In your book, Through the Fires, you describe a childhood being belittled by a bitter, alcoholic father. In your business career, too, you were knocked down, time and again. How did you survive—and eventually triumph—when others would have given up?
It’s not that I don’t have scars. My ex-wives can tell you all about that. But some painful things you never forget. In my early childhood, I had tried very hard to win my father’s approval. When he worked on the car, I would stand for hours holding the tools or pointing the flashlight. I wanted him to be proud of me. But there came a time, one Easter Sunday in 1959, when I gave up hoping. I realized the ridicule my dad was spewing was just nonsense. And I didn’t have to believe it. Putting the hard times into context gave me some sense of liberation.
From early in my life, I have believed in rational thinking and behavior. I tend to see life as a series of math problems. You establish one truth, determine another truth, and then build one upon another. That forges a path that leads in the right direction.
In my case, it’s crucial to know that I was lucky enough to have a mother who was always there for me. She believed in the worth and importance of every human being. It was a powerful antidote to what I was hearing from my father. She taught me that no one can take away your self-respect, except yourself. That was essential for me in dealing with the craziness of growing up in that tiny house with nine people.
Those values have stayed with me. So has my belief in a rational philosophy of life. I think all we’ve got is our time on the planet. I want to make the most of it.
There are so many brilliant people in the world. I am a believer in the ideas espoused by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath. He writes that experiencing hardship can hone character and skills that give underdogs certain advantages. I feel certain that my chaotic upbringing, more than anything else, made me the person I am today.
Before achieving success as the founder and CEO of Heartland Payment Systems, I had run into a lot of brick walls as an entrepreneur. By the time I was 50, I didn’t know if I was going to be solvent or not. And then I faced a terrifying ordeal that threatened to close my company and leave me in financial ruin at age 63.
When the going gets rugged, I ask myself: What’s the worst thing that can happen in this situation? Sometimes the answer to that question is: I might lose all of my money.
There are worse things. One of them is being a kid going to a home you’re scared to go home to. I survived it and so have many, many others. I could survive losing all of my money. People find this hard to believe, but it’s true. When I lost my financial fortune, as I detail in my book, I did not consider it a cataclysmic event. I did not shed a tear. I have cried about other things, but not money.
I try to control what I can, and let go of the things I cannot. And I try to keep things in perspective. According to some scientific theories of the universe, the sun will someday burn out, and no one will be around to remember anything that ever happened.
So I should worry if I spill some soup on my shirt?