As small business owners, we sometimes have days in which we run short of time, money, patience, or expertise. Resources seem to be stretched thin or gone altogether. I recently watched a fascinating documentary which reminded me that we always have one unique resource on tap. We need only decide to use it.
In the beginning of the Werner Herzog film, Little Dieter Wants to Fly, Dieter Dengler is shown habitually opening, closing, and re-opening doors—his car door, the front door to his house, interior doors. An ex-prisoner of war, he does this as an intentional reminder to be grateful for the fact that he can open a door. His house is full of paintings of open doors and the exterior walls are mostly made of windows. No one is ever again going to lock him up or keep him in the dark.
The film speaks volumes about the man’s life that can’t be conveyed in a short article. What I can relay however, is his ability to transform suffering into an asset. He survives on that which others discard and finds strength when all seems to be lost.
Dengler’s story begins as a pre-teen boy growing up in the utter devastation of bombed-out Germany. He talks about scavenging the ruins of buildings for wall paper. When he and his brothers collected enough they’d take it home so his mother could boil it for dinner. The nutrients in the glue were sufficient to keep them all alive.
He recounts the story of a fighter plane passing only a few feet from his bedroom window as it strafed his town. He made eye contact with the pilot and in that split second a dream was born; he knew he wanted to fly.
He spent his teens as an apprentice to a local church clock maker and blacksmith who beat him regularly, “to toughen him up.” The day he turned 18 he hitchhiked to Hamburg with about 30 cents in his pocket and boarded a ship for the USA to pursue his dream.
Against all odds, he joined the US Air Force with the intention of learning to fly. Lacking the required college degree, he finished his enlistment without ever flying. Determined, he went to college for two years, enlisted in the Navy, got accepted into flight school, and went on to become a Naval aviator.
During the rigorous prisoner of war survival training which every pilot undergoes, Dengler set a record as the only recruit to ever gain weight. He did so by eating food the instructors had thrown in the garbage, using his childhood starvation experience as a reminder that he could survive on nearly anything.
At the beginning of his tour of duty in Vietnam he was shot down over Laos and captured. Years of beatings during his apprenticeship had prepped him for the torture that was to come during captivity.
Upon arrival at the POW camp, the horrendous condition of his fellow prisoners convinced him that his only option was escape. His escape from the clock maker taught him that he could indeed escape brutality. While others thought all was lost, he had made his decision. He soon became the first downed pilot to escape during this war, despite near-zero odds of success. Back in civilian life he had a successful career as an airline pilot and a test pilot.
Unlike the external enemies faced by Dengler, some of the worst enemies we face as small business owners are internal. Our minds, coping skills, and defense mechanisms keep us locked in prisons of our own making.
For years before I got into business, I was my own jailer and didn’t even know it. As an equipment operator in the printing industry I was very good at my work but I still dreamed of running a successful business. My job came to feel like a prison. Yet the status quo, even an unbearable one, seemed better than the risks of the unknown, especially those of starting a new business.
Fear kept me from taking action. What would happen if I quit? Would I make the same money? Would I lose everything in a new business? Do I need a degree to succeed? Do I really know how to sell a product or is that just a fantasy?
My imaginary doors were unlocked for me when I had the good fortune to be laid off from my last job over fifteen years ago. At the time, I thought disaster had struck, but it led to my re-entry into the world of small business. All my fears were illusions. All I had to do was walk through them to see what was on the other side. There were no locks.
Those jobs from which I couldn’t wait to escape suddenly became the solid foundation for a new business. Without my hard-earned knowledge of print finishing equipment, I would never have recognized this particular business opportunity for what it was. Nor would I have been able to sell with the level of expertise I now had.
I learned to be grateful for those years of suffering at jobs I hated. The experience became a valuable resource that I drew upon year after year. In the writing of this article, it continues to serve me today.
It’s not easy opening these doors, especially when the rest of the world is telling us it’s dangerous, or risky, or “you’ll be giving up a good job,” or “that’s not how it’s done.” There’s comfort in the devil we know.
Dengler’s intense experience is something most of us will never know. Yet it can inspire us to draw upon our own unique experiences to create something from nothing. Maybe we should follow his lead. Practice opening every figurative door we encounter. Make it a habit to do the uncomfortable, take a chance on the new, visit the unknown.
On days when we feel we have none of the obvious things on our side like time, money, friends, or colleagues, we can dig deep for the unseen resources within. Our past is a tangible asset to which we can always turn and no one can take that away from us.
Others will tell us to forget about the past, but we can decide to keep that door open and use those old lessons as a source of strength. We can, for instance, let down our guard and share a piece of ourselves with our clients, friends, and family. In doing so we establish a connection that no one else on earth can duplicate. We can, like Dengler, use an old dream to keep us going when we don’t feel up to it.
Even though the enemy to business growth might be within, so too are the resources to overcome it. Why wait for our imaginary jailer to unlock the doors when we ourselves hold the keys?
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