Part I: First Impressions
“But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she would become.”
— Robert Frost, The Gift Outright
I am a butterfly collector. Although I have never held one in my hands, you could say that I have spent my adult life gazing at the lovely creatures through a kind of microscope. To continue this absurd (habit #4, if it isn’t somewhat absurd, it isn't powerful) analogy, my laboratory has been the work I have performed as the publisher of Forbes Magazine, an internet company founder, professor of leadership at ASU, and host of a Telly award-winning interview series, IconicVoices.tv, on Youtube.
So what do I bring to the table?
The fieldwork was at a time when I was more than curious about success and why some people made it look easy while others struggled against a sea of troubles. I got to know people like Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller, shared orchid obsession with Linda Wachner, the first female Fortune 500 CEO, going to tennis matches with Ken Chenault, the first black Fortune 50 CEO, and playing gin rummy with Hugh McColl, CEO of Nationsbank (he lost), golfing with Rainer Gut of Credit Suisse, and flying to Augusta with Jack Welch.
I had a leg up because of my work at Forbes. I had seen the high and mighty up close and personal. I became their chronicler, confessor, interrogator, and scribe. When I became a professor, I broadened the focus to include a new crop for my Youtube series, General David Petraeus, NFL honcho Ray Anderson, Dr. Reatha Clark King, the most distinguished African American board director in America, and Senator John McCain, Russian Oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the man who freed Nelson Mandela, South African president FW de Klerk.
They became the body and soul of Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives.
The Butterfly Effect
Herbert Lorenz, a meteorologist who discovered that rounding off numbers in a humongous calculation changed the result markedly when it should only have narrowed the findings. He proved that small changes in origin have huge implications for the destination. We call this the butterfly effect. Ir relates directly to the stories of undaunted success you are about to read.
The well-known analogy derived from chaos theory suggests a tornado occurring in one part of the world occurred because of a butterfly flapping its wings in another part. Small changes produce large impacts. How else can we explain Mae Clark telling ten-year-old Reatha to grow up “be somebody,” from which the book’s title is taken? She confesses those two words turned Reatha into the most respected female African American board director in American history. Some call it luck. I say it is the butterfly effect. When Mike Bezos adopted his four-year-old, abandoned Jeff Jorgensen became adopted Jeff Bezos, and today provides a good living to the nearly one million people of Amazon. Some see a billionaire. I see the butterfly effect.
The butterfly effect helps us understand why an early experience can have an astounding effect on a later stage of life. When Mae Clark told her daughter Reatha she wanted her to “be somebody,” from which the book title is taken, she became the most important female African American board director in American history. Some call that chance. I say it is the butterfly effect. When Mike Bezos adopted his four-year-old son, the boy went from abandoned Jeff Jorgensen to adopted Jeff Bezos, and today provides a good living to the nearly one million people of Amazon. When Warren Buffett invested in Citizens Services with his sister, he fell in love with the way people create value through business. Now he has more people working at Berkshire Hathaway than the entire population of its headquarters city, Omaha.
That’s the butterfly effect. Thus, a small change in the early stage results in large differences in a later stage, and if this was correct, I was onto something.
The butterfly was a good analogy as ordinary people are like caterpillars waiting for a breakout role where they can become a butterfly or extraordinary. The people I studied weren’t all that different from you and me. They didn’t look like winners when they were young, and that is why so many people in their lives felt they didn't stand a chance. But as Robert Frost wrote, they “took the road less traveled by, And it has made all the difference.”
“Still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she would become.”
O2E Habits (Ordinary to Extraordinary)
AsS I began to find similarities between my research subjects, I created a spreadsheet to identify what I called the ‘ordinary habits of extraordinary people’ that got them on the road to success.
- Grounded in Reality. Nearly all of the subjects were brought up in homes that stressed a work ethic, the value of money, an “earn what you learn” mentality, which kept them going through times when life seemed to disappoint. Naturally, a parent is in the best position to teach these things, but there were times like when Reatha Clark worked as a housemaid, learned that she was trustworthy by a stranger, and it gave her confidence that helped her throughout her life. . ,
- Embrace your contradictions. This refers to imperfections, and that can mean physical, mental, emotional, or the nature of who we are and our need to feel embraced to overcome those challenges. There is a famous expression that success has many fathers, although it is not intended the way Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs had multiple fathers, nor how Michael Phelps’s mother had to take on the role of father as he grew up. In each case, they took an imperfect child by normative standards and embraced them with the result of lasting and extraordinary success.
- Dream. Without a dream, each stumble in life becomes a narrative that we measure ourselves by. Instead of looking at a longer term outlook, like Warren Buffett says about the stock market, we value ourselves on a short term basis. Society contributes to this by telling us every moment of each day whether we are smart or stupid, ugly or attractive, rich or poor. The dream that we can be somebody and make a difference is the antidote to short term thinking about ourselves. In a salute to the DIY establishment, each of the subjects self-medicated on optimism about what they might accomplish.
- Never stop learning. If education is continuous, it compounds like an investment. We get smarter as we get smarter, and the combination makes us unbeatable. It can have humble beginnings like Reatha’s one-room schoolhouse, which paved her way to the University of Chicago. Jeff Bezos began in public schools in Miami, not Choate or Andover, and graduated summa cum laude from Princeton. But they never stopped learning, and the result was that success was built on success.
- Incentive driven. The desire to make money appears over and over in each story. It inspires a wellspring of talent in young, poor, but hungry children. It doesn’t have to be a child, either. Grandma Moses was asked whether she felt sorry when she had to sell someone her paintings, and she replied, “I’d rather have the money.”
- Take full responsibility. Over and over, I heard, “it’s my life. I’m the one to fix it. I am not going to get help from others. It’s up to me.” To some, it sounds sad. I found it heroic. You are in charge of your life. None of the subjects considered themselves a victim of an unfortunate circumstance. If rich kids got toys, they played with boxes. If some went on ski trips, they sled downhill in the park. They took full responsibility for their lives and their actions.