What We Learned in the Fire: 3 Traits to Beat the Odds

Volvo 240 after the fire

When you’re running a business, there are always challenges: Some are little ones and some are big ones that have the potential to change the direction of your company (and your life).

We recently faced one of these pivotal moments and it made me realize that how you respond to adversity, and your actions in the moment can shape future success or failure.

Any entrepreneur knows the odds of success aren’t in your favour. Success rates for new businesses are less than 50% and often quoted stats say only 30% make it 10 years. Despite the odds, 543,000 new businesses launch every single month … few survive. Construction businesses face even worse odds with only 36% still going strong after five years.

Pete (my partner in crime) has run a construction business since 2001 so I guess he’s one of the few to beat the odds. We’ve enjoyed economic booms, survived a global recession, have had to rebuild in new locations a few times, and even faced the unprecedented challenges of 9-11 and figuring out how to move (and insure) a piece of heavy equipment internationally for a multi-year project building a golf course in St. Kitts at a time when the world was reeling from an unprecedented terror attack.

When you’re in the moment, you don’t stop and think about how difficult the task you’re undertaking might be. You just keep pushing forward and, eventually, you will get the breakthrough you need.

My random musings have a purpose: We recently faced a new challenge. One of Pete’s excavators (the one he was running at the time) caught fire. After trying to put out the flames with the fire extinguisher we keep in the cabs of all our equipment, he had to make the decision to walk away from the machine, call the fire department and watch it burn to the ground.

It is devastating to see a piece of your fleet on fire and you’re powerless to do anything about it.

But here’s what I realized from that moment: They way you react, and what you do next will make the difference between a business that remains viable and those that begin the spiral into failure.

  • Assess then Act: When Pete noticed the flames, he shut off the machine (stopping the fuel flow) and tried to put out the fire, but he quickly realized the fire was moving too fast and too hot. The hardest thing to do is walk away but risking injury or worse for a piece of equipment would have been a bad decision. You don’t have a lot of time to ponder the options, you have to assess then act quickly.
  • Analyse the Situation: It’s very easy to make excuses for why something happened, but I think when we make excuses, we are missing the lessons. In the hours after the fire, we were already thinking about what happened and how we can do things better or differently to avoid this kind of thing ever happening again.
  • Keep Moving: When the fire struck, the work Pete had lined up for the next months was immediately put on hold. While we have more equipment, none of it is well suited for land clearing. Instead of feeling sorry for himself and lamenting the situation, Pete picked up the phone and started lining up work for the next day … and the days after that. Too often people retract in on themselves or wallow in their misfortune and that stops them from moving forward.

What does it take to succeed where others fail? Hard work is a given and you won’t find anyone who works harder than Pete, but it takes more than hard work. I think the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is their ability to troubleshoot a situation, push the ball forward when everyone is telling you that you can’t and to make sure you learn the hard lessons.

The #1 Skill for Today

It doesn’t matter if you’re a student, just starting your career, a seasoned veteran, or retired, you’re never too old or too young to learn something new. And, in today’s rapidly changing world with the massive transformation driven by technology, if you stop learning you’ll get left behind.

We’re calling it the fourth industrial revolution but if you look at the time it took for previous industrial revolutions to transform the world, the current one is hitting harder and faster than any we’ve experienced to date.

I know this is troubling news for some people who feel they can’t keep up but that is precisely why I think the #1 skill for today’s world is learning.

Learn Something Every Day

When my nieces and nephews came home from school, I’d ask them “what did you learn today?” Nothing was not an acceptable answer. I would probe and ask questions until they told me one thing they learned or found interesting (even if it wasn’t in the classroom but something they heard from a friend or read). It was important to me that they recognize they’re learning something every day and to start embracing the idea that new thoughts, ideas and information can come from a wide range of sources.

One of the things I love most about my job is that I am constantly learning new things. For every interview and every article, I have to learn about a new topic so that I can understand it enough to ask the right questions and then write coherently about it.

Does that make me an expert? Not even close! But I know a little more today than I did yesterday and that’s exciting. I believe everyone knows something I don’t and by asking questions, listening more than I speak and taking an interest in a wide range of things, I get to expand my knowledge every single day.

Informal or Formal – It Doesn’t Matter

A lot of people think they don’t have time to “go back to school” or take courses. While we can all sympathize with the fact that the speed of life today leaves little downtime, I promise you this – you can always find time for the things that are important to you.

I left Concordia University in 1990 with my Bachelors (and figured I’d never darken the doors of an educational institution again). It’s not that I didn’t enjoy university or learn a great deal, I’m just not well suited for this kind of highly-structured learning environment. Shows you how much I knew: Two years into a new career in PR, I realized my Journalism degree and reporter experience didn’t give me the background I needed. I hit the books and earned my Certified Advertising Agency Practitioner Designation.

The great thing about the world today is you don’t have to go back to school.

You can listen to a podcast on your commute, read a few chapters (or even pages) of a book before bed, cut the time you spend on Facebook and Instagram in half and dedicate that time to learning something new or even ask an extra question about something a colleague tells you to deepen your knowledge.

Experts in anything you can imagine offer courses and seminars (in person and online). Some are paid, some free, but all of them will teach you something you didn’t know, if you’re ready to listen.  I should note that I am not talking only about learning skills for the business world, I think learning any new skill is important whether it’s business management or quilting.

Exercise the Grey Matter

How many people hit the gym regularly and work out to keep their muscles in good shape as they age? Your brain needs the same kind of exercise.

A few disclaimers for you – I’m not a doctor or a neurologist and I haven’t studied the brain in my spare time, but I can share a few observations about the people I encounter every day. They’re people who come from every walk of life, educational background and age group, and what I’ve found is the ones adapting the best to the current environment are those who aren’t afraid to learn something new and don’t resist the changes around them. Those approaching or in their senior years might find the time it takes to learn new skills is longer, but those who are willing (and interested) get it eventually and once they do, they’re not only proud of their accomplishment, they reap the benefits of the newly earned skills.

So, what did you learn today?