Let me take you back to a day in the summer of 2004. My wife Jen and I were out to dinner in downtown Savannah, GA, where we lived, talking about our new baby that was due in only a month. Jen and I had recently moved to Savannah together after graduating from the University of Georgia. We were in our early twenties. Jen was a quick, young real estate agent working for the best brokerage in town. At her high point, she had sixty listings. I was building homes in Palmetto Bluff, SC and loving every day of work. The market was fantastic for both of us. We could see our life trajectory stretching out before us. Everything was good; everything was very good.
A year prior, we had just finished building our dream home. It sat at the end of a hammock island on the Wilmington River with views of the Savannah Yacht Club from our back porch. Historic Savannah, with all of its charm and culture, was just a short drive away. Occasionally, dolphins would swim right up to our dock. I was learning how to handle a boat and getting familiar with the waterways and the sandbars, so much that the natives dubbed me “Sandy.”
Both Jen and I love architecture, and it was a joy to work with our architect and designer to plan a home which we hoped would house our family for many years to come. It was exciting to watch the home being built from the ground up. With every house I’ve built before and since, I’ve learned more, refined my eye, and marveled that a dwelling can literally rise up, piece by piece, from raw dirt and become a home.
Savannah is notorious for its hard and quick summer storms. There was a particularly intense storm that evening, followed by a sunset of magical colors stretching over the marsh. As Jen and I crossed the causeway on the way back to our new home from dinner, we saw smoke rising in the sky off in the distance. It wasn’t the kind of smoke you see from a brush fire burning in the country. This was black smoke. This was the kind of smoke you’d see when plastic and metal and sheetrock were going up in flames. It was huge.
Soon we began to smell the destruction. We knew that someone’s life was about to change forever, not knowing it was going to be ours. I instinctively started driving a little bit faster. As we approached our neighborhood, we saw our neighbors out in the street—neighbors who had quickly become friends —looking in the direction of our car with blank stares. I will never forget how quiet it was. As we turned the corner, we saw what was remaining of our dream home, which had taken us two years to build. It was over – gone.
That evening’s storm had been so severe that lightening had struck our chimney and set the whole house in flames. The firemen had done everything they possibly could, but the blaze was too big. Every aspect of our existence changed in that moment. We lost everything we’d ever owned. At that moment, all Jen and I had were the clothes on our back and each other. The only saving grace of that evening, our Boykin spaniel, Bodie was saved by a fireman. He lived with us for 15 more years after our fire.
Our loss was so devastating we did not know what do next. We decided to move home to Atlanta a few weeks after the fire, where both of us had grown up and where our parents and extended families lived. We hardly looked back on our old life in Savannah and the rubble of our house which we had left behind.
The next month, we welcomed our first child to the world—a girl we named Blakely, my mother’s maiden name. We moved into a rental house on a street with lots of friends and started to put the pieces of our life back together and regain a sense of normalcy. I started a new project in Atlanta, and we turned to a new chapter in our life almost immediately.
After the fire, both Jen and I decided to not look back. We both woke up each morning and made a conscious decision to lean into the future and be hopeful. We started everything new in Atlanta. Within a couple of weeks, we had a new place to sleep, new city to call home, new career to start, new friends to make, new baby to raise, and new goals to achieve.
The most amazing and impactful inventions in the history of the world were created by men and women who had unshakable belief. Imagine how far behind we would be as a society if it weren’t for these brave and visionary individuals. My own experience with adversity has taught me that real success is born out of struggle. It takes perseverance to build anything worth having. Most people mistakenly think obstacles are a drag on momentum. But the truth is that adversity forces you to develop successful habits. Every obstacle gives you the strength to face your next conflict. And that, practiced daily, is the real secret to not getting stuck in a rut.
If you have struggled to succeed, then we share something in common.
If you have gotten knocked on your butt along the way, then we share something in common.
And if you don’t want to settle, and you want to constantly get better as a business person and an individual, then we share something in common.
I am here to tell you that each of these experiences and feelings are perfectly normal, and you should expect them as part of your path to growth. I will never forget the day I watched my house, and all of my belongings, burn to the ground. It was a horrific experience. But what I didn’t know then, and what I do know now, is that moment of adversity, of pure fear, started something big for me in my life.
Any life takes a series of twists and turns. The fire brought me to Atlanta. Who knows what I would be doing if I stayed in Savannah?
That huge obstacle unlocked the opportunity for me to rise up and gradually climb from the bottom to the top. That journey has brought me to writing this blog, a guide of sorts to help you build something meaningful, something exciting, and something super-charged in your own life.