Second chances – Begin again now

second chance

This article is about second chances in a practical way. After reading you will get inspired on personal leadership.


Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Life is not a destination, it’s a journey”. This comment resonates well with what Stephen Covey taught us in his superb book entitled, ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ when he said that habit number 2 is to “Begin with the End in mind”.

Armed with these two great ideas, I want to explore and explain the concept of ‘second chances’ and the ability to ‘begin again now’.

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Stephen Covey challenges us to ask the age old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up”? While the question may on the surface appear to be clichéd or even passé, in point of fact in reality it forces us to come to grips with an even more important question, ‘are you where you want to be right now’?

If you are intellectually and scrupulously honest with yourself, you will find the correct answer? Stephen Covey gently reminds us that “If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster”. Richard Branson emphasizes that everyone deserves a second chance in life. “I am not the person I was 42 years ago. I am not even the person I was two years ago. We all change, we all learn, we all grow.

To continually punish somebody for the mistakes they made in the past is not just illogical, it is plain wrong”.

Personal story

When I was a student at USC getting my MBA in 1971, a Management professor told us about the ‘6 P’s’; Proper Persistent Planning Prevents Poor Performance. It is obvious that the most salient of these are (i) Persistent and (ii) Planning. However it should be obvious that Planning must precede Persistence, since planning is in fact the ‘verb’ in this equation. The intrinsic value and importance of the ‘Planning’ process is due to the inescapable fact that it will assist us in charting and setting a course for the accomplishment of our goals. So it stands to reason that before embarking on the 6 P’s, you first have to come to grips with the development of your Goals.

The research shows that setting goals allows us to strive for better performance in all aspects of the planning process. These goals must of course be SMART (Specific – Measurable – Assignable – Realistic and Time bound). This acronym is attributed to both Peter Drucker in his 1954 book entitled, “The Practice of Management”, where he introduced the concept of management by objectives (MBO) which has pervaded management thinking to this day, and to George T. Doran writing in the November 1981 issue of Management Review about what he referred to as SMART Goals.

The second benefit of setting goals is that we set in motion a process that will impact Motivation. Edwin A. Locke (University of Maryland) wrote an exceptional paper entitled, ‘Motivation through conscious goal setting’, and he reminds us that “the study of human motivation has always been considered by psychologists to be a very difficult undertaking”. Locke suggests however that;

  1. The more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement
  2. The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated
  3. Goals that are both specific and difficult lead to the highest performance
  4. Commitment to goals is the most critical when goals are specific and difficult
  5. High commitment to goals is attained when the individual is convinced that the goal is important, attainable and that progress can be made towards it
  6. Goal setting is most effective when there is a feedback loop showing progress in relation to the goal.

I have previously written that I firmly believe that goals allow you to control the direction of change in your favor. So with all of this in mind, what does all of this have to so with second chances; this is the rest of the story?

I was born and raised in South Africa, and was a good student up to the time I entered the 10th grade. I made the choice of accepting Art and Geography (together with English, Afrikaans, Mathematics and Science) rather than the generally and more commonly accepted Latin and History.

For this heretical choice, I was sent to be with students in Grade 10 D (there were 4 sections in each grade). It was commonly known that D stood for ‘dummies’, and that only the delinquents, idiots and ne’er–do–well were sent to 10D. The sad fact is that at that time I was still a good student getting excellent grades.

However when I began to excel in 10 D, it angered my class-mates and I found myself being beaten up after school on more than one occasion for ‘showing them up’. I quickly learned that avoiding a ‘bloody nose or black eye’ was easily accomplished by simply acting dumb. I began to slide into intellectual mediocrity, managed to fail most of my exams, and ‘cut’ almost 30% of the days in the school year. The net result is that I flunked the 10th grade and was made to repeat the year in sheer humiliation.

Somehow I managed to pass the second time and eventually made it to the 12th grade, where I under-exemplified myself by managing to skate through all the State mandated exams, but not scoring high enough grades to be accepted to a University. The news was devastating for me and my parents, and now I had to figure out what I could do in life without an advanced education.

Since I had taken Art as an elective in High School I applied to the Johannesburg School of Art, and somehow was accepted there to study Graphic Design. I made it through the first year, and early in my second year the lettering professor called me into his office for a chat. He told me that I was a likable, hard-working student, but that, “I had absolutely no talent whatsoever”, and that before I made a life altering mistake that I should consider another field more suited to my skills. (I still believe that his honesty helped me change my life).

My step-father was a CPA and I came home and told him what had occurred at the Art School (more dismay for them). My step-father suggested that I come to work at his firm, and since my math skills were excellent, I thought this was a good idea (but it was really the only option I had). So I began to work in the CPA firm, and to my amazement I not only loved the work, but the overall subject of accounting, tax and finance was fascinating. One night I went to an accounting class at the University (just walked in and hoped no-one would notice me), and I loved the lecture, and continued going to classes. I did all the homework and excelled in the class. I even took the final exam, and then the Professor called me and asked “who the hell I was”? He told me that I had scored one of the highest grades in the class, but that I was NOT even on the roll. I told him the truth and he promised to see if he could get a waiver for me to attend the University. A few weeks later he informed me that, not only could I not attend the University but that I was barred from attending classes again.

I had been working with underprivileged youth in Johannesburg, and I met an American man with whom I developed a friendship. He asked me what I was doing with my life, and I shared the long sad story of dismay and defeat. He told me that if I would consider it, that in the U.S. there was something called a Junior College, where I could get a SECOND CHANCE and BEGIN AGAIN. To cut a much longer story short, I took the entrance exam at the U.S Embassy and was then admitted to attend Orange Coast Junior College in Costa Mesa, California. I was thrilled and overjoyed, and on June 27th 1966, at the age of 21, I left my family and came to the U.S. totally alone, not knowing a soul, with a small suitcase of clothes and $370.

I fully embraced my Second Chance, and completed my Associate in Arts degree at Orange Coast (majoring in Accounting), and along the way achieved a 3.9 GPA, was elected President of the Student Body and Captained the Tennis and Golf teams as well. My GOAL was to attend the USC Business School, but when I heard the cost of tuition I was floored. I could NOT get student loans since I was a foreign student, and so I applied to a small college in Fullerton, California where I could afford the tuition.

Two weeks before graduation at Orange Coast, the Dean of Students called me to his office and introduced me to a man who was the Dean of the USC Business School. This man asked me why I had not applied to USC and I told him that I could not afford the tuition. To my astonishment he informed me that the Orange Coast Dean had forwarded my information and accomplishments to USC, and that I had been awarded a Full Academic scholarship to attend USC Business School. I was overwhelmed and had to pinch myself to ensure that it was real.

I completed my undergraduate degree at USC and was then awarded an Academic Scholarship to complete my MBA (I was a T/A in 4 classes as a requirement of the scholarship). I graduated with my MBA and have never looked back since. I had been given a SECOND CHANCE, and by setting tough but SMART goals for myself, I had transformed my life from dismay to delight, from embarrassment to enlightenment.

The teachers I had at both Orange Coast College and USC were people who helped me to change my life, and I will never ever forget them. From Dean Joe Kroll at OCC who helped me get into USC, to Dr. Bill Himstreet at USC who became my mentor, these people are indelibly and forever etched in my memory.

I made a solemn promise to all the great teachers who helped ‘forge’ me into who I am today, that I would also devote part of my life to teaching. Thanks to a chance recommendation from a USC Professor who used to teach Business at Art Center (and hated it) that I teach his class (I loved it), I have had the honor and the privilege of teaching at the Art Center College of design for over 44 years.

G-d willing, I plan to make it to my 50th year, and along the way will have taught almost 6,500 students in that time. Many people have asked why I have taught for these many years, and the answer comes from Christa McAuliffe, (the teacher who along with 6 other crew members was killed in Challenger Space explosion in 1986) who said, “I touch the future, I teach”.

When it comes to Entrepreneurship and second chances the evidence is overwhelming. Evidence has shown that failed entrepreneurs learn from their mistakes and are generally more successful the second time around. Businesses set up by ‘re-starters’ grow faster on average than businesses set up by first-time Entrepreneurs in terms of turnover and jobs created. Up to 18% of all successful entrepreneurs have failed in a previous venture. Supporting a second chance for honest failed entrepreneurs is therefore important as it will help bring more experienced entrepreneurs back into the market and contribute to creating growth and jobs. Bankruptcy legislation does not differentiate between honest and dishonest bankrupts and bankruptcy procedures are the same for small as for large companies.

Yet the vast majority of US bankruptcies are honest and only 4% are fraudulent. Furthermore, failed entrepreneurs face more obstacles than first-starters to access finance and suffer from the stigma of failure that comes with a bankruptcy and makes re-entering business and social life difficult. We need financial and tax legislation that will assist ‘re-starters’ who are willing to try to build a venture again. To give you come real solace here is a list of people who “survived” bankruptcy and went on to build great companies;

Whatever you have done in the past, whatever you are doing now, please remember that life gives you SECOND CHANCES and the ability to BEGIN AGAIN NOW. Harrison Ford said “We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance”. For me all I needed was a second chance because I was not ready for the first one. The best thing I learned from my second chance was my duty to clean up the mistakes of the first. There is a poster in my home that reads, “Dear Past, thank you for your lessons. Dear Future, I’m ready. Dear G-d, thank you for another chance”. Tonight when you lay down to sleep ask yourself of you earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today.

If you think the answer might be no, it’s time to BEGIN AGAIN NOW and take your SECOND CHANCE.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Can you apply the method mentioned above on yourself? What are your results and learning points? Is there, in your opinion, an other way of personal reflection and growth? If so, would you like to share that with the world?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.
  2. Drucker, P. F. (1954). The practice of management. Harper & Row.
  3. Applied & Preventive Psychology 5:117-124 (1996). Cambridge University Press. Printed in the USA. Copyright © 1996 AAAPP

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Errol Gerson
Article by:

Errol Gerson

Errol Gerson teaches Entrepreneurship and Leadership at the world renowned Art Center College of Design, and has taught for over 44 years to well over 6,000 students. He is a featured speaker at Colleges and Universities, Conferences and Symposiums and consults with companies on Strategic Management and Marketing Planning. He is writing a book entitled "Everything you need to know in life was taught to you by your grandmother" and is a collection of aphorisms collected from all over the world. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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