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Monday, January 30, 2023
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Before You Go: ‘The Best Advice You’ll Ever Get’

CRL columnist John Gray offers up his 'best lessons to succeed' list.

If April showers bring May flowers what do May flowers bring? Pilgrims, of course. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Bad jokes aside, what April brings here at CRL is our annual ‘Best Of’ issue where we acknowledge the people, places and things you love. Over the years I’ve shared my own favorites from hamburgers at Jack’s Drive-In to bargain hunting at The Book Barn. This year, I wanted to offer up a different kind of list. Call it my “best lessons to succeed” list. Peel back the layers of any success story and you quickly learn that most winning people and products were tremendous failures along the way. If you’ve ever dreamed of doing something great I think you’ll appreciate their stories.

Failure is an option
Nobody gets it right the first time. Or on the second or tenth try, for that matter. Take the Rocket Chemical Company of San Diego, California. You’ve never heard of them, but you’ve used their product. Back in 1953 their huge staff of just three people decided the world needed a product to prevent rust. To achieve that they wanted to come up with a spray that would get rid of moisture or displace water wherever you applied it. The first experiment failed, as did number two and three and so on. It wasn’t until the 40th try that they finally perfected their water displacement spray. Once they succeeded, the three of them decided to call this cool new water displacement product exactly what it was: you know it as WD-40.

Today you’ll find a can of the stuff in 4 out of 5 American homes and they’ve made many millions on it. There’s even a WD-40 fan club with 100,000 members. It would have been completely understandable if they gave up after 20 or 30 tries, but they stuck with it and now the old hinges in your house don’t squeak because of it.

Knowledge trumps money
In 1857, a boy named Milton was born and raised on the farmlands of Pennsylvania. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade to work and help the family. He bounced from job to job until age 15 when he took an apprenticeship with a candy maker in Lancaster, PA. They couldn’t pay him much money so his father told him, in lieu of currency, to learn everything he could about candy from every single person working there. When he turned 18 he struck out on his own, and after a couple of failed ventures in New York and Philadelphia, he moved back to Lancaster to try his hand at making candy. Milton tasted a lot of chocolate over the years and was convinced the secret was in the milk, and if his old hometown had one thing it was cows. So he built a factory where no one in their right mind would start a business and set out to make the world’s best tasting candy bar. I think you’ll agree he did okay. Milton’s last name is Hershey.

His story proves that not every job is about money. Every 20-something out there who thinks they are underpaid and undervalued could take a page from old Milton’s playbook. In business, knowledge is currency.

An interesting footnote: In 1912 Milton and his wife Kitty bought a ticket to ride on a grand new ship. At the last minute she fell ill forcing them to miss the boat. It was the Titanic. I guess it pays to be lucky, too.

Don’t be typecast
In 1948 Norma Leza was born to pick crops. Her parents were migrant workers who made pennies in the fields of Michigan, Alabama and Texas, and Norma and her siblings picked cotton and potatoes right beside them. When she was in high school in Houston a teacher drew a line down the middle of the chalkboard and put the student’s names on each side. On the right side were the kids she thought should go to college, on the left were the migrant kids who she was recommending for vocational training. Dejected, Norma dropped out in 10th grade.

Years later when she needed a job she was back at school in Houston, but not as a student. She was sweeping the floors as a custodian. As she emptied the trash cans she’d peek in the classrooms and see children learning and it got Norma thinking. Maybe that teacher was wrong.

So at 23 she studied, got her GED and was hired as a teacher’s assistant. Not satisfied, she got her bachelor’s degree and became a teacher. Most would stop there, but Norma studied even harder, achieved two master’s degrees and eventually became a Principal in the very school district where she once mopped the floors. Norma’s lesson: don’t be typecast by anyone. Be who you think you can be.

A time to kill
Don’t worry, I don’t want you murdering anyone, but you could learn from John Grisham. A southern lawyer, he found himself sitting in court bored out of his mind watching a trial of a 12-year old girl who was raped. Grisham thought, what would happen if this girl’s father had murdered the guy who did it? Would a jury lock him up or let him go? He went home and wrote the story down calling it A Time to Kill. He then sent the book to 30 publishers and 16 agents and each time they sent it back with a rejection letter. Finally, it fell into the hands of the same editor who discovered Stephen King, and he agreed to print just 5,000 copies. Grisham bought a 1,000 of them himself, put them in the trunk of his car and drove from book store to book store selling them one at a time. Even his family thought he was nuts.
Undeterred, Grisham wrote a second novel called The Firm. This one not only sold, but led to a huge movie deal starring Tom Cruise. Twenty-seven best sellers later he teaches us a simple truth: it’s okay to chase your dreams even when the smart people tell you not too.

Be Bud Fox
Do you remember the scene from the movie “Wall Street” where Charlie Sheen’s character Bud Fox is trying to get a meeting with Gordon Gekko? He calls every single day until he gets that one chance. I know a guy who wanted to work in TV news so he called the boss at a local TV station once a month, every month, trying to get a meeting. No dice. Then in January of 1988 he called the elusive boss again and said, “Look, I just want ten minutes of your time. Look at the next six months on your calendar and pick a time and place and I’ll be there. It can be midnight, I don’t care. Give me ten minutes and I’ll never bother you again.” He set the meeting for three months later and it must have gone well because the young man got the job and worked there for the next 16 years. These days you can catch him reading the news on Fox 23 and his name appears at the top of this column.

My point is this: the so called ‘experts’ are wrong more often than they’re right. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team because he wasn’t ‘good enough’. Every record label turned down Garth Brooks, twice, before someone gave him a chance. Friends told Wally Amos his chocolate chip cookies were good, but he was a fool to open a cookie store. Amos became famous.

Keep after those dreams and remember: you haven’t failed if you haven’t given up. This is America where you can literally go from sweeping the school to running it. So grab a broom and get busy chasing that happy ending.

John Gray
John Gray is an Emmy-winning journalist and writer. In addition to his 32 years of television experience, John is the author of three children's books and two novels. He is married with three children. He and his lovely wife Courtney have five dogs, three of them are rescues with special needs. They make their quiet home in Rensselaer County.

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