In the mid-1960s, Fred Smith was an undergraduate student polishing up an economics paper. He could see the computerized age coming and could see the world around him speeding up. In that world, he thought something would need to change—specifically, that packages would need to get from point A to point B more quickly and efficiently.
He wrote up his ideas in a paper for an economics class. He got a C on the paper, along with a bracing comment from a professor: “Well, Fred, the concept is interesting and well formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’ grade, your ideas also have to be feasible.”
The ideas in that paper went on to become the company we know today as FedEx. It has a $60 billion-plus market cap, and it employs close to 500,000 people worldwide.
We know the way the story ends—today the company is among the worldwide leaders in shipping—but it’s easy to forget the stumbles along the way. Stories like this are true in almost every business of consequence, and it’s important to appreciate them, because the failures and challenges are just as vital as the successes and wins.
That sounds like fortune cookie wisdom—and maybe it is—but it’s also important to keep in mind. Part of what makes a Conscious Culture work is knowing that not everything is actually going to work. And in fact, it shouldn’t. If everything goes according to your plans, then you might just be playing small ball; your plans may be keeping you from pushing the envelope in ways that would grow your business and strengthen your product.
Of course, that kind of iteration in the face of failure requires the ability to press ahead. Smith’s story is a testimony to that, too. Smith ignored his professor’s advice, but he still struggled to get FedEx off the ground in its early years. He leased planes and began delivering packages, but soon thereafter, the company was losing considerable sums to fuel costs. In its first two years, they lost almost $14 million.
Many investors turned him down for more capital, and Smith had to scrape and hustle to pull together enough funding to keep the business going. He did, but not before some harrowing moments in which the future of the business looked to be in doubt.
Could it have all gone differently? Should Smith have been able to build FedEx without nearing bankruptcy? Maybe. But it’s just as likely that Smith learned things in the crucible, and it’s the moments of wrongness that produced his moments of rightness. Being wrong isn’t a failure in business. Being wrong is essential for growth.
Be wrong. Fix it. Move on.
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