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It’s not how you start, but how you finish

What I’ve Learned About Life On The Way To The Courthouse

R. Michael Wells//November 23, 2011

It’s not how you start, but how you finish

What I’ve Learned About Life On The Way To The Courthouse

R. Michael Wells//November 23, 2011


His career started out poorly, to put it mildly.

He studied law in upstate New York, at a law school no one I know ever heard of.  He worked a few years at a small law firm in Albany, N.Y., and when that did not go particularly well, he moved to a small town in Wisconsin to practice.  He practiced there for two years when his office building, containing his entire practice, burned down.

He moved to California to work in a retail store with some of his brothers, but returned to Albany when that did not work out.  He went back to California a couple of years after that.

When he returned to California, he and his brothers finally got into a business that worked – but only after four failures.

Even with his business success, though, his life continued to be challenged, and this time by a personal tragedy.  His only child died from typhoid fever as a young teenager. He decided to build a lasting tribute to his son’s memory, an effort which consumed several years of his life.

The name of this life-buffeted lawyer, whose career knew nothing but disappointment after disappointment for many years, is Leland Stanford.  The name of the university which he founded with his wife, Jane, as a tribute to their son’s memory, is Leland Stanford Jr. University.

On the campus near Palo Alto, Calif., is a memorial chapel, built by Jane Stanford in memory of her husband, who died two years after the university opened. A force in her own right, she was a student of living and a student of life. On the wall of the chapel she inscribed a quotation that speaks to the full life of her husband.

Jane Stanford could have noted so many things about this remarkable man: the indomitable Go West spirit of America, embodied in her husband, that pushed the Iron Horse over the Rockies; his entrepreneurial savvy that took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the gold rush, which brought California into the Union; his public service as California’s governor, and later senator; or the importance of education and forward-looking universities like the one he co-founded. Instead, she spoke to the predicate of his extraordinary career, and the character trait that made him California’s singular citizen of his age, and any age. She quoted St. Francis de Sales, who said:

“We must not desire all to begin by perfection. It matters little how we begin provided we be resolved to go on well and end well.”

Founding a great university is not the measure of a productive career.  The measure is found in how you deal with the difficulties which cross your path. What my wise father called life’s rocks in the road.

A poor start in your career, or a lost job due to a faltering economy, does not define your career, whatever your chosen profession.  And sometimes you find a change in direction in your career is warranted.  There is nothing wrong with that.

Just do not let your past disappoint-ments define you.  Do what Leland Stanford did — keep moving forward.  The character predicate of it all, captured so eloquently in this carefully chosen statement by Jane Stanford, was this: He learned from his failed business enterprises to perfect the one that worked, and that worked very well.  His career took an entirely different direction than he thought it would. And it was a direction built on the foundation of his legal training, yet away from the law. But what a career he built. He went on well and ended well.

What I have learned about life on the way to the courthouse is that you really have to deal with life’s inevitable disappointments and failures if you want to succeed, especially in these changing times. Learn from your disappointments and grow from them. You will have some rocks in the road in life. No one is immune. Especially in these harder times.

Do what Leland Stanford did, working through many, many disappointments, on the way to founding one of the premier universities in the world.

No matter how you start out, or no matter what change in course your career may take, resolve to go on well and end well.

You just never know where it might lead you.

R. Michael Wells Sr. is a partner with the firm of Wells, Jenkins, Lucas & Jenkins in Winston-Salem, where he practices in the estate planning area. He also writes a monthly legal column for the Winston-Salem Journal, and he is the host of a weekly public service legal call-in show on WSJS 600 AM.

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