice, something, anything. The receptionist outside his office door was recounting her drunken birthday weekend, gum-smacking loudly, acrylic nails tapping on the keyboard, giggling into her space-age headset phone.
Receptionist: “So then Johnny and Mike were brawling in the middle of the street. I know can you believe those jerks?” Tap-tap, chew-chew. Finally I spoke with my fathers friend. In his office were the obligatory family photos. Ski-trip to beach. All seasons covered. “How did you get your start?” I asked timidly. MBA from Stanford... a chance meeting with the governor. I imagined two men locked in a staring contest assessing each other; a kind of unspoken playground dare.
After explaining to him that a screenplay I’d been on the verge of optioning was now, ahem, available again for potential producers (since the woman who was going to make my film had suddenly gone bankrupt) his response was what I thought of as typically corporate. “Deals fall through all the time. Try advertising- more stability.” Some of his other helpful gems: “Some of my friends are heroes... artistes, freelance writers, novelists.” (Slight condescension in the faux French accented “arteeste.”) he’d advised distractedly. “But it’s tough to make any kind of decent living in that field. Take any kind of foot-in-the-door job.”
He pushed some papers around. He was an A.D.H.D. nightmare. Eyes darting everywhere and then, mercifully, he took a phone call. After a brusque conversation with the person on the other end of the phone, I worked up my nerve a bit. A few more questions lobbed, followed by awkward, time-stopped silence. I thanked him, shook his hand; mine shaking so badly that the pumping motion was almost unnecessary, I left deflated and confused, a cavern of overwhelming exhaustion opening up inside me.
On the train ride home after the meeting, my mind replayed the scene again. The floodgates of absurdity of asking a real estate mogul for career advice as a writer hit me. Disembarking from the train I walked home in a haze. A friend tried to soothe my existential angst: “Doesn’t know you... hasn’t read your work... middle-aged business guy... Don’t let it get you down...” Other phrases I’d heard over the years echoed in my head: “We all have to grow up sometime. How will you pay your bills? You’re so talented... You can do your writing thing on the side.” (A career a la carte?) “Follow your dream. Marry rich. Nature of networking- sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
On the way home, I stopped at the drugstore, bought a soda, looking under the cap... some marketing contest ploy? It said: “Sorry... please try again.” And again and again. Who knew if I was born to be a writer or not and, in the meantime, I’d travel and gather material for stories, stretch my horizons beyond their limits, fall in love, get my heart shredded a few times and keep on persevering. I’d take day jobs and night jobs and third shift jobs. The clock would be a friend, an enemy and a neutral observer all the while.
I began to realize that you need to have a vision, a plan and then find the right mentor to successfully guide your dream, help you navigate it downstream and show you the ropes. There’s a lot of winging it and stumbling and then picking yourself up again in the process. I kept writing. I lived paycheck to paycheck for years, yet I’d write on the side, for me and for an invisible audience of readers that might someday connect with my words. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. But I knew that’s what real success was. It starts with personal leadership. It continues with trying new ideas and failing and learning and growing and changing and trusting. And then doing it all over again.
Today, I enjoy fruits of success that came out of my early learning through risks and failures. Those challenges forced me to see things a different way. I persevered, overcame and discovered how to lead my life using my inner compass in order to achieve my dreams and passions. I’m still learning every day. Now I take these life stories and lessons and share them with others. It’s leadership through learning that puts you on the road to success in your life. And believing in yourself no matter what.
By Courtney A. Walsh
Phone/Text: (442) 273-0073
Email: support@pro-publishing-company (dot) com
Address: Pro Publishing Company, P.O. Box 3406, Vista, CA. 92085 United States
©2010 Pro Publishing Company and Daniel D. Sweet