Has Anyone Else Experienced Failure?

Below is the text of a short speech I gave in August of last year in Orlando, FL. There was no assigned topic but I chose personal failure as the back door to success. I hope this is encouraging to you if you, like me, have ever experienced failure.

Has anyone else here experienced failure at any time in your life? Can we talk about that for a minute? Can we talk about “Failure: The back door to success.” That’s the title of a book by author, pastor/theologian, Erwin Lutzer. When I first encountered that title it caught my eye. Partly because the title is intriguing and made me want to read the book. But the truth of that title is also a great life lesson. Failure is not the end of the world. In fact, it is often a necessary step forward into a better future.

I said it’s a life lesson. Well, I don’t know if its because I’m a slow learner, or what. But it seems I’ve had more than a few opportunities to review that lesson in my life. One of those opportunities involved relocation. Have you have ever relocated your family? Ah, ok, then you’ll be able to feel me on this. We packed up all our stuff, our family of 7, plus the dog, plus two cats, and moved 2,851 miles (oh, I counted) across the country from Cary North Carolina, BACK to Manteca California.

I say “back” to Manteca because 13 months prior to that, we had packed up all our stuff, our family of 7, plus the dog, plus two cats, left our idyllic cul de sac neighborhood, our church home, and our friends, and moved to NC for a new job. The night we left, all the neighbors and some friends from outside the neighborhood were on the front lawn of the house we were leaving and we were all crying our eyes out. In the swell of all that emotion I made a pretty melodramatic pronouncement. I said, “California will not defeat me, I will return!” Pretty dramatic, huh?

My new company bought a company in California giving us the opportunity to go back. It felt like a triumph that day in September, 2005 when we rolled back into Manteca. Promise kept! We made an offer on a house in a neighborhood where our kids could attend the school they wanted. The appraisal came back for $25,000 more that we bought it for! Instant equity. We were pretty excited. Things were good.

Fast forward 3 years to Friday November 7, 2008, 3 days after the presidential election. I walked into work that morning and got a pink slip. I was laid off. If you remember, things were difficult for business during those days and nobody was hiring. I couldn’t find a job. Unemployment wouldn’t cover the mortgage payment on the house so I wasn’t able to make another payment after that day and by July of 2009 we lost the house. That was a dark time.

Open the back door. By August 3, the next month, we were loading up as much of our stuff as we could (the rest was in storage), five members of our family (no dog or cats this time) and relocating again. This time we moved 7,244 miles to Kunming, China (how that came about is a story for another time). I had a two-year contract to serve as the director of an international school there. Those were the two most personally enriching, professionally expanding, and family transforming years of our life … so far. The bonds of friendship that we forged there with local Chinese and other expats, remain strong to this day. And I would NEVER have had that opportunity, it would never have been on my radar screen, if I hadn’t lost that job and the house.

I said I’ve had several opportunities to review that lesson. One benefit of frequent review is that it helps reduce the fear of failure, which is liberating. I’m learning to view things in the spirit of the 1998 hit song “Closing time,” – “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” I hope my story encourages you.

Thank you,

The Cover Letter

A Friend of mine is a highly successful salesmen. We’ve worked together on some big projects in the past so I know firsthand how good he is. He is especially good at writing. Whatever he writes is concise, precise, clear, engaging, sometimes entertaining (when appropriate), always on point. So you can imagine my surprise when he called and asked me to review something he’d written as a cover letter for a potentially huge deal. I was humbled and honored by the request.

What he sent me was typical of his work and required none of the editorial comments you see in the picture I chose for this post (it is one of the pictures that came up in my search for “cover letters”). In fact, he not only told a story, he told two. They were both hypothetical stories that came from his understanding of the needs of this potential client and how the service he was selling would specifically connect to meet those needs.

The Power of Stories

Last week I wrote about how I used a personal story to connect with an audience. I mentioned that stories are powerful to connect, to teach, and to persuade. We often make a big mistake when we set out to connect, teach, or persuade. That mistake is that we aim for the head. We think that we need to engage a person’s thinking to achieve those goals. We eventually do want the person to think but the heart is the gateway to the head. I must know, like, and trust you before I would be willing to connect with you, learn from you, or be persuaded by you.

One of the most powerful things about stories is that they engage the heart. Whenever I speak to an audience, I hear comments afterward like, “I love that story you told about …” or “It’s cool how you talk about your family.” I don’t often hear, “Now I understand the definition of …” or, “Your second point was very informative.” But guess what, the story that person loved actually defined the term and what I said about my family drove home the second point of my speech.

Stories are about ROI (return on investment). People remember stories more easily than they remember facts. If you want someone to remember a point you’re making, make the point with a story. If you are trying, for example, to advocate for children in the foster care system, it’s overwhelming to hear there are over 400,000 of them. It’s so overwhelming that we can’t take it in. If, however, you tell me the story of Alicia (made up name), who had a particular experience in the foster care system, I can grasp that. The story elicits far more from me than the numbers.

  • Stories connect
  • Stories illuminate
  • Stories illustrate
  • Stories explain
  • Stories inspire
  • Stories are powerful

Your Stories

After hearing Suzi and me share one of our stories, someone said, “You should write a book.” We’ve had a few people say that, actually, so one day we thought it would be fun to sit down and list episodes in our life that were memorable for us. I think at that point we ended up with a list of around 65 stories. Some more significant, others less but still memorable. Some of them were sad, some hilarious. It was a fun exercise, like going through a verbal photo album.

I’d like to suggest that you do the same. Take some time to jot down as many significant events in your life as you can remember in one sitting. Then pick a handful of them and write out each full story. That’s an exercise great communicators do to sharpen their communication skills. When you’re communicating, use one of your stories to connect, inform, or persuade.

My Black Swan

Several years ago I took my young family on vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was just Suzi, our oldest son, Joshua, and me at the time. The resort had a tall hotel on the beach and a condominium style set of single story units arranged around a beautiful pond behind it which is where we stayed. When we first arrived and were checking the place out, I noticed three beautiful black swans gliding across the water on the pond. I grabbed Joshua and the camera and said, “Let’s go see the swans, buddy.” As we approached the water’s edge, the swans gently turned and started to swim in our direction. “Cool,” I thought, “if they get close enough, we’ll be able to get a great picture.”

I got to the edge and crouched down holding Joshua between my knees to keep him steady by the water. By this time the swans were moving in our direction. “Look at that, Josh,” I said, “they’re coming to get their picture taken.” While I watched the swans through the viewfinder of my kodak instamatic camera three things suddenly began to occur to me all at once. 1. Items seen through the viewfinder of this camera appear farther away than they actually are, 2. I had a vague recollection that someone once told me swans are mean, 3. The two outside henchmen swans had stopped swimming and the bigger boss swan was coming up out of the water right at us.

I dropped the camera, quickly picked Joshua up and started backpedaling as fast as I could. I slipped on the wet ground, got up, lifted Joshua into the air and turned away from the attacking swan in one movement. Just then the monster swan reached out and bit me on the butt. I screamed like a little girl (no offense to little girls intended) and ran to the deck where my lovely wife was laughing hysterically. The black swan literally did a victory dance around the deck with it’s wings flapping and then went back to join it’s henchmen in the pond.

To make matters worse, there was a group of construction workers across the pond on top of some scaffolding who had seen the whole thing, too. The roar of their laughter from across the pond completed my humiliation.

So, my Black Swan Event was literally a black swan.

So Why The Story?

I began with that story a few years ago at a high school graduation where I’d been asked to give the commencement speech. I felt less humiliated when they roared with laughter, probably because I hammed it up and acted out some of the story. They especially liked when I grabbed my butt while describing where the swan bit me.

As I explained to that audience, my black swan story had nothing and everything to do with the topic of the speech. They agreed when I suggested that my story had connected us in an unexpected way. Many of them didn’t know me and I only knew a few of them. But, because of my story, they now knew they liked me and believed they could trust someone who would be that funny and vulnerable in public.

The topic of my speech was the power of stories. This was a Christian School so I went on to show how God uses stories throughout the Bible to connect with us, to inform us and to persuade us.

Then I turned to the graduates. “Most of your story is yet to be written,” I said. I played the Natasha Bedingfield song, “Unwritten” for them and then challenged them to think about what kind of story they were going to write and how their story might impact the world. Stories are powerful.

Regardless of where you are in life, whether you’re retired, you’re approaching “retirement age,” are in college, or you’re in the middle of life, family, and career, the same thing that was true of those high school graduates is true of you. The rest of your story is yet unwritten.

I’d like to encourage you to do two things. First, use your story up to this point to connect with people. Don’t be afraid to let people get to know you a little bit by sharing some of your story. Second, think about how the next few chapters of your story will go. Will they be about consistency, surprise, struggle, achievement, overcoming? How will your story impact others? I’d love to hear some of your story in the comments below this post.