How To Succeed Despite Your Best Efforts


Nicole and I are both successful professionals but we each took a different path to arrive here. Nicole is a true professional any way you can define it. Her resume is polished. Her career path is clear and sensible. She has done a remarkable job managing her career and it has paid off.

Reading Nicole’s resume is like watching a Pixar movie. You can clearly see the formula to success and every plot point along the way is clear. One job leads fluidly to another with increasing levels of responsibility. She has two degrees, has done volunteer work in her field, has sought successful mentors and top-notch references, and has plenty of credentialed post education awards and certificates.

In short, she did everything right and is enjoying the fruits of her efforts.

I have found success, too, but I have done everything wrong. Reading my resume is like watching a Quentin Tarantino movie. It seems haphazard, the timeline is broken, and nothing makes sense until the end.

Both paths are fine and if you are driven, both paths will take you where you want to go despite the warnings of conventional wisdom. Nicole’s path is more reliable. It is the more intelligent way to go, in my opinion, but it was not for me.

I dropped out of college. I left high paying positions for lower paying ones to follow passion. I went into business for myself (and failed, twice). I tried to be an artist. I tried to be a customs broker. I tried to be a professional movie critic and an IT Security Administrator. I have been a public speaker, a sales manager, a pizza delivery driver, a telemarketer, a small business consultant, and (a LOT) more. I have been fired, demoted, and denied positions. I have gaps in my employment history, I have been in trouble with the law, and I have burned bridges with former employers.

The fact is, I have succeeded in spite of my best efforts, not because of them. The success I have found has mostly come from the wisdom of many, many failures.

Nonetheless, I would not begrudge anyone for doing things the hard way, like me. In fact, I would argue the wisdom I gained from being young and stupid has become invaluable to me as I mature into mid-life.

So, how do you succeed despite what seems like your best efforts to undermine your success?

Here is what I did…

To become an author, I did not pursue a degree in writing. I started a blog and read books about writing… and then I wrote. Terribly at first, but I kept going until I became better.

To become a leader, I did not go to school to learn about leadership or organizational development. Instead, I had bosses who recommended great books. Then I learned from both the books and the bosses until I gained enough knowledge and wisdom to try my own ideas. Then I applied myself. Terribly at first, but I kept going until I became better. I continue to read, learn, apply, and create.

To become someone with vision and a penchant for thinking outside of convention, I did not get a degree in Sociology or Information Technology. Instead, I read a lot of books by people who proposed ideas that seemed absurd to me (until I read them) and then I challenged everything I thought was true. I still do this and I am still amazed at how different the world is today from what I thought it was yesterday, every day.

I do not have a “natural talent” for anything. I was not born with a special gift. I do not have quick-response muscles like some people. I was never the smartest kid in class (until I left school). I don’t fight crime because my parents were murdered–I don’t have any special drive to be famous, or rich, or altruistic. The only thing that might make me exceptional is maybe being good at being persistent and resilient.

You can take whatever path to success you want, but if you want to succeed despite your best efforts to undermine a traditional path to success, then you have to be willing to do three things:

Get up every morning. Do what you did yesterday a little better today.  Keep going.

Maybe, one more thing… don’t get so caught up following the trail that you forget to stray away from it once in a while. There is a lot of cool stuff off the beaten path.


Leaders Need Leaders

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” —Jim Rohn


Leaders love to lead. We enjoy thinking through situations, creating solutions, and solving problems. Great leaders, though, love to lead… other leaders. A talented leader understands the secret to successful leadership is to surround herself with people who are better at the skills needed than she is.

The real strength of a leader is in having a big enough ego to recognize there are people better suited to some skills than you, and to find a place for those people on your team.

Think about this: what if one of the most renowned coaches in history, Vince Lombardi, only accepted football players on his team who were not as good at football as he was? What if he was completely selfless and without ego and refused to recognize the greatness in others so that he was always the best player on his own team? How would he have led the Green Bay Packers to one of the longest-standing records of victory in history?

Today, I was humble enough (and smart enough) to rely on two of my leaders for help with an employee situation. They provided counsel, strategy, and a solution that was elegant and efficient because they are superbly talented at dealing with similar issues. I could have created a solution on my own and it would have turned out okay, but, like Lombardi, I know when you have a quarterback like Bart Starr playing for you, you let him take the ball and run.



Living An Experimental Life

I’m fond of saying something I swiped from one of my favorite thought leaders, Seth Godin: “Fail big or fail often”. I tell my team members I don’t care which one they choose, but if they are not failing then they are not pushing themselves hard enough to find their limits. They are only staying in their comfort zone and not risking anything personally or professionally to really find out who they are. Of course, I give them a safe space to fail and provide air cover when needed.

It is an important distinction, failing by reaching out of your comfort zone to find your limits, but today I want to tweak that a little. Obviously, failing, by definition, has negative connotations. I am not trying to contribute to a philosophy of failure for the sake of failure (but using the word “fail” to illustrate what success looks like does make a dramatic talking point).

Instead, what I want you to consider is embracing a life of experimenting. When we experiment, we are not playing a pass/fail game. We are trying something new, reviewing the results, and either re-assessing and trying again, or adopting, tweaking, and moving forward.

When I realized this, I realized how much I have already embraced this idea and how much of my life revolves around experiments. I think experiments are important because they help define who we are. They help us learn what we are capable of and drive us to improve. I invite you to consider what you can experiment with in your life.

Here are many (but certainly not all) of the life experiments I have tried. Some of these I continue to practice. Some I have discarded. Some I am still tweaking and practicing. I encourage you to try some of these or create your own:


  • Being vegan. I did not start animal-free and I failed at maintaining a vegan diet many times before I got it (mostly) right.
  • Waterless showering. I tried using dry shampoo and some weird astronaut soap for a week. I made it three days…
  • Fasting one day a week.
  • Eating food with absolutely no added spices for three months.
  • Turning my whole wardrobe into a two color palette (black and gray) that I could simply mix and match without giving thought to what I was going to wear each day.
  • Only shopping at local merchants, no big box stores. This was a very worthwhile one. Highly recommend.

A full year of sleep experiments, including:

  • Going to bed one minute later and waking up one minute earlier every day until it affected me mentally and physically (turns out I only need about 4 hours sleep to function normally).
  • Sleeping on the floor with no pillows.
  • Following a Circadian rhythm (sleeping about 4 hours during the day and about 4 hours at night).
  • Taking a three-week vacation and logging how much sleep I naturally provided myself when I removed all time cues. I started a stopwatch when I went to bed and stopped it when I woke up to track how many hours I slept and I removed all clocks and watches from the house, plus moved my bed into the walk-in closet so I could not use the sun as a visual time cue. Incidentally, when I am left to my schedule and free to go to bed and wake up when I please, I average about 5 hours of sleep per night (and go to bed somewhere around 3:00am) and wake up completely rested (around 8:00am).


…and much, much more. I continue to experiment with my body, with time management, even with my blog (I recently turned off commenting and date-stamping posts and started focusing on publishing to my public profile, for example). I love experiments and living an experimental life.


So today’s lesson is easy: learn about yourself or the world by trying new things, considering the results, and trying again or trying something entirely different. The idea is to learn. I hope you come up with some  great experiments of your own. Feel free to share about your experiences or ask questions on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Tumblr.

Have fun experimenting!


Today’s Lesson: How To Get Immediate Results [140819]

My team won a sales contest. We received accolades, which was nice, and a few of my peers asked what I did to help drive results so fast.

My answer: “Nothing.”

When it comes to leading a team, there is no such thing as “immediate results” (except maybe in the case of an actual emergency like a building fire or earthquake).

The contest happened to be luckily timed but the actual coaching and conversations with my team around selling those products began about 3 or 4 weeks earlier. It was just finally paying off.

It’s fun to imagine that when I say “Jump!”, people just do it, but in truth, I wouldn’t want that type of team anyway. A team that jumps without questioning might quickly find themselves on the wrong side of a steep cliff.

So as far as getting immediate results, as with most fad diets, the only plan that works fast is temporary, unsustainable, and produces bad results or no results over the long run.

Take the long road. It is sometimes frustratingly harder or slower… but in the end, it just works.




Today’s Lesson: How To Make Diamonds Out of Goal [140815]

Whether leading yourself or others, sometimes you have to ask for more than you think is possible to find out what actually is possible.

You have to put the pressure on to deliver unreasonable results. I learned this over and over when training for my black belt. I was frequently more surprised than my instructors by what I could do. They knew I had it in me but until they pushed me (sometimes literally) I did not know what I was able to accomplish.

I was reminded of this today when a peer summed up a story I told about coaching one of my team members past their perceived limits so they could find bigger success than they knew they were capable of.

He said, “Right. No pressure; no diamonds.”


The Lesson I Learned Today… 140710

We are coached, cajoled, counseled, and even bullied into a sanguine culture of thinking positively. You are only allowed to think happy thoughts and believe that good things will happen. If you think, or worse, say, anything negative, then you are a detractor, naysayer, eternal pessimist, or non-believer. You are part of the “other” tribe, the cynics, skeptics, and half-empty crowd.

I am sometimes criticized for being too… critical… usually by peers who have asked my opinion on something (which I try to never offer unsolicited, but if asked, I will offer the reality in as sharp detail as I see it–good or bad).

The problem with this unbridled optimism permeating our culture is it leads to unbridled naivety.

The great Stoic philosopher, Seneca, encouraged his students to think negatively. He had his pupils envision a goal and imagine achieving it. Then, Seneca would have the would-be achievers imagine and list every possible thing that might go wrong and derail them along the way to reaching the goal. Only after seeing all the ways something could go wrong, would he have them then list how they would overcome each of the roadblocks they came up with.

Fortified now with a goal, a list of potential obstacles, and a list of potential solutions, the students could see a clear path to reaching their goals and felt confident they could handle almost any problem thrown in their way!

By framing something negatively as well as positively, you learn several valuable lessons.

One obvious lesson is that whatever you think can go wrong, probably will… but now you have a plan for it. You also learn that by listing obstacles to achieving a goal, those obstacles do not seem so bad. You have put a name to your fears and have a plan to defeat them one-by-one if they turn out to be true. Your goal suddenly does not seem impossible to reach, nor miraculously (and only miraculously) attainable with happy thoughts and no plan of action at the first sign of defeat. Maybe best of all, you learn how to fortify your response when someone else criticizes your plan and points out the potential flaws. You got it covered.

It is important to think positively, for sure, but not at the expense of becoming oblivious to reality. One of my personal mentors has a rule to keep both sides in balance. He tells his team, “If you can not support the idea on the table, then be prepared to offer another solution. If you do not have another solution to offer, then find a way to support the idea on the table.”

I have heard it put another way, too, but I am not sure who originally said it: “Expect the best but plan for the worst.”

Thinking positively is not necessarily bad but don’t dismiss the power of negative thinking, too.


Manage To The Exception(al)


How often does your company manage to the exception instead of to the exceptional?

You can probably point to the high performers in your organization who contribute more than their share in terms of commitment, execution of skills, and willingness to be innovative, creative, or just downright awesome. They are the people you know you can set free with few instructions and expect a great return on investment (both personal and financial). They are exceptional.

You also have people who seem like the antidote to high performance. They lag behind like an anchor pulling the team down and, although they might be fine people, they either do not understand company values or instructions, or simply do not care. They are the exceptions to the exceptional.

As leaders or business owners, it is up to us to help the exceptional flourish. Yet I see companies harangue themselves with overly complicated policies and standard operating procedures enforced upon every team member in the name of fairness but really only designed to manage the exceptions. I have worked for and with a few companies, for example, that provide employees with laptop computers but forbid the use of laptops outside the office. Or IT departments that, in the name of security, lock down computers so tightly that high performers are actively prevented from doing their best or coming up with creative or collaborative solutions (if your employees can not instant message each other, please step out of 1950–I promise, it is not that bad out here).

There are  many other examples, from the use of technology all the way down to my favorite whipping post–the corporate dress code. If your dress code consists of more than the two words, “Dress sensibly”, then you are doing it wrong. Of course, you will have the one or two people who do not get it and will come in to work wearing hot pants or a track suit, but 99% of your people will get it right. Manage to the 99% instead of to the 1%. Have conversations with the exceptions, explain what “Dress sensibly” means to you, and move on (or move them on if they are never going to get it). In retail sales, for example, neither a tie nor a clown outfit makes you better at delivering the right experience to a customer. If a customer can not distinguish the employees from other customers, the problem is not with the dress code. It is more likely that you have not done a good job teaching employees to greet customers and identify themselves.

Try something crazy: instead of managing your team of adults as if they were a team of infants, manage them as if they are intelligent, professional adults. Instead of deluging your team with step-by-step-by-step-by-step instructions and giving them vague goals to achieve (make more stuff, deliver better customer service, do things differently than our competition, etc.), flip it around. Provide clear and concise goals with vague instructions so your exceptional performers can create solutions and be free to perform. Maybe that sounds like, “Team, our goal is to sell 1,000 widgets this month”, or “Our goal is to delight our frequent customers and have 100 of them refer a friend or family member this month”, or “The competition is dropping their price in half this week; we can not match it but our goal is to create 40 new customers just the same–what can we offer that our competition can not touch?”

Your exceptional people do not need details on what to wear or how to complete a report. They need to know what their mission is in concrete terms. They need a target and the right tools to hit the target. They need to be free to be exceptional.

Please don’t make exceptions to that.





Be Cause. Don’t “because”…

A very powerful and inspiring coach once imparted this advice to me, “There is cause and effect in everything you do. Most people choose to live by effect. Instead of taking action, they wait for action to happen, and then they react to what caused it.

“For example, instead of eating right and exercising because they do not want to have bad health, they wait until they have bad health to eat right and exercise. They diet because they are overweight, instead of being the cause of their diet so they never become overweight. Think about it this way: ‘Because’ is actually two words: Be… Cause. Don’t live your life because. Be the Cause of the life you live.

“You see? Be Cause. Don’t Be Effect.”

(That was Alain, my Landmark Forum leader–it was several years ago, so I am certain I paraphrased, but the principle and conversation stuck with me.)

Go. Be Cause.