The enduring legacy of John Kennedy: self-belief

The Independent ran a story this week, which caught my eye: since 1927, Jack Haddock has lived in the same council house in Walsall – for almost nine decades, with only a brief pause during the war, Jack has lived in the same house.

His late father first received the keys from the council in 1927, and having taken over the tenancy, Jack has never missed a week’s rent. Haddock, who is perhaps Britain’s most loyal council tenant, is 86 and lives alone. He rides his bicycle every day, eats little and often, starting with five Weetabix for breakfast, and has not seen a doctor for anything more serious than a flu jab for 40 years.

He has no siblings and never married, partly, he says, because he is wedded above all else to his home – twice he was due to marry and backed out. One girl wanted me to move up the Delves (in south Walsall) but I said, ‘no, Jean, I’m not leaving here’. We parted amicably in 1958.

After the war in 1919, Lloyd George’s Liberal government passed the Housing Act, which for the first time required councils to provide subsidised housing to those in need. It triggered a building boom in the 1920s and established council housing as a social service. In Walsall, Haddock’s parents applied for one of the first new homes. When Haddock’s father died in 1963, 10 years after his mother’s death, the council assumed Jack would want the house for his own family, so let him inherit the tenancy for life at the age of 36.

Haddock, who boasts that he can hold his breath for a minute, says he never gets lonely and is determined to die in the only place he has called home. He wants his ashes to be scattered on the site of an old engine shed up the road, where he developed his love of trains as a child.

Jack’s a throwback to a bygone era, rich in personal social and economic history. Filled with the habits of a lifetime, soon to be lost along with the poignant passing of another generation’s way of life. We can only wonder the line of sight Jack had from his front window on the evening of 22 November 1963, fifty years ago.

Over in Dallas that day, President John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet. As the youngest elected President, Kennedy, who served less than three years, is ranked among the most revered Presidents. Just 46 when he died, he is praised for his youthful vigour, his leadership through the Cuban missile crisis, and his vision to put a man on the Moon.

On 22 November 1963, Kennedy and his wife travelled to Dallas for early campaigning for the following year’s election. Crowds lined the streets. As the presidential motorcade entered Dealey Plaza at around 12:30 local time (6.30pm GMT), Kennedy’s convertible passed the Texas School Book Depository.

Gunshots rang out across the plaza. Bullets struck the president in the head and neck. Half an hour later, Kennedy was pronounced dead. He was the fourth US president assassinated in office, but the first to have his death captured on film. The events of that November day plunged America into mourning, and many Americans still recall where they were when they heard the news.

At the beginning of Kennedy’s presidency, America was in crisis. The Soviet Union had put a satellite into Earth’s orbit, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. Kennedy could feel the anxiety, he knew America needed a bold stroke. On September 12, 1962, at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, Kennedy gave America back their self-belief. He said, The United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward.

Then he added what are for me, some of the most inspiring words ever crafted: We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Kennedy injected energy and self-belief with the speech, and a statement of ambition that was a turning point in history. Having ushered in the tumultuous 1960s with an idealistic message of empowerment – ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country, Kennedy captured the hearts and minds of an entire population, urging them to participate, engage with the world, and believe.

But just 14 months later, Kennedy would die in Dallas. Kennedy was silenced in a moment none thought possible. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle Lunar Module on the Moon, at the Sea of Tranquillity.  A few hours later, on July 21, they stepped out on the Moon.  From Kennedy’s speech to the landing had taken 8 years, one month and 26 days.

But although Kennedy’s legacy is muddled, the aura battered with the faithless and reckless womanising, and the tragedy of Vietnam, the Kennedy message of self-belief is tenacious. Polls regularly list him among the highest-regarded presidents. He lifted the country from a tide of anxiety, daunted by the future. His self-confidence emboldened an orator’s words marking a nation’s consciousness, he fostered a contagious idealism born in the belief that, with our own hands, we can craft a better future, stating: one person can make a difference, and everyone should try.

He has lingered in our memory, witness the number of articles and television retrospectives this anniversary week. Kennedy had an expansive vision in which, as he put it, no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. He proved it by challenging Americans to go to the moon.

It was Kennedy’s positivity, vision and self-belief that made him such an iconic leader, traits you see in the founders of many start-up businesses. There’s a depth of research on the defining characteristics of entrepreneurs, but for me the common trait that I’ve come to recognise in successful start-up entrepreneurs is that shared with Kennedy – self-belief.

It only takes a few minutes in a conversation with start-up founders to feel their positive energy – it’s contagious.  They all share an overwhelming positive outlook even when facing daunting challenges that appear to have the bleakest of odds for success.  I’ve noted a set of core beliefs that they share:

Belief in self: First and foremost, starters believe in themselves, their abilities and their own strengths. They believe they can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur with low self-esteem.  Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. But, bit-by-bit, life starts to teach you to limit yourself. Children don’t learn to limit their own horizons, so why does it happen? Successful starters don’t hope they can beat the odds, they believe wholeheartedly that they will.  There is no second-guessing.  As it goes, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right.  If you don’t believe you can beat the odds, chances are you won’t.
Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt yourself listen for a moment to that little negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of lots of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane. One thing’s for sure, that little inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you now, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself, ideas that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Get rid of the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, my favourite cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But, through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude. Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities for self-belief. We shouldn’t assume there’s nothing to improve about ourselves, but just focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in intuition: Most entrepreneurs rely more on gut feelings to make decisions than they do on conscious analysis of a situation. Even though they may be highly analytical and accumulate data, their decisions are usually based on what feels right – gut instinct. Most people wait for the right opportunity to present itself, but the true self-starter is always on the lookout for yet another new opportunity. It is often just a matter of perspective. There is the famous story about the shoe company who sends an employee to a new country to ascertain if there is a market for their shoes. The representative reports back: There is no shoe market here. These people don’t even wear shoes. The founder, on hearing this news, exclaims This is wonderful! No one has any shoes yet! What a huge opportunity!

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute. The obstacles that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true entrepreneur. Winners persist, losers desist. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the happy successful person from the frustrated failure – to quote Calvin Coolidge, Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence; talent will not, nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent; genius will not, unrewarded genius is almost a proverb; education will not, the world is full of educated derelicts; persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Belief in the vision: For most of the successful starters I’ve met and researched, their vision is always bigger than just the money.  For most entrepreneurs that I admire, the money is never the goal.  Starters believe that they, and their start-ups, can make a real difference, and those that set out to leave their mark on the world usually do – Walt Disney and Steve Jobs are cases in point.

From Jack Haddock to John Kennedy to start-up entrepreneurs to you, life has a unique perspective. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success – it’s not how often you’re knocked over but how many times you get back up that makes the difference.

Self-belief means being yourself, everyone else is already taken. As Henry Ford said if you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you’re right. It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not. Personally, I find it easier to believe than to doubt. You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, and with self-belief, steer yourself any direction you choose. No, that wasn’t Kennedy, it was Dr Seuss.

JFK, 25th May, 1961: We go to the moon

It was 50 years ago today, May 25, 1961, that President John F. Kennedy appeared before the US Congress and called for the country to join him in a challenge: Send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, he said, and none will be so difficult to accomplish.

Just five weeks prior to this, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, putting the Russians ahead in the space race. In America, this reinforced fears about being left behind in the technology stakes and hurting a nation’s pride, but also a real fear in the Cold War era.

Kennedy’s inspirational speech contained a bolt statement of ambition and intent that is often cited as his most rousing call to arms, and still strikes a chord today:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? Why choose to go to the Moon? We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.

Prior to this, when the lunar module landed at 4.18pm EDT, only 30 seconds of fuel remain. Armstrong radios Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.  At 10.56 pm EDT Armstrong is ready to plant the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbs down the ladder and proclaims That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

Kennedy’s vision for space exploration had been fulfilled, his ambition had been realised. His push toward putting a man on the moon in less than nine years was a fantastically challenging statement, and the fact that it was done is astounding in many ways. Even now it’s astonishing to think that he got the commitment and proceeded to achieve it. Of course, Kennedy did not live to see the dream realised, but he would have dead chuffed, as we say in Burnley, that it was achieved.

The story clearly shows that ambition has real virtue in showing people the great possibilities of the future, indeed the visibility of the moon in the sky is as powerful as any other single source of inspiration.

By the way, when I graduated back in 1984, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 Yearbook I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off a few applications for Accountancy roles and one, a bit speculatively, for ‘Astronauts wanted’ to NASA. Suffice to say my own attempts to become an astronaut didn’t go very well, I didn’t get a reply. Anyway, I think I’m a bit too hyperactive to sit still all the way to the moon and there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated seat.

But landing on the Moon is surely man’s greatest ever adventure. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel?  Imagine, imagine, imagine (for imagine is all that we can do) blasting out of the atmosphere, traveling many times faster than a bullet, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW. Boldness, courage, positivity, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure. See, I would have made a good astronaut.

There’s a great book – Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, in which he interviews nine of the twelve astronauts (three have died) who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972 ( Instead of asking the obvious question – What was it like to be on the moon? – he is more interested in how they coped with returning to their lives on earth, knowing that the highpoint of their lives was probably behind them.

The book has many fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, ranging from some humorous accounts of the difficulties in going to the loo in zero gravity to a description of how pilots often had to assume manual control to stop their craft from crashing into the lunar surface. But for me, the most memorable thing I learned was that NASA only paid the astronauts a few dollars a day while they were in space and actually deducted bed and board from their pay cheque! They were paid $8 a day minus deductions for their free bed on Apollo. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, still has a framed receipt on his wall: From Houston to Cape Kennedy, Moon, Pacific Ocean. Amount claimed: $33.31.

There is poignancy to the interviews with the individual astronauts as NASA provided very little support for them when coming back down to Earth, and indeed Armstrong is extremely reticent to talk about the whole experience. Now aged 82, Armstrong once recalled standing on the Moon and noticing he could blot out the Earth with his thumb. Did that make him feel really big, he was asked? No, the great astronaut replied, It made me feel really, really small. Armstrong was undergoing an awareness of human insignificance – albeit with unprecedented vividness. Few others have shared such a vantage point, after all.

For me the story of this fantastic achievement has long been a huge motivation, so ask yourself:  Are you ready to fill the boot prints of Armstrong? Do you have a vision for yourself and your business akin to putting a man on the moon? In today’s business environment you can’t wait ten years for it to come to fruition, so as well as crafting your plans for infinity and beyond…sorry, that was Buzz Lightyear, another famous astronaut… I meant next year and beyond, you need to get everyone around you focused on the vision, and a plan of the key actions to getting things done.

Of the many stories that came out of the Apollo program, one of my favourites is the story about the caretaker at one of the NASA facilities, who upon being asked by Kennedy on a visit to NASA what his job was in the organisation, replied I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.

It captures the spirit and focus shared by everyone involved in that project, that regardless of how large or visible their contribution was, where they were in the organisation chart or whatever their job title was, they all felt a genuine and direct connection between the work they did and that moment when Neil Armstrong took that first step on the Moon. That’s how a great organisation can make the seemingly impossible happen, everyone thinks it’s down to me to make a difference, from joined up thinking to doing.

So 50 years on, what a bold statement of intent. Set your own goals as high, and see what you can achieve. And if you get there, look over you shoulder, enjoy the view and sense of achievement.