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The Pursuit of the Difficult
I hate to weed. I've hated it ever since my father put me to work weeding the garden at our home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It was planted with zinnias, snapdragons, and petunias, none of which seemed to grow as heartily as the weeds. After what seemed like hours of work, I never could see much progress, and I'd complain to my dad. "Mitt," he would reply, "the pursuit of the difficult makes men strong." It seems now like an awfully grandiose response for such a pedestrian task. I complained about the weeding often enough that I heard his homily regularly. I'm sure that's why it sticks with me to this day.
My father knew what it meant to pursue the difficult. He was born in Mexico, where his Mormon grandparents had moved to escape religious persecution. At five years old, Dad and his family were finally living pretty well. They had a nice home and a small farm, and Dad even had his own pony, called Monty. But in 1911, Mexican revolutionaries threatened the expatriate community, so Dad's parents bundled up their five kids, got on a train, and headed back to the United States. Their furniture, their china, his mother's sewing machine—everything they had worked hard to accumulate—had to be left behind. Once back in the States, they struggled. They moved time and again, and work was always hard to find. My grandfather established a construction business, but he went bankrupt more than once. Dad used to regale us kids with claims that one year in Idaho his family lived on nothing but potatoes—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Dad began to contribute to the family's income early on. During his high-school years he worked long hours as a lath-and-plaster man, finishing the interior walls of new houses. He never was able to put together enough time and money to graduate from college.
Three decades later, by the time I was weeding that Bloomfield Hills garden, my father had become a successful businessman. I know he worried that because my brother, sisters, and I had grown up in a prosperous family, we wouldn't understand the lessons of hard work. That's why he put us to work shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing the lawn, planting the garden, and of course, weeding—always reminding us that work would make us strong.
About this time, Dad faced a difficult pursuit of his own. In 1955, only five months after he became vice president of the newly created American Motors Corporation (AMC), the company's president, George Mason, died and the board of directors selected my father to succeed him. With news of Mason's death and mounting losses, the company's stock collapsed from $14.50 a share to $5.25. The banks didn't have much more confidence in the company at that moment than its stockholders did. I remember hearing my parents discussing with certainty that if the banks pulled out, the company wouldn't survive.
My parents had sold our home; we were living in a rented house while they prepared to build a new one. With my mother's blessing, Dad took the money they had put aside from the sale of their house and used it to buy AMC stock. He even used the savings he had given me for Christmases and birthdays to buy stock. He believed in himself, and he believed in hard work and what it could achieve.
Dad spent long days at the office, and when he was home, the work continued. He met with the company's bankers, shareholders, and employees, explaining his vision for the company's future: dropping the venerable Nash and Hudson brands and focusing instead on the Rambler compact car. He would eventually close the company's Michigan plant to consolidate production in Wisconsin. He agonized over that decision, but concluded in the end that "to save a patient this sick, surgery is necessary."
In 1959, AMC's stock was selling for more than $95 a share. Dad made the covers of Time and Newsweek. He and Mom built their dream home, and we kids, now even more prosperous, were given still more chores.
What Dad accomplished at American Motors prepared him for the challenges that would follow. He served as leader of Michigan's Constitutional Convention, as three-term governor of Michigan, as secretary of housing and urban development in the Nixon administration, and as founder of the National Center for Voluntary Action. And I have to admit that the weeding and chores probably didn't hurt me, either—something I understood well by the time I took the reins of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Over the years, I've come to believe that the value of "pursuing the difficult" applies much more broadly than only to individuals. When I met Tom Stemberg in 1985, he had come up with an idea for a new business, one he believed would revolutionize the retail industry, and in particular the business of selling and distributing office supplies. Tom's vision was to create the world's first big-box office products chain, one with hundreds of stores, tens of thousands of employees, and billions in revenues. Most people I spoke with thought it would never work, believing that businesspeople wouldn't leave their workplace to shop for office supplies, no matter how great the savings. But they were wrong, and today Staples is what Tom dreamed it would be.
Reaching Tom's goal was difficult. At first the manufacturers of supplies didn't want to sell to him because his idea threatened their traditional distributors. Stores were hard to locate in real-estate-cramped New En gland where he began. A ware house with multistore capacity had to be built and financed, even though at first there were only a handful of stores to serve. Copycat competitors sprung up everywhere; at one point, we counted more than a dozen. And money was tight. In the end, because Tom and his team achieved success in the face of so many challenges, Staples and its management team became very strong indeed, and now lead the industry.
Today the United States faces daunting challenges, and I am similarly convinced that if we confront them and overcome them, we will remain a strong and leading nation. Just like individuals, companies, and human enterprises of every kind, nations that are undaunted by the challenges they face become stronger. Those that shrink from difficult tasks become weaker.
Consider our nation's history and the strength we developed as we faced our greatest threats. George Washington's army was in no way comparable to the British forces he faced: his troops were untrained, unpaid, and out-manned. The British navy boasted 270 vessels, while the Continental navy had only twenty-seven. In April 1775, British warships laid siege on Boston Harbor and successfully took command of the city. But under General Washington's direction, during the following winter, Colonel Henry Knox and his men hauled fifty-nine heavy cannons on ox-drawn sleds three hundred miles from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, where they recently had been captured. Finally positioned on Dorchester Heights, a hill overlooking the harbor, the cannons threatened the annihilation of the British armada. The British navy withdrew and Boston remained in American hands. The victory was emblematic of the entire conflict: American ingenuity, derring-do, and faith in providence helped win our improbable independence from the world's superpower.
I was born after the Second World War and can only imagine the confusion, incredulity, and fear that must have overwhelmed the nation when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Yet once again, the United States rose to the occasion. In Detroit, where my father was already working in the auto industry, factories that once made cars were quickly turned into assembly lines for military aircraft. Car