The American Dream
If I look back at the earliest parts of my life, there are certain themes from day one that shaped me and steered me toward the companies I developed. This is true for everyone, but for me, those themes were: my grandparents’ approach to business, my parents’ tough financial circumstances, my dual Canadian-American citizenship (I was born in California and raised in Alberta), and – perhaps most of all – my involvement in athletics.
My dad, Dennis Wilson, was Calgary’s Athlete of the Year in 1952 when he was 18. He played both hockey and football – the two big sports in Calgary in those days. Dad joined the farm team for the Chicago Blackhawks which soon folded due to team finances. In 1954, he went to Brigham Young University in Utah to play football.
My mom, Mary Ruth Noel, hailed from San Diego. She was a gymnast growing up and became the first female lifeguard at the Plunge Pool in Mission Beach, San Diego. When she was old enough to go to college, as the family story goes, her father, James Noel was worried about Communist infiltration in California universities (this was the ’50s!), so he was eager for his daughter to go to university some- where quieter. Like Utah.
So, there they were – my parents-to-be – probably the only two non-Mormons at BYU. She was 19, and he was 21. Since I was born in April 1955, I can only imagine mom and dad had known each other for all of 10 or 11 minutes before certain things happened.
My parents had a shotgun wedding in San Diego, mom’s hometown. From there, they moved to Orange County, near a new development called Disneyland.
It didn’t take long for our little family to get bigger. My sister Noel was born in 1957, and my brother
Brett was born in 1960.
I’ll share a few memories to help set the scene. Nuclear emergency drills were performed monthly at our elementary school. Despite the fears of a third world war, kids could roam freely. Neighbourhoods had a naturally occurring block watch from house to house and family to family.
All adults smoked and drank (including my parents, in fact, both smoked and drank all through my mother’s pregnancies). This was an era best depicted today by the show Mad Men – a show which so accurately reflected the culture of 1960s New York advertisers who were themselves creating the image of ideal life at the time. My mom regularly sent me to Safeway for a box of tampons and a pack of Du Maurier cigarettes.
Money was often short in our house. My dad wasn’t playing football anymore – he was working on a teaching degree. To make ends meet, he also drove a UPS delivery truck from L.A. to San Diego and back most nights. This was in addition to attending classes during the day. Only a person in their mid-20s can keep a pace like that.
My mom, meanwhile, was the stay-at-home parent. She was born to be at a sewing machine, and from early on in my life I got to know about patterns, fabric, and clothing design through watching and helping her work.
As a young boy, I wasn’t interested in sewing as a skill, because learning it properly was too time-consuming. But if I wanted to spend time with my mom, I had to spend it in the sewing room while she was working. The room was dominated by a large working table and shelves on which she stored fabric and patterns. She had all these paper Butterick patterns with pictures on the front. She would lay the pattern flat, cut it out, pin it onto the fabric, and from there use it to do the sewing and stitching.
I vividly remember watching my mom as she carefully adjusted the pattern to get full use of the fabric with no waste and without destroying the integrity of the garment.
With Westbeach and later with lululemon, I would see 20 to 50 layers of fabric being cut in a stack with an industrial laser cutter, meaning that every square inch cost thousands of dollars. By implement- ing my mom’s tricks, and by understanding the real basics of sewing and patterning, the costs – expensive as they were – were kept as low as possible.
When my dad finished his teaching degree a few years later, he and my mom moved to Calgary. Calgary was dad’s hometown, so he was happy to return to the place he knew best. My mom wanted to put distance between herself and her parents. My maternal grandmother, also named Mary, was a very dominant person, and my mom had a rebellious streak. A move to Canada was her way out.
I was five when we relocated to Calgary and became landed immigrants.
We weren’t wealthy, but we still had a good time growing up in a suburban neighborhood. As my sister Noel remembers, “Chip would organize games like prison tag or kick-the-can every night during the summer. Kids just gravitated to our house because of him.”
Mom continued to stay at home, and Dad got a job teaching physical education and drove a taxi at night to make the mortgage payments.
James and Mary
Even after the move to Calgary, I returned most summers to California to visit my mother’s parents. I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandparents would both play key roles in my life as an entrepreneur.
My grandparents were both from the Midwest but kept in touch with each other when my grandpa moved to California. Once there, he asked my grandma to come out to the coast and marry him. She accepted. They moved to San Diego, where they opened a furniture business. Their business specialized in selling furniture to and then repurchasing it from US Marines in the area around Ocean Beach.
Part of the success of their business was due to my grandfather’s personality. He’d always had a personal style that appealed to his community, and it wasn’t long after he and my grandmother had moved to San Diego that he was serving as head of the Kiwanis Club and became deputy mayor. People loved to visit him and get caught up on all the local gossip.
My grandmother, meanwhile, did the selling. Grandma was a hard-nosed businesswoman through and through. She had a very strong personality; some people might even say she was overbearing, but I never thought so – she just knew what she wanted in life and was passionate about getting it. And even though she’d trained as a nurse, she’d also studied sales closely for a long time.
In those days, Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People was a popular reference for aspiring businesspeople. When I was older, my mom told me she thought that she would never have been born had the birth control pill existed when my grandmother was a young woman. This wasn’t a comment on their relationship, it was just to say that my grandmother was a fiercely independent, smart and determined woman. She likely would have put business first in her life had she grown up in different times. Once their furniture business was well-established, my grandparents diversified their interests. They bought apartments throughout San Diego. My grandparents had also invested in mutual funds. As a kid of 9 or 10, my grandparents helped me invest my own funds in the same places they had invested theirs. I remember watching and being excited as those stocks kept climbing.
And then, in August of 1966, there was a massive computer fraud of a multi-level marketing company, one of the very first of its kind. My grandparents were among the victims of the fraud, lost their house, and had to move into a trailer park east of San Diego where the property taxes were much lower.
It was tough, but one of the great things about being American is that big reward comes with big risk. In interviews I’ve heard or read, it seems as though Americans fundamentally understand that income disparity can be viewed as a by-product of a capitalist society in which big risk can lead to big reward. To rebuild some of what they’d lost, my grandmother took her born business skills into multi-level marketing. She was the perfect person for it.
My grandfather, meanwhile, spent a lot more time with me and my sister and brother whenever we were down there visiting. He’d help us look for skis, and he took us to the beach. He also took us to the hospital where he was getting chemotherapy treatments. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer right around the time they’d lost their mutual funds. In retrospect, I understand now he was spending all the time he could with us because Grandpa knew he had little time left. He died in 1967 at the age of 65. He’d lived only 24,000 days.
Outside of the business they ran and their investments in mutual funds, my grandparents also provided a significant source of stability through my childhood. This was especially true as my parents’ relationship became more and more strained.
While my grandfather was still alive, I saw that he and my grandmother were two people in love who worked together every day. There wasn’t one thing they did separately, through thick and thin alike. That was the life I knew I wanted to have. Having a woman in my life who embodied the same partnership qualities as my grandmother would someday be my perfect match.
Hard Times in Calgary
In Calgary throughout the ’60s, times were tough for my parents. Money was still short much of the time, and I don’t think my mother had known what she was getting herself into when she agreed to move to Calgary.
For one thing, she’d had no idea how bitterly cold the winters would be. She’d grown up with the fresh fruits and vegetables for which California had always been famous, but Alberta in the ’50s and ’60s was solely a meat-and-potatoes kind of place. The complete lack of fresh produce appalled her and made her question what she’d done.
My parents were in their early 20s when they met – the unplanned pregnancy had really almost forced them to come together. They tried to make it work, but were never very good at communicating with one another.
Added to that shaky foundation were constant financial pressures and three young children. My dad once told me the most important thing he’d had on his mind on the day of his wedding had been how to accurately throw a football. That put their relationship into perspective for me.
Despite the struggles of survival mode, we received a fantastic amount of love. My parents took the approach that by age six, we should be able to take the bus downtown and return on our own. We had a lot of freedom in our house since any spare time my parents had was mostly taken up with trying to earn a few extra dollars – the rule was to do what you wanted and make it to bed on your own time. But, because we were all competitive swimmers, we automatically knew we needed to get to bed early, so we could make 6 o’clock practice the next morning. This was one aspect of self-sufficiency I learned early on.
Noel, Brett, and I had all been swimming for as long as I could remember. My siblings and I had access to a swimming pool every summer when my mother had worked as a lifeguard in San Diego, and my dad had a summer director job at a Kiwanis camp for underprivileged kids. That was our introduction to swimming.
“Our whole family would get up every morning for swimming,” says Noel. “Chip was pretty motivated. I think he was probably the most motivated. I did not really like swimming. I was very successful in it, but I would have much rather been hanging out with my friends. But Chip embraced the swimming and was exceptional at it, too.”
It worked for my parents, too – given their relentless schedules, it was good for us to be busy. Our family life soon revolved around seven or eight swim practices a week and swim meets on the weekends. Swimming was everything.
Swimming was also a great activity for us because it was affordable. All you needed was a bathing suit and a pair of goggles, and you were good to go. Despite that, I managed to find something I so desperately wanted but couldn’t afford – the perfect swimsuit. The only swimsuits available in Calgary at the time were made by Speedo, and they were all solid colours. In fact, when Speedo introduced simple stripes on their suits, it took the swimming scene by storm.
One day when I was 11 or 12, I saw a suit at a swim meet that was totally different. The material was a colourful flower pattern. I wanted it immediately. I asked the kid wearing it where he’d gotten the suit. “Texas,” he replied.
I’d become used to not being able to afford the clothes I wanted, but I was determined to get that suit. My mom considered it, and I suggested to her that if I liked the style of the suit, then maybe other kids would like the style, too. If we ordered a bunch and sold them, I told her, then we could make a small profit and use the money to cover the cost of my suit.
We brought in the bathing suits, and they sold immediately. We’d purchased the suits from the sup- plier for maybe 13 dollars each, then sold them for double that. They were something no one had ever seen before – something new. Since they weren’t available in Canada, their exclusivity gave them an additional appeal. As I had negotiated with my mother, I got my own suit for free. It was a small but powerful success.
That experience taught me about importing, shipping costs, and sales. Because I had been on a couple of age group teams at the national level and was a good swimmer, I also noticed that others started to follow what I wore. I couldn’t afford an on-deck tracksuit, so I wore torn, beat-up, loose jeans and graphic T-shirts. That ensemble was emulated and soon became standard swim meet gear. Nike later realized the power of tastemaker athletes and changed the sports business model through sponsorships.
The 100-Metre Backstroke
I believe every person has 10 moments or decisions in their life that stay with them and affect who they become. For me, one of those moments happened at a swim meet when I was 10. Although I had a naturally athletic build, I was a very mediocre swimmer overall. I hadn’t done anything spectacular in my age group.
Anyway, at this particular swim meet, just as I was getting ready for the 100-metre backstroke, my dad came over to me and said, “Chip, I’ve got this theory . . .”
It wasn’t unusual to hear this – my dad had many theories about vitamins, nutrition, and athletics, long before the wellness movement became popular. My dad also believed pain was all in the mind. As such, the mind could learn to control that pain and harness it to train and compete.
In athletics in 1965, the prevailing theory about how to approach a race had been to save your energy until the end and make sure you looked good at the finish line. “Let’s try something different,” my dad said. “Why don’t you just go full out from the start, instead of saving it up and looking good at the finish? If you collapse or start to drown, I’ll come and get you right away, but instead of thinking it’s a 100-metre race, think of it more like it’s 25 metres. Just a one-length sprint and take it one length at a time and go for it.”
I went with his theory and ended up breaking a Canadian record, finishing the race eight or nine seconds better than my previous time. We had to do the race again the next day because the officials thought it had been a mistake with the clock, but I did it the same way again, and it worked just as well the second time.
As I look back at my life now, I realize this event created in me a new way of thinking. I’ve long noticed how most people never give 100 percent in their relationships, business, or commitments. Personally, I’ve always been afraid of failing because I haven’t given something 100 percent. I’ve been fearful of someday lying on my deathbed, thinking, “God, if I’d just gone for it, would it have been successful?” I think I owe this mindset to that one moment at age 10 when my dad gave me his “poolside theory.”
Discovering My “Act”
With three of us growing and swimming, we were also burning an astronomical number of calories. The practical side of this hit hard after my parents’ inevitable divorce (I was 13 at the time). Once the divorce was final, my dad had to fund two households on his small income as a Phys Ed teacher.
I came home for lunch one day, and there was nothing in the fridge. My mom was out working one of her many part-time jobs, but her family allowance check had come in the mail. So, I forged her signature on the check, cashed it at Safeway, bought groceries, came home, and ate.
From this situation, I (or at least my subconscious child) learned that I couldn’t count on anybody else in my life to take care of me, including those who loved me. I had to be self-sufficient if I was to survive.
As I got older, my self-sufficiency appeared whenever I perceived myself to be in any situation where my survival was threatened. When I would find myself in tight spots in business or relationships, I would often shun everybody around me and think, “I’ll fix this by myself. I can’t count on anyone to help me.” I came to the immature conclusion that there wasn’t much point in asking others for help.
With my first company, Westbeach, I believed I could never go on vacation or take days off, and that I had to be in on every single move and decision. I would make a lot of mistakes trying to do it all on my own and not recognizing that people love to help someone who’s passionate and working hard.
Later in my life, through the Landmark Forum self-development course, I would learn how every per- son, family, company, and government develops an “Act.” An Act is learned early in life when a child faces a perceived moment of survival where their parents are not around to save them and the child develops a strategy to help them survive the situation. For the balance of each person’s life, their Act – effective or not – subconsciously kicks in whenever the person perceives themselves in a threatening situation.
It’s counterintuitive, but looking back, I think my parents’ divorce was a turn of good luck for my siblings and I. Despite his roots as an Albertan (a province known for its oil business and conservatism), my dad was very much a hippie at heart. He wanted a partner who would discuss anything and every- thing with him. My mom, on the other hand, wanted to take care of the house and defer most of the decision-making and leadership to her husband. In between husbands, my mom saved her pennies, so that once a year she could expose us to the best dining experience in Calgary. In retrospect, I understand my mom was providing us a window into greatness. I would have had no other way to experience what was possible in customer service, ambience, and product excellence.
My parents just weren’t suited to each other, but after they split, they both married people who turned out to be their perfect partners.
Remarriage also changed my parents’ respective financial situations. My mom married an intellectual geologist named Frank Conrad. Our living situation changed dramatically. We moved from Lakeview to the upper-class neighbourhood of Mount Royal in Calgary. The neighbouring families were all well-off, but they also had a strong work ethic. I learned a lot from the parents of the new friends I made. And, I found those friends welcomed me with open arms.
My dad, meanwhile, married a woman named Cathy Lyness, who worked as a flight attendant with Air Canada. This worked out to be an amazing opportunity. As family members, my siblings and I were entitled to five free trips per year anywhere in the world, to be used until we were age 25 if we were still in school.
Before I turned 25, I would take the opportunity to travel the world and in 1980, I might have been the most global person my age.
I won’t go into the many jobs I had when I was young, but I did excel at door-to-door sales of products to help the finances of my swimming team. I will never forget my first job as a 14-year-old tearing down barns west of Calgary in 30-degree Celsius dusty heat with swarms of mosquitoes for $5 per day. Every job I had the rest of my life seemed like a dream in comparison.
The Purple Shirt
When I was maybe 13 or 14, I went on a date with a girl who came from the small town of Stettler, Alberta. I had bought a very cool Jimi Hendrix-style purple shirt, a sign of what would become a lifelong love of design and fashion. But then when I went to meet her at her house, she looked at the shirt, and my adolescent brain interpreted her facial expression as, “Wow, ugly.”
The two of us went to a party at a schoolmate’s house, and it didn’t get any better. It seemed every- one was making fun of my shirt. That had a profound effect on me – for the rest of my life, I never bought another purple shirt. As I grew, I had more bad experiences with many other shirt colors. Eventually, I would go to buy a shirt and, although there were 10 colours, I would only really have a choice between white and white – which is no choice at all. This process of eliminating possibilities – is done with cars, shoes, business processes, and even spouses.
We all have experiences in our past that prevent us from reaching our future potential. This is some- thing personal development has helped me better understand. Our past experiences subconsciously confine what we believe is possible in life. But this doesn’t have to be true. If something didn’t work when I was 13, it doesn’t mean it won’t work at another time in my life.
Imagine if I had been in a car accident at age 30 and suffered complete amnesia. With no memory of my past and $100 to buy a shirt, I would have free choice of all colours, including purple. The point is, later in life, once I became able to understand how to free myself from past experiences, I gained the ability to embrace a future of multiple new ideas. My past stopped confining my future. This realization was life changing. This also defined how I wanted to train creative people in my future companies.
First Forays into Mindfulness
The second instructive event from my youth was my introduction to mindfulness as a discipline.
This initially had more to do with my dad than it did me. I would never say I am like Steve Jobs, but my dad was. Like Jobs, my dad had weird diets, communes, yoga, gestalt psychology and the like down to an art form. He was always looking for the meaning of life but was also determined not to find it, because if he did, he was worried his life would no longer have a purpose.
In the early ’70s, my dad went to San Francisco and took an Erhard Seminar Training (EST) course, which was the precursor to Landmark. I remember my dad coming back and telling me he’d discovered the meaning of life. “It’s living in the moment,” he said.
At the time, I thought my father was a bit of a nutcase.
Just before my dad could legally retire from teaching, he phoned in permanently sick and moved to California to become an assistant gardener at the Esalen Institute. Esalen is a non-profit retreat center founded by a pair of Stanford graduates in the early ’60s. Numerous human potential practises – including meditation, yoga, and alternative medicine – have been explored at Esalen since its inception. During his time there, my dad even went into seclusion and did a lot of soul-searching for a while. (Fun fact: Esalen was the setting in the final scene in the series finale of Mad Men.)
Imagine me, at age 16, rolling my eyes, wondering why my dad was into all this weird stuff. Of course, I did not yet understand how much mindfulness and Esalen-style teachings would later become a big part of my own life.
Esalen seemed to have a new context for health and the healthcare system. For example, if a person had an illness in the kidneys, a doctor would usually prescribe a solution to fix the kidneys. At Esalen, however, they were asking, “Why did the kidney get sick in the first place?” This context would set me up for the foundation of lululemon’s personal development in 1998.
Meanwhile, I reflected on the ridiculous number of lengths I swam each day while looking at nothing but a black line at the bottom of the pool. Using the lessons my dad had taught me, I coped with physical pain by taking my mind away while my body took itself beyond its limit. In retrospect, this was Mindfulness 101. I now understand those twice-daily workouts taught me how to be present.
The runner’s high is a sensation that occurs after 35 minutes of a sustained, elevated heart rate. The brain releases hormones that take the athlete into an energized mental and physical space. The sensation usually lasts for about four hours. The amazing thing about experiencing an athlete’s high is that your past disappears and is irrelevant as you focus on the present.
During that high, as the past becomes blank, so too does the future. We can only think of the future based on what we know from our past. When we eliminate the past, then the future is eliminated, and all that is left is the present. The present is where all life really occurs. This was the origin of “The meaning of life may be living in the moment,” which became a key part of lululemon’s Manifesto (more on that later). I have my eccentric father to thank for introducing me to it.