By Karishhma Ashwin | June 1, 2021 |
One has to be cautious these days about evoking the name Thomas Edison. Like many historical figures, the picture that's been painted of him goes way past idealized and far into revisionist territory. He was an unscrupulous businessman and a bully, and by today's standards, he'd have far more in common with a villain than a hero. However, to put it carefully, Edison's work contributed to the evolution of the electric light bulb, the telegraph and the motion picture camera.
Perhaps Edison got his characteristic hard nose from an early life fraught with repeated failure and disappointment. A childhood teacher apparently once described him as "too stupid to learn anything." His early work history, starting at just 12 years old, would not prompt many at the time to predict later genius. He had a history of being so distracted with his experiments that he frequently caused accidents.
He must have grown numb to criticism, because after trying out 100 different prototypes for the electric light bulb, and having 100 failures, he didn't quit like most reasonable people would. He didn't quit at 500 failed attempts, or 700. It took 1,000 before he figured out one design that would work well, prompting a reporter to ask him, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?"
Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." That single invention changed the world, accelerating the Industrial Revolution, reimagining how and when people could socialize, and dramatically increasing productivity. It's hard to conceive of life without it, and only when the power goes out do people realize how fundamental electric light is to almost every task.
999 failures, though. There's a stubbornness and a courage, that regardless of what else is true of the man, you can't take away. And many of today's tech space pioneers seem to have that same dogged faith that if you have a vision, success isn't the absence of failure, but persisting and persisting and persisting an almost infinite number of times despite it.
But outside of tech fields, by looking at how most business leaders behave, one would think that persistence and courage despite failure need not apply. Our instant gratification society likes our success stories unmuddied by troubled journeys, even better if they include words like destiny or prodigy. While a few comedians have spoken about the rough times they went through when they first started, most celebrities push the narrative that they auditioned once, everyone immediately recognized their inherent brilliance, and the rest is revisionist history.
That kind of narrative is a sore spot with Kris Lindahl, CEO of Kris Lindahl Real Estate, the largest independent brokerage in the country. "Because most people are only told the simple success stories that everybody wants to hear, people in leadership positions are often under the false belief that repeated, microscopically small success is better than a few small failures which then lead to an overwhelming win," Lindahl states. "But in business, that's often what happens when you innovate. You need to try something new, and take a few risks that won't always pan out. At the end of the day, that's the only way you actually can significantly grow your business and transform your industry."
Not unlike many people historians have described as visionaries, Lindahl originally wasn't even going to be a realtor, let alone CEO. He got his degree in education, but when there were no teaching jobs available when he graduated, he decided to get his real estate license instead. Then the housing crisis hit, and Lindahl pivoted again, and mastered the art of short sales. He did it so well that when the housing market bounced back, Lindahl had perfected the art of getting top dollar for his clients in part by artificially inflating demand, which he describes in his bestselling book, Sold!
Perhaps it was those early experiences that made him a little bit numb to the online trolls who love to criticize his highly effective billboard marketing campaigns, or those who poked fun at his early efforts of incorporating video into his social media presence. But now, when he sees a problem, instead of throwing up his hands and saying, "Well, the market is just tough right now," he buckles down and tries to actually solve the problem, and continues to perfect his solutions over time.
So far, he's created his own title company to provide a more seamless experience for clients and retain more control over the process, and he's scaled his team quickly to expand into multiple states by offering a free real estate scholarship. He's also been able to smooth over recent home buying problems by retaining non-MLS properties, and through his Guaranteed Offer program, which allows a seller a flexible closing date, so they can still cash in while the market's hot, but have extra time to find their next house.
"Most people aren't willing to fail, but that's often how to learn," Lindahl concludes. "We kept trying to do new things to address problems, and gradually, we learned what doesn't work. And the great thing about being okay with learning that way is you don't have to be afraid of the market, or what next year might bring. Our company is really, really good at solving problems, and not stopping until we've got a solution. So in a way, whenever our industry faces challenges, we get better. Whenever we get better and other brokerages simply ride it out without adapting, more clients seek us out. We don't fear the market, and we don't fear change. We welcome it."
Though many of us would prefer that success be the result of nothing but forward momentum, with no setbacks and no doors closed in our faces, that's just simply not reality. In the end, the road to success more often than not looks like 999 stumbles, wrong turns and blocked routes. We don't talk about it that way, but it's a story that more CEOs should feel more comfortable telling. Because the rest of us are starting to see the light.