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My Barista’s Inspiration for the Year Ahead

This uncharacteristically older Filipino barista had a smile before I approached her. It was 6:30am on New Year’s day and, like any other Sunday morning, I entered my neighborhood Starbucks for a few hours of undistracted writing. It was clear this upbeat, 60-plus year old barista wasn’t out partying last night, and her attitude suggested she didn’t miss a thing. She processed my order and asked my name for the cup.

“Does Mo stand for anything?” she inquired. Being the first time a Barista asked me that question, I hesitantly replied that my Hebrew name is “Moses”. “Oh, my favorite story!” she exclaimed. “Which story is that?” I asked. “The story of Moses taking the Hebrews out of Egypt”, she replied. “And why’s that?” I prodded. As if it should be obvious, she replied, “Because all of us have a promised land!”

I sat down hoping to commence working on my next book or the talk I have to give this week. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this Filipino barista, who was likely twice my age, serving me coffee at 6:30am on a holiday, with more conviction of her “promised land” than anyone I knew.

Yesterday, my wife and I enjoyed lunch with a family friend. The conversation veered into one of those discussions you’ve all endured with your parents, grandparents and other nostalgically-biased individuals who claim that “today is not what it used to be” and lament how we lost the _________ of generations gone by. You can fill in the blank with values and traditions, stable families, middle-class jobs, strong communities, the economy, worthy political candidates, etc. We’ve all heard it. And though I’ve known her for all of 90 seconds, it is a conversation I couldn’t imagine my Filipino barista ever having. She’s too focused on her promised land to stress about the past.

It’s the first day of January, the month named after Janus – the Roman god of transitions. The mythical Janus is portrayed as having two identical faces, one looking to our past and one to our future. Every cliché blogger will drone on about this being the time to reflect on the year behind us and ponder the year ahead. I have no interest in adding to that chorus. In fact, I’d likely modify my Janus. I would equip the forward looking face with glasses, binoculars, telescopes and every sight-enhancing accoutrement I could get my hands on. And for the past-looking face, I’d give him my sunglasses, as not everything in our past needs to be highlighted.

For the price of a tall pike roast, this lovely barista reinvigorated in me the promise of tomorrow. She reminded me that our future is (and has to be) so much greater than our past.

This belief is intrinsically tied to our development as individuals, families, communities and civilization as a whole. Progress in the sciences, the arts, commerce and just about everything else, hinges on our belief that the pie will get bigger, that our world isn’t a zero-sum equation, and our success need not be at the expense of another.

When Janus takes off his sunglasses and peers into the annals of history, he will witness Roman emperors, kings of Italy’s medieval city-states, and French or British monarchs convinced that they can increase their fortune only by pillaging the treasures of their neighbors. Rulers expanded their influence through conquests and taxes, not investment and innovation.

The result? Productivity was stagnant, credit not extended, and technological innovation virtually non-existent. Entrepreneurs didn’t embark on new enterprises, builders didn’t rush to erect new communities, and investments in finding cures to the plagues of the day were inconceivable.

People don’t lend or invest capital when the future is tenuous. If your taxes are likely to only go up, the neighboring monarch is threatening war and your children are suffering from malaria, typhoid fever, smallpox and dysenteries, you’re not taking any more risks. And for the bulk of our history people did not.

As a consequence, a few hundred years ago per capita production was a tiny fraction of today. We are infinitely more productive than our ancestors, and we are not working that much harder. To the contrary, our work days are considerably shorter and vacations longer than the peasant class of yore. Productivity was stagnant because risks were not taken, credit not extended, investments and innovation barely visible.

In fact, there may have been disincentives to innovate. In one apocryphal tale, a man approached the emperor Tiberius to demonstrate his invention of unbreakable glass, hoping to receive some approbation from his ruler. After seeing the demonstration, Tiberius quickly asked the inventor if anyone else knew his secret. Once being assured that no one else knew of its existence, Tiberius ordered for this inventor’s immediate beheading, lest his invention reduce the relative value of the gold in his treasury.

In one of my favorite books this past year, Homo Deus (second only to its predecessor, Sapiens), Yuval Noah Harari, reminds all nostalgic lamenters that today we are better off than the generations before us by virtually every imaginable metric. Countless illnesses (e.g. smallpox, Spanish fever and other plagues whose victims numbered in the hundreds of millions) have been eliminated. Hunger and famine are on pace to be eradicated (e.g. this past year obesity killed three times more people than famine and malnutrition) and wars are a microcosm of what they used to be. In 2012, wars killed 120,000 people around the world, crime killed 500,000 people, another 800,000 committed suicide and 1.5 million died as a result of diabetes. This means that sugar has become more dangerous for civilization than every war, terrorist, criminal, and belligerent dictator under the sun.

In his brilliantly researched book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley reminds us that of those individuals who are designated as ‘poor’ in North America today, 99% have electricity, running water, flushing toilets, and a refrigerator. 95% have a television, a phone, over 70% have a car and air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt, arguably the wealthiest American in history, had none of these. Although it may not feel like it, our generation has more discretionary dollars than any previous generation in history.

This is not to suggest that these (or other disconcerting) issues have been fully eradicated. There are still challenges, and we have to continue to fight these – along with many other troubles that plague humanity, such as bigotry, environmental exploitation, mental illness, cyberterrorism, substance abuse and countless other concerns.

These trials will carry on, and everyone will continue to endure personal struggles. Any individual who claims to bear no challenges is either living an illusion or belongs to a cult. The difference, however, between those that persevere through these challenges and those that falter is usually the undying belief that the future is brighter than the past. And whether we accept it or not, all of history suggests that it is.

The next day, week, month or year may stink. But our collective future will be bright, and our ability to participate in that future is directly correlated with our enthusiasm about it.

One of my favorite Vince Lombardi stories was from his first day as an NFL head coach. Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers after their worst year in franchise history, having one measly win, ten devastating losses and an unfulfilling tie. They were the laughingstock of the league. Lombardi met his new players and shared one simple message with them. “Gentlemen, we’re going to be a great football team. We’re going win games, etc.” That’s going to happen because from here on in in, “You are [going] to have confidence in me, enthusiasm in my system, and only think about three things: your home, your religion and the Green Bay Packers. Let that enthusiasm take hold of you - beginning now! …And if you aren’t fired [up] with enthusiasm, you will be fired, with enthusiasm.”

Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers never had a losing year, and over the next nine seasons they proceeded to win five NFL championships, six conference titles and had one of the highest win-percentages in history. Though, perhaps Lombardi’s greatest contributions were not expressed in statistics.

Lombardi was the most vocal opponent to discrimination and prejudice that riddled the NFL of the 1960s. Lombardi passionately claimed that his players were “neither black nor white, but Packer green". On the first day of training camp he told his players there would be a zero-tolerance policy of any bigotry or racism, and any violation would lead to immediate firing from the team. He sanctioned businesses that did not equally accommodate African Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals, or other minorities. Lombardi’s belief in a greater future was not limited to football. He engrained this enthusiasm – be it for professional or humanitarian aspirations – in every player, and it paid off in spades.

The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek words “ethos”, meaning God, and “en”, meaning within. Enthusiasm involves radiating that inner Promised Land. When we can recognize the true prospects of our future, it will embolden us, our families, our friends and our colleagues. Lombardi understood enthusiasm’s contagiousness and how critical it is to surround ourselves with those who are already infected by it.

At 10:20am, I returned to the counter for a refill on my coffee. The barista that unknowingly changed the course of my morning, and perhaps my year, was still there. Still smiling. She greeted me as if we’ve known each other for ages. “Mo, you’re still here?” (I took note that she remembered my name without looking at the cup). I chuckled, saying “My wife and kids haven’t missed me enough yet”. She said, “I doubt it. And don’t waste this sunny day inside. You have people to love and places to go.” This woman is amazing, and today is the first time I looked for the Starbucks tip jar.

To heed the counsel of my newfound guru, I will sign off. Though, before doing so, I wanted to take the opportunity to leave my friends, partners, staff (current and former), colleagues and anyone else I’m blessed to have in my life, with one parting wish for 2017.

I hope you find within you the optimism and enthusiasm about the future we welcome today – and every day. I hope you surround yourself with those that believe, with every fiber of their being, that what lies ahead is far greater than what lies behind us.

Whether you wake up with a song in your heart or need that second coffee before you can face humanity, try to make your first conscious thought a reminder of your promised land.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." May each of you, my dear friends, carve out your rightful stake in that future and inspire everyone around you to do the same.

With my very best for 2017,

Mo Lidsky

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