Success Is Not a Destination, It's a Trip
Cycle 3: Destination Lean and Mean 1990 - 1993 (5 0f 6)
With the start of 1990, I started out all over. A new decade,
new name. I re-invested myself and re-invented myself. I found a sympathetic
banker, a great relationship, that expanded as the bank became a client
as well. That was a good source of referrals, and gradually I began to
recover, I began to eat away at the horrible debt I'd piled up.
It was a strange time, I was exhausted, and scared, as you can imagine.
But I was also exhilarated... when you're selling that hard, and I was
pushing hard, believe me–you have to project a positive attitude. I was
pep-talking myself into believing we were a successful, but strategically
small, design firm.
To support that self image, I applied for every recognition of my success
I could find. I entered contests and drawings. I won some design awards,
I won a speech award, and in the spring of 1991, I won a trip to Italy
from the Rotary Club.
I'm sure you can understand why I applied for that one.
I'm sure you've had the fantasy of getting away from your business for
a little while. If you could just spend a few weeks away from all this,
if you could travel, get some perspective...
I saw a headline in the paper that said "Outstanding Young Professionals
Sought for Group Study Exchange in Italy", I applied.
The program involved sending a group of five people to visit a Rotary
District somewhere in the world, and this particular year the District
around Madison was exchanging with a district in central Italy.
Do you know what a Fam-Tour is? It's a Familiarization Tour, when a Chamber
of Commerce or a Visitors & Convention Bureau brings a group into
town, travel writers maybe, or convention planners–and they show them
everything that's wonderful in town, and put them up at the best hotels
and feed them some good meals, and hope that they go out and spread the
word about what a nice place this was.
Well, that's really what this Rotary program was about.
It did not turn out to be the restful opportunity for reflection I thought
it would be. Instead it was the strangest experience I have ever known.
The way the program works, we would visit Rotary clubs, and stay with
host families, for five weeks. The only restrictions on us–we were told
to stay together, obey our leader, and be good ambassadors. Rotary paid
all our expenses.
The leader the Rotarians had chosen for the us was a man named Bruce.
He was a well-meaning but ineffective person, a child prodigy who hadn't
done much since. He had applied seven times to lead a program and they'd
run out of reasons to turn him down. So they accepted him, then hand-picked
us to be a team who could work with him.
That was a bigger problem than they thought. To compensate they picked
very independent, self-motivated people. Some of us were not, it turned
out, great team players.
Who were my team-mates? Three other women; a journalist, a postal worker,
a real estate agent. A man, Ron, who was a self-employed carpenter and
handyman, who restored Victorian houses in Janesville. I later learned
he had forged his age on his passport, had five drug convictions, and
was not exactly the outstanding young professional the Rotary thought
But this was basically a popularity contest, designed to pick five people
who could make a good first impression, and regardless of our strengths
and faults we were all that.
The Rotary Club sent us to a crash course at Berlitz, and there we developed
little introductions of ourselves, memorizing in Italian, and worked a
little on a slide show about Wisconsin and our lives here.
What was I expecting would happen to me on this trip?
I don't know... I fought for the right to go, my husband was very against
the idea, and somehow I developed the fantasy that I would be meeting
famous graphic designers, and having important vocational experiences,
and that I absolutely needed to do this thing for my professional development.
To appeal to our self-interest, the Rotary did describe the program as
having a professional development light, that we would have the opportunity
to meet with people in our own fields, and so on.
The Italian Rotary had a different idea of the program. Rotary in Italy,
and in Europe in general, is a much more formal, class-conscious organization.
The members are what's left of the old pre-democracy aristocracy. They're
the wealthiest, old-money families running the factories and hospitals
and schools in every town.
And that's what we saw. We visited whatever the Rotarians owned in every
But also, they saw the program as a competition between the different
clubs in their district. They competed to see who could show us the best
time, feed us the best banquets, give us the most lavish gifts. Soon we
were spending six to eight hours a day eating elaborate meals, and lugging
pounds of exquisite books, silver, and other gifts in our bags.
Pause and ponder "success" here. Here's our team receiving this
reward billed as being for our success as young professionals ... and
being used as messengers in a big game of one-up-man's-ship.
At first it went alright. Ron and I hit it off, Jenny and I hit it off,
Mary and Rita hit it off...dorm stuff. We started out like eager recruits
at Ambassador Boot Camp, ready to try giving our slide show, playing our
But soon it turned into a different dynamic: Ron and the Ronettes, a star
and the back-up singers.
Have you ever been sold down the river by a handsome, no-good guy? That's
what happened to us.
There were several reasons this happened.
One was simply looks, style. Ron was very handsome in a Kevin Costner
/ Bruce Willis kind of way, had a long blonde pony-tail. He looked like
(in fact he had been) a male model, and he wore a really sharp charcoal
pin-stripe suit, while the rest of us wore the dorky polyester blue blazers
the Rotarians had given us.
We women had brought sensible travel wardrobes – no-wrinkle knits, sensible
shoes–I wish someone had told us how much more formal the society we
visited would be. You know how Italians are about style. Ron was the only
one who looked right for the part we were playing. That made people treat
Another reason for the separation of Ron from the Ronettes was the slide
show. The first part of the show was a little travelog on Wisconsin, pictures
of the Capitol building, Indians, people ice-fishing, that kind of thing.
Then we had short segments about each of us, and Ron's pictures of his
restored Victorian "Painted Ladies" in Janesville were a hit
like you wouldn't believe. He'd say "My houses" and they'd say
"questi palazzi! Molta bella" and I believe, some of them really
thought those houses belonged to Ron.
Here's where I have to explain about Italians and wood. It's the most
opulent sign of luxury possible to them. It's just not an ordinary building
material they use. A fancy house will have fancy marble where we might
use wood moldings, parquet floors. So to see such houses looked like unbelievable
wealth to them.
And, to Italians, restoration is a subject like baseball. They're always
restoring art treasures, old palaces, everything they have is in restoration.
It's an old culture.
As soon as Ron showed his slides, and explained he had restored these
houses, he was set. Someone in the crowd would be an architect, or know
someone restoring something, and they'd take Ron under a wing.
And Reason Three for Ron's big success was the language. Ron stole it.
That is, he usually stole the translator. The Rotarian men, the older
generation, spoke French if anything. Not English. But their daughters
did, their 20-something beautiful daughters. The Rotarians would bring
a daughter along to translate, and Ron would single her out with amazing
speed, they'd be off in daddy's Ferarri to ride horses, or visit the ocean,
By day Ron would go off with an architect or restorer, and Bruce and us
girls would get on the bus to go to whatever itinerary had been planned.
By night the beautiful daughters would pick Ron up, leave the rest of
us to go off to the banquets and social hours.
Imagine yourself spending six to eight hours of your waking life in a
room like this one, at banquets for 50 or 100 or 200 people. The remaining
hours of the day you're with 12 or so people, seldom fewer til you fall
asleep in someone's guest room, hoping you've correctly interpretted what
hour they're coming to get you in the morning. Every day or so you're
moved to a new location. You have no time to react, or plan, or adjust.
Soon sleep deprivation, pure exhaustion, is taking its toll on you.
Every morning we'd be off to the waterfall, the factory, the press conference,
often without benefit of translation. Always in the lap of luxury, wonderful
gifts, food, opportunities, factories opened just for our benefit, and
so on, but never a shred of information and never a reason to need it.
Never a decision we were allowed to make.
There were some bright points – days when we felt like pampered princesses,
squired around by our safe host-families, honored and toasted and written
up in the local press. But it went on too long, and too much of my mental
energy went into sulking about Ron.
For us it became the same cycle of three days repeated over and over–arrive
in a new community, fight for information about the plan, fight for adjustments
to the plan, do the plan, leave and arrive at a new club and start all
It was quickly feeling less like a reward, more like a hostage episode.
How did we react to our hostage experience? Certainly not as a group,
not a "we". Even when we were alone with each other, we were
incredibly critical of each others' behavior, really mean. It seemed at
the time like everybody else was just unreasonable. Now it seems like
we were all, me included, horrible brats.
From feeling like an eager recruit, I quickly devolved into an angry adolescent.
If Ron was getting so much attention, where was mine? The whole thing
made me screaming-crazy jealous. It made it a lot harder to let go of
my expectations. I couldn't just relax into the experience the Rotarians
were making for the rest of us. The banquets, museums, natural wonders,
cathedrals, discos, street fairs. But mostly banquets, and the same cocktail
party chatter over and over, where did I come from, how did I like Italy...We
began to feel like obedient children at a grown-up party.
It's very odd as an adult to have such a visceral experience of what it's
like to be a child. We were fussed over and then politely ignored. When
you're a child, you are lied to casually (anything we asked for, they'd
say 'later, later, we'll do that next, but first'...) you are bullied
(, let's go, don't dawdle) and you are always bent to others' will. You
are denied information, you lack comprehension and context to understand
what's going on around you, you can't interpret what you see and hear.
No wonder kids get cranky.
The effect on me? From an outstanding professional, I was rendered down
by my captors to a whining 2-year-old, and sent home to take up where
I left off.
It took a solid year before the nightmares stopped.
So what did this teach me about success? Be careful not to let it happen
The most important thing I learned is that life isn't fair. Stop expecting
it's going to be. Give yourself the honor you think you've earned. If
you wait for it to come from someone else, it will come with their agenda
I also learned, from observing Ron and the Ronettes, the reality that
people who take get more than people who wait to be asked. The innate
sexism of the situation sensitized me like an allergy. Women who make
demands are bitches. Women who aren't bitches don't get what they want.
I'm still pondering that one. If you have any insights for me, I'd like
When I got back from Italy the gap between my life and material success
seemed more obvious to me than ever, after the guest rooms in the palazzi
and villas and all, and I set about charting a course toward monetary
I went methodically around the "FAMP" a few times, adjusting
everything I could think of, to either cut costs or to increase sales.
I set about subletting that great office space–now a hollow, empty, echoing
cavern. I broadened the services I offered, acting more like a full-service
agency, getting involved in my clients' strategic decisions. I was careful
not to rely too much on any one account, as in the past.
I ran that business lean and mean. And I lunched out for months, telling
the story of the “Ron and the Ronettes” tour of Italy. I didn't
think of it as networking, but a lot of business came in by referral from
that time. So in some way the Rotarians had helped my professional development.
The other legacy the Rotarians gave me: I began writing. First it was
the obligatory report for their program, then more and more writing, as
I processed how I felt.
Finally, as 1993 got underway, I found new office space, and I faced my
fourth opportunity to keep on the business trip, or step away.
Read more. Cycle 4: Pearly
My life stories