Fed Ex was based on an idea Fred Smith had in college. He shared the idea in a paper, which got a C because of the idea’s impracticality. Nobody thought it would work.
In the early days of the company, it looked like the skeptics were right – it wasn’t obvious they would make it.
Sometimes drivers didn’t have enough fuel to do the whole route, so there are stories of drivers pawning their watches to get cash to fill the trucks themselves, because the packages had to be delivered.
A mentor of mine who was an early executive there said that it was not uncommon for his boss to come to them and ask how much cash they actually needed that pay period, and to ask if they could take the balance of their check in stock.
And of course, it is well known that one particular week when they couldn’t meet payroll, Fred Smith cleaned out the bank account and went to Vegas and won the money to make payroll on the craps tables.
The stories are legendary. And that’s my point.
When Smith was faced with a payroll bill he had no hope of paying, I doubt he felt like a business genius. I bet he felt like a failure. If the only way your business works involves your drivers paying out of their own pocket for the gas to do their routes, I bet that doesn’t feel like a win. Looking your executives in the eye and telling them they can’t get their whole paychecks this week can’t feel good.
No, I bet none of that processed as “winning”.
The reason I am telling you this isn’t to say that Smith didn’t quit, and quitters don’t win, and rah, rah, rah.
No, the thing I love about these stories is that now, 30 years later, Fed Ex brags about them. If you go to work there, they have people come into your orientation class to tell you the stories. They brag about the early failures, the missteps, the times it almost went under.
It has become part of the legend of Fed Ex.
Legends are funny things. They exist, and they grow over time. They are stories we tell to make sense of things that happened. In retrospect they seem almost foreordained.
Like a wise old man who has been through the war and lived to tell about it, Fed Ex has scars that taught it things, and, they believe, made it better. In fact, made it who it is. They are the stories they tell themselves about themselves.
In the moment, however, the people those stories are happening to are not processing them as history. I bet George Washington had tons of self-doubt that freezing Christmas night when he crossed the Delaware River to surprise the enemy. Washington’s men were starving and literally freezing to death. But now? That story is legendary.
Thinking about this idea – that failures and bad experiences are the stories that will shape us in the future – has changed how I process and deal with those bad things.
When you are going through the dark times, ask yourself, “What will I learn from this? In 20 years, how will I describe this time? If I am mentoring or talking to someone then who is going through what I am going through now, what will I tell them? What advice would I give them?”
In short, ask yourself, “How will this contribute to the legend of me?”