In Jim Cook's Archive


Almost thirty years ago I left a comfortable family business and went to Miami to start a drinking water company. This endeavor was a huge personal struggle, full of financial peril, rejection, and anxiety. I devoted a chapter to this ordeal in my book, “The Start Up Entrepreneur.” Fortunately, after more than a year of work and strain, a wealthy family made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I sold out to them. For a few months after that I was in the chips.

I returned to Minnesota and with a partner started Investment Rarities. In two years (1975) our money was gone and we were on the ropes. One crisis led to another. At a critical moment my partner buckled. He proclaimed our venture was defunct and tried to leave with one of our few potential assets. We had a falling out. I bought his stock for a small amount. He left me with a load of debt and unpaid bills.

At the moment we stared failure in the face he quit while I persisted. He had no faith in our future while I was sure we would ultimately succeed. Why? I had an enormous advantage over him. I had previously suffered through the despair and pain of near failure in my water business. This had strengthened me. My partner lacked persistence because he had no prior experience with struggle. In his previous enterprise he had made a lot of money without paying much of a price. Things had been easier for him.

The founder of U.S. Steel, Andrew Carnegie, strived for success in business so that he “should never again be called upon to endure such nights and days of racking anxiety.” I have suffered through these severe business droughts and cyclical downturns over the past three decades and one thing stands out. The struggles of life teach the truly valuable lessons. We learn little from good times, and virtually nothing from success. Emerson said it best. “When man [or woman] . . . is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood, he has gained facts, learns his ignorance, is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill.”

Now suppose that at the inception of my Miami water business there was a government program for young men that awarded me a large contract. My life would have been so much easier. I would have been an immediate success. At first glance this would have helped me enormously, but in reality it would have crippled me. I would have missed the lessons and struggles that had made me resourceful. Every bout of pain in life makes the next round more likely to be endured.

The government has programs and requirements that give money, or business contracts to women and minorities. These preferences supposedly help the recipient. But they do not. They simply relieve these people from learning the necessary lessons required to climb to the top and succeed on merit.

Those who oppose these government preferences are thought to be mean-spirited or reactionary. The media brands them as chauvinists or racists. In reality, most business owners or managers want a level playing field and would like to see minorities and women reach the upper levels of achievement. Most men in business want all people to experience success and are not in the least threatened by this prospect. But those of us who have struggled time and again know that this can never be accomplished with shortcuts. The government’s subsidy programs will ruin the chances of minorities and women to take their place on the pinnacles of success. If you accept business contracts or money you didn’t earn to speed your success, you undermine your long-term prospects and incur the dead opposite of what the government strives to accomplish. As Emerson instructs us, “Everything has its price – and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained … it is impossible to get anything without its price.”

Author Napoleon Hill advises, “The necessity for struggle is one of the clever devices through which nature forces individuals to expand, develop, progress, and become strong through resistance ….. We are forced to recognize that this great universal necessity for struggle must have a definite and useful purpose. That purpose is to force the individual to sharpen his wits, arouse his enthusiasm, build up his spirit of faith, gain definiteness of purpose, develop his power of will, inspire his faculty of imagination to give him new uses for old ideas and concepts …..”

This philosophy is not just about getting ahead in business, it’s also about getting ahead in life. Look at the long-term recipients of entitlements, subsidies and free housing. This unearned money was supposed to lift these people from poverty to a better, more prosperous life. In reality, it locked them into poverty.

If you get a job or promotion because of your race or gender, it is no different than a subsidy. You get something that you didn’t earn, something for nothing. You are weaker for it than if you climbed the ladder by yourself. It may seem like a helping hand, but if it deprives you of skill and inner strength, it is a push backwards. Nothing good ever comes from getting something you didn’t earn.

Now the government and the media encourages those who get entitlements to see themselves as victims. This is just one more horribly negative outcome of subsidies. Once trapped in the belief that you are a victim, you surrender your birthright to compete for the prizes of life. In the mind of the victims and their sponsors, everything controversial that happens in the country becomes just another insult and a plot to keep them from succeeding. Such perceptions inevitably become reality.

It’s not just the underclass that suffers from something for nothing. A corollary exists with the children of wealthy people who shield their offspring from economic struggle. If you are affluent and want to harm your children, give them all the money they will ever need. If you leave them your fortune before they’ve made their own way, they will be weaker for it. Rich or poor, insulate them from life’s struggles and you will fashion people who cannot stand on their own, cannot build, accomplish or create. Herein lies the principal threat to American freedom, prosperity and greatness.

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