Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Final Frontier

Billy grew up in Montreal, the only son in a conservative Jewish household.  He regularly experienced bullying at school, being picked on and getting into fights because of his Jewish heritage.  He tapped into his personal pain at a summer camp play, when he was cast in the role of a young Jewish boy who had to leave his dog behind as he fled Nazi Germany.  The audience responded with praise and even a few tears for Billy’s performance.  This had a huge impact on him:  Billy had figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, and his mother soon enrolled him in acting school.
To Bill’s father, acting was a hobby, not a career.  He insisted that his son study business in college, and hoped Bill might join him at the family’s clothing factory.  However, Bill hated the idea of working in the factory or in business in general.  To pacify his father, Bill used his business degree to get a job as assistant manager of a theater company.  Due to his overall dislike of the job, he was terrible at it, and before long he was fired.  But his true passion was obvious to his boss, and he was kept on as an actor.  He went on to join the Canada National Repertory Theater, where he trained as a classical Shakespearean actor and performed consistently.
Even though Bill had steady work as an actor in Canada, he was barely making enough money to survive. He asked his father for advice, and hoped he wouldn’t ask him to join the clothing business again.  This time, though, his dad surprised him, saying, “it takes courage to pursue your dreams,” and urged his son to continue.  Instead of giving up, Bill got fired up.  He moved to New York, and within a month was cast in a Broadway play.  Initially, theatre goers didn’t enjoy it, with many getting up and leaving during the performances.  So Bill began infusing every scene, every line with breathless, dramatic intensity, adding emphasis and unexpected pauses that were his way of communicating to the audience, “Don’t you dare leave, because something important is about to happen!”  It worked.  People stopped leaving, and the show ran successfully for over a year. 
Bill seemed to have the makings of success but never quite achieved it.  He played cowboys, detectives and lawyers; leading men, criminal adversaries and love interests.  He was cast in a TV series, but after three years it was cancelled due to low ratings.  Following the cancellation, a number of television stations began to re-run the episodes in syndication.  They were cheap to re-broadcast and a fan base developed.  Conventions for fans of the short-lived program were springing up across the country, and ultimately the film industry decided to make a movie with Bill playing the lead.
William (Bill) Shatner’s role as Captain Kirk in Star Trek ultimately made him one of the most renowned celebrities of all time, and it’s estimated that he is recognized by one quarter of the earth’s population.  Bill went on to write books, record albums, and play other iconic roles such as police officer TJ Hooker and lawyer Denny Crane in the hit show Boston Legal.  Today, he even pokes fun at himself as the great negotiating spokesman for  Above all, William Shatner follows his passion and continues to live his dreams.
Bill is currently on tour with his one-man show, Shatner’s World, in which I was fortunate to be able to see him perform.  Thanks to some serious negotiating on my part, I was able to meet him backstage following the show.  After shaking hands and getting an autograph, I told him about my weekly stories written to help inspire people to pursue their dreams.  I asked if he had any advice to share, and he offered this:  “Life equals risk. It takes courage to pursue your dreams, but in my opinion… there’s no other way to live.” 
There was a part of me that hoped Bill would end our conversation by saying, “Beam me up Scotty” but when he actually said, “Keep teaching others to dream,” I couldn’t resist saying, “Ay Ay, Captain.”

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Shoot for the Moon

Elon came from a family who viewed their bloodline as voyagers and adventurers.  Growing up in South Africa, there were always stories of what the family members who came before had done:  the grandfather who won a race from Cape Town to Algiers; the grandparents who flew on the first single-engine plane from South Africa to Australia.  Young Elon matured quickly in this environment, but it wasn’t always a blessing.  He started school early to support his rapid development, and this set him apart as the youngest and smallest in his class.  He was frequently bullied and given a hard time by the other kids.

Elon’s father helped provide distractions.  He took his family on exotic trips, giving them a sense of the world and how much of it lay beyond their home.  He was also strict, but with intention:  Elon and his siblings were made to do the chores often performed by servants in South African households.  Their father made it into a game that he called “America, America” for the chores American kids did, creating a connection between his children and the idea of a place where anything is possible.

That connection never diminished for Elon.  When he finished high school, he visited some of his mother’s family in Canada, and stayed there.  He had researched American citizenship, and determined that emigrating from Canada would be easier than from South Africa.  Having almost no money, Elon worked a series of jobs, and enrolled in Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.  He beckoned his brothers, sister, and even cousins to join him in Canada, helping them obtain citizenship before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship.

Elon studied business and physics, getting degrees in both, and was accepted to graduate school at Stanford.  He also began to think about working in some way on what he saw as three areas of great importance to the future of humanity:  the Internet, clean energy, and space.  He had been working with personal computers from the moment they arrived in consumer households, having even programmed and sold a video game in his teens.  He left Stanford after only two days with a car, a computer, and $2,000 in the bank, and began working with his brother on an Internet company called Zip2.

Zip2 designed some of the earliest software to help media companies publish their content to the Internet.  At the age of 28, Elon sold the company, receiving $22 million for his share.  He invested half of what he made into his second enterprise,, an online financial services company that allowed people to make payments using their email address.  Merging with a competitor, the new company was re-branded PayPal, and was eventually purchased by Ebay.  Elon earned over $150 million from that sale, but he was just getting started. 

Money for its own sake was never one of Elon’s goals, and he was now in a position to pursue his most ambitious plans.  He co-founded Tesla Motors, a manufacturer of environmentally friendly cars and engines.  He became the chairman of SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power systems in the United States.  And in perhaps his most far-reaching idea, he began thinking of how to build affordable spaceships so people could travel to other planets and, someday, even live on Mars.  The more he thought about it, the more he wondered:  how complicated and expensive could it be?  So he founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and within a few years, had begun making trips into space.

Elon Musk accomplished more before the age of 40 than most people do in a lifetime, or 40 lifetimes for that matter.  He was even the inspiration for the film depiction of genius billionaire Tony Stark in the movie Iron Man.  Elon is a strong believer in the principles of the Live to Give mindset, and recently joined forces with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in pledging to donate the majority of his fortune to philanthropy.

In 2011, Forbes called Elon one of America’s most powerful CEOs under age 40.  When asked for the secret to his success, he responded:  “Surround yourself with people who believe that everything is possible, and remember to always dream bigger.”  If you shoot for the top of the mountains and fall short, you will crash into the mountainside.  Instead, raise your expectations and shoot for the moon… chances are, you will find yourself among the stars.

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I'm not Joking

Louis grew up in Mexico City, and when he was seven, his family immigrated to Boston.  A few years later, his parents divorced, leaving his mother to raise him and his three siblings.  As a single mom, life was challenging for her, and the whole family.  To help maintain an upbeat environment, she would gather her children to listen to old records by stand-up comedians.  Louis loved Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and George Carlin. He especially enjoyed watching his mother laugh, and he would try to mimic the comedy routines to crack her up.

When he was in the fifth grade, Louis was given the task of reciting a poem between acts of his class play.  On the day of the play, he stood in front of the red curtain and began to recite the poem… and he burst out laughing.  He paused and tried to start again, but kept laughing and couldn’t get through it.  Fortunately, the crowd laughed with him and applauded, as he took dozens of breaks to finish the speech.  It was exhilarating to get laughter like that from grownups.  He’d brought the house down.

After high school graduation, Louis got a job as an auto mechanic, but secretly held onto the idea that he could become a comedian.  A local comedy club was having an open mic night, and Louis summoned the courage to go on stage.  He was given five minutes to perform, but when he got onstage, he could barely get through his first minute.  No one was laughing, and his mind was going blank.  The experience was torture.

Louis stayed out of comedy clubs for over a year.  When he finally got his courage back, he tried another open mic night.  He managed to deliver a full two minutes, but just like before, no one laughed… it was agonizing silence.  But he decided to give it one more try, and this time he managed three or four jokes that got some good laughs.  He was invited to be a regular at the midnight show.  He still needed a day job, but at least he was pursuing his dreams.

After four years of working steadily in Boston, Louis was chosen to appear on MTV’s Half Hour Comedy Hour.  It was an important TV experience, and he bombed.  But it gave him the chance to see the clubs and vibrant comedy scene in New York.  Louis couldn’t make enough money doing stand-up, so he became part of the writing team for a show called Caroline’s Comedy Hour.  It didn’t pay much, but it gave him experience writing and refining his comedy. 

When the hit TV show, Saturday Night Live, announced it was looking for new cast members, Louis auditioned with a group of fellow comedians.  The following week, each of his friends was cast to be on the show… except him.  Louis could no longer afford to live in New York.  But as he was planning to move, his phone rang.  The caller said, “A friend from SNL told me that you’re really funny and I’d like to offer you a job writing for Conan O’Brien.”

Louis worked as a writer on Conan O’Brien for two years, which led to his writing for David Letterman, Dana Carvey, and Chris Rock.  Throughout the entire period, he continued doing his stand-up, always improving and gaining confidence.  It paid off when he was invited to perform on Conan, Letterman, and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Knowing that comedians don’t make much money from their comedy albums, Louis tried something new.  He allowed his fans to download his latest album from his website.  He intentionally didn’t protect it from being pirated, and instead asked his fans to contribute just five dollars if they liked it.  It was a huge success, and he earned over one million dollars.  Today, Louis C.K. is an award-winning comedian, writer, editor, producer and star.  And in 2012, at long last, he was invited to host Saturday Night Live.

Louis C.K. made a habit of turning obstacles into opportunities.  Don’t ever give up on your dreams, no matter what gets in the way or how long it takes.  There’s nothing funny about that!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

You’ve got a Friend in Me

My older son has 712 friends…according to Facebook.  He spends time with three of them.  He Skypes with a few that live further away, and prefers to text rather than talk on the phone.  I don’t think he’s shaken hands with 712 people in his life, but he does count them as friends, and, remarkably, they are from all over the world.  It seems easier than ever for people to make “friends,” yet developing real relationships can still be challenging.

When Catherine was fourteen and her brother, Dave, was fifteen, their family relocated to New Jersey.  They didn’t know anyone and wanted to make friends, but it was difficult, because many of the students at their new high school had known each other since kindergarten.  While flipping through a school yearbook, they realized it wasn’t a very useful tool for getting to know their new classmates, but it gave them the idea for an online yearbook that could show more of people’s personalities.

During lunches, Catherine and Dave drew up plans for how the online yearbook would work, look, and what types of games and activities it should include.  Once they had a basic idea, they approached their older brother, Geoff, for input.  Geoff was already a successful entrepreneur.  In college he started and sold two online businesses that edited résumés and college essays.  He liked the idea that his siblings had come up with, so in addition to providing advice, he made an investment to help launch the business. 

The young entrepreneurs found a group of developers in Mumbai to help build their online yearbook.  Barely sleeping many nights, Catherine and Dave would go to school at 7:30 AM, get home in the afternoon, and then stay up till 3:00 AM or later chatting with the programmers in India. They burned the candle at both ends, somehow managing to keep up with schoolwork while coordinating the development of their new website.

After a month, the first version of myYearbook was launched.  More than 400 people joined in the first week.  Catherine and Dave spread awareness by wearing t-shirts with catchy slogans and putting out fake press releases such as, “myYearbook gets 1,000,000 members and takes over the world!”  They also listened to their users, who would submit suggestions like using gold stars instead of "likes."  Catherine personally sent a friend request to each new user, which is how she eventually met her real-life best friend.

Just a few months after their initial launch, they opened myYearbook up to members of all schools nationwide.  Before they knew it, they really did have 1,000,000 members, and their plan had worked:  they had tons of friends. 

Catherine became the company’s spokesperson, and at 17 she spoke at a technology conference with a number of influential business and tech people, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Catherine pitched their company to a notable investor and had to follow MC Hammer, who was presenting his own company, DanceJam.  The investor picked myYearbook.

Through a series of investments and decisions to narrow their focus, the siblings were able to make themselves different from other social networks.  myYearbook became the place to meet new friends, rather than talk to the friends you already have.  The company was soon generating millions in revenue and ranked third among all social networking sites in the United States.

Making new friends is so important that a Latin social networking company called Quepasa bought myYearbook for 100 million dollars in cash and stock.  Catherine, Dave, and Geoff became multi-millionaires and remain with the company, which has since changed its name from myYearbook to MeetMe.

Last month, Catherine and Dave received a special award for young entrepreneurs. I was there to meet and honor them.  I listened carefully to their story, and realized once again the importance of relationships.  In the time it has taken to write this week’s story, my son has probably added half a dozen more Facebook friends…and maybe that’s a good thing, since friendship is the foundation of a happy life.

As you continue your journey to pursue your dreams, remember this quote:  “If you go looking for a friend, you’re going to find they’re scarce. If you go out to be a friend, you’ll find them everywhere.”  And rest assured that you will always have a friend in me.

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy New Year

A wealthy man stood at the edge of his swimming pool in the backyard of his mansion. He was hosting a party and had invited twenty of the most promising young men from the community to his home for a very special occasion. One of the young men was going to be lucky enough to either marry his daughter, a beautiful and intelligent young woman, or become president of his multi-million dollar business. To determine who was the most courageous and motivated among them, a simple test had been arranged. The man explained that his pool was filled with snakes and baby alligators, and the first man to swim from one side to the other could choose to become the president of his business or ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Before the man could finish explaining the rules, a loud splash was heard at the edge of the pool. One of the young men was swimming with tremendous speed across the pool.  He jumped out at the far side and came to stand before his host, soaked and out of breath. The wealthy man was impressed and said he had never seen such courage and initiative. He faced the young man and asked him if he wanted to become the president of his business. The young man shook his head. “No.” The wealthy man smiled and asked, “Then you have chosen to marry my lovely daughter?” Once again, the young man shook his head. “No.” Now the wealthy man looked perplexed. He said, “If you don’t want to be the president and don’t want to marry my daughter, then what do you want?”  The young man looked at him and said, “Sir, I would just like to know the name of the guy that pushed me into the pool.”

I was in my early twenties when a man named Hilary told me this story.  I’ll never forget that day for two reasons. First, how often do you meet a man named Hilary? Second, after hearing the story, I asked Hilary what it meant. He said the lesson wouldn’t be as valuable if he told me, and suggested I think about it and come up with my own meaning.

Hilary was a unique man in many ways. He was born in a rural part of the country, the tenth of twelve children. When Hilary was only five years old, his father died from a stroke, and just two days later, his younger sister died from an illness. The family was poor and suffering from two devastating losses. Hilary learned to improvise, and from an early age, he sold snacks at school to make a little money for his family. He joined the Navy as a teenager because they offered a steady job and a free college education.

While at college he sold sandwiches to make extra money. After he graduated he tried to turn it into a full time business. He married his school sweetheart, and although they worked side by side the business just didn’t work. Hilary took a job selling cookware. The problem was, he wasn’t a very good salesman. After two years, the owner of the company pulled him aside and told him he had great potential if he could only improve his self-image. Hilary viewed himself as a poor kid with limited opportunities. His boss told him that as long as he saw himself that way, then that’s all he would live to be. He told Hilary he had the potential to become a national champion if he could only change his mindset.

Hilary decided from that day forward to imagine he was a national champion. Within one year, he became the second best salesman out of 7,000.  Throughout his life, Hilary remained a top salesman. He was so successful that he started writing books on sales and delivering seminars to teach others. I was fortunate to hear him speak last year, almost twenty years from when we first met. Hilary Ziglar recently passed away at the age of eighty-six.  Most people knew him by his nickname, Zig, and he is certainly missed.

One of my favorite Zig Ziglar quotes is, “Where you start is not as important as where you finish.”  2013 is upon us, and The Time is Now to pursue your dreams.  Sometimes we all need a little inspirational “push” into the pool to get started, but it’s up to each of us to swim.  Happy New Year, and happy swimming!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams