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Pick the Right Dare . . . for Lasting Greatness
on December 5, 2000
This book contains the most detailed information I have seen assembled
in one volume about the life of Dr. Edwin "Din" Land, founder of
Polaroid Corporation. Although I long have read public accounts of
Dr. Land's work, this book greatly added to my knowledge.
those who would like to understand the rise and fall of Polaroid and
its stock price over several decades from 1937 through 1980, this book
makes fascinating reading about some of the do's and don't's of
running a high technology company that depends on developing new
technologies and an on-going stream of innovative products.
want to understand the techniques employed by Dr. Land to make
scientific breakthroughs, there are many insights here into his method
of goal-oriented empiricism. Interestingly, it parallels the
approaches used by Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor of the
20th century. Unfortunately, Dr. Land left little in the way of
writings to draw on other than patent applications and speeches, so
these insights are limited primarily to recollections by colleagues.
On the other hand, the empirical approach is often guided by instinct
based on experience, which is hard to capture. Most scientific
thinkers dislike empiricism, so those who use this method can expect
many rebukes . . . as Dr. Land received in his work on the nature of
Those who want to understand the scientific
breakthroughs that Polaroid made will probably come away confused
unless they already have a great knowledge of optics and chemistry
related to photography. I learned a great deal from the book, but
would have liked to learn more. I graded the book down one star for
If you want a fascinating, new look into the
emerging arms race with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, there is much
interesting material here about Dr. Land's role as a national advisor
on defense surveillance.
I was a guest at a dinner hosted by
Dr. Land in the mid 1960s during which he demonstrated his new
technology of instant color photography...His good humor,
generous attitude toward his guests, and his sincere desire to
transform the world, however, left me with a more profound lesson --
seeing much more potential for what a company can be than I would
otherwise have had. Dr. Land explained his vision that night in terms
of releasing the human spirit and encouraging all of us to create and
appreciate more beauty. Although glimpses of this side of Dr. Land
come through in the book, they are overshadowed by the overall theme
of a flawed genius.
I dislike books that argue for flaws in
geniuses. That approach serves to make them more human, but not in a
way that makes us appreciate them or their good points. Geniuses are
by their nature obsessed by their work, and their personal quirks can
be quite negative. ... By the standards of 20th century geniuses,
Dr. Land was a regular guy. In fact, the extent to which he retained
his humanity is part of his greatness.
I think an alternative
explanation to the one in this book of Dr. Land's limitations as a
leader is entirely possible and appropriate. Whenever he was engaged
in endeavors where strong leaders were involved as colleagues or
partners (such as on national defense issues), he was astonishingly
effective. Whenever he was totally given his head, he sometimes
strayed into areas where his vision exceeded the true opportunity.
Clearly, his talent as a technical problem solver vastly exceeded his
talent as an evaluator of product potential.
The story of
Polaroid's rise and fall as depicted here could just as easily be
rewritten as the story of a board of directors and financiers who did
not do their job of providing limits. For example, when Polaroid was
originally taken public in 1937, the investment bankers granted
Dr. Land a 10 year period of total control through a voting trust.
Although every company founder would like such control, that's simply
a bad idea. Management has to be and feel accountable...His authority
seems to me to have been much greater than that normally granted to a
CEO in taking a new product forward....Hopefully, a future book will
look at the fascinating governance challenges and issues related to
being on the board of a company led by a scientific genius who has
provided most of the company's historic value added.
have finished reading and thinking about the fascinating issues in
this book, I suggest that you consider what you would like your legacy
to be. Then, consider what mistakes you will have to avoid in order
to accomplish that legacy. How can others help you overcome your
weaknesses to accomplish more?
Be willing to insist on the
impossible, when it's the right thing to do. You can do it!