Lessons on Self-Acceptance from Lee Kuan Yew: Life is what you make of it

'From Third World to First: The Singapore Story' by Lee Kuan Yew (ISBN 0060197765) Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015) was one of the greatest statesmen of the post-WWII era. As Singapore’s quasi-authoritarian leader, Yew transformed his small, resource-poor city-state into an economic powerhouse. (I recommend Yew’s excellent memoir From Third World to First: The Singapore Story.)

Yew’s reply to a question about his perspective on the meaning of life (8:50-minute mark in this video) includes nuggets of wisdom on self-acceptance.

Life is what you make of it. You are dealt a pack of cards. Your DNA is fixed by your mother and your father … . Your job is to make the best of the cards that have been handed out to you. What can you do well? What can you not do well? What are you worse at?

If you ask me to make my living as an artist, I’ll starve, because I just can’t draw… . But if you ask me to do a mathematical question or to argue a point out, I’ll get by. Those are the cards I was handed out, and I make use of them.

Don’t try and do something you are not favored by nature to do.

Pursue Perfect Acceptance, Not a Perfect Life

One of the most effective ways to make positive change in life is to recognize and make peace with parts of yourself that are not innate (or “hard-wired”) in you. Robert Holden emphasized in Happiness Now, “Happiness and self-acceptance go hand in hand. In fact, your level of self-acceptance determines your level of happiness. The more self-acceptance you have, the more happiness you’ll allow yourself to accept, receive and enjoy. In other words, you enjoy as much happiness as you believe you’re worthy of.”

  • 'Now, Discover Your Strengths' by Marcus Buckingham (ISBN 0743201140) Know your limitations. Despite the nudging of countless motivational speeches, you can’t learn to be competent in everything you attempt or think you have a passion for. You can only be great at a few things. Recognize your flaws and do what you’re good at. Indeed, your strengths contain your greatest potential for growth. As Marcus Buckingham argued in his bestselling Now, Discover Your Strengths, discovering and pursuing your strengths is vital to being happier and more productive.
  • Learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt. Don’t engage in wishful thinking. Don’t cry out, “If I only life were different … if only these problems wouldn’t exist, I would …” One of the great realities of life—one that is difficult but important to acknowledge—is that you do not have as much control in life as you would like to have.

Idea for Impact: The key to self-improvement is self-acceptance. Accept reality. Accept yourself. Identify the limits of your abilities and your time and say no to things you know you can’t do well.

Lessons from Charlie Munger: Destroy Your Previous Ideas & Reexamine Your Convictions

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway's 2016 Annual Meeting (Screenshot from Yahoo! Finance webcast)

Reexamine your deep-rooted ideas

Here is one of the many nuggets of wisdom from the 2016 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting. At the 4:39:39 mark in the meeting’s webcast by Yahoo! Finance, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger discuss an effective strategy for persuasion and argumentation:

Charlie Munger: We try and avoid the worst anchoring effect which is always your previous conclusion. We really try and destroy our previous ideas.

Warren Buffett: Charlie says that if you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can.

Charlie Munger: Absolutely.

Warren Buffett: And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them.

Charlie Munger: Otherwise you should keep quiet. It would do wonders for our politics if everybody followed my system.

Actively seek counterarguments to consolidate your arguments

Munger’s advice comports with the following wisdom on using critique for reasoned judgments and critical thinking:

  • 'A Rulebook for Arguments' by Anthony Weston (ISBN 0872209547) Professor Anthony Weston, a contemporary exponent of critical thinking, wrote in his Rulebook for Arguments, “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
  • The great Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote in his influential work De Oratore (55 BCE, Eng. trans. On the Orator,) “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.” [See my previous article on how to argue like the Wright brothers.]
  • Advocating observable evidence and rational investigation, the great English natural philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in his Novum Organum (1620,) “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.”

You cannot effectively argue for your side if you don’t comprehend the arguments of the other

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Once a belief is added to your collection of viewpoints, you indulge in “intellectual censorship”—you instinctively and unconsciously protect and defend it. You cling to your beliefs instead of objectively reassessing and questioning them. Moreover, owing to confirmation bias, you seek narratives that convey to you what you want to hear, substantiate your beliefs, and entitle you to continue to feel as you already do.

An important constituent of critical thinking is taking your beliefs and opinions apart methodically, analyzing each part, assessing it for soundness by means of arguments and counterarguments, and then improving it.

When you stop arguing against an opposite perspective and try arguing for it, that is to say when you can switch your point of view briefly, you will witness a profound shift in your thinking. Your own convictions may look different when seen from the opposite perspective. Justifying the counterarguments can help you reinforce your own beliefs and attitudes.

Idea for Impact: Only when your deep-rooted convictions and viewpoints are challenged by contradictory evidence, will your beliefs actually get stronger.

Make Decisions Using Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

“Reasons pro and con are not present at the same time”

My previous article about Ben Franklin’s T-Chart method in making difficult decisions quoted him mentioning this as a key challenge of fact-collecting and decision-making:

When difficult cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under consideration all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process”

Bill Hewlett's Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard (HP,) developed an effective “hat-wearing process” in his decision-making. When confronted with a challenge, Hewlett used a three-pronged approach to take the time to reflect, collect input from others, and develop a sound judgment about the matter at hand.

  1. Whenever an HP employee approached Hewlett with an innovative idea, he put on his “enthusiasm” hat. He listened, expressed enthusiasm, appreciated the creative process, and asked wide-ranging but not-too-pointed questions about the idea.
  2. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “inquisition” hat and met the inventor. Hewlett asked many pointed questions and meticulously examined the facts and the virtues. He critically examined the idea, but adjourned without a final decision.
  3. A few days later, Hewlett wore his “decision” hat and met with the inventor. Hewlett discussed his opinions and conveyed his decision with logic and sensitivity.

In a discussion about the corporate culture of enthusiasm and creativity that the founders engendered at Hewlett-Packard, cofounder David Packard recalls in The HP Way (see my review / summary) that even if the decision went against the inventor, Bill Hewlett’s “Hat-Wearing Process” provided the inventor with a sense of satisfaction that Hewlett had carefully considered the ideas.

Idea for Impact: Make Considered Decisions

Use the “hat-wearing process” to listen to and mull over facts about a decision to be made, collect input from others, develop perspective that comes only with time, and make sound, thoughtful decisions.

Compliment with Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ thought process to stimulate creativity.

Five Principles of Career Success from Intel’s Andy Grove

Andy Grove of Intel, born András István Gróf in Hungary

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, passed away earlier this year. Grove was arguably the most influential tech executive the Silicon Valley has ever seen. He achieved fame and success in his adopted country and provides an outstanding modern-day immigrant success story.

Modern-Day Immigrant Success Story

Born András István Gróf to a middle-class Jewish family in Hungary, he survived the Nazi occupation by taking a false name, hiding with Christian families, and escaping the heartbreaking fate of half a million Hungarian Jewish people. After the war, when the Russians occupied Hungary and installed a repressive Communist government, Grove’s father was forced to take up menial work despite having been emaciated from torture at a Nazi labor camp.

During the brutal response to the anti-Soviet 1956 Hungarian Revolution following Stalin’s death, Grove’s family hid themselves in a coal cellar whilst Soviet artillery shells destroyed their neighborhood. Grove joined a flood of people who took advantage of the pandemonium to walk across the border into Austria. He fled to the United States in 1957, arrived in New York with less than $20 in his pocket, and settled in with relatives.

Andrew Grove with Intel Founders Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce As a child, Grove was afflicted with scarlet fever and an ear infection that left him nearly deaf. In spite of his hearing impairment and an inadequate knowledge of English, he studied chemical engineering at the City College of New York and graduated at the top of his class. Grove learned to lip read and then deciphered his notes after class. He recalled to The New York Times in 1960, “I had to go over each day’s work again at night with a dictionary at my side.” He then earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Berkeley and joined Fairchild Semiconductor. When his managers Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce left Fairchild to start Intel, Grove went with them as director of engineering.

High Performance Management and Paranoia

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Intel evolved swiftly. As President and later CEO, Grove brilliantly led Intel’s strategy and operations, established a near-monopoly on CPUs, and played a central role in the PC revolution. During this tenure as CEO from 1987–98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. After relinquishing his role as Intel’s CEO in 1998 and as Chairman of the Board in 2005, he mentored prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Grove was famous for his rigorous, no-nonsense, confrontational, non-hierarchical management style; his approach still dominates the Silicon Valley culture. He zealously demanded high performance. In 2004, the Wharton School him the most influential business leader of the past quarter-century, over Microsoft’s Bill Gates, General Electric’s Jack Welch, and Walmart’s Sam Walton.

Grove was a conspicuous voice for reason in the immigration, offshoring, and jobs-creation debates. He was also a prolific author and public speaker. His autobiography Swimming Across (2001) recounts the first 20 years of his life—from childhood in Hungary up until his move to California. His other autobiography, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996,) describes how companies should deal with emergent competitors, transform themselves, and perhaps change the nature of the industry itself. Forbes magazine calls it “probably the best book on business written by a business person since Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors.” High Output Management (1995) explained how to maximize productivity and has become a cult classic in Silicon Valley. One on One with Andy Grove (1988) compiles his “Dear Abby”-style newspaper Q&A column on work- and career-advice.

Five Principles of Career Success

'One-on-One With Andy Grove' by Andy Grove (ISBN 0140109358) Wrapping up One on One, Grove summarized his advice on career, management, and leadership with five suggestions:

  • FIRST—and this is very important—enjoy your work. It’s impossible to like all of it. Sometimes you’ll chafe under its unrelenting nature, other times you’ll be bored, but overall you must enjoy it. I am convinced that most people will like their work if they can see that what they do makes a difference and if they approach their work with a bit of zest, maybe even playfulness. Doing so introduces a bit of levity when it’s most needed and leads to camaraderie.
  • SECOND, be totally dedicated to the substance of your work, to the end result, the output; not how you got to it or whose idea it was or whether you look good or not.
  • THIRD, respect the work of all those who respect their own work, from vice presidents to sales clerks, from maintenance technicians to security officers. Nobody is unimportant: It takes all levels and all jobs to run a functioning organization.
  • FOURTH, be straight with everyone. I hate it when people are not honest with me, and I would hate myself if I weren’t straight with them. This isn’t an easy principle to stick to. There are always many reasons (better to call them excuses) to compromise a little here or there. We may reason that people are not ready to hear the truth or the bad news, that the time isn’t right, or whatever. Giving in to those tempting rationalizations usually leads to conduct that can be ethically wrong and will backfire every time.
  • And, ALWAYS, when stumped, stop and think your way through to your own answers!

Why Doing Good Is Selfish

Consider the following legend about Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) from J. E. Gallaher’s Best Lincoln Stories (1898.)

The Fable of Abraham Lincoln and the Pigs

The Fable of Abraham Lincoln and the Pigs

Once Lincoln was traveling in a mud-wagon coach along a swampy, rural area. His fellow passenger was his good friend and US Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, who later lost his life in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff at the onset of the American Civil War.

While they were conversing in the mud-wagon coach, Lincoln remarked to Baker that in doing good and evil, all people are motivated by selfishness. Just as Baker challenged Lincoln’s assertion, their coach crossed a rickety bridge over a slough (a large swampy marsh.)

Abruptly, Lincoln and Baker glimpsed a mother pig making a terrible squeal because her piglets were stuck in the swamp, couldn’t get out, and were in danger of drowning.

Abraham Lincoln As their coach started to head away, Lincoln yelled, “Driver, can’t you stop just a moment?” The driver replied, “If the other fellow don’t object.”

With Baker’s approval, Lincoln jumped out of the wagon, ran to the slough, lifted the piglets one by one out of the swamp, and carried them to the dry bank of the swamp.

When Lincoln returned to the coach, Baker remarked, “Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in this little episode?”

Lincoln replied, “Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I would have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”

Psychological Egoism

Being moved by the plight of others—even the suffering of animals (or sentient beings to use Buddhist terminology) as in the aforementioned legend of Lincoln and the piglets—is considered a selfish deed per modern philosophy’s theory of ‘psychological egoism’.

Egoism has its roots in the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE,) who argued that the human mind is driven by the need to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Egoism contends that deep down all our actions are motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest. For example, if Tom saves Mark from drowning in a river, egoism contends that Tom’s seemingly altruistic behavior is actually motivated by his own self-interest to avoid potential social censure for not helping Mark or to be regarded a hero within his social circle.

Idea for Impact: Be Selfish, Be Generous

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

The great Indian philosopher Aurobindo wrote in Towards the Light, “The secret of joy is self-giving. If any part in you is without joy, it means that it has not given itself, it wants to keep itself for itself.”

The Dalai Lama once advised, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Per the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness, altruistic generosity encourages us to perceive others more positively. When we discover the suffering of others, we realize that those individuals could just as easily have been us. Intuitively, we contemplate “I feel their pain; I can’t let that happen” and are driven to helping others.

When we do something for others and lose ourselves in the service of others, not only do we feel closer to them, but also they feel closer to us. By focusing on giving rather than receiving and on contributing rather than consuming, our generosity can engender an outward orientation toward the world, shifting our focus away from ourselves.

As our whole perception broadens, we realize that the biggest beneficiary of our generosity is often ourselves: at the outset, we are filled with joy with the recognition that someone else is happier because of us.

Idea for Impact: If you want to feel good, help someone else.

Success Conceals Wickedness

Biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashlee Vance)

Two common themes in the biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashley Vance) are these entrepreneurs’ extreme personalities and the costs of their extraordinary successes.

The world mostly regards Musk, Jobs, and Bezos as passionate, inspiring, visionary, and charismatic leaders who’ve transformed their industries. Yet their biographies paint a vivid picture of how ill-mannered these innovators are (or were, in the case of Jobs). They exercise ruthless control over every aspect of their companies’ products but have little tolerance for underperformers. They are extremely demanding of employees and unnecessarily demeaning to people who help them succeed.

  • Steve Jobs was renowned for his cranky, rude, spiteful, and controlling outlook. Biographer Isaacson recalls, “Nasty was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.” Jobs famously drove his Mercedes around without a license and frequently parked in handicapped spots. For years, he denied paternity of his first daughter Lisa and forced her and her mother to live on welfare. He often threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way and publicly humiliated employees.
  • In a 2010 commencement address at Princeton, Jeff Bezos recalled his grandfather counseling, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” Still, according to Brad Stone’s biography, Bezos often imparts insulting rebukes and criticisms to employees: “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” “Why are you wasting my life?” and “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • According to Ashlee Vance’s biography, when an executive assistant asked for a raise, Elon Musk asked her to take a two-week vacation while he contemplated her request. When the assistant returned from vacation, Musk fired her.

“Success covers a multitude of blunders”

The great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde once remarked, “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”

The other great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.”

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams In 2015, NBC suspended prominent news anchor Brian Williams after internal investigations revealed no less than 11 instances where he either embellished facts or bent the truth. Members of his team and NBC staffers who knew about these ethics violations chose to overlook because he was powerful. According to The New York Times,

Mr. Williams has been drawing 9.3 million viewers a night, and his position seemed unassailable. Even as the stature of the nightly newscast faded in the face of real-time digital news, Mr. Williams was one of the most trusted names in America … He was powerful. Williams had the ear of NBC boss Steve Burke. He was a ratings powerhouse. And he spent years overseeing TV’s most watched newscast. He was a winner, for himself, those around him and those above him—until it became clear the man who is supposed be among the most trusted in America had issues with telling the truth.

Power Corrupts the Mind

Brilliant men and women engage in morally wrong conduct simply because they can. They can get away with extreme pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Our high-achieving culture adores the successful, the powerful, and the rich. And part of this adoration is the exemption we grant these celebrities from the ordinary rules of professional civility.

Idea for Impact: The more people possess power and the more successful they get, the more they focus on their own egocentric perspectives and ignore others’ interests.

Richard Feynman: Eccentric Genius and the “Adventures of a Curious Character” [What I’ve Been Reading]

This year, I’ve been reading many biographies of the great physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988.)

A Nobel laureate, Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. His academic life, acuity, life-philosophy, and ability to communicate science are inspirational to anyone pursuing his/her own life’s fulfillment.

In addition to his many scientific achievements, Feynman was known for his playfulness, varied interests and hobbies, and—perhaps most notably—his many eccentricities.

  • 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' by Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (ISBN 0393316041) In a divorce complaint, Feynman’s second wife Mary Louise Bell complained, “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”
  • Feynman had the reputation of being a ladies’ man and offers many seduction techniques in his memoirs. His bestselling biography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” devotes many pages to the art of picking up girls in Las Vegas.
  • In “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”, biographer James Gleick recalls Feynman’s tenure at Cornell: “There were entanglements with women: Feynman pursued them and dropped them, or tried to, with increasingly public frustration—so it seemed even to undergraduates, who knew him as the least professorial of professors, likely to be found beating a rhythm on a dormitory bench or lying supine and greasy beneath his Oldsmobile. He had never settled into any house or apartment. One year he lived as faculty guest in a student residence. Often he would stay nights or weeks with married friends until these arrangements became sexually volatile.”
  • 'Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman' by James Gleick (ISBN 0679747044) While a Professor at Caltech, Feynman would frequent a topless bar for a quiet office away from office. There, he used to work on scientific problems by sketching or writing physics equations on paper placemats and napkins. When local authorities shut down the topless bar, most patrons refused to testify in favor of the bar fearing that their families would learn about their visits. But not Feynman: he testified in favor of the bar by stating it was a public need frequented by craftsmen, technicians, engineers, common workers, and “a physics professor.”
  • When physicist Ernico Fermi died in 1954, the University of Chicago offered an astronomical salary (“a tremendous amount of money, three or four times what I was making”) to entice Feynman to back-fill Fermi’s position. Feynman responded, “After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do—get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things…With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”

Richard Feynman with a Princess of Denmark at the 1965 Nobel Banquet

  • When conferred a Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman sat at a table with a Princess of Denmark at the Nobel Banquet. During their small talk, Feynman introduced himself as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Princess remarked, “Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can’t talk about it.” Feynman was long-winded when he retorted, “On the contrary, it’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance–gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood–so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!” Feynman later remembered that the Princess was flustered with his reply and recalled, “There’s a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it!”

For many more humorous anecdotes about Richard Feynman and the “Adventures of a Curious Character,” I recommend his extremely entertaining biographies:

Lessons from Sam Walton: Cost and Price as a Competitive Advantage

I recently finished reading “Made in America”, the bestseller autobiography of Sam Walton (1918–1992.) The book is very educational, insightful, and stimulating.

Walton, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. From 1985 until his death, he was the richest man in the world. On the 2015 list of the world’s richest individuals, his descendants ranked at #8, #9, #11, and #12.

Despite his immense fortune, Walton lived a humble life right up until his death. He as an enthusiastic outdoorsman and lived in a modest home in Bentonville, Arkansas, for 33 years. On quail hunting trips, he slept in smelly, old beat-up trailers and ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He even drove a red 1985 Ford pickup and famously said, “What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”

Sam Walton's Red 1985 Ford Pickup Truck

Cost and Price Control

One of the book’s key takeaways is to “control your expenses better than your competition.” Walton says that this focus on cost-efficiency contributed more to Walmart’s enormous success than did any other aspect of his business model:

This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For twenty-five years running—long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation’s largest retailer—we’ve ranked No. 1 in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales. You can make a lot of different mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

A Child of the Great Depression Takes to Retail

Walton was a child of the Great Depression. The poverty he experienced while growing up in a rural Missouri farming community taught him the value of money, hard work, and perseverance.

Walton learned the value of a dollar early from his parents, who financially struggled to raise their family. The two squabbled constantly, except on one topic. “One thing my mom and dad shared completely was their approach to money: they just didn’t spend it.”

Walton was just plain cheap. His devotion to bargain became Walmart’s underpinning. He lived by a simple formula: pile it high, sell it cheap. “Say I bought an item for 80 cents. I found that by pricing it at $1.00, I could sell three times more of it than by pricing it at $1.20.” He refused to increase profit margins at the expense of price: “I might make only half the profit per item, but because I was selling three times as many, the overall profit was much greater. Simple enough.”

The Lasting Impact of Sam Walton

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. He studied his competitors and borrowed liberally. His strategy was to buy low, sell at a discount, and make up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory. Over the decades, Walmart has relentlessly squeezed as much value as possible from its supply chain and passed those savings on to consumers.

Walton’s passion to serve as the “agent” for consumers has changed retailing forever. It’s hard not to overestimate Walmart’s influence on local communities and economics. Walmart’s obsessive focus on low prices changed the way Americans shop. Its bargaining power, superlative size, and logistical efficiency not only dampened inflation, but also brought about productivity gains throughout retailing and manufacturing. Its dominance has attracted backlash from labor unions, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and anti-sprawl activists. Critics also blamed Walmart for contributing to the movement toward overseas production jobs, and for destroying small-town merchants.

However, Walmart’s business model has struggled overseas, especially with profitability in countries where it operates three fourths of its international stores.

Sam Walton’s Influence on Entrepreneurs

Walton inspired legions of other entrepreneurs who thrive on managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage. Prominently,

  • Dell’s Michael Dell kept costs low by using direct sales as his primary sales channel and orchestrating Dell’s supply chain with that of its suppliers.
  • Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary used absurdly low fares to generate demand from fare-conscious travelers who would have otherwise used alternative means of transportation or would have not traveled at all. O’Leary’s operating costs (aircraft, equipment, personnel, customer service, airport access, and handling) are one of the lowest in the airline industry.
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos used innovative sales-discounting methods and a strong emphasis on customer service to grab market share from traditional retailers. Without the burden of operating physical stores, Amazon’s efficiency has played a key role in the structural shift away from brick-and-mortar retail.

The “wheel of retailing” theory in corporate strategy posits that a lower-cost innovator eventually undercuts every dominant merchant. To combat the risk of cost-leadership from Amazon and other online retailers, Walmart has made major investments in e-commerce, even at the risk of cannibalizing its in-store sales.

Make a Difficult Decision Like Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, American inventor, journalist, printer, diplomat, author, and founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was renowned for his lifelong quest for self-improvement, as he thoroughly documented in his “Autobiography” (1791.)

In my previous article on Benjamin Franklin’s “Plan for Conduct,” I noted that Franklin had a methodical mindset.

As a young adult, Franklin developed a method for making complex decisions. At age 66, in a letter to his close friend Joseph Priestley (a London chemist who, in 1774, isolated the element oxygen,) Franklin described this method.

In this letter written on September 19, 1772, Franklin mentions one of the key challenges of fact-collecting and decision-making:

In the affair of so much importance to you, wherein you ask my advice, I cannot for want of sufficient premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how. When these difficult cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under consideration all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternately prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.

Make a Difficult Decision Like Benjamin Franklin - T-charts

Then, Franklin describes how to weigh the “pro et contra” (Latin for “for and against”) in any situation:

To get over this, my way is, to divide, half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one pro, and over the other con. Then during three or four day’s consideration I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives that at different times occur to me for or against the measure. When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: if I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three. If l judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of farther consideration nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly. And though the weight of reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to make a rash step; and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation, in what may be called moral or prudential algebra.

'The Benjamin Franklin Reader' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 743273982) Ben Franklin’s humble tool for decision-making is now known as the T-Chart. It is widely used to examine two opposing facets of a topic, object, situation, circumstance, or event under consideration. T-Charts are particularly helpful for analyzing advantages and disadvantages, as well as strengths and weaknesses.

Recommended Reading: For a great collection of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, including his “Autobiography”, see Walter Isaacson’s “A Benjamin Franklin Reader”.

Recharge Your Self-Growth through a “Plan of Conduct” à la Benjamin Franklin

In Boston at age 12, Young Benjamin Franklin became a printer's apprentice with his brother James Franklin Young Benjamin Franklin’s formal schooling was incomplete. He pursued education through voracious reading. In Boston at age 12, he became a printer’s apprentice with his brother James. At age 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia seeking a fresh start and initially worked in several printer shops around town.

At age 18, Franklin traveled to London to acquire some equipment for establishing a new newspaper in Philadelphia. However, the sponsor soon withdrew from the project; so a disappointed Franklin remained in London working as a typesetter. In 1726, at age 20, he decided to return to Philadelphia to strike out on his own.

Benjamin Franklin’s Organized Action Plan for Efficiency and Success

At the threshold of adulthood, Franklin ruminated on the kind of man he wanted to be. During his time in London, he was deeply unhappy that his life had so far been disorderly because he had never outlined a design for how to conduct himself. During his 11-week voyage from London to Philadelphia, he applied his methodical mindset to develop some rules for self-improvement and called them his “Plan of Conduct.”

Those who write of the art of poetry teach us that if we would write what may be worth the reading, we ought always, before we begin, to form a regular plan and design of our piece: otherwise, we shall be in danger of incongruity. I am apt to think it is the same as to life. I have never fixed a regular design in life; by which means it has been a confused variety of different scenes. I am now entering upon a new one: let me, therefore, make some resolutions, and form some scheme of action, that, henceforth, I may live in all respects like a rational creature.

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action—the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of every body.

'The Benjamin Franklin Reader' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 743273982) Franklin’s “Plan of Conduct” was a precursor to his constant quest in self-improvement, as documented in his “Autobiography” (1791.) A few years later, he supplemented his plan with a “Moral Perfection Project,” 13 guidelines to motivate himself to be more virtuous and strive for moral perfection.

These first few pursuits of self-improvement and reflection weren’t a passing fad for Franklin—he adhered to these rules for the rest of his life. He was proud that he had the wisdom to develop and commit to them so early in life. He reflected in his “Autobiography” (1791,) “It is the more remarkable, as being formed when I was so young, and yet being pretty faithfully adhered to quite through to old age.”

Idea for Impact: Create Your ‘Plan of Conduct’

Create your own rules for living and commit to them for a life of success and wisdom. The values you establish for yourself will align your actions with your goals and dreams and so reduce regrets of overlooked opportunities.

Recommended Reading: For a great collection of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, including his “Autobiography”, see Walter Isaacson’s “A Benjamin Franklin Reader”.