Bert Jacobs: Do What You Like, Like What You Do at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Bert Jacobs, co-founder of Life Is Good, on Do What You Like, Like What You Do at TEDxBeaconStreet Conference.

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Bert Jacobs – Co-founder of Life Is Good

I’m honored to be here. I find these TED talks fascinating and inspiring. Some of these people, the speakers, are so smart that they just hurt my brain. I’m not going to hurt anybody’s brain. That’s my first promise.

Every day we have a choice when we wake up: We can focus on what’s wrong with our lives, or we can focus on what’s right with our lives.

In the next 10 minutes, I’m going to illustrate how focusing on what’s right with our lives, rather than what’s wrong with our lives, is the best way to fix what’s wrong with our lives. Moreover, focusing on what’s right with the world is the best way to fix what’s wrong with the world.

This is my nephew, Oliver. Oliver is 3 years old, and I went for a lunch date with him the other day. And so, I picked up Oliver. We live in downtown Boston. It was nice weather, so we went to a picnic table. That’s a picture of Oliver enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And so, that’s the end of my speech. Thank you.

So, Oliver – while I was getting the lunch out – jumped off the table and there was an elderly woman at a bench near us, very elderly woman. And before I could stop him, I thought maybe she was homeless, because her bag was a little bit dirty, and before I could stop him, Oliver introduced himself.

And the woman said, “How old are you?”

And Oliver said, “Guess.”

And she said, “I think you’re four.”

And he said, “I’m three and a half. How old are you?”

And the woman said, “Guess!”

And then Oliver took a step back and looked at me for help. And I was, like, “Dude, you’re on your own.”

You can’t win with a woman’s age, right? So, Oliver knew he was on his own, he took a step forward again, he looked at her and gave it his best shot. “A thousand?”

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I’m dead serious. And so, before I could apologize, the old woman was laughing at the top of her lungs and Oliver was laughing, and I started laughing. And pretty soon she joined us and we just — we made friends.

And you know, when we were kids we were all optimistic, we all lived our lives like this. And Oliver showed me something that day because he focused on the opportunity, he didn’t focus on the obstacles. Unfortunately, as we get older, we tend to focus on the obstacles and not the opportunity. So, we become skeptical as we get older, instead of living like this, and we live a bit more like this and we become pessimistic. Don’t give me that look, any of you, because you’re all guilty of it. Maybe not you guys, not yet, right?

So, the thing is that nobody wants to be pessimistic. Being a pessimist is not fun to be around and pessimism adds anxiety and stress to our lives. The reality is that everybody on the planet wants to be happy. Some people think that having nice things will make them happy. Some people think that being at some special place will make them happy. The reality is that the only thing that can make us happy is our disposition, our view of the world.

This is my mom, Joan. And Joan and my dad raised 6 kids on about enough money for 2 kids. And my mom had a special trick: she’d get all 8 of us at the dinner table, and of course we had as much dysfunction happening in our home as any typical American or Boston home. And my mom would cut right through all that, and she’d say something very simple, “Tell me something good that happened today.” And she taught us something, because she changed the energy in that room.

This is a picture of my younger brother John, who’s my business partner with Life is good. He’s on the bottom bunk and I’m on the top bunk. And if anybody in here has ever met my brother John, he’s a bit of a space shot, and if you look closely at the radiator, it’s very clear that he’s been snacking on the lead paint.

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My brother and I are the youngest of 6 kids, and if you visit my parents — they live in Needham — and there’s bookcases and bookcases filled with photos of my older brothers and sisters.

This is one of three photos of my childhood. And when I look at the picture, I’m like, “Mom, I can forgive you for not taking the photos, but how about putting some sheets on the bed?”

So, when my brother and I graduated from college, armed with no money and no experience but some good advice from Mom, we started designing T-shirts and selling them in the streets in Boston, and soon after we bought a van; we called the van “The Enterprise.” And we told each other we’re going to boldly go where no T-shirt guy has gone before.

So, we got in that van, believe it or not, and we traveled for 5 years, and we slept in that van on the road every night. And we had many great conversations on the road, but one changed our lives forever. And it was a conversation about how the media inundates our culture with negative information, always telling us what’s wrong with the world, but rarely telling us what’s right with the world. And the result of that conversation was Life is good, the brand. Seemed silly to trademark those 3 words, it’s almost like trademarking “hello.”

So we got lucky in many respects, but we were drawn to being optimistic and we believed that there was power in being optimistic. What was more important to us at the time, and what was a question mark, is it commercially viable? Will people actually buy those 3 words “Life is good” and other optimistic messages? Well, they did.

Two days later, in the streets in Cambridge, we sold 48 shirts in 45 minutes. And it scared the heck of us, because we didn’t know what to do. But the business started growing, despite our lack of business acumen. I don’t have time for all the mistakes we made, but trust me, we made lots of them. But the brand idea was strong enough that it carried us.