The Power Of Being A ‘Nobody’

Being born into this world a nobody just might be the best thing that ever happened to me.

The world undervalues the economic nobody, and grossly over-values the wealthy somebody. On this point the world is wrong.

You have nothing to lose when you are a nobody. And because you realize that ‘you can’t fall from the floor,’ you’re not all stressed out about whether you are going to actually fail at something or not. Everyone born as a ‘societal nobody’ has the exact same middle name, inserted sometime after birth, which translates roughly: DO SOMETHING.

Most American wealth, and especially the now big company or enterprise behind that wealth, originated with what we would call ‘relative nobodies’ at the time. They may be a big deal now, but when they started, no one took them seriously.

I had lunch today with the CEO of Sapient, a $1 billion plus company that was started by two young guys with a few thousand dollars on their credit cards. Now they employ 12,000 people worldwide and the company is publicly traded.

A nobody is often under estimated, until they aren’t. Below is my update on a 20th century standard.

First they will ignore you.
Then they will criticize you.
Then they will try to copy you.
And then you will win.

When a self-knowing economic nobody wins at life, they almost never forget where they came from. They are often the kindest, philanthropic, most positive, confident (yet understated) people you will ever meet.

Crazy as it sounds, it is often the off-spring of the one who created from nothing that then somehow gets it in their heads that they’re some kind of a big deal. And it is this other thing — of becoming ‘important,’ or seeing oneself as a ‘so-called somebody,’ that is a really dangerous thing. It can ruin you in ways that poverty never could.

Here are some recent examples of wealth that came from near nothing:

Jan Koum, the CEO and co-founder of WhatsApp, once lived on food stamps before Facebook made him a billionaire.

Starbucks’ Howard Schultz grew up in a housing complex for the poor.

Born into poverty, Oprah Winfrey became the first African American TV correspondent in Nashville.

Luxury goods mogul Francois Pinault (think Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent) quit high school in 1974 after being bullied for being poor.

Oracle’s Larry Ellison dropped out of college after his adoptive mother died and held odd jobs for eight years.

These brilliant and hard working folks were not sitting around thinking deeply about how great and noble they were. That had no time for any if that nonsense. And they weren’t publicly profiling either; trying desperately to look a certain way before a bunch of strangers. They weren’t sitting around, endlessly choreographing their every next big move in life. They just moved.

They worked, hustled, did what it took to win. They were focused on getting the job in front of them done, rather than simply looking good for those standing in front of them.

But most of all — they just never took themselves seriously. Never. To quote my friend Quincy Jones, “people should never come down with a case of seriousness.” Take life seriously, but never take yourself too seriously. Taking yourself seriously is the kiss of death. My mentor Ambassador Andrew Young once told me that “men fail for three reasons: arrogance, pride and greed.” Enough said.

I have a lot of experience with people who really believe that they’re a somebody, and they’re really exhausting to deal with. It’s a lot of work dealing with someone who takes themselves so seriously. And if they don’t change, their doomed. As the age old saying goes, “the first generation makes the money. The second generation spends the money, and the third generation often loses the money.”

People tend to feel sorry for the poor, but I actually feel sorry for my rich friends’ children. I wouldn’t exchange my life, growing up struggling in South Central Los Angeles and Compton, California, for the privileged lives of my wealthy friend’s kids for all the tea in China.

Young people who grew up believing that they were ‘somebody’ are suffering from at least four distinct disadvantages in life.

(1) They never learned how to ‘suffer for the good.’

(2) They were more often than not spoiled rotten, which makes it harder to value a dollar, or even hard work and sustained struggle.

(3) The ‘entitlement’ problem. This is a misguided sense that success is somehow owed to some, which in turn causes you to take your foot off the gas in life and just coast. A perfect work day is then defined as in late, long lunch, and leave early. I always wanted just the opposite of this. Still do. I love to work and to make my own way. Every single day.

(4) Too much private school-only air. Private schools have their value, but if you never went to at least a few years of public school then in my opinion you are really in trouble. Public school is where you learn how to deal with difficult people, diverse environments, and challenging situations. Just like life itself.

People who believe they are ‘somebody’ are doomed, precisely because they believe they are somebody. A so-called nobody has none of this needless baggage.

Those who have a nobody’s mentality actually have what they need to win, right from the start.

I remember asking Ambassador Andrew Young’s gardener back in 2009, how the global economic crisis was impacting him. He said in response, “I was poor before the crisis, and I’ll be poor after it’s over. It’s my depressed rich friends who have all the problems. I feel just fine.”

Or when I went to see my mentor, Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray, as a young man starting out in business in Los Angeles. I wanted to know ‘why folks were following me,’ and I wanted to know how I could manufacture and replicate even more of this feeling people were getting, so I could get even more attention. His response as usual was brilliant. “If you got it you John, you wouldn’t have it.”

Murray continued, “…if you got a thing, you would then be conscious of a thing. If you were conscious of a thing, you would be self-conscious of a thing. And if you were self-conscious of a thing, it would be an act, a put on. Not real.” He concluded by saying, “John, you’re not suppose to get it. People are following you because you’re real. Because they believe you’re authentic. The minute you get it, you also lose it. Just keep doing you John. Keep being you.” DO SOMETHING.

The power of being a nobody is an asset everyone on the planet owns from birth. It’s your birthright, to fulfill your God given destiny. It’s the new definition of freedom, called self-determination.

And you thought someone calling you a ’nobody’ was an insult.

Written by John Hope Bryant. He is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and is the only 2010-2012 bestselling business author in America who is also African-American. His newest book, due out May, 2014, is HOW THE POOR CAN SAVE CAPITALISM, and will be published byBerrett Koehler Publishing).

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