Togo laundry

Sometimes the best lottery ticket is a bit of misfortune.

Seth Godin posted a piece a few days ago titled ‘Adversity and the Route to Success’

“Resource-rich regions often fall behind in developing significant industrial and cultural capabilities. Japan does well despite having very few resources at all. Well-rounded and popular people rarely change the world. The one voted most likely to succeed probably won’t. Genuine success is scarce, and the scarcity comes from the barriers that keep everyone from having it. If it weren’t for the scarcity, it wouldn’t be valuable, after all. It’s difficult to change an industry, set a world record, land big clients, or do art that influences others. When faced with this difficulty, those with other, seemingly better options see the barrier and walk away. Why bother? The thinking is that we can just pump some more oil or smile and gladhand our way to an acceptably happy outcome. On the other hand, people who believe they have fewer options take a look at the barrier and realize that even though it will be difficult to cross, it’s the single best option they’ve got. This is one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies. Without an astute CEO in charge, they begin to worry more about not losing what they’ve already got than the real reason they started the project in the first place.”

This insight about the corrupting influence of success harkens back to two pivotal points in my life. First, I spent a year living in Togo, West Africa back in 1981 (see photo doing my laundry above and sporting the timely Movember ‘tash). The country was trying to promote itself because unlike its neighbours, it was peaceful and stable. When you would ask a Togolese what they thought the secret of their harmony was, they would typically respond, ‘Because we are poor. We don’t have gold, diamonds or oil, so we don’t have anything to fight over.’

The reflection also recalls my time back at Microsoft. First, I remember when the stock price was really on a roll climbing big jumps nearly every month. Most CEO’s would have regaled such at headline success. Especially when the CEO owns the biggest chunk of the company and stood to benefit directly. But when you asked Bill Gates back then what he thought one of the biggest threats to the company’s future was, he was respond that it was the stock price. The success came to easily and distorted staff’s perceptions of the true threats around them. It also distorted their lifestyles. He once remarked, ‘We set up generous equity options in the hope that successful employees would be able to buy a nice house, but now we have employees buying their own islands!’ I also recall a conversation with his Technical Assistant Russell Siegelman about the perceived threats. He commented that it wasn’t IBM or some other tech behemoth that kept Bill awake at night, but some small, shoestring skunk works probably working out of a university coming up with some game shifting breakthrough.