I’m borrowing part of my “About Me” page to introduce here the concept of “economic engines”.  It was a revelation to me at the dawning of the new millennium.  Perhaps I was late to the party.  When I looked up again 20 years later, I found many people talking about business as an economic engine.  

You can find more pictures at https://colinvtjohnson.com/about-me/

In the meantime, here is the text of that page:

When I applied to business school in 1998, the application questions prompted me to reflect on my life and define what mattered to me.  Through that process I realized that the prior decade of my father’s career was instructive in a way I had not realized as it was happening.  My father went to work for AmeriCares ten years prior when I was a junior in high school in 1988.  

As a idealistic youth, I had aspired to combat social inequality through my work, but I did not have the stomach for politics nor the patience for “pass the hat” philanthropy.  When prompted by my business school applications to reflect upon my life, I saw in the origin story of AmeriCares an example of how business can serve as an economic engine to power any number of objectives.  AmeriCares was not the engine.  Rather it was AmeriCares’ founder Bob Macauley’s paper company, Virginia Fiber, that served as the economic engine that powered the good works at AmeriCares.  Virginia Fiber contributed significantly to AmeriCares’ operating budget, and with this benefactor to fund its base operations, AmeriCares was able to become one of the preeminent humanitarian relief agencies in the world.  AmeriCares’ prided itself on arriving first to tragic disasters anywhere in the world, providing critical first aid and life support until governments and NGOs fill in behind with longer-term services and reconstruction.

AmeriCares often took public figures on humanitarian airlifts. Here George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara deplane after returning from an airlift to Guatemala. My father speaks to the media from the podium on the right. This framed picture hangs in his office today.

The example of AmeriCares, or specifically of Virginia Fiber, highlighted to me that learning to build businesses and then teaching that skill to underserved communities, would allow individuals in those communities to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and achieve economic parity with better-served communities.  With this realization, I focused my career on learning how to launch and run businesses the old-fashioned way, growing them from operating income rather than through venture investment.  It was hard slogging, but those trenches taught me invaluable lessons on running, growing and selling businesses.   

I am going to jump around my memory banks for a while until I find my groove.  I make reference in my earlier post to the origins of my interest in East Asia.  I will likely return to my times in Japan as recollections re-emerge.  For the moment, however, I will fast forward to my final days of college.

Somewhere I acquired a deep-seated yearning to know what I was made of.  I wanted to test my mettle.   I first recall feeling as I prepared to graduate from college.  I found myself with a recurring daydream that I might parachute myself into the middle of the Amazon jungle with minimal supplies (a la chewing gum and a fish hook), and then challenge myself to bushwhack my way out.

Pic: Pixabay

In the end, I got cold feet and let the sense that I should start generating income rather than incurring academic debt pull me away from this plan.  By what seemed then as complete chance, I received and accepted an offer to work at General Motors instead.  What might have happened had I declined the offer?  Might I have gone to the actual Amazon?  Might I have travelled to China or Taiwan to round out my East Asian expertise?  I’ll never know.

In later years while in the crucible of a figurative startup “jungle”, this untended desire to test my mettle reappeared to shape my endurance in difficult circumstances.

Facing East

When Star Wars came out in 1977, I was utterly transfixed.  I can’t figure out how I would have accomplished seeing the movie 21 times in the theaters.  I would have been six or seven, and recently moved back to Evansville, Indiana.  The only way I can imagine seeing the movie so many times would have been taking myself to the Rossie Theater a couple blocks away from my grandparents’ house where we lived for our first year in Evansville.  Whether or not I actually did see it 21 times in the theater, I am convinced that I did.  If it didn’t actually happen that way, it must be that my subconscious concocted the memory.

Credit: Disney/Lucas Film

I was so moved by the film, that I always stood up in the isle during the ending scene when Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and Chewbacca are presented medals of honor for defeating the Death Star to the ringing trumpets playing the Star Wars Anthem.

I didn’t realize until years later how influenced by East Asian culture George Lucas must have been in creating the Jedi.  As geopolitical events would have it, the mid 80’s was the zenith of Japan’s global economic dominance.  The US entertainment industry translated that fascination into movies about the ninja, and all things samurai.  As you might predict, as a slovenly adolescent I became transfixed by the mystique of “the Orient”.  Little did I recognize how much Star Wars might sow the seeds of my interest in the philosophies of the East.

The Journey

The road to “Purpose” and beyond.  

Peter Ralston once wrote, “One big error people make is thinking that a mission is something you discover.  A mission is something you create, a pursuit you assign yourself.”

I’ve been looking for a way to chronicle the evolution in my own thinking, and pay homage to the way-stations that shaped my path.  

I hope to recall the steps I’ve taken along the way, and reflect upon how what I discovered along the way steered my journey. Thanks for joining me.