You’ve heard the phrase before, maybe hundreds of times. It’s been used in movies (“Kiss of Death” with Nicolas Cage and David Caruso), in a hit song by Kelly Clarkson, and frequently in business, sports, and personal conversations. The origin of the expression is said to date back to the writer and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who stated, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” It is generally interpreted to mean that you get more capable from facing life’s challenges.
Does the phrase have special meaning to you or is it an overused cliché? Is it relevant in this day of entitlement, pampering, and reward for participation? My friend Randy Schwantz recently stated, “We got our kids into sports as early as possible. First, so they would learn how to play with a team. Second, to learn that there is always a winner and a loser. And being on the winning side takes strategy and hard work.” The sacrifice hasn’t killed his kids. It has made them stronger.
My family has a long history of children going to work part-time as early as possible. In summers we mowed grass, kept score at baseball games for the Rec Department, served as counselors at summer camp, lifeguarded, and performed other odd jobs. During the school year we delivered newspapers, shoveled snow, and worked a few hours at DQ or Golden Arches. We were encouraged to work. Encouragement came in the form of a very low or non-existent weekly allowance – we were expected to earn our own spending money.
Those work experiences taught us many life lessons, including dealing with all sorts of other personalities, scheduling, budgeting, learning new skills, and competing for income. One of the most important lessons was that each of us has the power to control our own income, and thus to a degree, destiny, through hard work. If we wanted a new gadget or trendy article of clothing, we didn’t hound our parents to instantly gratify that wish. We delivered some papers, babysat the neighbor’s kid, or whatever it took to honestly obtain the money needed. The responsibility didn’t kill us. It made us stronger. And it instilled a tremendous sense of personal pride.
Our self worth is diminished each time we are handed something for doing nothing more than begging for it – in our own eyes and in the perceptions of those who witness it. Even children feel slightly uncomfortable with the process initially. But it is human nature – as a behavior earns us the rewards we desire, we get calloused to the awkwardness. The behavior becomes habit; part of our daily routine and eventually part of our personal integrity.
Maybe the phrase should be modified to “What doesn’t kill you might make you stronger.” You only gain life lessons if you are willing to face challenges and learn with an open mind. You determine whether the lesson gives you more control over your future, or ties you more tightly and helplessly to someone else’s path.
The same philosophy applies to business. Starting a business from scratch is risky – we all know that – but it holds great potential satisfaction and rewards. Even inheriting a business has risks. If the family trade has been running great for 50 years and now it’s your turn at the helm, the pressure is definitely on. You could succumb to “preventive defense,” applying your efforts to avoid goofing it up. Or you could plan a strategy to make the company even stronger. Would Starbucks be what it is today if Howard Schultz had simply decided in 1987 when he bought it, to just keep it a local Seattle coffee roasting operation? The planned and calculated risk to expand didn’t kill him. It made Starbucks stronger.
I have worked with many people over the years, salespeople, managers, administrative professionals, and business owners. They often ask what it takes to succeed. I don’t have a pat answer because success is very dependent upon career path – a definite strength in one field might be unimportant or detrimental in another.
I do, however, have a sense of what it takes to fail.
- Lack of a planning and direction.
- Lack of personal resources; skills like sociability, drive, sense of urgency, responsibility, and accountability.
- Failure to act. (Think of the long list of failed well-known businesses that didn’t act quickly when opportunity presented itself or the market was changing. Polaroid. Sharper Image. Circuit City. Borders. Blockbuster Video. Kay Bee Toys.)
These factors do not make you stronger. They kill your chances for success.
An old adage says it takes just one hit in each baseball game for a player to stay in the Major Leagues (maintaining a batting average of .250 or better). And if you want a shot at the Baseball Hall of Fame, it only takes about one additional hit per game (moving the average above .300). But you have to get an at bat and you have to swing your bat to get a hit. In business you won’t make a sale if you don’t ask. You won’t get investors or a business loan if you don’t try. Those trials don’t kill you. They make you a stronger business person.
Are you waiting for personal or professional success to drop out of the sky? What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, but only when you position yourself to face challenges and benefit from resulting experiences.
Go ahead. Step up to the plate. Take a swing. It just might be a game changer. In fact, it is the only realistic one that exists.