Success + Failure


The 1st job that I recall having was delivering the Toronto Telegram with my brother Martin in the brand new apartments that had been built just north of the CNE in the early 60’s. I was seven at the time . . . 58 years ago. 

I’m 65 now and found myself thinking about how success and failure influenced the roads I chose to take in life.

I was one of six kids. My parents came to Canada from Germany after WWII with just enough money for two weeks rent. We lived in a boarding house for the first few years, we all slept in one room, lived in a second room and shared a small bathroom with two other families. My father was always working and my mother was home looking after us when she wasn't working part time. She taught me how to make a bouquet with the flowers within reach. Even if the bouquet was a broken table, chair or lamp that we found in the alley. My parents didn't have the time to teach us to play nice, collaborate, or socialize, we were taught to work hard + stay out of trouble. To be a contributing member of society.

By the time I turned sixteen I had drowned twice and had been hit by cars four times. The fourth (and last) time I was hit I was riding my friend’s brand new bike across an intersection. The drunk driver was charged and his insurance paid my friend $85.00 to have his bike repaired, I got $10.00 for a new pair of shorts, but nothing to compensate me for a lifetime of epilepsy due to the acquired brain injury. 

The three most common triggers for (my) epilepsy were sleep deprivation, stress, alcohol and not taking my medication as prescribed. To keep my driver’s license I had to take really good mental and physical care of myself because my anticonvulsive drug had a lot of side effects that I could reduce but not eliminate. Those years of mental and physical care didn’t start paying dividends until I hit my 60’s. In retrospect being hit by a drunk driver improved the quality of my life.

Epilepsy and the drug’s I took for about 45 years changed how I learned, behaved, thought and how I was perceived by others. I went from an effortless A student to a C student who struggled with most courses after the brain injury. The injury capped my confidence, ambition and diminished my sense of self-worth. 

Because I was one of six kids in a busy household, one of a thousand in school, and still getting passing grades, no one really noticed but me. 

I didn’t know how to ask for help – or what kind of help to ask for.

I studied Business Administration, Management and Marketing at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, now Ryerson University. I chose Ryerson because it had a more practical curriculum than U. of T., offered a three year program, offered more bragging rights than our Colleges could at the time and it was cheap. 

I didn’t connect to many students or professors, but there were a few who inspired me to make the most of my unique combination of skill sets. A game of hearts decided my future. My friends and I were nearing the end of our third semester, and as we played we talked about the courses we’d take in our final three semesters - courses designed to hone us into Canada’s best new business leaders. Most of my friends decided that the chartered accountant path or the all new computer sciences path promised them the most stable, risk-free future. One of them asked: “Why would anyone take the Management Studies option? Make a wrong decision and you’re toast?” Most agreed. Silently I thought “I’ll take that bet because where there's risk, there’s also opportunity”. And if I make smart, educated, well informed decisions I’ll (always) be in demand. Also while I barely passed my accounting exams, my friends were averaging 98%. So I sealed my fate and have never looked back.

When I graduated from Ryerson I failed miserably on the interview circuit. Every recruiter saw that I had lots of drive and potential, but also a C average. They could tell I was hiding something, but I wasn’t about to tell them about my issues

It took me a year of trial and error before I made another life-changing decision over a game of backgammon.

My friend Jennifer told her friend (and my backgammon opponent) Rick that I was looking for work. After a short chat he gave me his number and asked him to call me at his office. When I did he asked me to call three well known advertising directors.

  • The 1st one didn’t have a job for me but helped script me for my interview with the 2nd Advertising Director. 
  • The 2nd one didn’t have a job for me either but liked me + encouraged me to keep looking. 
  • The 3rd one had five openings and offered me an entry level position a few days later.

That 3rd contact was Peter Logan, a young Media Director at Foster Advertising who exposed me to the wonderful world of applied art in which no two communication projects are ever the same.

My 40 years in advertising have taught me that:  

  • in hindsight my failures have turned out to be some of the most important bridges to my success,
  • to convert failure into success you need time and resilience,
  • if you’ve never failed or have never been fired, you’re no where near your potential boundaries,
  • the best ideas come from jamming with smart people who don’t care about the consequences – just the most interesting mental and physical paths between here and there,
  • wings are nice but you don’t really need them to fly,
  • a great career, like life is a numbers game: you'll meet hundreds of people at work who’ll support you and like you in social media when you’re winning. But very few will be there when you loose. 
  • like many other businesses, ad agencies are full of some wonderful people and brands, as well as sociopaths and vindictive assholes. 
  • The most incredible, insightful and helpful people; the ones who will help you define your life, will cross your path when you least expect them to and in the most unlikely places. Like a pool-side backgammon game, the grocery store, during a quick cigarette break with a stranger or during a late night chat with the person next to you on the red-eye to Boston. 



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