"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Birthdays Today

A titan of American business was born today, Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM.

Watson was born in 1874.   His father owned a modest lumber business in rural New York and he worked on the family farm.   Watson quit his first job teaching after one day, then quit his second job as a bookkeeper almos tas quickly.   Then he became a traveling salesman, first peddling organs and pianos, then sewing machines, a job from which he was fired, and then shares in a building and loan, from which he was also fired.   Then he opened a butcher shop, which went bust.   Finally, having had an NCR cash register in his shop, he went to NCR to arrange a new repayment schedule, and ended up joining the company as a salesman.   It was at NCR that he first became a big success, and from there he moved to become general manager of Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation in 1914 at age 40.   In 1924 he renamed the company International Business Machines.  And the rest, as they say, is history.... just this week a computer named "Watson" defeated humans on the TV game show Jeopardy, signaling for some the "singularity" when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. 

What does Watson teach us (the original, not the machine)?   That business success is inextricably linked to salesmanship, and that salesmanship is inextricably linked to perseverance, and that perseverance is part and parcel with a willingness to risk failure and keep trying.  One wonders whether the current generation, which expects financial security and success almost as a birthright, has the same mettle.


It's also Michael Jordan's birthday.   He's now 48.   Jordan's success is also instructive, but perhaps in a negative way.   Certainly his greatness had much to do with his athletic ability, but the separation between Jordan and the other great players of his day had less to do with athleticism and much more to do with his will.   Jordan simply wanted to win more than other players, and that will to win was palpable when he stepped on the court.   More than even natural physical ability, I would tend to think that level of will power is innate.... you either have it, or you don't, and no amount of coaching (in business, the equivalent would be no amount of success seminars attended or how-to books read) can give it to you.

On the other hand, maybe physical ability had a little to do with it too:

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