man hugging tree

At one time in my life, I felt shackled by chains of responsibilities, family obligations and expectations of others. At work I felt restricted and confined by its bureaucratic nature. I was reluctant to follow my instincts in business because I might be fired or demoted.

My friend, Father Tom, was a Franciscan monk at a nearby monastery. I discussed my feelings with him and asked for advice. Instead of answering me directly, Father Tom jumped to his feet and bolted to a nearby tree, flung his arms around it, grasping the tree as he screamed, “Save me from this tree!” Save me from this tree!” I could not believe what I saw. I thought he had gone mad. The shouting soon brought a small crowd of people. “Why are you doing that?” I asked. “Are you crazy!” “You are holding the tree; the tree is not holding you. You can simply let go.” Father Tom let go of the tree and said, “If you can understand that, you have your answer. Your chains of attachment and fears are not holding you, you are holding them. You can simply let go.”

One person who did let go of his fears was 3M’s legendary Richard Drew. Stories about him and his incredible creativity and drive are often told at 3M gatherings to inspire new employees. Former 3M Chairman and CEO, Lewis Lehr, said that if Dick Drew had not worked at 3M, 3M might not exist today or, at best, it would be a lot smaller than it is.

Drew was a consummate risk-taker, constantly pushing to and beyond the edge of the envelope. He ignored his boss when he was summarily ordered to quit working on masking tape and get back to work on improving a brand of Wet-or-Dry sandpaper. That Drew ignored management and wasn’t fired, speaks volumes not only about Drew but about 3M’s management philosophy even back then. It tells you that Drew would pursue his belief in the face of any obstacle, and it tells you that 3M’s management genius included an intuitive understanding of the need to let creative talent alone and to gamble on their ideas.

After creating the initial version of masking tape, Drew asked an executive for permission to buy a thirty-seven-thousand-dollar paper maker. He said it would help improve the masking tape, which has a crepe-like paper backing. The executive, Edgar Ober, told Drew to hold off for a while because finances were tight, and he didn’t feel the paper maker was worth the expenditure. Six months later, Drew took Ober into the laboratory and there was the paper maker, working away productively, turning out a vastly improved backing for the masking tape. Ober was flabbergasted and angry! He asked Drew where the hardware came from. Drew explained that he simply submitted a blizzard of 100 dollar purchase orders over a six-month period of time. The machine was paid for in the small amounts in petty cash he was authorized to spend on his own. The paper maker helped make masking tape into a phenomenal commercial success for 3M.

Drew also encouraged his own workers to attack their goals as relentlessly as he pursued his own. One day, one of his subordinates went to Drew with an idea he was very excited about. He presented his idea enthusiastically and sat back to wait for Drew’s response. Drew paused thoughtfully and then he replied, “Your idea leaves me colder than a Billy goat in hell.” Before disappointment could set in, however, he told him, “You obviously believe in your idea so strongly that I’ll fire you if you don’t continue to work on it, regardless of what I or anyone else here think.”

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, is another example of letting go and living in continuous movement. His biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put him up for adoption. She felt very strongly that he should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for him to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when Steve was born they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So his parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” His biological mother later found out that adoptive mother had never graduated from college and that his adoptive father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when his parents promised that he would someday go to college.

And 17 years later Steve did go to college. But he naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of his working-class parents’ savings were being spent on his college tuition. After six months, he couldn’t see the value in it. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and no idea how college was going to help him figure it out. So he decided to move on with his life and drop out. He said it was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions he ever made. The minute he dropped out he stopped taking the required classes that didn’t interest him, and begin dropping in on the ones that did.

He slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, He returned coke bottles for the deposits to buy food with, and he would walk 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. And much of what he stumbled into by following his curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Because he had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, Steve decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. Steve learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in his life. But ten years later, when he designed the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to him and he designed it all into the Mac. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If he had never dropped out, he would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.

Steve Jobs was able to let go of the expectations of his parents, his biological mother and his peers and move forward driven by his curiosity and restlessness for something more.

My favorite example of human potential is a story I’ve heard about a man who bags and carries out groceries in a supermarket. His name is Johnny and he has Downs Syndrome. He loves his job. One day all the employees gathered for a meeting with the owner. The owner talked about customer service and asked each employee to try to do something special for the customers to create a good memory about the market and bring them back. The managers and employees had meetings to discuss various thoughts and ideas. When Johnny tried to get involved with them, he was ignored.

Johnny was used to being treated with indifference and being ignored by the store’s managers and employees, so it didn’t bother him. Johnny thought and thought about what he could do as a grocery bagger. He thought about the things that made him feel good. His favorite thing to do each day after he got home was to look up a quote or make one up if he couldn’t find one he liked and repeat it silently to himself all the next day at work. Then he got his idea. If it makes him feel good, it will make customers feel good too.

He would give his daily quote or saying to his father who would set it up in a computer and print multiple copies. Steve would cut out each quote and sign his name on the back and brought them to work. While bagging groceries he would put a quote in the bag and say “Thank you for shopping with us.”

A month later, the owner noticed Johnny’s checkout lane was five times longer than other lanes. He tried to encourage the shoppers to move to other lanes. Incredibly, the people wouldn’t leave Steve’s lane. They said they wanted Johnny’s “thought for the day.” Three months later, the owner discovered Johnny’s spirit had pervaded the whole staff and each employee was now trying to add that little touch to make people feel special. For example, an employee in the florist section would take broken flowers and pin them on elderly women or small girls.

Whenever I think of human potential and the courage and will of some to overcome personal adversity to create ways to make ordinary tasks into extraordinary examples of inspiration that makes life brighter for the rest of us, I think of Johnny.

(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.