April 5, 2010: The mouse and the mint and how the world changed

It was the summer of 1771, and Joseph Priestley’s frog croaked. Yep, just up and died. Couldn’t figure it out. Had him in a nice little jar with a good tight lid, watched him hop around for a few minutes, and now he’s dead.
What happened?
Priestley, a preacher living in Leeds, England, tries it again and again with frogs, spiders, mice, whatever. All dead in brief minutes. And even more strange, a mouse placed in a jar where a brother-mouse had already expired, would die in seconds.
There’s a bad smell in his wife’s kitchen from all these dead animals, so Joseph goes out by the water trough and pulls up a mint plant. He brings it into the house and in a sudden vague epiphany, pots the mint and stuffs it into the jar. Lid goes on tight, and Joseph watches. Weeks go by. It’s fall now, and the mint doesn’t look too sharp, but it is still alive and growing new leaves.
Joseph is really curious now about what is happening. Animals die in minutes. Plants wither, but live for months. The idea soon forms in the good preacher’s mind, to put both mint and mouse in the same jar together and watch what happens.
So into the jar go both a freshly potted plant and a strong healthy mouse. Lid on, and Joseph once again watches. Minutes pass, and the mouse is still doing fine. The mint is fine, and the little critter actually lasts about 10 minutes, rather than just a few seconds, before he gives up the ghost. Further experiments show that the more mint, the more minutes for Mr. Mouse. Hmmm…
The discovery of this special “plant air” that kept mice alive, Joseph called “oxygen,” and it was too good to keep to himself. So he goes to London and stops in at the coffee house to talk it over with his friends. He knows Ben Franklin from over in the American colonies will be there, and probably Tom Jefferson and that cute little Sally Hemings will be there too (Stumped? Read your history). They are all good thinkers, and this will be interesting to them.
It was Franklin who first got it, and who soon realized that plants and animals are interdependent. He even wrote an article about saving trees and forests so we could all breathe.
That concept would later be developed by the group into an understanding of the co-existence of all living things.
For this, the Copley Medal was awarded
by the British Royal Society to Joseph Priestley the next year, in November of 1772. He was
the man who discovered oxygen.
So simple, and so evident, we say here in 2010 from our so-sophisticated perch on top of 200 years of science. But the truth is, with every discovery, we find there is more to learn. We think we find the Holy Grail, but there really is no end to knowledge. Each new truth leads us on to further questions, and each question answered, quickly returns us to the lab, to the field or to the work bench to see where else we will be taken.
Just like your shop.
You thought you had it all figured out. And suddenly there was no more retail financing. WHAT!? And then your customers could no longer use their home equity as an ATM. WHAT!? Next, our entry-level ATVs are found to be toxic if you eat them. WHAT!? Then, your bank gets all touchy, and cuts back on your credit line — even wants security! WHAT!? And what happened to all the cool trips, the OEM conventions, the crowds at Indy? Where did it all go? What is happening!?
Joseph Priestley’s frogs died, and the world changed. Toads and mint living together opened our minds to co-dependent eco-systems. We now seriously consider the place of snail-darters, pygmy rabbits and sage brush in our world. As an industry, we are going through the same thing. Our economic world took a 7.2 on the Richter scale last year, and it is up to us to make sense of it.
The biologists tell us that as change comes, plants, animals and even institutions will either adapt, perish or migrate. We choose.
You can cut your staff to the bone, sell down the inventory, find local retail financing, carry a bit of your own paper, spiff up the store, get big on the Internet, move from TV and radio to CRM, use direct mail, cover the new open points and get back on the sales floor yourself — all of this, and maybe you will be here five years from now to tell war stories about “The Great Recession of 2009.”
Or not.
Joseph Priestley, Ben Franklin and Tom
Jefferson were faced with a new set of facts.
They embraced them, enlarged on them and came up with knowledge that runs our world to this day.
You can do the same with your store. Figure it out, and get on with the job. That’s what you signed up for.
Now. Big smile. And get back on that sales floor.

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