So, time to give up?

When hearing my business accomplishments lauded over the years, deep down inside, part of me is saying, “Ha! little do they know! It was all due to one simple trick: a willingness to work just a teeny-weeny bit harder than anyone else.” I’d learned working harder isn’t much more difficult, because most people quit so soon.

This is often called willpower, persistence, or even discipline. I love people who work like this. I have a friend named Judi who personifies persistence. She’s always been this way. She won’t ever give up. Once she’s committed to something, you can take it to the bank. I’ve worked with her in several companies over the years and this part of her is so ingrained, it almost defines her character. Now that I’ve retired, Judi’s been helping me with my website and newsletter. She’s also helped with Maggie’s website. Even with our constantly changing preferences and ad hoc requests, Judi pushes through and accomplishes not only what we expect, but most often goes beyond our expectations. She hasn’t changed over the years and I don’t think she ever will.

Persistence does not mean you always win at everything. What it does mean is that failure isn’t seen as an end, but as a step in the process. “Hmmm, okay, I’ve found at least one way that does not work – time to try something else.”

With children, everyone seems to focus on talent or intelligence. They’re always “talented” or “gifted” in some way. Compared to talent, persistence appears to be a modest, almost lowly virtue. But for me, willpower was essential. It was all I had. Let me explain.

Steve, 7 years old

When I was a youngster, my physical capabilities weren’t the best. Grade school peers could hit, catch or pitch far better than I could. Running races was the worst. I always came in at the back of the pack, with David Scheff, the heavy-set kid who dressed in business clothes for school – grade school — and never wore shorts. No one knew it was my heart issue, not even me. Coaches chalked my failure up to laziness, unwillingness to try, and failure to put in a decent effort. Once in junior high school, I tried to join the football team. I thought the uniforms looked cool and my older cousins (Donny, Roger, and Dennis Larsen plus Sam and John Larsen) had all been part of Fairmont High School’s football, basketball, and/or tennis dynasties. I knew because my aunt Gladys would sit me down and page through scrapbooks full of clippings of these older cousins, asking me why I wasn’t bringing similar trophies home to the family. So in junior high, I “tried out” for the football team. One of the first qualifying tests was running as fast as possible around the furthest perimeter of the practice field, across the front, up and behind the bleachers, and then back to the start. I kept up for maybe the first 50 yards and then began to fall behind. By the end of this effort, it was me and our school’s equivalent of “Fat Albert” running by the coach with his stopwatch long after the other tryouts had finished. The coach looked at his stopwatch and then at me in disgust. But it wasn’t lack of trying, it was that when I reached down deep for a second wind, there was none. A few feet past the coach I nearly collapsed, my chest heaving, frantically trying to get enough oxygen into my body and to not throw up.

According to most of my school teachers, I wasn’t all that smart either. They held me back after third grade, making me repeat it. They’d figured out at the end of my first attempt at third grade I remained unable to read. I hated school and worked tirelessly to thwart any teacher’s attempt to get me to learn. Throughout grade school and junior high, getting a D grade was excellent for me and satisfied my parents, because it meant I wouldn’t have to take the class again, a situation with which I was unfortunately accustomed. Imagine being a parent and crossing your fingers in the hope that your child might somehow come how with a D instead of an F. A few teachers did express their frustration and exasperation to my mother, saying they had no doubt I was capable of the work, I just refused to do it. One principal, Dr. Ruthenbeck, even beat me repeatedly in an attempt to get me to focus on school. It did not work.

I wish I could say “…then music saved me,” as I love music. Don’t you think, at this point, it would be the perfect segue in this story? Weren’t Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis terrible in school? Shouldn’t I have gone from this dark beginning to crank out hit records? Sorry, no such luck! Two of my siblings greedily grabbed all the DNA musical gifts for themselves, leaving one of my sisters and me with nothing much in the music department. While I’m sure they work at it, it appears those two produce music effortlessly – and it’s really good.

By the time I reached my tenth year of school, it had been beaten into me I was a dim-witted, unmotivated numbskull, physically lazy, and lacking any musical or physical talents. I accepted that all as true. But I was also stubborn and driven. Lacking the typical talent to get where one wishes to go, I ultimately fell back on persistence as a beast to propel me in any endeavor where I wished to win. This incredible drive, which had begun early in life and not in an entirely good way, was something I tapped into and used later. When young I dedicated a near limitless reserve of energy to doing the opposite of whatever someone in charge wanted me to do. Years after I’d grown my mother told me the easiest way to get me to do something as a child was to tell me it wasn’t possible or to forbid me from doing it. “It was like waving a red sheet in front of a bull, you couldn’t stop yourself.” Things began happening to me after my open-heart surgery. I’ve read that deep and long exposure to anesthesia can impact the brain in ways they still don’t understand. Nothing was ever diagnosed in that area for me, but as I entered my 17th year, my life was about to change dramatically.

During my junior year (11th grade) at Fairmont High School, several things happened, not the least of which was getting a driver’s license and beginning to drive. First, Roy Dobie, an English and journalism teacher mentioned he thought I could write, and would I work for the school paper? He also referred me to Mr. Perrin, the speech teacher who directed school plays and coached the debate club. Soon I was cast in a play and joined the debate team. Teachers began looking at my work and saying good things. I liked it. By the end of the year, my grades had gone from C’s and D’s to all A’s or B’s and I’d taken first place in the state’s non-original oratory contest, beating hundreds of competitors.

Between my junior and senior year, I went to Canada to work at an Anglican summer camp, and upon my return, the next dramatic change occurred: my parents moved to Rochester, Minnesota. I found out just a week before school started, that my senior year would be spent at a different high school and in a different city than where I’d grown up. In reflection, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, as it allowed me to leave behind the “loser” known to neighbors, clergy, teachers, and family and begin life as a good student who got A’s and B’s, was a talented actor, quick-witted, smart and skilled at debate. It was grand. Finally, I’d found a way to use what I could do to get what I wanted.

Steve at Schaak Electronics

Given my iffy high school credentials, it is no surprise that my college career was spotty. I managed to cram a 4-year degree into 5 ½ years. I did well in things that interested me: English, Theater, Philosophy, and Religion, but couldn’t be much bothered with the rest. The good thing was that my education did not stop at graduation. My childhood experiences had left me feeling deeply inferior. As a result, in every new situation, I was determined to prove I was better at everything than anyone else. Starting as a “part-time” salesperson at Schaak Electronics, I worked to become “full-time,” then the top salesperson in our store, then to win every sales contest the company had, across all 60 stores. A Schaak executive, Towru Nagano, helped me understand that all it takes to win a sales contest was just working a bit harder. Part of Nagano’s role with the company was creating and putting on training classes. No one worked harder than I did to complete every assignment perfectly. Soon I was winning pretty much any sales contest I decided I wanted to win. It was at the moment I decided to compete when I knew the outcome of the contest was not in doubt. After a few years, I became an assistant manager, then a store manager, then a trouble-shoot manager, and finally ended up managing the company’s new division of stores called Digital Den, which introduced me to computers. Then I was recruited by Control Data Corporation where I took advantage of every training program they had. It was at CDC when I first realized that persistence could, in the end, beat everything else. It wasn’t always the fastest way to get what you wanted, but it was the most failsafe. I enrolled in the MBA program at St. Thomas University in St. Paul and began taking night classes. I was surprised at how much running my own store(s) at Schaak Electronics had provided a deep grounding in the underlying concepts that make a business work. Ann Winblad convinced me to leave CDC and spend a year with her at Open Systems as VP of Marketing. Talk about learning from the master! Ann was and remains the smartest person I’ve ever met. But Ann had sold the company and she was moving into the world of Venture Capital in San Francisco, so eventually I joined AT&T and then IBM, spending five years at each, soaking up all I could learn. Then I struck out on my own. I’d seen the Internet and believed these behemoths were incapable of knowing what to do. I was right.

Once my career reached this point, I was leading early-stage technology start-up companies. I had finally figured out what I did well. My skills weren’t in finance, technology, deep insight, or strategic business acumen, although I’d gained a reputation for being smart. Instead, it was all about defining and articulating a future that employees would understand and commit to making a reality. My uncompromising commitment to that future reality and a disciplined process to get us there, allowed me to lead others in unprecedented plan execution. As Nietzsche said, “Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.”

Perhaps this story helps explain why I so love individuals who keep trying and refuse to quit. While talent is useful, a willingness to work just a tad bit longer than the next person and refusal to give up will often push a person quite a bit further. Refusing to compromise on exact and consistent plan execution is what drove my career.

Current constructs for judging the potential of our children seem too limiting. Combine one of the less obvious forms of intelligence with an unwillingness to give up and there are no limits to what someone can do.

In re-reading this newsletter, it occurs to me that I’m a bit hard on my younger self. But it’s this contrast to then versus where I ended up, that makes the story remarkable. Of course, if you don’t know the eventual score when I finally retired, it may not make sense. You could go to LinkedIn to get all the details, but as you are all my best friends (and family) there is no need to recount it all here. Let’s just say it wasn’t a bad outcome for a dim-witted, unmotivated numbskull, who was physically lazy and lacked even a thread of musical talent.

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