Dark days and lonely nights are part of every entrepreneur’s journey. We’ve all been there and–as far as I can tell–these are inescapable, inevitable, and actually essential waystations on the path to success.
But the trials and tribulations alone are no guarantee that you’ll get to where you think you’re headed. And you’ll undoubtedly redefine what real “success” actually looks like many times along the way. It’s not simply that success is a moving target; it’s also that your own goals, expectations, and desires will morph over time. Family, friends, feelings, failings, and other concerns need to be factored into the calculations to bring the first fantasies into final focus. As long as we’re breathing, we’re all works in progress–unless you’re a certain emotionally bereft narcissist who stopped growing and progressing when he was 8 years old.
And what will become clear as well is that without embracing, enduring, and overcoming the ups and downs and the many bumps in that long and winding road, you’ll never get to any place worth going anyway. Even if you do reach the next plateau and take a moment to reflect, you’ll find that you won’t yet have the thick skin, empathy, patience, and resilience you need to build and lead a competitive and sustainable business that’s likely to last, to matter, and to make a difference. A life well-lived is about legions, longevity, legends, and legacies. Sean Rowe in his song “To Leave Something Behind” says: “When my son is a man, he will know what I meant. I was just trying to leave something behind.”
The keys to winning in the long run are to keep going, to turn obstacles into opportunities, and–as Dr. Phil-ish as it sounds–to be your own best friend and understand that sometimes even the best of us needs to be reassured, cheered up, bucked up, and reminded of why we’ve chosen this crazy life. As Jackson Browne wrote in “Doctor My Eyes”: “Is this the prize for having learned how not to cry?” There’s no better time than the super stressful present for a little dose of encouragement, reassurance, and recollection.
In my own life, the most powerful tool to recharge the batteries, replenish the emotional reserves, and pick myself up off the floor for the umpteenth time–apart from my family and a couple of critical companions on the journey–is music. Crazy loud music. And, if there was a single lyric that saved me, it was the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, singing: “no retreat, baby, no surrender” in “No Surrender,” in 1984.
This song was my personal “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and whether I was screaming out “we made a promise we swore we’d always remember” or rallying my team of “blood brothers in the stormy night with a vow to defend,” there was a power and a magic to the words, to the emotions they invoked. And also, to the idea of honoring longstanding and shiny new commitments without regard to the costs that helped me through some of the toughest times. The feelings that ripple though you in these moments are indescribable.
To this day, I can honestly say that the only song that even comes close to “No Surrender” for me is “Lose Yourself” by Eminem from the movie 8 Mile, which appeared in 2002. That song hits on every cylinder: The absolute desperation to succeed and the fear of abject failure is all so palpable. I even got permission from Eminem to use it in a video I produced for Bono’s RED charity a few years later.
This song is all about the moment, the test, the shot (in Hamilton terms), and rising to the challenge in spite of the fear. Eminem sings: “You own it, you better never let it go. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.” But the real message is perseverance, in spite of the pain: “I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage. But I kept rhyming and stepped right into the next cypher.” And finally, a line that tails off at the song’s end about belief in yourself: “You can do anything you set your mind to, man.”
Every entrepreneur who’s willing to be honest can tell you about his or her talisman, touchstone, recollection, song, scene, or mentor that helped them brave the storm and get to the other side without giving up or giving in. This is one of those things that we’ve all heard, but it always seemed to me that you’ve got to have been there yourself to really understand. As Louis Armstrong said about jazz: “if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Any good entrepreneur will tell you that, in the end, running a business is never about the outcome, win or lose; it’s about the challenge, the people, the journey, and the creative process that builds the lifelong power, memories, and meaning for the members of the team. Trying to describe those special shared times–the juice and the energy, those moments when the earth moved, when things finally came together and jelled into a new reality–was always impossible. Much like the power that certain anthemic music has over us.
Twenty years after “No Surrender” was released on the album Born to Run, the world took a big step forward with the creation of YouTube. Music videos had been around since MTV in the early ’80s, but YouTube was a different deal in many ways. Anything and everything within reason and certain boundaries could be filmed and shared–not simply by professionals, but basically by anyone.
And lo and behold, 15 years after YouTube began, I came across a singular video that in less than a minute or two–frankly in a few heartbeats–captured everything important about the joy of collaboration and the creative process in a way that every business builder will recognize and grok in an instant. It’s my new go-to piece, my tonic for troubled times, and an absolute tearjerker as well.
It’s a video of the first-time rehearsal for the main theme song in the film The Greatest Showman, called “This is Me.” It’s an amazing performance by Keala Settle, of course, but to me the key is to watch Hugh Jackman at a side table as he is completely enraptured by the creative energy and the emotion in the room. You see him just explode with a grunted “huh” that says it all.
I may be wrong, but there’s no committed entrepreneur in the world who wouldn’t recognize that moment. And having seen the movie version as well, I have to say that the informal, sweaty, slice of life YouTube video is a lot more powerful and emotionally raw.
In any case, the end result is always the same for creators of any kind–the pain, camaraderie, and joy of the magical moments in the process last longer and far outweigh the emotions attached to the final result, win or lose.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.