The one rule to learn to succeed in business or life.
I lost my job November 6th. Got laid off from the place, ESPN, with which I’d had a professional affiliation since my undergraduate days. It stung…but getting canned wasn’t surprising: When a sports network goes months without live sports and then when the games return but the fans don’t watch them, at least not at the volume they did before the pandemic, you assume that executives at a place like ESPN have hard choices ahead. I’d like to assume my boss’ choice to let me go was hard, but it doesn’t really matter. The choice was made. Better still, the choice is behind me. I have to move on.
Some friends, loved ones, and some concerned fellow parishioners at my Congregational church told me in the days after I lost my job that I seemed sanguine about it. I was. I had many people to thank for that, foremost my next door neighbor and friend, Scott Willett, who months and even years before my pink slip sensed that the life he led — his transition from a corporate executive into a self-made entrepreneur — was also the life I wanted. Over drinks and across a flaming fire pit, Scott guided me on many starry nights to imagine the sort of future I could have, if only I’d be bold enough to risk the present for it. When that future arrived and I told Scott I’d been let go he effectively said, Good. This is the final shove you needed.
It was. I felt strong after November 6th, optimistic, saw the future as limitless. I launched new entrepreneurial projects and began to make money under my name and my name alone.
But winter comes as winter will, and after that warm rush of new opportunities lay the cold reality of a lonely life. To make it on one’s own is to quite literally make it on one’s own. Over the past few weeks I have obsessed over questions which have no answers and yet hound me all the same.
What if I’m doing this wrong? What if I’m not spending my time wisely? What if in saying yes to so many new opportunities I’m over-committed? What if I’ll perform each new project poorly? What if my kids hate me for the long hours or, conversely, what if I don’t bring in enough money for my family? Should I be taking on more projects as a hedge against some of my existing ones falling through? Will I ever again drift to sleep without thinking about all I have to do tomorrow? Will I ever again awake with a sense of gratitude and not the foreboding unease that something is about to go irretrievably wrong?
My what ifs of December were a much better writer’s Ides of March. The past few weeks have not been kind to my psyche.
But late one recent Wednesday, researching my forthcoming book, I came across a passage from Reverend Ralph Abernathy. He was, of course, Martin Luther King’s best friend, and the top lieutenant in King’s civil rights movement in the 1960s. Abernathy described in his memoir not only the physical but mental strain of the Birmingham Campaign, the spring in 1963 when Bull Connor’s police force sicced the K-9 corps on black protestors; when those protestors refused to back down Bull Connor turned the hissing power of the fire hoses on the peaceful marchers.
We’ve all seen the images from Birmingham but I believe there is a book about just the sort of strain Ralph Abernathy described: the cat and mouse stratagems that taxed the mental capacities of the movement’s leaders as well as the racist white authorities. It would take too long to explain the particulars here — and really that’s the work of a book — but Abernathy and King had only bad options before them in Birmingham, and every choice they made seemed to lead to ever harder choices and worse options. “We allowed our problems to dictate our decisions,” Abernathy wrote. They lamented in the early going of the Birmingham Campaign all the tasks that had to be done and how thorny every one of them would be. “We saw difficulties and complications everywhere and as the work of the Devil,” Abernathy said.
The stakes were enormously high. King and Abernathy had poured all their resources, human and financial, into changing Birmingham and “breaking” Bull Connor. If they failed, their organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, would have no money left for anything else. If they failed in Birmingham the whole of the fledgling Civil Rights Movement would cease to exist. Poll taxes, cross burnings, Jim Crow, lynchings — they would continue indefinitely across the South, be emboldened even by the failure of King and his acolytes in Alabama.
Abernathy and King prayed a lot that spring, looking to God for guidance, and then for the courage to act on His wisdom. Abernathy came to realize that even though “we saw difficulties and complications as the work of the Devil, in retrospect we usually agreed that it was God instead, creating adversities in order to move us in the right direction.”
That, on Wednesday afternoon, was what I needed to hear. To not despair over life’s problems and anxieties but…be grateful for them, because they guide you to the solutions you need. King and Abernathy certainly found their solutions in Birmingham. As the campaign concluded President Kennedy sponsored civil rights legislation, and reportedly said at the June signing ceremony, “But for Birmingham we wouldn’t be here today.” It was the greatest day of his presidency, and resulted the following year in the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nothing but bad options had still resulted in a transcendent success.
Reading Abernathy’s words — ”it was God instead, creating adversities to move us in the right direction” — gave me the gratitude I had been seeking. Because what was this book I was researching but the first real claim on my post-ESPN life? I looked around and, as if with new eyes, saw that all the obstacles of 2020 included within them my guide, or map, to overcome them.
For instance, I get cabin fever something terrible but working from home since March has brought me closer to my wife, Sonya. We’ve been together literally almost every hour of the last nine months. Our marriage is better for it.
Sure our kids don’t like remote learning, and neither frankly do we, but having them home has meant I’ve become our twin boys’ P.E. instructor. Every day at 1:30 we play a game outside. I never got to do that when they were at school and I was at work. On most nights I play guitar with my daughter, who purchased the acoustic with her own money because she needed a hobby during the pandemic. We’ve both come to look forward to our nightly lessons.
The refugee family my church helped to settle — our resettling coalition encountered major logistical issues when the pandemic spread and the refugees had to isolate from what few contacts they had, including us. There were many group calls and texts and Facetime meetings about how to address the problems that arose, each of which posed only terrible solutions. And yet, today, thanks to the awe-inspiring patience and persistence of many people, the refugee family thrives, living in an apartment of their own, for which they found and paid the lease, and with kids who improve their English every day.
That is life’s lesson. Face enough adversity and if you’re paying attention adversity itself will guide in the right direction, so you can thereby live the right, and righteous, and fulfilling life.
“Problems,” John Lewis once said, reflecting on his success as a Civil Rights leader and U.S. Congressman, “problems don’t happen to you. They happen for you.”