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The Fioretti of Self-Fulfillment

The Fioretti of Self-Fulfillment

10 Mins
August 1, 1999

Christianity has long appreciated its followers' need for tales of model people and behavior. Its fundamental message is conveyed as the story of an actual man's life. The lives of its saints and martyrs have been set down in writing. And around its greatest saint, Francis of Assisi, there has grown up a collection of tales known as the Fioretti, or Little Flowers of St. Francis.

Objectivists—though they ought not raise individuals to godhood or sainthood or mythic status—would be well advised to imitate Christianity and "collect" the lives and deeds that exemplify their philosophy's values and virtues. Fortunately, that has recently become easy to do.

Investor's Business Daily is a California-based, Monday-through-Friday financial newspaper that competes directly with the Wall Street Journal. However, several features make IBD attractive even to the non-investor. First, unlike the WSJ, its news columns do not take a far-Left perspective. Secondly, its editorial columns are even more libertarian than the Journal's. Thirdly, the paper devotes considerable space to the high-tech end of the economy. But lastly, and what is of significance here, every IBD has a full page called "Leaders & Success."

Each of these L&S pages has two biographical features, one major and one minor, both offering inspiration. In addition, each L&S page has a box listing "IBD's 10 Secrets To Success." These ten principles do not, by any means, replicate the Objectivist virtues, but even the ways in which they differ are worth contemplating.

1. How you think is everything: Always be positive. Think success, not failure. Beware of a negative environment.

2. Decide upon your true dreams and goals: Write down your specific goals and develop a plan to reach them.

3. Take action: Goals are nothing without action. Don't be afraid to get started now. Just do it.

4. Never stop learning: Go back to school or read books. Get training and acquire skills.

5. Be persistent and work hard: Success is a marathon, not a sprint. Never give up.

6. Learn to analyze details: Get all the facts, all the input. Learn from your mistakes.

7. Focus your time and money: Don't let other people or things distract you.

8. Don't be afraid to innovate; be different: Following the herd is a sure way to mediocrity.

9. Deal and communicate with people effectively: No person is an island. Learn to understand and motivate others.

10. Be honest and dependable; take responsibility: Otherwise, Numbers 1-9 won't matter.

Each day, one of these "secrets" is highlighted, and approximately fifteen column-inches are devoted to illustrating it. In addition, over time, the reader begins to see elements of the life histories as exemplifying one or another "secret." Following are some of the biographical tales that IBD has used to hammer home its principles.

1. On positive thinking. When Wilma Rudolph (1940-94) contracted polio at age four, doctors said she would never walk again; certainly, her medical prospects were dim: A black child living in Clarksville, Tennessee, in the 1940s, Rudolph was the twentieth of twenty-two children born to a railroad porter and a maid. But, as she said later, "My mother taught me very early to believe I could achieve any accomplishment I wanted to. . . . 'I can't' are words that have never been in my vocabulary. I believe in me more than anything in the world." With hard work, Rudolph graduated to a leg brace by the age of 8 and later to a special shoe. Every day, she played basketball with her brothers. By age 11, she could walk barefooted. In high school, she played basketball to keep her legs flexible and in her senior year she won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay at the 1956 Olympics. In 1959, she qualified for the Rome Olympics by setting a world record in the 200-meter race. Once in Rome, she won gold medals in the straightaway100-meter and 200-meter races, despite a sprained ankle. But the curved 400-meter track, on which she was running the final leg of a relay, hurt her ankle and she bobbled the hand-off, allowing two teams to pass her. Putting her pain aside, Rudolph came back to win the gold and became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track. (March 19, 1999.)

2. On having plans. In 1972, Bruce Jenner placed tenth in the decathlon and watched while Soviet Nikolai Avilov accepted the gold. Four years later, Jenner vowed, he would win. "Knowing he wasn't particularly gifted, he realized he'd have to work harder and smarter than anyone else. . . . Over the next few weeks, he developed 'an hour-by-hour plan for the following four years,' he said. He committed himself to training eight hours every day. He'd run at dawn, lift weights for 2 1/2 hours, work on specific decathlon events for another 2 1/2 hours, and finish up with an evening run. He set specific goals for every day, month and year. . . . When he was tired or the weather was crummy, he reminded himself that there would be more pain in saying 'I could've won, if. . . . ' than in getting out of bed. A few weeks before the '76 Games opened, [Jenner] wrote down his goals for each event. . . . As he expected, he nailed the high jump at exactly 6 feet 8 inches and the pole vault at 15 feet 9 inches. 'I had predicted five of the 10 events to the second, inch, or foot,' Jenner wrote. His overall performance not only won him the gold but set a record in the decathlon." (IBD, April 27, 1998.)

3. On taking action. In 1951, real-estate developer Kemmons Wilson was on vacation with his family. "Driving from his hometown of Memphis, TN, to Washington D.C., he found roadside motels were few and far between, sometimes dirty and generally charged extra for kids. Incredulous, Wilson turned to his wife and said he was driving home right away to start building a hotel chain. 'Getting an idea should be like sitting on a pin,' he wrote in his autobiography. Half Luck and Half Brains. 'It should make you jump up and do something.' Wilson's "something" was to build the first chain of affordable, family-oriented motels and hotels, which he called Holiday Inns, after a Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie. "He contacted builders across the country and offered them 50% ownership in any hotel they'd build. His plan was to develop a national company, building hotels within one day's drive of the other. By the time Wilson retired from the company in '79, 1,759 Holiday Inns had been built in 50 countries. . . . 'I've made more mistakes than anyone,' Wilson admitted. 'I've also done more. I always want to be right 51% of the time. I would like to be right 75% of the time.'" (June 30, 1998.)

4. On lifetime learning. Charles Darwin was obsessive about collecting facts. "If he had questions about some obscure plant or the geology of a far-off place, he didn't hesitate to contact experts in that field. When he heard of naturalists who were about to explore some strange new land, he'd send them questions and ask whether they could investigate them for him. Some of his fellow scientists found the requests rude, and refused to respond to his letters. But Darwin didn't let that stop him, often writing them again and again until he got answers. As a result, he built an extensive network of contacts throughout the world, and by the time of his death, he had amassed more than 16,000 pages of letters answering his questions. . . . [And] Darwin didn't limit his queries to academics. If his butcher's hobby was gardening, each time Darwin would buy meat he'd pump the man for information about the plants he raised. If his barber's passion was breeding dogs, he could expect all sorts of queries while cutting Darwin's hair. . . . By this method he learned to spot patterns and trends, and from these trends he devised theories to explain the facts he found. Then Darwin would return to those facts to make sure his theories were sound. In particular, he would look for facts that might prove him wrong. 'Darwin was unusual as a scientist in his extreme respect for, and attention to, negative facts,' wrote biographer Frank Sulloway." (August 8, 1998.)

5. On persistence. "Lee Dunham had dreamt of running a restaurant since he was a teenager in Brooklyn, but after high school, business college was too costly. So he joined the Air Force [and] enrolled in food-service school... . When he left the military, he ... enrolled in business school and took courses at night-but his finances forced another detour. To support himself, he had to get a day job... . For the next 15 years, Dunham worked full-time for the New York Police Department and part-time as a carpenter. He continued in business school and saved every penny. 'For 10 years, there were no movies, vacations,' he said later... . In 1971, he took the gamble. He'd saved $42,000 and put together a business plan. He approached franchisors and McDonald's approved him, on the condition he open his franchise in the inner city... . Dunham plunked down his $42,000 and borrowed $150,000. He was finally in business. He was also in trouble-plagued during the first few months by gunfire and gang fights... . Dunham gathered gang members together and made it known his franchise would not be their battleground. He told them that he, too, had grown up poor and that work was the escape. Then he laid down a challenge: If they would come to work for him, Dunham would give them free training in management. . . . The Harlem franchise, over time, became one of the most profitable in the McDonald's chain, earning more than $1.5 million a year. Dunham now owns nine restaurants employing more than 400 people." (May 3, 1999.)

6. On analyzing a problem. "In 1943, Edwin Land and his family were on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when his young daughter asked why she couldn't immediately see the photograph she had taken. "The question sent Land's mind reeling, and he walked around town for an hour mulling over the problem. He reduced solving the problem to three key steps. The first two involved clarifying the problem in his mind. First, he'd visualize how the product might work-what parts were needed and how they'd connect. If he could see it, he could build it, he said. Then, he'd talk about the difficulties. If he could get to the heart of a problem and clearly explain it, a solution wasn't far behind, insisted Land, who never went to bed with an untested hypothesis. His third step was to figure out the best way to proceed, which he determined through a process of elimination. By giving himself a number of possible solutions, the inventor realized, he increased his chances for success." (June 21, 1998.)

7. On focusing your time. "To be free to strategize and think five years ahead, Charles Morgan structured Acxiom Corp. to run on autopilot. The idea hit him in the early '90s, when Acxiom, a provider of mailing lists and other data products, was losing steam. Employees were frustrated about poor leadership, and customers were grumbling that the company wasn't responsive enough, recalls Morgan, chief executive and chairman of the Conway, Ark.-based company since '75. The problem: Operations were being strangled by 13 levels of management. 'I had to be involved in too many different things, and we weren't fully utilizing our people,' Morgan, 54, recalled. . . . He restructured with one focus in mind: the freedom to be creative. He'd streamline operations to give himself the freedom to envision the future and his employees the freedom to carry it out. 'The idea was to get the operations people to make the operational decisions,' he explained. 'The result was that I was free to meet my long-term objectives-to create the right climate, vision and strategy.' Since Morgan restructured the company, Acxiom has boosted its return on equity yearly. [Return on investment] is up from 4.2% in '92 to 20% last year. Earnings per share have grown by an annual average of 34%." (July 29, 1998.)

8. On being different. "Want a novel path to success? Try going where nobody else wants to go, says Edward E. Cohen. 'I spot where the crowd is fleeing from, fight my way through that crowd to get to the source of difficulty,' says Cohen, chairman and CEO of Philadelphia-based Resource America Inc. Throw in a healthy dose of skepticism-'It's my greatest strength, a starting step for creativity'-and you have an approach that appears to work. The proof is in Resource America, a real estate finance, equipment-leasing and energy company. It has boosted earnings growth by an annual average of 64% over the past five years. . . . Cohen, 59, credits his success to 'strategic thinking. If you start from a nonorthodox position-heading for where the trouble is-you're forced to think your way out of the resulting chaos. We went into Resource America when it was primarily an energy company,' Cohen recalled. At the time, oil prices had declined for about six years, and the prevailing thinking was that they'd rebound. Competitors went into debt to expand production. But Cohen took the opposite tack. He pumped only existing reserves, and in '91, after three years, had netted close to $10 million." (July 22, 1998.)

9. On communication. "As CEO of Atlanta-based UPS from 1989 to 1996, [Kent "Oz" Nelson] helped the company's revenue rise from $12.3 billion in 1989 to $22.2 billion in 1996. Profit leapt from $693 million to $1.1 billion during the same period... . From his first days at UPS, Nelson recognized that no one knew the market better than the drivers. In their travels around the region, they'd see potential customers UPS wasn't serving. The drivers also had a sense of existing customers who had problems-and how to fix them. So Nelson came in early every morning to help drivers load their trucks and talk to them about what they observed. 'I built friendships with them, because they were the best source of leads,' he said. That allowed Nelson to keep the lines of communication open between customers and the drivers. Following up drivers' suggestions, he found more customers for the company and learned about drivers' concerns. In turn, he was able to keep customers happy and made the drivers' jobs easier, too... ."

"[Just after Nelson became CEO, UPS first faced serious competition.] Nelson responded the way he always has-he went to the customers to see how he could make their lives better. He had 250,000 customers surveyed. He didn't like what he discovered. Customers had asked UPS for special services and were turned down. UPS only does things one way, they were told... . He responded to customers' demands and started tailoring services to their needs." (April 20, 1999.)

10. On morality. "The president of an interurban railway line pounded on Arthur Andersen's desk, demanding the auditor cook the books to inflate the line's earnings. Andersen, who'd opened his accounting firm only three months earlier, assessed his choices. He could do the client's bidding and make payroll. Or he could do the right thing and lose the account. The young auditor looked his client straight in the eye and said there wasn't 'enough money in the city of Chicago' to make him cheat. That was 1913. Before long, the interurban line had filed for bankruptcy. Arthur Andersen, meanwhile, was on his way to building accounting and consulting powerhouses. 'Think straight and talk straight' was the motto for Andersen's personal and professional life. . . . 'No finer heritage could possibly be passed on from one generation to another,' Andersen wrote in a company memo in '41. 'It has been as a firm rock to which I could anchor in a storm-which called for the finest moral and ethical conceptions. Never has it failed me.'"

As befits a financial paper, IBD's biographies focus strongly on organizational success, particularly on business success. But a full morality needs a complete store of improving anecdotes. We need, no less than examples of corporate and athletic achievement, examples that show how people have dealt with their desire for fame, for love, for physical fitness, and for peace of mind. One of the few such stories to appear in IBD is the follow-on to Bruce Jenner's tale of Olympic victory.

"[Jenner] met his goal ... and then he crashed. He'd been so obsessed with winning that during his four years of training he had given no thought to what he'd do afterward. He'd always focused on athletics from the time he was a child. Learning was tough because he suffered from dyslexia... . After the Olympics, he tried sportscasting but could barely read the TelePrompTer. He tried acting and wound up playing a nerdy character... . He got so down on himself he got a nose job. And even that was botched. Without a specific goal to strive for, he lost the will that he'd developed during his Olympic training. For 15 years after the Olympics, he drifted, his medal hidden in his sock drawer... . He got his life together seven years ago. He remarried then and developed a plan, as he had in '72. He committed to a career as a businessman and motivational speaker... . [Today] Jenner works for Visa, Coca-Cola Co. and other major corporations."

We should not idolize beyond their merits people who have dealt successfully with life's opportunities and travails. But, for own sakes, we should learn about them-and we should learn from them.

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