Self-Esteem - The Khuram Dhanani Blog
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Khuram Dhanani

Self-Esteem

Some people become entrepreneurs to counter feelings of inadequacy. Such feelings can be innate to one’s personality or the result of life experiences. While some budding entrepreneurs may become discouraged or even defeated by early failures or reversals, others are driven to work even harder to overcome or bury these feelings. It’s easy to see how extraordinary achievements can counterbalance, or even erase the unpleasant memory of failure. However, no matter how many successes one achieves later in life, most people never forget their early defeats. The most successful entrepreneurs apply the lessons they learned to each new challenge for the rest of their lives.

Walt Disney experienced several notable failures in the early years of his career. He was fired from his first job as a professional artist and abandoned his first attempt at launching his own company. The feelings of inadequacy created by such experiences might prove crippling to some, but others continue to create pathways to entrepreneurial success as the best antidote to failure.

Disney’s next attempt at launching a business fared better until his top client canceled, forcing him to shut down the company. For a time, Disney slept on a sofa in the vacant offices. He had failed again, losing thousands of dollars and all but ruining his professional reputation. It’s easy to imagine the disappointment and humiliation he must have felt. Again, rather than give up, he embraced persistence as the cure for his troubles. Eventually, he sold one of his cameras and traveled to California where his brother promised to help him find work. Soon, he formed the earliest version of Walt Disney Studios.

Disney’s early travails influenced his business strategy for the rest of his life. He learned not to depend on third parties for the survival of his companies and to trust his creative instincts. Multiple failures also taught him that a setback is just that—a setback and that setbacks can be overcome. He learned to push past the debilitating emotions that accompany failure. Work was the cure!

Disney’s ability to fail and restart again continued even through his most successful years. When some of his most ambitious, expensive film projects lost money at the box office, mainly due to factors beyond his control, he kept going. At the same time, labor unrest led to a mass exodus of many of its best employees, forcing Disney to rebuild the company when cash was tight. Although it left him saddened and disappointed, this experience made him even more determined to continue expanding and evolving his business.

Even Sam Walton, one of the richest men in the world and one of the most successful retailers in history, suffered his share of humbling business defeats. One of the most notable came when he was forced out of his first business, a successful Ben Franklin franchise store. Walton had signed a lease with no renewal clause, which left him at the mercy of his landlord. Aware that Walton had financial obligations to the Ben Franklin parent company, the landlord declined to renew the agreement. This forced Walton to sell the franchise. In a domino effect, Walton’s other business ventures also collapsed.

“It was the low point of my life,” Walton was quoted in a 2001 article in the Harvard Business Review. “I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It was really like a nightmare. I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community—done everything right—and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn’t seem fair. I blamed myself for getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious with the landlord.”

This experience affected Walton in a number of ways. Of course, he now carefully reviewed leases and other contracts. He also remained wary of competitors and adopted a “take no prisoners” attitude in dealing with the competition. He had become keenly aware of the damage a capable rival could inflict. Walton was also stung by the embarrassment and loss of status he suffered in the small community where this occurred. He moved his family to another town, determined to start over. Walton never forgot this experience and described it in great detail in his autobiography, which he mostly dictated on his deathbed. Clearly, it was one of the most emotionally influential episodes of his life in retail.

Many minority entrepreneurs, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans, began their careers driven by feelings of inadequacy brought on by racial prejudice. The same is often true of female and LBGTQ+ entrepreneurs. 

Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful entertainment moguls in history, suffered several blows to her sense of self-worth early in life, both as a woman and an African-American. She was born to an unwed mother when which was a deep source of shame and a stigma in American culture. Part of an impoverished family, young Oprah was mocked by other children for wearing clothes made from potato sacks. She was also sent off to live with a succession of relatives, some of whom abused her emotionally, physically, and sexually. As she sought to break into an industry dominated by white males during her early broadcasting career, she suffered every form of discrimination you can imagine. 

Many individuals carry such early trauma with them forever and suffer a crippling lack of self-esteem. Instead, Winfrey drew on these experiences as a source of motivation. Today, as a billionaire and a beloved cultural figure, she undoubtedly carries the emotional scars of her chaotic childhood, but the drive to move past these experiences and overcome the damage they caused to her psyche seems to have fueled her spectacularly successful career.  

A child often has no control over the experiences of their childhood. Even when born into a wealthy family, the psychological abuse from parents, siblings, and unfair treatment in the early days of schooling can leave a person scarred, deeply questioning and doubting their self-worth. Most people believe in the destructive subconscious message that they are not worthy, and this deep-seated belief, running constantly below their conscious thought, continually sabotages all conscious efforts. Being a successful entrepreneur is one way of reestablishing the health of the mind and emotions, providing evidence that the entrepreneur truly is adequate and has earned the right to live without self-imposed inadequacy.

Khuram Dhanani
Khuram Dhanani
Khuram Dhanani
kd@softstonecapital.com