The Other Side of Success

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Martin Sawa

First Communion

Prairie du Chien native pens memoir

By Ted Pennekamp


A Prairie du Chien native, who now lives in northern California, is the author of a new book.

People of a certain age may remember 71-year-old Martin Sawa whose “The Other Side of Success: Money and Meaning in the Golden State” shares personal stories about his Prairie du Chien childhood while also describing his journey from the son of penniless Ukrainian immigrants to a highly successful real estate developer in California, and the life experiences gained in the pursuit of the American dream.

Circa 1978, Martin refused to let poverty define his future. After growing up in poverty, the almost-30-year-old impulsively quit his nine-to-five to become a real estate salesperson working solely on commission. Determined to prosper despite his bare trickle of income and deteriorating home life, he set out to mold himself into a major player in San Francisco’s high-stakes commercial minefield.

As Sawa pushed his career forward making bigger deals at each painstaking step up, he had one hand on the prize he’d dreamed of for years. But with stress driving him to alcoholism and poor choices, it took tragedy to force him to confront the true cost of his sacrifices. Was the financial wealth worth the price of his soul?

“The Other Side of Success” not only provides insider insights into high-level business and the fragile balance between prosperity and ruin, it serves as a reminder of what really matters as one struggles to be his best self.

Martin was born in Beaumont Hospital on Jan. 26, 1950 right after his parents came over in July of 1949 from Ukraine, where they had lived under the brutal dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin.

“I didn’t really speak English well until I started grade school at St. John’s,” said Martin. “I was a good student and made friends and tried to fit in.”

Martin later attended the Jesuit boarding school Campion and entered the workforce at age 13 in order to afford tuition.

“I learned how to think and write at Campion, and learned far more than in college,” said Martin. “The Jesuits were great teachers. I was a “townie,” or town student, so I had it easier than the boarders. I would smuggle them off campus at times, at great risk!”

Martin said he fondly remembers Monsignor Monarski at St. John’s, with whom he served Mass; as well as many priests at Campion, especially Father Burke, who gave him the confidence that he could compete intellectually with anyone.

To pay the Campion tuition, which his parents couldn’t afford, Martin worked summers at Campion doing outdoor work such as pulling sand burs from the football field. He also worked during the school year at Geisler’s Blue Heaven washing dishes.

Martin said his early jobs influenced him in the sense that he found out what he didn’t want to continue to do. “I finished college and then after holding down some real jobs, quit and became an entrepreneur and worked for myself,” he said.

Through his life experiences, Martin has advice for young people, or anyone, in today’s world. “No matter what you do, put skin in the game, have something at risk,” he said. “Success means setting and achieving tangible, worthwhile goals that make you a better person, and then raising the stakes. Or, in the words of a Japanese proverb, ‘Fall down seven times and get up eight.’”

To Martin, a certain amount of financial success is important but so is being a good person. “Obviously, a person needs some sort of financial stability, food, clothing, shelter, other necessities,” he said. “I think there is some minimum level of material stability after which you have more choices and the ability to reflect on life. It varies from person to person – for a Hindu ascetic, it is very little. The problem in the world of business, especially for an entrepreneur, is how much is enough. The money then becomes secondary and it’s about other things.”

Martin said it is important to properly interpret what it means to reach one’s full potential, to become what some people call self actualized. “This is a dangerous ground,” said Martin. “Many people interpret this (self actualization) as gratifying one’s ego, which leads to narcissism and is a leading cause of many of the problems we face today. True actualization is in fact moving away from self toward a greater good.”

In pursuing their goals and dreams, Martin said many people may have to take a good look at what is truly important in their lives. “Happiness is a by-product of a life well-lived, which appears and disappears from time to time,” he said. “It is not a strategic end in itself. You have to be true to yourself, where your goals are congruent with what you believe to be true in terms of life’s big questions. If you believe there is no greater power for the good, and life begins at zero and ends at zero, then you will live in a certain way.”

More information about Martin and his book can be found on his website

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