Vail Daily column: Inside and outside the box
There wasn’t a single, solitary thing about Lonnie that was traditional. He had an engaging personality that seemed to attract people to him without any effort at all. He was jolly and giving … Santa Claus in disguise. In seemingly sharp contrast, however, he was also capable of giving orders and organizing the chaos of hundreds of moving parts into a strange sort of business dance. His first conversations with me were focused and direct, and I could not help but hope that I would someday find myself in the position to ask exactly how he had arrived where I found him.
You see, he was a nuclear science real estate gemology gold-refining commercial-investing residential-flipping genius. The first time I walked into his office, I remember sitting across from him in an old chair while he sat behind his desk. On his desk were piles upon piles of scrap jewelry, from which he was diligently prying the “stones” with toenail clippers. His gold business was what he did for fun. He said he liked sparkly things. Occasionally, he would tell me, the diamonds would get away from him. I looked down at the carpet in his office to realize that it was full of sapphires, moissanite and diamonds. I couldn’t help but start reaching down and piling up a small pinch of diamonds onto his desk. “Don’t bother,” he said, “that’s what a vacuum is for.” I made sure to clarify that he had a specified vacuum from which he later filtered the stones.
At age 25, I had made the choice to keep my eyes open to the world in every way possible, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask about his business. I then asked how he did what he did and if I could do the same thing. I walked out of that office with a gram scale, a jeweler’s loop and a business plan. Over the next few weeks I would start a successful diamond, gold and silver business, and over the next few years, would learn more about gold and silver than anyone wanted to know. This was only the first project that Lonnie and I would team up on.
Since that day, I have been completely obsessed with the idea of opportunity recognition. I discovered, in looking back on my conversations with Lonnie, that the reason we eventually teamed up was not because I was bringing incredible value to the partnership … he was clearly an expert in what he did. The reason we became a good team was because I was willing to risk my pride, my time and my preconceived notions to dare to try something outside of my norm, and he was willing to help me do just that. I was willing to run headlong at an opportunity, and he was willing to provide guidance. Did I fail at times? Yes. Did I eventually win big because I had the courage to try? Yes.
This pattern has emerged over and over again in my life, to the point that I now can sense, almost without conscious realization, where the next conversation will emerge. In feeling this way, however, I also realize that to an outside observer of my life, I may sound completely crazy. Up in the night might be a better, more accurate description. I have friends who introduce me as one of the more interesting people they know, and in the same sentence have a tremor of nervousness in their voice. I grin.
The “less crazy” person may view the world in a variety of more normal ways, but perhaps the easiest analogy is that of “the box.” All of our parents had a “box” that they taught us about. This box consists of beliefs, biases, perceptions and attitudes. It determines how we view certain types of work, play and lifestyle. When we grew up, we may or may not have been taught about this box in great detail. We may have chosen to accept or reject the box of our parents or other influencers. Regardless, in our society, most of us are clearly taught one key principle — you have to get a box. We scramble to put some boundaries and semblances of order in place. Some of us went to school for four to 12 years in order to get our box. We had to learn how to use it … and perhaps be influenced to feel like the box was what we had always aimed for. It was ceremoniously handed to us after college, like some kind of prize. In many ways, over the years, we get addicted to our boxes. We like the space they provide. We feel comfortable playing by a certain set of rules, living within a certain mold and being regarded in a certain way. The agonizing pain of living within our boxes becomes comforting because of its predictability. Many of us would defend our little boxes to the death. Too many of us look at our boxes each day and like to say that they’re “pretty good.” Good — the mortal enemy of best. The “box” we earned makes us prisoners by our own choosing.
There are, however, a few individuals I know that are willing to risk their boxes. They abandon their comfortable and “good” prisons to chase what others might regard as crazy. Like all people, they are subject to failure and human weaknesses … we just like to use stories of failure from them as justification to stay inside our own boxes. Failure within our boxes is somehow more easily accepted by society, even justified and validated. At the end of the race, however, these risk takers sit back and smile, knowing perhaps that they chose to go where others feared to tread. We like to look at men like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and perhaps explain away our own potential greatness. “Of course they succeeded … everything they touch turns into gold. I could never be like them.” This is, of course, false in every way. They were brave enough to risk and endure failure over and over again. They were brave enough to be uncomfortable over and over again. They endured ridicule and misunderstanding, betrayal and disappointment. The only difference between them and us is that they kept running in a direction outside of their boxes while others chose to stop. Even after we point to men like these and label them as innovators and geniuses, some of them still run on, shrugging off the label and calling over their shoulders after us to come join them.
I know that I’ve said some harsh things against our boxes … I have one of my own. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying the box. What I’m suggesting is that it may make sense to climb up to the edge every once in a while. Peek your head over to the other side. You just might find something or someone worth climbing out for. You could always go back to the box later.
Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He plays, lives, works and is trying to do a little good in Eagle County. He can be reached for business inquiries or free consultation at 970-471-3546.
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