Light·ning in a Bot·tle

“The definition of lightning is a sudden discharge of atmospheric electricity.”

A Dictionary

It’s the flash in a storm. It’s power that can strike at any moment. And according to Dr. Emmitt Brown the only power source capable of generating 1.21 gigawatts of electricity is a bolt of lightning. You have to love a movie where Michael J. Fox drives a Dolorion fifty years in the past and has to try like heck to avoid seducing his own mother (there is so much wrong with the entire concept of this classic movie outside the probable impact of the space time continuum). While watching Back to the Future on TBS late night reruns, I could only smile at Michael J. and marvel at how he carried what could have easily been a B- movie. He defined the 80s in so many ways.

Thisis not a tribute to the Family Ties actor. It’s about a concept and the pursuit of an ideal. Well, that maybe a tad preachy. So, I’ve defined lightning, which is pretty self-explanatory to all of us. Everyone knows that each year a golfer is struck on a green while cursing to the heavens about an errant put. And we all know that we shouldn’t run around outside during a thunderstorm.

But what exactly is lightning in a bottle? I like to think of it as Ben Franklin spending weeks and weeks flying that kite amongst grey skies just trying to get that one bolt to come from nowhere. After the fateful strike, our good man Benjamin takes that bottle and buries it in the backyard, or puts it in his vault to use whenever he feels like it. Perhaps, Ben pours some of it out and gives it to his friends for use later on. Maybe, one of his Virginia friends buries it in his backyard at Monticello for us to find on some strange scavenger hunt years later.

Benjamin Franklin, often considered one of the founding fathers, left his fingertips on many aspects of our country.  Now, this “early to bed, early to rise,” quote has somehow put us out on our own island. I’m worn out by 10:00 PM each and every night but you can hardly find a restaurant open in Spain for dinner until much later. I imagine Spain has a pretty burdensome Gremlin population. I’m digressing again.

But Lightning in a bottle is none of these things. It’s a concept that is all hard work while aspiring to reach a goal.  When that goal is finally reached, you can look back at your accomplishments. It’s more complicated than that. It’s about finding that special something that you do better than almost anyone and just working hard. Jim Collins describes this much better than I do with his Hedgehog concept in either Built to Last or Good to Great (I can’t remember which book it falls under but both are great quick reads).  It’s about enjoying each and every step along the road. And you just happen to get maybe a break here or there and finally you are just on your way, sailing with the wind at you back.

I was watching a Chefography about Bobby Flay on the Food Network a couple weeks back.[1] So, we have this high school drop out from New York who finds his stroke of lightning while making salads in a kitchen dungeon. He does this for over a year and then one day realizes he falls in love with it, goes to cooking school, and the rest is history (the man now has a handful of successful restaurants, multiple cook books, and does battle on Iron Chef America weekly on the Food Network). What is most interesting is that before his career took off he actually tried a hand at Wall Street, trading on the bustling floor of the place that makes our economy tick. And he hated every minute of it.  He walked away from a high paying job, turned back to cooking, and opened his first restaurant. It takes guts to walk away from comfort and follow a dream. Perhaps, the man just had this itch clawing at the back of his head. Once they get there, it’s hard to do anything else.

Now, he was not immediately successful. He found his passion in cooking but it just did not pan out the very next day after making a decision to get in the craft. He had to work at it. And work at it. And work at it. He wrapped tacos, experimented with sauces, and made risky decisions. He stumbled and had to fly his kite many times in a storm for his lightning to finally start filling up that bottle.

You hear these stories all the time. Be it how Brad Pitt dropped out of the University of Missouri and started his acting career, Rachel Ray hit gold with Thirty Minute Meals (Yep, it was a Chefography marathon), or Albert Pujols being drafted well after the tenth round to become the “Undisputed King of Baseball.”[2] Each of these folks found what they loved and worked so hard that they would not let anyone get in the way of finding lightning in a bottle.  To some, it could be an outright obsession.

I think obsession, in a positive way, is what this Collins’ Hedgehog Concept is all about.  It’s all about finding out (1) what you can do better than anyone else, (2) working like a beast at it for a long time, and (3) getting the economic engine going.  I’ve touched on the first two. Of these, the last is most important.  You need to get the economic engine going to do what you love. Otherwise, you just end up like the rest of us toiling in our nine to five jobs trying to rediscover where that itch really was.

I think this is why with each of these success stories we hear about many others basked with failure. The concept of failure keeps many of us in our nine to five jobs. Failure is those stone statues that scare the villagers away in Indiana Jones movies. Take another show that VH1 ran awhile back about reuniting bands that broke up for one reason or another.[3] Bands such as A Flock of Seagulls, Extreme, Berlin, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Scandal were all given the opportunity to meet, describe why they broke up, and then have the option of playing a reunion concert. What all these bands were missing is that they were probably not going to be best at what they did, which could be why they broke up deep down. As much as we probably remember the song Space Age Lover, the tune probably was not going to push the band to a Rolling Stone level of following. It’s just one of those songs that pop into our minds for whatever reason and can’t escape, nor can we really remember that A Flock of Seagulls put it on the charts years ago.

What was interesting about this show is that almost every member of the band was still playing, or writing songs, or producing in some fashion or another. They were still doing what they love and making a living at it. They at least had the courage to step up and try to make there way to the plate and see the dream through. This is more than most of us can say.  Most of us just don’t know what that something is when it comes down to it.[4]

Between Brad Pitt and our friends the seagulls, it brings us to the point. I think in our lives we strike lightning at one point in time or another. It could be when we hit a homerun in extra innings to win a ball game, or pulled together a team that through the miracle of six sigma saved the company a cold million, or built a house with our bare hands (and with the help of a bunch of power tools), or just sat around, toiled through a few ideas and talked about absolutely nothing. It’s just that very few of us continue to take this little bolt of lightning and continue to add to the pot. Often, we just never put the pieces together. We never notice the electricity or itch. And because of this the lightning disappears altogether never to be put away for others to see.

What it must have felt like for an average painter, who fired all of his help and all but disappeared in his work for over four years without a word, to reveal an impossible mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. While watching the pope kneel at his accomplishment, this painter, perhaps with a smile on his face, knew exactly what lightning in a bottle meant. I often think that Dr. Emmett Brown thought the same thing. Back to the Future can be described as the center of the universe for most scientific and social concepts. But remember back to the movie when his dog Einstein sits in the Dolorion and the good doctor watches on as the car vanishes amidst tire marks of fire. With strands of grey hair flying in all directions he has this smile that shows off a lifetime of accomplishment along with a bit of madness. After all, there is a fine line between genius and madness but sometimes you end up with a little bottle of fireflies to take home to sit amongst the shelves; showing the world look what I did.

[1] I admit that I watch the Food Network.  There is just something about watching Emerill yell “Bam!”  Between Food Impossible, Meals in thirty minutes, and Throwdown what’s not to like?

[2] Only a Baseball Tonight reporter on ESPN would dub someone the undisputed King of Baseball.  Note, he was only the undisputed King of Baseball for about a minute until the crew dubbed Jose Reyes the Most Exciting Player in the Game.  I’m not sure what all these titles mean exactly and what each of these guys roles is.  Does the most exciting player in the game play the court jester to the Undisputed King of Baseball  or vice versa?

[3] Most of these reasons had to do with petty arguments.  You know, Person B could not get along with Person C because they did XYZ.  Is high school ever really over?  It just carries on to college, workforce, stay at home mom and their play days, etc.,

[4] This has nothing to do with anything but Bill Packer just made the comment during the NCAA final that basketball should not have a foul system.  Apparently, he is proposing we bring Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker to the arena to play ball.  Does anyone wonder why Billy Packer seems to always call the championship game?  Personally, I think we should spread the love around and better yet let’s have some random guy up in the booth.  Most people are too busy yelling at the TV to hear what Billy is talking about anyway.