- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009


All around us, we are feeling the bite of this recession, with stories of lost jobs driving anxiety over the potential of losing our livelihood. It may be time to take a different view of our circumstances. Specifically, this may be the best time to start thinking about what you really want to do in life.

In studying great leaders over time, authors Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas learned that many of them discovered their leadership abilities in times of significant stress - during “crucible moments.” A classic example of this is the time Nelson Mandela spent in a prison cell. He emerged a transformed individual and leader.

As Mr. Bennis subsequently wrote, “Whatever is thrown at them, leaders emerge from their crucibles stronger and unbroken. No matter how cruel the testing, they become more optimistic and more open to experience.”

As we open our eyes to the possibilities, two instincts tend to kick in. The first is a jolt of adrenaline where the dreams start to take shape in the form of a palpable sense that, my gosh, I can do that. Pen goes to paper, and the proverbial sketch on the napkin begins to emerge. Then fear kicks in, followed by strong dose of self-doubt and a string of excuses: not the right time, not the right place, not the right set of experiences, just plain not ready.

Fair enough - but let’s break that down. What is holding you back? For many, personal finances is a primary barrier. This is a strong driver and should weigh into any decision-making. As one begins to do the math, however, one quickly should be asking, “What are my needs versus wants?”

In our race to keep up with the Joneses, we have a tendency to get ourselves in trouble by living way above our means (which is, in part, what led to this mess). How about going the opposite direction and figuring out how to live below your means, thereby creating the financial flexibility necessary to pursue your dream? Granted, this takes time and discipline, but is the possibility of creating a fulfilled life worth it?

Another factor that tends to hold people back is a low tolerance for risk. Without a doubt, taking the path less traveled means venturing into the unknown. As strategist and author Jim Collins pointed out, “As an entrepreneur, you know what your risks are. You see them. You understand them. You manage them. If you join someone else’s company, you may not know those risks, and not because they don’t exist. You just can’t see them, and you can’t manage them. That’s a much more exposed position than the entrepreneur faces.”

Even as an entrepreneur in control of your own destiny, however, the path ahead is inevitably opaque and ambiguous. How do you get beyond that?

One strategy is to conduct a series of low-cost experiments. Let’s say, for example, you are interested in shifting out of practicing law and into making cupcakes as Warren Brown did a few years ago. As a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mr. Brown was struggling to find his passion at work. In his search for himself, he developed a personal mantra, “Direct yourself to greatness, answer your call and answer to yourself.”

Returning to a lifelong love, he started baking when he got home from work. Positive reactions to his from-scratch concoctions sparked a new sense of possibility. For a year, he “had been waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I was tired of waiting. It was time to make cake.”

However, rather than walking right into his boss’ office and handing in his letter of resignation, Mr. Brown started with baby steps. He turned his kitchen into a cake lab and started holding cake open houses that turned into a side business of fulfilling cake orders. A few months later, with a growing savings account and sense of confidence, Mr. Brown took a leave from his job. It wasn’t until he got his first store off the ground and running that he officially quit. Today, with seven locations in the D.C. area, CakeLove and Mr. Brown are thriving.

Success is not guaranteed, and you inevitably will trip along the way. But ask yourself this: Would you rather shoulder the cost of failure - and the valuable lessons derived from experience - or the cost of regret?

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” They can be reached at authors@ lifeentrepreneurs.com.

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