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The Most Important Success Factor – Survival

“What are you reading ?”  my wife, Jane, asked me a few weeks ago.  I replied “A book about life in Vietnam Prison Camps.”   Jane has the not-so-fun privilege of falling asleep every night while listening to pages turning and a book light shining into her eyes well past when we should be in bed.  Selfishly, I can’t seem to adopt e-readers and I also really like pen and paper when I read.  Selflessly, Jane has learned to sleep through page turns and writing in the margins of books and APAs.

The previous 18 months have been full of complexifiers in the businesses with which RKCA interacts: our sell side clients, the portfolio companies we own, and our RKCA business (we’ve 2.6xed our staff since 2019, and promoted a great guy to Partner last year…).  But this is axiomatic; everyone knows it’s been full of challenges and opportunities.  What’s the ONE thing we have learned through all this?  It’s my opinion that great businesses last because they learn to survive.  They take nothing for granted, they realize tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and they don’t rest and don’t get comfortable.

As I’ve reflected on the last 18 months, I decided to reread one of my favorite books In Love and War written by Jim and Sybil Stockdale.  Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking Naval officer in the Hanoi prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam. He was shot down in the late 1960s and he spent seven years in the camp.  The book “In Love and War” is made up of alternating chapters written by himself and his wife, about his years in the camp.

What Admiral Stockdale and the other prisoners lived through is horrific, and I would not recommend reading the book for the first time as your night-time book.  But what overwhelms me, while reading it, is the sheer ambiguity of the suffering they went through.  Without notice, they would be tortured, put in solitary, and effectively tested at every physical and mental level by their guards.  And worse, they had NO idea when it would end.

It’s only a 26.2 marathon, but imagine you’re running it, and at mile 25 you have no idea if you have 1.2 miles life, 10 miles left, or 300 miles left?  This is the only only analogy I can think of that comes close to explain the book.

But what is so impressive about Stockdale and others who lasted nearly a decade in these prisons is their ability to survive.

I’m in the Millennial generation, so yes, I’ve had it easy.  I didn’t walk uphill to school both ways. I have lived through 2008 (great time to start a job) and 2020.  But I’ve also never had to learn how a record player works, fix anything on my car, or drive to a Blockbuster to rent movies (I can’t even imagine).  So reading books and stories about Stockdale and other great leaders is a helpful reminder (read: “kick in the pants”) that it has been way harder for people, and they made it through.

While I was running a business, a friend sent me “The Struggle”1 which sits in my office and I want to share an excerpt here:

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

The Struggle is when food loses its taste.

The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company.

The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced.

The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you.

The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.

The Struggle is part of surviving, and where greatness comes from.  If you’re on this email list, you’re operating or owning a business that is destined for greatness.

We at RKCA want to be additive to that journey.

Keep surviving.

1. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz.

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