How to Become a Hero
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   C.J. Hayden, MCC
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The Place to Look for Courage is in Your Heart
C.J. Hayden, MCC

Most of you know me as a best-selling author and a successful businesswoman. People often tell me that I make success look easy, but life didn't start out that way for me.

When I was 15 years old, I dropped out of high school and ran away from home. Now, no child does something that drastic if things are good at home, but what I'd like to talk about tonight is what happened after I left.

I stuck out my thumb in Boston and hitchhiked across the continent and across the border. I didn't stop until I got to the west coast of Canada, because my plan was to go so far and so fast that no one would ever find me. Where I ended up was living on the street.

You've seen hundreds of kids like me, maybe even on your way here tonight. I survived by eating in soup kitchens, begging food from strangers, and eating other people's leftovers. I ate meals with everyone from the Salvation Army to the Hare Krishnas. I panhandled for spare change, and ran errands for hookers and drug dealers. I slept in shelters, on rooftops, in abandoned cars, and on the beach. I lived on the street for almost a year before I finally managed to find work that paid enough to get a place to live.

I overhear people sometimes who see kids begging on the street corner and ask, "Why don't they get a job?" I smile and shake my head. The people who ask that question have no idea how hard it really is to get off the street once you find yourself there. Imagine what it would be like for you to find work with no education, no job skills, no work experience, no Social Security card, no address, no phone number, no place to take a shower, no clean clothes, no alarm clock.

I got odd jobs now and then, cleaning bathrooms in vacant apartments for a landlord, putting Kentucky Fried Chicken in boxes on a sale day, handing out flyers for a massage parlor. But it took many months to get a real job and a room in a shared apartment.

In later years, when I would tell my story, people would say to me, "Wow, you must be very brave."

"No," I would reply, "Not me. I was terrified the whole time." That was before I learned the truth, the truth I'm going to tell you right now.

Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the power to take action while being afraid.

I was terrified, but I did what I needed to do anyway. I needed to eat, sleep, and keep warm and dry, so I found ways to do those things even though I was often frightened of the people I had to deal with or the surroundings I had to put myself in.

For three years after I got off the street, I lived a hand to mouth existence at minimum wage jobs, struggling to survive from paycheck to paycheck. I ate pasta and vegetables bought for pennies at the farmer's market. I altered cast-off clothing by hand so I could have enough work clothes. When I didn't have money for the laundromat, I washed my clothes in the bathtub. I walked across town to work in the wintertime because I didn't have the subway fare. I counted out quarters in order to make the rent, and when I couldn't pay rent, I slept on someone's couch or floor. I was determined that nothing could make me end up back on the street.

But I wanted something better for myself, just like all of you.

I took a risk and asked a stranger to take a chance on me; to give me a better job. He surprised me by saying I could start next Monday... but I needed a high school diploma. It looked impossible. Taking the tests for a GED took five days, and I only had four.

So I took another risk. I asked another stranger for help. "Give me two of the tests in one day," I said. "I'll do the best I can." Another surprise -- they were easier than I thought. Even though I only had half as much time to take them, I passed them both, and the others as well. I showed up on Monday with my diploma.

I went on to go to college, at night, while I worked full time to support myself. Eventually, I earned my bachelor's degree. It took me ten years.

I took a lot of risks during that time. I asked for raises and promotions, and didn't always get them. I changed careers twice, and the second time started over at entry level in order to do it. I started a business... and failed at it. But through it all, I kept going. I wanted something better for myself, and I was willing to do what it took to get it.

That's what courage really is.

You know, the word courage comes from the French word "coeur" which means heart. Courage literally means to have heart. If you love what you are doing enough, if you have enough heart, then you will have the courage to do what needs to be done.

Without heart, everything looks impossible, life is a struggle, you are too afraid to take risks... so you never get what you want.

Sometimes people say to me about my time as a runaway, "You were so lucky. What if something had happened to you?" I know what they're thinking. Young girls on the street do get taken advantage of, become victims of violence, get addicted to drugs and alcohol. But you see, all those things did happen to me.

I was raped my second week on the street. But the next time someone tried it, I had learned how to fight back. I was taken advantage of in a thousand different ways. Each time I learned something about how to better protect myself. I did get addicted to drugs and alcohol. But I learned how to fight that, too. And eventually I won that battle, even though in some ways it was the hardest one of all.

I know other people who had a tough early life, and many of them are bitter. The battles they fought have hardened their hearts, and there's no room there for anyone or anything else. So there's no room there for courage. They have to rely on toughing it out. Life remains a struggle for them. They may be successful, but they never make it look easy. Toughness can come from the gut, but courage must come from the heart.

If you love what you do, you can have courage. If you love who you do it for, you can have courage. If you love who you are as you work and live, you can have courage. Without that love, all you are left with is struggle.

When I finally earned my bachelor's degree, I thought, "Now I have everything I need. I can start another business and be successful this time." So I took another risk... and failed again. My business wasn't successful, and you'll laugh when I tell you why. Here I am today, the marketing expert, author of "Get Clients Now!" and my business failed because I couldn't figure out how to get enough clients.

But there was something else wrong with that business, and it took a while before I could see it. I got another job, the pay was good, the benefits were great... but my heart wasn't in it. And that's when I realized what was wrong with my two failed businesses -- my heart wasn't in them! I didn't love what I was doing, so when the going got tough, I gave up. Without my heart to turn to, I had no courage.

Courage is what enables you to face danger with determination. It's what sustains you when everything goes wrong. It's what Harriet Beecher Stowe called on when she said, "When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn."

When I realized what was wrong with my first two businesses, I knew just what I needed to do to set it right. I had to work with people I loved -- creative, independent-minded entrepreneurs, doing work I loved -- writing, teaching, and coaching, and I would once again love myself enough to have the support of my heart.

So I took what may have been the biggest risk of all. I gave up a six-figure income and a secure retirement to start a new completely untried business. All I had to rely on was my heart and the words of Marsha Sinetar: "Do what you love and the money will follow."

There were several times in the early years when I wasn't sure I could make it. I had invested a lot to create the business I really wanted, and I watched my reserves dwindle while I searched for the right formula to deliver products and services to my chosen market at a price they could afford. At one point, the combined balance of all my bank accounts was less than a dollar, my credit cards were maxed out, and I sold a piece of jewelry to buy groceries.

But my heart said, "Keep going," so I did. And it was then that the tide turned.

I've been in this business ten years now, and never been happier in my life. I get to do the work I love, and make a good living at it. And I never work so hard that I don't also have time for a life. How can anyone ask for more than that? And considering where I came from to get here, this is heaven on earth.

All of you here tonight have chosen the same path that I did. You took a risk and started a business. As an entrepreneur, again and again you will need to take risks. You will need to gamble over and over again that the choice you are about to make is the right one. And for that you will need courage.

When that time comes, remember always that the place to look for courage is in your heart.

Copyright © 2002 C.J. Hayden



This is the text of a speech first given to the Women's Initiative for Self-Employment in Aug. 2002.

You may reprint this article in its entirety, as long as the copyright notice and the following source information appears:

C.J. Hayden is the best-selling author of Get Clients Now! and Get Hired Now! and a frequent speaker on topics of right livelihood, service to others, and social entrepreneurship. Read C.J.'s blog at www.howtobecomeahero.com.

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