Wisdom learned the hard way – through experience

1. Richard Branson’s lesson: Your good reputation is everything — don’t do anything that risks losing it.

One of the best lessons I ever learned was when I did something illegal. I got caught and paid for it. At the time, I thought I was being a bit of a longhaired pirate. It even seemed the game. I thought I was being bold – but I was also being foolish. Some risks just aren’t worth it.

During the 1970s we were all a bit hippie. The mood was very much ‘us and them’. With all the other renegades, many of them now notable actors, writers, musicians and politicians, I’d gone on protest marches against Vietnam and being chased by the police, I’d waved banners and claimed up onto the plinth of Nelson’s column. It was fun to protest, but we also felt passionate about the Vietnam War. (I wish we protested harder against the war in Iraq.) Pirate radios were blasting the airways from off-shore. People were doing drugs by the wagonload. It was exciting.

My scam seemed a neat little trick that I convinced myself was practically legal. It started by accident in the spring of 1971. Virgin was known to selling cool, cut-price records and we had a large order from Belgium. If you exported records to Belgium, you didn’t have to pay tax on them; so I bought these tax-free records direct from the big record companies like EMI and hired a van to take them across the Channel on the ferry. My plan was to land in France and drive on to Belgium. I didn’t know that in France you had to pay tax, even if you were in transit on the way to somewhere else.

At Dover the customs people stamped my papers with the number of records I had. When I arrived in France, I was asked for proof that I wasn’t going to sell the records in France itself. I showed my order from Belgium and said I was just passing through France, but it did no good. The French said I had bonded stock and had to pay tax.

I was annoyed and upset because my intentions were honest and straightforward and it seemed to me that French customs was being very stuffy, so I argued about it and they wouldn’t budge. Since I didn’t want to pay tax, I had to return by ferry to Dover with all the records still in the van, angry that I had wasted my time and lost a good order. But on the drive back to London, it dawned on me that I now had a vanload of tax-free records. I even have a customs stamp to prove it. I thought I could still sell them by mail order or in the virgin shops and make about £5000 extra profit.

It was against the law, but I just thought I was bending the rules a bit and taking advantage of a situation that wasn’t of my making. After all, I had started out to do the right thing. At the time, Virgin owed the bank £15,000 and now it seemed as if luck, or fate, was helping us out. I had always got away with breaking rules and thought this was no different. I would have got away with it as well if I hadn’t been greedy. Instead of just selling that one vanload and being satisfied with the windfall, I made a total of four trips to France, pretending each time that the records were for export, and turned right around again as soon as I landed on French soil, before going through their customs. The last time, I didn’t even bother getting on the ferry. After I got my stamp from customs, I just drove in a circle in the port at Dover, in one gate and out the other, and headed home. I am sure that if I hadn’t been stopped I might have carried on. It was so easy. Only it wasn’t easy. I was being watched.

The real problem was that I was just small fry in a far bigger scam operated by much larger record chains who were doing what I’d stumbled into by accident, but they were doing it on a far wider and more cynical scale. I was only dealing with one vanload of the records we like and sold in on one existing shop in Oxford Street – though in all honesty, we were also going to put a few in the shop we were about to open in Liverpool. But the bigger operators had a more sophisticated system going and keep distributing right across the country. I got an anonymous tip-off at midnight when I was in bed, to say that we were to be raided first thing in the morning. I was shocked by this terrifying news and listened in a sick daze as the caller explained that all the records I bought for export from EMI had an invisible E stamped on them that you could only see under an ultraviolet sun lamps. Before he hung up, he said he was helping me because I had helped the suicidal friend of his through the Student advisory service.

We had one night to get rid of all the tax-free stock. I called Nik and Tony and rushed out to buy two sun lamps from an all-night chemist. We met up at our warehouse and started pulling records out of their sleeves and shining lamps at them. As large luminous Es stared up at us, we panicked and ran in and out of the warehouse, carrying piles of records to our van before driving through deserted streets not to hide them somewhere else, or destroy them, which would have been sane and sensible – but we actually put them in the racks of the Oxford Street shop. It made no sense whatsoever, but we had the deluded idea that Customs would only raid our warehouse and not bother with our shops. By the time six burly Customs officers, who looked as if they meant business, burst into the warehouse I had almost recovered from a panic of the previous night. Feeling rather clever, I hid a grin as they watched them search for the illegal records – we even helped them, earnestly taking records out of their sleeves and handing them over for inspection. I didn’t know that they were also raiding the shops. It was a huge shock when I was arrested, driven down to Dover and thrown into prison.

I couldn’t believe it. I thought that only criminals were banged up. But, alone and that bleak cell lit by the unrelenting glare of a single bright lightbulb, it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t a hippie pirate. This wasn’t a game. And I was a criminal. My headmaster’s words came back to me. When I left school, aged 16, he had said, ‘Branson, I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.’

I wasn’t a millionaire – but I was in prison. My parents had always drummed into me that all we had in life was our good name. You could be rich, but if people didn’t trust you, it counted for nothing. I lay on a bare plastic mattress with just an old blanket and vowed that I would never do anything like this again. I would spend the rest of my life doing the right thing.

In the morning, Mum came to the court to support me. I had no money for a lawyer and applied for legal aid. The judge told me if I asked for legal aid I wouldn’t get bail, which he set at a whopping £30,000. I didn’t have that kind of money. I had the Manor, but it was still mortgaged, so Mum put up her home as security. Her trust in me was almost more than I could bear. She looked at me across the court and we both started to cry.

I will always remember her words on the train back to London. ‘I know you’ve learnt a lesson, Ricky. Don’t cry over spilt milk. We’ve got to get on and deal with this head on.’

Instead of going to court, customs agreed to settle the case by fining me a sum equal to three times my illegal profit. It came to a massive £45,000, but they said I could pay it at back at the rate of £15,000 each year. It seemed a scary prospect to find but I wasn’t angry. I had shown the law no respect and deserved to pay. Not doing anything illegal had been my watchword ever seen.

My way of restoring my own respect was to pay back every penny without moaning. In fact, I gained. Once again, with my back against the wall, my goal became to make a lot of money – but legally. We worked like crazy, opening new Virgin Records shops and thinking up good ideas to expand.

Ever since then, when I am asked how far I am prepared to go in achieving my aims, my answer is the same. I make it a priority not to break the law and I check all the time that I’m not.

Your reputation is everything. If you’re starting in business and ask me if I have a lesson for you, I’d say, ‘Be fair in all your dealings. Don’t cheat – but aim to win.’ This rule should extend to your private life. My motto is, ‘Never do anything if you can’t sleep at night.’ It’s a good rule to follow.

(from Let’s not Screw It, Let’s Just Do It by Richard Branson p 109-113)

2. Leslie Morgan Steiner’s lesson: How to spot a violent relationship early:

Living Through Crazy Love: Leslie Morgan Steiner at TEDxRainier

Learn and consider the secrets of domestic violence as you follow Leslie from the Ivy League through a violent relationship, reaching the power to break the secrecy and silence, and as she recovers a healthy future. Leslie Morgan Steiner’s memoir about surviving domestic violence, Crazy Love, was a New York Times bestseller, People Pick, and Book of the Week for The Week magazine.

3. Morrie’s (from Tuesdays with Morrie) lesson: Forgive yourself and forgive others:

“Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others.”

. . .

“Mitch,” he said, returning to the subject of forgiveness. “There is no point in keeping vengeance or stubbornness. These things” – he sighed – “these things I so regret in my life. Pride. Vanity. Why do we do the things we do?”

The importance of forgiving was my question. I had seen those movies where the patriarch of the family is on his deathbed and he calls for his estranged son so that he can make peace before he goes. I wondered if Morrie had any of that inside him, a sudden need to say “I’m sorry” before he died?

Morrie nodded. “Do you see that sculpture?” He tilted his head towards a bust that sat high on a shelf against the far wall of his office. I had never really noticed it before. Cast in bronze, it was the face of a man in his early 40s, wearing a neck tie, a tuft of hair falling across his forehead.

“That’s me,” Murray said. “A friend of mine sculpted that maybe thirty years ago. His name was Norman. We used to spend so much time together. We went swimming. We took ridess to New York. He had me over to his house in Cambridge, and he sculpted that bust of me down in his basement. It took several weeks to do it, but he really wanted to get it right.”

I studied the face. How strange to see a three-dimensional Morrie, so healthy, so young, watching over us as we spoke. Even in bronze, he had a whimsical look, and I thought his friend had sculpted a little spirit as well.

“Well, here is the sad part of the story,” Murray said. “Norman and his wife moved away to Chicago. A little while later, my wife, Charlotte, had to have a pretty serious operation. Norman and his wife never got in touch with us. I know they knew about it. Charlotte and I were very hurt because they never called to see how she was. So we dropped the relationship.

“Over the years, I met Norman a few times and he always tried to reconcile, but I didn’t accept it. I wasn’t satisfied with his explanation. I was prideful. I shrugged him off.”

His voice choked.

“Mitch . . .  a few years ago . . . he died of cancer. I feel so sad. I never got to see him. I never got to forgive. It pains me now so much . . .”

He was crying again, a soft and quiet cry, and because his head was back, the tears rolled off the side of his face before they reached his lips.

Sorry, I said.

“Don’t be,” he whispered. “Tears are okay.”

I continued rubbing lotion into his lifeless toes. He wept for a few minutes, alone with his memories.

“It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch,” he finally whispered. “We also need to forgive ourselves.”


“Yes. For all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am.

“I always wished I had done more with my work; I wish I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good. Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you.”

He leaned over and dabbed at  the tears with the tissue. Morrie flicked his eyes open and close. His breathing was audible, like a light snore.

“Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait, Mitch. Not everyone gets the time I’m getting. Not everyone is as lucky.”

(from Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, p 164-167)

4. Dan Gilbert’s lesson: Care for your body when you’re young:

Interviewer: You say that we regret not doing something more than something we did. What do you regret not doing – and doing?

Dan Gilbert: I regret not looking after my health a bit better back when it was easy to do. The guy who had my body before me wasn’t all that nice to it.

(from Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, p 7 in the P.S. section)

5. Kris Kristofferson’s lesson: Me and Bobby Magee:


6. Harry Chapin’s lesson: Cat’s in the Cradle:

7. Stephen King’s lesson: Stay away from recreational drugs:

Dear Me,

I’m writing to you from the year 2010, when I have reached the totally ridiculous age of sixty-two, in order to give you a piece of advice. It’s simple, really, just five words: stay away from recreational drugs. You’ve got a lot of talent, and you’re going to make a lot of people happy with your stories, but – unfortunate but true – you are also a junkie waiting to happen. If you don’t see this letter and change the future, at least 10 good years of your life – from age 30 to 40 – are going to be a kind of dark eclipse where you disappoint a lot of people and fail to enjoy your own success. You will also come close to dying on several occasions. Do yourself a favor and enjoy a brighter, more productive world. Remember that, like love, resistance to temptation makes the heart growth stronger.

Stay clean.

Best regards,

Stephen King

(from Letters to Sixteen-Year-Old Me by dearme.org)

8. Some relationship regrets from posters on Quora:

  1. I regret not trusting my gut about the person I was with. Because I was blinded by love and in too deep, I ignored a huge character flaw.
  2. Blind to obvious personal flaws: Unwilling to admit something obvious afraid that it will end the relationship.
  3. I regret not talking about our issues because I was too afraid to face the truth that we weren’t compatible/good for each other, resulting in years of being in a bad relationship.
  4. Not to talk about problems: I put all problems aside whenever we meet. When I’m brave enough to talk about them, it always turn into a fight. It serves a good sign that it’s not gonna work.
  5. I regret the communication gap. Trying to avoid the issues and expecting other to understand.
  6. I regret my failure to  share my feelings more openly, even if they are hurt feelings…
  7. I regret not listening to her advice and getting relationship therapy.  Relationship therapy is not an admission of defeat, nor is it a bandaid, nor the final throes of a dying love.  It’s prudent maintenance of a healthy relationship and a commitment to lasting love.
  8. I regret my complacency in assuming that just because the relationship was there yesterday, it would be there tomorrow.
  9. I regret that I only showed her affection privately, but made jokes about our relationship publicly.
  10. I regret not moving on sooner from relationships that were not growing. Trust me, you know pretty quick.
  11. I regret not getting out of relationships sooner. I typically stayed in relationships for a year or so when I was younger, even though some part of me knew the person I was with was not a person I was in love with. I tended to confuse familiarity with love…or I feared being alone.
  12. I regret letting myself and my partners assume that our relationship is my highest priority and should not be allowed to die.
  13. I regret being stubborn and not compromising when it didn’t matter.
  14. I regret to be blindly in love, ignoring the truth and living in own “dreamland”.
  15. I regret my failure to be more accommodating to my partner….
  16. I regret my failure to take seriously the possibility that I might actually hurt my partner’s feelings…
  17. I regret putting work over relationships.

9. Some parenting regrets by Qoura responders: Parents, if you had to do it over again what would you do differently?

  1. I would have held off on letting my son buy an xbox.
  2. I am sorry I allowed them to have TV’s and telephones in their bedrooms. They never came out of their bedrooms after that!
  3. I would not let problems fester. Both of my children, 13 and 11 are significantly overweight (in excess of 50 pounds each). This situation developed with my son almost from birth. As he got older, he naturally developed sedentary habits and we didn’t live in a neighborhood with enough peers to draw him outside into running around the way I did as a boy. The extra weight has deprived him of a normal childhood. Although he enjoys hitting a baseball and catching a football, he hasn’t wanted to play team sports because, at 190 pounds, he can not keep up.My daughter participates in musical theatre and some of the other parents whose children are skinny dancers can barely contain their contempt for her weight. It isn’t that I care what they think–they can go to hell for all I care–but the fact is musical theater is an extremely body-conscious subculture. There are only 1/10 or 1/100 number of good roles for heavier people as there are for pretty, fit ones.Today I take the kids to the gym every day and we work on treadmills and ellipticals for an hour at a time. We are a month into the process and I full expect to continue for 12-18 months to get them down to normal weights. It is a sacrifice for me, but it had to happen and I only have myself to blame for letting it go this far.
  4. For the first seven years of parenthood I worked in a job that felt like my equivalent of a startup environment: lots of late nights working at my computer, lots of furious typing into the blackberry at all hours. I’m ashamed to think of how many times my kids failed at dragging me away from a screen.
  5. My son is 15.  I would definitely have let him fail more and fail earlier.  Because in the end it’s not what we do for our kids it’s what we teach them to do for themselves.  I’m still getting better at allowing him to fail but I should have started much earlier.For example, “Oh, you forgot your homework at home?  Oh well, guess you’ll remember it next time.”  “You forgot to pack your medicine for the hiking trip?  Guess you won’t be going.”
  6. I’d would have worked harder to successfully breastfeed my oldest two sons.

10. Carol Dweck’s lesson: the seductive lure of seeking self-validation off others:

I am afraid that in the fixed mindset, I was also a culprit. I don’t think I put people down, but when you need validation, you use people for it. One time, when I was a graduate student, I was taking the train to New York and sat next to a very nice businessman. In my opinion, we chatted back and forth pleasantly through the hour-and-a-half journey, but at the end he said to me, “Thank you for telling me all about yourself.” It really hit me. He was the dream validator – handsome, intelligent, successful. And that’s what I had used himfor. I had shown no interest in him as a person, only in him as a mirror of my excellent. Luckily for me, what he mirrored back was a far more valuable lesson.

(From Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, p 162)

Developing a growth mindset–Carol Dweck videos



How can I be more effective?

Answer: Adopt the growth mindset.

What we believe determines how we behave.

From Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

My work is part of a tradition in psychology that shows the power of people’s beliefs. These may be beliefs we’re aware of or unaware of, but they strongly affect what we want and whether we succeed in getting it. This tradition also shows how changing people’s beliefs–even the simplest beliefs–can have profound effects.

In this book, you’ll learn how a simple belief about yourself–a belief we discovered in our research–guides a large part of your life. In fact, it permeates every part of your life. Much of what you think of as your personality actually grows out of this “mindset”. Much of what may be preventing you from fulfilling your potential grows out of it.

Who is Carol Dweck and what has she discovered?

If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow


WHY do some people reach their creative potential in business while other equally talented peers don’t?

After three decades of painstaking research, the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck believes that the answer to the puzzle lies in how people think about intelligence and talent. Those who believe they were born with all the smarts and gifts they’re ever going to have approach life with what she calls a “fixed mind-set.” Those who believe that their own abilities can expand over time, however, live with a “growth mind-set.”

Click here to read the whole 2008 New York times article.

What does the growth mindset look like in action?

From the opening paragraph in Dweck’s book:

“When I was a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that changed my life. I was obsessed with understanding how people cope with failures, and I decided to study it by watching how students grapple with hard problems. So I brought children one at a time to a room in their school, made them comfortable, and then gave them a series of puzzles to solve. The first ones were fairly easy, but the next ones were hard. As the students grunted, perspired, and toiled, I watched their strategies and probed what they were thinking and feeling. I expected differences among children in how they coped with the difficulty, but I saw something I never expected.

Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, “I love a challenge!” Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, “You know, I was hoping this would be informative!”

What’s wrong with them? I wondered. I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought  anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something?

Everyone has a role model, someone who pointed the way at a critical moment in their lives. These children were my role models. They obviously knew something I didn’t and I was determined to figure it out–to understand the kind of mindset that could turn a failure into a gift.

What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort. And that’s what they were doing–getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.

I, on the other hand, thought human qualities were carved in stone. You were smart or you weren’t, and failure meant you weren’t. It was that simple. If you could arrange successes and avoid failures (at all costs), you  could stay smart. Struggles, mistakes, perseverance were just not part of this picture. (p 3-4)

That’s how Dweck opened her book. This is how she closed it:

Change can be tough, but I’ve never heard anyone say it wasn’t worth it. Maybe they’re just rationalizing, the way people who’ve gone through a painful initiation say it was worth it. But people who’ve changed can tell you how their lives have been enhanced. They can tell you about things they have now that they wouldn’t have had, and ways they feel now that they wouldn’t have felt.

Did changing to a growth mindset solve all my problems? No. But I know that I have a different life because of it–a richer one.  And that I’m a more alive, courageous, and open person because of it.

It’s for you to decide whether change is right for you now. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But either way, keep the growth mindset in your thoughts. Then, when you bump up against obstacles, you can turn to it. It will always be there for you, showing you a path into the future. (p 246)