My guest this week is Google President of Brand Solutions, Kirk Perry. He shares a very personal story about a loss on a high school wrestling mat that has both haunted and blessed him ever since.
Kirk is much more interesting (and charming) to listen to than my prose is to read. So I encourage you to listen to our conversation in the podcast above. Below is the version of his story that appeared in my book, Parenting with a Story. What he learned applies to both leadership and life.
Having a long-term vision of what you want to achieve is certainly a good thing. But when that’s all you think about, you can lose sight of what’s happening today. That’s when things start to fall apart. It’s a lesson Kirk Perry learned the hard way at the age of seventeen when he was a graduating senior at Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana.
For years, Kirk’s favorite sport was wrestling, and he was very good. In fact, coming to the end of his senior season, he was ranked sixth in the state. He was looking forward to winning a berth in the state tournament and earning a college wrestling scholarship that accompanied even a decent showing there. And the only thing that stood between him and that future was the state regional tournament in Hagerstown in February. He needed to place in the top two wrestlers in his region and weight class to make it to the state meet.
Fortunately, that wasn’t going to be very difficult. Kirk was the number one seed in the tournament, and he’d already beaten the number two, three, and four seeds earlier in the year. This was a slam dunk. He was already picturing himself standing on the podium with the first place medal around his neck, going to the state tourney, and enjoying a full ride to college.
The first match for the number one seed is typically the easiest. The organizers separate the top seeds early in the brackets so they have the best chance of making it to the finals. So Kirk’s first match that day was against Brad. Both boys were in the 177-pound wrestling class. But at six feet two inches, Kirk was five inches taller than his opponent and had a longer reach.
And while Kirk was the favorite to win the tournament, Brad wasn’t even seeded. As the match started, Kirk quickly went to his signature move, the “fireman’s carry.” He’d beaten Brad (and most of his opponents) with that move before. But the first time he tried it, Brad blocked him. He tried again, but again Brad was able to block him. The third and fourth attempts were no different. Apparently, Brad had done his homework on Kirk. He was prepared for this match.
The bout went the full three rounds, with neither one pinning the other. But when the final buzzer sounded, Kirk was down on points, 3 to 2. His wrestling career was over. No medal. No podium. No state tournament. No college scholarship.
He never wrestled again.
Reflecting on that match thirty years later, Kirk still remembers every move. “It was like one of those bad dreams where you’re being chased and seem to just run in place. And when you yell out, no one can hear you. By the time I ‘woke up,’ the match was over.”
Looking back, Kirk draws three lessons from the experience. The first and most obvious is the importance of not losing sight of what you need to do today, the task at hand. Some amount of planning and optimism for the future is good. But when it overshadows everything else, bad things happen. That lesson became clear to Kirk right away.
The second one took him decades to fully realize. After working in fast-food restaurants for a couple of years, he eventually saved up enough money to go to college. So by the time he started, he was a little older and more mature than most of the other students. And the unattractive prospect of continuing his fast-food career provided a little extra motivation to work hard at his studies. Plus, without the distraction of daily wrestling practice, he was probably able to focus more on his studies.
All that, combined with the lesson he learned about not losing sight of the task at hand (what he now calls “staying focused on Friday’s payroll”), has led to a stellar career. He’s a former president at Procter & Gamble and currently serves as president of brand solutions at Google in Mountain View, California. And he has even more amazing possibilities in his future.
That second lesson, therefore, is this: Sometimes even the biggest defeat can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Had he won that match, he probably would have gone straight to college on a wrestling scholarship. He would have surely enjoyed another four years of his favorite sport. But his academic record and career success may have never measured up. And he almost certainly would not have met the woman who became his wife and become a father to the four beautiful kids he has now.
His great-grandfather described such blessings another way (which is the third lesson): “Everything looks like failure in the middle.” And he offered this analogy: It’s like childbirth. When you’re in the middle of it, you’re probably thinking you never want to do this again. But when it’s over, and you get to look down at your newborn baby, everything seems worth it and you wouldn’t want to change a thing.
As Kirk describes it, “If there was ever a true blessing in a loss, it was on that wrestling mat in early February 1984 in Hagerstown, Indiana.”
- If Kirk hadn’t been so sure he would win the wrestling match, what might he have done differently to prepare?
- What are you in the middle of right now that might look like failure but could be well worth it looking back in a few years?
- How can you tell when someone is being too confident about winning?
- When is a good time to think about the future versus thinking about today?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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