Working Wounded: Business's Blind Spot

I read the most incredible quote this week. More than who said it (I'll reveal that in the next to last sentence of this blog), the quote reveals a lot about the dark side of the American dream -- when the can-do spirit becomes one huge blind spot.

Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily agree with the cynicism of this quote. In fact, I like to think that I live by the William Blake quote: "A fool who persists in his folly becomes wise." I love optimism and the feeling that huge odds can be overcome.

But not everyone feels that way. And that leads me to the quote from last week's news: "I am disappointed by the pace of success."

This very well-known person is talking about something that is seen as a failure by 73 percent of the American public. And an even larger percentage of people outside the U.S. The words most often being used to describe this current challenge are quagmire, mess'opotamia (courtesy of the Daily Show) and Vietnam. You've undoubtedly guessed what our mystery person is talking about.

But I'd like to focus on the words that were used to describe this challenge, rather than the challenge itself. "The pace of success." To me, this sums up the optimism that Americans pride ourselves on.

But first, a quick review of the American dream. To me there is no better example of it than Abe Lincoln -- a man who famously failed at business after business. Lincoln then piled up election defeat on top of defeat. But in the end, he managed to pull off the trick of becoming president.

And of course, Abe Lincoln was not just any president, but someone who is widely viewed as one of the best in the history of the republic -- a man who may have almost single-handedly saved our union.

Of course, Lincoln is only one example. Examples of the myth-turned-reality of the underdog who makes it big live large everywhere: The man who founded the company that is hosting this blog, Walt Disney; Hewlett and Packard, who created HP in that famous little garage; Boeing and the 747. The list goes on and on -- focused individuals who have a dream and the guts to pursue it.

We love the little guy, or girl, who fights the odds and wins in the end. And that's a good thing. Many times, persistence in the face of failure can often spur people to do great things.

But seldom do we hear discussions on the possible dangers of sticking with a dream at all costs, particularly one that affects other people. Sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes we've got the wrong product, or the timing is wrong, the marketplace isn't ready -- there can be a million reasons why something doesn't catch on.

Take Starbucks. Howard Shultz really wanted to re-create the feeling of an Italian coffee shop. To create this vibe he refused to allow cold drinks -- everything would be piping when he was serving the drinks. However, his staff convinced him to allow chilled drinks, and now the Frappuccino is a $1 billion dollar business by itself.

In other words, you can be a terrific entrepreneur and still screw up. This is another list that goes on and on -- the Ford Edsel, New Coke, etc.

But these entrepreneurs didn't let their mistakes drag them down. They acknowledged defeat and moved on. And that, to me, is the real key to the American dream. The realization that we can all have our dreams, but we also need to prepare for that occasional nightmare. The quicker we get past that, the sooner we'll get back to a restful night's sleep.

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