A Business Lesson from Hallowed Ground

I visited Ground Zero on April 21st. Even the process of getting to the memorial added grace to the experience.   It took just about an hour, but there came that one moment when the long slog and inconvenience of security gave way to the open quiet of the memorial itself. The memorial is wide open enough so that the crowd could separate once again into individuals, each left to contemplate the carved names bordering the waterfalls and deep pools set inside the footprint of each fallen tower. No laughter here and hushed tones.

We pressed our faces up against the Plexiglas to see the preserved and twisted girders from that day. They are encased in the shadow of what is now the tallest building in Manhattan, the skeletal beams having surpassed the Empire State Building this past week.

Our country has a passionate need to remember.  We turn these places into national parks and, as crass as the term may sound, even tourist attractions. Ground Zero, the tangible reminder of one of our greatest tragedies, takes its place beside Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, Ford’s Theatre and The Texas School Book Depository as well-trod paths leading down into the nation’s deepest wounds.

I have heard it said that professional athletes are trained to have a short memory – to forget the previous play’s missed tackle or yesterday’s defeat . The memories, they say, are baggage, not to be carried into the contests to follow. I think, however, that the “short memory” statement is an over-simplification. Athletes are trained to have no short-term memory, but in order to be great, they must preserve and revisit the lessons ingrained in long-term memory. Those would be the hard-won lessons of practice.

The construction of something lasting, whether a building, a career, a business, or a legacy, requires a keen recollection of failure. Last week, I wrote that a well-drafted contract represents, with apologies to Tom Clancy, the sum of all fears.   My point here is to illustrate that fear is only part of the analysis. The other part is history or, to be blunt, failure.

If success were guaranteed, no contract would be needed. A handshake would suffice. Contracts are at their most valuable when things go south. They are called into question, analyzed, followed or contested in the wake or expectation of a failure.

When a client asks me to review or draft a contract, the first part of the discussion focuses on what the client has seen go wrong in similar circumstances. It is only after we scrutinize the failures that we can begin our work to avoid them. Failure and fear represent the two sides of a very somber coin – containing within themselves lessons of past traps and the specter of lost opportunities to come.

My advice, as unconventional or depressing as it may be, is to create a failure file. A diary of what went wrong, what you wish you had done, where things began to go south. The goal is not torture, but rather redemption.

You see, in my mind, that’s the great thing shared by dedicated athletes, growing businesses and a healthy, thriving nation – the chance to do something better the next time. The chance, in other words, to draw a lesson from hallowed ground.


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