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Archive for January, 2014

GeorgeWBushJeffrey Fry, serial entrepreneur, investor, and business guru from Austin, Texas, sends out a generous and thought-provoking daily quote to his many friends in the entrepreneurial community.  I look forward to it every day.  Here’s one he sent me on October 28, 2013.  “To be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid.”  The author is Unknown.  (It does, however, remind me a bit of President George W. Bush, who once said, “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.”—referring to his alcoholism and marijuana use.)

Jeffrey’s quote got me thinking about how important it was for me to go through any number of humble and humbling jobs prior to finding some success in business.  I’ve had lots of jobs, including janitor, fry cook, dish washer, night watchman and catering waiter, just to mention a few.  I honestly think I learned better skills to prepare me for a useful life  from these lowly positions than all my academic training put together.  I learned to truly experience and empathize with a wide array of folks, situations, and cultures.  I learned simple things like being on time, like the importance of getting little details right, like seeing things from a broad array of other people’s points of view and cultures.  I learned to listen and observe.

Wong, Simon - Photo PRI12 SMALLThe Harvard Business Review on-line had a very sweet essay this fall called “In Praise of Humble First Jobs” by Professor Simon C. Y. Wong of the London School of Economics.  (1:00 PM, September 26, 2013)  Wong worries about the growing fixation of elite students on immediate status and careers rather than the broader learning that often comes from the experiential autodidactics of real life.  Though he worked some as an intern in his field when in school, he worked more as a restaurant busboy to pay his tuition, rent, and other expenses.  He recounts:

“At the restaurant, working among a highly diverse group—the staff comprised a motley crew of varying ages, ethnicity/geographic origin, educational background, and ‘life’ experience—helped me realize that people share important traits:  Most of us had pride in our work, yearned to be liked and respected by peers, sought to behave decently, and nursed modest as well as grand dreams, if not for ourselves then for our offspring.

Equally instructive was narrowing ‘gaps’ with some colleagues.  The restaurant’s assistant manager—a tall dignified man who was unlikely to move up the managerial ranks because he didn’t have a college degree–barely hid his contempt for me when I first started.  Over time, as I worked hard to prove that I belonged, he eased up and signaled his approval through the occasional wink and pat on my shoulder.  He even started sharing with me his love of wine.”

Another of Wong’s jobs was as a cleaner in a luxury goods store where he was frequently treated with disdain by sales people simply because his job entailed cleaning the windows, vacuuming the showroom, and polishing the brass door handles.  He says, “That experience seared into my brain the importance of according everyone—irrespective of their occupation, stature, or station in life—a modicum of respect and regard.”

J._M._Barrie_in_1901I heartily share Professor Wong’s view of the value of humble first jobs.  The “little people” jobs, as Leona Helmsly so charmingly put it.  My own humbling first work experiences and my five career failures were by far the most seminal, foundational experiences to what became my ultimate, and seemingly “accidental” success as an entrepreneur.  Humility is a wonderful and underrated business skill.  You don’t learn it in business school or as a cosseted intern.  J.M. Barrie, the Brit who wrote Peter Pan, said, “Life is a long lesson in humility.”  I think Dr. Wong would probably agree with that.

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5572736309_16a63bc96e_oOne of the many failures in my life was an attempt to sing opera.  Yup.  I spent almost three years studying it in my early thirties.  I was not even close to good enough to make a living at it for a plethora of reasons.  However, I loved it.  I always felt singing was better than therapy.  That is, if you wanted to get centered, if you want to reduce stress, if you wanted to induce creativity.

There is increasing scientific evidence that music brings not only aesthetic joy, but also actual real world success.  Multiple studies have linked music study and music performance to success.

In an article in the NY Times (Sunday Review, 10/13/13) titled, “Is Music the Key to Success?”, Joanne Lipman makes a compelling annecdotal case that it is.  To cite just a few examples consider the following serious musicians:

Ms. Lipman’s list of successful business folks with music backgrounds seems endless.  She notes you will find musicians at the top of almost any industry.  Their success is not a coincidence, according to Ms. Lipman.  Alan Greenspan says, “I can tell you as a statistician that the connection [between music and success] exists.  The crucial question is:  why does that connection exist?”  Paul Allen’s answer is that music “reinforces your ability to create.”  James Wolfensohn calls music a “hidden language” that enhances the ability to connect disparate or even contradictory ideas.  Or take Steve Hayden who says his cello performance background helps him to work collaboratively.  “Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others, to know when to solo and when to follow.”

4786676586_9f10db3066_oAs to the particular value of singing, Stacy Horn wrote a lovely article last summer for Time Magazine entitled “Singing Changes Your Brain.”  She notes that when you sing musical vibration moves through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape.

Much like Dr. Amy Cuddy (Harvard) and Dr. Carol Goman (Forbes) on the effect of body positions and body language on your sense of well-being and business efficacy, she notes many studies that show a lower level of cortisol (stress related hormone) and higher levels of endorphins and oxytocin in singers.

In a recent article by Chris Loersch and Nathan Arbuckle in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Nov. 13, 2013, pp. 777-798) it is even hypothesized that the pleasure of singing together is our evolutionary reward for joining together cooperatively.

As Stacy Horn sums up, “Singing is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than working out.”  Thank you Stacey.

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Meaning is the Bitcoin of entrepreneurship.

BTCBitcoin, for those who don’t know, is a growing open-source and digital payment network that is trying to become an alternate option for world commercial valuation and exchange.  It is controversial because it is potentially an option to problem-plagued national currencies, since it can be used as a hedge against inflation, capital controls, and international sanctions.  It is also looked on askance as a potentially useful tool for a plethora of criminal activity, especially by drug dealers and money launderers.

Bitcoin may or may not be a viable, long-term option for future transactional enterprise.  I do not know.  But it brings up an issue that is near and dear to my heart.  And that is the idea of an alternately viable option for measuring the value of entrepreneurship itself.

Most successful entrepreneurs I know fall into two categories:

1.  The disruptive, ambitious, aggressively growing entrepreneur.
2.  The lifestyle entrepreneur.


The first is the widely recognized and admired heroic entrepreneur exemplified by the life and work of risk-takers like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, et. al.—Ayn Randian figures creating big financial and disruptive payoff.  The second is the more sedate, though still successful, businessman, who is interested in creating and sustaining enough innovation and differentiation to insure a comfortably dependable cash flow and ROI, but who is less interested in visionary, precarious business adventure.

But I would submit there is a third type of successful entrepreneur.  This is the entrepreneur who lives for the coin of “mattering”, as well as of lucre; for being whole and worthy of the privilege of having lived freely, yet meaningfully.  (The Conscious Capitalism movement of John Mackey and Michael Strong is an attempt to formalize this third way.)

Frankly, I believe that entrepreneurship is becoming less financially lucrative.  The fertile seedbed of freedom, ideal for thriving creative business, is being eroded by an encroaching hegemony of the triumphalist oligarchic state—a state well-intended but innately inefficient and hostile to the economically disruptive, independent, and seminal.  (Note the effect of Obamacare on small business.)

Steve Wynn and Bernie Marcus have recently unequivocally averred they could never have created, respectively, Wynn Resorts or Home Depot if they had to begin in today’s increasingly suffocating, bureaucratic control economy.

But there is another, a third, way to measure success.  This third class of entrepreneur measures her success not on the soulless tundra of pure wealth-seeking, but on a business’ ability to create community, meaning, dignity, independence, and happiness, as well as fortune.  This reward is a richness of being, not merely a worth of wealth.

HENRY DAVID THOREAUThe hidden secret value of entrepreneurship is vocational, in the religiously foundational sense of that word.  Meaning a life lived effectively and meaaningfully, as part of the great oneness of all existence and truth which is often called God.  This the the Bitcoin of significance, an alternative valuation and measurement of success.  It is a measurement of autonomous well-being offered uniquely to the entrepreneur willing to risk treasure of soul, as well as finance.

Henry David Thoreau advised, “Pursue some path however narrow or crooked in which you can walk in love and reverence.”  That’s what I want my life to be about as a businessman.  I want to be measured in the alternative Bitcoin universe of quantified meaning, as much as of worldly accumulation.

Or, as Peter Drucker puts it so trenchantly, “Make your life your endgame.”  Thanks, as always, Brother Peter.

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Bill-GatesI suspect most of us have already begun to fail in our New Year’s resolutions by now.  Or soon will.  Don’t mean to be a downer, but the odds of instituting big changes, and even incremental ones, are not high.  Certainly lots of studies reveal that about our New Year’s resolutions.

This does not mean that we are all creatures of invertebrate inadequacy.  It does mean that it is damn hard to change.

I believe all businessmen need to change regularly.  And not just incrementally change, meaning doing better and better what we already do well.  I’m talking about bone-deep change.  But is this possible outside the purview of religious revelation like Moses’ burning bush or Paul on the road to Damascus?

I don’t believe long-term change comes from just analyzing what I am doing wrong and “fixing” it, whether it be losing weight, starting a business, or stopping smoking.  My experience is that change comes first from finding who I really am and then choosing a living dream based in that.  Many people call this integral dream hope.  Hope is fundamental to my dreaming and I can not move forward to achieve that dream till I know who I am as a guidepost to reaching for my entrepreneurial dream.  As Yogi Berra supposedly said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”

Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric Co. (GE), spAll innovative entrepreneurs are creatures of dreams based in hope.  And dreams are the source of disruption and the impossible.

For me personally, two things have specifically grounded me and enabled basic change.  The first was AA and several of its concomitant 12 Step programs.  Through it I was able to overcome escapist entropy and habit—habit that covered the gamut of the Seven Deadly Sins and made me kind of a useless, louche narcissist—and change into a more useful, functional soul.  (If you want to read more about this try my post “Addiction and Entrepreneurship.”)

The second thing that worked for me was fairly recent.  It was something called the Executive Reinvention Program led by leadership guru Tracy Goss, who wrote the best-seller The Last Word On Power.  (1995, Crown Business)  I personally hate gurus (not a term Goss would use for herself).  But Goss’ rather radical approach bloody well has had a profound effect on me.  What her two week process of change demands is that you begin by abandoning everything that you think works for you and makes you successful, charming, and effective, so as to open up the untapped fullness of your personal truth.  (For more, read my post “Overcoming Success and Transformational Entrepreneurship”)

o-CS-LEWIS-facebookThere are truly lots of paths to real, bone-deep change.  They all involve becoming a persistent and fundamental change agent in yourself.  Here are just two.  Bill Gates went from being your stereotypical computer nerd, the kind you probably mocked in high school, to becoming a courageous entrepreneur, then morphing into a ruthless monopolist, and lately becoming the greatest philanthropist in history.  And consider the recently deceased Nelson Mandela.  He started out as an arrogant asshole—violent, antisocial, aggressive—and became one of the greatest moral figures of history, in the pantheon of non-violent resistance with Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Constant change is essential for the creative entrepreneur.  It needs to be built into the process.  So, if it ain’t broke, break it.  Regularly.  Make it your New Year’s resolution. As Jack Welch puts it, “Change before you have to.”

British writer and thinker C.S. Lewis said, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird:  it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.  We are like eggs at present.  And we cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.  We constantly must be hatched or go bad.”  Thanks, C.S. Lewis.

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