Sometime in the early 1970’s my wife, Carla, gave me a beautiful needlepoint of a poem by Walter D. Wintle. That framed work has followed us everywhere and is now prominently displayed above my dresser where I can see it every morning. The poem goes like this:
“If you think you are beaten, you are.
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.
If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost.
For out in the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will.
It’s all in the state of mind.
If you think you are outclassed, you are.
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”
― Walter D. Wintle
People sometimes ask me what it is in a person that makes them a successful entrepreneur. Is it education, talent, capital, personality? What is it? These certainly matter, but I’ve known people who were well educated, talented, with adequate capital and pleasant personalities who failed miserably in business. My experience is that determination is the most important aspect of a person’s character as it relates to success.
Angela Duckworth is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of a 2016 Scribner book called “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” Professor Duckworth says, “it is critically important — and not at all easy — to keep going after failure. Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when things aren’t.”
In February 1984 I was a stock broker for a big brokerage company in Charlotte, North Carolina. One day, on a Thursday, I made $1 million in bond trades. I left the office for a four-day weekend, taking Friday and Monday off, not realizing these trades would settle on Monday. Over the weekend the bond market took a nosedive. By Monday my trades were under water and I wasn’t at the office to call my clients and explain that they each needed to add a small amount of money to their accounts. My young manager panicked and canceled the trades allowing the branch to take the loss. No customer was harmed. But I was fired the next day.
This was embarrassing and disconcerting, to say the least. I had made a mistake. It was a correctable error, but I wasn’t there to make the correction. In my view the manager over-reacted, but it was understandable. I was suddenly put in a position of starting over.
Six month later, I founded McMahan and Associates and over time it became a successful financial advisory company. Had I not made the mistake I made I might have continued a career as a stock broker with a big company. But my mistake and determination to succeed were the elements that drove me to a high level of success owning my own company.
I have known many people who have similar stories. I see them every day in my work as a private equity manager. The essential character trait of those who succeed is not giving up, regardless of how bad it gets.
As Wintle wrote: “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man, but soon or late the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.”
Our country is in a battle now. Will we succeed? Will we defeat the virus? Will we recover our economy? Many are doubtful and even fearful. But I will always bet on America. We will succeed primarily because we are a nation of people who think we can.
Michael McMahan’s column runs on Sundays.