Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Who’s the Boss?

Entrepreneurial blood had always coursed through Sophia’s Greek-American family.  She grew up surrounded by business owners, with one grandfather running a piano shop, the other in charge of a motel.  Her father sold mortgage loans, and her mother was a realtor.  No one she knew worked “normal” 9 to 5 jobs for guaranteed salaries.  Sophia herself started buying books on business startups at the age of 9, and she was the “president” of her street’s lemonade stand.

When Sophia was 10 years old, both her parents lost their jobs due to the economic recession, but they taught her how to adjust and move forward.  They cut up their credit cards.  They took Sophia out of private Catholic school to save the tuition money.  And they got a family paper route that had Sophia leaning out the window of her father’s Jeep at 6 a.m. delivering newspapers.  They got by.
Sophia’s first real job was in high school as a “sandwich artist” at Subway.  There, she took note of her directionless co-workers – many of them high school dropouts –  and vowed to be different, channeling her ambition into making sandwiches as efficiently and perfectly as possible.  She was restless in her suburban life, though, and eventually left school to complete her education on her own, receiving her diploma in the mail.  

By the time she was in her early 20s, Sophia had worked ten different retail jobs, including a shoe store, record shop, and two photo labs.  She was attending art school as a photography major and began to wonder about her life’s direction.  She spent her free time online.  She noticed a lot of people selling vintage clothing on eBay and promoting themselves via MySpace.  Sophia wore nothing but vintage clothes herself, and knew where to buy the good stuff at the best prices.  She also felt she had a sense for what would sell and how much to charge.  She looked at the eBay stores and realized, “I could do that.”

Convinced that with her eye for style and bargain-shopping expertise, she could actually do better, Sophia began buying items in her local vintage and thrift stores and selling them on eBay for three to five times what she’d paid.  She used her photography skills to take artful, edgy pictures of the clothing she was selling, using friends to model them and obsessing over their poses to maximize the clothing’s appeal.  She scoured flea markets and estate sales looking for hidden treasures.  One cheaply made thrift-store sweater sold for $550, and a vintage Chanel jacket she bought from the Salvation Army for $8 sold in her eBay store for $1,050.  These victories bolstered her confidence that she was definitely onto something.

Sophia also realized she was as fluent online as her young customers.  After a year and a half on eBay, she had 30,000 MySpace “friends” and was bringing in roughly $115,000 in sales.  But she was itching to make the business even more her own.

Sophia created her own website. She started driving customers to her site through feedback emails after customers made purchases through eBay.  Soon, eBay banned her from their site for doing so, but it was just the push she needed to focus her efforts on establishing her business as the destination to buy vintage clothing online.

By targeting young women with style sensibilities similar to her own and making her site more like a fashion magazine than an online store, Sophia built a vast community with more than 150,000 Twitter followers and over 1,000,000 Facebook friends.  Just four years after moving off eBay, her company, Nasty Gal, a name taken from a song by ex-runway model and singer Betty Davis, became one of the largest online fashion retailers on the planet.  Sophia Amoruso seems to just be getting started as she expands her brand with a signature shoe line, clothing line, and magazine, all while earning Inc. Magazine’s Fastest Growing Retailer award in 2012.

Curious about launching your own business?  Start by answering these questions:  What genuinely interests you?  What would you do for free?  When you follow your interests, you become engaged and energized.  You persevere through difficult situations and over time, often become great at what you do.  And becoming great at something helps make you unique, which is the best way to create value with your life.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could do what you love and positively impact the world around you at the same time? 

Become the C-E-O of Y-O-U, and remember that passion will always be in fashion.

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Time to Dream

Dreaming is a big part of what makes life worth living.  There’s no minimum age to start dreaming, and this week’s story is a reminder that dreams don’t come with an expiration date either.

Charles was just a baby when his mother left him with his grandmother in Florida.  He didn’t know his father and barely saw his mother until he was 8 years old, when she showed up to take Charles back to live with her in Brooklyn, New York.  But the change wasn’t entirely positive.  Charles’ mother was so poor that his bedroom was in a basement with a sand floor.

One ray of light was his love of music, which crystalized when his sister took him to see James Brown perform at the Apollo Theater.  Charles was transfixed.  After that night, he began to practice Brown's style of singing and stage mannerisms, including his signature mic-stand swing, using a broom attached to a string.

At age 14, Charles was so desperate to get away from the poor living conditions of his mother’s house that he actually started living on the streets, sleeping in old cars and subway trains and washing his clothes in subway bathrooms.  Watching others in his situation turn to drugs and crime, he knew he didn’t want to end up on that path.  At 16, after two years on the streets, he faked his mother’s signature to enroll in the Job Corps, which offered job skills training to those in need.  The Job Corps trained Charles as a cook, which got him out of New York.

Working in Bar Harbor, Maine for the next ten years, Charles enjoyed the happiest time of his young life.  He was out of the ghetto, making a living, and not being judged for his background.  When a co-worker told him he looked like James Brown and asked if he could sing, Charles shyly said no at first, then admitted that he could.  They formed a small band and booked a show.  They only expected 30-40 people to attend, so when nearly 500 showed up, Charles was terrified.  Hearing the roaring crowd, though, something clicked, and the nervousness melted away.

When the rest of his band members were drafted and sent to Vietnam, Charles was alone again. For the next 20 years, Charles spent most of his time working as a cook and doing odd jobs, playing small shows when he could and always looking for a record deal.  When he was nearly 50, a fever put him in the hospital, and in an effort to treat it, the doctors gave Charles penicillin, to which he was allergic.  He was given little hope to live, but managed to pull through.

His passion of music remained a constant.  Charles had begun performing as Black Velvet, a James Brown tribute act which actually allowed him to earn a living as a performer.  It was at one of those shows where Charles was noticed by the co-owner of an independent soul and funk label.  The man could feel the raw energy and passion coming off Charles and befriended him.  He also made an introduction to a young musician on his label, who invited Charles to his band’s rehearsal.  There, the band jammed and Charles made up lyrics on the spot.  It was a revelation, because he had never really performed as himself, or been encouraged to search for his own song.

Charles Bradley waited a lifetime to tell his story, but in 2011, he got the chance.  His debut album was one of the most incredible success stories of the year, earning rapturous reviews, landing on Rolling Stone magazine's top 50 albums of 2011, and catapulting Charles to over a hundred performances in 17 countries on 3 continents, including television appearances on Jay Leno and Carson Daly.  Charles was also the subject of a highly-acclaimed film documentary about his struggles and lifelong dream of becoming a professional singer.  At the time of his debut album’s release, Charles was 62 years old.

Throughout your life, people may tell you why your dreams are unlikely or impossible, and you may even begin believing it yourself.  But remember the story of Charles Bradley, who started singing before the Vietnam War and now, more than four decades later, is realizing the dream he held onto for so long.

We must never allow ourselves to stop dreaming, and have to remind ourselves that the true achievement isn’t just in the fulfillment of our dreams, but also in the journey itself and the person we become along the way.

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Pregnant Pause

“I need your advice, Mr. Shickler.  I just turned 17, and I’m being pressured to have a baby.  What should I do?”

There are times in life when we’re faced with difficult questions, and this was one of them.  I was in a state of shock.  Standing before me was Michelle, a high school senior and student in one of my weekly classes.  Michelle was a bright student and, frankly, I was stunned by her question.

At the end of class, Michelle had asked if she could talk with me.  When she asked her question, my initial response was, “What??  What are you talking about?!”  She looked at me and said it again:  “I’m being pressured to have a baby and don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”  I knew Michelle had a boyfriend in class named John.  He was another great student, and so I was really struggling with what she was saying.  I felt unqualified to even have the discussion, but I managed to say, “Michelle, I don’t get it.  John seems like such a nice guy.  Why would he be pressuring you to have a baby?”  “It isn’t John that’s pressuring me, Mr. Shickler.  It’s my mother.”  Silence.  Confusion.  More silence.

Michelle went on to explain that her family was on welfare, and her mother had recently sat her down to discuss the situation.  She’d said that when Michelle turned 18, the welfare checks would stop coming in, and her family counted on those checks to survive.  If Michelle had a baby before she turned 18, the checks would continue.  Michelle lived with her mother and grandmother at the time. There were no men in the house, and from what I gathered, neither her mother nor grandmother were ever married.  Michelle’s grandmother had gotten pregnant as a teenager, as had her mother, and now it was up to Michelle to do what was needed to take care of the family.

I was floored by this conversation.  All I could think of was to ask Michelle what she would do if it was completely up to her.  If she had a magic wand in her hand and could waive it to make her desires real, what would she wish for?  Michelle was silent and looked confused.  She told me that she wasn’t used to thinking that she had control of her decisions.  So I suggested that she imagine she did, and asked what she would do then.  Another few moments went by, and then Michelle said, “I wouldn’t get pregnant.  I would go to college, and that’s how I would make a difference for my family.”

Michelle did get pregnant, and she had a baby girl.  But it wasn’t when she was 17; it was after she graduated from college and was employed in a career of her choosing.  I met Michelle nearly 20 years ago, and today she is living proof that any cycle can be broken, even one rooted in poverty and seemingly limited life options.  While Michelle’s story may not be representative of a typical teenager, there are millions of teens worldwide who are trapped in the cycle of poverty that’s often perpetuated by early or unplanned pregnancy.  Fortunately, there is hope, especially since there’s an endless supply of free magic wands.

What can we take away from Michelle’s story?  How can you deal with difficult questions and situations in your life?  What do you do when you have to make a potentially life-altering decision?  What guides you?  Here are some things to consider: 

Imagine that you do have the power to decide.  You may not be able to change the circumstances you’re in, but you can change how you react to them.  Then, rather than looking to others for answers, try to find one within yourself.  Everyone has passions in life.  Everyone has dreams they want to pursue, even if they’re buried deep.  Try to bring those passions to the surface and then lean into them.  Organize your life’s activities and decisions around moving your dreams forward.

You’ll face countless difficult questions throughout your life, and you’ll encounter many challenging circumstances.  Just realize how little you have to lose, because there really is no failure in life, only feedback.  Decide in favor of your passion, and your magic wand will never lose its power.

Until next week…

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Deadly Trap

As a kid, I loved detective stories and mysteries, and used to dream of trench coats, dark alleys, and solving crimes.  I still find the idea fascinating, which is how my wife and I came to enjoy the new show True Detective.  It’s dark and gripping, particularly the performances of two familiar Hollywood actors in distinctly unfamiliar roles.  This engrossing show, with its constant suspense and darkly heroic characters, was named in homage to an early 20th century pulp magazine of the same name, which got me thinking about one of the originators of the hard-boiled detective style…

Raymond was born in Chicago.  When he was 12, his alcoholic father abandoned the family and they moved to England to live with his grandmother.  There Raymond learned British customs, and later joined the civil service.  This didn’t last long, though, as Raymond had no love for government work.  Despite the protests of his family, he resigned and took a position as a reporter.  He wasn’t a terribly successful journalist, but he liked it.  However, a chance encounter with a British poet influenced Raymond to put writing aside.  As he saw it, the poet was a vastly superior writer, so if he couldn’t make a living at it, how could Raymond?

Returning to the USA, Raymond took a course in bookkeeping.  He spent the next 10 years in a variety of jobs, from stringing tennis rackets to picking fruit, even serving a year in the military.  He finally got a job as a bookkeeper and worked his way up to a senior position over the next decade.  But his personal life and an ongoing struggle with depression resulted in his dismissal.

Unemployed at age 44, Raymond’s circumstances were dire.  Having little to lose, he decided to return to his first passion:  writing.  Specifically, he studied the writing in pulp magazines like Black Mask and True Detective.  He spent five months learning the formula, and then wrote and published his first story.  He never looked back.

During his writing career, Raymond Chandler created some of the most iconic stories and characters in detective fiction.  Several of his books transcended the genre and are regarded as important literary works, and his main character, Philip Marlowe, was immortalized by legendary actor Humphrey Bogart in the film version of Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep.

Raymond Chandler’s life wasn’t always characterized by happiness.  But imagine if he’d lived it according to outside opinions and inner doubts telling him not to take risks or pursue his passion… the man who became arguably the greatest detective-fiction writer of all time might never have written a single story!

Interestingly, the acting career of Matthew McConaughey, one of the stars of True Detective, might have also gone differently if he’d stuck to the safe path.  After a strong start in Hollywood, McConaughey quickly landed a string of leading roles in romantic comedies.  It was financially rewarding, but offered little acting challenge or variety.  So when, after a short break from acting, McConaughey returned to the screen, it was in a series of more demanding parts.  From a dirty cop with a side business as a professional killer to a district attorney prosecuting a murderous funeral director, he was tapping into a new level of maturity and ability.

In 2013, McConaughey took on the role of his career.  Losing over 40 pounds for the part, he portrayed real-life AIDS patient Ron Woodroof, who, after being told he had just 30 days to live, began smuggling unapproved pharmaceutical medications into Texas to try to extend his life.  McConaughey received his first-ever Oscar nomination for the role, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

At the same time, he also began appearing as the aloof and mysterious detective Rustin Cohl in True Detective.  The character was cynical, stoic, and often unlikeable, in many ways a modern take on Raymond Chandler’s anti-heroic private eye.  McConaughey’s performance earned him increased respect as the show became the HBO network’s most-watched new series in 13 years.  The finale even crashed HBO’s streaming service due to the sheer number of people trying to watch it!  And McConaughey was now doing the most critically-acclaimed work of his career.
Don’t ever allow belief in what you think you should be doing get in the way of doing what you love.  In Chandler’s words, “There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”  Push yourself.  Challenge yourself.  Take risks.  Pursuing your passion isn’t about everything in your life lining up perfectly; it’s about doing the thing that’s uniquely yours and having it mean something!
Until next week...

Live Your Dreams!