I have spent most of my adult life as a struggling entrepreneur… Struggling to succeed that is, which I’ve yet to get quite right. I’ve had ideas that I thought were nothing short of brilliant (from a golf grip heater to giving consumers the ability to prepay for gasoline at a fixed price) and others that in retrospect were probably doomed from the start (rigid resume mailers and an Italian version of Boston Chicken). I’ve even written a book that I couldn’t seem to get published and dabbled in modeling and acting – when I still had hair! The truth is, in all of those endeavors, nothing ever really panned out. Either I was too late to the party, the market disappeared, or more often than not I did a bad job of communicating my ideas and convincing investors to take that leap with me.
Regardless of the reason, nothing ever worked as hoped and the setbacks were legion. The funny thing is, however, that if I died tomorrow – which I’m really hoping isn’t going to happen – I would know that I had lived a charmed life. My family and friends are a big part of that, but that’s not quite the reason. As strange as it might sound, it’s because I’m American. Stranger still, might be the fact that I didn’t really begin to recognize that until I went to grad school, almost 20 years ago.
I was raised in a military family and I lived 12 of my first 24 years outside of the US, growing up in Italy and on the base at Guantanamo Bay, down in Cuba. Later I was stationed in Germany for two years. Growing up in a government family where everything from housing to medical care to income was provided by the government, I never really understood how the larger world actually worked. At the same time, I never really learned about free market economics in school. I imagine I must have encountered Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations at some point in high school or during my undergraduate studies, but somehow I can’t seem to remember doing so.
Strangely enough, it was only when I returned to FSU to pursue my MBA did I begin to understand that Washington was not the center of the universe. I recalled once in high school having called up the Post Office and asked for the number for UPS. The incredulous clerk said “Why in the world would I want to give you the number of one of our competitors?” The truth is, I didn’t know they were not part of the same organization. I don’t want this to sound like I was completely disconnected from the world around me. In the back of my mind somewhere I knew that McDonalds and Coca Cola and Disney and K-Mart were not part of the government, but I never really understood where they came from or how they operated.
Once I started to see world as it really operated, outside of the prism of all encompassing government support, (although I was using the GI Bill & a student loan at the time) I suddenly began to understand and appreciate what America was really all about and what made it so great. It was like I had been in a world of shadows my whole life and suddenly a ray of sunlight shone through and highlighted what made America great… the freedom and opportunity to control your own destiny… to do, to try, to build anything you wanted. There are no guarantees and there are no limits.
Given that world of opportunity, I’ve had to face the fact that I might be the world’s worst entrepreneur. Painful, but true. But the crazy thing is, that’s what makes America so great in the first place. Despite the fact that I’ve spent most of the last two decades being mistaken for Don Quixote, hope springs eternal because I know that every day is a new opportunity to find success. I haven’t found success myself, but I know it exists because I see it every day, I read about it constantly and I know it is possible. As a result, every day I bound out of bed saying to myself “Today is the day!” with an absolute expectation that something good is going to happen. The beauty of America is that regardless of my past lack of success, regardless of what happens today, anything is possible, indeed, as some friends of mine like to say: Everything is Possible. If in the end it’s not to be for me, it will be for someone. Millions of someones. If I don’t end up inventing the next best thing or starting the next Microsoft or Wal-Mart or Papa John’s Pizza I’ll have spent my life pursuing what for me is happiness.
Fundamentally, that is the brilliance of the Founding Fathers. They understood the nature of man. They understood that government could not make a people successful or happy. They understood very well that freedom, (both political and economic) was the fundamental element of a successful nation. They gave us a Constitution that would allow the American people to pursue and achieve happiness, and in the process build a nation that would flourish to become a beacon of light throughout the world. If you don’t believe me, read the words of George Washington: “One day, on the model of the United States of America, a United States of Europe will come into being.” Now that was audacious, given the fact that at the time much of the world was divided amongst the British, French and Spanish empires.
The day I had my epiphany I remember telling myself that I wished someone had taught me this stuff when I was 15 rather than when I was 25. As we sit here today, with almost half of the population paying no income taxes, a quarter of the population on the receiving end of a government check and industries from banks to car companies to newspapers seeking government handouts, I wonder how we find our way out of this economic morass. We’re standing in a dark tunnel with bright lights to our left and our right. One is the headlight of the train of socialism heading straight for us, where government decides winners & losers, dictates who does what kind of work and for whom, and guarantees nothing but equality of poverty. The other light is the end of the tunnel, illuminated by the brilliance of the Founding Fathers’ gift to us, one that guarantees us nothing but the freedom of opportunity and the right to enjoy the fruits of our efforts. The question is: Can enough of us differentiate between the two in time to save the country from being flattened by the progressive Obama-Pelosi Express? I know it’s late in the game, but I think we can and will. This is one time I hope I end up being more of a clairvoyant than a Cassandra.