Bill Strickland wasn’t set up for success. He was a poor African-American kid growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1960s. He often cut classes, but one day he discovered something he truly loved. While walking the halls in high school he happened to see someone making pottery and he was enchanted. He asked the instructor to teach him how to do it too. After getting permission from his homeroom teacher, Bill spent as much time as possible in the art department making ceramics. While they threw pottery, the teacher played jazz music for them. The music so resonated with a young Bill Strickland that it served as a ray of sunlight, guiding him out of the darkness in his life.
Toward the end of his high school career his art teacher recognized that Bill was smart and deserved to do great things in his life. The teacher took Mr. Strickland to apply to the University of Pittsburgh. Bill was accepted as a probationary student.
Bill Strickland continued in his love of pottery. Before he graduated university, he founded a community after-school program called Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild to teach kids from his old neighborhood how to do pottery. He loved the idea of knowledgeable people training younger generations in specific skills, much as the guilds of medieval Europe had done. After graduating university, he continued growing Manchester Guild into a non-profit.
Strickland built the Guild around a single purpose, his "why". As mentioned in his 2002 Ted Talk, “We believe in hope and in human possibility.” This led him to think that welfare mothers, at-risk kids, and ex-steelworkers deserved to have world-class facilities and inspiring art all around them. He did this to make sure these people knew they had value.
There was a fountain in the entrance, art on the walls, and fresh flowers in all the pots. His program subsidized gourmet food in the cafeteria, cooked by students in a “million dollar kitchen” donated by the Heinz corporation. Kids in the art programs got to show their work in the building’s gallery, and seeing parents attend opening night of their kid’s show was commonplace.
Strickland’s project also built value beyond the lives of his students. He was approached by other owners in the industrial park with an offer to sell the rest of it to him for $4 million. He turned it down at the time but returned to suggest he’d like to buy it for $8 million later. This time, they declined saying that he deserved the “civic leader of the year award” because he’d “increased their value beyond their wildest expectations”. All this because of his center for welfare mothers and at-risk kids.
This is a powerful example of how staying focused on a specific “why” behind your actions can drive extraordinary results. Read my post “Focus on Your Purpose” to learn more about why this is so effective.