There were two brothers who grew up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father who terrorized the family as they were growing up. The father was physically and emotionally abusive, and it was worse when he was drinking. What do you figure happened to the brothers?
One of the boys grew up to become an abusive alcoholic who created another dysfunctional family. The other brother became very successful and had a loving, stable family. Each brother was later asked why he had become what he was. The alcoholic brother said, “What else would you expect me to be? I grew up watching what my father was and how he treated all of us. Wouldn’t you expect me to start drinking and become what I am?”
About himself, the successful brother said, “What else would you expect me to be? I grew up watching what my father was and how he treated all of us. Wouldn’t you expect me to become just the opposite of what I saw in him?”
The story is apocryphal, but it makes a very true point. You can’t control the facts of your life, but your interpretation of what happens is up to you. The facts aren’t always as important as the narrative you end up believing. In the story, both brothers had the same facts, but their narratives about what happened drove them to opposite kinds of lives. If you’re not happy with the life you have right now, you might or might not be able to immediately change the facts — but you can change the narrative immediately.
I started thinking about this today because of a conversation I had with a stranger a couple of days ago. He’s only 34 years old, but he considers himself a failure. He had big hopes for himself when he was younger. He married the girl of his dreams shortly after she finished law school. He started a business that he thought would one day make him wealthy and secure. He and his wife bought a house in a nice neighborhood with good schools for their future kids to attend. He was set for the future. Or so he thought.
The dream girl turned out to be more like his nightmare. His business failed and he had to declare bankruptcy. He lost the house to foreclosure. For now, he’s eking out a living as a salesman for another company. He and the former dream wife are now divorced. He feels as though he’s failed at everything.
I asked him what he was going to do next — and what he planned to do to get back to going after the dreams he had once had. He looked at me as though I was crazy.
“I don’t have a real future anymore,” he said. “I’ve screwed up so badly that I don’t have any money or credit. I can’t start a business from where I am. Nobody will give me the investment or a loan. And what woman worth having is going to want to marry someone with that losing track record?”
I said something reassuring about how he could turn things around, but I didn’t think of a really good response on the spot. I’ve thought about it for the past couple of days and I’ve wondered about a better answer. Even though I’ll probably never see him again, I finally thought of the story I’d tell.
There was once a young man who made his living as a salesman for a paper cup company. After doing that for more than a decade, he stumbled upon an opportunity to represent a company that made mixers — the kind that restaurants use to mix milk shakes. He spent the next two decades traveling the country selling mixers to restaurants. He was mildly successful, but it was nothing special. By the time he was 52 years old, he had very little to show for his years of work.
But in the man’s 53rd year, he found a couple of brothers in California running a hamburger shop that always stayed busy. In fact, the place bought eight of his mixers. After watching the operation, he decided he wanted to go into business with the guys who owned the place, so he talked them into letting him open other locations based on their original location.
Even though Ray Kroc had ever heard of McDonald’s (originally spelled MacDonald’s) until he was 52 years old, he built the company into the biggest restaurant chain in the world — and he died a millionaire many times over. (If you’d like to know more about Kroc’s life, read his entertaining autobiography, “Grinding it Out.” It’s an entertaining book.)
Whatever it is that has brought you to where you are in life, there’s still time to get to where you want to go. If you’re a failure at 30 — or 40 or 50 — remember that Ray Kroc wasn’t a success by then, either. Until he found the right opportunity, he was a relative failure. By continuing to plug away and keep his eyes open — and then taking a big chance — he found the success he’d always been looking for.
I can’t say whether it’s a true story or not, but it’s been said that Thomas Edison was asked why he didn’t give up in his search for a successful light bulb filament after trying 10,000 experiments. He supposedly said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
In your own life experiments, you might have found a path or two (or three or four) that don’t work. I certainly have. That doesn’t mean you’re a failure. As long as you have an objective and are willing to do anything it takes and keep getting up from each “failure,” you will have what you want in the end.
Your past doesn’t dictate your future. This is what I wish I could say to a discouraged stranger today.