On My Mind / Essays On Success

Digging myself out

In 2004, I went through a very difficult time in my business. It forever changed my view of what it takes to succeed. I learned how to pull myself out of a steep dive down, up and out of a severe dip in productivity.

In 1996, I first tried to leave my job at the World Bank, where I had been working for seven years. But they reached out to me and made me a very cool offer that I could not refuse, asking me to play a role in the small team that introduced Knowledge Management to the organization. Thank God they did!  Our small team sparked a massive, global change without a budget or a mandate. We took an unfunded idea to $60 million in annual allocations in two years' time. Our idea spread from the mind of one person to tens of thousands.

Despite budgets that have come and gone, blessings from above ordained and evaporated, and even the coming and going of a president under questionable circumstance, there are thousands inside and outside the World Bank engaged in activities that germinated from our work. We created real success with an aftertaste to relish. Because of the good results we created, I was jettisoned into the world of professional speaking and writing.

Two more major initiatives followed in 1999 and 2000.  Each of these was successful on its own terms, and as a result toward the end of my time at the World Bank I occasionally worked directly with the president, Jim Wolfensohn. My work helped him build and tap internal communities that could provide insight and support on strategy and communication.

My position was funded from his discretionary budget. In 2002, I was told the Bank could regularize my position, creating a real and defined permanent job for me. Or I could choose a small severance package, three months of income, and leave the organization. I quickly chose the latter. I don't think it surprised anyone who knew me, including my family. I was aching to apply my skills in the wider world.

At that time I received accolades from outside organizations and more speaking engagements than I could accept.  I was sure I could build my income and career from the strength of my own marketing effort, and so in September 2002 I went out on my own.

For several years, I worked at building professional connections and delivering quality work. My consulting career did fairly well. Naturally there were ups, downs, and some anxieties. But, mostly things went well.

Then, in fall 2004 my calendar emptied out and I didn't see enough income to make ends meet for the foreseeable future. I became scared and froze up. Then I went into a downward spiral. My thoughts seemed to tumble down into confusion and I lost my spirit. I could see a void of revenue approaching and didn't know how to respond, shortening my passage through the lack. I remember feeling lonely, afraid, and helpless. It was a tough time in my inner world.

Sure enough, my work slowly dried up and only came in small amounts, never enough to pay the bills. I was living on credit cards and my anxieties grew along with my debt. After four months I hit bottom.  I recall laying on my bed at home, fantasies of losing my house permeating my mind. I felt like I was in the fetal position, completely recoiled in personal turmoil and doubt.

I was thinking about getting a job -- not a new thought -- and realized it would take just as much energy to do that as it would to get my consulting work back up to speed. That was my turning point: purely logical.  My emotions were tapped out.

I had this image of being stuck on a rope stretched between two cliffs, afraid that I wouldn't make it across. It dawned on me that the journey back to where I came from -- employment -- was just as far as the trip to where I was going: gainful self-employment. I knew what I wanted, even if I did not know how to get there and I made a gut-level inner decision to build my business, to give it all I could or go down trying. That was the moment I stopped going down and began my ascent although it didn't feel like it.

I got out of bed and began the work of assembling a plan. I poured myself into the activity required, even though my heart was heavy and I was still doubtful of my abilities. I worked hard, though I was despondent.

It took a good 60 days, and then things started turning around. Then I began to do very well. I was buoyed. My marketing efforts had worked. I was back in business and overjoyed. I became amazed at what a response I received, touched deeply by the effects of my work, which I had truly doubted.

It was a profound passage and left an idelible impression in my psyche. It had been both a time of great darkness and a touchstone of great achievement. For four years I plugged along experiencing significant returns on my methods of marketing.

In late 2008 and early 2009 my next great challenge arrived ... the darkening storm of the U.S. economic situation could be seen before it was felt. I knew it was time to batten down the hatches, but I didn't know what to do. Just as before, I could see the dearth of work before it arrived and I grew scared. But, this time I had a powerful ally: the memory of my 2004 experience.  I knew that despite my gloomy outlook, I could perform. Even if my mood was difficult, which it was. And so I began to build a plan.

I was fortunate to be doing a related engagement with an association that I loved dearly. The executive director is a inspired man with great energy. He, too, saw the darkening storm and asked me to help him design an event for his board that would help them to sail into the approaching economic downturn. Not being one to waste a crisis, he wanted to use tough times to create a mandate that would challenge and transform the organization's growth.

We created a unique agenda, bringing in the author Robert Kuttner to speak about transformational presidencies. Kuttner did well, telling stories of presidents who had taken difficult times and used them to accomplish more than anyone thought was possible. For example, Lincoln took on the challenge of holding the union together and emerging with the Emancipation Proclamation. There were many such inspiring tales. The ensuing discussion with the board members was invigorating.

The next day we went through the traditional committee meetings.  Everyone was inclined to return to business as usual, going through their motions filled with foreboding as they took note of how the portfolios were shrunken, travel was down making income from conference attendence less likely, and there was no relief in sight.

Everyone except for the previous year's president. She kept saying, "What about all that we said yesterday?! What does that say for what we should be doing now?"

Thanks to her persistent prodding and the support of the executive director and myself, each committee managed to come up with a couple of new mandates that reflected an aggressive approach to navigating tough times. As a result, the board emerged from the retreat with an eight-point mandate for new initiatives. I came away on a spiritual high, despite my empty calendar for the months ahead. I thought to myself, 'I need to do exactly what they did. I need to reinvent myself in a way that is appropriate to the times."

Returning home, I felt stalked by the same darkness that had caught me in 2004. It was equally disturbing. But, I also had the experience of changing my circumstances for the better through intensive action. And so I began. I figured many other executives must be worried about the times ahead. I put together a short 90-minute seminar that addressed the most pressing business challenges and showed how to devise innovative, new strategies. I invited 40 CEOs I knew well. Fourteen attended.

It was a great success. I did no self-advertising at the symposium, no pleas for business. Instead I focused intently on the quality of my delivery, providing real solutions these CEOs could put to use immediately. I facilitated a great conversation. In fact, I could hardly get them out of the room when it was over. There was tremendous energy.

As a result of that session alone, I generated over $100,000 in business in the next six months. It came in a variety of engagements, mostly from those who attended, except for one referral.  Today my work with CEOs in Washington, D.C., is in full swing. As a result of my recent book, it is beginning to extend beyond the D.C. area. (If you would like to attend my next CEO event, drop me a line, Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com)

I have learned to keep my eye on the ball when tough times hit. In fact, it is the most important time to hit a home run. Most important for me because it is career defining. Most important for my clients because they depend on me for real solutions and when times are hard, their needs are greatest. It is a good match.

So when it appears that work will be sparse, I now have two reference points for how to generate success. I know what to do: generate value for my clients so they can take it to the bank.  I also learned that I perform well even when I am afraid. So that need never be a reason to pitch in the towel. Quite the opposite. It is my cue that it is time to play hardball.


Seth Kahan

 |  September 8, 2010; 4:43 PM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Success through conflict | Next: Four Secrets


Please report offensive comments below.

the notion he relates about digging deep to find motivation is a good tale. and he ends the essay well, it reads easy.

but id agree with other commenters here that the personal details make it a bit difficult to relate to. making a 100k then nothing for a few months? oh the horror!

but a great point nonetheless. thnx

Posted by: ae-inc | September 14, 2010 12:09 AM
Report Offensive Comment

I think that people who have never tried to start a business on their own seem to have difficulty relating to what this writer is discussing. However, for those of us who have struck out to do their own thing the darkness of self doubt and isolation are all too familiar.

I think there is a lot more that could be written about the personal struggles and challenges of entrepreneurship.

Posted by: gconrads | September 9, 2010 11:29 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Mr. "Music Man." Again.

Good luck on the roller coaster.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | September 9, 2010 6:17 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Rather offensive display by a self-promoting show-off.

Posted by: Chicagoburned | September 9, 2010 6:09 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The human condition is universal. We all suffer from self-doubt, anxiety, fear, and hopelessness no matter who we are. Do some of you honestly think you have to be poor to suffer emotional distress?

If so, no wonder Americans think sports and movie stars are perfect and have no problems. No wonder so many kids turn to drugs because they think their lives should be wonderful because they come from money.

The most useful part of this article is the image of being a rope and the journey to the end being as long as the journey back to the beginning. Anyone can use this visualization to help them when they are "stuck."

And to Aunt Fanny. The guy didn't say he was out of work for 60 days. He said it took 60 days of dedicated work to start getting his business back. Learn to read. Another reason so many kids are messed up

Posted by: arancia12 | September 9, 2010 5:27 PM
Report Offensive Comment

lclcl33: Do you live in fantasy land? Are you also a Consultant at the World Bank? Because then maybe you would be inspired by this story.

Posted by: Aerowaz | September 9, 2010 2:47 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I don't know where to start....First of all, you know 40 CEos. That's nice.
You have to sell yourself, but you don't have to sell yourself for the long term.
Each "motivational seminar" you present earns you money, but you don't have much competition, I'd guess.

There's effectively 16% unemployment right now. I have to compete with about 100 people for every job I apply to. Yet I get up every morning and try again.

You sir, have a luxury that many do not. A wide network base is great, but most of us real working stiffs don't have that.

I'm glad you were able to do well, but I'm not horribly impressed. It appears that you have more resources than the average person in this economy.

Posted by: MichelleKinPA | September 9, 2010 2:33 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Sounds like Tony Robbins, only not quite as compelling.

Posted by: postfan1 | September 9, 2010 1:10 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Count me as one insprired reader! I don't care who you are, where you worked, or what your experiences are, we all deal with difficulties in our working lives and I found this to be energizing.

Posted by: lclcl33 | September 9, 2010 12:19 PM
Report Offensive Comment

This was an infomercial and not leadership though spiritual renewal. BTW, what possible relevance does the 2000 election results have to do with your angst at work?

Posted by: dh2003 | September 9, 2010 12:06 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The point of this personal essay is that we can act to change our lives despite fear, and perform well despite fear and other obstacles. Worth reading.

Posted by: CLNX | September 9, 2010 11:42 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Here is the world's smallest Stradivarius playing for Mr World Bank Consultant:


Posted by: jcck | September 9, 2010 11:01 AM
Report Offensive Comment

This reads like an infomercial. Can I really attend one of your CEO seminars?!

And there's even a link to finding out how. Wow.

Fyi, advertising is not news.

Posted by: orson72 | September 9, 2010 10:22 AM
Report Offensive Comment

I lost all interest in this article with the line "I first tried to leave my job at the World Bank." This is what I love about the Washington Post - I'm so happy that the elite can bounce back from any difficulties! I'm calling up the Post to cancel my home subscription. I have no idea why I paid for such tripe.

Posted by: Aerowaz | September 9, 2010 9:48 AM
Report Offensive Comment

This man was out of work for 60 days and "hitting rock bottom"?

Posted by: auntfanny | September 9, 2010 8:03 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company