Why Do You Want To Succeed?

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This house sits across the waterway in front of the trail surrounding our apartment building. We live in luxury apartments on Tampa Bay but they are decidedly less luxurious than the mansions lining the other side of the channel.

Check it out. There is a white sand beach behind that house, with several beach chairs, hammocks, a jungle gym for kids, trampoline, spacious upper deck and huge lanai for those few rainy days. The house is surrounded by palm trees and sitting right on the gulf–that’s a saltwater channel. This is the house you dream of owning while putting yourself through college.

The thing is, I don’t know who owns it. I have never seen anybody there. Its own private beach built for parties and family gatherings or just for lounging after a long day, to my knowledge, has never been used.

I walk by that house and its many neighboring mansions at least twice a day, at varying times. For almost six months now, as I pass my apartment neighbors along the walking trail on our side of the channel, I see the mansions lining the other side every day.

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And yet… I have never seen anyone outside on that side of the channel. Not once. Nobody lounging in the yard, nobody barbecuing on their huge deck, nobody sunning by their boat docks, nobody swimming in their infinity pools in front of the bay.

20160305_070417My theory about that is simple. The people who own those mansions never have time to enjoy their house with private beach or huge double decks because those people are too busy working to pay for the home and car and lifestyle.

The point is, in our cultural addiction for succeeding (whatever that means), how often do we stop to ask, “Why do I want to succeed? What does success look like, to me? How will I know when I am there?”

We are steeped in a constant pressure cooker to buy more things, own bigger things, make more money, have a nicer car, hang out with more important people… to the point where success has become the means and the end in itself…a never ending cycle.

The problem, then, is if you succeed… then what?

Why own a house you never see? Why have a private beach if you never get to lay in the hammock at the water? Why own a luxury car if you will never have the spare time to read the manual and find out what makes it luxurious?

Success is important. Don’t get me wrong. Evolution demands that we, as a species, continue to improve, and grow, and prosper. It is our nature, literally in our genes. However, it does not matter how rich you become, or how famous, or how talented, if you have no idea what to do with your money, or popularity, or skills, once you attain them.

If you have no purpose, having more success won’t help.

Or, put another way, regardless of how old or successful you are… what do you want to be when you grow up?

Be that. The house, money, and car won’t make a difference… unless you wanted to be a big empty house when you grow up.

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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.

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Theory of Business Complexity

The father of computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, created a theory of computation which describes the limitations and capabilities of any computers we can imagine.

Turing’s theory, dumbed down to a basic of rule of thumb, tells us computing power is limited by only three things. These three things are also, I think, the limitations of human ability.

Consider that humans are essentially extraordinary computers. What we call “computers”, after all, are merely tools we have made to replicate facets of human behavior. Therefore, Turing’s limitations of computers applies to human brain power as well.

As a leader in your organization (or just as a leader in your life), these are the same three limitations you face against any complex problem. Here they are:

1.  Size. An easy way to think about this is to compare us to, let’s say, chickens. Why can’t chickens solve problems like transportation, communication, and space travel? Well, one obvious reason is they simply do not have the brain capacity. They are simply maxed out on storage space and memory. If their brains were big enough, though, they would have the capacity to know anything.

As humans, we have an abundance of capacity. Our brains are big enough to understand the mathematics of the universe and still leave room for remembering where our car keys are (most of the time).

Is the size of your team or organization large enough to handle the problem(s) you are facing? Do you have far more capacity than you can use?

2.  Speed. Chickens simply can not compute as fast as humans. If they could, they would be able to outsmart us (assuming they had enough capacity for planning), and perhaps even overthrow us as kings of the Animal Kingdom.

The reason a computer can outsmart a person when playing chess, is not a size issue. The human has the storage space in her head to know all possible moves and think through them accordingly. The obstacle is speed. A computer can calculate those possible moves in a fraction of the time a human can. Given enough time, a human can (and does) beat a computer at chess.

Does your team have the resources needed to move fast? How much of your return on investment goes back into improving training and providing better tools? Are you allowing your team the flexibility, trust, and authority to make decisions quickly, without you as the middle man? How can you go faster?

3.  Society. Actually, the word I want to use here is “culture”, but “society” keeps the alliteration with the “s” sounds. Nonetheless, think about the society chickens surround each other in. It is not a social norm or cultural expectation for them to develop their brains or think about complex problems. Chickens did not create fire or invent the wheel because chickens have not evolved a culture of learning, of problem solving, tinkering, or exercising creativity.

What is the society or culture of your company or team? Do you have a culture that embraces creativity or stifles it? (If you are stifling it, then you are probably doing so by limiting the Size or Speed of your team.) Do you have a culture of problem-solving, tinkering, and trying new ideas?

 

Turing came up with his theory of computational scalability in the 1930’s. The concept remains useful and relevant close to a hundred years later and in areas he probably never thought about it.

When facing what seems to be an insurmountable problem, take a step back from the issue itself and look at the three things that are actually limiting you from solving it: Size, Speed, and Society. If you focus on the underlying problems of capacity, timeliness, and culture (size, speed, and society), then you just might be able to solve any problem you come across.

I’d like to share more about this but my tablet’s battery is running low, I’ve got to hurry to another appointment, and my pets are looking at me like I spend too much time writing.

Size, Speed, Society.

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Finish Last, Not First

 

Last week I wrote about the importance of starting first. Many people fail simply because they fail to start.

Another way to fail is to finish before the race is over. You know the story already… a product that was ahead of its time and faded away just before the market exploded (think Odeo before podcasts really took off, or Chrysler’s first electric car before Tesla and Toyota timed it right).

In business, the first one to the finish line is not necessarily the best. The one who takes time to hone their product or craft and takes the long route to ensure what they deliver is the absolute best wins time and time again.

While companies like Blackberry, Microsoft, and Palm were rushing to put more and more junk phones on the market, Apple took the time to re-envision what a portable phone could be and when they hit the market, they revolutionized it. The same is true of Netflix (CD’s and DVD’s by mail order already existed but Netflix took the time to get it right). The same is true of Amazon (there were lots of companies with online stores but Amazon took the time to build a faster shipping platform and better return process). The same is true of Starbucks (there were lots of ways to get good coffee but Starbucks took the time to perfect the experience of buying it).

If you want to go from forgettable to remarkable… start first, not last and finish last, not first.

 

 

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Movin’ Out (Michael’s Song)

Look out, Tampa!

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I can finally share the news that Nicole and I are moving to Tampa, Florida! We are super excited for the adventures ahead and although I love Michigan, I must admit… if I never see snow again, that would be just fine by me.

Picking where we wanted to live was a journey by itself.

I have heard throughout my adult life about the freedom and flexibility of being single. “If we didn’t have kids,” so many conversations started, “We would just pack up and go wherever we wanted!”

It turns out that is a lot harder than it sounds, even for single people.

We started with a big list of potential places and whittled it down one name at a time, looking at all the information we could find. Was it vegan-friendly? Is it close to the water? What is the average temperature year round? How bad is the crime? What about cost-of-living compared to Grand Rapids and our current lifestyle? Taxes? …And a few other factors as well.

Eventually, we narrowed it down to 3: Tampa, Austin, San Diego. Tampa quickly became the favorite. It is not the most vegan-friendly city (tough to beat Austin there). Tampa has beautiful beaches but San Diego takes the cake on scenery. When you factor those in with cost-of-living, crime, and everything else, though, Tampa appears to offer the best of everything (for us, anyway). Tony Robbins called Tampa “the best kept secret in the United States” and I have only visited there but I might have to agree. Beautiful city walkways, beaches, amazing creatures coming from the ocean or sky permeate the city, vibrant nightlife, and of course, the best winters in America bar none.

Once we made our choice, we planned incessantly. For months, Tampa dominated our conversations at home. We knew right away it was not going to be easy, and it was going to be expensive. We actually had 4 plans in place to ensure success. We are on plan 3! We needed a back-up plan for our back-up plan, and we have a back-up plan for this one (but luckily, we won’t need to go to that plan).

I will share more about how we did it in the future, for those of you interested in making a big move  (to Tampa or elsewhere–it takes a lot of work to uproot your life and set yourself up for success in your new surroundings). For now, I’ll just say what you already know: success often looks like inspired spontaneous combustion but is usually proceeded by a lot of unseen planning and a slow burn.

 

Today’s lesson: Nothing worthwhile comes too easily. If it did, then it probably was not worthwhile.

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Winning

All roads lead to success…

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When you are driving on your way to work and you get a flat tire, you never say, “Awesome! Here is an obvious opportunity for me to overcome adversity while leveraging my skills and ingenuity to conquer an obstacle in my life!” More likely, you say, “SH*T!”

After you have repaired the flat tire, you probably do not drive off feeling heroic and successful but rather are cursing about being late for work and upset about your day starting.

The funny thing is, every problem, trial, argument, challenge, or obstacle we survive is a win. The very act of living against a world and universe that are, frankly, ambivalent about you being alive is a success story. Even famous people today will not matter in 200 million years but the universe will still be around, still caring as much or as little for what is going on around that very average-looking star in the Milky Way galaxy as it ever has. But that is the point. EVERY life is a success story against imminent death and entropy. EVERY time you take a breath, it is a win.

We each have an idea of what success looks like, but it is usually more about how we perceive luck than actual success (which is about how we perceive life). whether you have survived a fire, are going through a bad break-up, starting a new job, moving out-of-state, dealing with a leaky faucet, climbing a mountain, coming out to your family, or just cooking dinner… no matter what challenge or obstacle you are facing, no matter how great or small, success has nothing to do with the outcome. It has everything to do with being there at the end. There is ultimately only one breakdown we are unable to overcome, and thankfully, it is the last breakdown we have to deal with in life… dying, but we have people working on that, too.

 

Today’s Lesson: Do not let anyone (or anything) else control your idea of success or let you feel like a failure. The fact is, if you are here, you are winning. 

 

 

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Why We (Think We) Fail, Pt 3 of 3

Do successful people really feel motivated and inspired and have limitless energy all the time?

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Do you sometimes feel like a failure? There are moments when I am not grateful for what I have or ignorant of what I have accomplished while also being envious of what I don’t have and aware of what I have not accomplished. I sat down to consider what sometimes makes me feel like I am not doing a good job living my life. I think there are three big reasons. I wrote about Comparing Yourself to Others and Defining Success in Context. Let’s explore another one:

Lost (or never found) passion. 

Follow your dreams. Do what you love. Find your passion. There are many variations of similar trite phrases and heartfelt quotes meant to inspire people to pursue lofty goals based on personal intuition and emotion. The problem with the idea of following one’s destiny is that many of us, including me, are not so passionate about a single thing we will pursue it doggedly until we find absolute success or die trying.

It has taken me nearly three decades to accept this ubiquitous advice is plain bad. It provides no tools to find your “passion”. Most people do not have a specific, concrete dream they are interested in following. For example, I love music but not as much as Prince, who devoted his life to it. I love writing but I am not as passionate about telling stories as Stephen King. I want to do more than write all the time. I love living a vegan lifestyle but not enough to devote years of my life defending animal rights or trying to bring down the entire factory farming industry. I have strong emotions about all those things and many others but there is not one that lights me up so much I wish it was the only thing I could do the rest of my life. I do not wake up and go to bed every day solely thinking about any of those things.

There are people who are passionate about a single thing and that is good for them, I guess, but I see no reason for anyone to feel bad about not having the energy, time, motivation, inspiration, or wherewithal to devote large swaths of their life to a singular, primary purpose (when there are infinite things and purposes to explore).

 

Today’s lesson: You do not have to chase your dreams, especially if you do not have one or if you have too many. You do not have to follow your passion, especially if you are not that passionate about anything yet. Maybe you will find your passion. Maybe you will never find something you are particularly passionate about. Either way is okay. Just make time in your life to do things you love. There is no requirement for you to become a slave to your ideas or ideals. Do not feel guilty for being anything less or more than you are willing to be in this moment.

 

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Why We (Think We) Fail, Pt 2 of 3

Who is more successful… you or Colin Hanks (Tom Hanks’ son)?

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Like most people, I sometimes feel like a failure. There are moments when I am not grateful for what I have or not cognizant of what I have accomplished but rather envious of what I don’t have and aware of what I have not accomplished. So I sat down and considered what sometimes makes me feel like I suck at living my life. I think there are three big reasons. Yesterday, I wrote about Comparing Yourself to OthersLet’s explore another one:

Defining Success in Context. 

Stories about success are prevalent in the media. I love to read stories of how people overcame obstacles and attained something they pursued. Unfortunately, sometimes I am so caught up in the stories of others that I neglect my own. I want something more, better, or different from what I have and the longer I want something or the further away it seems, the more I feel like I am failing at living my life. This is especially true if I see other people enjoying or attaining the thing I want, whether it is something small like owning a new product, or something big like a relaxing scenic vacation, or something really big like having a mansion on a private island and an exotic vacation home.

One problem with this mentality is allowing myself to have a skewed definition of “success”. Rather than judge my success on its own merit, I sometimes judge it by my perceived success of others. That would be fine… if it was not so frequently wrong. I do not know the lives of others and often they do not know their own life story that well. I suspect none of us do. After all, we are busy living our lives! This means I do not know the cause of anyone’s success. I only see the effect (and, really, only a small part of the effect because I am not involved in every moment of someone else’s life).

For example, who is more successful?

…The son of a wealthy, famous actor who goes into acting and has a hit movie, thanks to the proximity of resources, time, and support to chase his acting career. OR…

…A homeless, recovering alcoholic who has lost everything, but faces and eventually overcomes her addiction, working her way back into lower-middle class society and settling down with a supportive family in the suburbs?

The actor’s son started with a network of people at his disposal to help him. With a little luck and moderate talent, it would be nearly impossible for him to fail. He might have an expensive house, fancy car, and a lot of money, but I would not consider someone who started at the top and stayed there more successful than someone who started at the bottom and made greater progress against greater obstacles. The irony here, of course, is the recovered alcoholic who rebuilt a life from nothing will likely look at the celebrity as an example of success.

 

Today’s lesson: Success is not a tangible, rigidly defined product to attain. Your success is different from mine. I do not know what you overcame to be where you are and you do not know every experience that defined who I am today. Remember, your success is relative to you, and only you. Ultimately, the single act of taking a breath is a success: it is the profound accomplishment of life itself over death. When you realize that, you realize everything is pretty much a win from there.

 

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Why We (Think We) Fail, Pt 1 of 3

How successful are you compared to Beyonce?

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I sometimes feel like a failure. There are moments when I am not grateful for what I have or not cognizant of what I have accomplished but rather envious of what I don’t have and aware of what I have not accomplished. I certainly know others who have “woe is me” moments from time to time. Feeling like a failure is agonizing so I sat down and considered what sometimes makes me feel like I suck at living my life. I think there are three big reasons and today I want to explore one of them:

Comparing myself to people I have created fantasy stories about. 

Sometimes I think of successful celebrities and the stories I have read or heard them tell about their success. I have heard sports stars and rap stars and movie stars talk about rising from poverty or broken households and overcoming adversity by practicing relentlessly, sacrificing sleep, friends, and wealth to do what they loved until they became the best in their field. In my mind, I imagine them having limitless energy and commitment to perfecting their craft over years, while diligently working their way up the ladder of success, motivated and inspired every moment of the way. I think they might sometimes imagine it happened that way, too!

Of course, that is just a story I made up to fill in the gaps of all the years and moments I was never there to see. I was not there to see the bouts of self-loathing or the day their more-talented friend broke an arm and was unable to show up at practice… which was the same time the talent scout did. I was not there to see the lucky moments, the support from others by chance or circumstance, or the frequently random dumb luck that led to a life that looks great from the outside (but maybe is not so great when you actually live it). Not having lived a second of their life, I have created an entire life for them based on my fantasy of the story I would like to write for myself.

The truth is I have no more insight into the real lives of others than they have into my life. I sometimes misjudge myself by comparing my story to the stories I create or accept about the success of other people.

 

Today’s lesson: Stay in your own story. When you compare your life to people you think have it better, you are setting yourself up to only see your failures. Instead, look objectively at your own life and count your successes based on their own merit rather than on the stories you create about others.  

 

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