True Value: Understanding What Matters in Business and in Life

We were walking down a small cobblestone street in Aix en Provence. It was a perfect June day – sunny and still warm in the late afternoon. The old, unpainted buildings had an amber glow.

Some of these buildings, we had learned from poking our heads inside, contained modest-sized apartments. Others enclosed elegant residences that only the wealthy could afford. From the outside, though, you couldn’t tell one from the other.

“That’s a good thing,” K said. “From the outside nobody can tell how much money you have.”

“It’s the opposite back home in Florida,” I said. “Wealthy people want everyone to know how much money they have. So they keep building bigger and bigger McMansions.”

“It’s just a question of values,” K said.

We stopped at a cafe about a block from our hotel. It was nearly filled with people having drinks and smoking, enjoying the end of their workday. A young girl stood under an oak tree playing Bach on a violin.

We ordered coffee. I wrote in my journal. K was reading a magazine.

“It says here you can survive without food for three weeks,” she said. “And three days without water. But only three minutes without oxygen.”

“Japanese pearl divers can stay under water a lot longer than that,” I said. “I think the world record is something like 19 minutes and 21 seconds.”

She shook her head, smiling. “You know what I mean. It’s a question of values. So much of our time is spent pursuing things that have questionable or temporary importance. But food… water… oxygen — what could be more important to human beings?”

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The Power of Trust

My friend “Roy” is a talented businessman and — in most respects — a natural-born entrepreneur. He’s made several fortunes in his life, but he’s lost them too. As I write this, he is starting over again — for the fourth time. “My life has been a roller coaster,” he said to me over a beer the other night. “And I don’t know why.”

I know why. When it comes to building wealth, Roy is missing one key characteristic. That characteristic?

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Must You Be Cutthroat to Succeed in Business?

“I come from a poor family. I want to start a business and make money to help them. But when I see successful businesspeople depicted on TV and in the movies, it seems like lying and cheating and screwing people is the way to go. I’m worried. Is that what I’m going to have to do?”

This question was posed just after I had given a presentation on entrepreneurship to a group of MBA candidates at Florida Atlantic University. I was momentarily startled by it. I was sure I hadn’t said anything that suggested success in business requires a cutthroat approach.

Still, the question was understandable. When Hollywood shows us business and businesspeople, it is more often than not in a negative light. And when Wall Street, the banking community, and the insurance industry screw their clients – as they’ve done so notoriously – how could any young person think differently?

So I told the young people in my audience what I’m about to tell you.

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