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Optimism in the Face of Adversity

A Review of Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs

By Matthew Richey • October 29, 2018

Life is Good is a story about the power of optimism—not as a feel-good, happy-clappy state of mind, but as an authentic positive perspective towards life that holds a secret key to overcome obstacles, embrace opportunities, and experience deeper fulfillment.

As the authors state at the outset:

Life is not easy.
Life is not perfect.
Life is good.

This is a message that rings trueeven for a hard-core realist like myself.

I read this book aloud to my kids, 12 and 10, and we all loved it. After the success of our last family read of The Magnolia Story, I didn't have to drag my kids into this one—they enjoyed it from page one. Tightly written and full of poignant stories, this is one of those rare books that leaves a powerful impression which I'm sure will be the source of ongoing family conversation for years to come.

Written by Bert and John Jacobs, these brothers from Boston tell the story of how they turned their passion for original-art T-shirts into a successful lifestyle clothing brand that's centered around the message of optimism.

The seeds of their belief in optimism didn't come from a picture-perfect life—far from it. Growing up in the 1960's as two of six kids in a working-class family, they suffered tragedy early on when their parents were in a near-death car accident that left their dad without use of his right arm, which severely impaired his professional work as a craftsman and put the family in ongoing financial tension.

The brothers credit their mom, Joan, for modeling optimism even amidst the hardship. Every night at the dinner table she would say, "Tell me something good that happened today." That emphasis on the positive had a powerful impact: "As simple as Mom's words were, they changed the energy in the room. Before we knew it, we were riffing on the best, funniest, or most bizarre parts of our day."

Bert and John recognized early in life "that joy doesn't come from your circumstances; it comes from your disposition." They credit Joan as their primary inspiration for the Life Is Good ethos: "She showed us that optimism is a courageous choice you can make every day, especially in the face of adversity."

In September 1994, Bert and John were facing their own adversity. Five years into their venture selling T-shirts, they were living out of a van and had little to show for their efforts. But it was at this point they stumbled upon a breakthrough with a simple T-shirt concept sketch of a bohemian guy with a huge grin.

The sketch got rave reviews from their friends, one of whom wrote, "This guy's got life figured out." The brothers simplified that to, "Life is Good," and printed 48 shirts carrying this design for a street fair in Cambridge, Mass.

The customer response to the "Life is Good" smiling face was universal:

We sold the shirts to college students, policemen, waitresses, skateboarders, hippies, and businessmen. They were the easiest sales we ever had. People "got it," and they bought it. No explanation was necessary. The steady trickle became a frenzy, and in less than an hour, we were sold out. 'Life is Good' said more with three words in one hour than all our elaborate pitches, messages, and designs had said in five years...We had found our rallying cry for optimists, and those three simple words would change our lives forever.

The immediate resonance of Life Is Good with consumers demonstrates one of my favorite marketing lessons from the book:

In business, if you bring a complex idea to market, you'll reach hundreds. Simplify it and you'll reach thousands. Simplify it to the point where the average person instantly understands it, and your reach becomes limitless.

Life Is Good clearly strikes a chord with humanity, both as an expression of carefree good times and also—perhaps most powerfully—as a hopeful testament to what remains good about life even amidst difficulty and tragedy.

In April 2013, the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent related shootings killed four innocent people and badly injured more than 200—all within earshot of the Life Is Good offices. One of their staff members was badly wounded. It's at times like this when most of us can't help but ask: Is life really good?

The brothers' response to this tragedy was my favorite part of their story:

All major media outlets were making sure we saw those bombs exploding over and over and over again. The hate story was being told everywhere we looked. But there was another story unfolding too — a more powerful one.

Seconds after the bombs exploded, people were performing acts of love. The EMTs and other first responders to the scene, the people who lent their phones or welcomed strangers into their homes, the runners who pushed themselves beyond marathon distance and ran to nearby hospitals to give blood, the medical staff that worked 40- or 50-hour shifts. And what happened after the first few days passed? The love only grew. People donated services to expedite creation and delivery of custom prosthetics; musicians donated their time and talents to raise spirits and money. People from around the globe sent caring letters and prayers, opening their hearts and their wallets to help. It was an outpouring of love.

Yes, two young, very confused men committed horrible acts of hate, and we can't reverse that. But following those acts, and as a direct reaction to those acts, millions of people performed acts of love. The Boston Marathon bombings showed two human beings at their worst and millions of human beings at their best. We talked about all of this as it was happening. And we realized that love was the real story.

So we created a T-shirt that said "BOSTON" on the front with a small heart in the center of one of the O's, and the words "Nothing is stronger than LOVE" on the back. We weren't sure what the reaction would be. We weren't even sure if most people would understand it. But our team really got behind it. They jumped into action, and 30 hours after conception the shirt was for sale in stores and on our website. And people did understand it. Much to our amazement, BOSTON LOVE became the best-selling T-shirt we've ever made. In less than 60 days, that one T-shirt generated over half a million dollars in profit. And we donated every penny to The One Fund, established to help the victims and their families.

In the end, Life Is Good tells the story of optimism worth believing in. Because whether it's the story of two guys selling T-shirts out of a van, or the story of love overcoming hate in the wake of a tragedy, or even the story of your own life in all its messiness, this book helps reinforce the truth that: Life is not easy. Life is not perfect. But through it all, Life is good.

About the Author: Matthew Richey is on the finance team at ThriftBooks. Outside the office, he's an avid stock market investor and enjoys a wide range of non-fiction.

Read more by Matthew Richey

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