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When John and Bert Jacobs started selling T-shirts emblazoned with “Life is Good” back in 1994, they had no idea their simple message would resonate so deeply with people who’ve endured life’s greatest challenges.
Nor could they have predicted it would snowball into the $100-million enterprise it is today.
John Jacobs is in Toronto this week to promote the Canadian expansion of the Life is Good brand — which includes partnerships with Canadian children’s charities — and the release of a new book he co-wrote with his brother: Life is Good: The Book: How to Live with Purpose and Enjoy the Ride.
The Star spoke with Life is Good’s chief creative optimist about his message, business model and response to critics by phone from Boston on Monday.
Why are positivity and optimism so in demand right now?
Modern life has become pretty complex and there’s a craving for simplicity. And when you do strive for simplicity, you have to decide what’s important before you weed (things) out. It doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to challenges, obstacles, and yet, there’s a conscious decision you can make every day to choose to focus on what’s right in your life or what’s right in the world and focus your energy there. There’s such a wealth of information and an incredible array of technology at our fingertips. People sometimes get swept up in that complexity and they maybe lose sight of what’s most important. How to scale back and focus most of your time and energy on things that you love, people that you love, work that’s meaningful — that takes discipline and discernment.
Tell us about your business model. We understand you’ve never sold a single ad?
Traditional advertising we never have done — print, radio, TV. We just saw the brand growing organically. Five years before we had any success we were travelling up and down the East Coast selling in college dorms and sleeping in a van and eating peanut butter and jelly, etc. We didn’t have much business acumen but we loved to draw, to write and to meet people. It was very much word of mouth — people wore the shirt and it started a conversation. And we were strongly influenced by letters and emails we received from customers early on going through great adversity — facing cancer, going through chemotherapy, losing loved ones. And they told us how the phrase “Life is Good” helped them power through, but more importantly the optimism enabled them to get through a difficult time. I don’t think we quite understood the depth of our own message when we started the company. Optimism is at its most powerful in the darkest of times.
How has the message changed for you as you’ve grown older?
I have three little kids and I just (try to) remember to play follow the leader and just let the kid dictate the play. Our business is very much based on retaining a childlike sense of joy and wonder at the world. I know that can sound corny but going to work, and thinking of it as a “get to” rather than a “have to.” You don’t have to go to a meeting, you get to go to a meeting because you have a job that pays you. You don’t have to go buy groceries when you get home because we live in a land of abundance and you have legs — most of us are lucky enough to have legs. That’s really a mindset shift.
Why did you want to put the book together?
We were coming up on 20 years as a business and we had had a few publishers over the years suggest that we write a business book. Just the idea of a business book wasn’t very exciting to us. Then we started talking about what if we created a self-help book. We have a lot of humour and fun in the book and we blend that with what we think is simple but profound wisdom. It’s wisdom that we’ve gathered through having a pretty wild ride of a life so far, listening to people.
What would you say to someone who says: “Maybe I like being a cynical person. I see this as corny?”
We think there’s real peace to it. And especially when we have a chance to share stories of people going through hell, and that’s the well that they went to — “I need to focus on what I’m grateful for right now. That I’m lucky to be eating a sandwich.” We write in the book about our sister, who was paralyzed at one point — she’s regained a lot of her feeling over the years — but it was an incredible challenge. It continues to be an incredible challenge for her everyday but her attitude is amazing. That’s a choice she’s made. And we think the choice of optimism is extremely powerful.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length. Life is Good: The Book is available at Indigo.