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Kenneth W. Keller: A lesson in responding to adversity

Inside Business

Posted: March 31, 2009 11:57 p.m.
Updated: April 1, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Have you heard story about the business owner who went home to visit her mother?

She wanted to tell her mother how things had become so difficult with the economy, how the business was suffering and becoming more challenging every day. Although she was once filled with hopes and dreams, she did not know how the business was going to make it.

She was thinking seriously about closing the business. She was tired of struggling; it seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her into the kitchen and told her to sit at the kitchen table, relax and to watch without asking questions or making any comments.

The mother filled three pots with water. In the first, she placed carrots. In the second, she placed eggs and in the last, she placed coffee beans that had been finely ground.

She let them sit and boil in the water, as softly hummed without saying anything out loud.

Twenty minutes later she turned off the burners. The mother fished out the carrots and placed them in a bowl.

She scooped out the eggs and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the hot coffee into a bowl. She carried the three bowls to the kitchen table.

Turning to her daughter she asked, "Tell me what do you see?" "I see carrots, eggs and coffee," was the reply.

The mother asked her to feel the warm carrots. She did and the daughter noted that they were soft. The mother than asked her daughter to take an egg and break the shell. And, pulling off the shell, she touched the hard-boiled egg.

Finally the mother asked her daughter to sip the steaming coffee. The daughter smiled as she smelled the flavor and tasted the rich aroma. The daughter asked "What's the point of all this?"

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity, boiling water. But, each reacted differently.

The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However after being subjected to the hot water, it softened and became weak.

Given enough time in the hot water, it would have disintegrated.

The egg had been fragile; yet its thin outer shell had protected the liquid interior. But after sitting in the boiling water, the inside became hardened. Over time it would have become hard as a rock.

The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water they had transformed the water. It not only had a wonderful taste but also an enticing aroma.

"Which are you?" the mother asked her daughter. "When adversity appears, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?" The mother held up her hand, motioning her daughter not to answer the question.

"Are you the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, wilts, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Do you have a fluid spirit, but after some trial or difficulty become hardened and stiff? Does your shell look the same but on the inside are you bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and a hardened heart?"

"Or are you like the coffee bean, the one that changes the hot water, the very circumstance and source of the adversity? When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and the flavor of the bean. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you. When the hour is the darkest and trials are the greatest, do you elevate to another level?"

"There is no escaping the hot water, the trials of life and those of owning a business. They will come, whether you are prepared or not. I don't think anyone is ever ready to start, run and build a business just as your father and I were not prepared to be parents when you were born. We told ourselves we were ready, but in reality we learned as we went along, taking some advice and ignoring a lot more. We had difficulties and disagreements along the way, but we kept working at it, and you grew up to be someone we are very proud of."

"I am sure that you weren't fully ready to run a business even though you had an idea and a plan. Along the way reality intervened, unexpectedly. I know that you are having a tough time right now, but as I look back on your life, you have always been more like the coffee bean than the carrot or the egg.

I believe that the answers are in your head but you have been so busy with worry and work that you can't think clearly. What you need is quiet time to reflect and to think through to a solution."

Kenneth Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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