Outside the Lines: The Key to Overcoming Your Biggest Obstacles

July 17, 2017

Brian Sump on the importance of perseverance—and the eventual rewards for those who stay true, humble and committed to their goals.

“If it was easy then everyone would do it.” Heard that before? It’s a catchall phrase straight out of the Motherhood 101 class that no mom ever took yet every one of them probably has said the phrase at least a time or two. It’s a truism that forged its way into those tragically hopeless childhood moments when good wasn’t good enough and when our most valiant efforts went unrewarded; when the road ahead appeared to be all tunnel and no light. 

And I’m not sure hearing it ever really helped, but the more I walk in my calling as an entrepreneur, the more it holds true.

Being in business isn’t easy and you’re right, mom, it’s clearly not for everyone. Unfortunately, many brave souls try their hands at developing ingenious ideas only to find themselves among the majority who succumb to failure. When you apply that pearl of motherly wisdom to the composition of the marketplace, it’s no wonder there are 16 employees for every one employer in the U.S., according to census data

Of course, Google has made it easier than ever to start a business, and, yes, you can peruse any bestselling book in the business section of your local Barnes and Noble and glean silver bullet strategies for success, but I would wager that there is at least one common thread woven into the character of all thriving entrepreneurs: an innate ability to persevere through difficult times.

My freshman year in college was brutal. I had graduated high school as a musician in a performing arts school but I earned a small scholarship to play football at one of the most prominent engineering schools in the West. Go figure. During the summer before training camp, I injured my ankle playing baseball and found myself wasting away the summer in a cast. But my summer vacation wasn’t the only thing declining too fast; so was my weight. I entered camp at 153 pounds, the smallest guy on the team and I was last on the wide receiver position depth chart. To make matters worse, I earned a paltry 43 percent on my first Chemistry exam (which happened to be the first test in any class) and there was no curve on that test, so that’s a big fat “F” by all normal grading standards. 

Somehow I found my way onto the playing field about half way through the season and I mustered up a B in Chemistry, but the team went 1-9 and we were one of the worst college football programs in the country. The next winter, we hired a new coach and he ran us ragged the entire offseason. We lost 26 players and the roster fell to 42 guys. If I’m being honest, I’ve never really lacked drive or desire, but the exit door looked pretty inviting most days and I often questioned my motives. Nonetheless, I stuck it out and our team mustered up a 7-4 record each of the last two years. I was twice an All-American and my resilience was rewarded with a five-year career in the NFL and the AFL. Although I didn’t hold much hope in those bleak moments during my freshman year, the end result was worth it.

Eighteen years later, I look back over my business career and I cannot recount the number of times I have experienced the same feeling of discouragement and despair I felt in college.  It manifests itself in anger, pity and sometimes tears. Maybe I’m still just a momma’s boy at heart. Or maybe I’m not so different from you. Maybe there are a lot of grown men and women afflicted by the same overwhelming fear of failure and loss who feel like sometimes there’s not much else to do but cry and pray. 

So how did I make it through? Lots of nights on my knees, for one, but I also managed to surround myself with people who filled my life with encouragement. People like coaches, parents, mentors and peers who believed in me when I didn’t. Then there were friends and even employees who were willing to share words of wisdom and hard truths despite my reluctance to listen, and the net result was a more effective, less brain-damaging path toward my defined success.

Those of us who are surpassingly driven and willing to risk it all for the sake of the American Dream may be poised for greatness, but we are also more susceptible to losing sight of reality and therein lies great danger. 

So here’s a word of caution: Don’t be pig-headed. Pride can become like kryptonite and it will cripple you if you lack the humility it takes to ask for help. It’s not a matter of if a life-altering challenge will come your way; it’s a matter of when. And while the journey as a spouse, parent or coworker comes with its own set of difficulties, when you run a business, hard times feel that much harder.

Consider for a moment the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, “With great risk comes great reward.” Going into business is very risky, so why would we expect it to simultaneously be easy and worthwhile? If calculated properly, the risk can produce exponential rewards financially, relationally and emotionally. So if you’re in a pickle right now, branch out and get help. If you are standing at the bottom of a huge hole with no way out then now is not the time to curl up and quit. It’s time to yell for a rope. Ignorance may be bliss but knowledge is power. And humility is the beginning of wisdom.

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