After graduating college in 1989, Bert and John Jacobs decided that designing and selling T-shirts would be a lucrative way to make a living. The Boston boys bought a maroon minivan and started selling their creations on college campuses from coast to coast. Five years in, with less than $100 in real profit, the siblings contemplated tossing the T-shirts and permanently parking the van.
They didn’t. Ultimately, their optimism, a character trait nurtured by their mother, saved the day. As they tell it in their recently published memoir Life is Good: The Book, no matter what havoc reigned in their middle-class childhood home, come dinnertime, their mother inevitably asked, “Tell me something good that happened today.”
The question “changed the atmosphere in the room,” they write. And years later, as they pondered their future, it was their mother’s enduring optimism that inspired the siblings to design a T-shirt with the uplifting message, “Life is Good.” The first batch of 48 sold out in an hour.
And with those three little words, the brothers birthed an empire and created a “rallying cry for optimists.”
Soon, their rapidly growing community of devoted customers sent letters and emails relating personal stories of great adversity and “telling us how the optimism of our simple phrase helped them get through the difficult times,” says John. It was a lesson their sister, Berta, had taught her brothers years earlier.
In 1988, while skiing in Vermont, she broke her neck. She was 28 and paralyzed. In her hospital bed, Berta made a conscious decision to not dwell in the negative. Instead she determined to focus on the progress she was going to make. After surgery and arduous rehab, she’s regained her ability to walk. “To this day she has great challenges, but she stays positive,” says John. “When she has setbacks, she’ll say, ‘that’s going to ruin my next 20 minutes but I’m not going to let it ruin my next hour.”
“The bottom line is that we can focus on what’s wrong with our lives or we can focus on what’s right and try to grow the good things in our lives,” says John.
Since the early 90s, the brothers have endeavored to “grow good things” by donating a minimum of 10% of annual net profits, an estimated 10 million thus far, to helping children in dire circumstances through their foundation and by partnering with like-minded children’s charities. “We concentrate on kids because we believe they are naturally optimistic and open to the world,” says John, the father of three. “But lot of kids don’t have the opportunity to view the world that way because of factors they can’t control, such as hunger, poverty, illness and violence.”
Last month, the brothers hit the road for the Life is Good Tour in support of the book and to participate in raising awareness and funds for children’s charities across the country including Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, The Whole in the Wall Gang Camp, Born This Way Foundation and Pencils of Promise. And everywhere they go, the brothers continue to share their simple, yet powerful, philosophy of life: It’s not easy. It’s not perfect. It’s good. Says John, “Yes, terrible things happen but there are also good things that happen and if you focus your energy on those positive things, the potential for your life and issues you take on is limitless. Optimism empowers us to explore the world with open arms and an eye toward solutions, progress, and growth. It also makes life a hell of a lot more fun. “