Richard James could have cared less about World War II and navy battleships. He worked in a navy shipyard fixing things.
He was working on figuring out how sensitive instruments can remain stable if battleships were rocking back and forth during rough seas. Then something bad happened. Something that changed his life. He dropped a metal coil he was working on. It walked.
He went home to his wife and said, “I think I can make a coil that can walk down a staircase”. So, during his spare time while saving the world in the middle of a war, he kept playing around with metal coils until he had one that could walk down the staircase.
His wife Betty named it a Slinky.
Richard and his wife, Betty, set up the “James Spring and Wire Company” and figured the orders would start pouring in. They didn’t. About a year later, the department store Gimbels gave them some space to display the toy. Nobody looked at them. Frustrated, Richard put a platform diagonally underneath the Slinky so kids could see how it walks. They sold out of all 400.
In 1960, Richard disappeared to South America to become a missionary evangelical. He gave Betty control of the business. She never saw him again and he died in the jungles 14 years later. At the time he left, the business was completely failing, was over a million in debt, and she had six children to raise by herself after she and Richard divorced.
Betty sold 300 million Slinkys (two or three billion dollars worth in today’s dollars) and eventually sold the company in 1998.
People all the time ask: “What career should I choose?” or “What is my passion?” I feel for them.
There is a lot of pressure to simply KNOW what you are going to do for the rest of your life. Even though the economy seems statistically good—money and opportunity feel scarce. Feel depressing. Feel scary. Many people are scared.
But these questions (career, passion) are excuses. Nobody thinks about their “passion” until they are old enough to be scared they don’t have one.
Other excuses that could’ve been used by Betty or Richard James at different times:
- I’m raising six children with no help.
- I’m millions in debt with a failing business and a cheating husband who left me.
- Or Richard could’ve said, “I’m just an engineer on a naval mechanical yard in the middle of major World War. This toy can wait.”
- Or, after a year, “I better be a lawyer. This toy thing is not going to work out.”
- Or, “I’m 35 years old. I should be doing something serious with my life. This is NO TIME to be fooling around with toys.”
I sometimes get overcome with my excuses also. I get scared. I might think: it’s too late for me. Or: I’m no good. And certainly when I look for it, many people agree with the last statement.
And I don’t really know what the solution is. But I will tell you what I do. I pretend to be a child.
Where does the compass point? It points to experiences that resemble the experiences you had as a kid. We used to climb on top of rock piles and throw rocks at each other. We’d play hide and seek in the woods. We’d play ping pong and pinball. We’d sit around and read comic books and pretend to be secret agents. We’d play catch and then football in the street until our pants and shirts were all cut up and our faces covered in dirt.
You remember when you played catch for the first time? When you went on a roller coaster for the first time? Or when you played “chase” with your friends?
You didn’t stop to ask, “But what is my ‘career’ going to be?” At some point we all started asking that. And then the world seemed scary.
Richard James could not have guessed what his career would be even when he was already 30 years old. It was a career that didn’t even exist. Betty James could not have guessed what her career was going to be. She was raising six children.
I feel so bad when I hear kids in high school talk about how they hope in this world they will have “job security”… or that they should get a law degree “just in case”.
There is no security. It’s a total myth. Income has gone down versus inflation for the past 40 years. Jobs are filled with boredom, politics, frustration, unhappiness. You have to work really hard to make a job work for you instead of the other way around.
When I’m frustrated, I know what I do.
- I list all the things I loved as a kid. From the age of 5 to the age of 18.
- I list all the things that are currently related to those things.
For instance, if I liked interviewing and rap music back then, I can interview Coolio on a podcast right now. If I liked Star Wars, I can interview the author of 10 Star Wars novels. Or maybe write my own book about Star Wars! If I was fascinated by computers, I could learn to program and program an app that I would love to use. If I wanted to be a spy then…maybe I could be a spy! Or at least observe people and then write about what I learn.
- Write down all the reasons why you “can’t”. Then burn them. Do it in the sink or something. Set the excuses on fire.
There’s a reason this works. When you burn it, your brain is more invested in eliminating the excuses. “I only burn things that are garbage,” it thinks from experience and that’s how you program the brain. Whenever I try to predict what I’ll be doing six months from now, I’m always wrong.
I loved playing outside until it was too late. My mom’s screeching voice rising above the maze of my friend’s backyards trying to track me down for a dinner that was going to be cold was always dangerous. I wasn’t thinking about careers then. And later, when I did think about careers, I was always wrong.
I just counted them. I’ve had 17 different careers since graduating college. Not jobs. Careers. Working in the hedge fund industry is different than starting an Internet business is different than trying to do a TV show is different than computer programming. And so on.
Most of the careers I’ve had as an adult didn’t exist when I was a kid. Heck, most of the things I do now didn’t exist five years ago.
And whenever I try to predict six months from now, I’m always wrong. I never know what I’m going to be doing six months from now. Maybe six months from now I’ll wake up outside the Matrix and be fighting robots or whatever. Who knows? I think I’m qualified.
I was so scared of my mom’s voice as a kid, calling me home for dinner. I wanted to have fun with my friends.
“James! Where are you!”
She would sometimes drive around the neighborhood, looking for me. I would hide.
We all have a compass and for many years I buried it. Where does the compass point? It points to experiences that resemble the experiences you had as a kid. It points to people you like. It points to movement and exercise and creativity and curiosity.
It doesn’t point to meetings. Or a boss that hates you. Or work that destroys you. It points to the experience that is closest to finger-painting with your friends. It points to funny.
Eventually I’d have to respond to my mom, or my friends would just show my mom where I was hiding because adults had power over us. “Where is he!?”
Life is better when a larger percentage of my day is going in the direction my compass points me. Some days it’s 10%. Some days it’s 100%. I think I’ve been improving my percentage the past few years. I used to play for hours with a Slinky, trying to make it walk down the spiral stairs in my house. That was last week.