THE BLOG
11/08/2010 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why We Need To Make Smart Sexy Again

Let me start by saying I love my country, America, and that is why I want to push her to "be better."

If you love someone, you push them to be better, and to be the best they can possibly be.

If you love yourself, you strive for excellence in everything. You don't settle.

If you love something, whatever it is, you work hard at it, and you apply yourself.

If you love your children, you work hard and sacrifice to give them what they need, and not simply what they want. You work hard to make the right choices. You tell your children, through your choices and actions, "I would rather you respect me, and learn to like me, than to like me, and never respect me."

If you love your mate, or your chosen profession, or almost anything else, you work hard at making it work; at making it successful.

Nothing good in this life comes easy. Even the Bible says in Proverbs, "to be poor is not to not have anything, but to not do anything, and lazy hands make a man poor..." It appears that God had no use for slackers either.

People sometimes ask me how it is I do what I do, and the answer is easy. I work my tail off, every single day. I tell them that my motto is "an entrepreneur works 18 hours a day to keep from getting a job," and I am only partially kidding.

Whatever I do in life, I try to apply excellence to it, buffed to a high-gloss success shine through hard work. I may not be the smartest guy in the room, but I will run circles around a room full of MBA's, and ultimately triumph, because of both my acquired education and my work ethic. One of my mentors, Quincy Jones, told me "John, the only place where the word success comes before the word work is in the dictionary, because it's alphabetical." Quincy also told me that it takes 20 years to change a culture. Well, in the last 20 years the west has made dumb sexy. We have dumbed down and even celebrated it. Now we need to make smart sexy again.

As but one example, look at the advertising campaign for the Diesel Jeans stores and clothing line. 12 foot tall letters that spell out BE STUPID, in front of their flagship stores in North America and Europe, fueled by a multi-million dollar advertising campaign. I have seen these stores in downtown Manhattan, as well as downtown London, England, and even Paris, France. To my utter amazement, the company recently won the top award given by the advertising industry. Leaves me breathless. But what amazes me even more, is the deafening silence of the masses.

Where are the picketers of these stores, proclaiming simply that these sort of messages for our kids will not be tolerated, irrespective of the purported intent of the marketer? Where are the letters from concerned parents to the CEO of the company and their shareholders, making it plain that we will not be buying their jeans until they change their messages? Nothing is happening, and nothing has happened for months now as Diesel boldly ramps up this insulting BE STUPID moniker in the west, because either we think it's okay, or worse, because we simply don't care. I would hate to think that we actually agree, but silence is a powerful communicator of our accepted virtues and our values. Well, I have no intention of being quiet here, but more on this later. Operation HOPE recently launched our own 5MK initiative (www.5MK.org) as our own public recommitment to "make smart sexy again" in America.

Love as work

Some speak to the magic of compounded interest as the key to economic success, but I would rather rely on the self-actualized magic of compounded hustle, as a key to success in life over all. Compounded hustle means that even those born without the comfort of financial resources can succeed too, and sometimes it means they succeed even more. They learn how to hustle (work hard, innovate, find solutions) to survive. They never give up, or give in.

In my own life, I simply out run fear and failure through hard work and applied excellence. Fear and failure are lazy bastards. In my book LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World, I speak of love as work, non-love as laziness and anti-love as evil (Dr. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled).

Everyone can contribute

I am constantly stunned by the countless people I hear all around me who are just counting down the days to "retirement," as if their usefulness and purpose in this life has a total shelf life of a mere 65 years. I understand shifting gears, but turning off the engine is a mistake. People with a purpose driven life simply live longer. You don't retire at 65, you rewire.

Think about the people you admire as success stories in this world, and you will find them moving on purpose in their lives, and often not hitting their true stride until age 70 and beyond.

My mentor Quincy Jones, with more Grammy nominations than anyone in history, is more engaged and passionate about life now, at 75 years young, than I have ever seen him.

My mentor Ambassador Andrew Young, chief aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in the civil rights movement, with 100 honorary doctorate degrees to his credit, now an Emmy award winning producer of films on Africa and the civil rights movement at age 77.

My mentor Reverend Dr. Cecil "Chip" Murray, who essentially brought peace to South Central Los Angeles following the Rodney King riots, active as a professor on the campus of USC's School of Religion at plus 80 years.

My friend the late Dr. Dorothy I. Height, who at 98 plus was still running the National Council of Negro Women and advising the president of the United States!

Nelson Mandela, who emerged from prison in his 70's to lead a nation to greatness. My friend Archbishop-Emeritus Desmond Tutu who is now raising millions for the new Desmond Tutu Peace Center and traveling the world spreading his brand of prosperity through peace ministry.

Or the biblical Moses, who had no clue what he was to do with his life until he was 80 years old. What's all this retiring business all about? Your brain is the only muscle in your body that doesn't age, but it can atrophy from lack of use.

The whole idea of "retirement," for which we have turned into multi-billion dollar consumption industry in the west, and a "cultural expectation" once someone turns 65, and sometimes even earlier, was nothing more than a political answer to begin with. It was during the Great Depression that political leaders in the west created the concept of retirement in America as a way of "creating jobs" where none existed. Simply put, if 65 year olds stopped working, and were incentivized to do so, then 18 year old men and women could take their place in the workplace. Problem solved, but now we have another problem created in its place. We have devalued the American crown jewel: her work ethic. For the longest time, America and Americans out-worked, out-innovated and out-imagined anyone, anywhere. Now increasingly our motto seems to be "in late, long lunch, leave early." Anything BUT work.

What China does well

They WORK.

Traveling through Asia recently (South Korea, Hong Kong and mainland China) in route to the World Economic Forum "Summer Davos" meeting there, I was continually reminded of China's strategic advantage in the world today; her hard work, and an absolute obsession with excellence. Excellence is that close first cousin of my favorite word "passion," and a sibling to the Japanese word "Kaizen," which means "constantly improving." In short, these folks "work" from can't see in the morning, to can't see in the evening. Lazy, they are not.

While visiting the Canadian International School in Hong Kong, conducting a Dignity Day session with my fellow Young Global Leader Chris Logan and other prominent leaders from Hong Kong, I was struck by how focused these young people were on achievement and excellence. These kids start school as early as 7am and often are focused on their studies as late as 7pm to 9pm the same evening. Meanwhile, the high school dropout rate in America is 30% amongst all kids. Not good.

How Western laziness is killing our future competitiveness

For more than 100 years America and the west has been a place that worked and produced. Increasingly, as if we are the spoiled offspring of royalty, with a penchant for the good and easy life, all we seem to want to do is relax, 'Chill' and consume. But that is not what made us great, and it is not going to allow us to maintain our leadership position in the world for our children.

Figuring out what we are for

One of the central tenants of Love Leadership is that in a world where people increasingly define themselves by what they are against, we must once again figure out what we are for, for a new generation of leaders, and then get about the business of doing something about it. Well, my friends in China and Hong Kong have figured out that they are "for" education for their children. They have figured out that education is the ultimate poverty eradication tool, as well as a key wealth creation plan, and are attacking it with every fiber in their being. As a wise man once told me, "once you have an education, no one can take it from you. It can never be repossessed, once owned."

One of the leading American imports and exports today, oddly enough, are Asian college students; sent by their aspirationally focused parents who desire for their children the cutting edge higher education that America offers. These same students are increasingly not staying in the U.S. over the long term, but returning to Asia to put their newly acquired education talent to work building up their home country. From elementary school through secondary education, you cannot pry one of these kids from school or their studies. It's like someone turned study hall into a popular night club, complete with a rotating disco ball. These kids are nothing but serious about securing their educational empowerment. From 7am in the morning, to 7pm at night, these kids are studying and acquiring the skills that (they hope) global leadership will demand. These kids are making smart sexy.

In contrast, we cannot seem to keep our kids IN school long enough for them to even graduate, yet alone aspire for something greater. The average high-school dropout rate in the U.S. is approximately 30% for all children (read all races, including white), and 40-50% for urban children. Quoting my friend Marguerite Kondracke, CEO of America's Promise Alliance, "if we are not careful, the next group of underperforming assets will not be subprime mortgages but our children." I could not agree more.

If we don't turn this around, within a generation the aspirationally focused (and at that point deserving too) young people representing China, India and other developing countries, focused on education, will simply eat America's lunch. It is far from a forgone conclusion that America will continue to lead the world through the remainder of the 21st century.

If America continues to lead, she will have to work for it, just like everything wise and worthwhile in life.

Love, is work.

John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, former vice chairman, U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, member of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability for President Barack Obama, a Young Global Leaders for the World Economic Forum, internationally recognized public speaker and author of LOVE LEADERSHIP; A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), which debuted in August, 2009, as the Amazon.com #1 Hottest New Book (for Leadership), on the CEO Reads Top 10 Business Best Seller List, and was published in November, 2009 in digital audio book format on Audible.com, iTunes and other audio book retailers. Love Leadership was listed amongst the Top 25 Business Books for Inc. Magazine/CEO Read for 10 month after its release.