10 Lessons on Life & Business From Sam Walton

Good Will Hunting
You dropped 150 grand on an education you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library. – Good Will Hunting (1997)

That’s one of my favorite lines from the movies.

Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, shows up a smug Harvard student in a bar one night. It’s amazing to think back to that movie coming out in 1997. Tuition was high back then, but today it’s almost double.

I guess today the line would need to be changed to, 300 grand.

Anyway, I mentioned last year that my wife got me back into reading and checking out books at the library.

Since then I’ve been hooked even more on reading books. Previously to this “discovery” of the library I would usually read one book a month or so. I would purchase and download them on my phone.

And that’s cool. That’s fine, but then I realized that the world can really open up when you have a library card. I continue to be surprised at books there have where I live. And if they don’t have what I’m interested in at the local library, you can look in the catalog and see if any surrounding area libraries have it. If they do you can request it and in a few days you’ll have it.

It’s an amazing thing…

Sam Walton AutobiographyThat brings us to the topic of the day: Sam Walton.

I knew vaguely about Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. I saw a TED video that mentioned that Sam Walton had written an autobiography while dying. The book was released just after he passed in 1992.

After seeing that video I knew I had to read the book. After reading it, you get the sense that Sam was perhaps the greatest entrepreneur of the American 20th century. What Walmart has become is something really incredible. I had never taken the time to look into it, but even in my lifetime it’s amazing to consider what life would be like without Walmart.

I know I would have spent a lot more on all kinds of different things over the years.

At the end of the book Sam shares ten things he thinks are essential to success in life and in business. But even he hints at the fact that it’s difficult to look at your own life and figure out why you were successful.

The books I like best are the ones that simply tell stories. From stories, you can pull your own conclusions about what makes things work.

So I think I pulled some good lessons from that book. I know others that have read it probably have thought the same things, but I’ll share them here with you now…ten lessons on life and business from Sam Walton.

1. Keep Going

There was a really interesting story from Sam about his start in the retailing industry. He had experience in retail after high school before he went into the military. After his military career ended, when he was 27 years old, he and his wife moved to a new town and took over a variety store franchise. They turned that shop into a success. Life was good.

Then, after five years, the shop’s landlord saw the success and didn’t allow Sam to renew the lease on the building.

Now you have 32 year old Sam sitting out on the street. He had built something into a huge success and because of a technicality in a contract and a shortsighted landlord, he was starting back and square one.

No worry. Sam continued on. That’s a hard blow to take in life. But the lesson is that every ending is a new beginning and you control what comes next if you’re brave enough.

Sam turned the ending into the beginning of Walmart.

2. Believe In People

One of the underlying lessons throughout the entire book was the fact that Sam trusted and believed in people. It seemed like everyone he met had something to offer.

It’s hard to be this way in life. It seems like everyone at some point is burned by someone. Over time, those burns can make us lose belief in other people. It can lead us to not trusting people and not giving the benefit of the doubt.

Sam believed in most people until they proved him wrong. He didn’t care about a person’s history. If they showed the willingness to work then he would give them every opportunity he could. Many of the original Walmart managers had little education. But they were willing to work.

3. Balance

This part was interesting to me and really stood out. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and for the last few years.

Starting and managing a business obviously takes work. It takes an enormous amount of mental strain.

Sam Walton recognized the importance of balance in life. He would often take time out of his day, usually at lunchtime, for a game of tennis. He believed in the value of having a passion for a sport.

Sam was also a hunter, a big hobby of his. He also enjoyed flying, another hobby. He often flew for work-related trips, but also for enjoyment.

The lesson is not to live a life without any work, but to find a balance because if you don’t you’ll burn out at some point. Sam kept going with business until his last breath. A big part of that has to be the balance he found and appreciated.

4. Copy

One of the cool things about Sam’s book was how he had the editor interview people from his life. His wife, business colleagues, family members and all kinds of people.

I don’t remember the person that said it, but at one point one of the people interviewed said that Sam was famous for copying. This was a compliment for Sam, however. The person recognized that one of Sam’s best qualities in business was seeing what was successful and implementing it.

I guess you could call it innovation. Find the things that work best, combine then and build on top of them to build something better.

There is no need to start from zero. Build on what’s been done.

5. Experiment

Sam was also a notorious experimenter. He would see all those ideas that others in retail and business had and practiced and he would want to try all the best ones.

Obviously, not everything worked, but he succeeded big time with enough of those experiments to build one of the most successful enterprises of all time.

This reminds me of another line from a movie, National Treasure, where Benjamin Gates says that Thomas Edison tried and failed 2,000 times before finding a way to create a light bulb. But Edison didn’t see it that way. He kept experimenting. He didn’t see it as failure. He saw it as eliminating ways that didn’t work until he found the right way.

Experimenting is important. We’re wired, it seems, to avoid failure in life. But we need to experiment in order to find better ways of doing things.

Where would we be if Thomas Edison had stopped experimenting?

Where would Sam Walton have finished if he had stopped experimenting?

6. Hold True

Even though he was an experimenter, Sam Walton still believed in holding true to what was working for Walmart. The vision for the company was to provide the best quality merchandise for the lowest cost. That vision drove just about every decision the company made.

Other businesses would come along with seemingly new ways of doing things. They might have a splashy year or five, but they would burn out.

Many businesses get caught up in new and flashy models, but that often leads to a downfall. You have to understand the vision that is working and stick with it even in the times when you’re lagging behind.

7. Adapt

Sam was not a big spender. And he often fought hard against new technology for Walmart. He made his team members work hard to convince him anytime they felt strongly about changing something. This happened with computers.

But once Sam was convinced, he dove full on into the endeavor. And Walmart often was a leader in areas of technology. They wouldn’t do it just because someone thought it was a good idea. They would do it once they were convinced that they needed to adapt to stay ahead.

8. Let Them Laugh

Sam was a bit of an eccentric. At least that’s how many people in the highbrow world saw him. He was really a hardworking small town person. He believed in people and loved life.

Walmart, even today(!), is often seen as a company built by hillbillies and rednecks. Sam always used that to his advantage. He would let the competition laugh while he continued to work.

Who cares what others think?

He knew what worked for him and his community. He knew what mattered most and he believed in himself and while others laughed because he didn’t something different, he became perhaps the most successful entrepreneur of the 20th century.

9. Invest In Community

Sam was a big believer in community. His wife, Helen, was also a big believer in community. They believed in small town life. They believed that the success of the community was the success of the individual.

The Waltons and Walmart gave back to their community both with money and time. They were heavily involved in various organizations and wanted to make sure that their success would be shared with others close to their home.

I think that’s admirable and a lesson for any entrepreneur.

10. Read

This one might be me showing bias, but I think that could be said about all the lessons in this post. Sam mentioned more than once that he enjoyed reading. That’s a common thread I’ve seen in a number of stories about entrepreneurs. It seems there is a thirst for knowledge among successful people in the world. Sam would read all kinds of business books and leadership books. Biographies and autobiographies. He was always searching for more knowledge, more secrets on how to improve.

So there you have it. Ten things learned from Sam Walton’s life story. I’m sure there are plenty more, but you’ll have to go to the library and check it out (for free or perhaps $1.50 in late fees) if you want to learn those other lessons.

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