Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Career Crucibles

LAW 5:


You are responsible for the direction of your life and the design of your world.


Law 5 is easy to stomach when everything in life is going peachy. But what about when the going gets rough? To help illuminate the power of this law even and especially during periods of your life when everything seems to be going wrong, I have chosen to share the story of my own career crucibles.

This book did not write itself, nor did I magically become educated and capable of organizing and writing. It is a capstone project that began nearly 30 years ago. This chapter shares the difficult journey I had before realizing success as a professional speaker, writer, and originator of the SAL theory & model.

According to Napoleon Hill, the author of Think & Grow Rich, “all who succeed in life get off to a bad start, and pass through many heartbreaking struggles before they ‘arrive.’”[1] How true these words proved to be in my own life! This chapter chronicles my own “bad start,” and touches on the SAL initiatives I engaged to rise from the ashes.

BLUE-COLLAR BEGINNINGS


Gardening with my Grandmother Smith, Circa 1986
Growing up in the rural Four Corners area of the United States afforded me with many opportunities to learn and work in a variety of manual labor, blue-collar jobs. My dad dabbled—and even excelled—at a variety of different trades over the course of his eclectic career. As a grocer, teacher, general contractor, developer, photographer, salesman, landlord and property manager, local historian, and journalist, there was little he could not do, or had not tried professionally. Whatever his employ, he was a very hard worker and was unusually visionary and ambitious—sometimes to his detriment. His example—and the work opportunities he provided—gave us Jensen boys our high capacity for proactivity and productivity, especially when it comes to sweat labor. Before the age of 20, I had been engaged in the following modes of labor and/or employment:

  • Gardening, Grounds keeping, & Landscaping
  • Farming & Ranching 
  • Construction
  • Catering
  • Flyer distribution
  • 18-wheeler truck wreckage cleanup
  • Concessions

With the exception of a two-year foray into journalism as a news writer and photographer for a local weekly, virtually every kind of employment I did growing up involved manual labor. In college, my blue-collar roots helped me make ends meet as I worked alongside my older brothers building shelves for hire in people’s garages and basements. I also did a lot of pro bono babysitting for older siblings.

A STINT IN RETAIL SALES


The day after I completed my undergraduate degree in July 2003, I moved from Utah to Georgia. With the exception of a mutual fund that had grown to approximately $3,500, I had little money and no immediate prospects for work in the midst of the post 9/11 recession. Moving in with my cousins, I worked part-time in their home-run software business, and then eventually found work as a retail salesperson in a FranklinCovey store a in a local mall. It was definitely not a good fit for me. The job felt like a prison sentence, and the end of each shift felt like cashing in a get-out-of-jail-free card.

FIRST SHOT AT TEACHING SEMINARS


At this same time, I began flirting with the idea of becoming an entrepreneurial writer and public speaker on personal leadership and other related subjects. The idea led to the development of a seminar on personal leadership for high school students. Through an acquaintance, I found an opportunity to deliver my nascent seminar for the first time at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Georgia, in the fall of 2003. One of the school’s administrators was kind enough to give me a couple of trial runs with small student groups, and an opportunity to hire me if they liked what they saw. It was a great experience, but they didn’t hire me. Meanwhile, I also tried out for a position as a speaker with an organization affiliated with my church. I gave it my all, but the observer suggested I “try again in five years.”

BROKE, AND HEART BROKEN


After six months, I was broke. Retrieving what little savings I had from my mutual fund, I made a westward trek back to Utah, largely to pursue a fledgling e-mail romance. It took one date for the woman to decide our conversational chemistry did not carry over in person. I was devastated, more because the rejection was a profound reminder of my insecurities than because I was convinced the woman was “the one.” Desperate for validation, I tried to make it work and she predictably recoiled. It was a humiliating experience.

By this time I was destitute, heartbroken/ego-crushed, and had no immediate prospects for employment. Adding to my external misfortunes, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) caused me to obsess relentlessly about the woman who rejected me, and what a fool I had made of myself. I was profoundly discouraged and downtrodden. The sum of it all drove me back into therapy and onto medication. The memory alone serves as permanent reminder of a time in my life I never wish to revisit.

DESPERATION, AND TEMP WORK


Desperate for work, I was ready to jump at any employment I could find. Shortly after signing up with a temp agency, I received a two-day position at the NuSkin distribution plant in downtown Provo, Utah, where I packaged orders on an assembly line. Arrogance, exacerbated by failure, coursed through my veins as I boxed up lotions, shampoos, vitamins, and gels for hours on end. Here I was, a college graduate, filling boxes on an assembly line. But in hindsight, this—and other events like it—was a proverbial blessing in disguise. Life was humbling me, and that was precisely what I needed.

A TURN AT TABLE SERVING


Temp-jobs were relatively rare, so I began proactively searching for other employment. A cousin helped me land a job as a server in a Mexican restaurant. I was paid a little over two dollars per hour, plus tips. I was, at best, an average server. I came to realize what a multi-tasking monstrosity food serving was, and I learned to respect above average or stellar servers for their capacity to keep it all straight.

Whether it was a forgotten straw, a mixed-up order, or a dropped plate of food, I consistently made more errors than any of my colleagues. I was excellent at focusing on a task or project. I was also good at working hard and sticking with a task until I finished it. I was not as effective at handling the minutiae of such a detailed-oriented job. I lasted less than two months before giving my two-weeks’ notice. I’m confident my manager breathed a sigh of relief at my resignation.

THE LEADERSHIP CENTER


About three weeks after taking the Mexican restaurant job, I landed another job as the director’s assistant at the Leadership Center at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University – my alma mater). Through the college’s employment center, I learned that a Dr. Bruce Jackson had recently become the new director of the Center for the Advancement of Leadership in the Business School.

It just so happened that I knew Bruce; my brothers and I built shelves for him in his garage and basement a few years earlier. I admired his education, personality, and professional interest in human and organizational development. He was an energetic, driven, and visionary. The moment I heard what Bruce was doing, I knew I wanted to work for him.

Donning my best suit, I solicited an opportunity to meet with Dr. Jackson in his office. After learning more about his work at the Leadership Center, I confidently proceeded to “sell” him on what I could do for him. I painted a vision of how I could make his job easier and help him to achieve his goals if he would hire me. As it turned out, they were considering opening up an assistant position anyway; my personal pitch gave them a reason to accelerate the process.

My pay was pathetic—$7.72 per hour with a cap of 30 hours per week—hardly what I felt I was worth as a college graduate. I took the job, however, because I knew the experience would be worth its weight in gold. I was right. Working with Dr. Jackson was one of the great professional experiences, opportunities, and adventures of my life. Bruce did his preaching through example; he was an exceptional boss and mentor.

My experiences at the Leadership Center built the foundation for my becoming a professional writer, speaker, and entrepreneur. Aside from the chance to observe a remarkable self-action leader like Bruce every day, I also gained opportunities to meet several high profile persons, such as Jon Huntsman Jr. (future governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China), Thurl Bailey (former NBA Basketball player), Sharlene Wells Hawkes (former Miss America), and the President of my college.

Because my wages and work hours were limited at the Leadership Center, I remained desperate for cash, and continued to seek out other ways to make ends meet. I ended up going back to part-time work helping my brothers build shelves in people’s garages and basements throughout the community. I also got a few extra bucks laboring at $10 an hour hauling rocks and performing other landscaping chores for Bruce and his wife. All the while, I dreamed about where I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do in the future. In the meantime, all I could do was continue to “labor and to wait.”

ENTREPRENEURIAL RETURN TO MY ROOTS


The temporary work I did for the Jacksons gave me an idea. Why not advertise my services as a yard worker like my brothers and I advertised for Jensen Brothers’ Shelving? I started designing, printing, and then running several hundred of my own flyers. Bereft of my own yard tools, or a truck to haul them in, I employed the slogan, Your Tools, My Muscles.

I distributed several hundred of these flyers in local neighborhoods, but received only one job. Actually, I gained two jobs, but one was from a family member who needed some yard work done and felt sorry for me.

SOWING THE SEEDS OF MY SEMINARS


Earlier that year (2004), I resumed work on my personal leadership seminars. I found the work unusually engaging and exciting. Whenever I spent time developing material or accompanying slide shows, I entered into powerful FLOW [3] states that would completely absorb me and cause the time to fly by. It felt like work I was born to do. But still, the lack of financial remuneration for my efforts remained a pressing problem. Nevertheless, I persisted, and by the end of the year, I had taught 13 more pro bono seminars at five locations around Utah. The feedback from seminar attendees was excellent and vindicated the value of, and general interest in, my message of personal leadership.

NETWORK MARKETING & DIRECT SALES


Despite my failure as a Cutco Cutlery salesman in high school, a single day in a sales position in Atlanta, my distasteful experiences in retail, and my lifelong aversion to sales in general, I pursued a marketing opportunity as a direct sales representative of Pre-Paid Legal (now Legal Shield). You’d think I would have learned my lesson about sales by this time, but I remained convinced that I must pay my dues by willingly doing difficult and unpleasant things in order to earn true success.

Predictably, I failed again in another naïve attempt to succeed at doing something I hated. For all the time and effort I invested in my Pre-Paid Legal business over the course of several months, I earned less than $500 cash. Like every other sales position I had ever pursued, it was mostly a waste of time financially. But, also like all other sales positions—and any other position I had enthusiastically pursued—I also learned a lot about the world around me, the principles of personal success, and most importantly, about myself. On the one hand, it was yet another terrible financial investment. On the other, it was another marvelous educational investment, the interest of which would, in due time, pay rich financial and other dividends.

SEMINAR SEEDLINGS BEGIN TO SPROUT


In 2005, I redoubled my efforts to succeed as an entrepreneurial public speaker by sharing my message on personal leadership to high school and college-aged students.  Through resources at the Leadership Center, I was able to contact virtually every high school in the State of Utah and offer my motivational speaking services for free. This generated a positive response from many schools, and I successfully scheduled 38 additional seminars at 22 locations all over the state during the first half of 2005.  Feedback from students continued to be very positive.[4]


  • Jordan is a very good speaker.  His seminar was lively, and actually kept me awake.
  •  I enjoyed listening to Jordan; he has given me a lot to think about.
  •  Jordan spoke well; he knows how to talk to teens.

While such comments were nice to hear, what really grabbed my attention were the goals students were setting after attending one of my seminars.

  • I am going to study at least 30 minutes 5 times a week.
  • I will not skip chemistry.
  • I am going to break up with my boyfriend.
  • I am going to write a personal constitution and organize my priorities in the order of importance.
  • I will exercise regularly rather than throwing up.

RISKING IT ALL ON ONE TURN OF PITCH-AND-TOSS


British Poet Rudyard Kipling
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
All the positive feedback, endorsements, and student goal-setting built my confidence and bolstered my credibility. It also encouraged me personally, and strengthened my belief that my passionate message of personal leadership needed to be shared with others on a large scale.

I was outgrowing my position at the Leadership Center. But, the problem of not having any money remained; my combined income from all of my part-time jobs was barely enough to make ends meet. As Stephen R. Covey often remarked: “no margin, no mission.”[5] I had no margin, but I was definitely on a mission, and started seeking out financial backers from among my immediate and extended family members. Initially, I was successful in doing so, and was ultimately able to obtain loans of approximately $45,000.

By the middle of the year (2005), I began working full-time on my new venture. I named and incorporated my company, had a professional website developed, wrote, directed, and produced a 15-minute professional marketing DVD, hired the production and printing of 5,000 advertising brochures, marketing letters, envelopes, and business cards, and began work on a full-length book.

LOSING, AND STARTING AGAIN AT MY BEGINNINGS


By the end of the year, I had mailed out thousands of marketing brochures and letters and finished the first few drafts of my book. I worked hard on my new venture, and was optimistic about its prospects of success. But out of my 4,800 mailings, which cost thousands of dollars and took months to prepare and send out, I got only four or five calls and booked only two seminars—one in Colorado and one in California. It was exciting to get my first paid gigs as a professional public speaker, but it did not alter the fact that my marketing offensive had been an abysmal failure. Realizing the local market for my services would be small if I stayed in Utah, I decided to move back to Atlanta, where I would seek my fortunes for a second time.

Late in December 2005, while recovering from a broken collarbone, I packed up my car with my necessary earthly possessions and remaining marketing materials. It was December in Utah and the weather had turned cold and snowy. My little Honda Civic LX was stuffed full of most of my earthly possessions. Recognizing how pathetic such a scene must have looked, I forced myself to consider it from the perspective of a difficult step leading toward a great future. But in all honesty, things were much bleaker than my positive attitude implied.

The day after Christmas in 2005, I began my journey east—alone. Upon arriving in Georgia, I foolishly entered into an apartment contract I could not afford, thinking I would make good as I continued to develop my business. I was determined to pursue my leap of faith to the end, be it bitter or sweet. I started out sleeping on an air mattress, but as it developed a hole, I ended up sleeping on the floor.

I went to work and finished my book. I began writing e-mails to scores of literary agencies in an effort to secure an agent. I wrote many more e-mails seeking out endorsements from high-profile leaders. I naively wrote to many famous individuals I did not personally know (like First Lady Laura Bush, governors, senators and representatives, movie stars, and college football coaches I admired). After a while I began receiving polite rejections from some of them.

The most painful rejection came from the office of Stephen R. Covey. I all but worshipped Dr. Covey’s work, and by extension, Dr. Covey himself. I had been greatly influenced by his writing and speaking, and felt in many ways that I was following his footsteps with my own work on personal leadership.

My book didn’t even make it past his screening committee. It was as though Stephen Covey himself was saying to me, “Jordan, you are neither ready nor worthy of my commendation and endorsement.” The letter stung, filling my heart and soul with the acrid bitterness of failure.

While most of the literary agencies also sent rejection letters, I eventually received an offer—and signed with the agent right away. Success at last! Or so I thought.

The money I had borrowed from family members in 2005 dried up in 2006. Multiple requests for new loans were refused by both immediate and extended family members. It was terribly embarrassing. Worse, I was now approximately $70,000 in debt, about $13,000 of which was on credit cards. During the year 2005, my total income had been less than $3,000. My rent payment was $700 a month, and I had zero income. It was a matter of weeks before I would be completely out of money.

I began desperately scrambling to recover financial solvency. I applied for a job at Target. I looked for employment opportunities online. I designed flyers advertising my services as a tutor and hand-delivered over a thousand of them. Nothing came of it. I had no job and no more seminars scheduled; I was on the verge of eviction and was running out of food.

SAVING GRACE & LESSONS LEARNED


Desperate as my situation had become, I was far too embarrassed and prideful to crawl back to my family in Utah, or to ask anyone in my family for financial assistance ever again. While I had not entirely given up hope, I realized that my faith was starting to look like foolishness, and I felt humiliated. I resorted to petitioning a local ecclesiastical leader in my church for assistance with food and rent. To my everlasting gratitude, those gracious church offerings helped me get through a deeply trying time in my life.

Reflecting back on this difficult period, and knowing what I know now, I would never repeat these same steps again. Yet foolish and impractical as they were, these steps also carried with them the benefit of proving to myself that I had the courage to take a leap of faith for something I really believed in—and hold nothing back in the process. I learned some important things about myself during this time period that will forever serve as an anchor to my personal confidence and self-image. Moreover, in time, extraordinary blessings from these risks began to enter my life, the timing of which would not be of my choosing.

ROCK BOTTOM AND SUBSTITUTE TEACHING


I continued to work diligently on my business while harboring largely unrealistic hopes that my business would somehow take off and rescue me from drowning in debt. I finished my book and received the first 565 copies at my apartment on April 6, 2006. My roommate helped me carry them up to our third-floor apartment. I feverishly went to work sending out copies to school administrators and others, hoping to sell my message and begin drawing attention to my work and garnering additional paid seminars. While I mailed out nearly 100 copies of my book and DVD, I received very few “bites.”

Recognizing my ship was not likely to come in anytime soon, I continued putting in applications for work to acquire some regular income. I contacted a local newspaper to offer my experience as a reporter and writer, but had no luck. I did online research in an attempt to discover opportunities that fit my education and skill sets but gained no leads. I finally found success with an application to become a substitute teacher in a suburban Atlanta school district.
I began substitute teaching in February and continued the rest of the school year. My bishop also connected me with a roommate who was able to help me subsidize my oppressive rent-payment for about six weeks. With help from my church, additional rent money from my temporary roommate, an extremely modest income as a substitute teacher, a little unsolicited help from my dear father, a couple of speaking gigs, and one handsome book sales contract in Virginia, I was able to make ends meet until the end of June. By this time, however, I had begun to receive letters and calls initiating the process for eviction from my apartment and the repossession of my car.
Having unwisely maxed out every credit card I had (five different cards for a total of about $13,000) in an “all-chips-in” gamble on my fledgling business, I began to be hounded by my creditors. I had also gotten braces on my teeth 18 months earlier and had to foot the bill for a mandatory—and expensive—oral operation before moving back to Georgia. My payments were perpetually late.

The stress and strain of my financial duress permeated almost every area of my life. A March 26, 2006 journal entry reads:

Tonight I went to a lavish feast at the ———’s house in Alpharetta [as part of a church activity]. They live in a palatial residence in a posh neighborhood and it was good to fill my gut to the gills. I have this fascinating, almost nagging, feeling inside that nudges me to stuff myself as much as possible when I’m faced with free food—as if the more I shovel in, the longer I will be able to go without eating again—just in case I don’t have anything to eat in a few days.

 

PRESSING ON


Around this same time, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was on crutches for a couple of weeks. For my entire life leading up to November 2005, I had never been seriously injured. Then in the course of four months I broke my collarbone and badly sprained my ankle. As the old saying goes, when it rains, it pours!

Through it all, I continued to diligently build my business. I sought out endorsement quotes, wrote and published online newsletters, signed up educators for my newsletter (over 30,000 in all—a project requiring a mammoth investment of time), mailed out scores of book copies, developed email marketing materials, and worked on my book proposal with my literary agent. I was still a long ways from giving up. I was also starting to get feedback on my book, which, like the feedback from my seminars, was very encouraging.

I was blessed to book a paid speaking gig in March at Monticello High School in my hometown. My dad sent me off with an envelope, which he instructed me not to open until I was on my way. To my great thanks and relief, it held $200 cash. It helped me get back to Georgia and eased my extreme financial angst a bit.

While my income as a substitute teacher was insufficient, it was certainly better than nothing. But school would be ending soon, which meant no more subbing jobs for 10 weeks. Having recently finished my official book proposal, my literary agent and his girlfriend began pitching my book to major publishers. My big breakthrough hinged on securing a book deal. I hoped and I prayed, but the book deal never materialized. Every publishing house that reviewed my proposal rejected it. It was a complete bust, and my agent—who, along with his girlfriend, had invested 75 hours in the project—regretted taking a chance on me. I could hardly blame him.

A TEMPORARY TERMINUS


I had made one heap of all my winnings, risked it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss—and lost. Now it was up to me to prove that I was capable of starting again at my beginnings. It was time to wake up from my dreams of a storybook ascent into literary and financial fame and glory. The harshness of reality crushed my fantasies of becoming a Stephen Covey/Tony Robbins smash hit with the teenage crowd. This disappointment and temporary failure led to a period of several years where I lost almost all interest in building my business. Up to my eyeballs in debt, I felt like a miserable failure. Healing from this devastation would take over five years.

MY SAVING GRACE


A second eviction notice signaled I was losing my battle with my creditors and the clock. Unable to make it another month, I turned to the last source of help I still dared turn to: my dear cousin Ida and her then husband. These were the same cousins I had lived with back in 2003. Ida had already offered me a place to stay when she heard I was moving back to Georgia in 2006, but deeply desiring to “make it on my own,” I had declined her offer. This time, I no longer had the luxury of doing so. If I wanted to stay in Georgia, I had two choices: move back in with my cousins, or live in my car.

Ida and her husband generously offered me free room and board while I got back on my feet. They also lent me over two thousand dollars so I could avoid eviction, car repossession, and bankruptcy. In addition to a roof over my head and food to eat, they also gave me a summer job tending their two sons. I worked full-time as a nanny through the summer, and part-time in the fall (after the boys got out of school) while I continued to build my business. The money I earned allowed me to keep my car and continue making minimum payments on my interest incurring debts.

I eventually met with a bankruptcy lawyer in Atlanta to learn about my options. I chose to avoid bankruptcy for three reasons. First, the idea was anathema to my sense of personal integrity—I rightfully owed every penny I had borrowed, and felt duty-bound to pay it all back. Second, I did not want to risk damaging my credit score any more than I already had. Third, from a purely practical standpoint, I did not have the cash necessary to pay the attorney fees it would cost to file. I was too poor to declare bankruptcy!


MY LONG WALK THROUGH THE DESERT CONTINUES


Due to my book’s total failure in the New York publishing house market, I had to rely solely on my self-published version. Thankfully, towards the end of the year I ended up finding a smaller market publisher all on my own. He agreed to publish an edited and revised iteration of my book. After diligently completing the revised manuscript and turning it over to him, he dishonestly reneged on the contract, and that was the end of that. Beginning in January 2007, I went back to substitute teaching, picking up jobs at every opportunity.

My marketing efforts from the year before resulted in several more speaking gigs (some paid, some not) in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and California. That November my girlfriend, Lina, attended the Alabama seminar, a keynote address in Birmingham where I spoke to my largest audience to date—1,200 students! It was thrilling to speak to a crowd that big on a subject I felt so strongly about.

Despite this and other bright spots along the way, I was still broke as a joke financially. When school ended in May 2007, I was again desperate to find more work since I would be without teaching income during the summer. I found a part-time job helping to dry cars for a car washing business. The work started very early in pre-dawn darkness and continued into the heat and humidity of hot Atlanta summer days. Armed with nothing more than a chamois cloth and my own elbow-grease, the work was tedious and physically taxing, but did pay a few extra bucks.

Fortunately, I soon found a full-time job as a groundskeeper making $11 per hour. I worked on the work crew throughout the summer and into the late fall. For the first time in over eight years, I actually had a full-time job that offered 40 hours per week. For this, I felt profoundly grateful.

The work was not easy. It involved almost exclusively outdoor, manual labor. It was hard work in the hot and humid summer sun of Atlanta, Georgia. Moreover, August 2007 was one of the hottest summers on record in Atlanta, with temperatures rising uncharacteristically above 100 degrees on multiple days during the month of August. Such temperatures could beat down relentlessly as we weeded, pruned, planted, trimmed, de-rooted, swept, and de-littered the property where we worked.

While I wasn’t earning much money, I was developing patience, character, and gratitude; which was worth far more than the few dollars I earned along the way.

THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL FINALLY APPEARS


Around the same time I got the landscaping job, I attended an employment meeting at my church. I met a man there who (after learning of my talents, experiences, and career ambitions) asked me if I had heard about contract training. I had not, but I was immediately intrigued by the concept.

Soon after the meeting, I researched the industry online and was able to identify a couple of companies that specialized in contract training. I prepared and submitted an application and resumé to both companies. One of them rejected me, citing insufficient experience. The other one was willing to give me a chance to audition.

My live audition was successful. A few months later, I took a week off work to drive to Kansas City for the three-day training program. It was a rough trip, as I could not afford motel rooms and had to sleep in my car at rest stops alongside the Interstates.

Once at the training, the company declined my request to teach a course on leadership and signed me up to teach a grammar course instead. Grammar was about the last course I wanted to teach. During the training, I felt like giving up and driving home; but at this point in my life, my options were limited. I was a beggar, not a chooser, and not completing the course would have been epically foolish. I had to suck it up, humble myself, and see the thing through. After putting up an initial fight about the grammar course, I decided that I better humble myself if I wanted to have any work at all. Ironically, I excelled in teaching the grammar course, and it became one of my favorites to teach.

To my great relief and satisfaction, I successfully completed the training and signed an official contract. As a contractor, I would not have benefits like I would as a direct-hire employee, but they would book my seminars, pay for my travel expenses, and remit my speaker’s fees and commissions.

One of the requirements of contracting with Fred Pryor was to have a standing credit card with at least a $2,500 limit. With my poor credit score, procuring such credit card was not an option, so I persuaded my mom to let me take a card out in her name, promising I would pay the balance of my travel expenses with seminar teaching income—a promise I kept.

A month after certification, the company booked me for my first seminar run in Texas. I taught four grammar and proofreading seminars in four consecutive days. My first seminar was in College Station, Texas. When I arrived in Houston prior to my College Station seminar, I recall having nary a cent to my name besides that one credit card in my Mom’s name.

The seminar run went well. Though I had been out of college for over four years, I finally receive my first paycheck making professional wages. I had a long ways to go, but this opportunity was a most welcomed pinprick of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.

Meanwhile, the financial trouble that climaxed in early 2006 had not abated much at this point. I remained consistently one to two payments behind on my car. My father had helped me purchase the vehicle new back in 2003 for a very low interest rate (0.9%). The problem was that no down payment was made on the vehicle, so I was saddled for years with a $315 monthly payment—a large sum for a 2003 Honda Civic LX. My dad bailed me out back in 2006 when I otherwise would have lost the car. In the meantime, I had made payments whenever I possibly could. Somehow, by the grace of God, I avoided repossession.

THE TURNING POINT


By early 2008, I was receiving seminar bookings with increasing regularity. While I was confident in my ability as a seminar presenter, I was both surprised and encouraged by this atypical career success. Nevertheless, I remained under terrible stress about my financial future. What if this new training gig did not pan out? What if I did not receive sufficient bookings to make ends meet? Was my business ever going to take off? My anxiety led me to begin inquiring about career opportunities in the military. One of my roommates at the time was a captain in the U.S. Army. As a college graduate, I could join the army and quickly become an officer. Such a move would guarantee a consistent stream of income for the first time in my adult life.

But while an honorable profession in my view, joining the Army would be an enormous deviation from the career path I had embarked upon thus far. Furthermore, how would such a decision affect my chances with my girlfriend Lina, a budding—and brilliant— mechanical engineer who would be successful in the business world after graduation? What if Lina dumped me? Such questions produced plenty of angst in my mind and heart, despite my improving circumstances. I was fortunate at this time to have a compassionate roommate who afforded me some grace time to make late payments on my rent. I also received help again from my church to make a couple more rental payments.

Thankfully, Fred Pryor booked steady work for me the rest of that year and throughout the next (2008). This work provided me with opportunities to travel all over the Eastern and Central United States and provided me with invaluable experience as a professional seminar facilitator. Before long, I was making enough money to pay my bills on the time for the first time in a long time. It was at this time that I began the long process of paying off my interest-bearing debts. I got to the point where I was meeting all of my interest-bearing obligations on time. I was also able to start making small, token payments on the non-interest bearing debts I owed my family members.

In February 2008, Lina decided to take a chance on me despite my financial troubles. I will forever be grateful for her faith. On August 8, 2008, we were married. After our wedding, we honeymooned for a week in a time-share hotel my Dad and step-mom had given us for our wedding. At week’s end, we boarded separate planes to fly back to Atlanta. While I was sad to not be on the plane with her, I was grateful to be on my way to Orlando, Florida for a week of seminars—tangible evidence of my growing self-reliance and career success. I continued teaching seminars through the fall. In October 2008, I had my biggest month to date—15 seminars! I made more money in one month than I had in all of 2005.

OUR FORTUNES FLOURISH AS WALL STREET CRUMBLES


That fall, the infamous financial meltdowns on Wall Street and the bursting of the housing bubble marked the beginning of the worst recession since the Great Depression. As the nation’s financial woes were just beginning, ours were ironically ending. I was teaching seminars and continued my substitute teaching on days when I was not traveling for Fred Pryor. Lina, a senior in college, dedicated a sizable portion of her time each week to attending career fairs and making application with numerous companies.

Her hard work and diligent efforts—in between managing a full-load of classes—paid off. That fall, she accepted a job in Houston, Texas with a Fortune 100 corporation making a handsome starting salary. We reeled with astonishment and excitement at the welcomed news. It was an unprecedented and most welcomed development, and I couldn’t have been prouder of Lina for her achievement. We packed up and moved to Houston the following May following her graduation.

CHANGING COURSE AMIDST THE GREAT RECESSION


As 2009 dawned, the economic recession that had been strangling the American and global economies dried up most of my business. I went from getting 10-15 seminar bookings a month to a mere one or two. It was frustrating to see my progress stunted due to external realities beyond my control, but as a serious self-action leader, I knew I must remain focused on what I could control and proactively seek out new opportunities.

Recognizing my career opportunities had been blunted yet again, I began to consider my options for increasing my education. I eventually decided to pursue a Doctoral degree in education, and was accepted to a program in educational leadership and change at Fielding Graduate University out of Santa Barbara, California--the same school where my mentor, Dr. Bruce Jackson, had earned his Ph.D. Despite the delay to my career advancement, I welcomed the opportunity to enhance my education, and felt greatly blessed that Lina’s new job would make it possible for me to go to school without incurring any more debt. As I worked through my doctoral studies, I found ways to build upon the work I had started with my business. In my dissertation, I was able to further flesh out the model of personal leadership I had put forth in my original book. I also worked diligently to cultivate key relationships within a growing network of highly capable and caring people.

TIME TO CELEBRATE


Shortly after Lina’s graduation from Georgia Tech in April 2009, we moved to Houston where she began her new job. I was very proud of her. She had worked hard her four years in college, both as a student and as an employee. She had also spent three semesters working full time as a co-op employee for an engineering firm. She completed her undergraduate degree with a 3.97 GPA. Finally, she had been proactive in her efforts to secure employment at a time (fall of 2008) when the economy was entering its worst recession since the 1930s. This middle class girl, who started her education in the public schools of Homestead, Florida, now had a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from one of the top five engineering schools in America, and one of the best programs in the world.

After her graduation, we went on a weeklong cruise to the Western Caribbean to celebrate. Neither of us had ever been on a cruise before. As we sailed away—hand-in-hand—from the Port of Miami that beautiful spring afternoon, I tried my best to just soak in the moment, which represented the culmination of so much hard work and struggle. The opportunity to enjoy such a luxury was an indicator that our lives were changing in a big way, and for the better. We now had money to do things we could only dream of just a few months previously. More importantly, we had the power to pay our bills, shrink our debts, and begin saving for the future. It took several years, but we made our last debt payment in the spring of 2012. Since then, we have continued our earning and saving habits, and today, we have a growing nest egg that provides an enormous sense of independence, security, and confidence.

MY YEAR TEACHING HIGH SCHOOL


With my seminar work dried up to almost non-existent by the spring of 2009, I set to work finding alternative employment as a classroom teacher. Several months before we left Georgia, I began the process of getting certified to teach in Texas.

After moving to Houston, I completed multiple online applications with five different school districts in the greater Houston area. I also sent résumés out to schools advertising open positions. My online job search bore little fruit, and secured zero interviews. Then, an educator advised me to personally visit schools to drop off résumés and make face-to-face contact with administrators. I explained to her that most schools has explicitly requested that applicants not make personal visits. Her simple reply was, “if you want a job, you need to go out and make personal contacts.” Intuitively, I knew she was right, and knew I must leave the comfort zone of sending out applications on my computer, don my best suit, arm myself with copies of my resume, published book, and marketing DVD, and begin making personal visits.

I proceeded to visit every high school in the Cypress-Fairbanks (Cy-Fair) Independent School District. Doing so enabled me to secure three interviews. On my first interview, I was offered a job before I even had time to get to the other two interviews.

Thus began the single most difficult professional challenge I have ever undertaken. As a result, I learned and grew a lot. For the first time in my life, I was making a college-educated annual salary. In the Cypress-Ridge school system, I was a minority, and a rookie to boot. Moreover, I was still working through certain OCD issues that slowed my success as a teacher. Indeed, I was not always successful. In fact, my rough start landed me in the principal’s office after only six weeks on the job because my classroom failure rate was the highest in the entire school—and there were nearly 3,000 students enrolled in the school where I taught. The Principal was nice about it, but he let me know that such a rate was not acceptable.

After Thanksgiving, I was called into the Principal’s office again. This time, he was not as congenial as the first time. He even suggested I take some time out over the holidays to reassess if I wanted to continue teaching. I was offended by his implication that I consider quitting mid-year. I was no quitter!

Principal Garcia was a good man, a fine leader, and a successful principal. I was a struggling first-year teacher. Fortunately, I had enough good sense and humility to choose to learn from him. Teaching 130 ninth-graders proved extremely challenging work. The students in my classes faced all sorts of family problems and academic deficiencies that were not my fault, but posed serious problems in my classroom. If I was not willing to square my shoulders to the challenges at hand and take full responsibility for the difficulties I faced, I would continue to flounder as a classroom manager and fail too many of my students. With a respectful firmness, Mr. Garcia helped me to see that he had hired me to solve problems, and that if I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, solve those problems, he would find someone else who would. The lesson was not lost on me, and this bitter dose of reality cut me to the core.

Cypress-Ridge High School
Cy-Fair ISD
Houston, Texas, USA

This was a moment of great decision for me. Would I quit? Would I continue to blame my external circumstances (which were enormously challenging), or would I take full responsibility for my results and go to work on what I could control? The solutions to my problems were difficult, but possible. I was stuck, and the only way to get unstuck was to work on myself.

Practically speaking, quitting was a viable option. With my wife’s salary, we were not going to starve if I opted to focus full time on my doctoral studies. Furthermore, doing so would accelerate my academic progress. My work as a first-year teacher was so demanding and time-intensive (12-hour days were not uncommon my first semester) that I had very little time to work on my studies.

Nevertheless, my sense of self-respect and dignity precluded this option. Furthermore, I knew that giving up would ultimately harm my internal, and perhaps my external, credibility. Who was I to pursue a doctorate in education if I was going to quit midway through a real-life position in education? Quitting would be commensurate with failure, and would be a stain on my character and integrity. I made a commitment to Cy-Ridge for the full-year, and I would keep that commitment.

During the second semester, I stopped complaining and making excuses (mostly) and threw myself into the task before me. I worked to improve the relationships I had with my students, something that Mr. Garcia and his administrative team consistently emphasized as a key to teacher success. I also further developed a system I had started for rewarding positive behavior, punctuality, good grades, and academic improvement. It caught on with the students and helped things improve further.

In concert with focusing on living SAL principles myself, I also focused more on teaching SAL principles to my students. Over time, I began to see individual and collective improvement among my students. Before the year ended, I had lowered my overall classroom failure rate from 38% the first grading period to as low as 11% the fifth grading period.

At the end of the year, Principal Garcia commended me for my hard work and improvement. He also gave me a positive review. I was still far from being a perfect teacher, or even an experienced teacher for that matter. But through a combination of teaching SAL to my students and practicing it myself, the year ended very differently than it started. It was a humbling and rewarding experience for me. I gained a greater respect for the hard work of full-time teachers, and the difficult challenges they are up against in a postmodern public schooling environment. Most importantly, I had a chance once again to successfully apply SAL to a series of poignant problems and watch those problems begin to give way before its power.

OUR MOVE TO NEWFOUNDLAND, AND BACK TO HOUSTON


On the Newfoundland Coast with Friends
Midway through my year teaching, my wife was offered a new assignment with her company in St. John’s, Newfoundland in Canada. She desired to take advantage of the opportunity, and I supported her 100%. She left in March 2010. Determined to finish out my teaching contract, I joined Lina in June.

We lived in St. John’s for two years. This provided a valuable sabbatical to work on my doctoral studies. I also began teaching Fred Pryor seminars again, this time exclusively in Canada, where I taught 70 all-day classes during a 13-month period.

In April 2012, Lina was transferred back to Houston. In March 2013, our first child – Tucker Joseph Jensen – was born. That same month, I completed my doctoral work. We also moved out of our last apartment and into our first home. In a span of three weeks, I became a dad, a doctor, and a homeowner. Life was good!

During 2013 and 2014, I taught seminars extensively for a new training company—the same company that had rejected my application back in 2007, citing insufficient experience. It was rewarding to be accepted this time around. From Hawaii and Great Britain to South Dakota and Puerto Rico, I travelled to many locations throughout the English-speaking world to teach seminars. The positive feedback I had always received as a professional trainer continued unabated, and my platform skills as a trainer grew more polished with every course I taught. By the beginning of 2015, I had spoken publicly over 600 times, most of which were paid, professional, all-day seminar courses.

A POSITIVE AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY


A lot has happened professionally and educationally for me over the past several years. My career crucibles of 2003-2010 have turned into my educational and professional successes of 2007-2015. Since 2001, I have addressed over 20,000 people in 600 audiences in 44 U.S. States, 5 Provinces of Canada, 9 Shires of Great Britain, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. After failing to break a 3.0 grade point average (2.94) in high school, and barely breaking a 3.0 in college (3.2), I finished my doctoral degree with a better than perfect 4.05 GPA. Between 2008 and the end of 2012, we went from being approximately $80,000 in debt to being debt free, living comfortably, and saving for retirement. We were also able to pay cash for my doctoral tuition, books, travel, etc. In the spring of 2010, we made our last interest-bearing debt payment; in the spring of 2012, we made our last non-interest bearing debt payment. We have since compiled a sizable and growing nest egg for retirement. Such a trajectory did not occur over night, but given several years of dedicated hard work, focus, and patience, fortune favored our commitment to SAL.

After all the ups and downs, the debt and angst, the faith and doubt, and the toil and hope, I am proud to say that I have lived what can rightly be called a positive American success story. My parents raised me to believe that America is a land of unbounded potential, and that I could be and do just about anything I set out my mind toward. They taught me that as an American, if I was willing to work hard, follow the rules, and never give up, I could eventually be successful in whatever I set out to accomplish, despite whatever challenges came my way. They were right!

The fruitful realities of this promise took many years to materialize; but now, looking back over more than two decades of “plow[ing] in hope.”[7] The best news is that our journey is, in many ways, just beginning.

By effectively exercising SAL, I was able to take complete responsibility for my professional situation and ultimately transcend the adversity allotted to me by Life and my own decisions. I do not share these stories to try and convince you that I am awesome. I share them to empathize with the very real difficulties you either have, or will yet face, in your own career, and to encourage you to keep going until you eventually transcend them—because that is precisely what you are capable of doing. 

*****

This article was written in January 2015. To learn "the rest of the story" leading up to 2020, you can turn to Dr. Jordan Jensen's Self-Action Leadership Textbook, Volume II. 

Click HERE to buy the SAL Textbook Volume I or II.  


The next chapter builds on my own story of career success through Self-Action Leadership. The story of Dr. Nathaniel J. Williams, Executive Director, is one of the most remarkable self-action leadership success stories I have ever come across, and that you will likely ever hear. Dr. Williams’ story exemplifies the tremendous power of taking complete responsibility for your life, regardless what challenges you may face.





References

[1] Hill, N. (1960). Think & Grow Rich. New York, NY: Fawcett Crest. Page 39.
[2] A line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, A Psalm of Life.
[3] For more information on the art and science of FLOW, see Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperPerennial AND Jackson, B.H. (2011) Finding Your Flow: How to Identify Your Flow Assets and Liabilities—the Keys to Peak Performance Every Day. College Station, TX: Virtualbookworm.com Publishing.
[4] Some student feedback was constructive, and some was apathetic, but there was very little negativity.
[5] Covey, S. R. (2004). The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. New York, NY: Free Press. Page 225.
[6] Among the student body, not the faculty.
[7] 1 Corinthians 9:10

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