One of the great ironies in life is that you have to be a famous person, often an icon, before you become an infamous failure.
The list of the once illustrious/now disgraced is long and their names are etched in our minds.
Think of the free fall:
There is rarely such a thing as a prominent failure who was not once idolized for being on top of their game. The weird paradox is that to be truly infamous–the object of widespread hatred, disdain, disgust–you must first have achieved your life’s work at an exceptional level. In most cases, better than anyone else on earth.
There are no obscure devils of major proportions. No headline stealing slime
who have not, just moments before, charmed and even intimidated us with
their awesome displays of brains, brawn, leadership, insight.
To be truly infamous you must first have been blazingly famous. It appears
to be a social vindication of Newton’s law that every action has an equal
and opposite reaction. It is just that in these notorious cases, the role
reversal is played out in prime time.
Thinking back, it is hard to remember through the fog of car chases and
glove trials that OJ Simpson was once viewed as an example of human
perfection. That Madoff was viewed by the nation’s best and brightest as a
Wall Street miracle worker.
Similarly, if you look back at the once-stellar companies that topped the
early lists of Fortune 500 companies, many are now extinct or lost in
mergerland: Sperry, Douglas Aircraft, Sealed Air.
As we all seek to rise to the top, we should think for a moment of the
forces that bring the greats smashing back to earth.
Perhaps most telling and worth remembering, is that the 180 degree from fame to infamy is brought on by themselves.
Drunk with power is more than a cliche. It is a cautionary tale.
There is a concept in physics which holds that you cannot ever really get from one end of a room to the other because each step is infinitely divisible. As close as you get to the far wall, you always have further to go.
A rather intriguing concept but the fact is – in the real as opposed to the theoretical world – you do wind up at the end of the room, banging your face against the wall.
So much for the theory.
Similarly, we often believe we are “in the middle” of something: a project, our life span, a product life cycle, an agreement between two parties, a workday. And at other times, we sense that we are at the midpoint of something less tangible: a relationship, a friendship, a love affair, the creative force of our lives.
In both cases, we have absolutely no idea where we stand in the scheme of things. Just as we can truly cross a room and reach the other end, we can never have certainty that we are in the middle of anything.
Life does not allow anything so neat and predictable.
Until recently, one of my clients believed that she was in the middle of her managerial climb at a major company–a client of ours–when the business slammed into a brick wall of its own, igniting a management shakeup and leaving my client suddenly (but temporarily) jobless.
So often when we think we are in the middle, we are near the end. People drop dead, lose their companies to Walmarts that move next door, lose their lovers to others who come out of left field, find that their position as the world’s iconic golfer ends in an hour and discover that their business technology is suddenly obsolete and not marketable.
Life has no respect for the middle.
The truth is that we are always in a timeless flux that demands us to live, to reach, to dream, to excel, to work, to create as if we are at the starting gate with absolutely no idea of how long the race is and when it will end. Because we don’t.
So many of the people I meet are treading water, content that they can do so because they are surely in the middle of the middle. So they have time, they tell themselves, to turn up the heat later on and finish with a flurry. It is an excuse for mediocrity. Or simply a deception. In either case, it is a pretense that must be challenged so that the middle doesn’t turn out to be a brick wall in disguise.
Or if it does, you have beat it to the punch and run the race as if there is no such thing as the middle.
Because it never comes when you think it will.
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It’s not the velocity that amazes, generally, but the frequency that is astounding, how we drive headlong into each other and spin out of control into a speeding stranger who turns out to be a friend and collaborator only to make others envious and determined to drive a wedge between us before we inevitably do so ourselves and then split like atoms into random parts that make new connections that form businesses or babies or maybe both enroute to who knows what as the snows fall on the Rockies and the makeups and the brakeups keep on coming and spawning false prophets and momentary friends seeking something from the winnings or the ashes and there is never a shortage of pretenders who will stand by your side as long as the coffee is hot and the Benz is new and it all plays out in a zillion horoscopes written with flawless predictability because romance will come and success will fly in the window on the 19th or the 31st and lust will give way to anger and the reset button will clear the decks for the passions to be reborn and the jealousies, petty and miserable as they are, will rise like the Sphinx to put an end to what was once a college bond that mellowed through the years until one very human event or action brought the house down and the bodies, to say nothing of the souls, into violent collision as the Beatles played in the background and the former competitors lay down their swords to form an even greater enterprise than either could on their own and then the Yoko enters the scene and the harmony is spelled l-i-T-i-g-a-T-i-o-n and the new allies and enemies form to battle the evil but there is none just the rise of HR departments so that would be colleagues that condemn each other in the name of water cooler conspiracies manufactured by the captains of boredom and the endless human force that brings us together and rips us apart for no reason but ego as nations pretend to go to war over principles when it is the leaders tilting at each other as Steve runs commercials belittling Bill because there are no traffic lights on this highway called life just a few people who in the end are precious and loyal and beautiful to us and in the final chapter when the wrecks are brought in for repair perhaps the car crashes of the human kind just get all the attention.
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All of us have dreams. Things we want to accomplish. Goals we would love to achieve. Successes we want to reach out and claim.
In my role as CEO of a marketing and management firm–one that helps people achieve their business goals (and often woven into this, their personal ambitions), I have a front row seat to the dreams daily. I watch them flower and, all too often, I see them wilt.
What causes the latter? Of course, many factors come into play, but none more important, more destructive, than FEAR.
What if it doesn’t work?
What if I lose money?
What if I fail?
What if people think less of me?
These are the walls, the obstacles, the bogeyman, real and imaginary, that stop dreams in their tracks somewhere along the continuum from conception to, ideally, realization.
I have seen it myself in my own entrepreneurial career. At the crossroads that inevitably appear, I have had to face the FEARS. They do serve a valuable role, acting as checks on impulsive behavior and forcing us to examine our actions so that we can do so with the highest level of knowledge and prudence.
But at the end of that rather antiseptic exercise, we are alone again. Naked. With no real answers that can light a torch to the guaranteed route. The sure fire decisions.
It all comes down, at some point in the discovery, to whether we cave to fear or act on the courage it always takes to move mountains. To build companies and careers, to take products to market, to drive ourselves BEYOND our skill sets, to fall face down in the mud, to empty the bank account and to summon our resolve and act not without fear, anyone can do that, but in the face of fear.
Once you have stress-tested your idea to the max, once you have confirmed to yourself that the goal you are pursuing is truly the one you MUST accomplish, you/we must cross the line in the sand where fear and courage meet and be willing to move into the great unknown.
It is where we meet ourselves. It is where we define ourselves. And it is where our ultimate fate resides.
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