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Welcome to this Navigate the Chaos blog post. To hire Michael for a keynote speech, workshop, or presentation be sure to visit the Contact page. You can also purchase a copy of the latest Navigate the Chaos collection and download the Google calendar for free.

How often do you help people understand?

Today is April 28 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you help people understand?” Instead of assuming people know what you want, comprehend what it is you are doing, or believe in the direction in which you are traveling, try helping people understand. If you feel as though helping people understand what you believe to be obvious then navigating the chaos of life might be a bit more arduous for you. Helping people grasp what it is you are trying to do and why you are doing it is necessary and important strategy to use. If you choose not to do so then you risk being misunderstood. While some people will never understand you or your efforts, helping them do so will at least allow you to know you did everything you could. As you navigate the chaos remember that being misunderstood is a common occurrence. You will have to decide if being misunderstood will slow you down or stop you from translating your dreams into reality. Fred Smith did not.

Federal Express founder Fred Smith knows all too well the time he was misunderstood. While he was a student at Yale University, Smith wrote a paper on the concept of reliable overnight delivery. Such a concept was foreign at the time and hard to comprehend for many people. A Yale management professor gave Smith a C on the paper and wrote “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C', the idea must be feasible." After graduating Yale Smith joined the Marines in 1966 and completed two tours in Vietnam. He narrowly survived a Vietcong ambush after losing his helmet, grenade, and gun. Upon returning home from the Vietnam war, he returned to the idea he developed at Yale. In 1970, Smith purchased the controlling interest in an aircraft maintenance company, Ark Aviation Sales and by 1971 turned its focus to trading used jets. On June 18, 1971, Smith founded Federal Express with his $4 million inheritance and raised $91 million in venture capital.

In 1973, the company began offering service to 25 cities, and it began with small packages and documents and a fleet of 14 Falcon 20 (DA-20) jets. His focus was on developing an integrated air-ground system, which had never been done before. Smith developed FedEx on the business idea of a shipment version of a bank clearing house where one bank clearing house was located in the middle of the representative banks and all their representatives would be sent to the central location to exchange materials. In the first two years, however, and primarily due to rising fuel costs, the company found itself millions of dollars in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy. The company had already gone to many extremes, from pilots using their personal credit cards to truck drivers leaving their watches at gas stations as collateral. When FedEx's funds dwindled to just $5,000, Smith realized he did not have enough to fuel the planes, so he bet on himself and gambled. After a crucial business loan was denied, Smith took the company's last $5,000 to Las Vegas and won $27,000 gambling on blackjack to cover the company's $24,000 fuel bill. It kept FedEx alive for one more week.

In the book Changing How the World Does Business: FedEx's Incredible Journey to Success - The Inside Story, Roger Frock, a former senior vice president of operations at FedEx, describes the scene when he found out what Smith did. "I said, 'You mean you took our last $5,000 — how could you do that? [Smith] shrugged his shoulders and said, 'What difference does it make? Without the funds for the fuel companies, we couldn't have flown anyway.'" The $27,000 proved only a temporary solution, however, but Smith did consider his winnings as a hopeful sign business would go up from there. He used the money as motivation to obtain more funding, and eventually raised another $11 million. After stabilizing financially, Smith helped launch a direct mail advertising campaign to boost the company's visibility and help people understand the value of such a novel idea of overnight delivery. By 1976, FedEx produced its first profit of $3.6 million. A few years later, it went public and has been thriving ever since. Today, FedEx, the world's first overnight delivery company, delivers more than 1.2 billion packages every year in over 220 countries. In 2021 Smith had a net worth of over $4 billion: not bad for someone with a misunderstood college essay, a misunderstood new service, and a misunderstood vision. In March 2022, Smith announced that he will step down as CEO and become executive chairman. He named long-time FedEx executive Raj Subramaniam as his successor.

American essayist, lecturer, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote "Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood." Smith was misunderstood yet went ahead and launched FedEx to help people understand the value of overnight delivery.

  • When is the last time you were misunderstood; and then worked hard to help people understand?

  • If you do not feel as though you need to help people understand, why do you think that is?

  • Are you open to understanding what others are telling you about the path they are on as they navigate the chaos?

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