October 11, 2015

Living heroic lives

I enjoyed watching films with which Nora Ephron had a connection as either a writer or director, such as When Harry Met Sally, because I liked her style of humor and her independent and thoughtful insights. The New Yorker tribute to her had one story of hers that caught my attention.

When she gave the commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1996, she told the women graduates that they should “be the heroines in their lives, not the victims.” That quote, although specific to women, captured one of the core themes my family and I have tried to capture in our film From the Rough, and a credo for how we live our lives.

I do not believe in permanent excuses or victims. If I fail because of some external cause, it is my job to find the resources and the help to recover from that failure. Everyone deserve to get help to recover from adversity, but I am fundamentally opposed to anyone internalizing the idea of being a long term victim of external forces.

As the leader of Pitney Bowes, I refused to let anyone attribute our results to external conditions, except in the rare case, like the events of 9/11, when we simply could not deliver quarterly results because the effects of 9/11 happened so close to the end of a calendar quarter that we had insufficient time to recover. We had to figure out what opportunities, as well as negative consequences, external events provided us.

I also refused to let anyone blame the economy, because resourceful businesses figure out how to grow businesses and make profits in even the worst environments. In fact, we needed to provide products and services that could be even more attractive to customers in adverse environments. One of the risks of attributing results to good or bad economic conditions is that investors attribute low earnings multiples to what they believe to be “cyclical” businesses. It makes sense to understand and acknowledge that an individual product line is adversely affected by an economic downturn, but a business should always have other product lines available that work better for customers in downturns.

For individuals, the same principle applies. When I was unemployed in the winter of 1978-1979, after parting ways with my second law firm, one wise older person told me that there are only two unemployment rates relevant to me or anyone else: 0 or 100%. He meant that how other people were able to secure employment was completely irrelevant to me. My task was to find the situation in which I was not only the best choice, but the only rational choice for the prospective employer. I did, and I secured the position at Pitney Bowes that helped me on my way to a very successful career.

From the Rough is really about the psychology of re-imagining how each of our pasts gives us some great advantage for some future opportunity. It is our task to figure out what that optimal future might be for us. Peggy Fleming, who won the gold medal for figure skating in the 1968 Winter Olympics, was once asked about the secret of her phenomenal success.

Her answer was simple and humble. She said that every person has some activity or job for which he or she can be the best in the world. She attributed her success to figuring out at age three that being the best figure skater in the world was her destiny, and devoting her focused efforts, from that point on, to fulfilling that destiny.

Success is clearly more complicated than that, and there is a great deal of luck involved in being the best in the world in anything, but being in a position to take advantage of that luck depends on long-term, single-minded, and intelligent, adaptable focus on that goal. Everyone has an opportunity and a potentially successful destiny, but seeing and taking advantage of that opportunity first requires a mindset that each of us has it within our power to succeed. No one can take that away from us.

The American Dream is not about automatically succeeding or even being advantaged in succeeding from birth. Not everyone has an equal chance at succeeding financially or in what some would call the ability to get into the “upper classes.” However, America’s mindset is that the ability to succeed resides within each of us, and the other resources we can bring to bear to help us succeed. While people will have varying degrees of difficulty, the Dream is never completely out of reach for anyone at any time in their lives.

In other parts of the world, governments, religions, and dominant cultures proactively and firmly determine a destiny for each individual, and, in many cases, for women, people born with the wrong skin color or born into the wrong caste, religion, tribe, or ethnic group, that destiny deprives the person from fulfilling his or her full potential. Americans have the same prejudices that people around the world have regarding people different from themselves, but the prevailing view is that such prejudices are un-American, and they can be overcome.

Independence Day is not a celebration of everything we have done right as a country, or that we always live up to being an exceptional and special people. However, it is about the fact that, more so than other countries, we have fought for the principle that, as Nora Ephron told the Wellesley graduates, we believe we can be the heroes and heroines of our lives, not the victims.

By liberating people to make their own lives into heroic ones, we accomplish great things and enjoy the potential for more greatness!