Ten Lessons about Business and Personal Success from Temple Grandin (the person, and the movie)

The Real Temple Grandin

For years, I have listened to interviews with Temple Grandin.  (Here is a great program, with excerpts of a series of earlier interviews, conducted by Terry Gross of Fresh Air on NPR – broadcast on February 5, 2010).  She has an amazing personal story.  Autistic, did not speak until age four, she made it through high school, college, and two graduate degrees.  She is renowned for her lectures on autism and the treatment of cattle, and for her breakthrough recommendations on the care of cattle.  In fact, over 50% of slaughterhouses in the United States use designs that she created or inspired.

Claire Danes as Temple Grandin
Claire Danes as Temple Grandin

HBO produced a new movie about her life and career, called simply Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes.  I sat transfixed as I watched it (great acting job by Claire Danes), and have not been able to get the movie out of my head.

Temple Grandin does not think, or “see,” like the “normal” among us.  She thinks and sees in pictures.  And this ability helped her develop her breakthrough recommendations regarding the treatment of cattle.

As I thought about the movie, I came up with ten lessons we can learn from Temple Grandin – for business success, and life success.  (I know that 10 is a big number for such a list – but I could not leave any of these out).  All of these I have covered in an array of business books over the last decade.  But here they are, wrapped up in one remarkable human life.

1)  Success requires absolute focus. When Temple Grandin takes on a task, she gives it her undivided attention with a focus that is remarkable and unwavering.

2)  Success requires prolonged and intense observation. Temple Grandin truly looks at things – everything – with an observers eye unlike any other I have ever seen.  The movie captured this with great visual images.  Try to see it for this reason, if for no other.

3)  Success requires a bias for action. In the movie, Temple Grandin sees something, decides to tackle it, and goes to work – right then.  She acts, with speed and determination.

4)  Success requires crystal clear and precise communication. The mini-speeches by Temple in this movie are captivating.  Once, she was in a room of skeptical slaughterhouse executives, and she simply and throughly persuaded them that not only was her plan more humane for the cattle, but would save money.  Yes, her design was more expensive – but it would actually save money.  It was a great example of “to the point” communication.

5)  Success requires “suck-up” skills. (phrase borrowed from Carville and Begala).  Because of her autism, Temple Grandin did not understand the value of sucking up, and it did not come naturally to her.  Apparently (this is assumed more than stated or demonstrated in the movie), her mother and aunt had drilled into her the value of simple, polite manners.  (“My name is Temple Grandin.  Pleased to meet you.” And then, right away, she would launch into her real question or message).  And though she sounded impersonal in her use of such everyday politeness, she made herself do it.  What a testament to the need to develop what we now call networking skills.

6)  Success requires the courage to go it alone. Temple Grandin would do what she thought, what she knew, to be right – regardless of what others thought.  She built her own “hugging machine,” and the movie captured the kind of courage she needed to stick to this project and then to actually use her hugging machine..

7)  (But also), Success requires the help of others – you simply can not do it alone. In the movie, a teacher and an aunt, along with the amazing persistence and faith of her mother, made all the difference.  And at one key moment in her college career, that high-school teacher saved the day with advice and counsel.  If you have ever doubted the value of a good teacher, watch this movie!

8)  Success requires genuine empathy. Temple Grandin put herself in the place of the cattle.  Literally.  She would crawl through cattle chutes, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt.  She saw what bothered the cattle.  Apparently her first published articles were about the messages contained in the loudness of the different moos of cattle.  Her empathy was astonishing.

9)  Success requires a decision to (and the discipline to) keep learning. And with Temple Grandin, learning was very tangible.  She needed to learn how to create drawings of cattle-care devices, so she watched a draftsman at work, bought the tools, and simply taught herself how to do such work.  She is perpetually learning.

10)  Success requires the ability to “keep going” in the face of ridicule and opposition. She never had it easy.  “Normal” people, ridiculed her, were cruel to her, all the way though – from her school days to her days at the cattle pens.  But she simply kept at it.  She “self-medicated” with her “hugging machine,” and went right back out there.

I don’t believe I have ever seen a better movie about business and life success than Temple Grandin.  I hope you find a way to see it.


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