LESSON: I reminded myself daily to help as many people as possible, in the knowledge that this approach was my only chance to help myself. When faced with extreme adversity, we must accept that our previous database, our previous life, may likely be erased, but a new database is always available for construction.
The below lesson is an excerpt from my upcoming book, When Not If: A CEO's Guide to Overcoming Adversity, Forbes Book, January 16, 2024.
Money and I have always had a sympathetic relationship. By that I mean there was never a mystery to me about making money. The most reliable path is working harder than anyone else, but understanding the concept of helping other people get what they want can be equally as important. It’s rarely about being smarter or taking shortcuts. While many times it helps to be born into a family with means, I have found just as many other times that is a hindrance to developing the work ethic and mutual cooperation necessary to develop wealth.
I applied that work ethic to my first job in financial services with results that, fortunately, exceeded everyone’s expectations. My first role was as a rookie financial advisor with Wheat First Securities in Newport News, Virginia. Newport News is a blue-collar shipyard town, and I recognized many of the people I first represented. They reminded me of my own parents: hard-working, no-nonsense people who earned everything they owned and maybe could afford $100 per month to invest in a retirement account.
At the same time, I looked around at my fellow career-entry advisors and quickly saw I was operating at a disadvantage. Many of my fellow newcomers came from families with money, and many were experienced businesspeople. As a result, I knew that if I was going to succeed, I was going to have to outwork them many times over to be number one.
The good news in the advisory business is that there’s a direct relationship between helping the most people and realizing great success yourself. Everything about the good part of the finance industry seemed to make sense to me, and I devoured my new opportunity. I set out to make friends with as many people as possible, and to take on any breathing human as a new client, regardless of how limited their short-term prospects appeared to be.
Two decades later this strategy had grown into a billion-dollar investment firm with 100 associates and clients in 48 states and 5 countries, along with an incredible Rolodex of thousands of close contacts for every party, charity event, and need.
And then adversity hit. Standing up to the system, I refused regulators’ settlements, rejected 3 government plea offers, was convicted, and sentenced to 14 years in a violent federal prison.
My Rolodex was back to, basically, zero. I lost everything and was denied by nearly everyone. But there was one thing I could not be denied – my desire to once again work hard, make new friends, and help as many people as possible. It was the only way I could help myself.
I forced myself to reach out in a strange new world, again. I took a job in the FCI Fort Dix prison law library, where if there were any keys for my escape, that’s where I would find them. I volunteered to help other inmates build resumes and practice interview techniques. I created a twenty-five-lesson course titled “Building Special Companies,” which I taught at night to an unexpectedly eager crowd of budding entrepreneurs. I tutored inmates to pass the General Educational Diploma (GED) exam, a surprisingly difficult preparation process.
I recognized that in prison, much like in the outside world, sports and recreation are often paths to trusting relationships. When I was CEO, I saw more deals consummated on the golf links than in the boardroom. So, in prison I played centerfield for the unit softball team, with shoes two sizes too small, to ingratiate myself with a segment of the population in the 4,000-inmate prison. I was the point guard for the unit basketball team to build relationships with another significant segment of the population. I have a most-prized photograph that shows me as the only very short and Caucasian member on the All-Star team. There was not a lot I could control, but my attitude and capacity for finding new friends were about the only things still in my control.
In my strange existence, my new friends ensured I was safe, welcomed, and retaining hope for a better future. In a period of 7 years, I filed motions and petitions for over 300 other inmates in the law library which, in turn, taught me how to reverse my own court’s decisions 5 times, remove two federal judges from my case, and make it home 7 years early. During the best of times or the worst of times, helping as many people as possible is the best strategy for helping ourselves.
Have a great week!
“The Purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Order When Not If: https://www.amazon.com/When-Not-If-Overcoming-Adversity/dp/B0CKWTYSFF/r