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Tell me something good

Bert Jacobs

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As co-creator of the Life is Good brand, Jacobs has seen how impactful it is when people focus on the positive in life. After all, there are more than enough challenges out there, and the news only focused on the bad. Jacobs discusses where his emphasis on optimism comes from and memorable people he has encountered through his work.

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One of the dumbest things that we hear at conferences everywhere we go is this concept of work-life balance. Believe it or not, it makes no sense. Because if what we’re seeking is work-life balance, it means that our work counters our life, by definition, which is foolish, right? So what we should be seeking is work-life harmony. We should be seeking things in our work that serve the values of our life, what’s most important to us.

So I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s a story about my industry, technically the apparel industry. It may be very different than yours, but I think we’re going to find a lot of common threads because guess what? We’re all human beings.

This, thank God, is not me. This is my younger brother, Johnny. [visual] And while life is good, life is not easy growing up looking like that. Don’t worry; he’s somewhere saying difficult things about me today. This is Johnny on the bottom bunk, and that’s me on the top bunk, and we’re the youngest of six kids. We grew up in Boston. Our dad worked in a machine shop, and our mom raised the kids. If you go and visit our parents, you would see bookcases filled with photographs of our older sisters and our older brothers. But this is one of three photographs of our upbringing. We know what happened; they ran out of money; they lost the camera. You know the story, right? And it’s OK, and we forgive you, Mom and Dad. But I told my mom about it recently, and I said, “You know I forgive you for losing the camera. It’s no big deal, but how about putting some damn sheets on the bed?” And, you know, my mother’s smart. She laughed and said, “You know, these days isn’t everybody spending all kinds of money on organic sheets because it’s better for the environment?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Well, what’s better for the environment than no sheets at all?” Very clever, Mom.

When Johnny and I were in elementary school, our parents had a near death car accident. Our mom had her seat belt on, and she got some broken bones, but she was in better shape than our dad. Our dad lived also, but he lost the use of his right arm forever, and, as an avid outdoorsman and a gifted craftsman, it changed his life. I guess I would summarize by saying, retrospectively, that he became depressed. He became depressed because he couldn’t do the things that he used to do. He used to build things for us; he used to take my older brothers and sisters hiking and climbing and scuba diving, etc. Now he couldn’t do these things. So, a fixture around the house became my dad’s yelling and screaming. It was very unpleasant to be around, and it was extremely dysfunctional.

This is a picture of our mom, Joan. [visual] Despite the family’s dysfunction, she was our first symbol of rational optimism. She was the first powerful optimist in our life. So I use the term rational optimist very carefully because a rational optimist recognizes that there are obstacles and difficulties in the world, and they overcome those obstacles by focusing on the good things, by focusing on what’s right. And that’s what our mom did. She didn’t explain it in those academic terms, and she didn’t really explain what she was doing, but she did many things to teach us that, although our family was going through difficult things, we had a lot to be grateful for; we had a lot to celebrate.

The primary thing she did that reinforced this over and over, that was almost like magic in our household, was that she had a ritual at the dinner table. She would look around no matter what was going on and say to us, “Tell me something good that happened today.” And although there were difficult things happening, and often our dad was yelling and screaming, pretty soon we were ripping on something funny that happened at school that day, something good that happened, celebrating with each other. And what she did magically was change the energy in the household. All of a sudden, we were acting like a family. We were talking to each other, interacting with each other, and things weren’t as bad as they might have been. She showed us that we had the power to overcome things with our disposition.

Now, this is a picture of Johnny and me when we graduated from college. [visual] If we were smarter, we would have taken that advice from our mother, and we would have created Life Is Good right out of the gates, but we weren’t that smart, and we weren’t that quick. We knew that we wanted to make a living selling artwork that we created, and T-shirts were financially accessible to us. So, we started designing T-shirts and selling them on the street. And believe it or not, we spent five years before Life Is Good selling T-shirts on the street and selling T-shirts out of this van, door-to-door in college dormitories, up and down the East Coast. [visual] We bought this used van and called it The Enterprise, and we told each other that we were going to boldly go where no T-shirt guy has gone before. We traveled in that van, and we slept in it every night for five years.

And if you ask us if we had any success, on the one hand we could say no because we weren’t really building a sustainable business, but on the other hand, we had set out to avoid getting a job, and we were successful at that. So we were at least selling enough T-shirts that we could keep the dream alive. What that dream was wasn’t entirely clear to us. We were searching for something; we were searching for maybe what could become our brand. We admired Nike in the marketplace because it stood for athletic prowess. We admired Ralph Lauren because it was a symbol of affluence and something that so many people were chasing. And while those weren’t the right symbols or ideas for us, we were searching for something that would represent who we are.

During those conversations searching for a brand, we also had conversations about how the media inundates us with negative information—always reinforcing what is wrong with the world rather that what is right with the world.

The news gives us what’s wrong with the world, but it doesn’t give us what’s right with the world. And we wondered if maybe our brand could simply celebrate what’s right with the world rather than what’s wrong with the world.

In researching about the truth of what’s happening out there, we found a lot of interesting statistics. This shows us that while poverty is an issue in the world, it’s not as big of an issue as it was in recent history. The year 1800 isn’t that long ago—our planet’s 4.5 billion years old. In the year 1800, everyone on planet Earth was poor. That’s what this graph shows you. [visual] If you weren’t the king or queen, you were poor. And by poor, somebody asked me recently, “What’s your metric? What metric are you using?” How about famine? How about your family was facing famine, and you had no sustainable potential future? That’s what I mean by poor. And today, in the next handful of years, we will reach 10 percent or lower globally. So while it’s not perfect, we have improved dramatically.

Global child mortality means the rate of the percentage of children who will die before the age of six. So not infant mortality (dying before one’s first birthday), but dying before you’re six years old. It’s a horrible statistic, I know. Take a look at that; it’s almost 45 percent. [visual] That’s the children born on planet Earth in the year 1800. Today, while it’s not perfect, it’s less than 4 percent. That is a dramatic improvement. So, humanity has been improving consistently, and how often do we hear about it? Never. That’s why you’re shocked when you look at these statistics.

Here’s something else that you don’t hear about. We hear about racism; we hear about sexism; we hear about lots of things that are steeped in ignorance. As literacy rises, things that are steeped in ignorance, such as racism and sexism, fall off. Well, look what’s happening. [visual] Hardly anybody could read in the year 1800, and today, we’re approaching the point where 90 percent of the people on the planet will be able to read. We’re at 84 percent right now, and it’s rising rapidly. That’s a damn good statistic! It’s amazing! We’re moving in the right direction! What a stunner!

So what do we do with this information? Well, my brother and I did what people in Boston do when they’re trying to figure something out: We threw a keg party. We invited all of our friends, and we asked them to tell us what they thought about these ideas. We put up all our new ideas on the walls—we let people write on the walls. My brother did a sketch, and it actually didn’t say “Life Is Good.” It was a sketch of a smiley guy with a beret and shades. Underneath, it said “Draw” because it was meant to be an artist. It’s the character that is now the Life Is Good character, Jake. And at that first party, it said “Draw” underneath, and we just wanted to show that artists like ourselves don’t have to be dark and depressed and tortured souls. We can be interacting in society and having a good time, and maybe artists can celebrate. But there was a woman who showed up at the party. She circled Jake, and she drew an arrow to him, and she wrote, “This guy’s got life figured out.” And that hit us like a ton of bricks. We said, “Wow! That’s a much bigger statement than ‘Artists can smile.’” So we took that idea, and we distilled what she said into the three simple words: Life Is Good.

Two days later, we got out in the street. That’s Johnny standing in the street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. [visual] And we’d do anything to sell T-shirts. If you look at our poster, we would guilt people into buying a T-shirt so we could get a bite to eat that day. But that day, we sold 48 T-shirts in 45 minutes. That may or may not sound like a big deal to you, but a lot of times, we’d go a week without selling 48 T-shirts. And we sold them in 45 minutes. So, those three simple words “Life Is Good” didn’t just sell fast; they sold fast to people from all walks of life. We sold shirts to a big guy on a Harley, a preppy school teacher, and a punk skateboard kid with purple and green hair. And that blew our mind. It put some money in our pocket right away, and it showed us that there was a broad audience.

What to do next? We had no idea, but we knew that we had something special. So, we did the next thing that people from Boston do when they’re trying to figure something out: We got in The Enterprise, our van, and we drove to Cape Cod and went for a swim in the ocean.

We figured let’s get in Mother Nature; let’s get in the Mother Ocean and see if she could show us what the next idea is. We swam around for a little while, and we came up with that idea. Let’s go to retail and try to sell this. We’ve been selling direct to the consumer in the street; let’s try to sell this big idea to retailers. So, we went around and tried to sell it to retailers, and at the end of our first day, we opened one account. A woman named Nancy with a flip-flop shop right on the beach bought 24 shirts. About a week and a half passed by, and our phone rang at the apartment. And she said, “Hey! Guess what? I sold all 24 Life Is Good shirts.” I said, “Fantastic! We’re going to ship you some more.” She said, “That’s great, but I have a question for you. If you remember, our shop’s right next to an ice cream shop. And my husband and I were talking, and we wondered if that guy, Jake, eats ice cream because we think life is pretty good when you’re having an ice cream?”

Simple thought. So she says, “My question is, does Jake eat ice cream?” And I said, “No, but he will.” And Jake started eating ice cream. And guess what? When we shipped the T-shirts down the Cape with Jake eating ice cream, they sold better than the ones with just Jake’s face. So, then she put us in touch with her sister-in-law, and her sister-in-law had a mountain bike store and an outdoor shop on the mountain bike trail up in Vermont. I got on the phone with her, and she said, “Yeah, Nancy tells us that the Life Is Good shirts are her best sellers. We want to get some, but we want to know if Jake rides a bike.” This time I got smart and said, “No, but he will if you pay in advance.” So Nancy’s sister-in-law agreed to pay in advance, and all of a sudden, Jake started riding a bike.

Well, this business of ours was pretty simple, and it started growing under our feet. And all we had to do was walk around and ask people what they loved in their life, what they wanted to celebrate in their life. We could celebrate music. We could celebrate gardening. We could celebrate painting. We could celebrate anything and everything as long as it was a healthy lifestyle. So, the business started to grow, and in the first five years with Life Is Good, it grew to about a $3 million business. We thought that was pretty good. We were stumbling along, got our own warehouse, stopped shipping out of the kitchen, and things were really moving in the right direction.

Then the surprising thing happened; people who were going through really difficult things started writing us letters. These were customers of ours. I’m going to read you a letter from one of these two remarkable young boys. [visual]

Bert and John,

My name is Alex. I have a brother, Nick, and we are 10. We both have extra challenges in the world, but at the end of the day, we still have each other. We were both born early and weighed only one pound, so we had a lot of growing to do. When I was born, I had my leg amputated. Nick is legally blind. Me and Nick have all of your shirts with all of the things we like doing best, but if you ask us what we love the most and what makes us the most happy and laugh the most, it’s just being together. I now know that Nick has more challenges than I do, but he says and does things that make me laugh and forget feeling bad. I don’t know how to describe it, other than to say that I love him. You’re lucky to have a brother too. [I just want to point out that he doesn’t know my brother.] I hope you do fun things together.

Your friends, Alex and Nick

Wow! Well, I’ve got to tell you that I’ve been carrying that letter in my pocket for many years, and I’ve read it to many, many audiences and shared their story because they’re smart and they’re brave and guess what? They’re powerful optimists. They had some difficult things handed to them, but they don’t focus on those things. They focus on the good things and look at those smiles on their faces. [visual] It’s worked pretty well for them. They gave us a great gift because they allowed us to never say that “We have to.” We realized that “We get to.” We get to do the laundry. Let’s face it, in 2018 you don’t even do the load of laundry; a machine does. So, we should relax about our complaining. We get to go to a grocery store. If we can read the labels with our own eyes and walk into a grocery store that’s filled with food from all over the world, what are we complaining about? These kids get to do a lot, and that’s what they wrote us about. They don’t have to do things, and they don’t complain about it. Gratitude is a superpower.

We got other letters. This is Lindsey Beggan. [visual] Lindsey Beggan was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. She’s 11 years old. When the newspapers interviewed her, they asked if she understood her prognosis. She said, “They don’t think I’m going to live longer than a year.” And the reporter said, “Can I ask why you’re wearing a hat that says Life Is Good?” Lindsey said, “Sure, because before I got sick, I took my life for granted. But now that I’m sick, I want to make sure every day counts.” Wow! Superpowerful, right? Lindsey showed us that courage is a superpower. Kids can show us amazing things, right? And that stress and that worry about things that are beyond our control is of no value to us.

So, our T-shirts today preach courage. They preach courage in fun and healthy ways, in ways that empower people. What began to happen was that those people who wrote us letters, created the values of Life Is Good.

So we decided to pay them back. We did the next thing that anybody in this room would probably do, the only logical thing. We scrapped our advertising budget and started hosting pumpkin festivals. Makes a lot of sense, right? Those pumpkin festivals raised money and awareness for families of children facing life-threatening diseases.

So, this is a picture of our first pumpkin festival. [visual] It wasn’t a huge deal, and we screwed up on everything. We ran out of pumpkins; we ran out of pumpkin ice cream; we ran out of everything you can imagine. But we were up in Maine, and people went home in their pickup trucks and got more pumpkins, and they bought more pumpkin pies and bought more pumpkin ice cream. And we raised over $80,000 at that first festival. We were only a $3 million company, and every penny of it went to people who really needed it, and we got hooked.

We kept having pumpkin festivals year after year, and when we were traveling in that van, we created a bucket list. One of the things on the bucket list was to break a world record. Well, if you didn’t graduate at the top of your class, and you’re not a world-class athlete, in order to break a world record, you have to do something stupid. And that’s what we did. We broke the world record for the most lit, carved pumpkins in one place at one time. This is a picture of how many? [visual] Over a half million lit, carved pumpkins in one place at one time. It broke the world record, but to be honest, who cares about a world record? The most important thing was that it raised over a half million dollars, and every penny of it went to kids who really needed it. Over a half million people came through the park that day, the nation’s oldest public park, and it was a huge night for us. It was a huge night for all the volunteers, and it got us more hooked than ever.

So, what started as helping kids on the side became integrated into our business as the Life Is Good Kids Foundation. And 10 percent of profits, no matter what we do—selling T-shirts, having special events, selling all kinds of other products that we sell—no matter what it is, 10 percent of our profitability always goes to children facing poverty, violence, or life-threatening illnesses. The 10 percent for kids is great for us. It was our way of drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Nope, not just at Christmas, not just at the end of the year, but all year long when we’re making T-shirts, we’re helping people. We’re doing something special. We’re not just an apparel company. There’s more meaning in what we’re doing.” We heard the emotional connection with people, and we fed that emotion.

So how do our employees react to this? They tell us in every survey, year after year, that the most important thing to them is the Kids Foundation. They know that if they do a good job selling T-shirts, if they do a good job designing graphics, if they do a good job working in HR or IT, they are saving children’s lives, and that puts a bounce in their step. On the weekends, they don’t feel that they have to go volunteer somewhere. They know that just by working here, they are doing a great thing, and it’s the most galvanizing thing we ever did for our staff. We do lots of fun things; you can see this is at our quarterly meeting. [visual] And we have a lot of laughs, usually at our own expense. And we share top-level information about what we’re doing with the company, but the most important thing we do is help kids.

This is what became of the pumpkin festival; it’s now the Life Is Good Music Festival. [visual] It raises over $1 million at each one, and there are big artists like Michael Franti in this one. Everyone who shows up knows they’re going to see great music. They know they can have a nice cold beer just like our old keg parties. They know they can enjoy some great farm-to-table food. But most importantly, they know that they’re standing shoulder to shoulder with other people who are helping, and it’s humanity getting together. You’re looking at over 30,000 rational optimists having a nice party and helping people who really need it. [visual] I don’t know what this kid is looking at, but we blew his mind.

So, what happens to this business of ours? Here we are up in pumpkin patches worrying about things we shouldn’t worry about. All of the consultants say that we’re cannibalizing our business; we’re focusing on children when we should be focusing on cotton products, blah blah blah. So, we kept doing what was in our heart. We kept focusing on things that we thought were truly us and were truly part of being part of the human race, and what happened was that our customers built our business. They really did.

We actually have continued to make operational mistakes, but our customers have forgiven us. Why? Because we’re authentic. Because we’re real. In this day and age, in this digital age, if you say you’re going to do things and you don’t do it, people will rip your business down. But if you say you’re going to do things and you do them and you stand behind them, you don’t have to be perfect. We’re not the best-looking people. We’re not the fastest; we’re not the strongest; and we don’t run the best business in the world, but our customers are building our business, and we’re growing every day because they believe in us. That’s the connection. You can’t build a healthy business on your own. Your customers have to build it with you. They have to coauthor your story. They have to be part of your story. In the old days, you might be able to be a smart marketer and build your business, but those days are over. You’ve got to let your customers in the door, and guess what? It might sound scary, but it’s fun. This is a picture of Richard Branson and me. [visual] It’s got nothing to do with my talk; I just wanted you to know that I hang out with Richard Branson.

So this is our book. [visual] Everybody’s got to write a book, and we tried to avoid it for years because everybody wanted us to write a business book, and we felt that we were just like all these other people who started in a garage or truck, and we didn’t think our story was all that special. And maybe it’s not, but National Geographic was smart. They came to us and said, “Don’t write a business book; write a self-help book.” We liked that idea because our business is really more about emotional health, and that’s really what I am talking to you about today. You know more about your business than I do. I’m not going to teach you about wealth management or investment. I don’t know enough about it. I really can’t add two and two, but I can tell you a little bit about emotional health, and you need to take care of yourself. You need to take care of your own health before you help anybody else, and that’s what this book is about. This book is about the people who taught us. Every chapter is about one of those values and the people who wrote to us and why those values are important.

There are 12 values, and on this simple graphic, it shows you why embracing optimism enables those simple, timeless values. [visual] These are things that existed long before us. Thousands of years ago, they existed, and they will exist for your children’s children’s children. All you hear about is trends today. You have to be on trend for this and on trend for that. Our brand is not about trends. Our brand is about humanity and good values—simple, timeless, family values. That’s what this is about. And so the book is about that. It’s really simple, and it’s filled with funny stories. But it teaches us that the keys to happiness are all around us. The keys to living a fulfilled life are all around us, and it isn’t rocket science. It’s real simple. All we have to do is open our eyes and be aware.

So, we went on the road when we wrote the book, did book signings at Barnes & Noble, and we helped a lot of the charities that we work with, and it was a lot of fun. But the number one thing, and the most enjoyable, impactful thing, that we did on the road was visit these little children who wrote us these letters, and guess what? They are not little children anymore.

You recognize these two? [visual] One of them still only has one leg, and the other one still can’t see so well, but guess what? They still have beautiful smiles. They are amazing guys, amazing young men. Despite the adversity they faced, they have lived an incredible life. They continue to be happy, popular, and joyful, and they’re biting the head off of life. They’re really enjoying it. We didn’t do anything exceptional. We didn’t give these people hundreds of thousands of dollars. We sat down at a picnic table and had lunch with them. We laughed our heads off. We just talked about what was happening in each other’s lives and what’s happened in between. We told them how inspired we are by them. They were flattered by that. They just blew us away, and we’re going to stay in touch with them.

Guess who this is? [visual] This is Lindsey Beggan. She’s the little girl they didn’t think would live longer than a year. Well, she lives in San Francisco today. She’s 28 years old. She’s smart. She’s killing it at her job. She has to go in for appointments every year to make sure that scary stuff doesn’t come back, but she’s cancer free, and rather than me telling you about what’s happened in her life, here’s a short video, and she’s going to tell you. [video]

I don’t have all the answers in the world, and nobody brought me in here to give you all the answers. I’m just sharing our story, and we’re still learning every day. You all face things. One thing we can never do with each other is judge each other. You don’t know where people have been. You don’t know what they’ve faced. So, don’t judge your coworkers. Don’t judge your customers, your clients, or even your family members. Know that everybody’s got a fight out there. Everybody does, right? And know that the more we can focus on when we wake up in the morning—what’s right with our lives, what’s good about our lives—the more we can put our limited resources into those things. That’s how we can grow good for ourselves. That’s how we will grow good for our businesses. Businesses can be good forces in the world, but it takes individuals running those businesses. It takes you and me every day, worrying about ourselves, waking up and doing our part. Focusing on the good in our lives.

So, forget about me. Take a page from my mom. Take a page from her book. Start your meetings with “Tell me something good that happened today.” Take a page from Lindsey’s book, right? Say that you want to make every day count. And take a page from those little boys saying that you’re going to be grateful for every day, and you’ll never say you have to do something again. You don’t have to come to this conference. You get to come.


Bert Jacobs is co-founder and CEO of Life is Good. Launched in 1994, the company spreads the power of optimism through inspiring art, a passionate community and groundbreaking nonprofit work. Early on, Jacobs was inspired by stories from adults and children facing great adversity. Life is Good donates at least 10 percent of its annual net profits to its Life is Good Kids Foundation, which impacts more than 120,000 kids daily facing poverty, violence and illness.


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