This past February, I turned 32 years old. I was fresh out of finishing my MBA, newly transplanted to Fort Worth, Texas, and as Teddy KGB from Rounders might put it, “Strong enough to beat the world!”
Much to my chagrin, the world is a train that moves forward regardless of your involvement. It doesn’t matter if you’re late to the station, been riding the train for 80 years, or stand on the tracks, the train isn’t stopping for you. Countless number of humans better than me have died, and the world didn’t stop for them. Looking at those individuals though, I realized what we can do is contribute to how fast and in what direction the tracks are laid.
This is where I started thinking about Andrew Carnegie’s view of life, “A man should spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can, the next third making all the money he can, and the last third by giving it all away for worthwhile causes.” Looking at 32 from a thirds perspective, I can safely say I’ve spent most of my life thus far helping myself. Putting a spin on Carnegie’s philosophy, I’m spending the rest of my years on improving education and giving it away.
What I have found, thus far at least, are several general truths about the world today. I use the word “today” in a more local sense, during a time so generationally, politically, socially, and racially divided. The leaders and mentors I follow seem to take a diverse set of approaches to addressing pressing issues; where some speak of them so much I wonder if they see any good in the world, others never address them at all, which makes me wonder if they live in the same world as I do.
In the spirit of realistic positivity – emphasis on realistic – I acknowledge that I have evolved 32 years to believe there are opportunities to improve and enough people with the determination to capitalize on them.
Fear, Resentment, And Doubt Will Always Be There
Get addicted to being uncomfortable if you want to learn. There will always be people who make it look easy, but there will always be a story behind that ease. Either they toiled away while you weren’t looking, or they were handed what they have, in which case you are shit-out-of-luck becoming that person. You can either work for your success or win the lottery, but either way, know that the odds will invariably be stacked against you either way. This is where fear keeps people from success. In order to know what you’re doing, you have to start off not knowing, which can be scary.
Kevin Hart didn’t sell out Lincoln Financial Field on his first run at stand-up comedy. Even people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg might have gotten it right the first time, but they didn’t know that would happen, and they certainly didn’t do it with ease. They started though, despite the uncertainty. Don’t let other people set the status quo for you or you’ll never begin due to insurmountable fear.
Every time you run up against something, you should ask yourself, “Will this be the thing that makes me quit?” In the future, you’re going to look back at what happened and feel one of two emotions: gratitude or resentment. You get to make the decision right now for what that future version of yourself will feel, so look a little deeper at your situation. First, take away all the context so you can look at the simplest version of the situation to find the root cause and determine a set of action steps. Then, add the context back piece by piece to help shape those action steps and create a more complex solution.
Think of a 1000-piece puzzle. Some people start with the edges; some start with a corner and build out; some start with the most prominent part of the image; and still others separate all the pieces into colors. The point is that, no matter your unique approach, you put a puzzle together specifically because it is messed up. And yet, when it comes to life, all too often we look at the world’s puzzles and say, “Forget it.” There are plenty of things you will end up resenting about your past; don’t actively add to the list.
Whether you’re facing an opportunity or an adversity, you’ll hear voices speaking about your situation. I’m not talking about the voice in your head; I mean the people around you. Everyone has an opinion about what you should be doing. What’s more, you probably find you weigh those of your closest friends and family as the most significant. They have your best interest in mind and they probably have a lot in common with you, so why wouldn’t you?
I’m not about to say that you shouldn’t take their opinion with great importance, but what you should do is be mindful of how they’re affecting your decisions. It’s easy to call out opinions of strangers or distant acquaintances, but a much more difficult task to go against the advice of those closest to you – simply because this is not an often-practiced activity. The amount of doubt you have about something is equal to how heavily you weigh the importance of the opinion-giver who cast that doubt. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to live your life, so make sure you are being intentional and focused. Like resentment, there will be plenty of opportunity to have doubts. You can minimize it by taking a closer look at the opinions that affect your decisions.
Doing and Teaching Are Not the Same
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I decided to teach English in Europe. I discovered that I first had to take a teaching course on how to teach English. “But I speak English,” I remember saying to myself at some point. On the first day of the course, we were given a quiz on the English language – parts of speech, verb tenses, and other nuances of the English language. We all failed. Why? Because we all know how to speak English but not how that process works. From that moment on, I started to realize more and more that there is a major difference between doing something and teaching other people to do something.
If you don’t understand something at an intricate, detailed level, you may not be doing anyone any favors in training them on it. Additionally, you may be editing what you did when you explain it to someone else. Some readers may be having a strong reaction to what I just said. I would caution it is unwise to outright deny this is happening, as it can happen unconsciously. Your brain’s goal is to protect itself, so it won’t always record the story of a harsh reality accurately if it means facing that reality head on. In the end, you may end up discovering you can’t teach English because you don’t know English as well as you thought.
There will be plenty of times where you are not the teacher, but the student. Halfway into my MBA, I started following “industry experts” and “influencers” in the social media world. You know what I realized? These industry experts and influencers know what they’re doing, but don’t always know how they do it. Despite what your mother told you, hindsight is not 20/20. I’ll be the first person to admit I love quoting these people and sharing their work to spread their advice, but I take a closer look now at what they’re saying.
We all rationalize it ourselves, “They’re successful, so I should listen to them.” But I would ask you to think about my example of speaking English. Could you teach someone English? (Before answering so quickly, I’d invite you to go try). What someone does and what someone says they do can be different – a Grand Canyon gap of a difference. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. Keep asking why someone did something. Eventually you’ll arrive at some flawed circular logic, a motivational platitude, or a satisfactory answer you can move forward with.
There will also be teachers who can’t provide extra information or explanation because they are deceased. When navigating history for guidance, remember to consider the source – more specifically, their circumstances. Interpreting the past can be a dubious task as definitions and customs have changed. Be mindful of what the person was trying to convey and whether that is something they lived by, or whether they merely said what sounded beneficent or profound while arriving at their position in a different manner.
All this is to say that a teacher is only a teacher because of the relationship they hold with the student. Asking questions is not to cast suspicion on the teacher’s ability, but for the student to understand the given material at a deeper level. When you know why you are learning a particular subject, and from a particular individual, you are better suited to absorb the right information. As a student, your singular priority is to learn, so take that seriously by focusing deeply and making your teachers earn the right to shape your experience.
Execution Matters Every Time
Nike’s oddly-inspired slogan, “Just Do It”, is used to push people to complete what might not otherwise be done. The measuring stick for execution is not made out of actual achievement, however, as many people think. In her bestselling book Grit, Angela Duckworth defines achievement as skill and effort, where skill is a combination of talent and effort. The net result thus includes a double dose of effort. Being successful is an outcome, a state of being, but it’s not always an achievable one. What is achievable every time is effort and learning. Conscientious cycling through this process moves you closer to a possible successful outcome.
Through many projects, I have reached out to countless people over the years, requesting various levels of participation, favor-giving, and resources. What has remained consistent is the concentration of success I see with people who just get started versus those who say they are going to do something and must be reminded about it. From the giving-end, this is not to detract from telling people you will do something, but it speaks to the “Underpromise and overdeliver” idea. This comes down to two concepts, accountability and bandwidth. Accountability is your commitment to what you say you’ll do. Bandwidth is your actual ability to complete it. Execution doesn’t rest on saying you’ll do something, it’s about acting on the commitment.
The idea of execution is not limited to when you are asked to do something. There are plenty of instances where you are trying to win the attention of others that have asked nothing of you. This could be a new startup or an improvement project at work. Get started by giving people proof of concept of what you can do. As an otherwise unknown entity, saying you’ll do something and not doing it will typically just result in you returning to anonymity; however, doing that too many times can also lead to the boy-who-cried-wolf effect. On the flipside, saving the announcement and just doing something shows others where their attention should be spent.
One last facet about execution is the idea of the glass ceiling. Gary Vaynerchuk once described how he is constantly trying to be the tallest building by making himself bigger rather than tearing down and restricting others from growing taller. For clarification, I’m not referring to the glass ceilings that specifically affect minorities; those deserve their own publication. I’m talking about glass ceilings that are built by people who don’t want to execute anymore, but don’t want others to grow either. I’m certain at some point you’ve encountered this, perhaps when your boss shoots down your idea and says, “We just don’t do it that way.”
With that definition, take the mindset that glass ceilings are also glass floors. If you’ve ever stood on The Ledge in the Skydeck at Chicago’s Willis Tower, or any other elevated glass floor, you know that fear can be a prominent factor in the experience. I want you to take the visual a step further. Imagine that you are standing on one of those glass floors when suddenly you hear a loud crack and see the glass splinter. If it wasn’t before, I’m willing to bet fear is part of the equation now. Speaking to the person underneath, know that if you are the one beating on that glass pane, the person standing above you is absolutely afraid, so stay definitively determined.
Originally posted on LinkedIn