SPEECH: Tear Down the Walls Holding Back Your Success

February 11, 2013
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newtonAuthor Peter Bennett delivered the following speech to the West End Real Estate Professionals meeting in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., on February, 8, 2013:

What a turnout! What a reception. At my first book signing, I attracted only two people: One person wanted directions to the bathroom. The other wanted to buy the desk!

So, welcome!

You’re probably wondering why I’m standing here with a hard hat and a sledge hammer. Well, today’s talk is all about tearing down the walls holding back your success!

Indeed, it’s the theme of my book, Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject, which came out in October.

On the cover, you’ll see that my hands are literally trying to scale Harvard’s ivy-covered walls. And those same hands are about to be stepped on and even crushed.

But when did that stop anybody?

To be successful in life — to be a successful author or a successful Realtor — you have to be ready to tear down walls holding back your success. You have to meet resistance with persistence until you break through.

Are you ready to get to work? Put on your hard hats, and let’s take a look some of the great men and women in our midst who knew a thing or two about overcoming the walls in their lives.

No. 1: Christopher Columbus – Wall of Enemies

Columbus showed us how to overcome the Wall of Enemies. He did it by heading in the opposite direction of the Wall, by sneaking through the back door.

In 1453, Europe was up against the wall. The Turks had finally conquered Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, booting out the Christians. The eastern Roman Empire was no more. What did that mean for the Western World? It meant that if you were a trader from Genoa or Venice and you wanted to sell your goods in Arabia, India or China, you had to pay a tax to the Turks to pass through their lands. So West Europeans, like Columbus, immediately started searching for an alternative route, a workaround. They knew the world was round. They just didn’t know how round. In 1492, 39 years after the fall of Constantinople, Columbus tore down that wall against free trade by heading west instead of east.

Columbus literally practiced reverse thinking.  This is a great tactic when you feel stuck or stymied.

No. 2: Henry Ford – Wall of Inefficiency

Ford was another practitioner of reverse thinking.

Plenty of people were making cars before Ford came along, but the process wasn’t all that efficient. Does anyone know how he came up with the assembly line to make his Model Ts? He observed a dis-assembly line at a meatpacking plant in Chicago. He figured if the process was good enough to disassemble or dismember an animal, he could reverse the process to assemble a motor car, piece by piece.

No. 3: Isaac Newton – Wall of Ignorance

Sometimes, when your quest for knowledge hits a wall, the best way to break through this barrier is to step back from it. In the 1660s, Isaac Newton (pictured above) was another bright student attending Cambridge, but he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. He was stuck! There was a gap in his knowledge. But then the Great Plague struck London in 1665, followed by the Great London Fire of 1666. To survive, Newton fled London and lived on a farm for 18 months. Down on the farm, he invented calculus and discovered the universal laws of motion, optics and gravity, essentially redefining how we understood the universe.

No. 4: Samuel Clemens – Wall of Foreclosed Opportunities

All Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, ever wanted to be was a Mississippi River boat pilot. And he became one. He knew every shoal, sandbar and sunken ship on the river. At one time, he made more money than the vice president or Supreme Court justices of the United States. When the Civil War came, however, the North and South shut down the river to all but military traffic, throwing Twain out of a job. After about a week as a Confederate soldier, he headed west to find new fortune. He became a miner, then a newspaperman. He didn’t find metallic gold, he found literary gold.


Are you seeing a pattern here? Whenever a wall is put up in front of you, you have to find your way around it. And when you do, the rewards can be limitless. So, welcome the walls and obstacles put in your path. Embrace them as opportunities. Don’t be a lemming lamenting how bad things are, be a roaring lion for creativity and change. Always be on the lookout to turn temporary misfortune into millions.

No. 5: Charles Darrow – Wall of Unemployment

We’re now just coming out of the Great Recession, so this story might hit home. In the Great Depression, Charles Darrow lost his job and faced a mounting wall of debt. Millions like him also lost their homes and livelihoods. So what does Darrow do? He has the audacity to invent a real estate board game called Monopoly and sells it to Parker Brothers for $1 million in 1936 at the height of the Depression.

Had there been no Depression, I doubt he ever would have invented Monopoly!

No. 6: Jan Scruggs – Wall of Shame

When Jan Scruggs came home from the Vietnam War in 1969, he faced a Wall of Shame. People booed him when he wore his military uniform in public.  A decade later, after watching the film, “The Deer Hunter,” he told his wife that he was going to build a memorial wall to honor the service and sacrifice of all who served in the war. He took $2,800 of his own money and launched what would become the Vietnam War Memorial.

No. 7: Ray Bradbury – Wall of Limited Opportunity

After graduating from Los Angeles High School in the 1930, author Ray Bradbury sold newspapers at the corner of South Norton Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles. “When I graduated from high school,” Bradbury recalled, “it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

That regimen gave him the confidence to rent a typewriter in a study room at UCLA’s Powell Library and bang out The Fireman, a 25,000-word dystopian story about an American society that bans and burns books. He later expanded the story to 50,000 words under the new title, Fahrenheit 451.

No. 8: Howard Schultz – Wall of Poverty

In his autobiography, Pour Your Heart Into It, Starbucks coffee king Howard Schultz described his family’s grinding poverty. He grew up in the Brooklyn projects. In good times, his father drove a diaper delivery truck. In bad times, his dad lay on the couch with his broken leg in a cast. He had no income, health insurance or worker’s compensation.

Of that time, Schultz wrote: “Years later, that image of my father slumped on the family couch, his leg in a cast, unable to earn money, and ground down by the world, is still burned into my mind. The system had crushed him.”

Now that you know a little of Schultz’s family history, do you think he was deterred later when he went looking for Starbucks investors and hundreds turned him down. Not a chance!

No. 9: Marion Donovan – Wall of Inconvenience

We should all bow down when we hear this woman’s name. Unlike Schultz, she was a Yalie. As a young mother, she didn’t cotton to changing her youngest child’s soiled cloth diapers, clothing and bed sheets. She wanted to surmount this wall of stifling inconvenience. So, she sat down at her sewing machine with a shower curtain and, after several tries, fashioned a waterproof diaper cover. She perfected her invention by using nylon parachute cloth and replacing safety pins with fasteners. After obtaining a patent for the diaper cover in 1951, she sold it to the Keko Corporation for $1 million.

No. 10: John Shepherd Baron – Wall of Nuisance

In the late 1960s, Scotsman John Shepherd Barron’s bank had closed just before he arrived to withdraw some money. He was still stewing about his inability to access his own money when he was taking a hot bath later that night. That’s when it hit him: Why couldn’t a machine dispense money 24/7 the same way Britain’s beloved vending machines dispensed Cadbury chocolate bars. Two years later, he created the world’s first ATM.

No. 11: Mickey Owen – Wall of Notoriety

If you were a Dodger fan in 1941, there was nobody you despised more than Mickey Owen. The catcher had dropped the final strike of game 4 of the World Series. Had he held onto the ball, the Dodgers would have won the game against the Yankees and tied the Series at 2-2. It was one more reason the Dodgers were nicknamed the Bums.

For years, Owen used his ill fame to stay in the spotlight, including founding the Mickey Owen Baseball School in 1959 in Missouri. Notable alumni include Michael Jordan and Charlie Sheen.

What was Owen’s reaction to that fateful day when he literally dropped the ball: “I would have been completely forgotten if I hadn’t missed that pitch,”  he replied.

He turned his whiff into a win.

No. 12: Beethoven – The Wall of Silence

Worse than losing a game is losing your hearing. Overcoming the wall of silence is a horrific wall to climb. At age 48, Beethoven was stone deaf. Yet he went on to compose five more symphonies. He thought them; he didn’t have to hear them.

No. 13 – The Wall of Negativity and Naysayers

Similarly, Thomas Edison was hard of hearing. He said deafness was his greatest blessing because it spared him the trouble of having to listen to all the negativity around him.

No. 14 – Laura Hillenbrand – The Wall of Infirmity and Ill Health

You might have read the other day where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie purchased the book rights to the film “Unbroken,” the story of Louie Zamperini, a USC student, Olympian runner and World War II hero who was shot down over the Pacific and survived 47 days in shark-infested waters before he was taken prisoner for two years on Japan’s Execution Island.

Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the previous bestseller Seabiscuit, wrote the story despite rarely leaving her bed or ever meeting Zamperini, who is still alive and feisty at age 96. She suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome. How was she able to overcome this wall? By phone!

“When he was telling me his story, I wasn’t looking at a 90-year-old man,” Hillenbrand said. “I was thinking about a 17-year-old runner or a 26-year-old guy out on a life raft. I was able to visualize it I think a lot better because I wasn’t in the room with him.”

No. 15: DeWayne McKinney – Walls of Prison

Maybe in a few years, they’ll make a movie about DeWayne McKinney. McKinney served 19 years in prison for an Orange County murder he didn’t commit. When released, he didn’t possess a driver’s license, social security card, change of clothes or even a toothbrush. The City of Orange, however, paid him $1.7 million for his wrongful incarceration, of which he was left about $1 million after his attorney’s fees.

What were the odds this high school dropout would have any money left a year or two later. Well, McKinney beat the odds. He made it over the wall.

He kept his money in the bank while he gathered information on different investment opportunities. He investigated stocks and bonds, computer start-ups, and real estate opportunities. He attended Fellowship of Christian Athlete meetings, where the mostly well-heeled participants discussed the potential of different investments. “The other guys were so successful, they weren’t really paying attention,” McKinney recalled.

But McKinney was. He heard an ad executive mention that banking deregulation had made it possible for individuals to buy and operate ATMs — a low-risk investment that required little capital, but had the potential for big returns. A month later, he met a man who sold ATMs to investors, who in turn found busy locations to install the machines and profit from the fees customers paid to withdraw cash. In 2002, ATMs cost about $5,000 each. McKinney bought 20. Working with an ex-car salesman and a parolee, he hit the streets looking for small business owners willing to place one of his cash dispensers in their shops. He paid his team $250 for any deal. Soon, his machines were generating about $10,000 a month in fees.

McKinney’s story didn’t end there. Ironically, he found Southern California too confining. “L.A. to me is like being in prison,” he said. So, he moved his operation to Hawaii, where there were lots of tourists and few ATMs. There, he again relied on his prison networking skills. But instead of swapping cigarettes to get his toilet fixed, he was cutting deals with store owners, giving them a percentage of his ATM fees. Soon, he had secured the best ATM locations on the island. Every person he talked to — his insurance man, his auto detailer, the mail delivery guy — was a connection or a lead for identifying another prime ATM location. He even stocked the machines himself, traveling from site to site in shorts, sandals, and a tee shirt. His friends called him “Brudda,” the Hawaiian equivalent of “dude.” His real estate holdings were in the millions. “Everything I wanted, I worked for and saved for all my life,” said McKinney, who died in October 2008, not because he fell back in with the wrong crowd, but because of a moped accident.

No. 16: Leland Stanford – The Wall of Bereavement

How do you overcome the loss of a child? You don’t, but there are better ways to respond than just giving up. Leland Stanford, Sr., and his wife Jane were traveling with their only son, Leland Stanford, Jr. when he contracted typhus in Florence, Italy and died on March 13, 1884, two months shy of his 16th birthday. That day, the father said, “I know I resolved from that moment to build a university, and we both from that night resolved on this.”

Stanford University opened seven years later in 1891. Future President Herbert Hoover was in the first graduating class … but that’s another story.

No. 17: Taxpayers and Rate Payers Like You & Me —  The Wall of Frustration (Department of Water and Power)

Not every wall we face is matter of life and death. Some are just there to vex us or piss us off.

Maybe a while back you read that the average Department of Water and Power parking lot attendant made $74,400, not including benefits. How many houses do you have to sell to equal that payout?

There’s no use in being bitter, just try to be better …. by taking your business to a new level! You don’t have to park your career. You can take it as far as you want to go!

No. 18: All of Us – Wall of Misinformation (Swedish Scientists)

How many of you grew up hearing that in shipwrecks, women and children are always the first to be lowered into lifeboats. Well, a couple of Swedish scientists decided to study 18 shipping disasters dating to the 1850s. What they found was the overall survival rate was 61 percent for crew members, 44 percent for captains, 37 percent for male passengers, 27 percent for women and 15 percent for children.

In truth, reality is far different from the myth. In fact, nowhere in maritime law does it require that captains go down with their ships or that their crew members sacrifice themselves.

So, ladies the next time you’re in a leaky boat, grab your own life preserver and fend for yourself. Don’t expect a man to lend you a hand.

No. 19: All of Us – Wall of Experts (William Mulholland)

In our day and age, we face wall-to-wall “experts.” I could point to literally hundreds of examples of where the experts failed, but I’ll mention just one. Since this is a real estate group, does the name William Mulholland ring a bell? In the early 1900s, he was in cahoots with a lot of movers and shakers including the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times to build the great aqueduct that would carry water to Southern California from the Owens Valley in Northern California. In fact, that great event occurred exactly a century ago in 1913.

But after that great engineering marvel (or swindle of precious water resources), Mulholland continued to build more dams and reservoirs, including the St. Francis Dam. When completed in 1926 above the San Fernando Valley, the St. Francis was large enough to hold a year’s supply of water. Responding to reports of leaks, which had appeared on March 12, 1928, Mulholland and his chief assistant inspected the dam and declared it safe before returning to Los Angeles. A few hours later, when almost all of the Valley’s residents were asleep, the dam burst. “The water was a hundred feet high when it roared down San Francisquito Canyon and into the channel of the Santa Clara River, heading into the Pacific Ocean. The flood killed at least 450 people, wrecked 12,240 homes, and ruined 7,900 acres of farmland.”

No. 20: Elon Musk – The Wall of Failure

NASA’s Space Shuttle has been permanently mothballed so the business of space transportation has fallen into private hands, with mixed results. Not long ago, Space X, a company founded by Pay Pal co-founder Elon Musk, sent a rocket into space ferrying the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, the beloved Scotty on “Star Trek.” The rocket blew up, never leaving the earth’s atmosphere. Besides that high-profile embarrassment, Musk burned through about $100 million in cash.

But don’t feel sorry for Musk. He overcame that catastrophe. NASA recently awarded him a $1.6 billion contract.

No. 21: Stephen King – The Wall of Rejection

We’re all sales people here, so we know that it’s hard to escape the wall of rejection. But, no worries. Rejection can lead to election. Author Stephen King received so many rejection letters that he kept them in a journal he called a “Record of Failure.” King stuck each new rejection on a nail. “By the time I was 14,” King said, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. So I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

No. 22: Ernest Hemingway – The Wall of Perfection

Being perfect at what you do — producing that one masterpiece — is another almost impossible wall to overcome. But you can’t stop striving for perfection. Ernest Hemingway told the Paris Review that he revised A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. In fact, a new 2012 edition of his 1929 masterpiece reveals that he rewrote the ending 47 times.

No. 23: Peter Bennett – Wall of Discrimination

With my gray hair and advancing age, I’ve become more sensitive to age discrimination. I see and hear and feel it everywhere. In fact, I think it’s more prevalent in our society than just about any other kind of discrimination. Earlier this week, I was promoting my book along media row on the Miracle Mile outside NBC Universal and Oprah’s OWN Network on Wilshire Boulevard. The only people who would talk to me were other old people. My wife Colleen said, “Duuuuh.”

But even this very palpable wall of discrimination, which daily tries to lock us out of opportunities, can be overcome with persistence and planning.

Ely Callaway started his golf company in this 60s. Author Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when she published her first Little House on the Prairie. And, of course, there are hundreds of others who have succeeded in their silver and golden years. And I’m only in my 50s!

So, instead of massaging out the gray, massage a little more in. Your experience isn’t just golden; it can translate to real gold.


There will always be new walls popping up to test and challenge us. To have the greatest success in overcoming them, try to develop the following qualities:

1.    Be adventurous. Be someone who likes challenges, chaos, upheaval and creative destruction.
2.    Fight resistance with persistence.
3.    Always be ready for one more try and one less alibi.
4.    Be someone who cares more about your imagination than your image.
5.    Be someone who sees results more than risks.
6.    Be willing to jump off a cliff and build your wings on the way down.
7.    See rejection and failure as emboldening, not embarrassing.
8.    Treat all stumbling blocks as stepping stones, all obstacles as opportunities, all problems as possibilities, all stop signs as guidelines and all terminations as transitions.
9.    And by all means, stop hanging out with CAVE people. CAVE people are Citizens Against Virtually Everything.
With better decisions, better tools and a strong, unrelenting faith in yourself, you can tear down any wall holding back your success!

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. It’s been a real pleasure and honor.  Now, go home or back to work and start swinging those sledgehammers!

All examples above were taken from Life Lessons of a Harvard Reject, now available in book or tablet form by accessing www.HarvardReject.com.

If you would like Peter to address your group about how to achieve more success, please contact him at editor@laverneonline.com or pbennett5000@gmail.com.

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