My Greatest Lesson

Unit of One

Work, more and more, is about the lessons we learn: where to find inspiration, how to make sense of ambiguity, how to take risks, what makes a career grow. But where do all of these lessons come from? To find out, we asked 12 accomplished businesspeople to share with us their greatest lesson: “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams recalls the phone call that changed his life; Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, explains how the past teaches him about the future of technology; and Katherine Hudson, CEO of W.H. Brady Co., describes the lesson on risk-taking that she learned from her father. Read these contributions, take note of what these leaders have learned, and then prepare to add the most important lesson of all – your own.


Scott Adams
United Feature Syndicate
New York, New York

You don’t have to be a “person of influence” to be influential. In fact, the most influential people in my life are probably not even aware of the things they’ve taught me.


When I was trying to become a syndicated cartoonist, I sent my portfolio to one cartoon editor after another – and received one rejection after another. One editor even called to suggest that I take art classes. Then Sarah Gillespie, an editor at United Media and one of the real experts in the field, called to offer me a contract. At first, I didn’t believe her. I asked if I’d have to change my style, get a partner – or learn how to draw. But she believed that I was already good enough to be a nationally syndicated cartoonist.

Her confidence in me completely changed my frame of reference: It altered how I thought about my own abilities. This may sound bizarre, but from the minute I got off the phone with her, I could draw better. You can see a marked improvement in the quality of the cartoons I drew after that conversation.

And it doesn’t take much to make that kind of difference in someone else’s life. Once, at a tennis tournament, I was paired with a woman who had just learned how to play. Every time she missed a shot, she immediately turned to me, expecting that I would be disappointed or frustrated. Instead, I talked to her about our strategy for the next point. By doing so, I sent a very clear signal: The past doesn’t matter. I didn’t encourage her with empty praise – that approach rarely works. But I knew that if she dwelled on a mistake, she was more likely to repeat it, and that if she focused on how we were going to win the next point, she was more likely to help us do just that. Over several days, her abilities improved dramatically – and we ended up winning the tournament.


Realize that in some way you influence everyone you come in contact with. Then pay careful attention to what pushes people’s mental buttons. If you can push those buttons for the better, do it.

Scott Adams has been a bank teller (he was twice robbed at gunpoint), a computer programmer, and a product manager. He is the creator of “Dilbert,” a cartoon read by more than 150 million people every day. Adams is the author of The Dilbert Principle (HarperBusiness, 1996) and is now developing an animated Dilbert television series, which will air in 1999.


Nathan Myhrvold
Chief Technology Officer
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Washington

The most important lesson I’ve ever learned is to understand and to trust abstractions. If you can learn both to see and to believe in life’s underlying patterns, you can make highly informed decisions every day.

For example, everyone in high tech is familiar with Moore’s Law, which states that computer-processing power will double every 18 months. Now, Moore’s Law isn’t a law in any physical sense, but it has driven and will continue to drive our industry’s development. Yet very few people and very few companies really take this law to heart – because really embracing it leads to seemingly nonsensical projections. Five years ago, when I told people that we’d have the processing power that we have today, lots of them – even those who said they believed in Moore’s Law – thought I was being ridiculous.


I’ve learned the importance of trusting abstractions from physics, from experience, and from history. I began my career as a physicist – and physics is all about making sense of abstract physical laws. But it was in business that this lesson came to life for me. Every day, I have to make difficult decisions, and I base them primarily on what has happened in the past. History can lead you to see important abstractions, and it also offers great lessons in the need to avoid wild and tempting speculations about the future. I never make decisions in the thrill of the moment – and that seems to go against the grain in the world of technology.

I’ve been at Microsoft for 12 years. In most businesses, that isn’t a lot of time. But in this industry, it might as well be a million years. At 38 years old, I’m an old-timer. But age can provide a great vantage point. I often make decisions in part by remembering what I’ve lived through. In other cases, I draw on what I’ve read – whether it’s about early Chinese civilization or the birth of the Renaissance in Italy.

It’s unfortunate that the technology industry does not value history – not even its own history. Everyone thinks that the past is uninteresting: It’s not hot, it’s not new. I love the idea of the future. But the future isn’t here yet – I can’t learn much from it. If you want to make good decisions about what’s to come, look behind you.


Nathan Myhrvold joined Microsoft in 1986. He is a member of Microsoft’s Executive Committee, which is responsible for the company’s strategic planning, and heads its Advanced Technology and Research Group, which invests more than $2 billion a year in R&D. In his spare time, Myhrvold works as an assistant chef at a French restaurant in Seattle.

Katherine Hudson
President and CEO
W.H. Brady Co.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin


My father taught me everything that I know about taking risks. When he graduated from high school, he couldn’t afford to go to college. He became a messenger boy at Eastman Kodak, running notes up and down the company’s 19-story office tower. Part of his job was to clean and refill the inkwells in the executive offices. One Friday, his boss said, “Ed, can you type?” My father immediately said, “Yes!” – although he had never touched a typewriter before. That evening, he borrowed his sister’s typewriter, and spent the entire weekend teaching himself how to type. He couldn’t learn everything in a weekend, so he concentrated on learning the letters. But when he went in on Monday, the company put him in the billing department – typing numbers!

When someone offers you a challenge, don’t think of all the reasons why you can’t do it. Instead, say, “Yes!” Then figure out how you’ll get it done. Early in my own career at Kodak, I was writing a report to explain a complicated reorganization process. At the end of the day, my boss asked me what I thought about the reorganization. I told him that I thought it was a good idea but that I felt sorry for the poor guy who had to run the instant-photography division – which had been losing several million dollars a year. He then asked, “Well, how would you like to be that poor guy?” It was like someone asking me, “Can you type?” I said, “Yes!”

I had no idea how to be a general manager. Was I taking a big risk? Absolutely. But my team and I turned the business around within 15 months. We developed new products and achieved excellent results. I wasn’t going to let fear or doubt keep me from saying, “Yes, I can type.”


Katherine Hudson was the top female executive at Kodak, where she worked for 24 years. W.H. Brady Co. is a $32 million manufacturer of coated films and industrial-identification products.

Anthony Robbins
President and CEO
Robbins Research International
San Diego, California


When I was a child, I woke up one Thanksgiving Day with a feeling of dread. I knew that my parents could scrape together just enough money for a meager meal – that is, if they were lucky. For my family, Thanksgiving was not a day of feasting and gratitude. It was a day that reminded us of what we did not have. Both my parents were frustrated and without hope. But in the middle of the day, a stranger knocked on our door. He held a huge basket brimming with turkey, stuffing, pies, and sweet potatoes – everything for a Thanksgiving Day feast! We were stunned. The man smiled and said, “This is from someone who knows that you’re in need and wants you to know that you are loved and cared for.” Being a proud man, my father at first refused the offering. But the man said, “I’m just a delivery person.” Then he smiled, handed me the basket, and left.

That simple act of kindness changed my life. It taught me that hope is eternal. I was so deeply grateful that I swore to myself that someday I’d do the same thing for someone else. Years later, when I was 18, I found out about a woman in my neighborhood who needed food. She was the mother of six children, and her husband had just left her. With the little money that I had saved, I bought several bags of groceries and drove to her house. As I carried the bags into her house, she grabbed me by the arm and thanked me. I turned to her and told her that I was just the delivery boy – that these were gifts from a friend.

I had come full circle. To this day, I try to return the gift of kindness that was given to me and my family – and to remind people that there is always a way to turn things around. With simple steps, and a little understanding, every challenge can become an opportunity for personal growth.


Anthony Robbins is an authority on the psychology of peak performance and on the art of the personal, professional, and organizational turnaround. In 1997, Robbins was named one of the 10 “Outstanding People of the World” by the International Chamber of Commerce. The Anthony Robbins Foundation, a nonprofit organization, has fed more than a quarter-million people in more than 200 cities worldwide.

Anne Sweeney
The Disney Channel
Burbank, California


Several years ago, I reached a proverbial career crossroads. It was then that I discovered the key ingredient in any decision-making process: passion. I had been at Nickelodeon for 12 years before joining Fox. Now my contract with Fox was up. I was thinking very hard about my next move when Geraldine Laybourne offered me the chance to run the Disney Channel. I’m very pragmatic in my approach to opportunities and problems. I’m a great list-maker. But this time, I put aside my lists and thought about the offer in personal terms. I asked myself, Would this job make my heart sing?

My family is my passion. This is not something that you hear a lot of executives say. But Gerry encouraged me to let my ideas and feelings about family inform all aspects of my work. If you let passion inform your decisions, you’ll make good ones.

Gerry has been a wonderful mentor. She has a capacity to see your potential and to make sure that you see it. My mother is the same way. Once, when I was young, I was having a difficult time with my Latin homework. I complained to my mother about how hard it was. I told her that I wasn’t as smart as she thought I was. My mother stopped what she was doing, looked me in the eye, and said, “You don’t know how smart you are.” Gerry echoes that message without knowing it. And I try to convey the same message to others.


At Fox, Anne Sweeney helped start the FX cable network, which became the most successful launch in cable history. The Disney Channel is one of the fastest-growing networks in cable, with more than 35 million subscribers.

Tom Peters
The Tom Peters Group
Palo Alto, California

Curiosity is my mantra. It’s also my profession. Curiosity offers novel lenses for looking at the world. And the most high-powered lens I’ve discovered is variation, an idea that I learned from two of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered.

The late Gene Webb was my best friend, my best mentor, the best professor I had at Stanford Business School – and my dissertation adviser. Here was a man who earned his PhD from the University of Chicago in his early twenties. He passed on to me his reverence for the principle of variation: the idea that the message ain’t in the mean, the mode, or the median – it’s in the differences that occur throughout a population. The idea is interesting when you apply it to math problems, scientific investigations, or other academic inquiries. Apply it to startups, Web sites, employees, or customers, and it goes from “interesting” to “a matter of life and death!”

Stephen Jay Gould is the second person who taught me the power of variation. In his brilliant book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (Harmony, 1996), Gould examines “life’s bell-curve.” He shows why Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak remains the most resilient and extraordinary achievement in sports, and why the absence of .400 hitters since Ted Williams’s .406 in 1941 signals an improvement in skill, not the disappearance of truly great ballplayers.

The lesson here? When you hear about an “average” performance, an “average” score, or an “average” result – whether it’s return on equity, customer satisfaction, or employee turnover – remember to ask: How tight is the distribution? (Is the curve flat or bell-shaped?) What’s the skew? (Where does the center of the distribution fall?) Keep asking those questions, and you’ll become a convert – a variation freak. You’ll never look at the world the same way again.

Tom Peters describes himself as a gadfly, a curmudgeon, a prince of disorder, a champion of bold failures, and a professional loudmouth. He is also the author of In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (with Robert Waterman, Harper & Row, 1982) and Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution (Random House, 1987).

Peter Guber
Mandalay Entertainment
Culver City, California

Sometimes life is all about solving problems. In the movie business, at least, there seems to be one around every corner. One of the most effective lessons I’ve learned about tackling problems is to start by asking not “How to?” but rather “What if?” I learned that lesson from a young woman who was interning on a film that I was producing. She actually saved the movie from being shelved by the studio.

The movie, Gorillas in the Mist, had turned into a logistical nightmare. We wanted to film at an altitude of 11,000 feet, in the middle of the jungle, in Rwanda – then on the verge of a revolution – and to use more than 200 animals. Warner Brothers, the studio financing the movie, worried that we would exceed our budget. But our biggest problem was that the screenplay required the gorillas to do what we wrote – in other words, to “act.” If they couldn’t or wouldn’t, we’d have to fall back on a formula that the studio had seen fail before: using dwarfs in gorilla suits on a soundstage.

We called an emergency meeting to solve these problems. In the middle of it, a young intern asked, “What if you let the gorillas write the story?” Everyone laughed and wondered what she was doing in a meeting with experienced filmmakers. Hours later, someone casually asked her what she had meant. She said, “What if you sent a really good cinematographer into the jungle with a ton of film to shoot the gorillas? Then you could write a story around what the gorillas did on film.” It was a brilliant idea. And we did exactly what she suggested: We sent Alan Root, an Academy Award-nominated cinematographer, into the jungle for three weeks. He came back with phenomenal footage that practically wrote the story for us. We shot the film for $20 million – half of the original budget!

This woman’s “inexperience” enabled her to see opportunities where we saw only boundaries. This experience taught me three things. First, ask high-quality questions, like “What if?” Second, find people who add new perspectives and create new conversations. As experienced filmmakers, we believed that our way was the only way – and that the intern lacked the experience to have an opinion. Third, pay attention to those new voices. If you want unlimited options for solving a problem, engage the “what if” before you lock onto the “how to.” You’ll be surprised by what you discover.

Peter Guber was chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment from 1989 to 1995. The films that he helped produce there earned more than $3 billion worldwide and received more than 50 Academy Award nominations. In 1995, he founded Mandalay, which has made films such as Donnie Brasco and Seven Years in Tibet.

Jim Hackett
President and CEO
Steelcase Inc.
Grand Rapids, Michigan

It’s a simple but important lesson: What you do does not define who you are. I learned that the hard way – by trying to be perfect at everything I did (which I wasn’t) and becoming exhausted in the process. You’ll run into big problems if you believe that your value comes mainly from your work.

We all have tremendous potential, and there are a lot of areas in which we can be effective. And whether or not we reach our potential, our value remains the same – because it comes from “being human.”

Jim Hackett has been at Steelcase for 17 years. Steelcase is a leading designer of office furniture, with 47 manufacturing facilities in 15 countries and worldwide sales of $3.2 billion.

Alexis Herman
U.S. Secretary of Labor
U.S. Department of Labor
Washington, DC

As a young girl growing up in the South, I would hear my grandmother singing an old Girl Scout song: “Make new friends but keep the old – one is silver, and the other is gold.” The older I get, the more I realize how this simple rhyme expresses one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned.

That lesson was reinforced for me during the Senate confirmation process that I went through to become the nation’s 23rd Secretary of Labor. The process was long and arduous. But my friends were always there for me – sending notes, calling me day and night, offering prayers, contacting senators on Capitol Hill in my behalf. In Washington, people say, there are no permanent friends – just permanent interests. I beg to differ. Friends make the bad times easier and the good times sweeter.

Friends – the kind who are with you “through thick and thin” – can remind you of who you are. Success and good times don’t matter much unless you have friends with whom you can share them.

Alexis Herman was appointed Secretary of Labor by President Clinton in 1997. During the Carter administration, she was director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor.

John Peterman
Chairman and CEO
J. Peterman Co.
Lexington, Kentucky

Failure has been my best teacher. If what you’re doing is worth anything, then failing now and again is inevitable. Ultimately, success is about getting past the setbacks that you encounter. When I was raising money to start J. Peterman, I talked to several venture capitalists. They all wanted to know if I’d ever failed at anything. They didn’t see failure as a weakness. Instead, they reasoned that anyone who had never come back from failure probably didn’t have what it takes to build a business.

I’ve failed many times in my life. When I was young, I played professional baseball. All I dreamed about was someday reaching the major leagues. I went as high as triple-A before I was released – that is, fired. I wasn’t happy about that at all. But I got a job at General Foods. After several years of successfully climbing the corporate ladder, I left to start my own business. It took me about three months to go broke in that venture. Since then, my life has been filled with ups and downs.

You’ve got to keep your successes and failures in perspective. Don’t let bad experiences debilitate or demotivate you. Many people berate themselves when they fail. This is the worst thing to do. If you beat yourself up all the time, it’s hard to get back in the game. So I tell the people whom I work with never to get too cocky and never to get too depressed.

If you let failure bother you, you’ll never succeed. Don’t fear failure. Learn from it.

John Peterman successfully owned, operated, and sold several businesses before becoming a mail-order magnate. His company had sales of $65 million in 1997 and plans to open 60 to 80 retail outlets in the next five years. The romance and mystery exuded by the J. Peterman catalog inspired a character on the TV show “Seinfeld.”

Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Oklahoma, Fourth District
Norman, Oklahoma

I learned my greatest lesson about strategy from my high-school football coach, Paul Bell. During drills on how to call plays, Coach Bell taught me how to create strategy by studying our opponents’ tendencies. We would do this by watching hours of game film. Eventually, because I had watched so much film, I could immediately respond to whatever defensive formation the opponents chose – constantly testing our strategy against theirs.

I remember watching a film of one team in particular. The team was running what we called “gadget” or “trick” plays. After about five minutes, Coach Bell stopped the film. He said that when a team runs that many gadget plays, you can assume that it’s covering up for a weakness. That truth has stood the test of time, in politics as well as in athletics. Good teams don’t need gadget plays.

When you’re leading a team, the better you can communicate your strategy to everyone, the better off you and the team will be. More important, the leader is the one person who should never, ever say “quit.” Obviously, you can’t win them all. But when I was a quarterback, if I could get my team into the two-minute-warning period and within striking distance of a win, I’d take any and every chance I got. And I didn’t lose very often.

J.C. Watts was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. As quarterback for the University of Oklahoma Sooners, he led the team to consecutive Big Eight championships and Orange Bowl victories between 1979 and 1981. In 1992, he was voted into the Orange Bowl Hall of Honor.

Charles Handy
Author and
Social Philosopher
London, England

When I was in my mid-forties, my father died. His death stopped me in my tracks and changed my life. Before he died, I was a hot-shot professor at the London Business School – teaching ambitious young men and women, publishing well-received articles, writing best-selling business books, jetting around the world, lecturing at major universities, consulting for big-name companies. I was on the edge of the big time. And, I have to admit, I was pretty pleased with myself.

My father, on the other hand, had been a quiet and modest man. He had lived most of his life in the Irish countryside, where he’d been the minister of a small church. Secretly I had always been disappointed by his lack of ambition. It was difficult for me to understand his reluctance to move on or up in life.

When he died, I rushed back to Ireland for the funeral. Held in the little church where he had spent most of his life, it was supposed to be a quiet family affair. But it turned out to be neither quiet nor restricted to the family. I was astounded by the hundreds of people who came, on such short notice, from all corners of the British Isles. Almost every single person there came up to me and told me how much my father had meant to them – and how deeply he had touched their lives.

That day, I stood by his grave and wondered, Who would come to my funeral? How many lives have I touched? Who knows me as well as all of these people knew this quiet man?

When I returned to London, I was a deeply changed man. Later that year, I resigned my tenured professorship. More important, I dropped my pretense of being someone other than who I was. I stopped trying to be a hot shot. I decided to do what I could to make a genuine difference in other people’s lives. Whether I have succeeded, only my own funeral will tell.

I only wish that I could have told my father that he was my greatest teacher.

Charles Handy is the author of several books, including The Empty Raincoat: Making Sense of the Future (Hutchinson, 1994), which has sold more than 1 million copies around the world, and The Hungry Spirit: A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World (Hutchinson, 1997). Handy has also been an oil executive, a business economist, and chairman of the Royal Society of Arts in London.