T-shirt founder talks about optimism

By Rachel Tumin

Courtesy Amy Corrigan, via The Life is good Company Flickr
“Optimism can take you anywhere,” John Jacobs told the crowd yesterday in the Student Union Ballroom. Jacobs, class of ’90, is the chief creative optimist and co-founder of Life is good, a $100 million apparel and accessory company based in Boston.

Jacobs started his talk with a story of an enthusiastic young baseball player. From his position in the outfield, the boy jumped around between pitches, called out to the batter, waved at the stands and chased butterflies on the field. When the boy’s father arrived at the game, he asked his son the score of the game, to which the boy joyfully replied, “18-nothing.” Elated by his son’s success he began to congratulate the boy, only for the still-giddy child to point out that their team is in fact losing. The father demanded to know why his son was so excited by this fact to which the boy replied, “Cause we ain’t been up yet.”

“That’s a kid who sees the glass half full,” Jacobs told the audience. Jacobs stressed the importance of continuing to see the world with that child-like optimism. Where an adult might see obstacles, Jacobs explained, a child sees opportunities. This optimistic, opportunistic attitude is what Jacobs credits with his success today.

The attitude is personified in Jake, the boy who appears as part of the Life is good logos. The cheery, always smiling boy is today frequently seen beside his loyal dog, Rocket – so named for Needham High School, from which the Jacobs brothers graduated.

John Jacobs and his brother Bert Jacobs began selling their self-designed t-shirts in the early 90s in college dorms and at parades around Boston. The brothers soon bought a van and named it “Enterprise” so that they might “boldly go where no t-shirt guys had gone before.” The now iconic “Jake” design premiered at a parade in Boston in 1994. While the brother usually sold 10 or 15 shirts on any given day, all 48 Jake shirts sold in just one hour.

“Good vibes are contagious,” Jacobs said when explaining the immediate popularity of the Jake t-shirt.

“Jake’s power is not in his physical power, amazing foot speed [or] his superior intellect,” said Jacobs. “Jake’s power is in his disposition.”

Instead of being happy after getting an A on a test or getting a car in the future, Jacobs said that joy comes because Jake “decides to be happy today.”

John Jacobs explained that is was his mother, Joan, who taught him to always be optimistic. Running a household with six children meant for a tight budget, but she did not fret, explaining that having no money meant simply not having to worry about what to buy.

It was the tragedy of Sept. 11 that inspired Life is good’s first major philanthropy project. The company designed a simple, stylized American flag shirt and committed 100 percent of the proceeds from its sale to the charitable organization, The United Way, to help families of the victims. Inspired by the success of their first charitable initiative, they established the “Life is good Kids Foundation” which provides play therapy for children who have experienced major trauma or suffer from life-threatening illnesses.

“The great thing about trying something is you either succeed, or you learn,” said Jacobs, who has enjoyed great success in his self-professed “mission to spread optimism.”

If there is any lesson Jacobs wanted the audience to take away from his speech today, it is first, “never under any circumstances do you ever need to drink more than 12 glasses of milk” and perhaps even more wisely to “do what you like and like what you do” because “that will make you a happy soul for the long haul.”

John Jacobs spoke as a part of a series of lectures, workshops and public forums as an Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar in Residence. This Alumni Association program works to provide students with alumni role models that exemplify the achievement of the university’s mission through professional accomplishments and public service.

Rachel Tumin can be reached at [email protected]