Thursday, 4 September 2014

Building confidence instead of discouragement

If you take into account our cultural and societal atmosphere, it is no wonder that large numbers of people get discouraged. At the time of this writing, not only there are wars going on in thirteen countries, but abuse, poverty, and incompetence can be observed all over the place. 

And if you are looking for big-screen entertainment in order to forget about the world's problems for a couple of hours, you have the choice between watching a movie about some evil robots that invade our planet, and another one about a bunch of power-hungry villains that want to take over the galaxy, and exterminate all human beings.

But that's not all. If you turn on the television, tonight you have the choice between a series about a Mafia family, and another one about corruption at the highest echelons of political power. These are today's cultural choices. They come in many different variations, but their message is always the same.

It is not a positive message, not a message of hope, not something that can render you optimistic about the future. On the contrary, the message is overwhelmingly pessimistic, demoralizing, and discouraging.

Yes, it is no wonder that numerous people feel discouraged and depressed, since no matter where they look, pessimism and despair dominate the scene. However, modern culture was not always like this. There was a time, not long ago, where our culture was full of positive messages. They were not the only ones, but there were many of them. In addition to discouragement and pessimism, you could still find plenty of stories about achievement, hope, and determination, the kind of stories that you seldom find nowadays.

Spreading optimistic messages

One of the men who massively contributed to spreading optimistic messages was Samuel Goldwyn (1882-1974). To say that he was a self-made man would be an understatement, since he built his own career from scratch, invented his own name, and created dreams that inspired millions of people around the world.

What is amazing is that Goldwyn was not even born in America. Goldwyn had been born in Poland, which was a very poor country at that time. His mother died when he was only fifteen years old, and a year later, he left Warsaw, and made his way all alone from Warsaw to London, where he had some relatives. Since the young Goldwyn had no money, he was forced to travel mostly on foot.

Once he arrived in London, he worked for three years as an apprentice to a blacksmith in to save money to pay for his trip to the United States. At that time, Samuel Goldwyn was still named Samuel Goldfisch, which was the Anglicised version of his Polish name.

At nineteen, he made the boat trip from Liverpool to New York, but he cleverly shortened his trip at the end by getting out of the ship in Canada in order to avoid the immigration controls at the New York harbour. He then walked from Canada to the United States, and found a job in glove factory in a small town 20 kilometres north of New York.

Creating and seizing an opportunity

Goldwyn's ambition and dedication to his work drew the attention of the factory owner, who soon promoted Goldwyn from hired hand to supervisor, and later offered Goldwyn a position in the sales department. 

It didn't take long for Goldwyn to become the number-one salesman of the company, and eventually, the number-one glove salesman in the whole country, since he was incessantly travelling, calling on retailers, and obtaining orders for the gloves made in New York with leather coming from the Michigan Lake area.

By the time Goldwyn turned thirty, he was earning a large income that allowed him to live in a nice area of New York city. Most people in Goldwyn's shoes would have considered themselves lucky to achieve such a high income and such a pleasant lifestyle, in particular taking into account that Goldwyn had started out with zero formal education.

But for Goldwyn, who was extremely optimistic about the future, it was simply not enough that, in a few short years, he had increased his income by a factor of a thousand. The economy in the United States of America was growing by leaps and bounds, and businesses were expanding in all directions. Opportunities for advancement could be found by anyone who bothered to look for them.
Intrigued by the possibilities

One night, Goldwyn attended a “flicker show” in a movie theatre, and was intrigued by the possibilities of the medium. On those early days, movie theatres were mainly showing short films, which resembled more to documentaries than to actual features. Nonetheless, the “flicker show” led Goldwyn to start playing with the idea of becoming a movie producer himself.

The career change from glove manufacturing to film production was not as incredible as it seems. As Goldwyn was fond of saying when he was presented with interesting stories for making movies: “It is absolutely impossible, but it has possibilities.” Goldwyn's attitude was clear. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to learn to be successful in the movie business.

In his mind, the movie business was not that different from glove manufacturing. You simply have to make sure that you use the best design and the best materials for making your product. The rest was just a question of sales, distribution, and promotion, three areas at which Goldwyn excelled.

Goldwyn's wife had some family members working in the vaudeville business, and Goldwyn began to talk with them about the possibility of starting a film production company. Their discussions led to the incorporation of a company, partly funded with Goldwyn's lifetime savings.

Heated discussions about what to do

Despite some initial successes, such as the movie “The Squaw” (1921), the business did not run smoothly. Goldwyn was one of the members of the company's board of directors, and during board meetings, he often engaged in such heated discussions with his partners, that they eventually decided to buy him out.

Undaunted, Goldwyn found new partners and started a second film production company, which they named Metro Goldwyn Meyer. Nonetheless, despite the large profits made by the company, Goldwyn's partners expelled him from the board of directors a few years later, since they didn't want to deal with such an opinionated entrepreneur. It was at that time, when Goldwyn initiated a court procedure to change his birth name Samuel Goldfisch into Samuel Goldwyn.

Finding himself again on the street was a hard blow for Goldwyn, but as he had always done, hereacted vigorously to adversity. Once again, he started a new company, but this time, he kept 100% ownership of the stock. He would be company president, head of production, and head of sales all under one hat.

You have to realize that Goldwyn's career developed in this way as a result of his fights with his partners. At the end of those fights, he found himself alone on the street, and reacted by becoming a lone entrepreneur, the head of a production boutique that was able to develop, finance, and make its own movies.

A clear vision of the goal

All other companies in the movie business were relatively large corporations, managed by committees and subcommittees that decided which movies were going to be made. That was the kind of atmosphere that Goldwyn had never liked. He had always had a definite idea of the kind of films he wanted to make, and did not want anyone to tamper with his vision.

From the very beginning, it became clear to Goldwyn that story development was the key factor for succeeding as a film producer. If he had the right story, even if the sequence of events was disorganised and the dialogues unpolished, he knew that he was on the right track.

In addition, Goldwyn only liked optimistic stories. He never wrote the scripts himself, but he demanded his writers to give their stories a happy end. When he once hired Dorothy Parker as a screenwriter, she presented him a couple of romantic stories that ended badly. Goldwyn never failed to demand Parker to change the script, and rewrite the final part, so that her stories ended on a happy note.

For Goldwyn, optimism was not only a principle for succeeding in business, but also a philosophy he practised at every opportunity. He used to say that everyone gets bad breaks and good opportunities, but that the people who get ahead in life are those who smile at the bad breaks, and seize the good opportunities.

The result of enthusiastic presentations

Goldwyn's optimism transformed his film production company into a money machine, since he managed to produce a large number of movies with a small capital base. How did he do that? How did he manage to make so many films with his limited financial resources? Very simply, he convinced film distributors and theatre owners to give him money in exchange for the right to exhibit movies that had not yet been made.

In the same way as Goldwyn had been selling gloves by calling on retailers, he was now selling theatre owners the right to show his movies before they had been produced. Thanks to his enthusiastic presentations to theatre owners, Goldwyn enabled his company to make a long string of new films with little money of his own.

Goldwyn was always optimistic about life in general, and business in particular. He always believed that, if you produce something of extraordinary quality, people will appreciate it, and buy it. For this reason, he never spared costs for making his movies. He always tried to hire the best screenwriters, novelist, and playwrights, from America and Europe.

He wanted to have optimistic stories that would inspire the public, and make them come out of the movie theatre with a smile on their faces. From the day he made his first movie (“The Squawk”) in 1921 to the day he made his last (“Porgy and Bess”) in 1957, Goldwyn cumulated many good reviews for the inspiration that his movies provided.

True love flourishing against all odds

One of his favourite subjects was that true love could develop even in the most adverse circumstances, such as when a person is affected by physical invalidity. That was the subject of two of his most acclaimed movies: “The Dark Angel” (produced in 1925, and remade in 1935), and “The Best Years of Our Lives,” released in 1946, and winner of six Oscars of the Academy.

In “The Dark Angel,” a man loses his eyesight as a result of his injuries, and in order to allow his beloved fiancée to start a new life without him, he makes her believe that he is dead. Years later, when she accidentally finds out that he is still alive, she goes to visit him in his lodgings.

The man, who doesn't want his former fiancée to know that he is blind so that she doesn't feel pity for him, he learns by heart the geography of his room, so that he can move around and pretend that he can see. Eventually, the woman finds out the truth, and the two of them become again a couple.

In “The Best Years of Our Lives,” Goldwyn presents the plight of several World War II veterans who return home after having endured serious injuries, and who despite their partial invalidity, managed to retain the love of their girlfriends, and lead happy lives.

With a smile on their faces

No wonder that people came out the theatre with a smile on their faces after watching one of Goldwyn's films. The stories were so optimistic, so incredibly encouraging, that the audience couldn't get enough.

Where he started his film production career, Goldwyn was once interviewed by a journalist who pointed out Goldwyn's total inexperience in the movie business. Without missing a beat, Goldwyn retorted that “inexperience was one of his strongest weaknesses.” Indeed, his inexperience allowed him to maintain his optimism during his whole life, and rendered him immune to all forms of cultural pessimism and despair.

In order to keep working towards his goals during good and bad times, Goldwyn always had a very practical approach for dealing with bad breaks. He knew that everyone gets beaten by life now and then, but that, if you keep on working towards your goals, you can dramatically increase your chances of success.

“If you put your problems out of your mind,” Goldwyn used to say, “they will soon become forgotten memories.” Another of his quirky sayings was that “in life, you have to take the bitter with the sour.” And that was exactly what he believed. All that he did was to spread optimism, and continuously encourage people to seek a better life, and work towards a better future.

The need of inspiring messages

During his last years as a film producer, Goldwyn turned to making optimistic musicals, such as “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952), “Guys and Dolls” (1955), and “Porgy and Bess” (1959). The latter proved a financial failure, despite featuring Sammy Davis Jr and Sidney Poitier. Confronted with the financial losses of the film, Goldwyn simply replied that “It is a great movie that had to be made.” The music was beautiful, the story inspiring, and the production did not spare any cost.

It is unfortunate that we no longer have this kind of inspiring messages in our culture. It is really a pity because many people are becoming so affected by the prevailing pessimism that they become blind to the available opportunities.

Goldwyn always made movies that he liked himself, instead of wasting time consulting his partners and associates. He was never happy working in corporate environments, and this is why he ended up a sole entrepreneur with total creative control over his movies. And despite his initial inexperience in the film business, he never was afraid of failure. As he used to say, “a man who is enthusiastic about his job has nothing to fear from life.”

This is a kind of enthusiasm that we need to witness as often as possible. Learn the lesson from people like Goldwyn, and start looking for inspiring messages wherever you can find them. Look for stories that have a happy end, so that you can ensure that your own story also ends of a happy note.

Every time someone tries to overwhelm you with pessimistic stories about the economy, the future of the world, or your personal future, you should reply by using Goldwyn's words: “Include me out.” Yes, this is the answer that you should be giving whenever you encounter discouraging messages. What you need to do is to listen to the right messages, those that people like Goldwyn spread: Always remain optimistic, and on top of that, a gentleman.

[Text: copyright John Vespasian, 2014]

[Image by dwan.mac under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]
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