Some moments you never forget. They become seared into your memory because the weight of the experience is so great. You remember what you were wearing and what time of day it was. You even recall the weather.
One such moment happened on a gorgeous, sunny day, sometime around 10 o’clock in the morning. I was on the second floor of the headquarters of First Commercial Bank. I had on my bluest blue suit and a starched white shirt. But the beauty of the day and the meticulousness of my clothing were a stark contrast to the turmoil and uneasiness that was bubbling inside me. I was afraid.
Before me stretched the largest table I had ever seen. Two life-size, hand-painted portraits of the bank’s founders hung on the room’s wall. Around that table sat a dozen of the wealthiest men in Birmingham. They were the men who had asked me — a mere year after I’d opened my first McDonald’s — to serve on the bank’s board of directors. I would be the first African American to do so.
In that very remarkable moment, I noted the irony that I was now on the board of a bank, and my mother never even had a checking account. The variances between the worlds sitting at that table were startling. Most men there represented a second- or third-generation of business success. Many had attended prestigious boarding schools, with spring breaks on distant islands and Christmas vacations spent skiing in the Rockies.
I, on the other hand, hailed from Montgomery’s Madison Park neighborhood, a proud but humble community established by former slaves. Now I was at the starting line of a journey into this very foreign world and I knew that everyone else at the table had a head start. I felt that I didn’t belong at that table. Worse, I felt that everyone in the room knew it. But as the minutes ticked by and I settled into my seat, I planted my feet on the floor and tried to embrace my new role.
Being at that table was daunting, but it was a mountaintop experience. I had worked so hard to get to that moment. I was now a member of this elite fraternity of businessmen. I took a moment to reflect on the journey I took to reach that mountaintop.
Imagine a man at the foot of a mountain that seems to reach all the way to the heavens. He’s tiny in comparison. This man has never climbed a mountain before and doesn’t have the appropriate tools or equipment. He’s not properly dressed — even his footwear are tennis shoes.
But regardless of what he doesn’t have, he has the heart to take a first step. He takes that first step and begins climbing the mountain. As he ascends, the man discovers some tools — a rope, a pick, and maybe a flashlight. He takes advantage of them and that helps him climb a little higher. Along the way, he might acquire the right shoes, discarded by a previous climber, which help him move faster.
As this man rises higher, a few people are waiting to share their rations with him. They are impressed with his heart for mountain climbing. And, as seasoned climbers, they appreciate his spirit. They could view the man as an interloper on “their” mountain or ridicule him. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. Instead, each experienced climber cheers on the novice climber — just as every person sitting at that boardroom table did for me. They even throw ropes down to him to help him out of particularly tight spots.
Such support sustains the climber. He climbs higher still. Often, the weather is brutal, the terrain is rough, and the man is tempted to turn around, but he doesn’t. He is determined to keep going. Somewhere along that climb, he asks, and answers, a question that has actually been central to my own life: Why not win?
Soon the man has completed an amazing task, something no one he knows has ever done — he has climbed a mountain! He stands on the summit and embraces the vista before him. It’s filled with beauty. And to think, he started out with only a pair of tennis shoes and a goal.
These are three lessons I take from climbing my metaphorical mountain:
Just start. You may not have the right background, or education, or equipment, or even the right shoes. Don’t let that deter you. As you make progress, you will find the tools you need to take the next steps.
Good luck will come in proportion to hard work. A popular saying notes how “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” When people see your dedication and fortitude, they will convey support to you that may look like luck, but isn’t.
The harder you climb, the better the view. As you achieve, you gain access to new opportunities and new people that will enable you to move further up the mountain into the rarefied air. Before your climb begins, you won’t even realize these opportunities exist, but as you encounter them, they become vital to winning in life.
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