Ralph Lauren and Late Bloomers

Take The Road Less Traveled

Ralph (Lipschitz) Lauren Photo

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

— Oscar Wilde

In 1969, Ralph Lipschitz handed a resume to the buyer at Bloomingdales. The most persuasive thing about his short career was “tie salesman.” One of his first jobs was on the ground floor of Brooks Brothers. It was short-lived. That’s why he was staring at the balding man across the desk with a cigar in his hand.

Bloomingdales was the most prestigious retailer in the country. The buyer in the men’s department had what is called a ‘million dollar pencil,’ meaning his signature was worth millions to a fashion house. Lipschitz wanted his pencil to sign him on as the exclusive carrier of a new line of ties. The reason he called it a new line was that Lipschitz didn’t have an old one.

To Lipschitz, this was a temporary setback. He was going to do his thing, or as he would have said, in Yiddish, his “schtick.” He didn’t have much going for him, that’s true. but he excelled in self-belief.

The buyer asked why his ties would sell to Bloomingdale’s customers. Lipschitz explained young hippies were looking for jobs after graduating college. Or hot dates. The buyer said go on. When Lipschitz got started, it was like a bingo parlor caller. When it came to fashion, the new generation didn’t have much choice. Older guys wore golf pants, leisure suits, and smoked Camels. Young guys coming out of college had no idea how to look. They were looking for an icon.

The buyer said, what the hell’s an icon? Lipschitz replied that he had recently been to Greenwich where he attended a polo match. Ralph saw horses, polo shirts, brass, and leather frills, and let’s not forget riding crops. It was a eureka moment that shaped a compelling vision as Lipschitz described it. Young men wanted to dress like Cary Grant. Only that kind of merchandise went out with homburgs and trilbys. Lipschitz wanted to create a new line that would make them look like aristocrats. So what’s the line called, asked the buyer?

Lipschitz said, “Polo.”

“Never heard of it,” the buyer answered.

“Just wait,” said Lipschitz.

He also changed his name to Ralph Lauren.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps he hears a different drummer.” — Henry David Thoreau

Late Bloomers and Slow Starts

“Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” — Jimmy Carter

Self-belief allows us to extraordinary things because it gives us the courage to take the road less traveled, to use Robert Frost’s expression.

Jerry Seinfeld realized it as soon as he read the script: his part was missing.

Oprah Winfrey learned the news in a different way. The network told her she was too emotional on camera and demoted the future media mogul to television’s graveyard, a daytime talk show.

Entrepreneurs get fired, too.

Warren Buffett couldn’t hack it at Wharton. He went back to Omaha and finished up at the local state university. After he started Berkshire Hathaway, he had trouble convincing neighbors to invest at $19 a share. (Those shares are now worth $15 million each.)

For some, true north shines early. But most of us need an occasional reminder that we aren’t in the right place, that there is a better path waiting to be discovered.

Only it means we may have to get fired first.

To paraphrase an old Madison Avenue expression, you start getting fired the day you take the job. There are many ways to approach this existential fact of life. Some prefer to stay with one job forever and transform themselves to fit in with the zeitgeist, or maybe they are just a lucky son-in-law. Others wander around aimlessly as if part of some laboratory experiment, quitting after a year or so and blaming everyone for their missteps. It’s always the boss’s fault.

When they get fired, that’s when their career takes off. Part of the reason is they know that the right culture, the one that embraces their particular brand of crazy, will make all the difference in their lives. For Warren Buffett, it meant being close to home, a place where he could trust people. Those early investors stayed with Berkshire through ups and downs, which allowed the famed stock picker to become the greatest long-term investor in history. Buffett is called the Oracle of Omaha not just because he sees into the future, but also because Omaha was the only place that would let him. And somehow, when he left the Ivy League doors of Wharton, he understood that.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

— Steve Jobs (Apple’s first advertising campaign after returning as CEO)

Homework Over Hype

Now, as we take you through our stories and findings of extraordinary lives, you will see the importance of the three factors.

We diagrammed the careers of astonishingly successful people from Nobel Prize Winners to CEOs and Four-Star Generals. Then compared them to those who rose only to fall back down like Jack and Jill. In each instance, failure was the result of a breakdown in the process. Incidentally, the first two are critical leading indicators of success.

Every research subject and interview that had achieved extraordinary success in their lives and, more importantly, manage to maintain it, were united by one common theme. Despite overwhelming obstacles and many hardships thrown in their way, they were able problem-solvers. I was intrigued. I continue to find that they relied on the same set of governing principles as they dealt with adversity or opportunity which in many respects amount to the same thing.

— Fact Over Fiction — Nobody’s Fool — Discernment — Take The Water Out of Play — Avoiding single points of failure — Guiding Principle — No Nukes. Spencer Tracy: never do anything you will regret for the rest of your life. Avoiding single points of failure. I become my enemy in the instant that I preach — Bob Dylan. Take The Water Out of Play

Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines, once told me “I have an easy job. I only need to do things right: fuel the planes, take off, find Los Angeles.” Joking aside, running an aviation network is anything but easy. It requires every ounce of activity that we can muster.

Yet when it comes to making decisions in our own life, we like to rely on “heuristics” or simple rules to live by. Haste makes waste, that sort of thing. It works for baking but not so great for finding a good investment or knowing who to vote for.

The reason is that following simple rules is easy to remember. But when our lives get rerouted as they do when things become volatile, we need to change direction for which there are no simple rules. As 2003 Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Danny Kahneman said, “the brain resists work.” He meant changing what we do or who we are or how we think forces us to enter a zone of deep thought. Biologists have proved that solving puzzles require more calories than watching parades.

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Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham

Just trying to make sense of things. ex-publisher Forbes