We live in a world of naysayers, doomsday predictors, pessimists and alarmists. They always see a theat that will bring us down, end life as we know it, wreck our dreams, play havoc with all we hold dear.
But they always overlook Malthus and the human ingenuity he preferred to ignore. An 18th century English economist, Thomas Robert Malthus predicted that the geometric growth in world population would ultimately outstrip the arithmetic increases in food supply.
End game: worldwide starvation.
What Malthus overlooked was the human drive to solve problems, to invent, to create fertilizers and farming techniques that would vastly increase the availability of food. Malthus rang the alarm bell and the enterpreneurs, the scientists, the doers who disdain the handwringers, answered and put the panic to bed.
Fast forward to the present. Here we are deep in a recession, perhaps on the precipice of a depression. It is just about the only thing anyone talks about. It blasts across the headlines. It screams throughout the talk shows. It is the stuff of dinner conversation and boardroom strategy. It is changing and diluting our capitalist system. It is causing runaway human angst. It is the sound and the color of FEAR. It is what Franklin Roosevelt warned about. It is what is keeping millions out of the Christmas shops. It is causing a growing number of companies to crawl into a bunker and hope to wait it out. To wish it away.
It is time to remember Malthus.
The world did not starve. It will not melt. It won’t blow itself up. The business community, the economy, will not be sucked into a black hole. Yes, there is and will be pain. Millions more will be unemployed. Companies will fail and dreams will be dashed.
But the miracle workers who refuse to succumb to statistics, to the predictions of the college professors or to all of those who move through life from one would-be peril to another, they will develop a path to revival. Fear is contagious but they won’t catch it. They know that every problem is an opportunity in disguise. They will not wait for or rely on a government rescue because there is no such thing. It has never worked. And it never will.
The entrepreneur is the machine of the economy. But she is more than that. She is the embodiment of the American spirit. She dreams in Technicolor. She has the guts of a marine. She has the creativity of Picasso.
The formula for success is really quite simple. Unleash the entrepreneurs. Get out of their way. Give them dollar for dollar tax credits for every unemployed person they hire. Let them dream and risk and build.
Put them in the driver’s seat and put Malthus back in the history books.
3. Am I a leader or a follower? How do I know?
4. Do I ever achieve anything truly original or do I accept cookie cutter solutions?
5. Do I believe that Conventional Wisdom is truly wisdom or simply the conventional way of doing things?
6. Do I ever make time to dream of the impossible and how I can make it possible? Do I know how Einstein used that to create breakthrough thinking?
7. Do I know what marketing is really supposed to do? How to measure it? How to take from mediocre to extreme?
8. Am I in the middle ranks? Of management or sales production? Do I know what I need to get to the top?
9. Do I know my limitations? Do I do anything to overcome them?
10. Do I know my greatest strengths? Do I do enough to leverage them? Do I know how to?Read More
And then I realized that I live in a small space…
On some high profile perspectives, that may not appear to be the case. I fly the world. I appear on television, I am all over the Internet. I work with a diverse and engaging group of people every day.
It doesn’t look like a small space, but it is. I don’t know anything about Bhudists. I have never been to Iceland. I don’t know what a factory worker thinks. I have never been in a union, nor have any of my friends. As far as I know, I have never talked to an ex-con. No one I ever talk to has been on welfare. Nor written a symphony. Nor danced in the New York ballet. There are no Nobel Prize winners in my entourage.
None of the people I play with, work with, drink with, hike with, are really that different from each other. This didn’t just happen that way. It is not random selection. It is self-selection.
I decided, unwittingly, to become an island unto myself.
This is tremendously limiting. I lack the wide cross pollination of thinking one gains when you swim in alien waters. In dangerously different seas. In bodies of water your natural path would rule out.
We have all just witnessed the terrorist attack on India. I know the culprits are scum, but I know nothing else about them. I don’t want to get under the skin of their cultures so that I can make a case for their disgusting acts. They are slime and I want them eliminated.
At the same time, however, I realize I know nothing about India, save for Ghandi cliches. I know nothing of Pakistan, save for its nuclear intoxication. I know nothing about Kashmir, except that it inspired Led Zeppelin. I know nothing about any of this in great part because I believe it is unimportant to my role as a businessman, an entrepreneur, a friend, an observer of life.
And therein lies the rub. Am I an observer of life or of a tiny, self-selected slice of life? The latter, of course and this makes my observations, my knowledge, my perspectives and the advice that eminates from them, limited.
Great people reach into new dimensions. They push the envelope, finding ways to see and absorb beyond what the paths laid out before them in their lives would take them to.
They venture into the unknown. They move out of their element. They seek out experiences that come anything but natural. They leave Ivy League schools to join the Marines and volunteer for combat. They fly to foreign places, where no one shares their religion or speaks their language, and set up shop to start careers and launch ventures. They refuse to live and die close to where they were born.
Recently, I watched for the tenth time Spike Lee’s great film, The 25th Hour. It operates on multiple levels, but the one that fascinates me most, is the drive on the part of the unlikely protagonost to find a way into another dimension before the dimension he knows and lives in swallows him up. His drive to reach into the NEXT is created by fear and need. But the voluntary search for the BEYOND is where the stuff of discovery, true human discovery, is found.
Yes, I am an island unto myself. Yes, I think it is limiting.
No, something tells that won’t change. Not proud to say it, but it’s the truth. And that’s where it lies. There are island dwellers and island hoppers. The latter are the true change makers. They absorb enough to see their own limitations and to extend beyond them en route to creating powerful ideas and extraordinary companies. And the kinds of lives we all learn from–even if from a distance.
When my sons were young, I hated Open School week. The parents would be marched in to talk with teachers about all manner of bureaucratic gobbledygook pertaining to grading systems and course requirements and I felt like I was being held hostage once again by the teachers at P.S. 186 in Queens, NY, who forced me to memorize a thousand useless facts about the date of the Boxer Rebellion and the inventor of the x-ray.
But each year at Open School Week, I would go through the motions, listen to the leaden monologues, dream of the glass of Pinot Noir I would have once I escaped this form of institutional torture, and put the obligation behind me until the calendar whizzed by and I was back in the classroom again.
But one year, I found myself suddenly entranced. Captivated.
I took a seat in an advanced mathematics class one of my sons was taking–the kind of limited edition classes reserved for the hand-picked math elite– and the teacher (the model of a 1950′s school marm wearing what appeared to be a house dress and who had horn rimmed eyeglasses attached to a pearl necklace draped in front of her) entered the room.
Her first words whipped me to attention:
“I am your children’s math teacher, but I am not in the business of teaching them math.”
What? Then why the hell was she there? What was she talking about?
I was lost in a fog. She was right on target. And she continued without skipping a beat:
“All of your children are math aces. They are gifted in mathematics. That’s why they are in this class.
“Wonderful, you are thinking. And it is very nice. But there is a trap.”
Now I was even more befuddled. But she wasn’t in the slightest.
“Your children are standouts at this school. All super achievers. One of the reasons they are viewed as exceptional, is that they are in a population of students of all levels of academic performance. Once they arrive at the elite colleges they are all destined for, that will change.
“Everyone will be exceptional. And they will have to run with the pack. Teaching them to do that…..well, that’s my job. That’s why I am really here.”
I thought that was magnificent. First, a teacher who could get paid, secure tenure and accrue all of the benefits of her position simply by following standard teaching practice, decided to reach far above that cookie-cutter role. Second, and more important, she had the wisdom of the world and was going to impart it on kids at a time in their lives when they had the chance to absorb the non-math she would teach them, the life lessons she would bestow on them, so that they could become the leaders, the inventors, the creators, the game changers of their generation.
That quiet little giant of a woman understood that smart is hardly enough. That to succeed, to achieve significance in a sea of mediocrity and half-baked careers and lives, you need to be tenacious, relentless, innovative, restless, driven, visionary. You have to learn to run with the pack.
One of my friends, who went to Harvard, told me the best thing about the place is that on your first day, you feel big and small at the same time. The kids in the rooms on your hall, had already written novels, worked for NASA, started companies, beat grand masters. You felt important being there but also challenged to grow into the honor. The priviledge.
Who we spend our days with, who we talk to, who we collaborate with: these are the people who set our high water mark. We can spend our time in sandboxes of also-rans who never challenge us, never really raise the bar, or we can run with the pack.
Last October I had dinner with a one-time world chess champion. He taught me a lesson about competition. For years, I played tennis with Carl Ichan. He taught me about the fusion of philosophy and business. Years ago, I spent a day with Bill Gates. He opened my eyes to the raw power of vision. For some time, my firm served former Treasury Secretary William Simon. He taught me about money.
And that beautiful school teacher, that Darwinian seer, taught me about the pack. And my sons have run with it. And I am still trying.
As Teddy Roosevelt said, I always want to be in the arena. Where it is so tough, so challenging, so deliciously beautiful and demanding, you grow every
Just think of the opposite.
Imagine you are walking down the street and you see a restaurant going out of business.
The proprietor is at the front door, looking inside the space that was once his company. You wind up engaged in a conversation. He tells you he has been forced to close up because, “Well, I’m not very good at running a business.
Everything I touch turns to junk.”
You are about to wish him well and walk on when he makes you an offer:
“If you like, I can open a restaurant for you. Just give me a million dollars and I’ll give it a whirl.”
Surprised, even shocked, you say:
“But you said you’re not very good at running a business. Won’t handing you a million, respectfully, be like pouring a million down the drain?”
To which he replies, “Of course. But I will be able to give five people jobs for the six months or so until the million holds out.”
If you think this anecdote is fiction, you have been living in a bubble. It is precisely the conversation America’s so called car markers are having with America’s so-called government leaders. Including our President-elect.
A clan of frauds thinks we are a nation of fools. And the clique of leaders may validate this disgusting assumption. Or embarrassing fact.
It is plausible that the golf club junkies running Detroit should get financial aid-our economy is too fragile to take the hit of an auto implosion-but only if their resignation is part of the package. They must leave. They must hide their heads in shame. They must never run a lemonade stand.
In all of life, we must invest our money, our time, our hopes, our dreams in the form of doers. Not the hangers-on who take orders, collect a check, go home for the 6 o’ clock news, live for the weekend. They are the civil servants, by mind if not title, and God bless them and I wish them well, but I don’t want them running anything.
There is such a thing as “American exceptionalism.” And to maintain it, we need driven, street smart capitalists who make the wheel turn. Let the Rick Wagoners of the world work for the post office or some other government
agency that pays people for breathing. But if we are going to give Detroit a vault of money, we must insist that an Icahn or a Trump or some other egotist who gets things done is the guardian of the dough and of our national destiny and once the shop is in order, they can pick successors.
In the meantime, let’s be a nation of geniuses dealing with a cabal of frauds. And in our personal and business lives, let’s recognize that we learn nothing and experience zero growth from those who are in the all too common business
of paying it safe!
We are living in a tumultuous time. A new President. An earmark crazed, lobbyist driven Congress. Two wars. An economic meltdown. Global terrorism. The end of GM and Ford as viable private corporations. And the list goes on.
Or does it? I mean are we really facing a host of perplexing issues…..or just one? I say the latter.
Allow me to put this in perspective. We used to have people to believe in. Proven leaders whose words and the actions to back them up, gave us insight and confidence. Because they knew how business worked, because they knew how government worked, because they knew how the world worked– or so we thought–we could go about our daily lives, with the peace of mind that we were in good hands.
But it turns out that the heroes were not really heroes at all. Think of the once-exalted icons who are now recognized to be human beings, mere mortals, who knew nothing more than we did. In fact, maybe less. And while we went about our daily lives with hardly an impact on others, they were busy ruining ours.
Alan Greenspan was the God of economics. Robert Rubin was the greatest financial engineer since Alexander Hamilton. Dick Fuld was the gutsy genius of Wall Street. Bill Clinton was the human bridge between black and white America. And this list of monumental disappointments goes on too.
All have been stripped of their Superman suits. All have proven they have nothing smart to say. All have demonstrated that those we viewed as leaders were clowns in disguise.
Which brings us back to the one problem that truly plagues us: we are leaderless. Yes, we all hope that the new President changes that but for now he is un-tested. He is a promise. And so far, promises have left us with crushing unemployment, a free-falling Dow, the imminent nationalization of our automobile industry, the near demise of Wall Street.
And just when that seems overwhelming, I say bravo. We don’t need leaders to live full and meaningful lives. In fact, they are an addiction, a mirage, that prompts us to take our eyes off the ball. To relax, thinking we can cede our responsibilities to some power hungry, egotistical suit who pretends to care for us.
Sure there are glorious exceptions. I honor Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, Churchill, King. But we can’t sit around waiting for the next one. And we can recognize that in our families, our careers, our companies, we can and should be the true leaders.
We can and should rely on ourselves.