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LAS VEGAS—Frisbees, heartwarming stories, a kazoo quartet of Beatles songs, and profuse self-effacing humor were the tools John Jacobs used to share his message that optimism can take you anywhere, during his April 15 keynote address at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Talent Management Conference & Exposition.
Jacobs, co-founder and chief creative optimist of the Life is good Co., shared the corporate story of how he and his brother Bert in 1994 created an iconic stick figure, Jake, which adorned T-shirts they were trying to sell. They eventually broke into the apparel industry with the Life is good brand. Those three simple words, printed under Jake’s drawn smiley face, he said, remind them that remaining optimistic and keeping it light in the workplace are sound business strategies.
When we become adults, “we tend to see the glass as half empty more than as half full,” he said. “But Jake, the inspirational leader of the Life is good brand, sees it as half full all the time. He’s happy today”—no matter the circumstances.
Jacobs said his mother was the most inspirational optimist who influenced his and his brother’s lives. “Every night at dinner she’d say, ‘Tell me something good.’ She also said that optimism can take you anywhere. If you focus on what’s good in the part of the world you’re in, that part of the world will grow.”
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So that’s what he and his brother have tried to do while expanding the corporate brand, which has become a $100 million privately held company, with products sold by more than 5,000 retailers nationwide and in 32 countries. Encouraging attendees to take this message to heart as well, Jacobs implored them to “rediscover what you like to do and what brought you to this industry.” The result: “People will like you and want to collaborate with you, and when you collaborate, you get a helluva lot more done.”
It hasn’t been all fun and games for the Jacobs brothers and the company, however.
“[We] didn’t really know how to run a company,” he said, so they hired a friend who helped them establish their business, and got feedback from friends and family to build the business. “You’ve got to be open to feedback—use it to get stronger, smarter.”
And they made many mistakes in trying to establish themselves, Jacobs admitted. “Give people you work with the autonomy to make mistakes and grow. Funny thing about trying—you succeed or you learn. And no’s make you stronger, too. They help you step up your game.”
The inspirational stories of their customers—who often share how they’ve begun wearing the Life is good clothing to boost their positivity during times of adversity—also have this effect.
“These stories have made us realize the brand name has great power,” he said. The company has begun to support communities by hosting outdoor activities and festivals to galvanize them during times of adversity.
“This clarity of our corporate vision—this shared vision and united focus—represents what the past 20 years of our company has led to, and we’ve also decided to donate 10 percent of annual profits to kids in need. We were doing this anyway, but the clarity of this vision has given us permission to develop all kinds of new products and ways to achieve this goal.
“My brother and I believe our entire lives are like a road trip,” he added. “As you go on your road trip, we encourage you to drive toward the light. Stay wide open to opportunities and I guarantee you, life is good.”
Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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