Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

A SHOE SALESMAN'S SON AT MIT

The son of a brilliant failed entrepreneur learns that anybody who follows a few simple rules can thrive in our new economy


The central building of MIT's Sloan School of Management is designed to send the powerful signal that it is a place where people look to the future. It is all curved, with steel and glass, with a massive, multistory atrium, marble walls, and a clean, modern look that suggests that it is a temple for the efficient exploration of new technology. I had gone to MIT to meet with Scott Stern, whose official title is "professor, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategic management."

I had come across Scott while researching a hunch. At NPR's Planet Money and then at The New York Times Magazine, my job was to report about the economy. During the financial crisis and the years immediately after, much of my work was, frankly, quite depressing. I kept interviewing people whose lives had been devastated, their homes repossessed, their credit shot. I reported on entire industries that had collapsed. Now and then, though, I came across someone who was thriving. Taken together, these were people who didn't stand out as brilliant or credentialed or well connected. These were regular folks—an accountant in South Carolina, some Amish guys in Ohio, a lesbian couple in Brooklyn, a fellow making brushes on Long Island—who had somehow figured out that the very forces that were wreaking havoc around them also brought new opportunities. Each of them had looked at a traditional and struggling industry and invented a new way of succeeding in it. These were not billionaires or people featured on the covers of magazines or individuals who had become household names, but they were all earning a good living, building wealth, and providing a better life for their families than they had once thought possible.

I read pretty much every business book that becomes well known, and one thing about them has always struck me. Countless books explain how to be the CEO of a massive corporation or how to create a Silicon Valley start-up that will make you unimaginably rich. There are so many books that recount how once-in-a-generation geniuses made their fortune. But there are so few books about the kinds of folks I was discovering, those who looked at a terrifying economy and found a clear path to stability and wealth when, all around them, their peers were anxious. I collected these people; I published stories about some and kept details about others in a file on my computer. Eventually, I had found so many of these folks that I became convinced that this was a widely known trend, and I was the last to learn of it. But as I called around to business school professors and small business associations and thumbed through every book and searched every website I thought could be useful, I found that there didn't seem to be anybody looking at them.

That is, until I discovered Scott Stern. I was making my hundredth (or was it thousandth?) call to a business school professor in a failing attempt to find someone, anyone, who could explain how regular folks can succeed in this economy. I kept rediscovering the same thing. Business and economics professors don't, generally, think about this. They have lots of research and advice for people who want to launch billion-dollar start-ups or become heads of banks. They know how to analyze labor market data to identify trends. As a group, though, they don't have an answer to the question most of us most want them to address: How can a regular person do well in a rapidly changing economy? Then, one day, I was talking to one of these professors and asking this question yet again when the professor said, "Oh, I think Scott knows about this. You should talk to him."

I wonder how many people have met and quickly dismissed Scott. He looks like he could be cast in a movie as "generic business guy." He wears the same outfit every day: a white button-down shirt, dark pants, and dark shoes, with a cell phone strapped to his belt. He has neat dark hair (though it becomes unruly when he gets excited, which is often). He could be an accountant, a computer programmer, a dentist.

Scott also has a particular vocal tic that, at first, I found a bit maddening. In the middle of a sentence, he will repeat the same phrase three, four, ten times in a row: "I just mean to say. I just mean to say. I just mean to say." Or, "I thought it might be helpful. I thought it might be helpful. I thought it might be helpful. I thought it might be helpful." At our first meeting, I noticed that he would interrupt me when I was in the middle of a sentence, repeating one of his phrases: "I just mean to say. I just mean to say. I just mean to say. I just mean to say. I just mean to say..." If you just mean to say something,' I thought, 'then say it! Or let me finish what I was saying.

During that meeting, I almost dismissed Scott. But some instinct told me to stay, be patient, listen. When I got past first impressions, I (like a lot of people) learned that Scott is an exciting, inspiring business thinker. His mind combines nimble experimentation—hurtling all over the place as it explores the contours of a thought—with a tightly focused precision, allowing him to zero in on the core issue and lay it out with granular clarity. The verbal tic, I came to realize, is a sign that the Stern brain machinery is working, the functional equivalent of a blinking light showing that a computer's hard drive is being accessed. If I wait a bit, let the tic run its course (it takes only a few seconds, even if it seems a lot longer), he will come out with something brilliant.

Having now spent many hours with him, I realize that our most fruitful talks were those that veered quickly and seemingly randomly from topic to topic, open ends left unresolved. I sometimes found these exchanges stimulating but would be frustrated by the lack of a conclusion, assuming that I would soon depart with nothing to take away. What, exactly, did we talk about? How did we get from wondering about McDonald's all-day-breakfast strategy to that assessment of medieval castle defenses to that story about a former student who now makes clothing? The fact is, though, Scott doesn't leave these threads unresolved. All of a sudden, he stands up, saying, "I thought it might be helpful. I thought it might be helpful. I thought it might be helpful. I thought it might be helpful." As he repeats this, he grabs a marker and starts drawing a diagram on a whiteboard. Soon he reveals that we haven't been having an aimless, wandering bull session. We have been constructing a careful argument, a precise view of the world, one whose logic Scott will then lay out in stunning clarity.


This excerpt ends on page 6 the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Make Meetings Matter by Paul Axtell.
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