Two years after starting our company (in a stationary closet), we were having some success. Nothing earth shaking mind you, just enough success that I knew what it was like and wanted more. But success, especially when you have not experienced it before, often breeds temptation.
“What corners could I cut?” I thought. “How could I make this happen faster?” All sorts of ideas went through my head.
Around the same time, we were interested in representing football coach Lou Holtz, who was the best sports speaker in the country at the time. We read in the Washington Post that Lou was coming to the White House to meet with Ronald Reagan and I sent him a letter inviting him to stop by. No other agency had been able to convince Lou to speak for their agency, but “it was worth a try,” I thought.
When Lou sat down in our office, I just blurted it out, “Lou, we want to represent you.” Saying he would get back to us, he sent me a letter a month later thanking us for the invitation but declining our offer, saying he wanted to “concentrate on football.”
A month after that, I got another letter from Lou. It said, “Bernie, I have two inboxes on my desk. One is for football and one is for speeches. The inbox for speeches in now twice as high as my inbox for football, and if I am going to be successful, I need to concentrate on football. So if still interested, I accept your offer to represent me. I ask only three things. Can I trust you? Are you committed to excellence? Do you care about me?”
The questions were typical Lou Holtz and I didn’t give them much thought.
I put the letter on my desk intending to file it away. But the letter stayed there for the day, then for several days. I kept looking at it, wondering why I had not filed it away.
Then I picked up the letter and read it again. “Can I trust you? Are you committed to excellence? Do you care about me?” These were the very reasons we started a company on our own in the first place. Lou’s questions were reminding me of the values I was just about to file away.
What Lou Holtz taught me, just at that right moment in my life, is there are no shortcuts to long-term success. Slow down, measure every moment in your life. Know where you are going and why. Be true to your values.
I have never forgotten Lou’s letter. His questions changed my life.