I just finished reading Richard Branson's quick book, "Screw It, Let's Do It". I know, it's 10 years old but I figured that we can learn something from it in 2016 as we could in 2006. I was right. I would like to share his life's lessons in this post, but before I do that, I would just like to comment on his haphazard writing style. There didn't seem to be a logical flow, and he repeats himself several times throughout the book. He sometimes has an illogical time jump, going back in time, and then jumping on ahead again. Reading his book seems very much like meeting him in person - he is jumping all over the place and you cannot really pin him down. His writing reflects him, and that is what I like about the book. It is authentic. Now on to Richard Branson's life lessons:
Just do it
Think yes, not no
Make a difference
Stand on your own feet
Live life to the full
Let me expound on these by taking reference to Branson's stories, and peppering with my own reflection...
1. Just do it
One thing that characterises Richard Branson is his "Never Say Die" attitude and his love of a challenge. (We shall talk about challenge shortly). What strikes me about Branson is his knack to take huge risks and still come on top of it. Some people may think he is foolhardy, others think he is mad; but he has this huge confidence in himself that was developed when he was very young by his mother who always told him, "Ricky, just do it!" Never one for crying over spilt milk, his mother had taught him the very valuable lesson of going out there and trying new things. After all, you will never learn anything if you don't try. So while Nike may have copyrighted the phrase, Branson has been living "Just Do It" long before they did.
Reflection: Sometimes we can get beside ourself just thinking about everything that can go wrong with an idea, and we stop trying. There is only one way to really find out if an idea works or not, and we need to set aside our nagging fears and Just Do It!
2. Think yes, not no
Branson shared that he is the consummate "Yes Man" of Virgin Group. And that is because he keeps on going "Yes, let's try it" rather than "No, it cannot be done because..." Countless times he went on death defying balloon adventures because he couldn't say no! His good friend and flying partner Per Lindstrand would call him on a whim to try to break record after record, and Branson, kept on saying "Yes!" But while he did that, he also didn't take things lightly. In 1984, when Virgin was approached to sponsor a powerboat for the Blue Riband prize for Britain (the race was to cross the Atlantic in the fastest time), not only did Branson say yes, but he also volunteered to be a member of the team, not realising what it meant. However he trained very hard with the team and learnt what had to be done before the race. It normally took people years to reach this point, but Branson did it in weeks. Unfortunately they didn't succeed that time, but 6 years later, Branson and his team returned to win the prize!
Reflection: While Branson always said "yes", he also always backed it up with detailed planning. On the day he won the Blue Riband, Lindstrand invited Branson to fly the balloon with him back across the Atlantic, and again he said Yes! But he backed it up with a lot of training and planning, and he became a very accomplished balloonist very quickly. Say yes, but back that up with rigorous thinking and planning!
3. Challenge yourself
Branson was always going one-up on himself. This started out when he was young, first in trying to learn to swim. He was challenged by his Aunty Joyce when he was a young boy to learn to swim on his own within a weekend by the sea, or he would lose a bet. Branson would not give up, and even while they were on their way back from the ocean, seemingly having lost the bet, Branson chanced on a river and challenged himself to swim one last time, forcing the family to stop the car by the side. Even in the rapid flow of water, Branson challenged himself to swim, and he did, winning the bet. Branson was also not a good student, but that was due to his dyslexia, which no one knew about at the time. Because of this learning difficulty, he challenged himself to memorise his work, and write things down in a notebook. While he did not end up a scholar, it had given him a useful boost when he started business because of his prolific memory.
Reflection: If we continuously remain in our comfort zone, we will never get better. By challenging ourselves, doing more, learning more, failing more and achieving more, we will outpace ourselves. We must always challenge ourselves to be better than we were yesterday.
4. Have goals
There's a funny thing about goals... they can sometimes take you to places you don't expect. In 1977, Branson went to Jamaica on a part-holiday part-work basis. He was scouting for new talent to sign with Virgin Music and found some very good bands. Because contracts were not accepted in the island at that time, and he had to sign the bands up with suit-loads of cash. After having achieved one set of goals, he went island hopping, under the pretence that he wanted to buy an island. He wasn't really interested in buying, only in enjoying the first class hospitality. But when he came to the last island, he fell in love with it and made it his goal to purchase the island at his price! The asking price was 3 million pounds, but he offered only 200,000 pounds. There was no deal that day, but through time, and sheer persistence and willpower, Branson finally acquired the island for 180,000 pounds. Virgin Airlines also had a similar story, and Branson was able to grow it into the Best Business Class airline through clear goals. Oh by the way, Virgin Airlines has now grown to become Virgin Galactic, a space travel outfit. How's that for having goals?
Reflection: It is good to have a vision, but it is no good without clear goals. And sometimes these goals may take some time in reaching, but we cannot simply give up on them. While in today's uncertain environment it is difficult to be deterministic, one cannot simply fly under the radar blind. Having clear goals that help us navigate the uncertainties is imperative.
5. Have fun
Branson never took himself too seriously. For everything he did, he did it for fun. If he was not going to enjoy the trip and learn to laugh along the way, he would not do it. He first started out in business by setting up a magazine called Student. This was because he had fun writing in his school newspaper, and decided that it would be more fun doing it on his own. This went on to becoming a mail-order catalogue for cheap records. Again, it was for fun because students didn't have money to buy expensive records. This eventually paved the way for Virgin Music. And all because it was fun. By the way, in 1992, this "fun" project was sold off to Thorn EMI for half a billion pounds, so that he could continue funding the airlines. Not bad for what started out as fun, don't you think?
Reflection: Branson keeps on reminding readers that money comes after fun. If we are doing things we don't like for the sake of the money, it will not come; at least not as much as it would if we were having fun. If we do things for the right reasons, then the money will take care of itself. This is very true; we only have one life to live and it would be a painful one if we were not having fun living it.
6. Make a difference
I was surprised to learn that Branson was personally involved in rescuing British hostages from Saddam Hussein's grip. It was 1990 and Iraq had just rolled into Kuwait. In a matter of hours, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into Jordan. It so happened that Branson was a personal friend of the Jordanian King, and he used his personal influence to help, first by supplying blankets and food via Virgin Airways, and flew them in himself. He next found out that Saddam Hussein had captured British citizens and used them as human shields. Knowing that Jordanian King Hussein and Saddam Hussein had a healthy relationship, he negotiated a deal to have them released, but not without personal peril. In the end, he had succeeded in getting the hostages released. Branson used his personal influence to make a difference, and he was constantly doing that. From sponsoring events, to redefining how work is to be done, Branson went out of his way to make a difference.
Reflection: What are you doing to make a difference in someone's life? It does not have to be in monetary terms; it could be through your expertise, your kind deeds, your unwavering support of someone who needs help. Making a difference made a difference to Branson, and it should come as no surprise that it will also be for you.
7. Stand on your own feet
Branson's mother had a big impact on who Branson is today. When he was young, his mother would stop the car some miles away from home, told him to get out and make it way back. One day, she woke him up way before dawn, gave him some lunch and an apple, told him to get on his bicycle and go all the way to his aunt's place 50 miles away, saying, "I'm sure you can find some water along the way." This made him resilient, and helped him survive the many balloon mishaps at 40,000 feet, and crashes in remote areas. While Branson knew he can never do everything on his own, he also never left the important things to others. There was only one regret that he had when he abdicated his responsibility - when Virgin went public in 1986. Driven by the bankers, he relented and made the company public. However, things started getting difficult for him when all decisions had to be funnelled through a Board of Directors who knew nothing of running a music company. ("Janet Jackson? Who is that?" "Sign the Rolling Stones? My wife doesn't like them!") Ultimately, this stifled growth and the share price tumbled. Branson could not stand by and do nothing. So he rolled up his sleeve, personally raised 182 million pounds, and bought out all the shareholders, making Virgin private again.
Reflection: Perhaps Branson is a different breed of entrepreneur who likes to go it on his own. His business thinking and practices are certainly different from those of today's entrepreneurial successes. One may say he is "Old School". But there is something about standing on your own two feet that is still relevant today. We need to be able to count on our own capabilities to grow ourselves and our enterprises. If we relied too much on other people telling us what to do with our life, with our business, we will become mere puppets, and where is the fun in that? (See #5). So yes, if we cannot be self-reliant, we will not be able to pivot onto new ideas quickly enough. We must learn to stand on our own feet while we dance with others. This is the skill for the 21st century.
8. Be loyal
Branson is fiercely loyal to his family and his people. It has something to do with the confidence they have in him that would reciprocate with him having in them. But it goes beyond mere reciprocation. The reason why he took Virgin private again was because he was loyal to the shareholders, many of whom were family and friends, and friends of friends. They took out their own hard-earned savings to invest in his company and when the stock wasn't doing well, he could not bear the fact that the shareholders were being held ransom to boardroom idiocy. He fierce sense of loyalty therefore saw him raise that money to buy back the shares.
Reflection: Loyalty is not blind allegiance. It is one part about building a strong bond, and another part in keeping your word. A fiercely loyal person is one who can be counted on through thick and thin because someone was fiercely loyal to him too. If you want to build a strong company, a strong business, you need to be loyal to your customers, your suppliers, and most importantly, your staff. It is only when we can do that, that we can sit back and see miracles happening.
9. Live life to the full
If there is anyone we can name off the top of our head as someone who has lived life to the full, it would be Richard Branson. His achievements are many - from starting a magazine, to running a mail order company, to building a music empire, to owning an airline to going into space. These are examples of a man driven to live life to the limit, and with no regrets. Branson recounted an incident in Mexico where he and several other couples paid a lot of money to take a boat out to sea despite an impending storm. When the storm hit, Branson and his wife decided to swim to shore, and to get help. Ultimately, when the bigger boat arrived at the place where their boat was stranded, they could not find anyone. Branson could have lived with the regret of having coaxed the boat crew to their death, but ultimately, he didn't because he knew that they too accepted the money. Life lived to the full, means life without regret. But there is a positive twist to that story. That boat story was featured in one of Branson's earlier books, and a news team went out to Mexico in search of that story. They found the boat and crew alive! They had managed to get to safety before the worst of the storm came in, but because the radio was busted, could not inform anyone. When they had returned to the island, Branson and his party had already left. So imagine if Branson had lived in regret for that day? It would be years of living in the shadow, and that is not Branson, and fortunately too!
Reflection: When one lives a full life, and full is really up to the person, there can be no regrets. Things happen. We need to learn from them and move on. No second guessing, no blaming, no regrets.
While Branson may be larger than life, he is still a human being like all of us. What makes him different is how he thinks, and how he responds to challenges, how he pushes himself, how he never says die. These are important characteristics for any person running a business, or living a purposeful life. You may not agree with some of these ideas; heck you may even disagree with all of them! But you cannot disagree with how these have made Branson who he is, and may yet make you too!
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Photo credit: By UNclimatechange - Flickr: Richard Branson, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20270960