Conversations in Management: George Eastman

I never smiled until I was forty; I may have grinned but I never smiled.

George Eastman

EastmanEastman knew his numbers and when those numbers told him he’d reached a significant milestone, he rushed to tell his mother. “We’re millionaires now, Mother,” he announced. Scarcely looking up from her knitting, she replied, “That’s nice, George.” Evidently, mom was hard to please. Later she told her nurse, “George’s money came too late for me to enjoy.” This lack of gratitude, to say the least of pride in her son’s success, should have come as no surprise. She’d been taciturn, distant and stoic for all of George’s life. In short, she didn’t give her son much to smile about. His father didn’t either. By the time George was born in 1854, his father, George Washington Eastman owned a farm and two commercial colleges. Early on, the elder Eastman realized he had an “aptitude for penmanship,” and this, along with bookkeeping and accounting were the subjects taught in his two schools. There was a price to pay, however, for Eastman’s entrepreneurial spirit. His businesses were 120 miles apart and this meant long separations from his family. Still, he provided them a comfortable living until his sudden death in 1862. Overnight the family’s circumstances went from comfortable to straightened. George was just seven years old. Not much to smile about.

Eastman dropped out of school at fourteen to support his mother and sister. His reserved demeanor was his mother’s legacy, but there was also a liveliness and ambition borne of his father’s entrepreneurism. He learned quickly on every job he undertook and he advanced just as quickly. But there was more to the quiet George Eastman than work. He attended lectures, subscribed to Harper’s and was a fan of Horatio Alger-type stories. At a time when most people lived and died within 20 miles of their birthplace, Eastman left Rochester and visited Chicago, New York, Boston and went deep sea fishing off the New England coast. In fact, it was when preparing to visit Santo Domingo that he first became interested in photography. That interest, of course, would shape his future and change the world.

By the time Eastman was forty there was a lot to smile about. He’d pioneered dry plate processing in America, transitioned to rolled film and introduced the first Kodak camera. His business was booming and the future looked bright. He’d gone to work to make enough money so that his mother would never have to work again and succeeded far beyond what he ever imagined possible.  But Eastman didn’t start smiling because of all this as much as he began to let himself smile. He was as adventurous, inquisitive and generous as ever, but now he let himself enjoy it.

A lot of us don’t smile much. We wear serious faces because business is serious, child-rearing is serious—life is serious. But the occasional smile won’t hurt. In fact it might actually help you deal with all those serious things. Research has shown that smiling is a great stress reliever and productivity booster. Even just smiling to yourself can lift your spirits and make you feel happier. And smiling at others lifts their spirits as well. This is true even when there’s nothing in particular to smile about. What’s more, physiologists say it’s easier to smile than frown, so why not? It makes you feel good, think smarter and get along better, all with less effort then frowning.  Go ahead! Right now—do it! Smile!             —Ebert

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