Use Failure to Build a Better Future

Rowland Hussey Macy

Abraham Lincoln, my favorite President, had a great idea when he proclaimed “a national day of Thanksgiving.”  It was a Holiday proposed right smack dab in the middle of the Civil War. At that most horrific hour, it had to take some intestinal fortitude for anyone to turn their head around to see anything good in anything. President Lincoln knew that if Americans did not purposely look up, they would lose hope. Hope is a priceless commodity. Mankind can live without anything but hope. To preserve it, he created a Holiday set aside for purposeful gratitude.

Without minimizing the miseries of the Civil War, many entrepreneurs can also lose hope. With their daily battles, they can be overcome with the problems and responsibilities of running a small business and succumb to deep discouragement. But when your nose is dragging, you will miss opportunities as they fly past. Focusing on the positive is not only good exercise for the soul, it is good for business.

Since the month of November celebrates our 26th Anniversary in business, I am especially thankful for three things–three things I could only see from the perspective of 26 years:

Small Business not only grows the economy. It grows people. Small business owners often start with great excitement and anticipation. They often have a big vision of what they want to do, but it often does not turn out the way they planned. The number one problem in being an entrepreneur is that you don’t know what you don’t know. And Small Business will show you what you don’t know, whether you like it or not. Lest you think that it is a negative thing, the entrepreneurial journey is also one of the most effective catalysts for growth and change. We learn by necessity to change our self-talk, our habits, and our attitudes. The truth is, God cares more about helping us to become all he has intended for us to be, than our success. We must be before we can do. He will not let us out of the oven half-baked. We end up finding out that we can do far more than we have ever dreamed we can do.

Small Business grows creativity like no other catalyst. No one enters business with unlimited resources. And that is the perfect soil for creativity to grow! Real creativity is born of constraints. Without enough X, you must invent a way to do what you need to do with what you have at your immediate disposal. So you have too little time? You must find creative ways of managing people and projects. Did the rug get pulled out from under you? Sometimes the biggest disasters reveal the largest opportunities. We learn to look at things with different eyes by necessity.

And last but not least, Small Business gives people a voice. It is not uncommon for any business, large or small, to begin with a very self-focused mission.  We talk about ourselves too much. As we go along, we find out that that does not work very well. We soon discover that our business is not about us. It is about creating a vision larger than ourselves. We find and hone our purpose. In finding our purpose, we discover our gifts and our abilities. These may not be what we originally thought at all. But it does not matter. In all this wrangling, we discover what we were put on earth to do. It develops such a confidence that, as Who’s down in Whoville, we are compelled to YOP. And we are no longer YOPPING about ourselves. We are YOPPING for the sake of others. And it is a beautiful thing.

Yes, Small Business is much harder than it looks. The bad and the good are like two train tracks running side by side. They will always exist together in our businesses and our lives simultaneously. Do not derail by focusing on just the negative rail. Throughout the Holiday Season, no matter what situation you are in, take time for purposeful gratitude. It will improve your outlook, your health, and your business.

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Dipika Kohli

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat!

Five Keys to Life and Business From a Political Satirist

Art Buchwald

Today is the birthday of Art Buchwald (1925-2007). This week’s Imagination Hat looks at five things we can learn from Art about life and business. Art is best known for his long-running syndicated column in the Washington Post and won the Pulitzer in1982 and 1986. Art was yesteryear’s equivalent to The Onion. He used humor as a disguise for social commentary – humor that poked fun of politics and current events and human nature. He slapped us all, but in a such way that after the first shock, we were glad about it.

Here’s what we can learn from Art about life and business.

Your childhood is not setback. It is a set-up. Art was a depression era kid, growing up in foster homes after his mother was committed to an insane asylum. His childhood was not pleasant, and his youth a colorful story that no one would covet. Yet his own story gave him a unique viewpoint that fueled his future career. So can yours.

Stop using your lack of a degree as an excuse. Nothing is stopping you from becoming what you want to be but you. Art had neither a high school nor college degree. And yet, he is USC alumni with an honorary doctorate.  Where there is a will, there is a way. You can hear Art tell this story here: (At 10 minutes, 19 seconds).

Don’t sweat the haters. During the Eisenhower administration, US Press Secretary Jim Hagerty took one of Art’s political spoofs a little too seriously and called a press conference to denounce the article. Few people knew Art Buchwald before that event. Afterward, everyone in the US knew how to spell his name. Buchwald says, “Nobody ever sent Anthrax to the National Enquirer.” Haters are a compliment.

The bad stuff can end up being the best stuff. When working in Paris at the Herald Tribune, he asked his boss if he could start a new column reviewing the vibrant nightlife. His boss’s response was to throw him out. “Some people would have considered that a rejection,” he said. But Art was not derailed. When his boss was out of town, he asked up the ladder of authority. The supervisor thought it was a great idea. When his manager came back, there was Art, sitting at his new desk.

Whatever you do, don’t lose your optimism. Art lived through some perilous times. In an interview at USC right after 9/11, he confessed to carrying a quote in his pocket by Martin Luther.  “Even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I’d still plant my apple tree”.

Art’s unabashed originality fueled his success. Whatever circumstances he found himself in, he used his available resources and his creativity to the make the most of it. Good advice for any entrepreneur. Keep planting your own future with hope.

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat.

Here’s some classic Art Buchwald:

There is No Such Thing as a Wrong Note

there is no such thing as a wrong note

Photo of Billie Holiday and Art Tatum taken at the Downbeat Club in December 1946

Today is the birthday of jazz great Art Tatum, born this day in 1909 in Toledo Ohio. What can we learn about small business from Art? Read on. Perhaps it was an omen that his parents named him Art–his work was just that. He was the indisputable master of Stride piano, with a style that has never been duplicated. How much art was in Art’s music? At age 19, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong would make it a point to come to hear him play at the Toledo Bellmen’s Club. And one evening when Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Fats famously announced, “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.”

Lest you think you were somehow passed over in the distribution of advantages, you should know that Art was legally blind. Though born with normal sight he contracted diphtheria, measles, and scarlet fever at age three, resulting in severe visual handicap and severe cataracts. After many operations, doctors were able to restore a considerable amount of vision in one eye. But after all this, as a young man, he was victim of a brutal mugging, leaving his “good left eye” permanently damaged, and his lesser eye weakened. Did this discourage him beyond measure? Did he stop playing? He did not. He continued on to play with many jazz greats and compile many volumes of recordings.

While the loss of eyesight is always incalculable and grievous, his blindness may have added to his gift. Recent studies have shown that an early visual deprivation can lead to enhanced spatial hearing, and an increased sensitivity to sound frequencies.* The empirical evidence of the extreme gift of other blind musicians, as the likes of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and Jose Feliciano, would tend to support this. Art has been hailed one of the piano geniuses of all time, in any genre. Many people who hear him for the first time believe they are listening to two players. Tatum never wrote any original music, but it is said that he was so original, that he rewrote very song he ever played.

Small business is much harder than immediately meets the eye. But sometimes your biggest problems end up yielding valuable ideas that you never would have found without the problem. Sometimes the greatest difficulties bring out your personal best and gifts you never knew you possessed.

How it all turns out depends on your focus. Focus on your disadvantages, and they will own you. Focus on your strengths, and you will grow in ways you never dreamed, and you will become an unstoppable force.

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat.

Check out Art Tatum at work:

“Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play … everyone there will sound like an amateur.”

-Teddy Wilson


The Great Compelling

Jason Lewis

Today’s Imagination Hat honors the work (the adventure?) of Jason Lewis. What can we learn from Jason about the entrepreneurial journey? It was on this day in 2007 that Jason Lewis completed one of the last great firsts. He was the first to circumvent the entire world. “No wait,” you say. “He couldn’t possibly be the first.” But oh yes. He is. He is the first to circumvent the globe using only in-line skates, kayaks, swimming, rowing, walking, pedaling, and a unique pedal-powered boat. No motors. No sails. No animals. He was the first to circumvent the globe by human power alone. Jason and his team Expedition 360 traveled over 45,000 miles across five continents, two oceans, and one sea. Thirteen years after the launching on this adventure, he crossed the same Meridian line.

What is it that possesses people to attempt such things? For some mysterious reason, attempting the impossible is bound within the heart of man. Without a strong vision, and a strong sense of what he was trying to accomplish, Jason would have given up. During his journey, Jason had both legs broken when hit by a car. He narrowly missed having one of them amputated. He has been chased by a crocodile, contracted malaria, endured two hernia operations, robbed at machete-point, capsized in the Atlantic, and arrested as a spy in Egypt. I’m not making this up. With the vision of the end of the journey in view, Jason could endure it all.

Entrepreneurs are also obsessed and possessed with achieving the impossible.  But running a small company is also fraught with danger and loss.  A strong vision can help you endure hardship and give you strength to press  forward. How compelling is your vision? Have you defined what success means to you? Have you determined that the goal is worth it? Is your Vision strong enough to propel you forward in the face of adversity?

Expedition 360 was about more than just breaking records. In conjunction with a variety of programs, the team visited 900 schools to promote cultural exchange, used adventure to promote world citizenship, provide humanitarian needs, and raise awareness for environmental stewardship. It was not a short term vision. What does your company look like 13 years out? Make sure your Vision is bigger than you are, and compelling enough to get you there. That is your great adventure.

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat.

And Now for Something Completely Different

A man plays violin as he roller-skates on square on hazy day in Nanjing

Photo credits: Reuters

Today is the birthday of Jean-Luc Ponty, born this day in 1942. Google Jean-Luc Ponty and you will find photos of him with his violin. What can we learn from him about small business? Few people look at a violin and think differently. Some think only of Mozart. Fortunately, Jean-Luc looked at what he had in his hands, and thought differently. Jean-Luc is one of the premier Jazz violinists of our time.

 Jean-Luc Ponty, he  was born into a family of classical musicians. He excelled, and after graduating with the highest honors, he was immediately hired by a major symphony orchestra, the Concerts Lamoureux, at the age 18. But his heart was elsewhere. He had a growing interest in Jazz, including the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He picked up the clarinet and the tenor sax, and starting playing at local parties in college. One evening after phentermine a classical concert, and still wearing his formal tuxedo, Ponty found himself at a local club with only his violin.  A handicap? Not for Jean-Luc Ponty. It was a turning point in his musical career. It was not long before he was widely accepted as a jazz fiddle player–so accepted he was played with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Elton John, and Frank Zappa. And he produced 12 consecutive albums that hit the top 5 in the Billboard Jazz Charts.

What we learn from Jean-Luc Ponty is to look critically at what you have in your hands, and use it differently. Look at your skill set, and see if there are any other markets you can serve. Few people look at their skill set and ask enough questions. Where do you excel more than other people around you? What resources do you have at your disposal? What else can be done with them? Can you use your resources and gifts in a different way? Is there a way that is perceived as the “wrong way” to use it, that might actually be the perfect way for you to use it? Perhaps you can open up a whole new way to share your gifts with the world.

Check out his unique voice here: Jean-Luc Ponty, Aurora, Part II, from 1976 

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat.  

Electrifying Entrepreneurship

hat light bulb

Today’s Imagination Hat honors the work of chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. Today is his Birthday (1791). What can we learn about the entrepreneurial journey from a physicist?

He is primarily known for his work in electricity, and discovering the connection between electricity and magnetism, resulting in the first primitive electric motor. To say that your life would be quite different without his discoveries is an understatement, and to list his achievements here would make this post way too long. Even if you do not remember him from grade school science, the fact that Einstein had a picture of Michael Faraday on his wall should at least cause you to stand up and take note.

The first take away from Mr. Faraday is follow your gift. Michael hated his job as a bookbinder. His heart was full of an unstoppable sense of wonder that could not be satisfied with the repetitive tasks of his laborious job. He did not give up on this calling, and we are all the better for it. Though you may think there is little difference, notice the pursuit is to “gift,” as opposed to “passion”. You can be passionate about a good many things that will never mean anything to anyone but you. Your gift however is what you were put on earth to do. Other people see you have this gift and even tell you about it. It was given to you for a reason. If you do not follow it and pursue it and use it, others will lose something.

The second take away from Mr. Faraday is never ever stop learning. Growing up in relative poverty, his father could not afford formal education for his son. Michael was primarily self-taught in his spare time after work, spending all his money to buy himself books. His innate sense of wonder did not allow him to become blinded by the existing knowledge base, and he strongly opposed existing authority if it didn’t support what he could see with this eyes. Because of his intellectual honesty, Faraday was able to see new things. He was the first to see how the forces of electricity and magnetism connect.  

Have you ever noticed how many corporate mission statements are self-centered? The third thing we can model from Faraday is his focus on others. He felt his work to be a part of a much bigger story than just to benefit himself. While others were eyeing his work and only for dollars and cents, Michael pursued his work to be a blessing to mankind and to share it with others. He had a deep desire to communicate what he had learned, and kept copious notes for the primary purpose of sharing his discoveries with other scientists. He gave continual lectures, even developing a series of lectures to introduce children to Science.

Wow! Who knew! A physicist is my new entrepreneurial hero!

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat!

Finding What You Weren’t Looking For

One sometimes finds what one is not looking for -- Alexander Fleming

When was the last time you went looking for adventure, not searching for “anything in particular”, and with little or no expectations of what you would find or where you would end up? This week’s Imagination Hat honors the work of Dr. Alexander Fleming, a very left-brained individual that, fortunately, for us, also had a right-brained sort of mind. Dr. Fleming discovered penicillin on this day in 1928.

He didn’t start back to work the day after his vacation planning to discover Penicillin. He was just going about his normal work with his normally very curious mind. And he had a very messy lab to clean up. In the corner, there sat an untidy stack of petri dishes that had gotten contaminated while he was away, with “stuff” growing on them, a mold of sorts. If it had been just a normal day, spoiled experiments would have been swept into the garbage. Might I say most scientists would have done that. But not Dr. Fleming. Thank God he was a curious man, and today was no different. He was ever searching for answers and conducting tests to help patients, and especially the soldiers of WWI, to recover from infected wounds. (Antiseptics were doing a great job of killing bacteria on wounds, but they were also wiping out the patients immunological defenses). These petri dishes contained experiments that he had been conducting on staphylococci. He noticed something very different about this mold–it was inhibiting the growth of the bacteria. It certainly wasn’t what he expected to see, but he had discovered things by accident before. Though it was many years and many experiments later that penicillin was available for the general population, his work began the development of modern antibiotics. And he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945.

Many people miss revelation because it isn’t what they are expecting to see.  Dr. Fleming did not close off his mind simply because things did not fit nicely into a prescribed pattern of how he expected science to be or how things had fallen out before.

Want to be more creative? Learn to ask more questions and allow yourself to be more curious. Open your mind to impossibilities. Creativity begins with curiosity.Creativity begins with curiosity.

That is this week’s Imagination Hat!

How Far Will You Go?

Antonín Dvořák with his wife Anna in London, 1886

Antonín Dvořák with his wife Anna in London, 1886

How far are you willing to go to find inspiration? Today’s Imagination Hat features composer Antonin Dvorak, born this day in 1841 in what is now the Czech Republic (formerly Bohemia). What can we learn from Antonin about creativity?

Dvorak had two problems common among many gifted individuals. For one, Dvorak was very critical of his own work, to the point of burning some of his earliest symphonic manuscripts. Secondly, his musical gift was slow to be recognized outside his homeland. Fortunately for Antonin, and unlike the experience of many other creative individuals, his gift was recognized during his lifetime. (Whew!)  In 1892, Dvorak moved to the US. (He even spent a little time in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, my home State!) His main goal was to find new sources of musical inspiration. He sought the traditional music of America primarily in African-American and Native American cultures. Dvorak was fond of weaving found musical heritage and folk melodies into his works. He predicted that through these genres, America would find her own musical voice. He couldn’t have been more correct!

In the spring of 1893, Dvorak was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write a symphony, resulting in his most well known score,  his Symphony no. 9, “From the New World.” Neil Armstrong chose this symphony to accompany him to the Moon on the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

Antonin Dvorak went half-way around the world in search of new rhythms and melodies. If he could speak to you today, he would ask, “Why are you sitting around waiting for inspiration to come to you? Get up and go looking for it! You never know how what you will find, how far your inspiration will take you, or how far it will travel after you have let it go.”

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat!

Serious Play–With a Purpose

Iowa State Fair Corn Dogs

“There is no great genius without a tincture of madness.” Seneca, 1st Century AD

Joni and Annie are sporting their haute couture at the Iowa State Fair. They are fearless. How long has it been since you wore a pickle hat? My guess it was some time ago. Probably around the same time you had your last really great idea. How do I know? Great ideas and play go together. They are intrinsically linked.

Corporate work schedules rarely include a block of time for “a little bit of crazy.” You would think by now, when creativity is such a hot commodity, that we would be demanding room for it. Rather, so much work is being demanded of the average worker that our brains are short-circuiting. Maybe it is time to reconsider our priorities. Instead of working overtime to squeeze more and more profit from our companies, maybe we should schedule in “a little bit of crazy” instead.   

Imagination is the main ingredient of creativity. We had boatloads of the commodity when we were kids. What happened to it? We stopped playing. Creativity is the main ingredient in innovation. Marketing dynamo Seth Godin has corporate executives reluctantly building things out of blocks at scheduled meetings. Tim Brown, President of IDEO, has conference attendees creating 30 second portraits of their neighbor, which are promptly followed by “sorry.”  Why do we feel sorry when we only had 30 seconds to complete the task? Adults have deeply programmed scripts telling us that there are right and wrong answers to everything. We fear. We fear it won’t be perfect. We fear looking stupid, somehow reverting back to the 7th grade. Until we are fearless to try new things, new ideas will remain elusive.

Creativity and Innovation are necessities in today’s workplace. Creativity gives us the ability to connect new dots, and to discover new ways of looking at old things. Imagination gives us the ability to role play. How will you ever develop excellent customer service if you cannot imagine yourself in the place of the customer?

Want to be a more creative person and/or become a more creative company? Take a look at your schedule, and make sure there is room for serious play. Playing will help you find your genius.

That’s this week’s Imagination Hat.

Is Your Mission Bigger Than You Are?

James Howard Meredith

Today’s Imagination Hat honors the bravery of James Howard Meredith. On this day in 1963, he was the first African-American student to graduate from the segregated University of Mississippi– a time marked by extreme tension in the fight for civil rights.

How strong is your Mission and Vision? Is it bigger than you are? Without a good deal of chutzpah, a true entrepreneur knows that she will not survive the day to day onslaught and the obstacles of running a small business. While the greatest problems that we face in business are often the result of our own our attitudes, behaviors, and belief systems, there are problems brought on by external issues as well over which we have no control. If our vision and mission are not clear, we will find ourselves tripping over each and every road block. When our vision is clear, very few obstacles, whether internal or external, will stop us.
Such is the chutzpah of James Howard Meredith. James’ mission and vision were branded on his heart when he heard John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. He decided that the best thing he could do for democracy was to apply for admission to the segregated University of Mississippi. The story, which you can find online, is long and protracted. He did not encourage defiance of the law, but upholding of the Constitution already in place, seeing little difference between civil rights and human rights. His fight was not without blood, including his own.  During the second day of his solo 220-mile March Against Fear, James was shot by a white gunman. This extreme road block, which would have stopped many, did not dampen his resolve. While he was recovering, many convened to help him finish the March. It was 15,000 strong by the time they reached Jackson, Mississippi, making it the largest civil rights march on record.  As a result, more than 4,000 African Americans registered to vote. His fight ended the University’s policy of racial segregation–a cause much bigger than himself.
What is the best thing that you can do for your clients? Do you believe that what you are doing will make life better for those around you? If not, rework your deliverables. If your goal is just making an income, it will not sustain your business. Make your mission “other-centered”, and you can create a lasting legacy.
That’s this week’s Imagination Hat.
James Meredith has written a book about his journey: “A Mission from God,” available in fine book stores.

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