Live Your Dreams: Doctor’s Orders
President and Founder
Penny Loafers Shoe Shine Company Inc.
I grew up thinking that I wasn’t particularly smart. My biggest challenge has been a constant struggle in overcoming this misconception. As a result, I allowed my lack of confidence in my abilities to hold me back. I just didn’t believe in myself. I made several mistakes including dropping the ball on what became a million dollar invention. But I never gave up. I used the inspiration of other people to keep me in the game until I won.
I did not have much of a formal education, leaving school and home at 16, and as a child I was teased a lot by my two older siblings for not being very smart. One of them even called me ‘stupid’ and no one ever corrected him.
My father was a successful business man. He was always tough on me, and preferred to tell me what to do instead of asking me what I wanted to do. He often sent mixed messages such as, “Do what you want” while at the same time saying “Learn how to type and just get by”, with my mother instructing me to “conform”. It was the classic push me - pull me tug of war. As I internalized this belief, I lost all confidence in who I really was. In fact, when I was in my late twenties, a few of my friends sat me down and pointed out that I was always apologizing. I had not realized I was doing that, and that day was the beginning of a long road to recovery in my area of self-confidence. I am still on that road but I feel much better about myself now that I understand it was all perception and not truth.
When I was seventeen I announced to my brother that I wanted to buy a Taco Bell franchise. He was dumbfounded, and said the idea was crazy. “Who would want a franchise?” he asked. So, I never did it.
Naively I followed my conditioning, and started working as a secretary at a major brokerage firm. That honoured one of the messages I received as a kid – ‘just get by’. The other message – ‘do what you want’, didn’t click in until much later. Eventually I convinced the firm to give me a shot at selling stocks, but I simply didn’t have the passion for it. I tried catering for a while, grew bored with that, and then did some marketing in my father’s business. I had no idea – no vision for where I was going.
I was eager to do something I loved. Around 1990 I saw the popularity of a line of toys called the Cabbage Patch Dolls. You couldn’t wash them, and I felt the children’s market needed a line of toys that could be washed. I was jazzed; I had never been this excited about an idea for work.
I began brainstorming and sourcing appropriate materials. Beanbags were popular in my childhood, and the idea could be recycled in the form of a doll. I thought beanbag toys would be perfect. I found a source of cheap recycled PVC pellets, and envisioned using the ends of fabric bolts as the cover. I would be environmentally conscious as well as entrepreneurial.
A friend of mine made some prototypes, and another friend who was a children’s author was keen on writing little books for the characters. We began to brainstorm lists of animals and possible names for them. For research I watched Saturday morning cartoons and hung out in toy stores. I had connections with a leading toy company, and a manufacturer lined up. I trademarked the name Has Beans for comic books, movies, toys, cartoons and merchandise. Our working name was The Beanies.
Then it happened. My fiancée abruptly broke off our engagement, I had a falling out with a close friend, and I underwent a business setback. Those three significant personal losses knocked me off course, and clouded my judgment. I lost sight of my goal, and concluded it was all just a dumb idea. I never followed through.
Years later I saw a front page headline, and froze. It announced the phenomenal success of a new line of toys called the “Beanie Babies”. I was devastated. There was even a picture of a rabbit that was almost identical to one of my prototypes. When you register a trademark you must sell at least one unit within a year for it to remain protected. I had taken my eye off the ball, and let the ball drop. My trademark had expired, and someone else grabbed it.
I had blown off what might have become a million dollar idea all because my confidence wavered, and I was upset for months. After moping around for a while I finally realized, “If I could do it once I can do it again. Dwelling on my mistakes won’t help me now.”
I picked myself up and moved on. “How?” you may ask. I used the inspiration of people like Thomas Edison. He had about 1,000 “failures” before he invented the incandescent light filament. I played the tunes of Tina Turner, who resembles the Phoenix rising from the ashes as she reinvents her career every decade. I thought of people like Katherine Hepburn who was unceremoniously dropped by her studio when her early movies struggled at the box office. She didn’t sulk. She bought her movie rights from the studio, hired Cary Grant to play opposite her, and then starred in her own movies. The rest is history. Moving on, I turned my focus to the next opportunity.
I looked at ideas that had come to market. I wrote down what had worked for me and what had failed. It was important that I know who my cheerleading section was, so I listed the people in my life that might assist me with my goals. With no idea what I wanted, I turned to a career counselor for help. After weeks of searching and introspection I discovered I wanted and needed to go into business for myself. BUT DOING WHAT? I was determined to find something by keeping my eyes, ears and heart open.
While doing international sales and marketing for a family business I met a young woman with an invention who I mentored on such things as the ins and outs of government agency requirements. Her invention soon won an award from Canada’s scientific research community. That’s when she called me with her dilemma. She wanted to accept the award in person in Vancouver, but was already committed to a trade show that same week. Would I go and represent her at the Trade Show, she asked? I was free, and agreed to go for the cost of my expenses only.
While there, I discovered two items that intrigued me – mini menus and a shoe shine business. The Mini Menus™ appeared years later in hotels and restaurants as business advertising. But at the time, none of my contacts in the tourism industry had heard of it, so I dismissed it. (Looking back I can see that I dismissed things too quickly as a result of not believing in my abilities.)
I didn’t have a chance to see the shoe shine business, but the fellow in the next booth raved about it. He told me there were two girls giving shoe shines with their bare hands, and it was phenomenal. I wasn’t overly impressed, but he persisted. “There’s a business for you” he said. “What were you smoking in the men’s room?” I asked jokingly. “Do you have any idea what I’ve done? I’ve been a stockbroker, a caterer, and I’m now working in international marketing. I am not going to shine shoes.” Or so I believed at the time … never say never.
Eight months later I took off on a trip to upstate New York to unwind. I shopped, walked and exercised to some Jane Fonda tapes as I tried to clear my head and get focused. I reviewed my strengths and weaknesses. Then, while driving down a country road with one of my girlfriends, it hit me like a ton of bricks!
That shoe shine business had everything I was looking for. I could own my own business, the environment was right, and I could be an entrepreneur and still interact with people. My customers would fit the profile I had identified with the career counselor. I guess I really did listen to that man who told me about this business; it just took a while to realize it. Fortunately, and for some unknown reason I remembered the name of the company even though I had discarded their business card almost immediately.
The next day I got up with the birds. I could see my future, and I was excited. To track down the number of the company from the trade show, I called directory assistance. I was so excited I told the operator about my plans. He was delightful, but despite an intense search he couldn’t find it. But just as I was hanging up I heard him scream “WAIT A MINUTE; I FOUND IT!” He gave me the number, and with many thanks and his best wishes, I hung up.
As it was early on a Saturday morning, I sat there waiting for the appropriate time to phone the manager of the business. When I finally dialed the number at 8:30 am, I heard a very sleepy voice on the other end. Somehow I had forgotten about the two hour time difference, and had wakened her at 6:30 am!
“I love your business,” I said, “and I’m wondering what I can pay you to teach me to do what you do.” She was very gracious, and set up a conference call with the owner who then mentored me in starting my own shoeshine business.
I sometimes wonder if I would have lost faith in myself again had the operator not found the number that day. I’m not sure. I almost didn’t do this because of my age, which at that time was thirty-nine. I knew the other girls doing this were in their twenties, and all of a sudden this older gal was going to hit the scene. My old conditioning was nipping at my heels again, but this time I refused to listen.
I registered the business in September 1994. I shelled out thousands of dollars in consulting fees and in building my first chair, and opened my first location in 1995.
To get my name out there I volunteered to shine shoes for free at a Harry Rosen location for the week prior to Father’s Day, having been rejected by every landlord in the city over a nine month period. I had nowhere else to go, and it was important that I get out to where the people were. I never told anyone I wasn’t being paid. I never asked for gratuities but accepted them if they were offered. For three months I brought home about $20 a day.
During this time I had to find ways to make ends meet. I cut down on my expenses in as many creative ways that I could. I received about $1,000 a month from my family business, and still had some employment benefits for a few months. I took secretarial work and even did some catering, often with dubious results. One lady refused to pay me for an evening where I just about ruined the whole dinner. I knew my heart was no longer in it. I lived that way for a year to get my business off the ground.
That first year I had few clients. I had an eight foot chair built for trade shows that I used in downtown Toronto once I did get established. As I watched thousands of people walk by without stopping, but instead snickering and whispering. I smiled and told myself I could always chop it up and use the wood for kindling. It took a lot of grit to get through those early days.
By the end of 1996 I had opened my second shop at the TD Centre. Then, life once again threw me some setbacks. My brother had been diagnosed with brain cancer. He was having frequent seizures, and had to be restrained in a hospital bed. Down the road in another hospital, my mother was suffering from the effects of dementia. I found myself shuffling between the two, keeping vigil over them. I slept on a little cot alternating between the two rooms at different hospitals. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and I wanted to curl up in a corner and make this bad dream all go away. But I had a business and responsibilities, and I wasn’t going to drop the ball this time. Instead, I held on tight.
I knew I was in the right career because my personal stress dissipated after working on my first customer of each day. I felt invigorated and rejuvenated. I enjoyed the physical activity of the shoeshine and the relationships I was creating with my customers. I swear if I had been in an office job or in a business I disliked, I don’t know how I would have gotten by. When my mother and my brother both died only a few months apart in 1998, the vice chairman of one of the financial institutions expressed his condolences and brought me a lovely plant. His genuine interest was shared by many of my customers and that helped me at what was certainly one of the lowest times in my life.
There were setbacks. I lost my first location to a barbershop, and then I lost another one in Casino Niagara. They had wooed me with promises of a bustling business. They spoke about the success of the shoeshine at the casino in Windsor, so I spent thousands on new chairs and set-up fees. The result was only a few customers a day. Casino Niagara was drawing only the bingo bus tourist crowd, and that differed markedly from the customer demographics at Casino Windsor. I was commuting back and forth in support of my people who were working for me for free, hoping it would turn around.
It all ended when I was told they had changed their minds about my services, and would I please come and pick up my chairs from storage.
I was absolutely furious. I had fulfilled their requirements, and they didn’t honour their commitment. There was no way I was going quietly. They had taken six months of my life at the time my brother was told he had only eight months to live. I was a dog with a bone and I wasn’t about to let go. I told them this was not acceptable, and I wanted a settlement. I went to the president of the Ontario Casino Corporation, and eventually received a settlement in excess of $25,000.
Today I have many people working for me in different locations in the downtown core of Toronto. We have more than 35,000 clients a year, yet I am always asking myself, “What can I do next for my business?” I thought of running a weekly anonymous poll on social, economical and political issues. My clients could be the white-collar voice on many subjects. It might even attract media attention and thus, more exposure for my company.
My fears and self-doubt prevented me from acting on this great idea for years. I hemmed and hawed, and procrastinated. Finally, I just did it. I put together three questions and conducted a pilot at one of my sites. One of my customers in the pilot knew a writer at National Post newspaper whom he contacted. The writer told his editor about my idea which became a weekly national feature in May 2003!
I still hear the voices of inadequacy whispering in my ear now and then. They are the same voices I heard when I allowed my Beanie Baby idea and others to slip though my fingers. The difference is - now I take action in spite of my fears. I realize those feelings are just that – feelings. It doesn’t mean they are true. The irony is that one of the best ways to diminish those feelings is by taking action in the face of them. It is just like Susan Jeffers says in the title of her book, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”
(Ballantine Books, 1988).
Live Your Dreams: Doctor’s Orders
Author, Dr. Samuel Gerstein
Foreword by Jack Canfield
In our first Chicken Soup for the Soul book, I tell a story of visiting the Temple of the Golden Buddha in Thailand. I was astounded to learn that this awesome solid-gold Buddha smiling down at us had been covered by a thick layer of clay for hundreds of years.
Historians believe that Siamese monks applied the clay to keep their precious treasure from being looted by an invading army. Unfortunately, it appears that all the monks were killed by the invaders, and the well-kept secret of the golden Buddha remained intact until 1957 when the statue had to be moved. To everyone’s shock some clay fell off, and when the startled head monk applied a hammer and chisel, he discovered the sold-gold treasure underneath.
As we flew home I thought to myself, “We are all like that Buddha, covered with a shell of hardness created out of fear. Yet underneath, each of us is a ‘golden Buddha; a ‘golden Christ’ or a ‘golden essence’ which is our real self. Somewhere between the ages of two and nine we begin to cover up our ‘golden essence.’ Much like the monk with the hammer and the chisel, our task now is to discover our true essence once again!"
In “Live Your Dreams – Doctor’s Orders” - Dr. Gerstein does a superb job of exposing the true golden essence of forty ordinary people who all found a way to overcome their fear, chip off the clay and go for their dream. And after each story, he provides tips on how you, the reader can do it too.
There are many books out there today on how to achieve your dreams and find success. In this book Dr. Gerstein shows us what can happen when those principles are actually applied. By going beyond the tired theories of how to ‘find a good job,’ he opted to shoot for the moon and found example after example of people actually living their dreams at work. Based not on money, but on passion, joy and fulfillment - their dreams are no fantasy, but fully realized. Today, all of them are doing what they love, and their diverse and very individual stories show us all what living your dream can actually look like.
Too often in today’s society we stop short of the dream. Instead, we focus on decreasing our pain, managing our stress and treating our illnesses. But why do we stop there? After all, good health is so much more than simply a lack of illness. It is a vitality for life, an abundance of energy that is our birth right. Good health is a good attitude, a strong body and a vibrant mind.
Dr. Samuel Gerstein walks his talk. As you will see from his personal story which begins the book, he was feeling the effects of work stress himself several years ago. His own journey of self discovery led him to his dream of helping others find theirs. I believe this book will inspire you to do the same. Read it if you are feeling lost, or if your work has little meaning. Read it if you are dissatisfied with or hate your job. Read it if you have given up hope that the majority of your adult life spent at work will ever be enjoyable or fulfilling.
One of the best ways to learn anything new is through the use of role models.
Dr. Gerstein has provided us with forty powerful role models in people who overcame their fears and all the reasons why they ‘couldn’t,’ and through dogged determination and creative resourcefulness found a way to achieve their dream. And because we are all unique, the wisdom and inspiration in this book can be utilized as much by a confused young high school senior as a by disgruntled senior manager of a large downtown firm.
When Mark Victor Hansen and I created Chicken Soup for the Soul, our mission was to heal and change the world one story at a time. I am moved by the forty very special stories Dr. Gerstein has found and given to the world. They are an inspiration to all people who want to live their dream. It’s a book that is meant to be read, absorbed and acted on. If you are tired of ‘settling’ in your life, see yourself doing what these people have done, and know that if they can do it, so can you.
Co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul® series and
Author of The Success Principles™