To the career-conscious, an iconic success can be a nasty double-edged sword. Consider a mogul like Bill Gates or Henry Ford. Sure, their achievements, influence, and wealth can be inspirational. But they can also be demoralizing. Chances are, unless you are a teenager or already an iconic success yourself, that you are already way behind them in terms of accomplishments. Are you over 21? If so, what company have you founded? Gates had already created Microsoft by that age. Are you 30 yet? When Henry Ford was 30, he was Chief Engineer of what would become ConEd. Sure, there are wunderkinds out there today performing similarly prodigious feats. But most of us aren’t them. And when you’re numb in a cubicle or juggling part-time jobs or facing a layoff, comparing your lot to that of Gates or Ford is not likely to be spiritually uplifting. Can you even hope to do as well as they did?
Fortunately, we mortals have Colonel Harland Sanders. In the world of commerce, no successful person is more literally iconic than the Colonel: he died in 1980, but his image lives on as the patron saint of KFC, the chain he founded as “Kentucky Fried Chicken” decades before. He styled himself as the prototypical Southern gentleman, never appearing in public without his white suit and string tie, a wise old codger generously sharing with the world his homey, finger-lickin’ good food. He was a millionaire recognized around the globe, a businessman who in his retirement had founded a restaurant so popular that practically invaded the world on its own, like pigeons. (Hmmm . . . perhaps it’s really KFP?)
Of course, most people realized there was a certain amount of showmanship to this image. Folks were aware that the white suit was really just a costume donned by a canny salesman. And, really — “Colonel”? Everyone knew he was no more an Army colonel than was Ronald McDonald. The media frequently “exposed” these affectations, harmlessly, because even the gimmicks buttressed the “real” story: that of a restless entrepreneur so commercially adroit that even his retirement project blossomed into an international business.
But it turns out that even the “real” story was another way to promote the Colonel’s appealing image. The truth is that Kentucky Fried Chicken wasn’t simply the last of Harland Sanders’s successful enterprises. It was his only success. Before he founded the restaurant from which Kentucky Fried Chicken would spring, Sanders had held all sorts of jobs. He was a mule handler in the Army, back in 1915 when they had mules (and, no, he never was promoted to Colonel Mule Handler). He sold life insurance. He stoked the boiler on a locomotive. He piloted a steamboat. He painted buggies. He tried his hand at farming. At one point, like so many other people who aren’t quite sure what they want to do in life, he obtained his law degree — via a correspondence course — and hung up a shingle.
None of these pursuits ever came to much. In fact, after he was fired from one job for insubordination, his wife packed up their kids and left him, because, in the words of her sister, “She had no business marrying a no-good fellow like you who can’t hold a job.” Imagine the Colonel Sanders we know, decked out in his white suit, slumped in a chair and weeping into his hands over the loss of his job, his wife, and his family.
Wherever you are in your career path right now, it’s probably not quite that bad yet.
But even if gets that bad, consider the Colonel. He didn’t have an education, having dropped out of school in sixth grade. He didn’t have a passionate dream to pursue. He didn’t have a track record of success by any means, or any apparent instinct for business. All he had was persistence and imagination. He kept trying, and he kept trying new things.
When he was 40 years old, he opened up a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. To make a little extra money, he sold meals to his customers — meals he cooked himself, and hosted in his own dining room in his home next door, since he didn’t actually have a restaurant. The food was popular, and Sanders became well-known for it in Kentucky — so well known that, within six years, the governor commissioned him as a “Kentucky colonel,” the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth. (So he really was a colonel, after all.) With the success of his food sales, Sanders was able to open up a motel and an attached restaurant, which of course he named . . . “The Sanders Court & Cafe.”
Colonel Sanders ran The Sanders Court & Cafe for years, and it was popular — and nationally known, thanks to its appearance in an early restaurant guide written by Duncan Hines (a real person, unlike the fictional Betty Crocker). But strictly local until 1952, when Sanders — then 62 years old — decided to try franchising the most popular item, his fried chicken. A restaurateur in Salt Lake City became the first franchisee, and it was there that the name “Kentucky Fried Chicken” was born. A few years later, when the new Interstate 75 diverted traffic away from The Sanders Court & Cafe and the Colonel’s original restaurant failed, the 65-year-old Sanders cashed in his first Social Security check and used the money for a road trip to try to enlist more franchisees. Within five years, there were more than 400 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises operating across North America, and at 70 years of age Colonel Sanders had finally achieved iconic success status.
Not every iconic success is as focused as a Gates or driven as a Ford. Colonel Sanders didn’t even think of starting a restaurant to begin with; he started a gas station in his middle age, and the food business grew simply because he recognized its popularity. And still, he ran the restaurant for more than 20 years before he even thought of franchising it. Can you hope to do as well as the Colonel did? Even if right now you’re trapped in a cubicle, rushing between jobs, or sending out resumes in quiet desperation, you’ve got to believe you can do even better.