Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Living the Dream

“Can I get your autograph?”

“Me too!”

“How about a picture?”

I was in Salt Lake City as a keynote speaker at a youth conference, and three students were joining me for lunch.  Walking into the restaurant, I saw a frenzy of people huddled around a table, all urgently asking for autographs and photos.  I asked the waiter what was going on, and he told me that there was an NBA playoff game in town that night, with the defending champion Houston Rockets playing the Utah Jazz.  The Rockets’ 7-foot superstar center, Hakeem Olajuwon, was trying to have a peaceful lunch, but fans were mobbing him.  We were seated about thirty feet from his table, and watched as the restaurant manager shooed all the fans away saying, “No autographs while he’s eating please, you’ll have to wait outside.”

Once they were gone, it was quiet again in the restaurant.  I wasn’t the biggest basketball fan, but the students with me were awestruck.  The conversation shifted to how they could get his autograph and how they could get into the sold-out game that night.

Hakeem was born in Nigeria and never played basketball until the age of 17.  When he did, he said he’d found his passion.  He also learned that pursuing this passion would lead to a college scholarship and ultimately to the basketball hall of fame.  It was no accident that Hakeem’s NBA nickname was “Hakeem the Dream,” that he played on the US Olympic “Dream Team,” nor that his autobiography was called “Living the Dream.”

I told the kids that if they wanted his autograph, we’d need to do something for him.  Having seen all the fans trying to approach him and being turned away, we needed a new approach, and I had an idea.  I motioned our waiter over, and said that I wanted to pay for Hakeem’s lunch.  He was eating with two other men, and I figured the bill would be around $50, even with a generous tip.

When Hakeem finished eating and requested the check, the waiter informed him that I had already paid it.  He and his guests spoke for another minute or two, and then they all stood up and came over to our table.  The students were in shock as Hakeem thanked me and said he couldn’t remember the last time someone had bought him a meal.  He introduced me to his father and his agent, signed autographs for my students, and even posed for a photo with us.  Then he asked if we were going to the game.  I replied that it was sold out, but he smiled and said, “Not for you.  I will leave four tickets at the box office.”  And with that, the kids floated into outer space.

We all could use some help on the path to achieving our dreams.  You may be the most determined, capable, and talented individual on the planet, but even then, there will still be moments when someone else’s thoughtfulness helps you to get where you’re going.  One of the best ways to attract others to help you on your journey is to first seek ways to help others on their journeys.  This is called “leading with value,” and it’s the act of benefiting others with what you know, have, and can do for them.  When you initiate doing things for others, it jump starts the cycle of giving that brings life’s wonderful things your way.  Hakeem was used to everyone asking him for something, so we decided to give him something instead.

While you consider your biggest dreams in life, start asking others what their dreams are.  Then look for ways you can assist.  Remember that successful people look for ways to work with, for, and ultimately through others.  If you can achieve your dreams alone, you’re probably not dreaming big enough!  It’s time to get on someone else’s Dream Team.  Begin by leading with value, and in no time, you may find others are asking to be on your Dream Team… just be sure to remember me when I ask for an autograph.

Until next week…

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hell's Kitchen

I could hardly believe what I heard as Michael, the 18 year old ex-gang leader, told his story at the beginning of class…

“I got shot!  The kid shot me two times, once in the leg and once near my hip.  He wasn’t tryin’ to kill me, but he was sendin’ a message for sure.  Any other day, I woulda destroyed him.  I woulda sent him a message, and it woulda been final:  Ya don’t mess with Mike.  I will end you.  But not that day.  That day was different.  ‘Cause that day I decided I was leavin’ the gang.  No more runnin’ from cops.  No more lyin’ to my Mom about where the money comes from.  I’m out.  They’ll find a new leader.  The price to get outta the gang was bein’ shot by this crazy new kid who wanted to get in.  But so be it.  He wanted in, I wanted out, and these scars’ll be a reminder of my old life… one I’m done livin’.  Today’s the start of a new future.”    

He finished, then looked me in the eye and said, “So what are you gonna teach me today, Scotty?  I’m ready to learn.”

I met Michael when I was in my early twenties, teaching a youth entrepreneurship class in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood.  Michael was a tough kid sitting in the front row.  I asked if anyone knew how to spell entrepreneur and he raised his hand, then completely massacred the word on the chalk board.  But I immediately loved his willingness to take a risk.  Little did I know that he was the leader of one of the most ruthless gangs in Brooklyn, New York – The Decepticons.  Even so, Michael was eager to learn about business.  He had amazing street smarts, which translated perfectly to business.  Two months later, he decided to leave the gang… but leaving wasn’t easy.  In order to get himself out, he had to get shot.  Not fatally, but enough to deter other defectors, and to remind him to keep his mouth shut.

When I asked Mike what he was passionate about, he told me he’d always loved elevators.  He loved the mechanical system that ran them.  He also regularly complained that all the elevators in the housing project where he lived were broken.  No repair men would come onto the property because they expected to get mugged.  So Michael had the idea to become an elevator repairman. After all, who would dare to try and mug him?  He asked me how he could start his own elevator repair business.  I suggested he start by getting a job with a repair company in order to learn the trade and make sure he liked it.  Michael called for an interview, but was told there was a long waiting list, and that it could take months to even get an appointment.  He asked to speak with the president of the company, and the receptionist said that wasn’t possible.  None of this deterred him.

The next day, Michael put on a business suit and went to the parking lot of the Otis Elevator Company at 6am.  He had learned that the president arrived early each day, typically at about 6:30am.  When the president arrived, he was surprised to see a well-dressed teenager waiting at the door.  Michael explained that he had come early to meet him, even though he knew the business didn’t open until 8.  He described his passion for elevators, his ideas about expanding repair service to the toughest neighborhoods, and his burning desire to learn the business—even at an entry level position.  

The president took out one of his business cards, scribbled a note on the back, and handed it to Mike. He told Mike to come back when they opened and to give the card to the front desk manager.  With that, they shook hands and parted ways.  Mike’s heart was pounding as he looked at the business card and turned it over.  He was stunned to read what the president had written on the card:  “Hire him.”  

What’s your burning desire?  What old ways are you willing to part with because they don’t serve you anymore?  It takes courage to make a change in your life.  Sometimes it can even be painful.  But it’s not too late.  It will never be too late!

Until next week…

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Good Voice

Paul grew up in a tough city, and was known to get into trouble at school.  At age 14, he had a tragic family experience that rocked his world.  His grandfather had died, but while Paul’s family was attending the funeral, his mother suffered a brain aneurysm and she died as well.  This was more than a young boy could take, and he fell into a severe state of depression.

Paul’s father struggled to raise his son alone as he dealt with his own sense of loss.  He became so bitter that he would often convey to Paul that he shouldn’t even bother having dreams because they would only lead to disappointment.  Strangely, his father’s negative outlook on life had the opposite effect on Paul.  Seeing his father in such a state stirred Paul’s ambitions, drew him out of his depression, and fueled his desire to begin dreaming… big.

Paul escaped the pessimistic atmosphere of his home by hanging out with his friends on the street corner.  They formed a little gang and gave each other nicknames; anything to separate themselves from their given names and home lives.  One was called “Goose,” and another went by “Strongman.”  One friend’s face was so sharp and angular that they called him “Edge,” and Paul’s nickname was a joke on the Latin term for “good voice.”

At 16, Paul saw an ad that his classmate Larry posted at school.  Larry was looking to put together a band to play cover songs from groups like the Rolling Stones.  Showing up to audition along with a few of his friends, Paul said he could play guitar, but during the tryout it became obvious he couldn’t.  None of the kids had much talent, and really, they were just looking to get off the streets and do something fun.  They decided to let Paul sing, though at first he really wasn’t very good at that either.

It didn’t take long for the bandmates to get better and for Paul to find his voice.  He learned to sing with such passion that his nickname ceased to be a joke.  “Good Voice” in Latin translates to “Bonovox,” which his friends later shortened to simply Bono.  The band evolved to become U2, and, in a few short years, Paul went from a scrappy kid growing up in northern Dublin to lead singer of the most famous band ever to come out of Ireland.

Bono married his high school girlfriend at 22, and they took a mission trip to Africa a few years later, where they spent a month in Ethiopia doing charity work.  He had really long hair at the time, and the Ethiopian kids would call him, “the girl with the beard.”  Finally, when he was preparing to leave the country, a man approached him and asked if Bono would take his baby back to Ireland to live with him. He pleaded that the baby had a greater chance of survival anywhere else.  Unable to take someone else’s baby, Bono said no, but the experience affected him deeply.  He reflected on the plight of the people in Africa, and became determined that a person’s living or dying should not be decided by where that person lives in the world.

Bono decided to trade his currency as a celebrity to become a humanitarian.  Over the last 25 years, Bono has used his ‘good voice’ for a greater cause, embracing the Live to Give mindset and impacting cultures and causes all over the world.  He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, was knighted by the Queen, and in 2005 was awarded “one wish to change the world” by the TED organization.

Bono continued to follow his passions as well.  In addition to being awarded more than 22 Grammy awards and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, U2 recently earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar Nomination for their original song, Ordinary Love, in honor of Nelson Mandela.  Reportedly, Mandela was able to hear the song a week before he died.

One person has the power to do a lot of good.  First step:  Become empowered. Second step:  Empower others.  Ask yourself, “What’s one thing I can do today to ensure I’m pursuing my passions and on my way to living my dreams?  What’s the one thing I can do today to make a difference in the lives of others?”  It’s time to find your voice and sing.

Until next week…

Live Your Dreams,

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Bend it Like Bamboo

Ping was the happy child of a merchant family in Shanghai, the largest city in China.  Her parents were well-educated and successful, and the family, including Ping’s younger sister, was very close. 

When Ping was eight years old, China entered the Cultural Revolution, a government effort to enforce communism and remove capitalist elements from Chinese society.  People whose only crime was trying to carve out a better life were persecuted, and many suffered imprisonment, torture, harassment, and seizure of their property.  Some of these individuals were also forcibly displaced from cities to rural areas, and separated from their children in the process.

Ping’s father saw these chaotic events unfolding, and sensed what may be coming.  In his garden, he attempted to prepare Ping for life without him by teaching her about ‘The Three Friends of Winter,’ the pine, the plum, and the bamboo.  The pine tree stood for courage, while the plum tree indicated perseverance.  It was the meaning of bamboo, however, that Ping would latch onto.  Bamboo bends with the wind but doesn’t break, symbolizing flexibility in hard times.  It suggests resilience, and the idea of being able to withstand great difficulties and bounce back.  The lesson would be a critical one.

When Ping was 8 years old, members of the paramilitary known as Red Guards came for her family, who were considered “black elements” due to their education and status.  As punishment for their merchant-class background, Ping’s parents were sent to a “culture education camp,” while the young girls were taken to a separate camp in Nanjing.  There, Ping raised herself and her 4-year-old sister in a tiny concrete dormitory without heat, proper food, or adult supervision.  They survived on "bitter meals" the Red Guards made from such debris as tree bark, animal manure, and mold.  Starved, tortured, sexually abused and unschooled, Ping remained in Nanjing for nearly a decade, working in a factory.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the schools re-opened, and Ping sought to rebuild her life by enrolling as a student at Suzhou University.  In her senior year, she undertook a thesis project on China’s one-child policy.  Ping’s research across the countryside revealed that infanticide of female babies was common, as was abortion, even late into pregnancy.  Her thesis found its way to a national newspaper, and an editorial was published based on its research, listing Ping as the original author.  In short order, she was imprisoned and sentenced to exile.  She was given just two weeks to leave China.

At age 25, Ping arrived in America with $80 to buy a ticket to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she would study English at the University of New Mexico.  However, at the ticket counter, she learned she was $5 short of the ticket price.  Fortunately, an American man in line behind her gave her the $5.  That first act of generosity in her new country would characterize her thinking for years to come.

Ping’s time in Nanjing had taught her about survival.  She babysat, cleaned houses, and waited tables, earning enough to cover tuition and rent.  She excelled at computer science in school, and soon transferred to the University of California in San Diego to complete a computer science degree.  She found programming work at start-ups and later at major corporations, quickly becoming a star employee.  Over the next several years, she got increasingly bigger opportunities, finally coming to manage the team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications that created the first user-friendly Web browser.

Ping Fu liked to refer to herself as a reluctant entrepreneur, because she was uncertain about running her own business, especially after getting married and having a child.  However, she couldn’t resist the desire to make her ideas a reality.  She successfully pitched her vision for 3D mapping software to investors, raising $6.5 million to start Geomagic.  Then, after the individual she hired to run the company nearly ran it into the ground, she assumed control and took over as CEO.  Within 8 years, the company had $30 million in revenues, and Ping Fu was named Inc. Magazine’s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year.

Ping Fu could have given in and been broken many times during her life, from her dark childhood in China to her time as the CEO of a struggling start-up.  But the lessons of her father and her own inner strength kept her intact through even the most traumatic experiences.  Like bamboo, we must be strong, flexible, and resilient, even when life’s challenges bend us to near-breaking!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams!