Greetings. A remarkable woman named Alice Herz-Sommer died Sunday at the age of 110. As far as we know, she was the oldest survivor of the Holocaust. But her longevity was just a small part of the amazing story of a concert pianist and eternal optimist who found great beauty in music and life. Music that would actually keep her alive through unspeakable atrocities that included the deaths of almost all of her family members at the hands of the Nazis.
Sent from her home in Prague to a concentration camp in 1943 with her husband and son, she would survive by playing more than one hundred concerts inside the camp until she and her son were liberated by the Russian army in May of 1945. In 1949 she would move to Israel where she continued to play and teach music at the Jerusalem Conservatory until 1986 when she moved to London at the urging of her son who would share her love of music and become a concert cellist.
And through everything, she had an amazing ability to never hate and always see beauty in her life. These words from a recent interview capture her essence:
“I think I am in my last days but it does not really matter because I have had such a beautiful life.”
“And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.”
You can learn more about her story, or at least a small but beautiful part of it, in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Lady in Number 6. Simply watch the trailer and you will quickly understand the gift that was Alice Herz-Sommer…
We win in life and business when we cut through all of the challenges we face to find beauty, meaning, and hope. And when we take the time to appreciate the gifts of those who inspire us to see goodness in the face of the worst that is around us.
Greetings. Many of you know that I’m a big fan of the Container Store, a company that has built a remarkable business and a powerful brand by helping all of us to be better organized. It’s a company with thoughtful and energized employees, attractive stores, and a wide range of products all intended to enable us to get our “stuff” under control. They even have simple and user-friendly storage design tools that take the guesswork out of planning. And also being a big fan of the late comedian George Carlin, who was a passionate and humorous commentator on the notion that all of us in America have way too much stuff, I am continually amused (and even frustrated) by the role that stuff plays in our lives.
But I’m also impressed with how passionate the employees of the Container Store are about their mission and how much the company seems to love and value its employees. In fact, it places employees first in all of its decisions and actions…believing that happy, engaged, and empowered employees are the best way to make customers happy. And this approach raises an important issue…
Who should come first in all of our businesses…customers or employees?
For a while, the popular notion was that organizations placing customers first were more likely to be successful. After all, customers are our raison d’etre. But companies like the Container Store, which win high marks for being great places to work, are making a powerful case that hiring, supporting, and inspiring the right employees is the best way to deliver a great customer experience. And it seems to make a lot of sense, because all too often businesses claim to care about customers but treat their own employees with so little regard that even the most customer-centric ones are challenged to keep doing the right thing continually.
In an era when the average tenure of a new hire is less than a year according to Fast Company magazine the experience of the Container Store, and other businesses like it, should challenge all of us to make sure that we are finding and nurturing the very best team members as the best way to ensure that we are building the very best customer relationships.
We win in business and in life when we hold our own people in the highest regard. And when we give them the encouragement and tools to bring real magic and even a bit of organization to the customers we have the privilege to serve.
Greetings. In Brazil, a country that is filled with great potential, great challenges, and large disparities in income and education, the government has launched a bold initiative to increase access to culture. It is an idea intended to make art, music, dance, theatre, films, and books a more important part of the lives of the country’s lowest-income residents. The program is called “Vale Brasil” and it provides people with $20 a month in the form of a “coupon” or debit card that can be used to go to movies, learn to dance or play an instrument, buy a book, visit a museum, or anything else that will stretch their interests, abilities, and cultural appreciation.
Vale Brasil is an intriguing idea that merits all of our attention because it imagines the possibility of opening peoples’ eyes to the wonder all around them and the genius in themselves. Possibilities that are essential if countries like Brazil, and even the U.S. and other “developed” nations, are to ever unlock their full potential and the full potential of all of their citizens.
Clearly there are at least three powerful benefits if this social “innovation” works. First, it will broaden the reach and sense of what is possible for Brazil’s poorest people. Second, it will increase the amount of funding and investment necessary to spark greater development of culture and the arts. Third, it could be a ticket out of poverty for those who use their card to discover and develop their own remarkable gifts in this nation of over 200 million.
Which begs the question of whether it is another government “handout” or a thoughtful and brilliant gift?
And if it does work it could inspire other nations to invest more creatively in their own people.
It might even inspire all of us to re-imagine how we invest in the artistic interests and talents of the people in our companies and organizations as a key to their personal growth, business engagement, retention, and innovation.
$20 a month to open minds and hearts about a remarkable world that seemed just beyond grasp.
Certainly an idea worth paying attention to…and pulling for. And an idea that should cause all of us to think in new ways about our work, civic and personal lives, and the investments we make in ourselves and others.
We win in business, government, and life when we commit to unlocking the curiosity and innate gifts of those around us. And when we see the magic of the arts as an essential part of learning, growing, and making a compelling difference.
Greetings. Pete Seeger was an American original. Truly American and truly original. A man whose music and life struck at the heart of what has made our country remarkable and struck at the gaps that keep us from reaching our full potential. His passing leaves a void, not just in the world of folk music in which he was one of its most popular and hopeful voices, but in a society striving to be as caring and hopeful as possible. Many of you will remember some of the songs he wrote including “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” which have found their way across the world.
Pete Seeger believed in the power of music to bridge divides between people and places. He also believed in the dignity of every person, the importance of protecting the environment, and the necessity of conscience in standing up for the things that matter. I’d like to think that whatever our politics are, we all see these as essential (American) beliefs in our civic, social, and business lives.
In fact, I would guess that all of our companies and organizations would be much better off if more of us viewed life and the world with the gift of Pete Seeger. More people who believed in:
The value of every employee.
The need to appreciate and protect all of the resources we use.
The importance of standing up for what is right and holding ourselves to a high standard.
The necessity of finding the right song to bring people together in order to make a difference.
And I would also guess that all of our companies and organizations would be much better off if they had more people who brought new ideas and perspectives to the work we do and the challenges and opportunities we face. Ideas and perspectives that would cause us to cast a wider and much more inclusive net, stretch our thinking, and imagine more powerful and more collaborative possibilities.
We win in business and in life when we dare to sing together. And when our very nature is to stand up for the things we believe even when it isn’t always in our own best interest.
A few years ago as I was wandering through the “Self-Help” section of a well-known local bookstore I noticed a young woman who seemed more than a bit perplexed. Catching my glance, she smiled and said: “I know that one of these books could change my life. I just don’t know which one it is.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. So I smiled back, buying a bit of time to think through her predicament. And then I said, with the half-baked logic of an amateur sage: “You know, we’re all in that situation. Only you’re smart enough to realize it.” A response that was more thoughtful in retrospect than it seemed at the time. “Thanks,” she replied, “I don’t feel quite so foolish now.”
I haven’t seen her again and can only hope that she found what she was searching for. Maybe it was a book on one of those shelves. Or an idea, or another person to connect with, or a story, or a quote, or a lesson from another culture, or a spark of inspiration from an unknown source that gave her the right direction to follow. Or maybe she ended up discovering it somewhere other than the bookstore. On a journey halfway around the world or on a walk through a familiar park. During an episode of a popular TV show or a day spent at an art museum. In the words of a favorite song or the experience of a concert held in a grand orchestra hall. In a lecture on a subject she knew very little about, or a familiar sign posted along a busy neighborhood street. In the mysterious ritual of someone else’s religion, the best practice of a renowned corporation, or the daily life of a creature from another species.
The fact that she was looking curiously to fill a gap in what she knew—to find her own missing piece—was the essential first step. It’s a step that too few of us ever take as individuals, companies, and organizations, or even as communities and nations. But a step that reminded me of just how close we all are to unlocking our real potential. If only we dared to be curious and open to the world around us and all of the strangers in it—in order to find something that could make the essential difference.
Each day we pass by literally hundreds of people, places, and things that could change our lives, but we never take the time to notice them. In our rush to get from Point A to Point B, we walk past strangers who know things we’ve yet to discover. We walk past stores, offices, galleries, libraries, and even billboards with powerful insight to share. We observe or ignore holidays and events filled with meaning. We stroll through new or familiar places failing to look below the surface to figure out what makes them remarkable. We watch movies, listen to the radio, read a newspaper or a blog, or search the web without seeing the real brilliance in an idea that could matter to our life or the success of our workplace or the place we call home. All because we have forgotten how to be curious and open and, lacking confidence in this innate human talent, we are unable to believe that important ideas abound and that we can be more remarkable simply by connecting with them, understanding them, and combining them with what we already know so well. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
January is a perfect time, despite the unseasonably cold weather, to make a fresh start. Our chance to reengage with the world around us in a brand new way. Our chance to understand not only the necessity of strangers but the power in all of us to do work and live lives that are filled with even greater meaning—and to become more remarkable at the things that matter most.
As humans we have the amazing abilities to be more open and to dream, imagine, learn, share, collaborate, innovate, and grow. And together we can reinvent our companies, organizations, markets, communities, relationships, and ourselves. Simply by finding our missing pieces.
So commit to making 2014 a year when you and your colleagues get out there and find the idea or the stranger that could change your lives.
I’m certain that you can.
This post was adapted from The Necessity of Strangers.