The Magic of Stepping Back in Time

Greetings. Ideas and inspiration often come from unusual sources. Like a warehouse filled with old furniture and memories. And this was exactly the case not long ago when our daughter Sara went searching for a few items to furnish her new apartment. In her search she came upon an old stamp album, published in 1928, and belonging to a gentleman from Westfield, Massachusetts, named Edward Pomeroy.

Stamp Album Cover

Now I should probably backtrack as some readers might not know that I am an avid and enthusiastic stamp collector, or “philatelist,” and have always viewed stamps as wonderful little journeys into the lives, cultures, histories, and geographies of other places and people. In fact, a few years ago I wrote a blog post suggesting that the world might actually be a better and more understanding place if its leaders collected stamps and in the process gained greater insight about other countries. So finding an old album filled with lots of intriguing stamps from around the world was a source of real delight.

But back to Edward Pomeroy who it seems was the secretary of a local stamp club and, as such, left in his album a wide variety of handwritten notes, news clippings, and meeting minutes describing the workings of the club, stamps and topics that were of particular interest, presentations made by various members about their interests and expertise, and an explanation of the club’s 10 cent monthly dues.

And while I found all of this fascinating, one note was especially remarkable. It explained how Edward was able to send himself a letter that flew on the Graf Zeppelin’s maiden flight to the United States. The note read:

For the Graf Zeppelin I had to send (my letter) to the Postmaster of New York City asking him to put it on a boat in time to reach Fredrichshafen by April 18, 1930. After reaching Germany it was put on the ‘Graf’ which went from Germany to Brazil then to United States which was delivered to me day after.”

And in his letter, adorned with a $2.60 Graf Zeppelin stamp, he enclosed the postcard pictured below that read:

He who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

Words that strike at the heart of what it means to be human. Words that underscore the central challenge in all of our efforts to create organizations and cultures that consistently learn, grow, and innovate. Words that, in 1930, literally flew across the Atlantic as part of a history making voyage when the world of commercial aviation was in its early, daring, and formative years. And words that might have been lost in the dust of an old building had Sara not discovered Mr. Pomeroy’s stamp album and a small part of his life.

One more powerful reminder of the power of curiosity and the potential to find ideas and inspiration in the most unexpected places.

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We win in business and in life when we wander through old warehouses and age old lessons about innovation, progress, and community.

Cheers!

If World Leaders Collected Stamps…

Greetings.  The amazing winter blizzard here in Washington, also known as the "Snowpocalyse" according to local media, provided a welcome opportunity to read by the fire and spend a few quiet hours working on my stamp collection.  "Stamp collection?" you ask, since collecting stamps is not really the most popular hobby for adults in the year 2010.  But it remains one of my favorite down-time activities for reasons that might be more remarkable than one imagines.  First, it's a hobby I began as a child, when I spent countless hours studying these rectangular marvels from the U.S. and distant lands.  Lands that I only knew about because they came to me on stamps–peaking my curiosity and causing me to find their location on a map, then learn more about them.  Second, I realized at an early age that stamps often told a compelling story, in a very small space, about an equally compelling place.  A story about the people who lived there and what was important to them. A story about their culture and art.  Their nature and wildlife.  What events in their histories were worth remembering.  Their proudest accomplishments and greatest contributions.  Their leaders and their views about the world around them.  I could even draw conclusions about how their leaders came to power by looking closely at their stamps.  And stamps also gave me the opportunity to imagine all of the far away places I might someday travel to.  All in a tiny form intended to be placed on a letter.  

Today, fewer and fewer people seem to collect stamps.  And, in fact, we use fewer "real" stamps to send our greetings to friends, colleagues, and customers around the world.  We tend to rely on email as the instant way to connect.  And when we do correspond by snail mail, it is often "metered" with boring electronic "postage" that is designed to improve the speed and accuracy of its delivery…but at the same time reducing our sense of the world around us.  And, as a result, most of us lose the magic of a stamp and the knowledge of other lands that once came directly to our doors.  Lost knowledge that strikes at the heart of so many of the problems and challenges facing the world we share.

But what if world leaders were required to collect stamps?  Stamps of neighboring countries as well as current and future allies.  Stamps of countries they rarely thought about.  Stamps of countries with very different ways of life and perspectives.  Stamps of countries they did not have a close working relationship with.  And what if collecting stamps led them to find these places more clearly on a map and to learn more about their history, their region, their special genius, and what really matters to them and their people?

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We win as individuals, companies, and nations when we commit to strengthening our understanding of others and the things they value most.  Maybe it's time for you, your colleagues, and a world of leaders to start collecting and learning from stamps.

Cheers!