Mendoza School of Business

Ideally ordinary

Author: Gary Becker (BBA '86)



Notre Dame takes a complete approach to teaching that extends far beyond the content and the environment they deliver this in inspired me beyond my limits. I realized it was preparing me more for the world outside of the classroom by not only building up my curiosity, but making me an engaged learner and teaching me how to recognize theory in action. This was like a magic wand for me; preparing me for life experience while delivering some benchmarking that would prove useful once I was out in the real world. Easily my greatest discovery was what the experience revealed about myself and what I was capable of. It prepared me for the days and journeys ahead. I’ve highlighted a few themes below that have often repeated themselves in my life.

Success doesn’t have to be complicated. My success formula is anchored by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well; leading is caring not commanding and ignoring what most measure constantly. This style suits me well and I’m proud to say has succeeded whether applied to a business I’m running or a youth hockey team I coached. It achieved great success in multiple forms of measurement. It’s organic to me, didn’t come from a book, and it all began to take shape during my 3 years at Notre Dame.

I’ve always been a late bloomer. Undersized, slow reader, struggled to keep pace. I was always starting in the middle or even farther back in the pack. This allowed me so many advantages. That’s right, I said ADVANTAGES. The first of which is, I’m ideally ordinary. This alone almost forces me to turn over more rocks along the way, thus gaining more information than most. Nobody remembers where you started the race, they only care about where you finished. I wouldn’t exactly claim those words as my own, but I understand the point. I feel they are missing the story that occurred in between; that’s really what I’m all about. It’s also where I feel Notre Dame had the greatest impact on me.

Neither of my parents went to college. I feel this drove them to deliver exactly that for my sister and me. This meant more than a “next step” in my education; it meant the chance to explore and begin defining myself. My Notre Dame experience began as a transfer student my sophomore year. I was most excited and focused on the courses and content that set themselves apart from freshman year. It took me many years after graduating and a group of 8-year-olds I was coaching to realize the biggest value of my Notre Dame experience. More on that below.

Doing ordinary things

Lots of people use sports analogies in business. I like them as well and find them very applicable. It is most often the team that works well together that prevails over the one with greater skill, but lacking in the intangibles. Businesses are the same. Success doesn’t come from having a lot of smart people, it comes from having a lot of people working smart.

Mastery of the fundamentals and then how and when to best apply them. No trick plays, clarity, build good habits and be consistent. Never underestimate the power of simplicity, because simple things are easily mastered by most people and easily recognized and understood. Being too unique can be very risky and more often goes far into the opposite direction of that intended. I found my comfort in businesses with proven demand, which also meant plenty of competition. I mastered the art of differentiation by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. I’ll illustrate my point with a story I made up about differentiation, I referred to it as “The Glass of Water.”

About the age of 27 I was searching for the right environment to apply myself. I was reading a book and the tiny piece I remember most was that maximum differentiation required only 10 degrees, not 180. This absolutely clicked with me; a lightning bolt. I created this visual for myself and have since shared this example hundreds of times. A glass of water is plain and ordinary.

Think of your product, your service, even yourself as the glass of water and if ever in a situation requiring you to set yourself apart from the pack apply this. Imagine we are sitting in a restaurant for lunch and every table has glasses of water, which can be easily identified with a glance. The waiter arrives and ask if you’d like water and you reply reply; “Yes please with a lemon wedge.” Your guest does the same but with an orange. The glasses of water arrive and the entire restaurant is now fixed on your table. That looks exactly like my glass of water, but I had no idea they came with lemon or orange wedges. I want it! The best way to differentiate our glass of water is to keep it recognizable and add the garnish. Not, by changing the main consistency to appear like you’ve mixed in some milk. Innovation can never come at the expense of recognition, clarity. The value of something is directly correlated to how easily it can be recognized and understood then ultimately beneficial to the recipient.

As university students learning finance like me across the planet, we all began on about the same standing, all appearing to be quite similar glasses of water. We are the glass and the water inside is analogous to the content we are learning. So if the content was the water, what then represents the lemon wedge that sets us apart at ND? It was the environment. Content can be acquired from many places, but it’s tough to replace the value of a great environment.

I use curiosity as a skill

Every young child enjoys coloring, drawing pictures, etc. It’s their first opportunity of expression (beyond crying) and it certainly exceeds their ability to do so verbally. It’s the way they tell stories. It’s the way they see the world. It’s also a reflection of the people they are becoming. I’m definitely more artistic than most, but I’m no artist. It’s not so much the coloring that concerns me as being lost in most adults, it’s that other thing that kids are always doing; asking questions. I’m far from the only one who in present day feels that asking questions shows great courage and a commitment to improvement. Notre Dame fostered an environment of asking questions and offering to help. Two things that are a very big part of my life today. Adjoining curiosity and education seems very natural to me and it either gets me out ahead of something new or so far ahead that I’m the one initiating the change.

While at Notre Dame the classroom served as a starting point and from there it was limitless. I wasn’t shown the way, I learned to find it. I wasn’t being taught to know the answers, I was being prepared to ask more questions. In other words, the presentation of some material motivated me beyond class presence and note taking and into deeper exploration. I became a highly engaged learner following my curiosity. Most artists will tell you that they initially started with one image in mind and their hand got ahead of their head and they arrive at something completely different. My searching for answers or improvement is the same. I begin on a path (general or specific) and discover so many unplanned things along the way. It’s always in those unplanned discoveries that the greatest value is mined from.

Not all that is learned can be taught. Curiosity is a skill, a tremendous skill. Putting it to work is what revealed so much more about the disciplines I was now exposed to and further, it allowed me to discover so much more about myself. This all came full circle for me around 2003 while coaching a hockey team of 8 year olds. Things had shifted. I was delivering the message and having to stimulate the learning. I created the environment they wanted to be a part of and together those methods did for those kids, what it had done for me years prior. People don’t change other people, they deliver an environment that stimulates and engages people to change themselves. Those 8 year old kids were giving me another round of what Notre Dame had started years before – they were leading me to developing my best self. Passion comes from this same place (curiosity) and is mostly associated with and seen through our hobbies. Those of us who are really fortunate, discover careers that allow this type of expression every day.

Show you care

Gary Becker (BBA ’86)

That simple, four letter word (care) that we all learned before ever going to school is the secret to my wildly consistent and successful pattern of leadership. Showing you care about the details in your business, your brand, the customer experience, etc; yes, those are all important, but it’s not where you begin. You must demonstrate to each individual in your group/company/team that you know WHO they are and not just WHAT they do. I knew that beyond her proficiency with monthly reports, Nancy in accounting loved her pets. I knew of her husband’s naval career and many of her other interests. I knew their spouses, what sports their kids played, who coached and some of them their fears and struggles. They had more than a job with me, they had a connection.

Here’s a “lemon wedge” for you. We delivered critical services to a live event industry; no do-overs or back orders in this business. It could be stressful and none of us really had a set time we’d go home at night. I made sure that spouses knew how much they were appreciated and how it was inexcusable to hear that any of our staff missed a child’s performance or important family occasion. It’s one thing to gain the loyalty of an employee, but achieving that support from a spouse is a completely new level. You can’t have a happy employee if they are squeezed in the middle. Being mindful of these things around us was something I discovered about myself during my final year of college and the immediate years to follow. It just made sense to me and it connected so well with how we treated everyone and how we were in turn treated. Leading isn’t’ commanding people, leading is caring for people. Leaders must not only gain that trust but realize what’s connected to it with everyone involved.

I was never treated like a number at Notre Dame, I felt as much a part of the community as anyone and felt welcomed to share thoughts and experiences beyond the lectures and course content. Classes were right sized, teachers knew you by your name, most got to know where you were from and your other interests and perhaps goals. This gave me a very clear feeling that they were there for me, they were supporting and rooting for me. They knew many of the challenges ahead of us all and I felt like I was in good hands. They were holding me accountable to perform to my potential, but supported me when I needed it. I never felt out of balance.

Unimaginable success follows disappointment

I have been saved so many times by not getting what I set out for. And every time this happened, if you kept your head up, eyes and ears open you’d recognize a new opportunity that led to success that was 1000 times better than what I was initially chasing. The trick is staying the course of belief and your core values. Giving your best every day. Continuing to be mindful, grateful and on the long goal. You begin to see that these setbacks are only that, they’re not the end. Losing a shift doesn’t mean a lost period. A lost period doesn’t mean a lost game. Losing one game doesn’t end your season. A losing season doesn’t end a career. This is what the words “Play Like A Champion” means to me. It’s not about an outcome, because you don’t become a champion in one moment. Champions are built out of both success and struggle they take time across many journeys. The consistency among champions both on their path to becoming one and maintaining that standard thereafter is accepting the commitment to the hard work, the responsibilities associated with being on top and just simply delivering your best self in each moment.

Awareness of the present is better than measuring the past.

More often than not, I ignore what most business owners are measuring. They can quote sales data, ratios and KPI’s; I can quote my customers and staff. I believe that everything reflected on the accounting side of the business has multiple things happening to generate them. Numbers are results, they have no power for change. I focus on those things that make an impact and initiate change and the results take care of themselves.

Starting at the back of the pack isn’t all bad. Don’t focus on the extra ground you need to cover or having to perform more trial and error. Look not on this as wasted time, but time invested. All of this has meaning even though we can’t see it, in the moment, when looking at it one piece at a time. Life is a lot like a mosaic, you must step back a bit to see the complete image to appreciate its beauty. You will see how each setback is connected to each success. You’ll also realize that if not for the struggles the image would be incomplete and thus lacking in it’s full potential. People should actually wish for a little adversity in their lives, because that is what presents the opportunities for us all to become the people we are truly meant to be. I recommend people aim for fulfillment as it’s a much fuller and well earned feeling of happiness that comes from succeeding past your obstacles and setbacks and bringing others up the mountain with you. It’s always better to have some company to enjoy the moment with. After all, you can’t high-five yourself.

Eternally grateful & Go Irish!


Topics: BBA