The words we choose matter, so we should choose them carefully. For example, instead of saying we’re “stuck” at home, let’s focus on the fact that we’re fortunate enough to be “safe” at home.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Bert Jacobs, Chief Executive Optimist of Life is Good.
Bert and his brother John launched their business with 78 dollar in their pockets, selling T-shirts in the streets of Boston and at college dorms up and down the East Coast. Bert and John were inspired by stories of people, mainly children, facing great adversity. These stories illustrated that optimism is most powerful in the darkest of times and inspired the creation of a fully integrated business model dedicated to helping kids in need. Life is Good donates at least 10% of its annual net profits to the Life is Good Kids Foundation to positively impact over 1 million kids every year facing poverty, violence, and illness. Bert focuses his energy on guiding overall vision and creating the art and message for the brand across categories. To inspire others to choose optimism and grow the good in their lives, Bert and John wrote Life is Good: The Book/ How to Live with Purpose and Enjoy the Ride, published by National Geographic in September 2015. Bert has been awarded honorary doctorates from several universities for entrepreneurship, business innovation and philanthropy. He and Life is Good have been featured on CNNMoney, CNBC’s Business Nation, ABC News’ Nightline, NBC’s The Today Show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, and Men’s Health Magazine, among others.
Thank you so much for joining us again Bert! We really love these interviews. For the benefit of our readers, can you share with us the “backstory” that led you to this career path?
My brother John and I were taught, from a young age, that optimism is one of the most valuable tools you can use to get through tough times and live a meaningful life, and we wanted to share that message with the world. I’ve always been a huge believer in using business to facilitate social change, so we wanted to build a business that could help people drown out the negativity and focus on the good in their lives.
Since we’d always been interested in art, we wanted to use artwork to creatively communicate the power of optimism, but we wanted to make it accessible to everyone. Turns out, a t-shirt is a great vehicle for that. We started Life is Good to spread the power of optimism, and 26 years later, that’s still our main mission.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway that you took out of that story?
The funniest mistake I made was wearing a suit.
When my brother and I were just getting started, we didn’t really fit in at tradeshows — we were young, maybe a little too casual. Retailers would frequently come up to us and ask to speak to the owners. So, at one show we decided to wear business suits and ties.
During that tradeshow in 1997, we ended up opening an account with a great West Coast surf and skate shop, and the buyer asked, “What’s with the suits?” We told him the backstory, and he gave us some of the best advice we’ve ever received: “Know who you are and act like it.” His advice became the definition of branding at Life is Good.
And in case you were wondering, neither of us have worn a suit or tie since.
What would you advise to a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Seek the sweet spot where your passions meet a need in this world. Our motto here at Life is Good is “Do what you love, love what you do.” When work doesn’t feel like work, there’s a really high chance you’ll be motivated, driven, and undeterred by setbacks. Johnny and I never wanted “jobs” in the traditional sense, but we’ve also never been afraid to put long hours into projects we care about. In fact, we work just as long and hard today as we did when we were just starting out, but it’s never felt like work to us. We have fun with our business every day, and we feel fortunate to be able to communicate optimistic messages to such a far-reaching community. We also learn from our customers and our employees every day, so it always feels more like a self-growth adventure than a job, and it is! So, to any the young person trying to decide what to do with your life, I say this: Do not seek work-life balance because there is no such thing. Your work is a subcategory of your life — it fits somewhere inside the bigger picture. So, if your ultimate goal is to be happy, look for a profession that serves the ideals nearest your heart. And look for an organization that aligns with who you truly are.
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
My greatest inspiration has always been our mom, Joan. She was the first and foremost optimist in Johnny and I’s life, and her ability to focus on the good shaped our childhood and became the foundation of our brand. Every night around the dinner table, she would ask all us kids to tell her something good that happened that day. Just having this small moment of reflection and gratitude changed the entire tone of the room, and now it’s become an indispensable part of the culture at Life is Good. To this day, the memory of our mom Joan inspires us daily, and reminds us to keep looking on the sunny side, even (actually, especially) when life feels uncertain.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?
I’d say we’re making a social impact through our integrated model where both the for-profit and non-profit sides benefit each other. We’re operating under the idea that you don’t have to make it to the top of the hill in order to give back. The giving should happen during the climb. And that seems to be where capitalism is heading — incorporating social and environmental issues into an organization.
In the past, the capitalist “winners” were the ones who had a better product or a competitive price. Now, there’s a third leg to the stool, and consumers ask, “What do you stand for?” In the 21st century, consumers have begun to vote with their dollars for businesses and brands that support causes they care about.
Specifically, Life is Good stands for spreading the power of optimism by making it accessible to everyone. We set an example through our Kids Foundation and its signature Playmaker Program, which helps frontline childcare professionals like healthcare workers and teachers build life-changing relationships with kids facing trauma. These everyday superheroes need this training and knowledge now more than ever, in the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis we’re all facing.
We’re also lending extra efforts and support to organizations like the Massachusetts Food Bank and the American Red Cross to host blood drives, as well as to process and redistribute food and personal protective equipment.
Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
We created the Life is Good Kids Foundation in direct response to all of the inspiring customer letters we got over the years. Most of them were written by kids who had overcome some pretty serious obstacles. We were so inspired by their resilience, and it got us going on this path. We want every kid to have a happy childhood, and the Kids Foundation is one way that we can make some real steps towards that goal. When we create positive relationships with kids, we know that it has a powerful ripple effect on their lives, creating even more good in the long run.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
Years ago, we received a letter from 10-year-old twin brothers who faced extra challenges: One had a leg amputated; the other is legally blind. They had several of our shirts representing all the things they liked doing best. In the letter, they shared that, despite their obstacles, they were grateful for having each other and doing what made them happy together. It remains not only one of the most memorable letters we have ever received, but also one of the most powerful pieces of communication we have come across anywhere — we even still keep in contact with the twins to this day.
It’s not just that we impacted them, but they also impacted us on an individual and brand level. The encounter made gratitude one of the central values to Life is Good. Our brand recognizes that life isn’t easy for anyone, but it encourages people to think — to reflect on the good and ask themselves why gratitude and simplicity are good to focus on.
It’s easy to forget that simple things can be joyful, but maybe the most important lesson is the reminder that gratitude is not just a matter of thanking our lucky stars when our dreams come true; it’s also about thankfulness right in the midst of our inevitable daily struggles.
As we’ve learned time and again, the people who face the greatest challenges are often the ones who have an elevated sense of gratitude. They’ve developed a heightened appreciation for everything around them, taking nothing for granted. It’s a perspective that can serve us all. The twins took nothing for granted, and their letter didn’t ask for anything. Instead, they chose to celebrate what they had.
Those who write to us often find an authentic, personal connection to Life is Good’s messages. We learned early on that this brand is not about us; it’s about a broad community of optimists from all walks of life.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
1. I think that now more than ever, it’s so important for us to use our resources to help the communities we live in. That’s why we teamed up with Everybody Fights, Aldous Collins, and The Lincoln Group for Box, Brunch & Beats. We saw this great way to get involved, spread the word, and give people a little something to brighten their day, while also bringing some business to some of our favorite local restaurants. If everyone could adopt a “community-first” mindset during this time, we will all be better off in the long run. Let’s look out for each other.
2. The words we choose matter, so we should choose them carefully. For example, instead of saying we’re “stuck” at home, let’s focus on the fact that we’re fortunate enough to be “safe” at home.
3. I want us all to focus on the good as much as we possibly can during these times. Every good day and little victory counts. If we focus on moving forward, on looking out for each other, and on the everyday beauty we find, I think we will come out stronger than ever on the other side.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
- After your bootstrapping phase, your level of success and the joy of your working days will be determined by the quality of the people you hire.
- A candidate’s proven skill set and experience are critically important; however, the way the dialogue “feels” to you in an interview is equally important. Hire people you want to spend your precious time with.
- Don’t just hire people who are the best at something. Hire people who are the best at the exact something you need done.
- Your customers want to co-create the story of your brand and business. Let them.
- The only true currency in this world is time. Each of us has a finite amount of it. Each year, that amount diminishes, and the value of that time increases.
- There’s no such thing as work–life balance. Work is a subcategory of life. So, don’t put your life on hold to come to work. Bring your life to work.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The reason we started the Life is Good brand — and the reason we are still in business today — is to inspire a movement of rational optimism. Our goal is to have more people realize that their disposition is powerful, and that they have the ability to make a positive difference. By promoting optimism, we’re not ignoring obstacles in the world, we just believe the best way to overcome those obstacles is by focusing on the opportunities.
Our #SomethingGood campaign launched in early 2019 to celebrate our 25th anniversary. The campaign encouraged people to focus on all the good in their lives by sharing something positive on social media. For each share, we donated 1 dollar to our Life is Goods Kids Foundation. In the end, we hit our goal of 1 million shares and 1 million dollars to help kids in need. And we hope people continue to practice focusing on the positives, as it can truly can make a difference. We’ve seen it happen a million times over.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
“To the illuminated mind, the whole world burns and sparkles with light.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Like anyone else, I can get frustrated with temporary setbacks or the speed of progress. This quote reminds me to breathe and enjoy the gift of life, even in the middle of the fight.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It’s easy to be an inch deep and mile wide these days. I’m less interested in meeting someone famous, and more intent on spending time with the people I know and love — even if that means having more meaningful conversations with fewer people.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!