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Dickerson column: Improbable success in impossible times

The economic climate continues to present challenges to many. The recent bankruptcy of General Motors is but one more sign of challenging times ahead. Unemployment numbers remains high, and the toll of the recession is still being felt in many sectors.
That however, should not be a deterrent to new beginnings and defining a future full of promise. You see, out of adversity has been born many of the great inventions and marvels of our time. Allow me to share one such example with you.
His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to eke out a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow terrifying death.
The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the Boy Farmer Fleming had saved.
“I want to repay you,” said the nobleman. “You saved my son’s life.” “No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel.
“Is that your son?” the nobleman asked. “Yes,” the farmer replied proudly. “I’ll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll grow to a man you can be proud of.”
And that he did. In time, Father Fleming’s son graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.
Years afterward, the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. The son’s name? Sir Winston Churchill.
The medical discovery made by Alexander Fleming was one that was years in the making. It was an improbable achievement. Yet today, we are the benefactors of a near disaster. Never underestimate the power of possibilities in the worst of times. Consider with me these timeless principles.
Success is born from adversity. Only moments from sure death, the young Churchill was plucked from the black muck just in time. Little did Farmer Fleming know how his actions that one fateful day would revolutionize the world of medicine and save countless lives.
In 1914 Thomas Edison watched in disbelief as much of his life’s work went up in flames.
Standing among the ruins the next day, Edison said, “There is great value in disaster. All of our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to deliver his first phonograph.
What may look like disaster today may be nothing more than the springboard to your greatest achievement tomorrow.
Promise is born of kindness. The generous action of Lord Randolph to take the young Fleming and tend to his education exemplifies what can happen when one person believes in another. When we learn to give out of our abundance into the lives of others there is no telling what the returns will be. Just as in the case of Fleming, the next medical breakthrough could be just around the corner.
The story is told that one day a beggar by the roadside asked for alms from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The man was poor and wretched and had no claim upon the ruler, no right even to lift a solicitous hand. Yet the emperor threw him several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at his generosity and commented, “Sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar’s need. Why give him gold?” Alexander responded in royal fashion, “Cooper coins would suit the beggar’s need, but gold coins suit Alexander’s giving.”
While we still face uncertain days as we work through the pains of this recession, never underestimate the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity, sow seeds of success in others, and to make the world a better place tomorrow because of how we chose to act today.
– – –
Doug Dickerson is director of Management Moment Leadership Services in Charleston, S.C. You can read more of his columns and sign up for his free e-newsletter at http://www.dougsmanagementmoment.blogspot.com.

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