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

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

Bert Jacobs

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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Do What You Like, Like What You Do by Bert Jacobs at TEDxBeaconStreet


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?”

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.

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.

We began to blur the line between work and play, and so to us this is what a board meeting looked like. We really didn’t know what was happening with the business, but it was growing underneath our feet. And the more shirts we designed, the more people bought.

So in the first 6 years, the first day when we sold those shirts in Cambridge, we had $78 in our pocket. And in 6 years it became a $3 million business. We thought we were on our way to the moon and we were just enjoying things. And people asked, because we have a Life is good Kids Foundation these days, “Did we start with the idea of an integrated model, for-profit and non-profit?” Trust me, I had no idea what an integrated model was and I guarantee you, my brother had no idea what it was.

We were just trying to avoid getting a job. And we were enjoying it and we were doing well with that, OK? That’s when something surprised us. We started to get mail from people who faced severe adversity, and we really didn’t know why they were writing. I’m going to read an example of a letter, and the letter came from one of these two boys. I still haven’t met them, but one day I will.

“Dear Bert and John, my name is Alex. I have a brother, Nick, and we are 10. We both have extra challenges in the world, but at the end of the day, we still have each other. We were both born early and weighed only 1 pound, so we had a lot of growing to do. When I was born, I had my leg amputated. Nick is legally blind. Me and Nick have all of your shirts, with all the things we like doing best, but if you ask us what we do best and what makes us happy and laugh the most, it is just being together. I know now that Nick has more challenges than I do.”

This is my favorite part because the kid’s 10 years old, it’s like he’s been around the world, right? “But he says and does things that make me laugh and forget feeling bad. I don’t know how to describe it, other than to say that I love him. You’re lucky to have a brother, too.” He doesn’t know my brother. “I hope you do fun things together. Your friends Alex and Nick.”

So when you get a letter like that, what do you do? You know? You get a letter like that, it shows you the depth of optimism, it shows you gratitude for what you do have, and it makes you think, “I’ll never say I have to do something again. I get to do something.” We get to do the laundry, because you get to stand on two feet. You get to go grocery shopping, you don’t have to go grocery shopping, because when you go grocery shopping, you get to look at the labels with two eyes.

So here’s these kids asking for nothing. They really called just to say “hi” and hang out. So we did the only logical thing anybody would do at that point. You probably guessed it. We started a pumpkin festival. And the pumpkin festival raised money and awareness for children facing unfair challenges. And we had it up in Portland, Maine. And if anybody’s been to Maine in October, it ain’t bikini weather, OK? We didn’t know if anybody would show up to our stupid little party or not, but people showed up. Lots of people showed up.

And this woman showed up 14 months pregnant in a bikini. She brought her husband, Mr. Positive Man, and whoever this guy was, was escorted from the premises. That festival grew and grew, and eventually we broke the Guinness World Book of Records for the most lit pumpkins in one place at one time, on the Boston Common. Eventually the Life is Good – and it raised – that first year it raised over $100,000. In 2006 on the Boston Common it raised half a million dollars, every penny going to kids who need it.

The pumpkin festival has now become the Life is Good Music Festival. This attracts 30,000 optimists. Thirty thousand optimists for a weekend, who get together and hear great artists. This is Michael Franti in the picture; we’ve had Dave Matthews; we’ve had Jack Johnson this year. So it’s fun for us, we’re still blurring the line between work and play, but we weren’t born for business, business was born for us. Business is a tool and our optimism and open-mindedness allowed us to listen to those boys and other letters and convert what we were doing to be a little more meaningful.

This kid, I have no idea, he’s at one of our festivals and I don’t know what he’s looking at, but we literally blew his mind. The community of optimists has grown, OK? So, social media has a way, I mean, the Internet was only invented in 1989, in a short period of time something remarkable has happened, and it’s a beautiful thing for humanity.

For the first time in the history of the world, customers – the people who buy things – have taken control from the people who sell things. So my brother and I are still busy making mistakes with our business, but you know what? People believe in us. They believe in us. They don’t care that we make business mistakes. They believe in us, they believe what we’re doing is authentic. We now donate over 10% of the profits from Life is good, no matter what we do, to kids that need help.

So people read about that, and they care about the causes that are important to them, and they invest in them. That is the way that capitalism is going. Capitalism isn’t broken, it’s been abused. And optimism and open-mindedness enables us to see that. For us, this is just the beginning of our road trip. We just signed a deal with Hallmark, a $5.5 billion company. I get millions and billions mixed up.

Everything we ever put on a T-shirt is now going to be on a greeting card. You know why that’s just particularly cool? Because 10% of our profitability from that will go to kids who need it. So we’re harnessing one of the big, bad capitalistic companies out there to do great things, and you know what? Hallmark and Life is good are attached at the hip now. We signed a second deal with Smuckers, another company that’s over $5 billion. I got it right that time.

The thing that’s cool about that: we’re making gourmet coffee. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t know anything about coffee, I don’t care. Ten percent of the profits from that coffee is going to go to kids that need it. We’re going to travel throughout the world. And we’re going to bring our little brand everywhere we go and we’re going to help kids all over this world. We’re not selling the company and we’re not going public. We’re doing what we like and we’re liking what we do.

You each have a road trip. Your life is a road trip. And we all share the road of life together. Be good to each other, love yourself, love each other, and enjoy the ride.

You too! Give me a high five. Atta boy!

Thank you.

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