Eli Broad is a lot of things to a lot of people—capitalist, philanthropist, art collector and innovator, among them. But the billionaire is anything but conventional in his approach to life, money, art and time.
Broad’s head for business has yielded two Fortune 500 companies, a considerable boost in the cultural infrastructure of Los Angeles, the founding of the Broad Foundations and a pledge by the author and his wife Edye to give three-quarters of their amassed fortune to philanthropy.
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In his first book, Broad shares the unusual principles that have led him to achieve success after success. In a wide-ranging conversation about batting averages, Jeff Koons and unconventional thinking, Broad talks to us about The Art of Being Unreasonable.
What drives an unreasonable man to do so many unreasonable things?
I've been pretty unreasonable for a long time, dating back to when I was quite young and I decided I could turn a stamp-collecting hobby into a business. My wife figured out my unreasonableness not long after we were married, and she gave me a paperweight—that still sits on my desk—with a quote from George Bernard Shaw that says, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man."
Across four careers—accounting, homebuilding, retirement saving and now philanthropy—I've always been driven to make life better for people. Nothing gets me going like someone telling me something can't be done.
How does conventional wisdom impede success?
The world is filled with people who abide by the status quo and who unconditionally accept conventional wisdom. The most important two words are: Why not? Why can't something be done? If it hasn't been done before, that's not an acceptable answer. All progress—whether the invention of the automobile, the advent of space exploration, the development of the personal computer or the business models I pursued—happened because an entrepreneur asked, "Why not?" All of the ideas I just mentioned were unconventional at the time they were proposed.
What makes you believe that your unconventional approach to leadership, decision-making and risk-taking would work for someone other than yourself?
Look, I recognize that not everyone will start a Fortune 500 company or make billions of dollars. But I believe that if you have a relentless drive to pursue great ideas, if you set high expectations for yourself and others, and if you take smart risks in pursuit of your goals, you can be wildly successful in any endeavor.
You have to be smart, ambitious, hardworking and driven. I never set out to do any of the things I accomplished. I was a young CPA who was bored and restless, and I wanted to do something else. The lessons I discuss in the book—like doing homework and learning from history and from others—are applicable to anyone.
How would you describe your philosophy of “venture philanthropy?”
We used to just write checks, which is what I consider charity. But when I left the world of business to pursue philanthropy full time we knew we wanted to make a real impact. We view our philanthropic work as investments. And by that, I mean we seek a return, but I'm not talking about a financial return.
In education reform, we want to see improved student achievement. In scientific and medical research, we want to see breakthroughs that improve human health. In the arts, we want to make art accessible to the broadest public so we look at museum attendance to gauge the success of our investments. We want to know that our philanthropic investments are making a difference to improve people's lives.
How does your interest in contemporary art help inform your worldview?
Edye was our family's first art collector, so I have her to thank for my interest in art. The first major work we acquired was a drawing by Van Gogh. But I'm naturally curious and I like to learn, so as I began to educate myself about art, I learned that the greatest collections were assembled at the time the artist was living, so we started collecting contemporary art.
As I started to meet artists like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat, I realized how much I enjoyed talking to them, learning about their artistic process and seeing their studios and their work. Artists have a different worldview than lawyers, bankers and business people—all the people I usually spend time with. I find their perspective and their worldview fascinating, and it's broadened my own worldview.
Why are high expectations one of the keys to running a successful enterprise?
I am known in business and philanthropy for setting high expectations—many would say unreasonable expectations. But I also know that you don't even stand a chance of accomplishing great things if you don't attempt to do what others consider unreasonable. I have always hired bright, energetic people, and I've challenged them to do more than they ever thought possible. And you know what? They quite often surprise themselves.
But the flipside of that is establishing a culture where it's acceptable to fail. I like to tell my employees, "Show me a person with an unblemished track record, and I'll show you a person who has dramatically underachieved." A .700 batting average is pretty good. If you're doing 10 things and only three are failing, that's a pretty good track record.
Many people look to you for inspiration. What would you hope they learn through the lessons of The Art of Being Unreasonable?
I hope that readers—from a student just graduating and entering the workforce to an established businesswoman—will learn some practical lessons that help them accomplish great things. I think the most important lessons I've learned are to ask unreasonable questions, pursue the untried, relentlessly revise expectations upward, be restless and seek out the best in everything—the best values, the best investments, the best people—and the best in yourself. And in all you do, you can't take yourself too seriously. My most fortunate move was to marry Edye, and she balances me and keeps me grounded.
You’ve left a tremendous legacy in the city of Los Angeles. How do you think good works like yours inspire long-term respect?
I've always said that it's better to be respected than loved. I know I probably won't win any popularity contests because I ruffle feathers, I'm viewed as unreasonable, and I'm pretty relentless in pursuing ideas I think will benefit our city and its citizens. But at the end of the day, when something is accomplished—like building Walt Disney Concert Hall or MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles]—people forget about the disagreements and the controversies, and all that matters is the institution that's created. What counts is whether you leave this world a better place, and I hope I have.
Clayton Moore is a writer and a photographer based in Boulder, Colo. His work can be found at claywriting.blogspot.com.