One Song

In the great movie Walk the Line that details the life of Johnny Cash, Cash struggles for years writing music before he gets his break. However, prior to launching his music career he sustained himself as a traveling salesman, only able to practice nights and weekends.

One day, he stumbled into a record studio and pleaded with the executive for an audition and was granted one. As the movie depicts, the audition did not go well. The studio executive could tell that Cash’s music was just a rehash of everything he was hearing on the radio and knew that sound wouldn’t sell. What the executive was looking for was a new voice and a new sound. Cash felt insulted. Perplexed by Cash’s response, the studio executive was flabbergasted and admonished him. “You mean to tell me, if you were laying on the road about to die and had to sing one song, that’s the song that you would sing? Or would you see something else?

In his heart he knew the executive was right. Cash had been writing songs for years but he had not showed his best to the world because he thought his songs were not good or authentic enough. This scene from the movie is one of my favorites of all time because that question is one we all need to answer: Do we sing what everybody else is singing or do we sing something else?

Johnny Cash then broke out in in his famous song “Folsom Prison Blues” and, as the saying goes, the rest is history

The reason I love this scene is because it touches upon the issue of greatness.  As youngsters, we go to school and are all measured against one another. The person who is an A student is obviously better than a B student and we begin to measure ourselves against this standard.  For the rest of us, who are not A students, the feeling of inadequacy lingers.

A few years ago, I was working on a road paving contract and had to learn the science behind the compounds that made the product we were selling unique. One of my business associates, Larry, was a graduate from Harvard and had an MBA from Harvard as well. He was a smart cookie. When the presenter finished and asked for a recap of the presentation, Larry literally was able to parrot back all the information completely. I was blown away! It seemed he had completely understood the science behind the materials while I was still struggling with the basic concepts.

Upon reflection, I could see why Larry had done so well academically. He could literally repeat back anything that was said to him. But upon reflection I realized he had no greater depth of understanding of what had been presented than I did. What Larry did have was the ability to synthesize information quickly and regurgitate it back. Larry was and is a smart guy… but in that moment I was comparing myself to somebody who had a different skill set that I did.

I worked on Wall Street for many years and worked with many guys like Larry. If I had compared myself to their skill set, I would have failed miserably. Instead, I just focused on the skills I possessed and brought them to my job. I had been in the Marines and spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East. I had lived in South America.  I spoke Spanish. I had read hundreds of books on finance and was a Libertarian so I had a world view different than my colleagues. It was the intersection of my skills, studies, and language abilities that gave me a skill set my colleagues could never have. In the end, I developed a client base that valued my insights because it was a voice within the markets they could not get elsewhere.

I think my mistake early in my career was trying to be something I was not and failed miserably. But it is a mistake we all make because we  compare ourselves to someone else. When I didn’t use my voice and opined on the markets, my opinions were hollow as they were just rehashed and recycled ideas of someone else. My accounts could have easily found these opinions anywhere. There was no risk in what I was saying and it was reflected in my numbers.

By giving the same thought and opinions on the market,  I was competing against the hundreds of voices already in that space. That space was filled and, therefore, my service was useless. When I truly connected and made money for my accounts it was when I shared and expressed only the unfiltered thoughts that I offered. Some clients hated my ideas while others loved them. But, both groups came back for more because my voice was unique.

As Seth Godin so eloquently said: “Without a doubt, there’s someone taller than you, faster than you, cuter than you. We don’t have to look very far to find someone who is better paid, more respected and getting more than his fair share of credit. And social media: Of course there are people with more followers, more likes and more of just about anything you’d like to measure. So what? What is the comparison for? Is your job to be the most at a thing? Just because a thing can be noticed, or compared, or fretted over doesn’t mean it’s important, or even relevant. Better, I think, to decide what’s important, what needs to change, what’s worth accomplishing. And then ignore all comparisons that don’t relate. The most important comparison, in fact, is comparing your work to what you’re capable of. Sure, compare. But compare the things that matter to the journey you’re on. The rest is noise.”

Rise above and go beyond the noise. That’s why you were created.



Time to Move On

In 2010 I left a top investment bank to start a new venture at a smaller firm and I failed miserably. Everything that had worked in the past did not work for me at the new firm. I couldn’t open any of my old accounts while some of my past relationships that I had counted on for the new venture were unable, or unwilling, to help. The fact is the market had changed and my new firm did not have the ability to stay ahead of the current market conditions and profit from them.

failureSo, I moved to Texas and started a new company in a totally different industry with brand new clients. We started out great but within 6 months our largest client left us.

We started another new project, signed up a new large client and gave him an idea where he could make a lot more money for his business. On the day we were suppose to go live, he pulled out of the deal saying he had negotiated a better rate than what we could give him. We had given him a brand new way of thinking and growing his business and he loved us for showing him to do it. Then, greed got the better of him and he moved on without us.

The move to Texas cost me a ton of friends. They were upset that I had left, upset I had not told them about my plans, and upset I would no longer be around. Sadly, I rarely talk to any of them. For some reason, their reaction to the hurt was to cut me off completely. So within a year, I had lost a lot of my friends and many of my business ideas were not working out as I anticipated.

While each of those professional dead-ends and personal betrayals hurts and is painful, I realize that in life none of us are immune.

In our youth, we go to school and are given guidelines on how to be successful. If we do our homework and study the materials we can have a successful academic career. But in the real world of life and business, success is more complicated. There are no easy answers. In life, people grow, obstacles emerge, we evolve, change and get hurt. In business, success can be ephemeral and fleeting as well.

The techno-giant Apple almost went bankrupt at one point. Yet ,the founder of The Pet Rock sold and made millions selling rocks in a box.  Many millionaires such as Henry Ford and Walt Disney went bankrupt before hitting it big. Kathleen King, solely built a multi-million dollar cookie business only to have it stolen from her by late coming, ill-intentioned business partners. She rebuilt it on her own, again from scratch, and today sells $1.7M  in cookies a week. The point is… in real life there are no easy solutions just challenges and detours that we are tasked with trying to rise above and for which we are asked to find alternative routes.

Seth Godin, business author, wrote a book a few years ago called The Big Dip“, which plays around with the notions of quitting, perseverance and business failures. With young people, he explores the notion about how our culture reinforces and preaches the ability to stick things out and persevere. Yet in the reality of the business world, this quality of sticking through things can bring you financial ruin. The ability to know when to stick and when to let go, in business as in life, separates the winners from the losers. Godin drives this point home when he argues that “failure” (as he terms it) is a bad thing only when you can’t alter your course and move on to the next opportunity where you can then take the lessons you’ve learned and apply them to create a successful outcome.

There is always another day and another way to move forward in life. However, if you can’t acknowledge and recognize when there is no longer any growth potential and admit it is time to create anew, you can linger way too long in a stagnant or even self-destructive enterprise.

Every day, have the courage to take a little time to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. Then, move on from what is not and devote all your creative energy to what is…or perhaps… what still lies waiting to be birthed within your imagination.

Steve Clark