What I Learned From...Letters from Iwo Jima

So you finally make it to the big presentation. That big sales call. Or you find yourself standing before the judges in a contest like American Inventor or Staples Invention Quest . In the last post in this series, I talked about how, to be successful, you need to free yourself from fear. Now that you've done that :), how should you approach the judges? How do you get inside their heads? How do you convince them that your idea has value? Let's explore.

I recently saw Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima ". If you haven't seen the film, it tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, based at least in part on letters that were recovered from the island in 2005. These letters were to and from the Japanese soldiers, and depicted the Japanese much like how we typically think of American soldiers...young husbands and fathers with hopes and dreams for their family, and most of whom would rather be anywhere else but at war.

It was a difficult film to watch because so often we feel the need to dehumanize "the other side". It makes it easier to fight against them if we can stereotype them down to drones driven by a particular mindset. We feel like if we can take away all of the human characteristics that we share in common, it's much less painful to shoot them.

I think the same thing happens in business all the time (not the shooting, of course). But I've worked at plenty of places where it was all too easy to oversimplify the competitor, or the boss, or the opposing viewpoint's state of mind. Take away their human characteristics and it's much easier to play "Us vs. Them" and to feel superior because we are clearly not the simple-minded drones that "they" are. Don't believe me...watch the first few episodes of American Idol, and see how quickly unsuccessful contestants go postally-stereotypical on the judges..."What does Randy know, he's just fat!" "That Simon needs to go back to England!".

This is a dangerous mindset, not only from a "value of all human life" perspective, but from the perspective of developing your integrity as a businessperson and entrepreneur. The fact is that "the other side" IS just like you. Sure, your personalities may be different, but they have hopes and dreams, spouses and children, good days and bad days. Their car breaks down at inconvenient times. They occasionally ruin their laundry by throwing a red shirt in with the whites. They probably need to go to the bathroom just as badly as you.

I think the truly successful entrepreneurs are the ones who can make that deepest of personal connections...who can break down the stereotypes they may have of the other side, AND whatever stereotypes "the other side" has of them...who can start by building relationships on a personal level before a professional level.

So what do you do at that big presentation or audition? You try to connect. You start with a humble and self-effacing story that lets them know you're being totally transparent, and frees them up to do the same. You may not get the business, or the gig, but you'll have started to form relationships that can go much further.

Tim Whitney
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