We have all been in that meeting when the ideas are flowing on a new project. There is a groove, and people are daring to be visionary. Then, someone (maybe it’s you) decides to drop the realistic bomb. It usually starts with “I’m just being realistic, but…”
Right. Realistic. Here is what that means:
- “I’m scared.”
- “I don’t think we can find enough money to do this.”
- “When this blows up, I don’t want it to happen on my watch.”
Also anything that follows the “but” tends to be some personal fears. They usually have a shred of the truth – enough to make it look like reality.
And there are times for realism – when the truth of the matter needs to acknowledged or accepted.
An Unrealistic Life
I don’t know what the conversation was like between the doctors and Nathan Stooke’s parents some thirty years ago, but it had to be a tough one. To help them set some healthy expectations, I am certain that the doctor told them to be realistic about young Nathan’s future. With dyslexia, life would be more complicated. After all, it is a permanent condition.
I first met Nathan in 2011. He had attended a full day of seminars at the St. Louis Business Expo. His company, Wisper ISP, a wireless internet service provider, was already five years old and growing aggressively. That year, when I wrote an article about his company, Wisper ISP had acquired 11 competitors and was predicting a revenue over $2 million.
Nathan sat toward the back of the room and listened intently to every word – how to get a bank loan, how to market your business, how to create a more engaged workforce. He wrote hardly any notes, but he remembered each word. It is a skill he learned soon after his dyslexia diagnosis. From grade school through high school, his mother would read his textbooks into a tape recorder, and Nathan would listen to them (at speeds that few would be able to discern syllables) while in his room or on his way to swim practice in his car or when he was spending hours in the pool.
In addition to his dedication to overcoming any disadvantage dyslexia caused in the classroom, Nathan also went out for his collegiate swimming team. As a walk-on at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, he was viewed as “one of the least talented athletes” his coach, Rick Walker, had ever seen. But, Walker was quick to notice that there was something different about the young man. Nathan talked and walked like a champion from day one. Fast forward to 1998, he was representing the United States at world competitions in open-water swimming competitions around the globe.
So to wrap: A young man with an incurable learning disability and no athletic talent went on to become one of the region’s most impressive young entrepreneurs and a world-class athlete. His life looks altogether unreal. Nathan, himself, summarizes how this unreality becomes reality: “I didn’t dwell on my weakness. I accepted it. You are responsible for your own actions. Life hands you circumstances and how you respond is who you are.”
I wonder what would have happened if Nathan’s parents had decided to respond by being more realistic. What if Nathan, himself, had decided that good enough was good enough? What if he had accepted that he was just not a talented athlete and stopped there? If Nathan’s success means anything, it is that reality is bigger than circumstances. The acceptance of circumstances is only the beginning of reality though. To find out what is possible, he had to be unreal.
St. Louis is a Den of Unreality
Over the years, I have had the fortune of meeting and sometimes featuring remarkable people like Nathan. When I reflect upon a decade of meeting these people, I would not characterize any of them as realistic. Here are just a few of them:
Jackie Joyner-Kersee – A young woman from East St. Louis with asthma sets the world record for the heptathlon in track. A record which still stands to this day.
Trevor Bunch – Born with tibial dysplasia (the bones in his lower legs did not develop), Bunch became a state champion wrestler and today is competing in power lifting championships around the world.
Travis Sheridan – The new kid in town who, in less than two years, has done more to reshape the conversations in the start-up community than those of us who have lived here for years.
David Steward – After being told (at times by his own family) that an African American had no business in technology, he founded a little company with an audacious name, World Wide Technology, in 1990. A couple of years ago, it boasted revenues of 3.2 billion dollars, which makes it one of the country’s largest African-American owned firms.
I could go on ad nauseum. But you get the idea. Nothing incredible happens without first accepting circumstances and creating a new reality.
Start Being Unrealistic
There is a place that you can start to practice this notion of unreality. One of our clients at Kolbeco is Krilogy, a financial services firm. They have an admirable company value: Love every idea for five minutes. It does not have to be the rest of the day or even the rest of the meeting. But the bravery it requires to suspend disbelief for just five minutes can be enough to alter reality.
You are a person with creative means, so know two things: You are not alone in your desire for creating something remarkable, and we are counting on you. Do not accept circumstances as reality. Circumstances are fleeting. Look at Nathan and Jackie and David. There is a bigger story. You will never know what it can be unless you dare – not just to dream – but to live out your unreality.