Ice Cream… Bagel Machines… and Two Priceless Life Lessons

If bagel machines had been cheaper, one of the biggest ice cream companies in the world might not exist.

Cherry Garcia ice cream aficionados might know that I don’t care about Ben and Jerry, those unlikely ice cream moguls. Their career arc encapsulates two vital life lessons for the rest of us: be humbleand be resilient; because, in life, “the chip happens”, so to speak.

First, a brief summary of the bagel machine saga: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, childhood friends, first embarked on independent careers. But when each encountered uncertain prospects, they came together to start a business together, aspiring to open a bagel shop. This plan was derailed when potential entrepreneurs could not afford the bagel-making machines.

Moving on to plan B: making ice cream, where dedicated fans quickly enjoyed their tasty products, and the two founders eventually enjoyed a tasty financial windfall when Unilever bought their company for $326 million in 2000.

What if bagel makers had been more affordable? Would Ben and Jerry have had such spectacular success spreading caramel cookie dough on bagels? Who knows, but we have doubts.

At first glance, their saga seems unique: who else among us has gone from budding bagel maker to titan of the ice cream industry?
But their story embodies two universally relevant life lessons that every successful entrepreneur, parent, department head, or corporate titan has ultimately had to learn: to be humble and to be resilient.

First, be humble: accept the important role luck and chance play in life and business. Ben and Jerry’s ultimate success undoubtedly reflects their dedication and insight. But a giant ball of luck too taken into account: it was not a brilliant strategic vision, but the prohibitive cost of bagel machines that first pushed them down a more fortuitous trajectory.

Chance occupies a crucial place in everyone’s life. But many of us find it difficult to recognize this fact, especially if we have succeeded. Researchers have discovered a curious ‘bug’ in the way we humans evaluate our own successes: we generally tend to underestimate the role chance has played in our successes and give too much credit to our own hard work, our skills and our insight, a tendency known as “hindsight bias”.

For example, after a few successful stock market investments in the midst of a steadily rising stock market, we tend to credit our stock picking acumen and subconsciously downplay that favorable market conditions surely boosted our returns. This same pattern of thinking is also evident in other areas, for example, when evaluating successful career choices, hiring decisions, or business ventures.
This bias can lead to what psychologists call “the illusion of control,” which can be deeply self-sabotaging. When we attribute too much of our success to our own ingenuity, we are prone to overconfidence, the belief that we will consistently make wise calls. The lucky stock picker in a rising market becomes arrogant and eventually engages in stupid trades.
Or, faced with a thorny business problem, we trust our instincts too much; we renounce a sufficiently thorough analysis. Or, we eliminate comments from colleagues who might have much more relevant insights regarding certain business challenges we face.
Wise leaders instead fight the temptation to trust their so-called genius. The smartest decision-makers turn out to be the most humble. They resist overconfidence, do their homework, solicit feedback, and remain aware that yesterday’s big decision does not guarantee tomorrow’s. They guard against the “illusion of control,” accurately perceiving the role that luck and chance likely played in their past successes.
Which brings us to our second lesson: be resilient, because, in life, “the chip comes,” so to speak. Real-world results rarely go according to plan. Many would-be entrepreneurs cannot cope with this unpleasant reality. They throw down their cards when they first face a seemingly impossible obstacle: in Ben and Jerry’s case, the prohibitive cost of bagel machines.
Successful people instead accept that “plan A” almost never works. In today’s volatile environments, it is impossible to predict, let alone control, every obstacle that will arise when translating an ambitious aspiration into reality on the ground. Instead, business (and life) will generally unfold like a series of wrong turns, roundabouts, curveballs, and challenges.
Of course, everyone already knows all of this, but often on a sterile intellectual level. Few are ready when it happens to them personally. It’s one thing to read about resilience in a leadership book, it’s quite another to stoically accept a humiliating setback as the crucible in which resilience and creativity are forged.
Be humble: Fight the illusion of control. And be resilient: accept that real life is rarely “smooth, soft ice cream”; more often than not it is a bumpy road.

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