# 59: Miracles Happen if You Start Acting
Story behind the Passage
A student of mine sent me a message this weekend because she had read about the measures that German companies are going to take to get more women into top-level positions. I wrote back that I doubt that all these debates on quota, etc., are really helpful. I know from the studies that there is a pull effect as soon as you have a minimum share of women on executive boards. But I am really critical about the actual effects this has and the value it creates. I am really torn. Leadership is about leading and that should be done by those who have the potential to do so in the best possible way.
The topic of women’s leadership made me think of Mary Kay. I read her book Miracles Happen about three or four years ago while I was in Israel. I remember, I was sitting on a bench overlooking Jaffa, the sun was getting warmer already, it was March or April, and with my inward gaze I was following the stories and memories of one of the greatest women entrepreneurs of all time. It is funny how one remembers where and when exactly a certain book entered one’s life — or accompanied it for a longer period.
Mary Kay founded her cosmetics company after quitting her career in sales for Stanley Home Products. For those who are not familiar with U.S. business history: Behind that is the company that sold Fuller brushes door-to-door. And this direct sales principle obviously inspired Mary Kay to start her own business. She had actually quit because a man had been promoted in favor of her. She first experimented with some other business ideas and then started Mary K. Cosmetics in 1963. It would become one of the most successful companies to support the advancement of women in business.
I could have chosen many passages from the book but the above-mentioned page really resonated with me when I flipped through the pages just now. I think a lot about big- and small-picture thinking these days. And the final thought is always the same: “You think too much!” So, at least when writing, the thinking results in a more or less tangible product. And Mary Kay, by the way, also wrote in order to share. Her other book was on people management. Yes, I know, this concept might sound really strange for people outside the field of business but in her case, there is no doubt that she was very forward-looking in her strategies and actions to develop her employees.
“I told this young entrepreneur that she should set her sights on short-term, attainable goals.” Mary Kay here talks about a young woman who approached her with the vision of opening a chain of dress shops. The entrepreneur was full of big ideas and passion. But, as Kay explains, she never once talked about opening her “first” store — the crucial first step.
Just a few days ago, someone told me exactly the same thing: “Do not try to sell any big vision these days. Companies are just spending money on things that bring them immediate returns.” Well, as you might have noticed, the two things are slightly different. The example of the entrepreneur in Mary Kay’s story is about the first step of implementing one’s own vision. The latter case is about somebody else buying a big vision — or not. Still, both are connected by the questions of: What is doable? What is manageable? What is “attainable”?
As a coach, I know much about the logic behind this. Big goals can only be achieved if you break them down into pieces and then work on each one, step by step, one thing at a time. That is not only reasonable — it WORKS! And I have always done it myself. The point is: I would never have done anything without a bigger goal in mind. That is what I share with the young entrepreneur in the story. But Mary Kay is absolutely right in making her aware that only the short-term goals get you somewhere.
“The world is full of people who are very quick to dream and very slow to act.” The thing about dreaming obviously goes along with my previous point. Still, I am not even sure that there are so many people who actually dream big. And when I say “dream,” I do not mean building castles in the air. I mean making really big plans that can still be attained. And in that sense, I simply do not see that many people in our society do that. Many people are so afraid of everything that they are simply happy when nothing goes wrong in daily life. They do whatever other people ask them to do in order to be rewarded, mostly in financial terms. That is it. Yes, they sometimes talk about big dreams but mostly when criticizing others.
Yes, that sounds a bit bleak and it is true that a society cannot just consist of Gandhis, Mother Theresas or Elon Musks. Sure, I know this and I also know that it does not take all these big names for having and actually realizing big dreams. Nevertheless, I do not think that the dreaming itself is so harmful. I think, the most important flaw, and here I totally agree with Mary Kay, is that many people act slowly — or not at all. The latter is even more common, I think.
If the “taking action” part would only be a matter of willingness and motivation, one could say that awareness about the importance of small steps is the only thing that is needed to bring about change. I do not think it is that easy, though. Yes, everything starts with individual people. Still, the cultural context changes the frame conditions. And in Germany, we do not have a “just do it” culture. Risk-averseness is one reason for this, the other one is perfectionism or, to put it in more neutral terms, extreme precision.
All these and many more lead to or are a result of the fact that we do not have entrepreneurship education in German schools. Well, if you go by the statistics, we might have some. But I personally never experienced any entrepreneurship classes in school. And the same applies to university education. By entrepreneurship education I really mean the basics of starting a company as well as — this is even more important — the necessary mindset of getting things done, of solving problems by developing products and services that meet market demands.
In result, there is a shortage of knowledge on how one can take action — on how to turn “dreams” into reality. For sure, even if you have this knowledge, it still takes individual motivation and discipline to do it. Still, I would not underestimate the knowledge aspect. Any action consists of a method or a mixture of methods. These methods simply need to be learned and practiced again and again in order to bear results. The fact that Mary Kay was writing from a U.S. perspective therefore does make a difference because the “just do it” aspect is more engrained in American culture and also passed on in schools.
“And as I said earlier we fail forward to success. You will make mistakes, and sometimes you will be frustrated as you work toward your goals. But for every failure, there’s an alternative course of action.” Especially Covid-19 has taught even the Germans that failure is productive, that you need to fail in order to learn. The pandemic has forced the nation to act faster than the regular planning instinct would dictate. When thinking about the fact, however, that “Fast Failure” and “Fail to Succeed” are concepts that, apart from Covid, have emerged quite recently connected to the startup scene, it is so striking that Mary Kay mentioned these concepts almost 60 years ago.
The reason why this is not so remarkable after all is that the basic rules of entrepreneurship have not changed. You need something to sell, you need your first client, and then you need the discipline and the endurance to keep going and to not be stopped by anything that happens, especially not by small and big failures. There is no magic to entrepreneurship therefore, it can all be learned. And Mary Kay obviously felt the responsibility to not only pass on her experience and knowledge in practice but also in her writings.
For me, the challenging part is not even finding the “alternative course of action.” For me, the difficulty is finding out what failure is in the first place. That sounds weird? Not really. I think, as life does some strange things to you, you learn that things do not go according to the plan almost 100% of the time. And if you adopt that mindset, it becomes really hard to tell failure apart from success. For sure, if something happens and it really hurts you — emotionally, physically, or financially — you will notice for sure. But even then it might just be your overinterpretation of something that just ended up differently than expected.
So, again, what is failure? If you stop expecting too much, even stop expecting anything all the time, life is full of surprises that are what they are: events that you have to deal with. The problem with this seemingly positive or more or less neutral perspective is that ‘failure’ is not a big deal anymore. But really strong moments of failure are better teachers. What you have to do after experiencing these moments is usually very clear: the opposite of what you were doing before. Or at least something that is not in line with the action that lead to the failure. If you cannot really identify failure anymore because you do not feel that much affected by it, it becomes more difficult to eliminate potentially harmful action.
When talking about “alternatives,” however, I want to end on a very positive note because Mary Kay’s book, as well as her entire business story, is very positive. Already on the first page, she talks about the different types of people she knows. And no matter which alternative might be the right one for you, even if you do not experience severe failure before, there is one guaranteed success factor for anything: You need to ACT if you want to “make things happen.”
Then miracles can happen as well.
1) Which big dream do you have? What is the first step to achieving it?
2) Have you ever experienced anything that, from your perspective, was a miracle? What made it possible?
3) When looking at the “four kinds of people” above — where do you see yourself?