A reader (“John”) recently asked me a number of questions that I’ve been asked many times before, in one form or another:
I’ve read your book Looking Out For #1 and the part that particularly catches my eye is where you were down to the point of living out of a Ryder truck. … I’d just like to ask, what kept you going through that time? What convinced you that you would be back and better than ever? What allowed you to wake up every morning with the belief that things would get better?
Obviously, John is in a major funk. Of course, I don’t know any of the details of his situation, so all I can do is provide broad-brush answers. Is he in business for himself or does he have a job? Does he have a clear picture of what he wants out of life or is he wandering around blindfolded? Has he given any serious thought to what he enjoys doing and what he’s good at?
The first thing John should understand is that everyone is down and out at one time or another, and many people spend most of their lives in that predicament. The reason it’s healthy to understand this is because, in an odd sort of way, it’s comforting. It’s not so much that misery loves company; it’s just that when you realize you are not the only person in the world who is faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, it tends to protect you from the dreaded “poor me” state of mind.
Now, let’s take a look at John’s three questions.
- What kept you going through that time?
To be blunt, it was the fear of permanent homelessness and starvation. Fear is traditionally thought of in a negative light. And, indeed, it is a negative emotion. But for every negative there’s an offsetting positive, and the offsetting positive for fear is that it is highly motivating.Show me someone who has never felt the pangs of fear and I’ll show you someone who probably needs to reexamine his financial game plan. If you’re moving in the right direction, frequent bouts with fear will not be rarities.
Bill Gates was notorious for starting each day fretting over what his competitors were doing. He told his subordinates that he didn’t want to hear the good news at the start of the day; he wanted to hear the bad news first.
Gates’s fear relentlessly drove him to find ways to eliminate much of Microsoft’s competition. It drove him to accumulate so much cash that Microsoft could afford to hire high-priced attorneys to fight lawsuits, buy out competitors, and withstand downswings in the economy and the software industry.
In my case, fear brought me from homelessness to being a New York Times #1 bestselling author in about two years. Driven by fear, I worked from early morning to late at night, seven days a week. It’s important to point out, however, that I did not focus on fear; I was motivated by fear. In other words, I turned fear into a positive and became more resourceful.
Though I had no experience in any aspect of the book publishing business, I jumped in with both feet and took action. I did my own writing and editing, my own book layout and cover design, and my own marketing, to name just a few of the items involved in self-publishing a book.
And, like Jeff Bezos would do twenty years later when he started Amazon.com, I personally wrapped the books I sold through mail order and took them to the post office myself. When you don’t have any employees, either you do it yourself or it doesn’t get done. (Again, read up on Bill Gates’s early days at Microsoft. For years he answered the phone himself and signed all the checks.)
Everything about my project was so amateurish that today it’s embarrassing to even think about. To put it bluntly, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. But I inadvertently proved that doing something is almost always better than doing nothing.
If a person who is going through bad financial times is not motivated enough to take action, he may be falling into the self-delusive trap of believing things are so bad that they can’t get any worse. Trust me, they can! That realization alone should light a fire under anyone who has a pulse.
Human beings are survivors. If you’re in a financial jam but can’t seem to get motivated to take action, you probably haven’t hit bottom yet and, harsh as it may sound, you may need to suffer more. Suffering is good for the soul. Among other things, it gives a person character, self-esteem, appreciation, determination, and resourcefulness — intangibles that are far more valuable than financial resources.
- What convinced you that you would be back and better than ever?
My case may be unusual, but I never doubted that my book would become a New York Times bestseller. The handful of people who knew about my project thought I was crazy.I think it was more a combination of naiveté and ignorance on my part, because knowing what I know today, if someone in the same position as I was told me he was going to write a book and promote it into a bestseller, I’d probably roll my eyes and smile condescendingly.
Which is a good reason not to listen to people who offer negative input and assure you that you’re going about things in the wrong way. If you’ve hit rock bottom, you can’t afford to do things conventionally. Drastic situations call for drastic solutions. When you’re in desperate straits, it’s nature’s way of nudging you to dig down deep and become more resourceful.
- What allowed you to wake up every morning with the belief that things would get better?
This is pretty much the same question as No. 2, but a bit more specific. The reason I woke up every morning believing things would get better is that I was so closely involved in every aspect of my project that I could see, inch by inch, that things were moving forward on all fronts.
Put simply, I could see what no one else could see, because they had only a superficial view of what I was doing. My progress was invisible to them, but clearly visible to me. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep negative people out of your life, those whose words can have a negative impact on your belief system.
I knew the truth, so I had no interest in hearing anyone else’s version of the truth.
Speaking of negative people, I think it’s also important to point out that the easiest thing in the world is to focus on the negatives in your life. Why? Because negatives involve pain and pain gets your attention. If you have a bad back, the pain commands your attention. If you have a bad bank account, the pain commands your attention. If you have a bad marriage, the pain commands your attention.
The problem is that we tend to take the good for granted. Why? Because good is not painful. Not having a headache doesn’t command the same attention as having a headache. Being able to take a vacation doesn’t command the same attention as not having the time to take a vacation. Having money doesn’t command the same attention as not having money.
Ironically, then, it’s easier to focus on pain simply because pain is hard to ignore. Which presents a big challenge: having the self-discipline to focus on solutions to the problems that are causing your pain rather than on the pain itself.
If you (and John) can ace that one, most everything else will pretty much fall into place.