Please join me in welcoming a new guest blogger, Bernie Swain, co-founder of Washington Speakers Bureau and today’s foremost authority on the lecture industry. Over the past 35 years, Swain has represented former US Presidents, cabinet members, business executives, public figures, media leaders, and sports legends. His new book, What Made Me Who I Am, is available everywhere. I’m honored to have Bernie share his thought provoking take on the turning points that lead to success.
Most of the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the span of my career have been extremely successful. They represent world leaders, professional athletes and the business elite. Some may argue that these people were born marked – with the stamp of approval from above – making the trajectory of their lives inherently more extraordinary than others. We believe that somehow destiny selects these people in secrecy and decides to give them extraordinary paths to follow leaving the rest of us with no hope of achieving great things.
And while it’s true that many successful people are intelligent and possess some natural ability, most of the people I’ve worked with over the years can look back into their histories and pinpoint key turning points that drove them down their current path. And no, that turning point did not include destiny holding a sign with an arrow reading, “this way, we’re expecting you.” But if it’s not lady destiny with a sign, then what is a turning point? It can be defined as a subtle or stark shift set in motion by a person, event, or epiphany that has sent you down a different path and in the process transformed what you were into what you have now become.
There’s a surprising thing about turning points, they are often subtle, either having little significance at the time such as a college choice or a chance meeting, or are manifested from hardship like being sidelined by an injury or losing a loved one. These minor shifts, sometimes masked as setbacks and how we respond to these points can determine who we become as individuals and leaders. History is brimming with examples of great men and women driven to lead, not due to any natural talent or privilege, but because something in the past forced them to make life-path altering decisions.
In my own life, it was being driven by the desire to work for myself. I was already on a path in life. My aspirations, education and thought space was leading me to athletic directorship and I was following a comfortable and safe route through my life. But my heart was dissatisfied with others making the calls and so I shifted, I experienced my own turning point and found myself risking it all in a new career. One that I knew nothing about with no experience, no salary and armed with nothing but my own passion and belief that I was meant to work for myself.
Turning points so often go without credit when we look longingly at the lives of successful people that we admire. We don’t give credit to the way these individuals handle these key moments in their lives because it’s much easier to resign ourselves to the belief that everyone else is destiny’s chosen one and that it will never be our turn.
To dispel this dreary myth, I’d like to highlight some characteristics of turning points, so you can be on the lookout for these game changers in your own life.
Sometimes you recognize a turning point immediately.
What defined former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, at first, was his height. “I am four feet eleven and have always been short,” said Reich. Starting in kindergarten, he was teased and bullied, and he learned to find someone bigger who could act as a protector. One of those who watched out for him was an older kid named Michael Schwerner.
Years later, in 1964, Mickey Schwerner and two other young civil rights workers were brutally murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by the Ku Klux Klan—a crime that shocked the country, and horrified Reich, who had just graduated from high school.
Up until then, he had been an bystander in the Civil Rights movement, but the death of his former friend moved Reich to become a front runner in the politics and hot topics of the time. He became a passionate voice at a time when America was in the gut wrenching pains of needed change.
Sometimes you recognize a turning point years later.
Consider the path that took George Mitchell from a hardscrabble childhood to the heights of politics, business, and international diplomacy.
Mitchell was born during the Depression, in 1933, in Waterville, Maine, a town of textile mills. His parents were largely uneducated. Mitchell started working when he was five to help support the family by delivering papers, shoveling snow, mowing lawns, and later becoming a janitor himself. “We were always well fed and made do with hand-me-down clothes,” he recalls. “I never felt any stigma because half the town was in the same situation.”
When it came time for college, Mitchell’s three older brothers (he also had a younger sister) all won athletic scholarships, but Mitchell had limited sports ability and no money for school. He was on the verge of going to work at the local paper mill when the director of admissions at a local college promised that, “If you are willing to work, we’ll find some work for you,” thereby providing Mitchell with the means to get a college education.
After graduating from Bowdoin, he became a prosecutor, a federal judge, the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, the chairman of the Walt Disney Company, and the U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, where he helped fashion the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which formally ended the 30 years of disturbances known as the Troubles.
Working from such a young age instilled in him an ethic that carried him through to achieve great successes in life.
Sometimes turning points happen before we are even born.
For Condoleezza Rice, the switch had been found nearly a century before she was born by her paternal great-grandmother, Julia Head, a slave on an Alabama cotton plantation. Julia had a deep love of reading and a commitment to learning that would dictate the path of her descendants.
“The Rice family was dedicated to education,” Rice says, citing her father’s recollection of the day during the Depression when John Wesley, her grandfather “came home with nine leather-bound, gold-embossed books”—the works of Shakespeare, Hugo, and others. The books cost $90, “a huge sum at the time,” and Rice’s grandmother told John Wesley to return them, even though he was paying them out over time.
In 1981, Rice received her PhD, in political science. The degree—and the hard work, commitment, and sacrifice that it took to both earn and use it—made it possible for Condi Rice to succeed on a path that few women, let alone a black woman, have traveled. In her academic career, she served as Provost of Stanford University; in government service, she was President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor before being named Secretary of State.
When she received her PhD, her father gave her the five remaining books from her grandfather’s set. They sit now on her mantelpiece.
Turning points can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. For Robert Reich, it was the death of a beloved friend to turbulent times, George Mitchell was given a chance based on a work ethic instilled in him as a child out of necessity and Condi Rice’s path was set in motion by an ancestor she never met. Turning points only count to the extent that we make something of them. I could have said to myself, as I was about to quit my job and leap into the unknowns of the lecture business, “Are you crazy?”
As it turns out, my own turning point while full of bumps and some initial blunders, lead me to found the most preeminent lecture agency in the world, Washington Speakers Bureau.
The right path, the right fork in the road, is the one that takes us to our own unique destination, defined by its particular measures of success and accomplishment. And when we get there, we’ll know how extraordinary a journey we have had.