Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.
— Sumner Redstone
In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.
— Albert Schweitzer
When I got my Master’s Degree in Leadership from Woodbury University in August of 2007, it was after a long, hard year training with police officers, SWAT captains, jail officers and others that were always in the heat of battle. I got close to a lot of these guys and learned so much about them after spending an entire year with them. I learned that at the end of the day, they are just like other human beings. They have fears, wants, needs, and a crazy sense of humor. Perhaps it’s the extremely dangerous environment they operate in that gives them this insane sense of humor that borders on the obscene, but deep down most of them are good people. Bob, for example, was a police officer in Burbank. Halfway through our program, a criminal who was trying to escape him hit him on the head with a beer bottle. Bob’s head opened up a bit and he was bleeding. After a crazy night of helicopters, half the force convening on this guy, and a few stitches, Bob was back with us studying, doing homework, and writing essay papers just like the rest of us.
What I learned training with SWAT captains and police officers is that stress is always around us. We have to learn to deal with it. Good leadership is one that does not ignore stress or hard situations, but is disciplined enough to be able to deal with whatever life throws at us. I made a few good friends during that time, and it’s a shame many of us did not keep in touch very long after the program ended, but I learned a lot. Many of these people have difficult jobs, but deep down they had a passion to succeed and push themselves further.
Usually it’s good for us to have a passion, a fire in us that never goes out. This is a totally different kind of story, however. There are few things that happen in our life that can be classified as terrifying. The word terrifying doesn’t just mean fear. It means to be alarmed. To me it’s a mix of fear, trepidation, alarm, and a trigger of the automatic flight or fight response system God has instilled in all of us when He manufactured us as a product. Now bare in mind I have almost drowned both in a pool as a child and in the ocean as an adult, not to mention have witnessed many scary floods. I have also jumped off a plane and fallen down to the earth below at 185 mph, been thrown down a cliff while hiking with a friend, and have been involved in a police car chase with helicopter in tow (more on that later). But none of these things terrified me.
There is only one thing, on my 38 years on this earth so far, that did terrify me. Over a decade ago my younger brother accidentally put our three-story house on fire. It was atop Glendale, high on the Verdugo Hills. I was studying in the family library when somebody yelled “Fire, get out.” I don’t even remember if it was my brother that said it or my mom, but I heard people scrambling and running outside. When something like this happens, we often don’t think. Our body goes into flight or fight mode, and all reason and thinking go out the window real fast. So by reaction, not action, I sprinted toward the smoke downstairs.
Now in retrospect this was a bold but terribly unwise move. I could have easily passed out from the smoke, and if I did good luck saving my life or my brain. The brain only needs about a minute or so without oxygen until it is permanently damaged. Unfortunately the human brain is very fragile and is not made to be waterproof or smoke proof for too long. Thank God I was able to hold my breath enough to go through the smoke, open the glass door downstairs, and go outside.
Once I was outside I saw the fire. The fire was on the bottom room, which was the maid’s quarters. I quickly found the hose which was luckily right beside that window, quickly turned the water on, and began to battle the flames. It took me about 10 minutes to put the fires out from the ceilings to the floor. I slowly aimed at all the water and inched my way up and down that room, left to right, making sure I didn’t miss a spot. I fought that thing tooth and nail. I wasn’t about to let a damn fire destroy our home we worked so hard to build. As I was fighting it I was thinking of my family upstairs, wondering if they were OK. Later I realized my mother and father were pushed out to the balcony by the smoke and heard us screaming and were very afraid for our lives. my mother told me as much. They said they could hear our voices and yelled my name, but I never responded. They were so scared something happened to me.
But how could I respond when I was all the way downstairs and they were on the 3rd floor balcony in the opposite direction of the house? Besides I was too busy fighting these flames. After 10 minutes one of our employees was luckily there picking some stuff for us. He joined me and fought the flames with me. He found a second hose from upstairs, attached it and turned it on, inched it downstairs by the pool and now we were fighting the flames with 2 hoses. We were fighting it for about 25 minutes total when we extinguished almost all of it, when all of a sudden one of the windows exploded from the pressure of the cold water coming in from outside mixed with the intense heat emanating from inside. It blew up right past my face, missing me by mere inches. It was like one of those dramatic movie explosions that seemed surreal. It scared the shit out of me, but I just flinched away from the glass and kept on fighting the flames.
The only part that was so stubborn to go out was the fire beneath the mattress. For some reason these mattresses, once they catch on fire, they are unrelenting fuel for the flames and it was very difficult to put that fire out. Just then the awesome guys from the Glendale Fire Department showed up. They told us to step away please but we were so excited and full of adrenaline we didn’t listen. They started getting the gear ready before they went in. Oxygen masks, axes, a hose, and the small fire extinguishers. They geared up and just walked in lowly, carefully, and with the axes, water, tools, and the small fire extinguishers killed off the rest of the fire we couldn’t. But by the time they came we had already saved our house. We had killed off about 85% of that fire. And thank God we did because that made all the difference in the world.
I thanks all of those firefighters that day, every single one. I made it a point to shake their hands. These guys are true heroes to me. The men and women of the Glendale Fire Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department work every day to save people’s lives and property. They often just walk into the flames, risking their own lives to save our homes. We all owe them a great deal of gratitude because they do this selflessly and repeatedly, and in my opinion they deserve higher pay for this life threatening work that they do on behalf of all of us. Yes I have fought a few fires in my life, but I could not do that every day of my life, so I am very grateful to have these angels who fight for us and do this work. So if you are or have been a firefighter and you’re reading this, God bless you. And just as a side note we give free drinks to all uniformed firefighters and police officers at Zankou Chicken. It’s just a small token of our appreciation to the men and women who risk everything for us continuously.
I walked upstairs around the outside stairs. My mom and dad and everyone else was OK, waiting for me outside on the street. Our pet cat, pet birds, and pet dog didn’t make it. All the humans were OK. The furniture, the drapes, everything was completely destroyed by the heavy soot and smoke. We later learned we needed specialists to help us get money from the insurance company, which as usual doesn’t want to pay you and do everything in their power to reduce and fight claims. A few of these “specialists” saw the smoke and heard about the fire through the wire. They were all already there, like vultures circling around a carcass, asking us questions and ready to “help”.
At the time it seems so annoying to me. I was thinking who the hell are these people and what do they want? Later I realized God sent them to help us because without them, we would never have secured the $430,000 we ultimately received from the insurance company. With the money we fixed the furniture and used a part of it as a down payment to buy a home 2 houses up the street. In retrospect it was a blessing in disguise, because we have since sold the house that caught on fire but still own and live in the second house.
What does this story have to do with running a restaurant or entrepreneurship? A lot because I learned so many hints from this experience. I remember it as a terrible and frightening day that so many positive things came out of it. Among them:
a) We stuck together as a family and had no fights for the entire duration of this event. It was a catalyst that drew us closer together as a team and a unit.
b) With the insurance money, we were able to purchase a second home. Later this was a huge blessing as we sold the first home and used the finances to fund a savings account which would eventually grow and help us secure financing and help is do the construction of what would ultimately become west Hollywood Zankou.
c) It taught me that sometimes our scariest and darkest moments are blessings in disguise. God is moving us in a direction we didn’t want or expect but is beneficial to us in a way we will comprehend much later.
d) It opens new doors and opportunities.
e) The Chinese word for “crisis,” weiji, can also mean opportunity depending on how it’s used. It can also mean other things as well, but the point is to every Yin there is a Yang. Do not be dismayed or discouraged by the tragedy that is happening in your life right now. You may be looking back at it some years from now and look at it as a huge turning point in a positive direction in your life.
Learn and practice all of this, and you too will have a keen sense of urgency and skill to deal with any situation, just like a SWAT captain or police officer.
It is a lot harder now to be a police officer than what it used to be.