Humpty Dumpty as recession lesson

2-December-2010Published in: St. Louis American

A story from a Business Salute keynote speech

My second story - one of the greatest tales ever told - is a story about risk, failure and perseverance. I find this story very relevant to the challenges that our nation faces today in the most severe economic downturn of our generation.

It is a story that revolves around an anthropomorphic egg who was bent on defying the odds and met with interesting results. It is the story of Humpty Dumpty, remembered in rhyme.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The key word is the very last word of the rhyme: "again." This confirms that this was not the first time that Humpty had fallen. Humpty was a serial risk taker.

Humpty was bold, fearless, unrelenting and entrepreneurial. And he was very familiar with the reality called failure. But, this egg refused to allow failure to define him.

Failure for Humpty was real-time feedback. Failure was an opportunity to regroup, to reassess and to try again until success was eventually achieved.

The "wall" in this rhyme is a simple metaphor which describes the singular act of overcoming challenges. Climbing a wall is moving beyond where we are. Climbing a wall is overcoming adversity.

It is challenging tradition, pursuing goals that are not easily achievable and refusing to give up in that pursuit. Indeed, we all spend the rest of our lives climbing walls.

There are so many people in America today who now find themselves faced with the greatest challenge of their life. They have lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings and they are losing confidence. They are down because they have fallen.

Although they are often called slowdowns, recessions shake things up rather than slow them down. Recessions reward strengths and expose weaknesses, create new opportunities and kill old habits.

Recession has a way of releasing pent-up energy and destroying old business models. Distressed assets can be bought for a song, talented people are let go... just like Humpty. How do we get up again?

As we all contemplate the severity and hopelessness of the present and seek to overcome the uncertainty of the future, I find solace in the story of one egg's journey of endurance that speaks to the willingness to keep trying; a story about courage and about gratefully accepting help when needed. To persevere when there is no apparent reason to do so.

It's a vivid reminder that even when we do everything right - when we remain loyal to our employer, invest our money in "fool-proof" funds, pursue the American dream - that we may still fall short. Somewhere in our life's journey, we will face adversity. Some we will overcome, and some will overcome us.

Humpty's story is a tale of the power of courage. Eddie Rickenbacker reminds us that courage is doing what we are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless we are afraid. There is a little Humpty Dumpty in all of us. We all have fallen. Yes. We have been broken, certainly.

But somewhere deep inside our heads - behind the doom, beyond the gloom - we refuse to take our eye off that wall and are ready to climb it, cracks and all, as impossible as it may seem.

I have met many real-life Humpty Dumptys, ordinary people who are battling against unimaginable odds: young men and women fighting incurable medical conditions, friends and loved ones facing physical and mental adversity; and there are untold millions facing unbelievable economic challenges. Yet they are unwilling to give up.

I am particularly impressed with Humpty's support group, his family and friends, you know "all the king's horses and all the king's men," who provided the ultimate safety net for Humpty. If it wasn't for our "king's men" and "king's horses," getting back up would be impossible. They are the ones who encourage us to keep on keeping on. They are there helping to put us back together again. Infact, that's what the st. Louis american foundation is doing; serving as a safety net for current and future generations.

This is the second of four stories told by Akande in his keynote speech at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. The series continues next week.