About a year ago I was lucky enough to meet a Supreme Court Justice and sit next to him at dinner (thanks, Phil!). The first question I asked was about the Citizens United decision and how it got passed. He made it clear that he was firmly opposed to the ruling and had voted against it. Then he launched into a seven-minute explanation supporting the judgment. When he finished his very compelling explanation, he again stressed that he was against the decision.
My next question was how he became a Supreme Court Justice. His answer was that there are two parts to the opportunity, both equally important. These days, he said, it’s necessary to meet all the requirements — go to law school, become a federal judge, have political connections, etc. before you can even be considered for the nomination. But more importantly, he said, was to be standing on the corner when the bus comes by.
Can you believe that? Achieving one of the most powerful positions in the country — and perhaps the world — takes a lot of preparation, work, and study, but it also takes luck, the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
I gotta tell you, even though I know this is true intellectually, I have a really hard time with it. I like to believe that we are masters of our own destiny and live and die by our actions, but what I’m learning, and what his honor confirmed, is that a lot of our success (or failure) is out of our control.
So what’s the valuable takeaway from all this? That we have to work harder to be ready for our big moment, or that we might as well chillax because the ultimate result is out of our hands anyway?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that the waiting around part doesn’t work real well for me. I’m more like that 60’s Day-Glo poster of the two vultures sitting on a tree stump where one turns to the other and says: “Patience my ass, I’m gonna go kill something.”
So if it’s true that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every solution looks like a nail, it would stand to reason that my way of dealing with this would be with a branding angle. And that’s exactly how I see it.
Just like when you’re waiting for the bus, you don’t sit quietly on the bench and wait for it to zoom by. Instead you get up and flag it down. So it makes sense to do what it takes to wave down the metaphorical bus as well, because that’s where your brand gets into the game.
By building a compelling brand and attracting more attention to whatever it is you’re doing, you can significantly increase your chance of success for whenever the bus happens to pass by.
Have you been in a Tiffany & Co. jewelry store lately? Do you know what is the most valuable thing they sell there? It’s not the jewelry, the crystal, or the sterling. The most valuable thing in a Tiffany store is the distinctive blue box with the white ribbon. Really. It’s the box. Those blue boxes are so valuable, in fact, that you can’t even buy them at a Tiffany store (you can buy them on eBay, however). They are so valuable that the proprietary robin’s egg blue color, specifically Pantone’s PMS number 1837, is trademarked and not in the Pantone catalog.
Look at it this way: despite its emotional and romantic import, the gold wedding ring on your finger is only worth its weight multiplied by the price of gold. That’s it — gold is a commodity just like heating oil, gypsum or corn and only worth what the market will pay. But place that simple gold band in that famous blue box and it’s instantly worth more thanks to the power of the meaning of a gift from Tiffany. And mixing my metaphors even further, if a plain wedding band and a plain wedding band in a Tiffany jewelry box were standing on the street corner waiting for the bus, which one would be more likely to get picked up? I think we’d all agree it’s the ring from Tiffany.
So did my Supreme Court Justice gussie himself up in a blue box? Probably not. But he did say that part of the prepping for the assignment was to have a relationship with the sitting President so he would be top of mind when it was time to make a decision. And while cozying up to POTUS is a pretty tall order for most of us, building our own brands and making them relevant to our consumers is a whole lot easier.
Thanks to my friend Phil Bakes and his impressive list of good friends I got to spend a wonderful evening at the Strategic Forum annual awards dinner honoring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. It was a big thrill to meet Justice Breyer and to have the rare opportunity to ask him questions and gain some insight into how the court functions and how Breyer sees his role on the highest court in the land.
Justice Breyer told stories flavored by the weight of history. Quoting Alexander Hamilton, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Eisenhower and Justice Frankfurter, added gravitas to the evening and at the same time made Breyer’s aw-shucks demeanor feel even more human and approachable.
During Q&A Justice Breyer was asked about how the court could pass the Citizens United decision giving corporations and unions freedom of speech and the ability to anonymously finance political campaigns. Breyer was quick to point out that he was in the dissent and was one of the four justices who disagreed with a decision he thought was clearly wrong. Having made his position very clear, he went on to cogently explain the reasons why the five victorious justices had voted the way they had and he made a very credible case to support the argument he disagreed with.
This magnanimous answer brought another probing question — how can you go back to the table, time and time again, to argue different cases with the same people, especially when the court seems to be so clearly split across political lines?
Breyer said that while he had assumed that the court was more fractious now than at most any other time in history, his investigation proved that wasn’t true. In fact, his research showed that over 40% of the cases brought before the Supreme Court ended in unanimous decisions.
But he said that it was the two unspoken rules of court protocol that helped to maintain their camaraderie and civility.
Breyer first talked about how cases are presented. Chief Justice Roberts explains each case and adds his opinion. Then they go around the room and each judge comments on the case. The key to keeping these procedures cool, calm, and collected is this: “Everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice.”
Second, Breyer talked about the lack of politics in the decisions the court makes. As he said (much more eloquently than I’m relating it here I must admit), the judge you agree with on one case is someone you’ll be diametrically opposed to on the next. What’s important to remember is that “tomorrow’s always a new day.”
I’m a big fan of the simple yet profound. And Breyer’s simple wisdom reminded me of Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here’s an excerpt:
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Simple yet profound. Imagine how much more pleasant and productive life would be if we could all follow the Supreme Court’s unwritten rules and Fulghum’s kindergarten lessons.