Great escape

The best entrepreneurship book in history (maybe) has nothing to do with business. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Seventy-seven years ago this morning, around 4:55 a.m. local time, the last of a group 76 Allied prisoners of war managed to tunnel out of a German camp, as part of a “great escape” that was later immortalized in a 1950 book and a 1963 movie.

The whole thing has a sad ending, in that only three of the prisoners made it home, and 50 of those who were recaptured were murdered by the Nazis. However, the resourcefulness and resilience that they all showed in getting out of the camp to begin with has proven to be an inspiring and lasting story.

I read the book version of this about a decade ago, when I was also writing a book about Harvard Business School, and a professor there gave me his official definition of entrepreneurship: “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”

That’s a nice, academic mouthful, but I quickly applied it to The Great Escape. If you can get past the fact that the book has nothing to do with starting a business, it might be the best book out there about entrepreneurship.

The backstory is that German air force got the idea of putting all of the true escape artists among the Allied airmen together, in a single camp, where they’d be closely watched.

Arriving with only the clothes on their back, however, the prisoners spent a full year digging tunnels, and came up with a plan to get more than 200 prisoners out all at once. (The Germans caught them about a third of the way through the actual attempt, so the remainder never made it outside.)

When the Germans inventoried the camp afterward, they found the prisoners had not only built three giant tunnels (on the assumption that at least one or two would be discovered), but they’d also produced everything from civilian clothing and fake German uniforms to forged identity papers, maps, and compasses.

Among the missing loot they'd used to build and shore up the tunnels were:

  • 4,000 bed boards

  • 90 full double bunk beds

  • 635 mattresses

  • 192 bed covers

  • 161 pillow cases

  • 52 tables built to accommodate 20 men each

  • 10 smaller tables

  • 34 chairs and 76 benches

  • 1219 knives, 478 spoons, and 582 forks

  • 69 lamps, 246 water cans, and 30 shovels

  • 1,000 feet of electric wire and 600 feet (180 m) of rope

  • 3424 towels, 1,700 blankets, and my personal favorite: 1,400 empty tins of powdered milk.

Of course they also had the most important resource — talented, motivated people.

As I say, there’s a largely tragic ending to this story. And frankly, there were other stories that might prove some of the things we’re talking about here even more effectively. Some of them involved escapes from much more dire conditions — a few from Auschwitz, for example, and the mass escape of about 300 prisoners from Sobibor concentration camp.

I went down the rabbit hole of wondering why it was that this story endured over so many others. The short version why is that one of the men in the camp — an Australian journalist-turned-pilot named Paul Brickhill—made it a mission to tell the tale.

He shared it in several formats before writing the book version, which became a massive best-seller. That led to the movie (quite Hollywood-ized, however, with big liberties taken—including the fact that in real life, there were no Americans involved in the actual escape).

But, on this anniversary, maybe make it a point to remember: never give up, scrounge what you need, and finally, be sure to write it all down. I can probably help with the last part, if you need it.

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7 other things worth your time

  • Xiao Zhen Xie, the 75-year-old woman who was punched by a white man in San Francisco — and then fought back by smacking him with a board — will not keep the nearly $1 million that has been donated for her medical expenses. Her grandson says Xie insists on donating the money to help defuse racism against the Asian American community. (NPR)

  • Some lawmakers are calling on President Biden to make the Covid vaccine mandatory for members of the military, after reports that well over half say they won’t get it otherwise. (Navy Times)

  • Last week, Amazon made changes to its internal online staff directory, deleting hundreds of thousands of entry-level warehouse workers’ profiles. Was it just a routine change, or an attempt to stop union organizing? I don’t know, but that’s the question posed in the article. (Vox)

  • “President Biden, whose administration is grappling with overcrowding at migrant facilities on the southern border, tasked Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday with leading efforts to coordinate with Mexico … Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador: ‘When she speaks, she speaks for me, doesn’t have to check with me.’” (CNBC)

  • Egyptian tug boats last night were still trying to free a 224,000-ton container ship that was blocking the Suez Canal. (The Independent)

  • Regal Cinemas, the second largest movie theater chain in the U.S., and “one of most notable holdouts in the gradual reopening of cinemas nationwide,” says it will reopen beginning April 2. (AP)

  • “Donald Trump has been in talks with no-name app vendors as he contemplates partnering with an existing platform to create his own social media network, [including] a relatively unknown platform called FreeSpace,” that has only 20,000 downloads, pre-Trump. “It employs touchy-feely positivity language that's the polar opposite of the incendiary and divisive social media persona [Trump] cultivated.” (Axios)


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