5 Lessons I Learned When Just Starting Out

The year was 1969.

Fresh out of college and newly married to my long-time love, Margaret, I stepped into the sanctuary of my first church, in Hillham, Indiana. To say Hillham was small would be an understatement; when Margaret and I first moved there, the town consisted of eleven houses, two garages, and one grocery store. Even today, it is still small in many ways—for example, its Wikipedia page is only four sentences long!

Despite its size, however, Hillham was a place of massive opportunity for Margaret and me. It was my first church, my first real taste of leadership, and my first opportunity to pursue the dreams I had for my life. It was also the first real challenge I faced—my first Sunday sermon was delivered to an audience of two, and Margaret was one of them!

Though the church was small, my dreams were huge. The people of the church were more than happy to let me chase those dreams, but due to size and budget restrictions, it was up to me to do the chasing! I was young, I was determined, and I set out to succeed with nothing more than a little willpower and a lot of confidence.

There are many leaders who face similar circumstances to the ones I faced in Hillham: small organization and few resources, but big dreams and goals. Being a one-man show isn’t ideal, but it can teach you a lot of great leadership lessons. In fact, many of the lessons I learned in Hillham became foundational not only for my future leadership positions, but for the lessons I teach in my books and from the stage.

Here are five lessons I learned as a one-man show:

1. Harness the energy of potential

Hillham was a small community, but I had unlimited opportunity before me. Every door needed to be knocked on, every name needed to be learned, every day presented a first for me and my career. Because of this, I was able to wake up each day excited for what lay ahead of me. Nothing gives more energy to the one-man show than potential. The key is disciplining yourself to look for it in every situation.

2. Tap into your imagination

One of my first successes came in Hillham. Because so many people were struggling with finances, I decided that teaching them principles for managing their money would be a tremendous way to add value to them. I went looking for resources to purchase to help me, but none existed—so Margaret and I just made our own. We researched, wrote, designed, and printed the materials we would need to help people learn to manage their money. And it worked so well that other churches came asking for the materials!

It’s often easy to say, “Well, no one has ever done that before” and give up. But when you tap into your imagination, you can find your way around any problem—and possibly help other people find their way around it too!

3. Discover your strengths and focus on them

Most of us recognize that even a one-man show needs to begin specializing. When I first came to the church, everything was new, and I was an amateur in all of it. So I just worked hard and tried to grow. But I soon discovered that there were areas where I seemed to be growing quickly, like communication, and others where I grew much more slowly, such as administration. I worked at both, but I never became a great administrator. Over time, however, my communication got better and better, and the church began to thrive.

The natural tendency is to spend most of our energy in those areas where we struggle the most, reasoning that if we invest there, we’ll see the most improvement. Here’s what Hillham taught me: The reverse is actually true: when we spend our time focusing on what we do best (or have the potential to do best), we go a lot farther in that area.

4. Learn to build momentum

It’s tempting to believe success comes in the form of a “home run”, especially when you’re working alone. You can become convinced that you are one big this, or one lucky that, away from really breaking out. The truth is your breakout will come from the small changes you make day after day.

Consistent work to improve your routine, your disciplines, and your knowledge accumulates over time, and produces the big this or the “luck” that you need. When you learn to do the small things each day, you’ll experience what historian Thomas Fuller once said: “Care and diligence bring luck.”

5. Appreciate those who help

It doesn’t matter how much of a one-man show you are, you’re never really alone. Everyone has people who support and help them on their way, and I was no different. Hillham originally offered me a part-time salary, and gave me permission to seek other employment so I could support Margaret and myself.

Margaret wouldn’t stand for it. She told the church that she would go out and get extra jobs so I could devote my time and energy to my work. And she did – in fact, she worked three of them to help us stay afloat during that time. I was able to grow and succeed in that church in large part because Margaret believed and invested in me.

 

It’s been a long time since Hillham, but these five lessons have been foundational for me and my career. If you’re currently in a season where you’re a one-man (or one-woman) show, take heart—there are plenty of great things you’re learning that will help you in the future.

In fact, I want to share a few more lessons in next week’s blog, because not everything I learned came from success. There were even more lessons to be learned from failing forward, and they’re just as important as the ones I shared today.

But I’d like to leave you with a question: if you’ve ever been a one-man show, what lessons did you learn from the experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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