Deaf to all criticism: Finding inspiration in some unlikely places

Richard Farleigh
IT WAS the worst speech I’ve ever heard. The proud winner of an entrepreneurial award thanked the judges for their clever choice and then pranced around the stage, spouting his amazing life-story.

He had struggled to grow up in poverty, living between an abattoir and a brothel. At an early age he started a business, borrowing from his mum who recognised him as a business prodigy. She risked it all, mortgaging the family home to give him the seed capital. His business grew over a couple of decades and he never put a foot wrong, and had just sold out for a cool billion or two. It was all pure genius apparently, and there was, of course, no need to thank anyone – not the odd mentor or school teacher, not any faithful staff and certainly not his own mum. What was nice to know was that there was absolutely no luck involved.

If he had been interested in other people at all, he may have noticed he lost the audience very early on. By the end of his speech, they had lost interest and started to chat loudly between themselves. I sat opposite his latest platinum blonde trophy girlfriend, who made Dolly Parton look flat-chested. I wasn't bored by his speech though, I was fascinated. Business-wise, I decided there was nothing at all to learn from or admire about this man, and that it was incredible he had succeeded despite not knowing any of his own weaknesses. As an occasional public speaker myself, it was also a great counter-example of being interesting or relevant.

By contrast, in terms of inspiration, I often ponder what I believe is the greatest ever single human achievement: Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Ludwig was almost totally deaf when he composed it. Although classical music is mostly a mystery to me, Beethoven was in financial difficulty, as I understand it. He was also unpopular after the controversy of seizing his nephew from the boy’s mother after the father, Beethoven’s brother, had died. He then apparently mistreated the child. When the Ninth was performed publicly for the first time in 1824, Beethoven was bizarrely, but nicely, the “token” conductor, with some help from the “real” conductor. And the most moving part of the story is that, at the finale, he had to be turned towards the audience, which was going crazy. He hadn’t heard them, but was able to see the arms and handkerchiefs waving wildly. I try to imagine how he felt. A victorious fist-pump or high five? Did he feel he had taken a risk? The Ninth was the first major symphony to include singing, with the Ode to Joy.

Even in business I feel you learn more from these real human stories with adversity and mistakes. And you learn you can’t please everyone. One contemporary critic of Beethoven stated “That ‘Ode to Joy’, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely puerile!” Perhaps that’s more applicable to some entrepreneur speeches.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.