“Thinking is probably the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few engage in it.” – Henry Ford
When was the last time you stopped, turned off everything around you— your mobile phone, iPad, computer, TV, radio and everything else in this hyper-connected, hyper-distracted world—and took the time to just … think? Can you remember? I can’t. I’m always on – 25 x 7.
HOW MUCH THOROUGH THINKING IS THOUGHT?
Last year 107 trillion emails were sent. Each day two-billion tweets are twooted (I know that’s not a word, but I like the neologism connotation) and one-billion pieces of content are posted on Facebook. Not to mention that 7,000 comments per second are posted on Facebook. That’s a lot of “doing” but most of it is “reactive.” Responding to the thoughts of others, who are probably reacting to the thoughts of others reacting to the thoughts of others.
How much thorough thinking do you think was thought in all that doing?
WEIRD SOUND IDENTIFIED
So, I decided to try it. Think that is. The first thing I noticed was weird. Really weird. It was a strange sound that I later identified as …
It was unnerving. To get past the unnerving weirdness, I decided to do some deep, thorough thinking on a problem I was having with a book I was writing.
Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book. – Edward Gibbon
I quickly arrived at a conclusion. It’s much easier to do a lot of stuff than think. But that wasn’t the solution to the problem I was looking for. So I stopped to think again … and immediately ran into another conundrum. Thinking is hard work. I just couldn’t get started again with that deafening silence distracting me.
So, to help the process I decided to track down one of the nation’s foremost visionaries and leading authorities on thinking and marketing, Joey Reiman, and talk to him about the future of thinking, the business of thinking … or the lack thereof.
SLOW DOWN TO SPEED UP
Joey Reiman is the bestselling author of several books, including Thinking for a Living,Success: The Original Handbook, and The Best Year of Your Life … Make It Happen Now! A world-renowned speaker, he provides listeners with the inspiration and foresight needed to become leaders of the future. Next year, Random House will publish Joey’s latest book, Business at the Speed of Molasses, which promises to speed up the ideas revolution by slowing business down so that it may be more purposeful, passionate and profitable.
Joey Reiman has it nailed. He’s won over 500 creative awards in national and international competitions, including the Cannes Film Festival. Joey also teaches a course on “Ideation” as an adjunct professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
CREATE BIG IDEAS—GET PAID WELL
And … Joey Reiman and his company, BrightHouse, charge between $500,000 and $1,000,000 per idea.
THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
In 1994, Joey Reiman did something most would think unthinkable. He walked into a meeting with his Board of Directors and announced that he was shutting down his award-winning $100 million a year ad agency, to create an ideas company—to think for a living. His only product would be “ideas.”
“The world was ad rich and ideas poor.” – Joey Reiman
Joey Reiman was convinced that the marketing and advertising world had it all wrong. Their business model—built on the primacy of ideas, but only being paid for the execution of those ideas—was flawed. You see advertising and creative agencies get clients by pitching ideas and giving them away for free. They make their money in the execution of volume production, media spots aired, print ads sold, etc. They don’t get paid for where they create value—the idea. They get paid for the execution of those ideas.
A BETTER IDEA
Joey Reiman had a better idea. He shut down the advertising company, walked away from a $100-million-a-year advertising agency and started a new company he named BrightHouse. It’s considered the world’s first Ideation Corporation.
I wanted to talk to Joey not only about “Thinking for a Living” but also about walking away from a successful $100 million-dollar company. Think about that? It took a real conviction, commitment and some serious …
Steve Kayser (SK):What was going through your mind when you shut down your successful advertising company to start a new company selling ideas? That took a lot of guts.
Joey Reiman (JR): I think everyone has a Joseph Campbell moment at some point in their lives. You’re living what would be called an “ordinary existence” or what I would call doing the “day-to-day job,” and you’re somewhere in your career, and out of the blue, you get a call, just like Luke Skywalker got a call. His was a little more dramatic because he leaves his uncle and aunt to go out and save an evil empire; he got a call to go save a princess and the universe. We all get calls to save ourselves, our families, our companies and even save the world in our own way, but we don’t take the call because we’re sort of set in our ways.
We’ve become routinized, codified and structured and live out a fairly dull existence. But we don’t have to. Those of us who do get a call to do something bigger, better … some higher calling—it’s often to leave your job, to leave your career and follow your calling.
SK: Joseph Campbell called it “Follow Your Bliss.”
ANSWERING THE CALL
JR: Yes, he did. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m keen on teaching my students at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School on not going after a job or a career but a calling.
In 1994, after having a meteoric rise in the advertising industry, winning every possible award (over 500 of them), and really gathering all of the stuff that is supposed to make you happy, I recognized that when you got to the top of the mountain, what you find up there was what you brought with you. And those gold statues actually weighed me down on the hike up. Worse … having the gold statues up there really means nothing.
SELLING YOU WHAT YOU DON’T NEED
That’s when I had a “spear in the chest” moment. I recognized that all of the work I was doing on behalf of the advertising agency was really nothing else than selling people what they didn’t need. Then I started thinking about advertising as the grandest, social experiment in civilization that had failed.
JR: Because we can’t get enough of what we don’t need. If you have any industry that’s a trillion-dollar industry focused on getting people what they don’t need, then to what end or benefit is that?
I thought the advertising industry had the smartest, most creative people on the planet, and I asked myself, can’t we do better? Can marketing move from marketing to seller to marketing to serve as a healer? This concept was very exciting to me.
I combed through history; I looked throughout civilization for the biggest ideas that served humankind and I found what I call “master ideas.” Ideas like:
We shall overcome
God is law
For better or for worse
All men are created equal
Very big ideas that were not necessarily factual, but that I recognized as truths.
FINDING THE WHY
The hypothesis was:
Can a company—a marketing company—actually look into other companies as we look through civilization, searching for the instructive sparks of fire that actually gave birth to the company, that gave the company a reason for being alive? To find the”why?”
If you found the DNA of the why, that instructive spark of fire, then you could actually rebuild a culture, wrap genuine value around it, be a more purposeful company and have that purpose drive strategy and tactics.
That notion was big enough for me to recognize a space that nobody had ever gone to in marketing. What I called it was from a word I borrowed from the psychiatric community—”ideation.” Now in the medical community, that’s not a very good word. It means to ruminate about suicide. But the second meaning of the word is the thought process—the thinking process. I combined that in with the notion of a marketing company that would call itself an ideation company that would deliver larger ideas for organizations with the hope that those ideas could help improve public life. And not just in the public perception of the brands, but the company whose advertising we’re supporting. To deliver real results for our clients.
BRIGHTHOUSE—THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH OF THINKING
And I thought “that’s pretty grand,” that should be in the executive branch of thinking. That, of course, would be in the White House. The White House turned into our company BrightHouse with the idea that I would attract the very best thinkers from around the globe in service of the globe and the people living on it.
“Ideals are like stars: You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the ocean desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.” – Carl Schurz
That was the vision to me years ago. Frankly, it was big enough of a vision. It’s kind of you to call it courageous, but the vision was more enlightening than courageous. It just wouldn’t let go of me. In all callings and in all purposes, when they’re given to you, they’re gifts. Once you acknowledge and hear it, it’s hard not to keep hearing it. Actually, it might take more courage to live a life that has not been lived than to fully recognize the power of the life you have inside you to be lived.
With that enlightenment, I put the word out and some exceptionally smart people came in. I fired all of my advertising clients except for Children’s Hospital, which I didn’t think was the right thing to do. That was 15 years ago, and BrightHouse has enjoyed a great journey helping other companies, other leaders, and other marketers hear their call and take their journey.
SK: By that you mean helping them find their bliss? Find their meaning? Viktor Frankl’s book The Search for Meaning spoke to this journey, but I think Joseph Campbell might have had a little better interpretation of it. Campbell said, “People don’t want to search for meaning—they want to experience meaning.”
JR: Yes. It’s a real search for the rapture of life. People are not necessarily searching for the meaning, but like you just mentioned, Joseph Campbell said they’re in search of the experience of meaning in life.
THE PRIVILEGE OF LIFE?
The privilege of a lifetime is to be who we are. In this society, we are not allowed to be who we are. The freedom to be who we are is often taken away from us at work. We are accountable not to our family, but to the company, and we don’t get to define successes in our terms.
Be who you are; it’s a privilege that’s exclusively yours.
So, what the power of purpose and the power of living our story is, autobiographically or with authority (the power of being the author), is that we get to write our own scripts, and that’s a cool place to be. I mean, I really love my work. I help people to make their lives work, and their companies work better than they do.
SK: So many people give into resistance. “‘I will do it some day. I will, I really will.” But then someday never comes. Resistance beats you. You came to a point in your life—a jumping-off point—where you just said you were going to do it. Was that because you were so comfortable already due to previous successes, or because you were so convinced that it was the right thing for you to do personally?
IT TAKES COURAGE TO BE WHO YOU ARE
JR: It was the right thing for me to do personally. I could not have turned my back on it. In that sense, it was the courage to be who you are in the face of adversity which, at that time, everyone in the world was saying to me;
You can’t have a company based on ideas.
Why would you turn your back on the advertising industry that’s been so good to you?
Why would you give up the accolades, financial rewards and the comfort and security of an industry that’s been proven?
I believed marketing and advertising could do better. Since then, I think I’ve proven that it can.
THE THINKING MODEL—THE FOUR I’S
SK: You created a thinking-process framework for BrightHouse by melding the experiences, processes and thoughts of many great thinkers; from Herman von Helmholtz and Csikszentmihalyi (I’ll never say that one on the radio) to Marshall McLuhan to produce your trademark Four I’s thinking methodology.
THE FOUR I’S:
Investigate – Gather and analyze quantitative and qualitative data.
Incubate – Three or more weeks of thinking, daydreaming.
Illuminate – Big ideas don’t appear. They evolve. Look for the flash, the “AHA” spark of a BIG IDEA that will make a dent in the universe.
Illustrate – Visually portray and personalize the Big Idea.
How did the Four I’s concept evolve?
JR: I looked through all of the thinking frameworks throughout history. In the Anatomy of Thinking by Herman Von Helmholtz, a Berlin physicist, his framework is designed to suggest that there was an incubation period. He was a 19th-century physicist, so this guy was way-way ahead of his time.
PANDER AND WANDER
When I looked further at the frameworks, especially in American business, there is no narrative time, no incubation time, no pondering or wandering time, so we actually put it into our model.
Albert Einstein was keen on thinking like a child and taking the time to daydream. I think the notion of daydreaming is critical, not only for thinking but critical thinking.
YOU HAVE TO TAKE TIME
To think great thoughts, you have to create them. In order to create an environment for an unconditioned response, you need to schedule time to think, and this sounds like daydreaming to me—space-time or freebie time. That time is when we do our best thinking. It’s where intelligence has thought. The bottom line is that creativity is intelligence having thought. In order to do that, you have to make time.
HERE’S THE FORMULA YOU NEED TO KNOW: 4 I’S > C2
“Four I’s see greater than two eyes. It’s my equation not only for marketing, but living, loving and life.” – Joey Reiman
THE FIVE LAST BASTIONS OF GREAT THINKING ARE?
SK: Most companies would probably look askew at scheduled daydreaming time at work.
Turn off the noise. Listen to your mind. Get out of your cubic-hell. People who work in cubicles have jobs too small for the spirit, and that’s an American tragedy. They’re really cubic-hells.
“Face it, most of us have jobs too small for our spirits. “- Joey Reiman
SK: And that’s still the model you use, the four “I”s?
JR: It’s the methodology we use in order to identify a company’s purpose. What BrightHouse is known for is helping Fortune 100 companies:
Discover and articulate their purpose
Tell their story— and by doing so
Attract relationships and not necessarily customers
BUYER VS. BUY-IN FOCUSED
That’s very different from typical marketing that is focused on getting people to buy things. We’re focused on one thing, and that’s to buy into—not to buy things but to buy into things.
“You don’t buy an iPod, you buy into the Apple philosophy.”- Joey Reiman
This is all predicated on the notion that human beings crave meaning. If you’re not creating meaning, then why should people seek you out? But if you create meaning in a genuine, moral and ethical sense, then people will not just want to break down your door, they’ll want to live with you. I think this is really the most important thing as marketing moves from product-focused to customer-focused and gets into the power of relationships.
SK: Just a wild guess here, but I think you probably ran into some resistance and adversity when you tried to create BrightHouse. What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
JR: I ran into a lot of people that said “No. Won’t work. Who’ll pay for an idea? “
SK: (That’s what I was thinking— boy was I wrong. But then again, refer to the opening cartoon.)
JR: And … “Really , who would pay for an idea? It’s not the way the world works.” That’s when the Coca-Cola Company and Coty Cosmetics stepped forward and tried it. We’ve never looked back. But, even to this day, fifteen years later, I still have to teach people a whole new way of thinking and sell the concept.
Our business is really Thinkonomics, and the work we do at BrightHouse is for visionary leadership. Though I’d like to think that every leader is visionary, you and I both know that’s not the case.
QUARTER CENTURY VS NEXT QUARTER
I search for people who are thinking forward into the next quarter century—not just the next quarter—for their shareholders. I think that stereoscopic vision where you’re focused on both the next quarter and the next quarter century is the kind of leader that hires BrightHouse.
“I paid Joey Reiman $1 million just to think!” – CEO Jim Adamson of the Advantica Restaurant Group
SK: Selling value. Selling the value of an idea. You actually charge $500,000 to $1,000,000 per idea?
JR: Yes. I think if you were to ask any of those CEOs “was it worth it?” they’d say yes. Many have been asked. There is a real sense of great value delivered. And value, in return, should be received for great ideas.
QUESTIONS CAN BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANSWERS
It’s something I feel strongly about and stand for. It’s just like grammar school. You don’t get credit for the answers; you get credit for solving the question. The questions could be a lot more important than the answers. These questions lead you to deeper thinking toward thoughtful solutions. We don’t need quick solutions. A quick solution often doesn’t work. Thinking more deeply, thinking more thoughtfully, thinking more long-term, takes a longer period of time, but it has greater generative effects.
STOP DOING—START THINKING
We need to stop the doing and start thinking.
SK: Yes. Agreed. But it’s a little difficult for some managers and leaders to think you’re working when you’re at your desk thinking. For example, I tried that once.
And the boss caught me deep in thought, which I re-positioned as “I was hard at work.” My reward? A retro-pay adjustment. That belies the flawed notion of seemingly “doing something” means your working.
“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway
Was there a point when you were creating BrightHouse and the “Thinking for a Living” concept that you questioned whether you could really pull it off?
JR: I’ve had times at BrightHouse where we took a step backward. I remember working with Delta Airlines and they wanted us to go back to doing their advertising. There was a lot of money on the table—a very lucrative opportunity. I did it, took the money, and it was a big mistake. So yes, I did question myself.
SK: How do you sell ideas? I know you can sell ideas with volume production and execution, but just the idea itself? It sounds to me like the epitome of the definition of a “Complex Sale.”
JR: I couldn’t sell something unless I believed in it—passionately. It’s very similar to consultants. There are two kinds of consultants: the experts and the advisors. The experts I can get in the phonebook. But the advisor is different. In past times, the king would rely on his advisor, not the expert. The advisor was always stacked above everyone else next to the king.
That’s what we sell at BrightHouse. I’m not selling expertise. Those in advertising, they’re experts at communicating. We’re advisors. I do think people will pay for a point of view because anyone can have a point of view.
But to have a:
Point of view
Live that purpose
Look at the world through a prism of purpose that magnifies everything
… that people will pay well for … very well; millions of dollars.
SK: What do you look for in a person when BrightHouse hires a thinker?
JR: Well I used to put out a “For Hire” sign, but it was spelled “higher;” the notion being that we were looking for people with a higher form of thinking. Beginning at BrightHouse is pretty hard. There are some interviews, a number of case studies, a number of cases, and I don’t look for anything close until I look into the eyes of the person.
I look for passion because I can teach anyone just about anything, but I can’t teach will. I need will much more than I need skill. If I see will in your eyes, I don’t care what your skills are like; that can be taught. But the will is a gift. That’s what I look for.
“Will is more important than skill. Thinking can be taught. But will is a gift.” – Joey Reiman
SK: Who are some of the luminary thinkers you’ve attracted to BrightHouse?
JR: We’ve created the largest and most distinguished Luminary Network on the planet. We engage these top scholars and expert advisors on all of our projects to provide divergent, unprecedented thinking and insights. It’d be easier if people just went to our website and clicked on “Luminaries” to check them out. But they include:
Dr. Philip Kotler, Distinguished Professor of International Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management
Dr. Edgar Mitchell, the sixth astronaut to walk on the moon and the pilot of Apollo 14
Robert Watson, former CEO of the Salvation Army
Horst Schulze, founding president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
Dr. Kary Mullis, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry
Dr. Allison Druin, Director of the human-computer interaction lab at the University of Maryland
Sam Keen, noted philosopher and author. Bill Moyers profiled him in the 60 Minutes PBS special “Your Mythic Journey.”
Among many others.
SK: Back to thinking for a living. What do you think of a genius-type like Nikola Tesla who got the call to change the world through his inventions? He did change the world but died alone and penniless, mainly because his call didn’t include business smarts. He believed himself to be a “Planter of Seeds,” of great ideas for the benefit of our world. Thomas Edison on the other hand invented for one purpose: to sell a product. If he couldn’t sell it, it wasn’t worth inventing. The businesses he created still exist today, and he died fabulously wealthy.
JR: When so many artists and great inventors get the calling, there is not a checkbook. Larry Barkin said, “Infinite patience produces immediate results.” What he meant by that is that if you have a calling of something great, you need to heed it. Edison beat Tesla in sales. Plain and simple. It was his call. Not Tesla’s. But I think if people follow their dreams, try to live them every day, then their dreams will come true. Those of us who have them every day get to live a better life than those who are living without the dream, which is, I think, a nightmare.
Aspirations are different.
What do you aspire to? Is it money? Will you be happy with money? I don’t think most are. Life isn’t printed or lived on dollar bills even though a lot of people think it is. I know a lot of unhappy rich people. I know more happy people without a lot of money but have great hearts, and the dream in their heart is what sustains them.
I wish for everyone to be a Tesla and not an Edison.
SK: If Tesla were alive today, would it be any different?
JR: Yes. Because he’d be working with BrightHouse. His soulful passion would be nurtured and rewarded.
Passion + Purpose = Profit
About Joey Reiman
As founder of BrightHouse, the world’s first Ideation Corporation™, Joey Reiman decided to offer companies a revolutionary way of thinking that promised to change the way they did business forever. Over the past 25 years, Joey has emerged as one of the nation’s foremost visionaries and leading authorities on thinking and marketing. He is the bestselling author of several books, including Thinking for a Living, Success: The Original Handbook, and The Best Year of Your Life … Make It Happen Now! A world-renowned speaker, he provides listeners with the inspiration and foresight needed to become leaders of the future.
JReiman@thinkbrighthouse.com Atlanta 790 Marietta Street P: 404-240-2500 Atlanta, GA 30318 F: 404-240-2501
When you were a little boy or girl you had this dream, you were going to change the world, restore honor, restore dignity. Remember? Did you follow your dream?
Michael Uslan did – and earned $2.6 billion dollars along the way. I had the wonderful opportunity (and great fun) of interviewing Michael. For those of you that don’t know the name, Michael Uslan, he was the executive producer of films such as Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Constantine, The Spirit, Batman Begins, and the second highest grossing film of all time, The Dark Knight.As a producer, he is one of the highest-grossing movie producers of all time, with The Dark Knight alone having already passed the $1 billion mark.
The Boy That Loved Batman
But the real story behind the rise of Batman and the Dark Knight is a Horatio Alger-type tale. And it all started when an 8-year-old boy got mad at the dissing of Batman and vowed to avenge his honor. Michael tells the story in his book “The Boy Who Loved Batman,” a true story of how a comic-obsessed kid conquered Hollywood to bring The Dark Knight to the silver screen. And along the way, a Cincinnati love story places a critical part, without which, the Dark Knight may have never risen.
Steve Kayser: Michael, your book is exceptional. It’s an inspirational tale of how one person (you) armed only with a burning desire to restore dignity to your childhood hero, Batman, conquered Hollywood. Can you talk about the moment – the Bruce Wayne moment – that changed your life forever?
Michael Uslan: Yes, you know it’s funny when those moments strike. I guess I have to explain what a “Bruce Wayne” moment is. For those of you out there who might be Batman fanatics or comic book nerds as I was, young Bruce Wayne, at about age 12, saw his parents murdered before his own eyes. At that moment, he sacrificed his childhood and swore that he would get the guy who did it. Swore he’d also get all bad guys. He made a commitment that he would honor for the rest of his life, even though he had to walk through hell for the rest of his life to do so.
The Dissing of Batman
Well, my Bruce Wayne moment came on a cold night in January 1966. My parents were safe upstairs in the kitchen, and I was downstairs in the den watching the debut of the Batman TV show. I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified by what I saw on TV. I mean I was thrilled that it was the first TV series since George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman, about a superhero. It was in color, the car was cool, but I was horrified that the whole world was laughing at Batman.
POW, ZAP, WHAM
That just killed me. I made my little vow that somehow, someday, someway, I would show the world what the true Batman, the 1939 creature of the night, stalking criminals in the shadows, was really like.
And that somehow I would erase from the collective consciousness of the world culture those three little words: pow, zap, and wham.
Steve Kayser: Uh-Oh. I love those words. I knew that when I heard those words, someone was going to get a butt-whipping. Robin was going to get in trouble. Then he’d say, “Holy crap.” Then Batman would save him.
And the world would be alright.
Michael Uslan: It was a superhero version of Tourette Syndrome that Robin had.
Steve Kayser: Haha, funny. What I liked about that is, down deep you realize that Batman has one thing that none of the other superheroes had. He was a normal guy in extraordinary circumstances, very much like Joseph Campbell’s archetypal monomyth described in the book, “The Hero’s Journey.” His parents were killed, was thrown into a life journey to avenge a mighty wrong. You were like that too, but you started that night in 1966. What got you through all those years until you got to college before you started on your grand journey?
Michael Uslan:Well, I was the ultimate comic book fan boy. I collected, read and devoured comics. My mom said I learned to read from comics before I was 4. By the time I graduated high school, I had a collection of over 30,000 comic books dating back to 1936.
My poor dad, when we moved into our house, never once got his car in the garage. But he supported my interest in reading and built wall-to-wall-to-floor-to-ceiling shelves for my comic book collection. And as soon as I filled the shelves up, we sold the entire floor of the garage. So that defined me.
And I was lucky. I grew up in the ’50s and ‘60s. In the mid-‘50s, there was an attack on comic books. A psychiatrist claimed that comic books were the reason for the post-World War II rise in juvenile delinquency and that any kid who read a comic book would become a juvenile delinquent if not worse. Many of my friends’ parents burned their collections, would not allow them to bring comics into the house.
So I was lucky because my mom said if I promised to read books, newspapers, and magazines as well as my comics and kept them neat, I could keep them. That was the best deal I ever had in my life.
So really, in going forward with a goal in life, to have supportive parents, great teachers, and to have ultimately a supportive wife is incredible.
Steve Kayser: You weren’t the product of a billionaire’s son – you worked your way up, knocked down doors and along the way you even got bloody knuckles from pursuing your passion. It was a long road. Years of rejection. You even had one Hollywood producer say that it was the ‘worst idea they ever heard of in their life, creating a movie out of Batman.’
What was your worst rejection, how did you overcome it, and what sustained you?
First – Quit Your “Job”
Michael Uslan: Well, to set the stage, I actually acquired the rights to Batman in 1979 with my partner. I quit my job and went to Hollywood, even though I didn’t come from money and I couldn’t buy my way into Hollywood. I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood. I had no relatives in Hollywood. I thought with Batman in my back pocket I could convince them that dark and serious Batman movies, the way he was originally created, would be something that the world had never seen before and would be tremendously successful.
Batman as a Movie – HaHa – Are You Crazy?
I was shocked when every single studio in Hollywood turned me down.
I was repeatedly told I was crazy. It was the worst idea they ever heard, and the rejections just piled up. It was,
“Michael you are nuts. You can’t do serious comic book movies.”
Michael, you are out of your mind. You can’t do dark superheroes.”
“Michael for God’s sake, nobody has ever made a movie based on some old television series.”
I had a closet full of rejection slips. One of my favorite rejections was from Columbia Pictures, when after pitching my heart out for the dark and serious Batman, the head of production said,
“Michael, come on, you are crazy. Batman will never succeed as a movie because our movie “Annie” didn’t do well.”
Are you talking about that little red-headed girl who sings Tomorrow?
Well, what does that have to do with Batman?”
“Oh come on Michael, they are both out of the funny pages.”
And that was my rejection from Columbia.
Steve Kayser: What was it about Batman that drew you in so much that it turned into your life’s pursuit?
The Greatest Super-Power … Humanity
Michael Uslan: At age 8, when you are consuming every comic book you can get your hands, it’s magical. These comic books truly are today’s modern day mythology. It carries on from the ancient gods of Greece, Rome and Egypt except for today they are all in spandex and capes.And when you find a superhero who has no superpowers, his greatest superpower is his humanity. Somebody who is not a guy who slugs his way out of a fight with a pow, zap, and a wham, but it’s a guy who typically out thinks his opponent.
At age 8, I did believe in my heart of hearts that if I worked out really hard if I studied real hard, if my dad bought me a cool car, I could become this guy.
In addition to that, you had the primal origin story of Batman that cuts across borders, demographics, and even cultures. You also have the other important elements that give any superhero his popularity and longevity, and that is great super villains. Batman simply had the best.
Steve Kayser: In retrospect, it all sounds easy. A great idea. Great story. A no-brainer. But it wasn’t, was it?
Michael Uslan: No. Let me go back a bit. I was eight years old when I decided my goal in life would be to write Batman comics. That came true for me when I was in college at Indiana University in Bloomington. And you know what? I panicked because then my dream as a little kid had come true. I needed a new dream, what was it going to be? And it took me 10 minutes to think back on that day in 1966 and say, okay my next dream in life is going to bring a dark and serious Batman to the big screen.
But then comes the real challenge … how do you do that? Remember – I was in Indiana.
Well, I had been mentored into DC Comics through a man who became the President there, a wonderful man named Sol Harrison. He brought me into DC when I was in college at Indiana. And when he heard what I wanted to do, he put his arm around me, very fatherly, and said,
“Michael, please save your money, don’t do this. Since Batman went off the air on television, he is as dead as a dodo. Nobody is interested in Batman anymore.”
And I said, “Yes, but Sol if we do it in this new dark and serious way like nobody has ever seen before, we can do it.” He said, “Is there any way I can talk you out of this?” I said, “No.” And he said, “All right, come on in.”
Do You Believe?
It took us six months of negotiation before my partner, and I were able to buy the rights, scrounge up money from people we knew, from dentists, doctors, lawyers, relatives, whatever we could find and get the rights to Batman.
Steve Kayser: So for the next TEN YEARS you busted your butt. Against staggering odds. I would say almost overwhelming odds. Did you ever just say, “Ahh, I might not make it?”
Michael Uslan: Not really. I just kept on plugging. You know, at the bottom of it all it tests your mettle. When life turns into a 10-year long human endurance contest and everyone is telling you,“you are crazy,” “you stink, your ideas are terrible,” you really have to look deep inside and say, ‘Okay, am I just being stubborn or do I really absolutely believe in myself and my work?’
The key thing is you have to have support behind you. I married a girl I met the first day of my freshman year at college. She wasn’t even unpacked when we went out for the first time. And she knew what she was dealing with right up front with a kid who at that point was 18 years old, still reading and collecting comic books, that wanted to make comic books his livelihood Batman. And, by the way, she was a Cincinnati girl.
Steve Kayser: There you have it folks — The Dark Knight Rises because of Cincinnati girls. Wait a minute. That’ didn’t sound quite right.
Cincinnati Saves the Dark Knight!
Michael Uslan: I think I know what you mean. But, as a result, we have spent just so much time over the years in Cincinnati. Her whole family is based in Cincinnati. Her dad founded the Cincinnati Eye Institute, and he became my guardian angel. If I have a minute, I’d like to tell that story.
Steve Kayser: Of course, take more than a minute. It has to be an amazing story because I don’t think any girl I dated in Cincinnati would ever protect me if I told her Batman was going to be my livelihood. Their first response would typically be a knock upside the head.
Michael Uslan: Well, it was at a time where my back was against the wall, the years were going by, I still couldn’t get the dark and serious Batman movie up and running, Finally, I ran out of money, didn’t know where to turn next, or what was going to be. And my father-in-law, Dr. Morris Osher from Cincinnati flew out. Wisest man I’ve ever known. He sat me down and here’s our conversation,
“Okay, you went to law school so you would have something to fall back on. You now have a new house and a mortgage. You now have a baby. You have got to support your family and you can’t think of yourself as having failed. It was a great struggle and trying is really worth everything.”
“Yes, but I am so frustrated, I am so close.”
“Well, how close are you?”Don’t tell me, to getting a signed contract or deal, but to having a check in your hand for six figures.”
“You are sure?”
“I think in five months I will have a check like that.”
“All right, I am going to pay all your bills for the next five months and at 6 o’clock p.m. from this day, five months from now, if you don’t have that in your hands, you will then accept the fact that you need to go back, be a lawyer and support your family?”
Steve Kayser: Can I have his phone number?
Michael Uslan: Ha-ha. Well, I couldn’t thank him enough. I spent the next five months working probably 20 hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone in Hollywood knew about the deadline I was facing and then they took advantage of it, because the last day, sometime between noon and 3 o’clock, a FedEx truck pulled up with signed contracts and a check for six figures.
I was able to pay back my father-in-law and have enough money to get us to the start of Batman.
Steve Kayser: If Joseph Campbell were still alive he’d use your story as an additional monomyth for the “Hero With A Thousand Faces.” The part where the wise sage steps in and helps the struggling hero. I suspect Mr. Campbell would find true symbolic meaning in the fact that the wise man was also a man of vision — an eye doctor. And I’m pretty sure it would be unique – I know of no other myths memorialized in Cincinnati. Well, except maybe the 1975 Big Red Machine.
But all of this still boiled down to you and your passion.
Michael Uslan: That’s so true. What it all comes down to, if you have a burning passion in your life, whatever it is – you have to pursue it. Make it come alive. Make it real. I learned this from my dad. My dad was a Mason. He worked six days a week his entire life, from age 16 into his 80s. No matter what the weather was, he got up before dawn, a big smile on his face, couldn’t wait to get to work because he was an old world artist, a craftsman who loved what he did with brick, stone and marble. He loved building beautiful fireplaces, homes, and walls. When you grow up in a house with someone like that, how can you not want that for yourself? How can you not want to wake up on a rainy Monday morning and say I can’t wait to get to work?
Well, my brother and I went to work for my dad in the summers, and it was awful.
But this was our foundation. It was still awful. I realized I had to figure out what my “bricks and stones” were. For me it was comic books, Batman and movies gave me my passion. Then my mother taught my brother and I an important lesson in growing up and it was very simple in our house. Once you make a commitment, you stick to it, period, end of story, no excuses, you stick to it. If I didn’t like Little League, too bad, I had made a commitment to my teammates, and I would see it through, and that’s just the way it was.
So to have that degree where you will commit, where you will stick to it, where you will knock on those doors, and I am telling you, I never had so many doors slam in my face. And I realized early on when that happens; I only had two choices: I could go home and cry about it, or I could pick myself up, dust myself off, go back and knock again and knock again and not get frustrated. And when I speak of colleges today, the students say to me, “well, what about timing and what about luck?”
And I say, “well, the magic of this whole thing is there is no such thing because it’s all about knocking on doors. That’s how you eventually make your timing. That’s how you eventually make your luck. And I don’t think there is any other way around it. It’s not an easy process. It’s not a short process, but I have proven you can make your dreams come true if you are willing to do this.
Steve Kayser: When you realized that you had finally done it, cut the deal, and you were assembling a team, what was it like?
Michael Uslan: Humbling. Can you imagine how lucky a person can be in a career spanning 35 years where in you can say I have been involved in projects with three geniuses. And, in the 1989 Batman, there were two of them: Tim Burton is a genius; Anton Furst, our production designer and my dear friend who designed the whole look of Gotham City and the Batmobile. His work and Tim’s work still have an influence on every comic book and genre movie done even today. You can still feel it. You can still sense it.
It was revolutionary in 1989 because there had never been a dark and serious comic book superhero movie before. And, it was Tim’s genius that said a few things.
Number one: To get an audience to suspend its disbelief for a serious superhero, they had to from the opening frames of the film, believe in Gotham City. It had to be a place they could believe was real, had its own rules, and it’s own universe. They were very successful in creating that.
Number two: To me back then, the only actor who could play the Joker was Jack Nicolson. The day he was hired, it was one of the greatest days of my career because to me, at that time, in the comic book world of black versus white, good versus evil, this was the real clown prince of crime as had been portrayed in those comic books.
Another Bruce Wayne Moment
The other thing that Tim Burton realized that no one else did was that the audiences had to believe in Bruce Wayne. This was more about Bruce Wayne than Batman, and that’s why he felt he needed Michael Keaton to play the role, somebody so that an audience would not unintentionally laugh when they see an actor getting dressed up in a bat costume in a serious movie, but someone they could say,
“Oh my god, there is a guy so obsessed, so driven to the point of being psychotic that he would get dressed up in a costume like that and do it.”
And Tim was absolutely right. That’s one of the main reasons that movie worked and it set the stage for what was to come with all different kinds of comic book based films.
Steve Kayser: What did you think about the pick of Michael Keaton as Batman?
Michael Uslan: I was apoplectic when he first said, “Michael Keaton is Batman.” I said, “Oh my God.” Eight years of my life trying to bring a dark and serious Batman to the screen and now I had in my mind, I was picturing the posters,
“Mr. Mom is Batman.”
I almost fell apart.
But it was all under this vision that Tim had and his ability to execute.
Steve Kayser: When you saw the first couple of cuts, was there any trepidation? Were you worried or nervous?
Michael Uslan: No, I believed in this from day one.
When everyone was telling me no; when everyone told me it was the worst idea they ever heard, I never faltered in my belief.
I always knew it would be tremendously successful. And I guess my big epiphany in life came when the movie debuted and broke almost every box office record and started to impact culture worldwide. It was so huge in 1989.
Steve Kayser: Did you do a shimmy-shimmy-shake victory dance when you realized you had shown all the naysayers wrong?
Michael Uslan: Well, it was a great feeling. I got a call from the guy ten years ago who was one of the studio heads who had just virtually thrown me out of his office; he thought it was such a terrible idea. And the phone rings, and he says,
“Michael, I am just calling to congratulate you on the success of Batman. I always said you were a visionary.”
And then it was clear to me, if you don’t believe them when they tell you how bad you are and how awful your work is and if you don’t believe them when they start telling you how wonderful you are and how great all your ideas are and just believing yourself and your work, you will do fine in this life.
Steve Kayser is the author of “The Greatest Words You’ve Never Heard: True Stories of Triumph,” an award-winning writer, former radio host, public speaker and the Founder of Kayser Media – which specializes in PR, Marketing & Media Relations. His eclectic (some say bizarre) approach to PR, Marketing and Media Relations has been documented in a marketing best practices case study by MarketingSherpa, profiled as a “Purple Cow,” by author Seth Godin, and featured in the best-selling books, The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott and “Tuned In: Uncover the Extraordinary Opportunities That Lead to Business Breakthroughs” by Craig Stull, Phil Myers, and David Meerman Scott.
I’m a jerk. And might even be a Jerkaholic. Least I’ve been told that by more than one person lately. Undeservedly so I believe.
But sometimes you need to do a little introspection – take a timeout – to see if what the prevaricating, blasphemous, smellfungus ninnyhammer all-foam no-beer mooncalves are calling you just might be true. Introspective Break Over
That’s long enough. Not interested in paralysis by analysis. They’re wrong. Completely. Mostly completely. Mostly. Okay, I might have been a little off base once when I gave out my Radio co-host’s personal cellphone number on the air – saying it was mine – and anyone that wanted to could call me at any time, 24 x 7. And happened to mention we had forty well-paying jobs available that they might get the inside track on by calling me as much, and as often, as possible – because we were looking for persistence and stick-to-it-iveness in job candidates. That’s not really jerkaholic material. That’s just a radio host trying to generate buzz.
I might have been a little jerky when a good friend asked me to watch his house for two weeks while he was out of the country on vacation with his wife and children. And I took that time to go into his house, take his size 12 expensive dress shoes and replaced them with identical ones … size 10 1/2.
Benny Hill Would Have Understood
Does no one remember Benny Hill? That was a Benny Hill moment. I commiserated and empathized with my friend for two weeks. He was sure he was dying of some circulatory disease that was painfully swelling his feet and causing him immense problems walking – and soon after that, working. So he had to take off work. And watching him walk? It was a Benny Hill of a Mona Lisa. What a hoot. All-time classic. He was quick as a corpse. Who would have ever believed that he’d take it so seriously? He got all psychosomatically sick. I know this because he couldn’t work … until I told him what I’d done. What a psychosomatic man.
But he wasn’t upset at all. I know this because if he were, he would have said something and he hasn’t talked to me since.
A Moaning Lisa
And who would have ever believed his wife (Lisa, ironically enough) would’ve gone so ballistic on me?
Have you ever seen the show SNAPPED? The show that features women going ballistic against males they think deserve it? That was my buddy’s wife. Lisa. She stalked me. I had to get a restraining order against her. Was there any cause for that? Just because her husband couldn’t work and they couldn’t make their mortgage payments and had to sell their house? And truth be told, they didn’t really have to sell their house like they blamed me for. I hooked them up with a banker friend, and they worked some kind of deal out with their bank to just take the house back. Do you know how hard it is to sell a house in this market? But did I get any thanks for that? Noooo. So who’s the jerk there?
Project Recovering Jerkaholic
However, upon some honest introspection, I tentatively concluded there might be a nano-smidgen of almost imperceptible truth to the “jerk” allegations. I decided to speak with Guy Kawasaki on the Radio show to see if he could help me out.
A Jerk in Business & Life
“Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.”
The first thing he recommended was trying to be more likable, because if my friends (ex-friends now) were telling me I was a jerk, imagine what my business contacts be thinking? So …
GUY KAWASAKI: If I can help YOU I need to charge more for my book!
STEVE: My friends often call me prickly – without the “ly.” They said they were considering a jerk intervention on me. They’re wrong of course. But say they weren’t, how could someone be less of a jerk and become more enchanting?
GUY: Let’s start off with the basics, assuming some people don’t know they have to be likable. You would think that would be obvious but based on the people I know, it isn’t. Some people actually criticize the beginning of my book saying that it starts off too basic, but you know what? If a majority of the people in the world were likable and trustworthy, would have skipped those first two chapters. It’s just not so. The start of likability is …
You need to smile. This smile means you not only use your jaw but you use your eyes. The great smilers of the world have crow’s feet. Crow’s feet is good, Botox is out. You want to have crow’s feet because it adds that extra sparkle to your smile.
STEVE: I think I have that one nailed. But … I don’t really trust people so much that smile, I think they’re up to something. I’ll probably skip that step. The other thing is the eyes. All my friends say I have serial killer eyes. I don’t know where that comes from but…
Dress for a Tie
GUY: The second thing is you need to have the proper dress. You shouldn’t dress way above your audience because they might think you’re trying to put them down, you make more money or have better taste. You shouldn’t dress way under them because then they’ll think ‘this punk thinks he can wear a t-shirt and jeans when we’re in business attire because he has no respect for us.’ You should dress as peers; try to dress approximately the same as how they are dressed. Dress for a “tie.”
STEVE: See, I get this. But this is beginning to look like a challenge more for others than for me. People never dress for a tie with me. I’m a Kommando Kilt-Wearing King Kayser. They should also try to walk a mile in my kilt every once in a while. They’d realize how utilitarian and classy a manly Kilt can be. If more people wore kilts I’d probably be recognized as the Dana Carvey of the business world.
Oddly, There was dead air at this point … no idea why.
GUY: The third factor is the perfect handshake, and this is where I put in the 20 variables formula for the perfect handshake that came from the University of Manchester. So no tax dollars from the U.S. were wasted on that. The gist of it is firm handshake, cool, dry, smooth hands, make eye contact, use the smile with 2 muscles, about 2 seconds long, and not too close, not too far. Those are the keys.
STEVE: Got that one nailed too. I’m pretty good with the handshaking stuff.
GUY: The next thing I’d advise is to use the right words when speaking to people. Words are the facial expression of your mind. They communicate your attitude, personality and perspective.
Big Words Seldom Accomplish Big Deeds – Danish Proverb
Your words need to be short, sweet and swallowable. Common and unambiguous. The wrong words can immediately give the wrong impression.
STEVE: No problem. Whenever I talk to the prevaricating, blasphemous, smellfungus ninnyhammer all-foam no-beer mooncalfs that have been calling me a jerk … it’s short, sweet and palatably unswallowable.
Dead Air … Again?
GUY: A journey of a thousand miles requires at least ONE step.
Guy Kawasaki has a lot more to say about being likable and becoming “enchanting” in his new book. Things like accepting others, projecting your passion and purpose, and creating win-win situations.
Let’s Make this World a Little Better, One Jerk at a Time
Now … I’m a recovering jerkaholic work in progress. So if you see me out and about, and you’re not a prevaricating, blasphemous, smellfungus ninnyhammer all-foam no-beer mooncalf … strike up a conversation! Let’s chat! You’ll be participating in “Project RECOVERING JERKAHOLIC” and making this world a little bit better … one jerk at a time.
Dr. Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and the author of the bestselling Buddha’ Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom. It has been translated into 21 languages and spent over 300 days on Amazon’s list of top 100 best-selling non-fiction books. Dr. Rick has a new book out called Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. He has taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard and his work have been featured in BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports, US News, and World Report.
I spoke with Dr. Rick about how it’s possible to physically change your brain, your attitude, work performance and life with… Just One Thing.
Steve Kayser (S): What is your book about, “Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time?”
Dr. Rick Hanson (Dr. R): It’s a collection of simple practices. Little things that people can do few minutes a day or just kind of have in the back of their mind sometimes that will produce big results over time in terms of changing their brain for the better.
Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together
There is a famous saying in neuroscience, “neurons that fire together wire together.” That means that with our thoughts alone, we can change the physical structure of our brain.
The brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is … is it doing so for better or worse? And who or what is changing it? All the events in your life, the media, the economy, the people you live with, sleep with, work with, or stare at across the dinner table? Or, are we in charge of changing our brains? That’s what the book is about. It’s grounded in self-reliance applied to one’s brain.
S: When you say brain changes, you are talking about actual physical neural substrate changes in the brain? How does it do that?
Trouble and Strife and Everything Nice
Dr. R: It’s quite amazing. An example I love is taxi drivers in London.As you might know, London is a spaghetti snarl of streets. Taxi drivers have to memorize all the streets. During their training, a part of their brain called the hippocampus – it’s like a muscle, and does visual-spatial memory – is worked out considerably. So, guess what? At the end of their training studies show – solid science – that their brain is measurably thicker in that part of the brain. They worked that brain muscle. It got bigger.
Similar studies show that people who routinely do some prayer or mindfulness practice, or contemplative exercise every day, have measurably thicker cortexes in parts of their brain that are involved in controlling attention and self-awareness.They are working that part of the brain, so it gets stronger. Therefore it, and they, are more capable of doing good things for people.
S: I have a similar example based on real-life experience with cab drivers in London. What you might not know about taxi drivers in London is that they are great poets. Great rhymers. And can drive with their eyes closed or looking back at you.
Dr. R: (Deep silence)
S: I was with a Cockney taxi driver in London. He was a non-stop, prolific, rapping- rhymer. It was mesmerizing. Mainly because I noticed he wasn’t looking where he was going most of the time. He incessantly talked about his trouble and strife. His hippocampus must have really been hip because he was a super-driver. We had 15 near-death auto accidents … and all the time he was looking back and talking to me. But he eventually delivered me safe to my destination. That’s how well he’d memorized the art of driving in London. Finally, I asked, “what kind of trouble and strife do you have my friend? Please tell me before I expire in this cab.”
He responds, “Same as you mate. Except you Americans call your trouble and strife a wife.”
Dr. R: Isn’t that great?
Building a Better Brain
S: It’s funny now – but I aged in dog years for that 15-minute ride. What are a couple of formative practices other examples of formative practices to help build a better brain?
Get on the Right Side – Your Own
Dr. R: The first thing to do – and the beginning of it all – is to get on your own side.
I had a business background before I became a neuropsychologist. In business, there is a pretty good understanding of the need to be for yourself, right? But I think a lot of people just don’t have that same strong sense to be for themselves.
They are better friends to other people than they are a friend to themselves. The little basic practice of treating yourself like you matter is critical. Often we become overwhelmed with job issues, children, relationships, the economy – and it’s kind of hard to be for ourselves.
Not Against – But For
That doesn’t mean being against others – but to be for yourself.
That fundamental attitude towards your welfare in a strong and sustained way is incredibly important. For some people, it’s a, “so what?” Or, “of course.” But when was the last time you thought,
“I need to be a better advocate for myself?”
Another practice I call, “notice you are all right, right now.” It is based on an effective rule that developed as us humans came out of the woods and into civilization. The rule is;
“Eat lunch today, don’t be lunch today.”
The very first emotion we evolved was fear. We are vulnerable to a sense of threat and that’s why there is typically in us this subtle background pulse of anxiety, kind of a trickle. For some people, it’s more like a river. Animals or humans that did not feel anxious got eaten. Ones that survived are paranoid and cranky.
There is this tendency to look at life as if it’s always at a DEF-CON FOUR threat level of nuclear war. The brain routinely tends to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources for dealing with them. It’s important to put in a correction factor. Otherwise, you have what I call “paper tiger paranoia.” We go through life with a sense of more things about to jump than are there.
So, if people just kind of notice that …
I am all right. Right now. That’s right. I’m all right now.
S: But sometimes … we’re not all right. I got beat in checkers yesterday by arrogant, pompous loudmouth know-it-all 5-year old. A despicable act of treachery was involved. But there it is. I was eviscerated.
Dr. R: Yes, sometimes we are not all right. Sometimes terrible things happen, or we are in real pain or something like that. Like you were. But most moments, for most people, most days, they are truly basically all right. And letting that sink in is what’s called “taking in the good.” Always take the good when you can. It nourishes you.
Sinking in is the Way Up
You let it sink in over and over again.
You are all right. Right now.
It will build self-confidence, a sense of strength and a willingness therefore to dream big dreams, take a serious swing for the fences, reach out to say what’s in your heart, ask for the love you want, ask for the raise you want because you have this underlying self-sense – a strength and safety that you will gradually build up inside your brain.
S: You’re right. You’ve inspired me. I’m all right. Right now. And I’m going back for a checkers rematch asap.
Is there any more captivating, loved or inspiring story than of someone that works their way up from humble origins to the top of their profession, achieving more than they ever imagined? The monomythic “Horatio Alger” type story? A true story that lifts the vision of others to what can be accomplished in life—no matter what station in life you come from?
… when that same person, through bad choices, bad luck or flawed character comes crashing down. Flames out. Loses everything. Now that’s a story that captivates and inspires—in a negative way. For that story, we crave all the sordid details. How could anyone in their right mind do something like that? Risk everything? Were they nuts? We zero in with smug self-righteousness, confident that it could never happen to us.
Yes, the crash and burn story is much more powerful and alluring. We love it more than the first type of story because it exposes the flaws of human nature. Other people’s flaws that is. We love that scandalous-type story more than anything …
… when that self-same person, after being drug into the pits of a living hell, losing everything, picks themselves up, dusts themselves off, accepts responsibility for their actions and … a miracle happens. They overcome. They start winning again, against almost insurmountable odds.
THE SUBLIME BEAUTY OF A SECOND CHANCE
This is one of those stories. Ugly. Messy. Full of greed, madness and psychosis. But also the sublime redemptive beauty of a second chance.
I know this person. We grew up together. Went to Junior and High School together. Hung out together. Got in trouble together. I remember when he met his future wife of 30+ years – in the 8th grade. We recently connected after many years traveling radically different roads in life. At a high school reunion no less. After too many glasses of wine, we both affirmed our love of life’s trials and the great hopes for the future. And then, he quite possibly said one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a long time.
Him: You’ve kept in great shape.
Me: Thanks. Hard to do at our age.
Him: I’ve been in prison for the last 10 years … what’s your excuse?
MAKING A MILLION DOLLARS A YEAR
He was 32 years old, earning $1,000,000 per year and was third in line to take over leadership of a $70 billion company. He flew all over the world in corporate jets, lived overseas and spoke multiple languages. A brilliant scientist, he started a biotechnology division for this company in 18 months (it should have took 5-7 years) and had it positioned to capture a global marketshare of the product Lysine. Much better, faster and cheaper than any of the competitors at the time.
The world was at his feet.
TWELVE CENTS AN HOUR
Six years later he was making 12 cents an hour—in prison. Sitting in a barren cell on a steel-frame bed, no mattress or blankets and with nothing on but his boxers—waiting to be shivved. Sliced. Diced. Killed.
He was a corporate whistle-blower—an informant for the FBI. Not just any whistle-blower though. He was …
Dr. Mark Whitacre, AKA “The Informant,” came from a little town called Morrow, Ohio. He worked hard to earn an Ivy League Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Cornell University and B.S. and Master’s degrees from Ohio State University. He also holds two law degrees (J.D. and LL.M). Nowhere in his worst nightmare did he ever think he’d become best known as the highest-level executive of a Fortune 500 company to become a whistle-blower in US history. After blowing the whistle in 1992, Mark worked undercover with the FBI for three years wearing a wire every day in one of the largest price-fixing cases in history.
The FBI rarely leaves any agent undercover for more than a year because of the immense psychological pressures. And those are trained agents. Mark was never trained. But, his three years of undercover work revealed approximately $100 million a month being scammed from consumers because of price-fixing.
It came with a price—a complete mental and psychological meltdown. Mark went to federal prison for eight and a half years for a white-collar crime that occurred during his undercover tenure. He embezzled 9.5 million dollars from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), his employer at the time. This story has been covered extensively in several books like Rats in the Grain by James Lieber, The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald, a former New York Times reporter, and a Discovery Channel documentary called “Undercover.” But the real story is just coming to light.
END OF STORY?
It should have been the end of the Dr. Mark Whitacre saga.
Prison ruins marriages and families. About 90% of all marriages end in divorce of inmates after three years. But Mark’s wife Ginger, his sweetheart since Little Miami Junior High, was the Rock of Gibraltar. She visited him every time she could and held the family together in his absence and through many moves.
Prison ruins future job prospects. As much as we talk about “paying your dues” to society, those dues never end for most ex-cons. Convicted felons face almost insurmountable odds finding a job, even if you’re highly educated like Mark.
Should have been the end of his story. But it wasn’t. No, something happened in April 2001 at the Federal Prison Camp in Edgefield, South Carolina that changed everything. At that time, Mark still had five and a half years left to serve on his prison sentence.
A man came to see him. A wise and caring man. Someone he had never met or heard of. Paul A. Willis was the CEO and founder of Cypress Systems Research. He had tracked Mark down because of his expertise in Selenium (Cypress specializes in cancer research using Selenium). When Paul first met Mark, Ginger was at his side, as always. He says he knew the very first moment he met Mark that he was the right man for him—and his company. Mainly because Mark completely accepted responsibility for his actions, had made almost full restitution (which with interest and penalties was $11 million dollars) and had committed himself to a better life of helping people and sharing his story with others so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
Paul Willis believes that when people face failure, they have two choices:
“Get Better or Get Bitter”
Failure is a much better teacher than success. It engenders humility. Humility engenders introspection. Introspection leads to a self-aware truth—whether you accept it or not. Mark and Ginger had plenty of reasons to be mad at the world. But they weren’t. They could have been mad at the betrayal of the judicial system to them. The excessively harsh sentence compared to the other defendants. They had accepted it and were looking toward the future.
Paul Willis liked what he saw in Mark. Five and a half years later, exactly 24 hours after Mark Whitacre walked out of prison, Paul Willis hired him into his Executive Management team at Cypress Systems.
THE SUBLIME GRACE AND GREATNESS OF A SECOND CHANCE
Two years later, Mark was promoted to COO (Chief Operating Officer) and President leading cancer research.
Paul A. Willis stated that,
“By having Mark Whitacre as a part of the management team, we have taken a significant step in our effort to expand our selenium-based, cancer-prevention research and to develop next-generation products. Dr. Whitacre’s research and top-management business experience has fully aligned with the future direction of the company and its continued expansion into fermentation technology with emphasis on biotechnology and life-science applications. In the fifteen months since Dr. Whitacre joined the company, he has proven to be a valuable part of the management team.”
Dr Mark Whitacre now spends his time sharing lessons learned to help others. He is probably the only person the FBI ever sent to jail for almost a decade that actually came back and apologized to them for his behavior. And … just several weeks ago, he spoke at The FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia about his undercover experiences.
Most remarkable? He was able to keep his marriage to Ginger and family completely intact.
THE DECISION TO BE A WHISTLE-BLOWER
We talked on my radio show about his decision to be a whistle-blower. How it came about.
“In all honestly, the reason this case happened is because of my wife Ginger and the FBI agents.
“It had very little to do with me. I was a person stuck in the middle of something I had no interest in doing. In hindsight, I wish that I could have come forward and helped the FBI for all the right reasons, but at the time, I simply could not.”
“I became a whistle-blower and an informant because Ginger insisted I come forward and report what I knew. She didn’t understand exactly why price-fixing was illegal; she just intuitively knew it was very wrong. In November 1992, almost two decades ago, two hours before FBI-agent Brian Shepard first visited my home, Ginger forced my hand. She decided firmly that she would tell Brian what she knew, even if I couldn’t. She was the sole reason I opened up to the FBI that night.
“Ginger is the real whistle-blower of this case, not I. If anyone, then she is a national hero.
“Had I simply learned from her bravery and honesty, the next decade could have been very different. But along the way, I made mistakes, huge ones. On March 4, 1998, as I stood before Judge Harold Baker and pled guilty to all counts and waived my rights to a fraud trial, despite any good deed derived from my years as an FBI informant, I could not escape the fact that I had still made some very damaging decisions—again not the actions of a hero. I received a nine-year sentence that day. Many people, including the FBI agents, have said the sentence was way too long. But, the courts decided my fate, and I served my sentence.” – Mark Whitacre
Today, the FBI agents who were involved with Whitacre’s case tout him publicly as a “national hero” for his substantial assistance with one of the most important white-collar cases in history.
What does Mark say about that?
“Despite what you may read in various FBI media interviews or see about me on the Discovery Channel documentary, Undercover, make no mistake about it. I am not a hero.
“Young adults entering the business world need to learn from that. I was involved with criminal activity, and I went to prison for almost a decade. No one is above the law, no matter how successful, no matter how wealthy and no matter how educated.
“At one time in my life, and at a very young age, I had the world within easy reach. But poor, unethical decision-making changed my life forever. My hope is to guard others from the same ill-fate with my story. It is important to ALWAYS do the right thing.”
Four FBI agents along with a former federal prosecutor involved with Mark’s case are lobbying for a presidential pardon for Mark.
THE RIGHT THING
Whitacre’s story is an important personal and business ethics lesson about “doing the right thing.” But it is also a story of hope, family commitment and how to overcome extreme adversity.
WHILE YOU SEE A SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE, TAKE IT
But more than that, it’s a story of redemption … and the sublime grace and beauty of a second chance.
Say Hello to One of the Finest New Piano Talents in America.
Is there really a prestidigitating piano-playing polyglot of a musical magician that can merge the styles of Yanni and Eastern Kentucky? A once in a lifetime piano talent in America that melds and moves effortlessly between the eclectic styles of Yanni, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby, Chick Corea and more?
Yes. And the only thing more impressive than this person’s prodigy-like talent is his humble, down-home personality and life story.
Kory Caudill, singer, songwriter, composer, and piano player extraordinaire. A young man from Kentucky that performs wearing blue jeans, a University of Kentucky ball cap, and Creedence Clearwater Revival-like flannel shirts, but plays like Beethoven, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bruce Hornsby combined, even on Bruce’s wildest, fastest, prestidigitating versions of “Spider Fingers.”
Launched Career When He Was Four Years Old
When Kory was four years old, he shocked his parents when he toddled to the piano and played the melody to John Williams “Theme from Superman.” At the age of four, he became involved with the Kentucky Opry at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.
Kory Caudill has a new album out called. “Tree of Life.” And guess what? He self-funded it by playing studio gigs and touring with Justin Moore and Brad Paisley. And versatile? Rock, Jazz, Classical, Country, Boogie Woogie and more. Kory describes his style as “Yanni Meets Eastern Kentucky.”
Throughout the interview, you’ll see examples of Kory playing different musical styles. Let me know what your favorite is. Email me at Steve@Kaysermedia.com.
Steve Kayser: (Steve): When did you realize music was going to be your career?
Kory Caudill (Kory): I love getting this question. I grew up in eastern Kentucky before social media made the world a much smaller place, so I feel like it was common for kids in that area to have misconceptions of what they could and could not be, with the job of “musician” being the exception.
This may come as a surprise to people from outside the region, but there are a lot of artistic resources available in eastern Kentucky that most places don’t have, most notably the Mountain Arts Center and the Kentucky Opry. I was able to gain some solid performance and recording experience there at an early age, so it never really occurred to me to pursue anything else for a living. All this in mind, I still grew up with the notion that;
“if I have to be as good as James Whited (guitarist for the Kentucky Opry), and he’s in Prestonsburg, there’s no way I’ll ever be good enough to keep up with folks from Lexington, Louisville, or Nashville.”
So when I was able to attend the Governor’s School for the Arts in 2003, I got to spend weeks with kids from across the state and focus solely on music the entire time. This allowed me to understand how unique the opportunities are that I had as a kid and that the Eastern Kentucky music scene was one of the most vibrant in the country. I credit my Eastern Kentucky roots with the drive to be a musician, and I credit GSA for providing me that “aha” moment where I was certain I would be a career musician.
I also feel like it’s typical for artists to have had to overcome skepticism from their inner circles when they make the decision to pursue music for a living. We often hear of folks being told they couldn’t be a successful artist, or that “musician” isn’t a real profession, and they’re driven by the want to prove those people wrong. I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in the world because every person in my life has done nothing but encourage me to be a musician. My dad always jokes that he “hocked the farm” to allow me to attend out of state, private school and major in music, and I always knew that it made him and Mom happy to do that.
A Kory Caudill Piano Sampler
Steve: Who have been your biggest musical influences? You play an eclectic and diverse set of music.
Kory: Thank you! My parents are both professional musicians, so I was turned on to a lot of hip music at an early age. I’m sure this is the case with most musicians, but my influences came in phases. Some folks I’ve done more than just listen to and studied are Bruce Hornsby, Pat Metheny, Billy Preston, the Yellowjackets, Yanni, Oscar Peterson, the Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, Goose Creek Symphony, and so on.
I’m proud of the record I made, “Tree of Life.” I heard a lot of these artists make their way into my sound without doing it intentionally. I also studied a lot of Chopin and Beethoven growing up. I grew up playing country music and loving the textures and simplicity of the music. I feel like some folks who live only in the jazz world can be quick to assume country is easy to play, but it’s not. In country (the kind I grew up playing), you’re left very exposed, so timing, phrasing and the melodic nature of what you’re playing has to be dead on. One of my favorite things we did was have the guitar players play twangy country licks, but with a modern tone. If you listen closely to the title track, Tree of Life, Mark Stephens is playing a hook in the chorus that you’d expect to hear out of a steel guitar, but it’s disguised by a gritty tone. All this said my biggest musical influence are my parents, and I don’t just mean that in a sentimental way. Mom was an excellent music teacher; she really knew how to make things connect for me when I was struggling with them.
Is This Awesome or What?
SIDEBAR: A good writer is never supposed to let his views and values tilt or taint an interview. But, in these days, when a son or a daughter so outwardly credits, and gives respect to their parents for giving them the love and support that enabled them to be the special person they are (without checking their cell phone 15 times in five seconds), it’s just awesome. Plus, I never claimed to be a good writer. So we’re good.
Dad is an awesome piano player, but I think he’s best on Hammond B3. Dad has an instantly recognizable style that will make the hair on your arms stand up!
Talking About the Hammond B-3 Organ
Steve: What has been your most enjoyable concert yet?
Kory: This is a tough one. I’ve been able to make music with a lot of great people, and I’ve already performed thousands of shows in my relatively short career. There have been the huge concerts with Justin Moore, where you’re onstage with guys you consider brothers, and you look out into a sea of people and think;
“How did we get here? We were just in a van and trailer a couple of years ago.”
There have been some larger scale concerts of my own that were extremely memorable as well. That said, the most fun I’ve had was my senior recital at Belmont. Of course, I had to perform a couple of tunes that leaned more academic (and ate me alive), but none of that mattered. For the last tune, I surprised Dad and got him up on stage to play “This Little Light of Mine” with us. After an hour of tough, polished music, Dad came on stage, and we just mapped out the tune right there as if we were in church. Dad and I had performed together regularly, but never in Nashville in a theater full of other great musicians. It was an awesome moment in which I didn’t even realize I’d shut everything else out and was just jamming with my Dad, which was the perfect way to end my college career and begin my journey as an artist.
This Little Light of Mine
Steve: The business of music is much different than the raw creation process of music. What have been your three most important lessons so far?
Kory: Great question. As a new artist, I’ve learned to enjoy the process of blending the two. A lot of artists speak negatively on the business side of things, but the business side is simply the link between your audience and the music you want to share with them. I’m no expert, and nobody’s ever accused me of being the sharpest tool in the shed, but here are a few of the things being a new artist has taught me:
1. Be honest with yourself and create what’s genuine.
I know it’s easy for me to say this because I’m not a typical artist. I’ve lucked into a situation with my management and record label where I can pretty much create what I want, and they’ll put it in front of people, but I still think they’re willing to do so because the authenticity of what I give them only enhances the commercial potential of what we do. Even though I’m in a genre that has more room to breathe as far as creativity, I know that audiences in all genres are perceptive to whether or not an artist believes what they’re singing or playing, and that in turn has an effect on the business side of what they do.
2. When it comes to making music, listen to what everybody has to say.
Even your critics, even the folks who know little about music, and even your spouse! When I was in the mixing phase of my debut album, my wife Amanda walked into the studio and said (in her sexy little accent that turns more country when something has offended her) “gosh, what is that sound… it sounds like it’s from China or something,” in response to a track I was mixing. She was referring to an acoustic guitar that I’d EQ’d all the bottom end and mid range out of, which I’m guessing made it sound more like a sitar to her. My gut reaction was to laugh and tell myself she didn’t know what she was talking about, but I wised up and had two “light bulb” moments from this.
One, it reminded me that the purpose of making music is to make other folks happy. There are some brilliant musicians out there who are set in their ways and have become successful because of the “I’m an artist, I only do things a certain way, if you don’t get it then you’re not artistic” thing… I respect that, but that ain’t me. I want people like Amanda to hear my music and experience something personal instead of thinking, “wow, he’s really good” or “well that was weird sounding, he must be creative.”
Two, I’m trying to sell music to folks who don’t have time to learn about music, nor do they need to concern themselves with how to describe what they hear. Like Amanda, the folks I want to sell music to do other important things for a living (in Amanda’s case, much more important). It’s ok to be firm regarding how you want to make your music– I am–but I like to be of the mindset that everybody has something valuable to contribute to your creation process.
3. It’s about relationships. This music career thing is awesome.
You get to meet more people in a month than most people get to in a lifetime. Make friends with everybody. I’ve got a feeling that if I’m lucky enough to make it to old age, I’m going to think back to all the friends I’ve made, and the music will have only been what allowed me to meet them.
Steve: I heard Bruce Hornsby say in an interview that it’s much harder to sell records than it used to be because of the ways the music industry has been disrupted and the pirating issues. The economics, the money for musicians, seems to be in touring. Are you finding that to be true?
Kory: It’s a little early for me to be able to answer this with any certainty, but I do think that Bruce Hornsby and I are similar in that we tend to focus on our live performances to begin with. I’m hoping that as we start to really work “Tree of Life” this summer we’re able to turn some heads as far as sales, but I’m heavily focused on getting folks out to concerts and bringing them to the edge of their seat from start to finish. I’ve always wanted to be a performer, and making albums is a fun part of that process. I’m finding myself doing different, grittier versions of my songs live because fewer rules apply than they do in the studio. Economically, I’m still figuring things out, and I may not be the best example because of how different my career path is. For now, I sell the most records on tour dates, so the two seem to go hand in hand, but I’m curious to see how things shape up as we grow.
Steve: Why did you decide to self-fund your Tree of Life album? What’s the theme of your album? What’s it mean to you?
Kory: For starters, I didn’t have a record deal before I made the album, so my options were to fund it, or try crowdfunding. I think that crowdfunding can be a great thing for a lot of different goals, such as medical expenses, mission trips, extracurricular academic ventures, etc., but strictly about music, I’m not a fan of it. I think that crowdfunding in music is different than other areas because it’s possible to work as a musician to obtain the funds you need, but many in my generation lack the patience and drive for this.
Being a musician means I have the privilege of providing folks with an experience. I knew I wanted to make an album one day, so I moved to Nashville at 18 and began a several year process–which involved little sleep– to obtain the tools and resources to do so. Also, my parents did everything they could to send me to a music college they couldn’t afford. After graduating, I began work as a touring musician, and after a couple of years, I had the money to record an album they way I wanted it recorded. I was driven to do this because it gives me a purpose to make something that has a positive effect on people. I could have never asked folks to pay for something I wanted to do to make them proud and happy. Additionally, it would negate my entire reason for being a musician and point my career in a very self-centered direction. There are so many more ways an artist can obtain the resources for musical ventures that
Also, it would negate my entire reason for being a musician and point my career in a very self-centered direction. There are so many more ways an artist can obtain the resources for musical ventures that puts financial responsibility on them instead of fans. When I was given the chance to demo “Cowboys and Angels” for Dustin Lynch, I went to the bank and took out a loan so I could pay the band/studio/engineer, then recoup that money knowing I would do a good enough job to somehow be invited on the master project. In addition to all of this, I have never known anything other than unconditional support from those around me, so it was very rewarding to be able to show folks that they had gotten me to a place that allowed me to handle this project myself.
To me, the theme of this album is family. The older I get, the more I’m able to comprehend how fortunate I am. I wanted to make an album that reflected on how thankful I am for the people around me, as well as the way I experience life. I enjoy instrumental music because each song can invoke a broader emotion for different people while allowing them to apply it to their personal experiences.
Intro to The Tree of Life Album – Intimate Setting
Steve: What tips would you share to help other up and coming artists?
Kory: It’s a process. Cliche, I know. My managers and the label tell me once a week that;
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
This helps me sleep at night. I’m in no position to give advice, but I can share some that I read about which helped me a lot. I was reading a Pat Metheny interview a while back where Pat mentioned how new artists like to think in terms of “if I only had X, then I could do Y,” when the best thing we can do is ask ourselves “what can I do in the next fifteen minutes that will let me work towards achieving this bigger goal?” For me, I could have a million things going on in terms of upcoming concerts/deadlines, but I stress most when there is nothing going on. I’ve had to learn that there’s always something I can be doing to make progress, even if it’s just sitting down at the piano and running scales longer than I usually do.
Steve: Spider Fingers by Bruce Hornsby… I always troll the web for people playing that song. You’re the only one that has ever come remotely close to pulling it off live. The only one except Bruce himself. Why did you decide to take that tune on? Musical challenge?
Kory: I decided to take on that tune during college. Bruce makes it sound so effortless, so when it came time for us to pick which tune we wanted to do for the Rock Ensemble performance, I figured it’d be a fun challenge…I had no idea how tough it would end up being. As I dove into it, I quickly gained, even more, appreciation for Bruce and what he does. Looking back, I think that me and the guys would play the tune much differently now. I think that in capturing the dexterity and flash of what the lyrics talk about, we still missed on how deep Bruce’s groove is, which is probably common for young players.
I will say, though, I do like that we usually tend to rock a bit more towards the end of the tune, I always dug having it peak the way we did. I’m from the bluegrass capital of the world, so I like to play on top of the beat more than what somebody like Bruce would probably dig. That said, one semester my roommate and I waited outside a back alley for Bruce to go into soundcheck at the Brown in Louisville (flattering I know), and after we approached him saying, “it’s ok, we’re piano majors.” Bruce stopped and talked to us.
It turns out he had seen my video of Spider Fingers online, and he said;
“Yes, that’s the toughest tune I play and here you’ve made it sound effortless,”
Needless to say, that’s been one of the coolest moments of my career.
This is What Bruce Was Talking About
Steve: What is the song you most enjoy playing- have the most fun?
Kory: This is where I should probably tell you it’s some emotional piece off the record, some overly technical number, or some hit I’ve recorded on for another artist, but honestly I have the most fun when I play “The Weight” by the Band. I love that song, and I never really take the time to think about why, I just make sure I put it into every set we play.
Steve: What was it like playing at the Hollywood Bowl? How did that gig happen?
Kory: That was a special day. I played it with Justin Moore on the Brad Paisley tour. Earlier in the day, I had coffee with Mike Regan, who manages one of my biggest influences, Yanni. When you grow up in eastern Kentucky and get to have coffee with your hero’s manager before you go play the Hollywood Bowl with your best friends, it’s safe to say you’re blessed beyond imagination.
Steve: What’s your schedule like for the rest of the year?
Kory: I have several concerts that we’re waiting to confirm for the coming months, and we’re doing a very busy radio tour this summer. All this will lead up to a major event we have planned late fall and a Christmas tour that ends with our annual Christmas special in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Steve: Thanks, Kory. Looking forward to seeing you at “Live at the Ludlow Garage” in Cincinnati, Ohio May 13th, 2017.
Before You Go, Watch The Real Spider Fingers Take on Frankenstein
For more information on Kory Caudil go to: Website: www.KoryCaudill.com Twitter: @KoryCaudill