Yeah, this is roughing it!

Steve at Schaak Electronics

In the early 1970s, after purchasing my Lotus Elan, I was working at Schaak Electronics in Rochester Minnesota. We were suffering yet another long and exceptionally cold winter. Little did I know, the following spring I was going to experience one of those self-realizations and experiences that would forever change my life.

Apache Mall was the home of Schaak Electronics. The store was managed by Gary Eiesland, who’d taken over from Carl Estey. Gary’s management style and creativity seemed like genius after the unfathomably odd and foolish projects initiated by Carl. Gary’s reign as store manager felt a bit like Obama following Bush, (if you’re a Democrat) or Trump following Obama if you’re of the opposite political stripe. Unlike all the single guys working at Schaak, Gary was a real adult, being married with two small girls. Besides being an awesome manager, Gary took me under his wing, sharing his outside-of-the store interests as well as coaching me on work duties.

One day Gary inquired if I liked to hike and camp. Given his Svengali-like mesmeric influence on me, I could only say, “Of course.” Soon Gary was bringing in camping, hiking, and outdoor magazines filled with adventures and ads for outdoor gear for me to read. A store selling outdoor gear, a precursor to present-day REI, had opened at the other end of the mall. Gary and I would head in their direction whenever business was slow and wander the aisles, fantasizing about all the places we would go and top-end gear we’d acquire. It must have been January when we made our first big purchase; real, expensive, genuine hiking boots. These boots were the precise ones you’d buy if you were heading off to hike the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail. We’d watched the salesperson demonstrate and pitch these boots many times, as well as carefully examined the cut-in-half version of the boot, done to illustrate its advanced features and superiority. To ensure proper break-in for our as-yet-to-be-determined epic hike, we wore the boots to work every day, along with our 3-piece suits. For some reason, the idea we may have looked ridiculous was lost on us.

The boots were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to gear acquisition. We needed a tent, sleeping bags, gas lanterns, portable cooking pans, foldable plates, canteens, a compass, and specialty dark glasses with yellow lenses to better illuminate game trails as one traversed through the woods. And of course, few visits to the hiking gear store were made without loading up on the survival food options strategically placed near the cash register to maximize impulse buying. Boy, did they have us pegged! We bought bars having the same size and look as a Hershey’s candy bar, but so full of concentrated protein a single square would keep a man alive for 3 days. Of course, we each bought several, although not always on every visit. We got a box of a dozen oatmeal-type roll-ups, with the promise that each one would keep a lost hiker from starving for a week. We loaded up – after all, you never know what might happen out in the bush, and most of all, we wanted to be prepared.

Our decision on which backpack to purchase involved studying a host of reviews followed by months of arguments and discussion. After all, the Pacific Crest Trail ran over 4,000 miles from Mexico to Canada. Buying the wrong backpack could be a disaster. So, we borrowed one backpack after another from the gear store, took them out behind the mall to the banks of the Zumbro River, and loaded them up with smooth river rocks. Then we would walk back and forth around the mall parking lot, making thoughtful and careful assessments to find the very best backpack for each of us. Which sleeping bag to buy generated at least as much attention as the backpacks: on the one hand, it would need to be light enough and supportive enough to safely suspend us on the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, yet be warm enough to keep us alive on Mt. Kilimanjaro where we’d read the temperatures got to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While that doesn’t sound that cold, that’s 20 degrees without wind chill factor. If there is one thing two Minnesota boys understood, it was wind chill.

The long winter contributed to a bit more shopping time than might have been optimal. Although we might have been able to get along without every single item, it never occurred to us we might have extras. One weekend the weather warmed and wishing to test our tent and gear, we pitched the tent in Gary’s backyard and set up camp. It had not been too long after we’d unrolled and crawled into our sleeping bags when Gary’s wife ambled into the backyard with Gary’s daughters. “Do you have any ideas on what I can tell our neighbors about why my husband is sleeping in a tent in our backyard with a guy from his work?” she asked.

Morning eventually came. We took the tent down and carefully packed it up as outlined in the instructions. Same for rolling up sleeping bags and mats, and with meticulous attention, stowed the gear in Gary’s garage. The day when we might be able to head out and use our gear on a real trip filled our brains like sugar plums dancing in the heads of toddlers before Christmas at the turn of the century.

Eventually the weather began to warm, the snow melted and we seriously began planning for our epic trip. It was decided that before spending the big bucks and traveling to a distant locale, we’d do a hike in our own region. However, it had to be properly devoid of civilization to give us a genuine sense of roughing it. This meant no civilization and no easy “outs” if things went wrong. We needed to test all of our newly acquired gear while putting our outdoor problem-solving abilities to the test. We eventually settled on a trip to northern Wisconsin.

Gary had heard of the unpronounceable Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, nearly to the most northern reaches of Wisconsin. He said there was nothing there but wild wilderness and wild beasts like deer and bear. It was settled, the very next Friday morning we would head north. He’d arranged coverage at work so we had the full weekend and truth be known, no one was going to worry if it took us another week to turn up back in Rochester.

Being this was before the Internet, our ability to research and plan every detail in advance was limited. But spiritually our goal was simple – drive into Wisconsin, a state known to be wilder and less populated than Minnesota and take every road going north, until civilization ran out. At which point, we’d be in the deepest, darkest forest, where we would hike, camp and forage. Yippee!

We’d decided to drive my Lotus. One feature of all the gear we bought was it was compact and fit into the trunk of the Elan. Plus, the car was fairly new, and the idea of a long road trip was exciting. Our first hint of not quite perfect planning was making far better time than we expected. Six hours after starting our trip we pulled into Bayfield, Wisconsin. Huh? With over 250 residents, this was a booming metropolis in our book. Driving around the tiny town we saw a Ferry terminal and several cars and a few people lined up to go out to Madeline Island. We learned there wasn’t much to do out there and most attractive to us, we heard it was the LAST FERRY of the day, and if we went out there, we’d be trapped overnight, at least, maybe longer if the weather got bad. We were hooked. They had room for just one more car. The Lotus.

racing toward shore, cars ready to drive off the ferryArriving on Madeline Island less than an hour later, a light mist was still falling. We drove past a large old hotel, trying not to look at it. Following the only road heading north, we took it out of town. In about a half-hour, the road gave out and turned into a logging trail. We kept going. Finally, we were out into the backwoods. Eventually the limited clearance of the Lotus required us to pull over. This was not a problem, and actually, it was what we were expecting and had prepared for. Out came our gear, backpacks were loaded, the car was locked and we pushed ahead north on foot.

Taking note of the compass and sighting in on a distant tree, we headed out. We hiked through the thick forest terrain, reaching the tree we’d seen. Using the compass, we spotted another tree and pushed forward. Now might be a good time to point out our second unexpected event. It turns out the light mist falling for most of the afternoon, had soaked the grass and brush. As we walked through the weeds, our pants legs soon became soaked. The water then worked its way into our hiking boots. Somehow the promises of being waterproof had not covered this eventuality. After about an hour, with our feet colder and colder, we began to think about finding a nice clearing and camping for the night. We decided we were suitably deep into the north woods. At just about that time, we crashed through some bushes and there, directly in front of us, was a nice red cabin. Shoot! Nothing smacks more of civilization than a cabin. We had to distance ourselves and fast. Gary pointed off to his left at another distinctly shaped tree and off we went, our cold feet making us more and more miserable and now realizing, no matter what we did, we’d likely not be more than a half-mile away from some damn cabin. Approaching a clearing, Gary pointed to a grassy spot in a small clearing and asked, “How about here?” I looked around and then noticed something odd. I pointed further to Gary’s left and said, “let’s try over that way a bit.” We pushed in that direction about 50 feet, came around a massive oak tree and there it was, my nice bright yellow Lotus Elan, right where we’d left it. I thought that tree had looked familiar.

We’d both read about people lost in the woods and their tendency to walk in circles, but had never assumed it could happen to us. It had felt like we were walking in perfectly straight lines the whole time.

But at this point we were tired, our feet were freezing and we just wanted to get warm. We unpacked and pitched the tent a few feet from the car. Before crawling into our sleeping bags, we tried to light a fire. However, the wood from the forest floor was wet and we couldn’t get it to start. Then Gary recalled a stack of wood covered with a tarp along the driveway of the red cabin we’d seen a ways back. He talked me into going back and stealing a few sticks of dry wood so we might have a fire. I did and we managed to get a small fire started, but no sooner would it get going than the rain would put it out. Nothing we did would keep it going long enough to roast the wieners we’d brought along for the occasion. But all was not lost – in addition to a bag of Cheetos, we had an entire box of emergency, super high-protein, keep you alive for a week, candy bars. Upon reflection, I can’t say if it was deep hunger or an artificially induced case of the munchies, but I know we ate every single one of those candy bars and fruit/oatmeal roll-up things and even raided the pockets on our backpacks where we’d hidden even more of these treats for emergencies.

In the morning, as soon as there was light, we crawled out of our sleeping bags, and rolled up the tent and other gear the way most men fold fitted sheets – but faster. We stuffed these balls of gear into the trunk of the Elan and headed back to the Ferry dock. We managed to get the first ferry back to Bayfield and from there, headed home to Rochester in the rain, with the windows down, allowing some of the most rancid farts ever produced to drift out of the car and pollute the road behind us.

This was a life-changing experience. Since this time, I’ve never once been seriously tempted to go on an overnight hiking trip. Been there. Done that!

Will the real Steve Larsen please stand?

three faces of Steve LarsenEarlier this week, on April 23, I got an email from Steve Larsen in Utah, saying “My momma went to heaven on Sunday. I thought you might like to read about her.”  He gave me a link to her obituary. She was a remarkable woman, and I’ve included the link to her obit at the end of the newsletter.

Steve’s email got me to thinking: you might enjoy hearing about this “Steve Larsen,” the one who lives in Utah, and why he was writing to me.  Steve is an interesting man and this is a fun story.

Over twenty-five years ago when the Internet was heating up and tools for constructing web sites were reaching the hands of barely-competent techies, there was a rush to grab and hold website URL’s in your own name.  Companies rushed to get URLs like “www.ford.com.” Individuals rushed to get their own names, something like www.pennjillette.com – if you happened to be Penn Gillette, for example, the magician, actor, author and television personality. So, of course, I had to have www.stevelarsen.com.  By the time I tried to register it, somebody else already had, and I settled for www.stevelarsen.net, the URL I use to this day.  I knew nothing of this other “Steve Larsen” and had no way to contact him to see if I could somehow weasel the more valuable .com URL away from him.

Years went by and I became satisfied with my .net domain name as the .net suffix eventually gained nearly the legitimacy of .com URLs.  Then in 2008-2009, I became aware of the professional road racer and triathlon champion, Steve Larsen.  Now here was more confusion. Not only did I have to deal with Utah-based Steve Larsen, here was another interloping “Steve Larsen” and this one was a professional athlete and genuine celebrity at that.  When Steve Larsen the famous bicycle racer died tragically at 39 years of age, people began showing up at my website, wanting to leave condolences and messages to his family.  This confusion caused a good deal of stress, and I began to feel a need to address it.

Announcement that 39 year old Steve Larsen, the champion bicycle rider, had tragically passed away.

This was at a point in my career when I was no longer hiding behind large companies like AT&T and IBM but was striking out on my own, My website was becoming important to me. At the same time, the owner of www.stevelarsen.com had started a consulting business. His website had a “contact me” form, so I finally opened up a dialog with him.  This Utah-based Steve Larsen had no interest in selling his .com domain name but said he’d see if he could help people mistakenly going to his website when looking for me.  A week or two later, he sent me an email, saying he thought he had a fix and asked me to take a look.  Going to www.stevelarsen.com, I now saw his consulting website as before, but this time, halfway down the page, he’d put in a largish font: “IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR THE REAL STEVE LARSEN, CLICK HERE” with a link to my website.

It’s been twenty years since and his website has gone through a host of iterations but all of them have had some prominent link to my website, right near the top.  With deeds counting more than words, Utah-based Steve Larsen cemented his place in my head as one of the more generous and gracious people on the planet.  I’m not sure how it happened next, but an email relationship formed.  Soon we were on his family’s Christmas card list, and then one day, I opened a beautiful card to see we’d been invited to his daughter’s wedding.  While never meeting Utah Steve Larsen or his family, I felt I owed him a good deal and a card of Congratulations with a nice check seemed appropriate.   A month or two later, we received a nicely written thank you card. Maggie and I felt we understood Utah Steve Larsen’s family better and felt honored to connect with them.  Roughly a year later we got another wedding invitation from another of Steve Larsen’s daughters and it slowly dawned on us.  Steve Larsen lived in Utah.  Steve Larsen might be… you guessed it …. a Mormon.  I asked Maggie, “How many weddings do you think we’ve signed ourselves up for?” Maggie and I started to giggle and then it escalated to full-on laughter.  We couldn’t imagine what these children of Utah Steve Larsen thought about the identities of these disembodied Larsen’s in Phoenix, Arizona, but once on the list, you weren’t getting off.

In the ensuing years, we’ve gotten to know Utah Steve Larsen and his family through periodic emails and Christmas newsletters.  We know Steve loves to fish and is famous for his smoked trout.  We’ve read and marveled at their family’s ice fishing trips and loved seeing photographs of their great-looking children as they grew.  Knowing we lived in Phoenix, Steve was aware there was a new Mormon Temple being built not far from us, just off 59th Avenue in Glendale, AZ.  He arranged VIP tour tickets for us.  We’d never seen anything like it. It was beautiful with amazing architecture and the people were super nice. We loved seeing it.

The story mostly ends there, except that a couple of years ago, Steve wrote he was planning to visit Phoenix for business and could we meet?  Maggie and I finally met Utah Steve Larsen face-to-face and found him to be as tall as I am short.  He’s a wonderfully warm human being and it was so much fun to share stories of our families, careers, and everything else.  I find connecting with other human beings one of the most meaningful parts of my life and that some of these chance meetings and odd connections have been the most rewarding.

Here is the link to the obituary of my friend, Steve Larsen’s, mother. A quite amazing woman.

Here is a link to www.stevelarsen.com, where you will find the most current iteration of Utah Steve Larsen’s notice on how to reach “the other, Steve Larsen.”  It is reproduced below:

Front page of Utah Steve Larsen’s .com website.

So, time to give up?

When hearing my business accomplishments lauded over the years, deep down inside, part of me is saying, “Ha! little do they know! It was all due to one simple trick: a willingness to work just a teeny-weeny bit harder than anyone else.” I’d learned working harder isn’t much more difficult, because most people quit so soon.

This is often called willpower, persistence, or even discipline. I love people who work like this. I have a friend named Judi who personifies persistence. She’s always been this way. She won’t ever give up. Once she’s committed to something, you can take it to the bank. I’ve worked with her in several companies over the years and this part of her is so ingrained, it almost defines her character. Now that I’ve retired, Judi’s been helping me with my website and newsletter. She’s also helped with Maggie’s website. Even with our constantly changing preferences and ad hoc requests, Judi pushes through and accomplishes not only what we expect, but most often goes beyond our expectations. She hasn’t changed over the years and I don’t think she ever will.

Persistence does not mean you always win at everything. What it does mean is that failure isn’t seen as an end, but as a step in the process. “Hmmm, okay, I’ve found at least one way that does not work – time to try something else.”

With children, everyone seems to focus on talent or intelligence. They’re always “talented” or “gifted” in some way. Compared to talent, persistence appears to be a modest, almost lowly virtue. But for me, willpower was essential. It was all I had. Let me explain.

Steve at seven yrs old

When I was a youngster, my physical capabilities weren’t the best. Grade school peers could hit, catch or pitch far better than I could. Running races was the worst. I always came in at the back of the pack, with David Scheff, the heavy-set kid who dressed in business clothes for school – grade school — and never wore shorts. No one knew it was my heart issue, not even me. Coaches chalked my failure up to laziness, unwillingness to try, and failure to put in a decent effort. Once in junior high school, I tried to join the football team. I thought the uniforms looked cool and my older cousins (Donny, Roger, and Dennis Larsen plus Sam and John Larsen) had all been part of Fairmont High School’s football, basketball, and/or tennis dynasties. I knew because my aunt Gladys would sit me down and page through scrapbooks full of clippings of these older cousins, asking me why I wasn’t bringing similar trophies home to the family. So in junior high, I “tried out” for the football team. One of the first qualifying tests was running as fast as possible around the furthest perimeter of the practice field, across the front, up and behind the bleachers, and then back to the start. I kept up for maybe the first 50 yards and then began to fall behind. By the end of this effort, it was me and our school’s equivalent of “Fat Albert” running by the coach with his stopwatch long after the other tryouts had finished. The coach looked at his stopwatch and then at me in disgust. But it wasn’t lack of trying, it was that when I reached down deep for a second wind, there was none. A few feet past the coach I nearly collapsed, my chest heaving, frantically trying to get enough oxygen into my body and to not throw up.

According to most of my school teachers, I wasn’t all that smart either. They held me back after third grade, making me repeat it. They’d figured out at the end of my first attempt at third grade I remained unable to read. I hated school and worked tirelessly to thwart any teacher’s attempt to get me to learn. Throughout grade school and junior high, getting a D grade was excellent for me and satisfied my parents, because it meant I wouldn’t have to take the class again, a situation with which I was unfortunately accustomed. Imagine being a parent and crossing your fingers in the hope that your child might somehow come how with a D instead of an F. A few teachers did express their frustration and exasperation to my mother, saying they had no doubt I was capable of the work, I just refused to do it. One principal, Dr. Ruthenbeck, even beat me repeatedly in an attempt to get me to focus on school. It did not work.

I wish I could say “…then music saved me,” as I love music. Don’t you think, at this point, it would be the perfect segue in this story? Weren’t Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis terrible in school? Shouldn’t I have gone from this dark beginning to crank out hit records? Sorry, no such luck! Two of my siblings greedily grabbed all the DNA musical gifts for themselves, leaving one of my sisters and me with nothing much in the music department. While I’m sure they work at it, it appears those two produce music effortlessly – and it’s really good.

By the time I reached my tenth year of school, it had been beaten into me I was a dim-witted, unmotivated numbskull, physically lazy, and lacking any musical or physical talents. I accepted that all as true. But I was also stubborn and driven. Lacking the typical talent to get where one wishes to go, I ultimately fell back on persistence as a beast to propel me in any endeavor where I wished to win. This incredible drive, which had begun early in life and not in an entirely good way, was something I tapped into and used later. When young I dedicated a near limitless reserve of energy to doing the opposite of whatever someone in charge wanted me to do. Years after I’d grown my mother told me the easiest way to get me to do something as a child was to tell me it wasn’t possible or to forbid me from doing it. “It was like waving a red sheet in front of a bull, you couldn’t stop yourself.” Things began happening to me after my open-heart surgery. I’ve read that deep and long exposure to anesthesia can impact the brain in ways they still don’t understand. Nothing was ever diagnosed in that area for me, but as I entered my 17th year, my life was about to change dramatically.

During my junior year (11th grade) at Fairmont High School, several things happened, not the least of which was getting a driver’s license and beginning to drive. First, Roy Dobie, an English and journalism teacher mentioned he thought I could write, and would I work for the school paper? He also referred me to Mr. Perrin, the speech teacher who directed school plays and coached the debate club. Soon I was cast in a play and joined the debate team. Teachers began looking at my work and saying good things. I liked it. By the end of the year, my grades had gone from C’s and D’s to all A’s or B’s and I’d taken first place in the state’s non-original oratory contest, beating hundreds of competitors.

Between my junior and senior year, I went to Canada to work at an Anglican summer camp, and upon my return, the next dramatic change occurred: my parents moved to Rochester, Minnesota. I found out just a week before school started, that my senior year would be spent at a different high school and in a different city than where I’d grown up. In reflection, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, as it allowed me to leave behind the “loser” known to neighbors, clergy, teachers, and family and begin life as a good student who got A’s and B’s, was a talented actor, quick-witted, smart and skilled at debate. It was grand. Finally, I’d found a way to use what I could do to get what I wanted.

Steve at Schaak Electronics

Given my iffy high school credentials, it is no surprise that my college career was spotty. I managed to cram a 4-year degree into 5 ½ years. I did well in things that interested me: English, Theater, Philosophy, and Religion, but couldn’t be much bothered with the rest. The good thing was that my education did not stop at graduation. My childhood experiences had left me feeling deeply inferior. As a result, in every new situation, I was determined to prove I was better at everything than anyone else. Starting as a “part-time” salesperson at Schaak Electronics, I worked to become “full-time,” then the top salesperson in our store, then to win every sales contest the company had, across all 60 stores. A Schaak executive, Towru Nagano, helped me understand that all it takes to win a sales contest was just working a bit harder. Part of Nagano’s role with the company was creating and putting on training classes. No one worked harder than I did to complete every assignment perfectly. Soon I was winning pretty much any sales contest I decided I wanted to win. It was at the moment I decided to compete when I knew the outcome of the contest was not in doubt. After a few years, I became an assistant manager, then a store manager, then a trouble-shoot manager, and finally ended up managing the company’s new division of stores called Digital Den, which introduced me to computers.

Then I was recruited by Control Data Corporation where I took advantage of every training program they had. It was at CDC when I first realized that persistence could, in the end, beat everything else. It wasn’t always the fastest way to get what you wanted, but it was the most failsafe. I enrolled in the MBA program at St. Thomas University in St. Paul and began taking night classes. I was surprised at how much running my own store(s) at Schaak Electronics had provided a deep grounding in the underlying concepts that make a business work. Ann Winblad convinced me to leave CDC and spend a year with her at Open Systems as VP of Marketing. Talk about learning from the master! Ann was and remains the smartest person I’ve ever met. But Ann had sold the company and she was moving into the world of Venture Capital in San Francisco, so eventually I joined AT&T and then IBM, spending five years at each, soaking up all I could learn. Then I struck out on my own. I’d seen the Internet and believed these behemoths were incapable of knowing what to do. I was right.

Once my career reached this point, I was leading early-stage technology start-up companies. I had finally figured out what I did well. My skills weren’t in finance, technology, deep insight, or strategic business acumen, although I’d gained a reputation for being smart. Instead, it was all about defining and articulating a future that employees would understand and commit to making a reality. My uncompromising commitment to that future reality and a disciplined process to get us there, allowed me to lead others in unprecedented plan execution. As Nietzsche said, “Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.”

Perhaps this story helps explain why I so love individuals who keep trying and refuse to quit. While talent is useful, a willingness to work just a tad bit longer than the next person and refusal to give up will often push a person quite a bit further. Refusing to compromise on exact and consistent plan execution is what drove my career.

Current constructs for judging the potential of our children seem too limiting. Combine one of the less obvious forms of intelligence with an unwillingness to give up and there are no limits to what someone can do.

In re-reading this newsletter, it occurs to me that I’m a bit hard on my younger self. But it’s this contrast to then versus where I ended up, that makes the story remarkable. Of course, if you don’t know the eventual score when I finally retired, it may not make sense. You could go to LinkedIn to get all the details, but as you are all my best friends (and family) there is no need to recount it all here. Let’s just say it wasn’t a bad outcome for a dim-witted, unmotivated numbskull, who was physically lazy and lacked even a thread of musical talent.