Monday Mornings with Madison


On a frigid night in December, 1914, Thomas Edison’s factory in West Orange, New Jersey was completely destroyed by fire. Although the damage exceeded $2 million, Edison was only insured for $238,000 — the building had been thought to be fireproof. More devastating than the structural loss, however, was the personal loss.  Much of Edison’s life work burned to ashes that winter night.

As the fire was raging, Edison’s 24-year old son, Charles, searched anxiously for his father and finally found him watching the flames. “My heart ached for him,” recalled Charles. “Here he was, 67 years old, and everything he had worked for was going up in flames. When he saw me, he shouted, ‘Charles! Where’s your mother?’ When I told him I didn’t know, he said, ‘Find her! Bring her here! She’ll never see anything like this as long as she lives.’”

The next day, Edison surveyed the ruins of his factory and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God, we can start anew.”

Today, many people are realizing that some or all of their life’s work has been swept away by the turmoil in the economy. For many, this stirs up all sorts of difficult emotions. Guilt, anger, resentment, grief, fear and despair can sweep over us like the flames in West Orange on that long-ago night. But as we can see from Edison’s response to his catastrophe, there are other ways to respond to loss. If you are surveying a bleak landscape, consider which perspective you wish to take because that will determine how you experience your difficulties. Look at yourself as a failure and you will get depressed. Consider your current situation an opportunity for growth and you will find the strength to start again.

When you speak to successful people, you will find that most of them have failed once, twice, many times, and their ability to start over again is, in fact, the key to their success. More importantly, they will tell you that the most meaningful measure of success is not money or fame but the ability to accomplish something worthwhile, to push through problems, to grow. Success is not a destination — it is a lifelong process of growth in the face of difficulties. Indeed, it is almost impossible to achieve success without experiencing real struggles and obstacles along the way.

Take a closer look at what led to your difficulties, and consider what you might have done differently. If you approach this exercise in a positive manner, you can gain valuable new perspectives on your business and your life. For example, one of the lessons learned by many from the current crisis is the importance of having enough savings to fall back on if incomes shrink or jobs disappear. Over the last few months, the average household savings rate in the U.S. has more than doubled from last year. Even though many people are earning less, they have still found ways to save more. Feeling secure because there’s money in the bank suddenly seems more appealing than buying that big new HDTV.

If you have to start again — and in some ways, many of us do — consider this a good opportunity to step back and design a real life plan. What goals are truly important to you? Where are you heading? What have you learned from the past that worked and could be used again? And what take-away lessons have you learned about what doesn’t work? Here’s one take-away that is always true: if need be, people can learn quickly. It’s never too late to be who you always wanted to be, and to do what you always wanted to do.

“Be courageous. I have seen many depressions in business. Always America has emerged from these stronger and more prosperous. Be brave as your fathers before you. Have faith! Go forward!”
Thomas A. Edison

© 2009 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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