I am part of the original VeggieTales generation. My dad would bring home VeggieTales videos as they were released (on VHS — remember that?) and we would watch them many (many, many) times. I still know a lot of the songs off by heart, and if you put me and my brothers in a room together we could probably recite entire episode scripts from memory. So I picked up Phil Vischer’s memoir, Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story about Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables with great interest after my friend Rebecca mentioned it in a recent blog post. Phil Vischer details his growing-up years in “Iowa’s nostril,” to how VeggieTales and his production company, Big Idea, came to be — right through to Big Idea’s catastrophic collapse in lawsuit-plagued bankruptcy in 2002. And of course, Vischer also details the aftermath of that collapse, both on a corporate and personal level.
Throughout the memoir, Vischer is both unfailingly funny and unflinchingly honest, painting a clear-eyed portrait of the circumstances behind Big Idea’s rise and fall. While there are many pieces of that puzzle, including uncontrolled hiring, decisions based on wild financial predictions that didn’t pan out, and a leadership team that was significantly divided in its outlook and goals, Vischer ultimately points the finger squarely at himself:
So there you have it. The real culprit is Jim Collins, coauthor of the book Built to Last. Oh, if only it were that easy. Of course, I could have waited for God to supply his twenty-year goal for Big Idea. I could have overruled my executives at any point. I could have stopped the hiring, decreased the forecasts, redirected the strategies. As controlling shareholder, CEO, and sole board member (building a board of directors was something we often discussed but never got around to actually doing), I had the final word on everything. So who is ultimately to blame for the collapse of Big Idea? That should be pretty clear by now. I have seen the enemy, and he is me. My strengths build Big Idea, and my weaknesses brought it down. (206)
That was probably not an easy thing to write. That was certainly a harder thing to live. And if there was no other reason to read Me, Myself, and Bob it is certainly a fine example of the art of honest self-assessment. It’s pretty impressive, actually. I’m sure that I don’t see myself that clearly.
Part of Vischer’s named weaknesses were unhealed wounds stemming from his parents’ separation and divorce, which left him constantly reaching for approval:
Big Idea was getting, well, big. The bigger we were, the more good we could do, I figured. The bigger we were, the more people would have to take us seriously. Take me seriously. The bigger we were, the more I felt, somewhere down deep, that I mattered. Invisible? Heck, no. Look what I’m doing now! (148)
(In a way, this reminded me a lot of Wil Wheaton’s memoir, Just a Geek, where he talks about his struggles with his personal demon, Prove to Everyone. And “proving to everyone” is just not a solid foundation for building a life…) Vischer also relates his impatience in the area of discernment. He had a strong sense that he was called to work in the entertainment industry, using his gifts to promote Christian values, but didn’t take the time to try and figure out what the ultimate goal was. Instead, he substituted a “temporary” goal:
I knew I was supposed to use my gifts to try to make a difference. I knew I was supposed to tell the stories he laid on my heart. But I didn’t have a strong impression of any giant, singular goal I was supposed to accomplish. I looked back at the book. A visionary company needed a BHAG [Big Hairy Audacious Goal] to inspire its troops. What to do?
I’ll make one up.
Just temporarily, of course, as an exercise. I’ll make one up and put it down as a placeholder, and then, when God gives me my real BHAG (you know, like “build an ark and start loading animals”), I’ll just swap it out.
In hindsight, I wonder why I thought this was a good idea. (140-1)
That “temporary” goal for Big Idea was something along the lines of “to become the most trusted of the top four media brands in the country in twenty years’ time” (I have returned the book to the library, so don’t quote me on that — but it’s close, anyway). But the trouble with this? Among other things, the rest of Vischer’s team didn’t know that they were latching on to a placeholder goal, and the words “top four” meant that they had to grow, and grow fast, in order to take on the likes of Nickelodeon and Disney. This in turn led to the unregulated and unsustainable growth that ended up taking Big Idea down. It also led to taking on bigger projects than the company was equipped to handle — as, for example, a 45-minute Jonah video ballooned into a full-length feature film. The day after Jonah was premiered, Big Idea laid off roughly half of its staff. Yikes.
The real strength of Me, Myself, and Bob, though, is that Vischer has learned from his experience, and shares those lessons with us. His advice seems to me to be extremely on point (as one would expect from wisdom gleaned from painful experience), and I wish I could just hand out copies of the last two or three chapters. Here are a few quotations that stood out to me:
On the partnership between “creatives” and “bean counters”:So who should be in charge? Who should call the shots? Both of them, that’s who. The balance between creative inspiration and good stewardship of resources is vital to any successful enterprise. Neither can be subordinated to the other without serious and highly detrimental consequences. (211)
On the question of what we deserve: That little whisper–“You deserve it”–comes, I believe, from the worst part of our sinful natures, the part that always wants another cookie, a bigger house, a nicer TV. I’m pretty sure it’s the same voice that Hitler he “deserved” Poland. Advertisers know the power of that voice, and they use it relentlessly. The new car, the ridiculously high-fat dessert, the fantastically overpriced watch–do you need it? Of course not. But you deserve it. I have come to hate that voice. (215-6)
On identifying the expert in the room: If you successfully identify a need and create a product that meets it in a unique way, you are the expert. Even if you’re a twelve-year-old junior high dropout. Even if the guy net to you has a Harvard MBA and a Fortune 500 pedigree. In the business that was born out of your brain and your instincts, you are the expert. You may find someone who can help you immensely with human resources or finance or marketing. You may find a brilliant consultant who can ask poignant questions that will help further refine your thinking. But when it comes down to your product and the way it meets the needs of your audience, I’ll say it one more time, you are the expert. […] If you don’t believe this, they never will. (218)
On diversity in hiring vs. diversity in values: Whether a pro basketball team, a church committee, or a company, a group succeeds when everyone starts on the same page. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to think the same, look the same, or talk the same–that sort of conformity leads to groupthink and failure. Diversity is a wonderful thing, as long as the diversity isn’t around the purpose and values of the group itself. (222)
So far, so mainstream. But in the second-last chapter of the book, “Dreams, Part II”, Vischer speaks directly to Christians about the spiritual lessons he learned during Big Idea’s rise and fall. After a period of recovery, he started writing books for children, and talks about a planning meeting with a literary agent:
I took a couple of my new stories to a Christian agent to see if they should become children’s books. The agent suggested I spend a day with his staff at a whiteboard talking things through. The first question they asked was “Where do you want to be in five years?” I almost choked. They were asking me for my “vision” for my new ministry. After a long pause, I gave the only answer I could think of: “In the center of God’s will.” (247)
[…] My ability to accomplish anything good is dependent on my willingness to dwell in the current of God’s will. To wait on God and let him supply my form and my direction. Like a jellyfish.
Here’s the deal, and this is important, so listen closely: If I am a Christian — if I have given Christ lordship of my life — where I am in five years is none of my business. Where I am in twenty years is none of my business. Where I am tomorrow is none of my business. So our plan at Jellyfish [his new company] — and it’s an odd one, I’ll admit — is to make no long-range plans unless God gives them explicitly. No “BHAGs,” no inspiring Power Point vision statements. Just a group of people on their knees, trusting God for guidance each day. Holding everything loosely but God himself. (248)
This hit home for me. The nature of my husband’s profession means that we have no idea where we’ll be living or what he’ll be doing even two years from now, never mind five or ten or twenty. And we constantly have to reign in our anxiety about that, remembering that God has it all mapped out, even if we don’t yet. We can’t make many long range plans. But maybe we can be like jellyfish. And maybe being like jellyfish, just drifting in the current of God’s will as best we can discern it, is exactly where we need to be.
I’ll let Phil Vischer take us out:
Finally, and I am very serious when I say this, beware of your dreams, for dreams make dangerous friends. We all have them — longings for a better life, a healthy child, a happy marriage, rewarding work. But dreams are, I have come to believe, misplaced longings. False lovers. Why? Because God is enough. Just God. And he isn’t “enough” because he can make our dreams come true — no, you’ve got him confused with Santa or Merlin or Oprah. The God who created the universe is enough for us — even without our dreams. Without the better life, the healthy child, the happy marriage, the rewarding work.
God was enough for the martyrs facing lions and fire — even when the lions and the fire won. And God is enough for you. But you can’t discover the truth of that statement while you’re clutching at your dreams. You need to let them go. Let yourself fall. Give up. As terrifying as it sounds, you’ll discover that falling feels a lot like floating. And falling into God’s arms — relying solely on his power and his will for your life — that’s where the fun starts. That’s where you’ll find that “abundant life” Jesus promised — the abundant life that doesn’t look anything like evangelical overload.
The impact God has planned for us doesn’t occur when we’re pursuing impact. It occurs when we’re pursuing God. (250-1)