The School of Hard Knocks

Robert Terson

The eternal question is “Why are some driven and others not?” If you’re not hungry, obsessed to succeed, you lack the fuel to ignite your rocket to the stars; you may blow a lot of smoke, but you’re not going anywhere.

When people ask me where I went to school, I tell them I attended the School of Hard Knocks and am better off for it. I’ve known salespeople more educated and a lot smarter than me, but alas, all too often their selling careers came to naught because they lacked the spark plug of motivation. Perhaps they’d have been better off attending the School of Hard Knocks, too.

Allow me to share some personal history, which pinpoints what motivated me to become a lifelong achiever: money often was a thorny issue for my family. It was feast or famine, with way too much time on the famine side of the ledger. Its apex hit when I was 19, when my father left us. I didn’t know where he was for three long years. After foreclosure proceedings, the modest townhouse we lived in was repossessed; that was 1963. Today I weep for the wretched souls who have been thrown out of their homes, especially the children.

My mother went to work in a clothing store for $60 a week; I got a job at Bankers Life and Casualty Company for $90 a week and went to DePaul University nights and Saturdays. We moved into a dinky three-and-a-half-room third-floor apartment—my mother, grandmother, brother (he was 12), and me; I slept in a hallway. We probably qualified for welfare but were too proud to ask for it. I was an angry young man who vowed I’d live my life much differently. I was going to be successful and live well, so too my family; poverty was about as much fun as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, far more frightening than any prospect. It robbed you of your dignity, humiliated you, poisoned your self-esteem, and left you scarred for life. Those bitter memories stalked me, drove me, and explain why I never take anything for granted, why I sold fearlessly. There is poverty and there is success, and success is a hell of a lot more fun.

So there you have it—the fuel for my fire.

When things come too easily for us, we tend to take them for granted, as opposed to being grateful for being so blessed. It’s been my experience that students of the School of Hard Knocks are so much more appreciative of the good things in their lives, compared to their counterparts who had everything handed to them on a silver platter.

Ironically, those of us who attended Hard-Knock classes have gone out of our way to make sure our children had every advantage that we didn’t, which may be the greatest mistake of our lives. My late mother, in a flash of anger, stunned me when she said, “You’re whole generation spoiled your kids!”  My God, it wasn’t just me; it was my whole generation!

In retrospect, that was understandable from a woman of the Greatest Generation, who had a Depression-era mentality. I thought she was dead wrong at the time, but as I approach 69, I’m starting to wonder if maybe she called it right.

What do you think?

After all is said and done, success comes down to “How badly do you want it?”  And the “school” you attended can play a huge role in your level of hunger.

What “school” did you go to?

How hungry are you?