We can all get very cynical about those trite life-affirming slogans that are spouted by “self-help gurus”.
If we had to design posters to hang in entrepreneurs’ offices – not something we would ever do, because we would recommend that most entrepreneurs should not have childish posters in their offices in the first place, but if we did – the slogan we would put on the obligatory photograph of the cute animal would be...
“It would not do to be afraid of trying anything ninety-nine times if there was a chance of succeeding at the hundredth.”
With its ponderous, old-fashioned phrasing, it can hardly be described as catchy – nor is the name of the man who wrote it. If you want to be remembered by History, it helps if you are not called Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (pictured above).
Yet those few words contain two great truths. First, success against the odds is possible. Second, success against the odds usually involves enduring a lot of failure first. It is the second point that the “gurus” tend to ignore.
The real wisdom in von Lettow-Vorbeck’s words, however, is to be found in the sentence that he wrote next: “In following this principle, we did not do badly.”
Unlike most of the “gurus”, he actually lived what he wrote.
He was a man of remarkable tenacity. A relatively junior officer, he found himself as the Commander-in-Chief in German East Africa – modern Tanzania – at the outbreak of the First World War. For the next four years he fought a brilliant campaign against the far more numerous, better equipped, and better supplied forces of three Allied empires. For most of those four years he was cut off from all help, even from all news, from his homeland. Indeed, he fought on for a couple of days after the official end of the war because was he completely unaware of the Kaiser’s abdication and Germany’s surrender.
Although his campaign is still admired in military circles – particularly how he used his gift of improvisation to overcome incredible problems of supply and communications – it is all but forgotten by the general public today. A courageous man in every sense – seventeen years later, allegedly, he told Hitler to go **** himself – he was also, in many ways, a ruthless man and, of course, he fought on the losing side, so perhaps it is understandable if he is not cited as a role model.
Yet entrepreneurs in particular should at least acknowledge the truth of what he wrote and the enterprise of the actions that lay behind the words.