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Critical Thinking

Duck Dynasty: How a Family of Rednecks Created an Empire

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On the surface, the breakout success of the Robertson clan – stars of A&E’s runaway hit show “Duck Dynasty” – seems entirely improbable, if not downright miraculous.

The odds that Phil Robertson, the family patriarch who grew up without electricity or modern plumbing, would end up getting two degrees and an offer to play professional football are probably slim to none.

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It’s hard to believe the Louisiana woodsman would forgo opportunities the rest of us would have jumped on to follow his passion, duck hunting, and turn a duck call invention into a lucrative family business called Duck Commander.

And it’s remarkable that his son, Willie, would somehow leverage that business into a media and merchandising empire based on a record-breaking TV show about a bunch of duck-hunting rednecks resembling ZZ Top.

Random as all that seems, the Robertson’s success highlights all sorts of lessons that are fundamental to achieving the American Dream, even if they are hidden beneath a Louisiana swampland filled with duck blinds, shotguns, yuppie wives, and camo limousines.

Born into privilege is a myth. I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing about how the privileged few get all the breaks, have all the contacts, and make all the money. The truth is that most people who make it big started with nothing. For example, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) founder Howard Schultz and Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein grew up near where I did in Brooklyn, New York. Trust me, it was no country club.

Do what you love; success will follow. Phil Robertson could have done a lot of things, but he went with what he loved, hunting ducks. People waste their whole lives stuck behind a desk or in a dead end job they can’t stand because they’re afraid to take risks. If you want to achieve the American Dream, you’ve got to chase your own dream.

Don’t keep your crazy uncle locked up in the closet. Perhaps the funniest, quirkiest, and most eccentric character in the show is Phil’s brother, Uncle Silas. Some of the lines that come out of old Si’s mouth are priceless. Likewise, one of the ways Atari founder Nolan Bushnell helped turn Silicon Valley into a hotbed for high-tech entrepreneurs is by embracing the crazies and the obnoxious, as he said in a Techcrunch interview. No kidding. Steve Jobs actually started out at Atari.

Quit doing what everyone else is doing. The common wisdom these days is to build your own personal brand. In reality, everyone’s just doing the same thing: hiding behind phony Twitter and Facebook avatars and trying to make a living as social media enthusiasts. You don’t accomplish great things by being a clone. I mean, who would have thought a duck call could lead to an empire? Duck Dynasty – now that’s a personal brand.

Humor and humility are powerful assets. Most of the best executives and business leaders I’ve known had great senses of humor and were far more humble than you would expect them to be. That’s probably because they failed enough to know just how much they don’t know. And they don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s called perspective and it’s a powerful thing.

Sometimes, you should listen to your kids. Phil didn’t want to do the show, but Willie, who seems to have a pretty bright marketing head on his shoulders, showed him the light. Oftentimes leaders get too caught up in their own success and start to think they can do no wrong. They stop listening to smart people and that’s often what trips them up. 

Think big is a myth. When it comes to entrepreneurial success, think big is a myth. Mark Zuckerberg came up with Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) because he wanted to rate the looks of female students. Michael Dell made computers from his dorm room. Virgin founder Richard Branson sold records by mail. Every great company was once a small company. If you don’t get that first thing off the ground, nothing will follow, that’s for sure.

When opportunity knocks, people aren’t usually paying attention. I’m always hearing about how successful people were just lucky. In reality, they’re open, they live in the moment, and they pay attention. So when they see an opportunity, they jump on it, no matter how risky or dumb it seems. Nothing happens if you don’t put yourself out there. And I don’t mean on LinkedIn; I mean in real time in the real world.

Everyone falls and needs help getting up. Phil had a rough time in the early days, getting himself into booze and all sorts of trouble. But his wife Kay and sister Jan stuck by him and helped him find redemption. Trust me when I tell you that all successful people have been there before, probably more than once. Businesses never go straight up and to the right and neither do people’s lives. They actually resemble rollercoaster rides. But if you have faith, lean on friends and family, and stick with it, you’ll make it.

Success is entirely up to you. Duck Dynasty is primarily a comedy show, but one of the reasons I think it took off is that it highlights personal responsibility, work ethic, and family values at a time when those cornerstones of American capitalism are certainly deteriorating. The show sends a very clear message that apparently still resonates with millions of Americans: life is what you make of it; it’s entirely up to you.

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