by Stephen J. Hopson
"We are very near to greatness: one step and we are safe:
can we not take the leap?"
— Ralph W. Emerson
We all have a very special purpose in life regardless of who we are or from where we come. I truly believe each of us has a special calling in life even though it took me over 30 years to find mine! What follows is a series of events that have changed my life as a result of my willingness to take risks in the face of absolute uncertainty and trusting my instincts.
Looking back, I realize my parents unwittingly shaped me to be the person I am today. For example, adopting my mother’s streak of independence gave me the room I needed to take daring risks later in life. After ten years of working for a major Wall Street bank and slamming into a glass ceiling, I vehemently said "Enough!" I knew in my heart I could produce results far more outstanding than a clock punching, nine-to-five position would ever allow.
One day I was scanning through the papers in search of new and challenging Wall Street opportunities. My eyes were immediately drawn to a Merrill Lynch advertisement. They were looking to hire more stockbrokers and the qualifications listed were clearly those which I possessed. With great excitement, I made some phone calls and arranged to meet with one of the New York City branch vice presidents. Unfortunately, on the day of my appointment, I was ghastly sick with a cold and 101 degree fever that threatened to topple me physically. Yet, I knew a golden opportunity when I saw one. I was determined to meet with the vice president and keep my appointment. We ended up talking nonstop for three and one-half hours! Based on our conversation and the length of the interview, I was surprised and disappointed when instead of making me an offer on the spot, he instructed me to meet with twelve of his top stockbrokers for further interviews. "Well, maybe that’s a good sign," I thought.
Over the next 5 months, I met with these twelve people, each of whom invariably tried to discourage me by saying, "you are better off in a safe 9 to 5 bank job," "you won’t make it," "80% of newcomers fail within their first year" and "you have no investment experience." Deep down, I felt like a scared dog with its tail between its legs but I didn’t let it show. As what Microsoft’s Bill Gates experienced at the beginning of his odyssey, I had to "fake it to make it."
The final interview was scheduled on a cold, blustery, winter day in January of the following year. Five minutes into the interview, it was obvious the vice president did not know what to do with me. Apparently, it did not matter that I had written a well researched 25 page marketing plan that exceeded his expectations. It did not matter that his top salespeople were impressed with me, despite the discouraging things they had said to me privately. In a moment of daring risk and courage that forever changed my future, I looked at him straight in the eye and seized the moment. "Sir, if you don’t hire me, you’ll never know how well I can do for this firm." When I realized what I had just said to him, a chill went up my spine and I thought, "my God what have I done?" The next thing he said was like music to me, "Okay, you’ve got the job!" But before I could shake his hand and rush home to spread the good news, he added: "….on one condition." My heart sank. "You must first resign from the Bank effective two weeks from today, enroll in our three month training program and then take a stockbroker exam which must be passed on the FIRST try. If you fail even by one point, you’re out!" Inside I was shaking like a leaf. I gulped at the prospect of taking a huge leap of faith into the unknown. My mouth suddenly went dry. There was never a time in my life when I so desperately needed a glass of water! I remember thinking that I stood to lose everything if I failed that exam which I had heard was as difficult as the examination for attorneys. I swallowed hard and croaked, "I’ll take it." My future was instantly changed from that moment forward!
After passing the exam and receiving my stockbrokers license, I struggled for several months living solely on commission and eating pasta, peanut butter sandwiches and cereal. Night after night, I burned the midnight oil in search for new clients. I often left the office wearied and fatigued, ready to give up, yet somehow returning the next morning to start a new day. It was a grueling beginning during which I had no social life. One of most difficult and challenging aspects of being a stockbroker was making the largely dreaded "cold calls." We were required to make phone calls to literally hundreds of prospects each day, many of whom have never heard of us, in an effort to solicit new business. Rejection was a way of life and I learned not to take it personally. It was all a numbers game. The more people I called, the more accounts I opened. In addition to cold calling, I also had to coddle very nervous clients during roller coaster stock market conditions. This was no easy feat!
Eventually, all the hard work paid off and in less than four years I became one of the top salespeople at my branch and increased personal sales by 1,700%. Through continued faith and persistence, I built and managed multimillion-dollar investment portfolios for U.S. clients, many of whom were distinguished men and women from America’s corporate boardrooms, wealthy socialites, doctors, lawyers as well as non-profit foundations. This resulted in a cover feature story for Careers and the disAbled magazine as well as worldwide press coverage on CNN and numerous newspapers including The New York Times. All this success earned me a six-figure income, a spot in the prestigious Merrill Lynch Executive Club three years in a row and numerous sales awards.
Towards the end of my fourth and beginning of the fifth year at Merrill Lynch, it hit me like a ton of bricks that something was missing. I became spiritually bankrupt and depressed. I thought long and hard about my goals and where to go next. At one point, I pleaded with God and asked to be led in the right direction. The Source reminded me of the time when I spoke to hundreds of people while in college as a student leader and years later won a "Humorous Speech" championship. It dawned on me that every time after a speaking engagement, I always came out of the experience with a wonderful, energetic, peaceful and magical feeling that was unmatched by anything else I ever did. I instinctively knew God had blessed me with extraordinary public speaking skills that could enable me to make a lasting difference and transform other people’s lives. After considering my options, I took another daring risk, gave up EVERYTHING and left the lucrative investment business for a more satisfying career as a motivational speaker. A lot of people, including my parents, thought I was crazy. "It is a pie in the sky dream because it isn’t realistic" they said. I paid no attention to those words and to this day, have never looked back.
The beginning of my speaking journey was eerily similar to what I had first experienced at Merrill Lynch. Once again, I went back to dining on pasta, peanut butter sandwiches and cereal. Working temporary jobs in between long stretches of speaking engagements was both a harrowing and humbling experience. There were times when I had only a few dollars in my pocket and ate once a day. That was a surefire way to lose weight! To save money, instead of taking the subway to different parts of the city, I would walk or ride my bike. Cab drivers were losing money because of me! Meanwhile, to keep my dream burning brightly, I worked hard on a creating a personal message that would reflect my collective learning experiences in the world of finance and inspire people to be the best they can be.
Nothing in the world comes close to the most satisfying feeling I get when thousands of people tell me how much I have made a difference in their lives by having motivated them to take risks, to make necessary changes and to accept themselves as spiritual beings having a human experience! The core of my message is, "If I can do it, you can too!" What could be more satisfying than that?
Oh, did I mention that I have a disability? I have been deaf since birth!
Note: You can contact Stephen Hopson at www.sjhopson.com.