Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Charlie Sheen, Paul McCartney, and Claude Monet

By Dan Danford, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Family Investment Center
St. Joseph News-Press guest column "Hey, St. Joe: We've got talent"
September 13, 2011

One of my favorite celebrity quotes recently came from – I know this is risky, but I’m going to use it anyway – Charlie Sheen. In the midst of personal and professional turmoil, Charlie uttered a line I absolutely love, “I’m tired of pretending I’m not special.” It is very revealing.

I often ponder similar thoughts in a gallery or at a concert. Did the artist have any appreciation for his or her own genius? Psychologists tell us we tend to “normalize” extraordinary things around us. Good or bad, we accept or adapt to almost anything we encounter.

In simple terms, this means Claude Monet painted water lilies without much regard for how special his work was. McCartney and Lennon likely penned “Sergeant Pepper” or “Abbey Road” without a lot of angst or introspection. When you hear wondrous music in your head all day long, or you craft multiple visions of the same lily pond, it’s probably hard to fathom the specialness of your gift.

Of course, some artists who do have a glimpse of their gift struggle mightily with that awareness. Artists with alcohol, drug or psychological problems are so common it’s almost expected of celebrity.

Business genius fascinates me, too. It’s not a money thing, necessarily, but money can be a sign of extraordinary commercial talent. (Part of Charlie Sheen’s success is the marriage of comic artistry with business acumen.) Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg come to mind as top business artists.

Profits rise from selling a product or service. Remarkable profits rise from selling that product or service to masses of customers. Tally how many times you’ve seen “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or count the number of Apple computers you see at Starbucks.

Actually, Starbucks offers a pretty good illustration of how a successful business can alter an entire culture. From historical perspective, any business that survives beyond a single generation is uncommon. If it spans multiple generations and global markets – say, Hillyard Inc. or Gray manufacturing – that’s really rare and special. Starbucks may transform American culture, but solid local companies have sizable impact on lives, too.

Sheen’s comment reveals awareness that some talent has remarkable business value. But I also recognize we normalize remarkable talent in our own midst. That’s why so many artists languish in obscurity until after their deaths. People around them – blinded by familiarity – overlook what’s obvious to future generations.

I know a few gifted artists; I have witnessed a few business miracles. I happily acknowledge people with special gifts whenever I see them. Life is so darned ordinary I crave these brief encounters. (The coming visit to Missouri Western State University by author Thomas Friedman surely qualifies as another opportunity.)

Is there a lesson in any of this? I think there is. Let’s drop the local modesty and join Charlie. I’m tired of pretending we aren’t special. I work with a gifted team, and I’m certain St. Joseph is home to many gifted teams and people.

It’s high time we recognize some of the greatness around us. We’ve been blinded by familiarity; St. Joe really has got talent. Let’s acknowledge our gifts.

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