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Many entrepreneurs call building a business “back-breaking labour.” Most of the time they are speaking figuratively. Not this guy. I broke my back mountain biking three months after leaving my well-paying job to focus on my startup during the worst recession in Calgary, Alberta in my 40 years. It actually became the recipe for my success.
It was Aug. 26, 2016. I was going to bike to sharpen my mind before tackling my day; however I began my ride angry, unfocused and impatient. I was angry that two staff members at the bike park were late, so the hill couldn’t open yet. Trivial looking back, but I impatiently set off for the skills course.
Mountain biking is analogous to life in that the golden rule is “If you don’t want to hit something, don’t look at it.” Rather than focusing on where you don’t want to go (your fears, for instance) — focus on the line ahead (your goals).
In that unfocused, negative state, I hit an elevated bridge wrong and instead of focusing ahead, my eyes drifted to the inherent danger — the side of the bridge. I landed upside down, head first. After a few moments I could finally move my fingers and toes and take some pained breaths. I had suffered a compression fracture of my fourth and fifth thoracic (mid-back) vertebrae.
In the hospital, doctors warned me that “you won’t be working for a while.” I had my wife bring my laptop to the hospital the next day, and I made myself two promises.
- I would turn this into an opportunity, an unfair advantage somehow.
- I wasn’t going to waste a “perfectly good broken back.”
It took a while to come up with how I would do either, but eventually, an idea turned into a plan that morphed into an actual advantage. As a business and performance coach, I do a lot of speaking engagements. Ironically, my last talk before the accident was titled “Turning Obstacles into Opportunities.” Breaking my back was like padding my resume for that talk!
Leaving the hospital, I had to wear a back brace 24/7 for three months. I couldn’t drive and I was in intense pain. In short, I wasn’t going to build my relatively new coaching practice using conventional methods and networking all over the city.
That back brace, however, opened doors I couldn’t to that point. The next “Turning Obstacles into Opportunities” talk had 160 people sign up. Sure, I had to get really good at bootstrapping my business and I had so little money I was even skipping lunch some days, but my story helped me connect to people. Lots of people. I started appearing as a guest on podcasts telling my story and how I was able to reframe and see opportunities I would have otherwise missed. I had planned to write a book, but was struggling with how to differentiate my book from the thousands out there on strategy, leadership and success. Well, now I had a story!
After less than a year, my business tripled, and I was starting to get opportunities other coaches weren’t. The book was doing well on Amazon and more importantly, I had a story. Every business needs one.
More important than my story however, is the underlying message. This story isn’t about me. It’s about my tribe: entrepreneurs. For every success story, there are a million people you’ve never heard of. It’s that hard, and those reading this know exactly what I mean.
My message is about how can turn your own challenges into opportunities:
1. Accept that your greatest adversity can be your greatest gift.
If you are going through hell, realize that other people have struggled with, or are struggling with, the same or similar challenge. If you have tools, experience and perspective forged through your adversity, you are in a position to help those people.
2. Positioning your business as the solution to your customers’ problems is the key to business success.
Tony Robbins suggests businesses forget their own needs, and instead dive into what their customers’ need. This is echoed by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup with how critical customer intelligence is to iterating your product or service. Learn your customers’ problems!
3. Know your story.
It’s near common sense sales advice that your customers don’t buy your product or service — they buy you. Reflect on what has brought you here, be vulnerable enough to share that story and you will humanize yourself and multiply your relatability with your target audience.
4. Rethink your thinking.
Breaking my back left me with such a huge mountain to climb, there was no time for excuses, procrastination or limiting beliefs. I had to become the best version of myself in thought, attitude and action. Learn how to see opportunity, or at least a lesson, in every challenge. Train your brain to go from “why me?” to “where’s the opportunity?” as fast as possible.
5. Get real clear on the scoreboard.
Know what success looks like, and remember you A) define success for yourself, and B) had better do so consciously. Know your goals; know what makes you happy and attack success instead of working away on autopilot.
6. Our business, our health and our success is a product of our habits and choices.
Our results are the output, while our habits and actions are the input. Want better results? Adjust the input variables that are within your control.
Lastly, remember that success is not the absence of adversity. Your adversity is often your gift, so rather than wish you a life of ease, my hope is that you gain the wisdom and perspective it takes to turn your obstacles into opportunities. You don’t do anyone any favors by playing small with your gifts my friends. Go put your dent in the universe.