The three worst-best things that happened to sculptor John T. Unger
The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future
By Chris Guillebeau
Almost everyone we’ve met in the book so far has some kind of failure-to-success story. In many cases, the story is about a product launch that fell flat, a partnership gone wrong, or the loss of motivation for the wrong project. “I tried something and it didn’t work out . . . but then I moved on to something else” is a common refrain.
All these stories are valid and interesting, but I’ve never heard a rise-from-the-ashes story quite as compelling as that of John T. Unger, a sculpture artist from a small town in Michigan. John’s story is a tour de force of failure and fear that turned into resilience and success.
As John tells it, the third best thing that ever happened to him was having the roof of his studio collapse from under him while he was standing on it, frantically trying to shovel snow.
The building was completely destroyed, and John spent the rest of the Michigan winter alternating between shivering while he worked and warming himself with an illegal unvented kerosene heater.
It was a nightmare scenario, but then a funny thing happened: The bank came out to assess the damage and gave him a $10,000 commission. John used the commission as a down payment on two buildings he had been trying to purchase for a while.
“I don’t think the bank would have gone for the deal without the disaster,” he says. “It forced them to take a real look at my business instead of them just thinking of me as another broke artist.”
The second best thing that ever happened to John was losing his last day job as a graphic designer during the dot-com crash of 2000.
The loss of the job led to the loss of everything else — his income, his girlfriend, his apartment, and even a piece of his thumb in an accident incurred while he was moving out of the apartment. While he was working the day job (seven days a week in 1999, seven days total in 2000), he also was working as much as ten hours a day on his art business.
After both of these experiences — losing the building and losing the day job — John was depressed and thought hard about what to do next. His friends advised him to suck it up and find work wherever he could, but in rural Michigan those days, John knew that there wasn’t much work to be found.
It was now or never, so he stuck with his goal and continued making progress.
The best thing that ever happened to John, as he tells the story, was a late-night disagreement with a crazed cab driver, who pulled him into the back room of a diner and held a gun to his head for a full ten minutes, screaming and threatening to pull the trigger.
John finally escaped and walked out into another cold Michigan night, sweating, trembling, and glad to be alive. “I get it!” John yelled at the sky as he hobbled away. “I’m so lucky!”
“You don’t really worry about the small things after that,” John says now. “Everything takes on a whole other level of meaning.”
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