"I wouldn't have my business today, if not for a lesson I learned in college."
The night I was elected president of my fraternity in college – Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of Florida – I didn’t celebrate or go out partying. Nope. I stayed home. I hung out in my room on the third floor of our chapter house, watching TV with my girlfriend. I wasn’t sick. I didn’t have a test the next day. In fact, I didn’t have a reason not to celebrate. I just didn’t feel like it.
After driving my girlfriend back to her place at about 11:00, I stopped in a Miami Subs restaurant to grab a late-night snack. As I sat there with nobody to talk to except my chicken finger sub, I quickly realized why I didn’t feel like celebrating. I started to feel my chest squeezing and my fingers tingling. My mind starting racing, and although I probably looked normal to an observer, I felt a little bit out of control. It was the strangest feeling. Even though I had never felt that way before, I knew what was happening …
I was having a panic attack.
I was scared. The thought of running our fraternity was a daunting task: a fully-staffed kitchen that fed 110 college men twice a day, a half-million-dollar budget, and 150 active members with competitive, a-type personalities. These factors were enough to scare any college senior, but combined with my personality of being analytical and off-the-charts driven … and there is your perfect scenario for a young man’s first panic attack.
So, I sat there for about 10 seconds or three days, waiting for the pain to go away. When the feeling didn’t pass, I pulled out a pencil (I remember it was a light blue mechanical pencil) and started writing on the back of one of their place mats. I kept writing accomplishments that I had made throughout my two previous years in the chapter, everything I might have done on the baseball and football fields in high school, and I even wrote something about becoming a top sales person at Radio Shack as Christmas Break seasonal employee. Anything that reminded me that I was a winner. Anything to remind me that I was going to be ok. Anything to remind me that I had what it takes. Anything.
At the very end of my journaling, I wrote the words: "I'll handle this." That was it. I felt better.
Thirteen months later, I was awarded UF’s Fraternity President of the Year Award. Of all 31 fraternities on campus, a committee of students, educators, and staff members voted me as the top president. That was pretty awesome.
Almost 20 years later, on December 27th of 2010, I was eating lunch at a Chick-Fil-A, when I started having that feeling again – chest contracting, fingers tingling, etc. I had just launched Vector Firm in September, and my full-time status as EVP of Sales and Marketing with my last employer was ending in four days. No more salary; no more benefits; no more security. I was on my own, and I was scared… again.
So, I ran to my car, brought in a notepad and pen, and began writing. I wrote everything I had accomplished to that point in my life … every single thing. This act wasn’t a coincidence with my Miami Subs exercise – I vividly remembered that night, and was consciously running myself through the same exercise. And at the very end, I wrote the same words, sort of: “I’ll handle this too.”
I believe journaling one’s feelings can be liberating. Taking thoughts out of the head and pushing them onto paper is powerful. However, that afternoon was not just about journaling. It was about connecting to my younger self when I was at a similar point of dread. It was about writing those words: “I’ll handle it”, and then blindly running into the fire with nothing but the confidence that I will handle it. It was about facing the fear and not just handling it, but excelling. It was about a college kid taking on a challenge that frightened him to a point of panic, but taking it on anyway – even though he had no real leadership experience off the baseball or football field. All because he wrote a few words on a place mat. If that kid could do that, then how many great things can this 40-year-old do? “I’ll handle this too.”
I know there are many other factors, friends, and luck that have led to Vector Firm’s success. If people like Todd Flemming, Phil Lutes, Randall Foster, Ron Oetjen or Jack Johnson didn’t see something in me early, then it would’ve been a lot harder and maybe I would’ve given up. I don’t know – I might have persevered. I really don’t know.
I do know this though, with 100% certainty – if I didn’t have that experience in Miami Subs while I was in college, and again at Chick Fil A in 2010, I wouldn’t have made it. Connecting those two experiences tattooed a lesson to my being that has made me stronger than I’ve ever been. Now, with Vector Firm half way through its seventh successful year, I know that we have what it takes, and we’ll continue to prosper and love every day of contributing to our industry. I know this.
Now, I’ve got two stories to pull from that prove, beyond any doubt, that “I’ll handle it”.
To read Peterson's latest blog post on the Vector Firm website, click here.