Everything you think you know about success is wrong (a book review)

Success is how you define it and mediocrity is one of my biggest fears. We all have different definitions of what success means to us in all aspects of our lives. I have some big ideas about the contribution I need to make before I leave this planet and the thought of not living up to those ideals terrifies me.

The challenge is that “pretty good” is a reasonably easy target while “extraordinary” requires a completely different level of choices and commitment. And those actions have to exist in a life where there’s a job, family, friends, pets, house chores, hobbies, etc., etc. No surprise that comfortable distractions are a lot more attractive than committed actions.

As one who enjoys anything that will help me be at my best, I have a love/hate approach to personal development books. Much of it is syrupy feel-good nonsense, but some is very legit and useful. The problem is, even the good stuff is usually just repackaged ideas that have been around for the last 50-100+ years.

Some very large names in the field have done quite well rehashing ideas from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Norman Vincent Peal’s The Power of Positive Thinking, or Earl Nightingale’s The Strangest Secret. Tony Robbins summarized the wisdom of the ages best with his Ultimate Success Formula which goes something like: 1) Know what you want; 2) Know why you want it; 3) Take massive action; 4) Notice what’s working or not; and 5) Change your approach until you get your results. Simple, straightforward, and intuitive, but perhaps not sufficient. No one who’s made it to adulthood should be surprised by any of those steps, yet most of us are still stuck in ordinary.

The title for this review comes from the back cover of Dan Waldschmidt’s (@danwaldo) book EDGY Conversations: Get Beyond the Nonsense in Your Life and Do What Really Matters. He takes a different approach and asserts that goals, hard work, and tenacity are not enough because we are our own worst roadblock. Our beliefs and behaviors, excuses and justifications keep us in comfortable mediocrity. Truly rising above, standing out, and making a difference requires a completely different level of commitment, thought, belief, and action.

“Because success isn’t about knowing more, It’s about being more… The reality is that you already know what to do… The real question is, what will you do about it? Who will you choose to become.” – Dan Waldschmidt

Contrary to what the infomercial experts and hope pushers tell us, Dan wholeheartedly acknowledges that the whole being extraordinary thing is really freakin’ hard. Knowing what to do is easy; actually doing it is miserably difficult. The movies make it look simple, right? A three minute montage with some upbeat music in the background and suddenly the underdog is a martial arts winning, freestyle rapping, marathon running, dance champion with a Harvard degree and a thriving side business bootstrapped into a global powerhouse. But in real life it comes down to who we are choosing to be and the decisions we are making every day.

The author reminds us that outrageous success comes as much from what we say “no” to as it does what we say “yes” to. And in our instant gratification you-deserve-to-have-it-all marketing saturated world, saying “no” is weird. And painful. And miserable. And necessary.

This book is the author’s approach to breaking past ordinary. His formula is based on the acronym EDGY: Extreme behavior, Disciplined activity, Giving mindset, and Y(h)uman strategy. The last letter’s a stretch, but the writing is spot on. Actually, I could have shortened this review to: If you like his blog, buy the book.

If you’re unfamiliar with his blog, check it out here. Dan’s not into business or life as usual and has a contrarian approach written in direct one and two sentence paragraphs with brilliant turn of phrase and a deep belief that the reader has it in them to be amazing. If you don’t like his blog, you really won’t like his book. If you like the blog, you’ll find he brings powerful examples and a very human vulnerability beyond his normal writing to the book.

So here’s the ugly secret truth: life is so much easier when you have excuses or others to blame for not creating the results you want. Sure, you don’t accomplish what you want, but you get to be comfortable in your mediocrity. This book is aimed at stripping those illusions away and challenging you to set that comfort aside to pursue your intentions with the ferocious, relentless tenacity of a Spartan warrior. It’s not wondering what to do, it’s not creating a 10 point success checklist, it’s being the person you need to be.

All day, every day.

authenticity and vulnerability

On my mind this morning:

  • Is there a difference between authenticity and vulnerability?
  • What’s the line between the two? Can you have one without the other? Can you be authentic without being vulnerable? Can you be vulnerable, but not authentic?
  • Why are both considered so important, yet both seemingly so rare (or did I just answer that question?)?
  • If they are rare, does that mean we are operating most of the time from a point of defensive falseness?
  • How does this fit in with the concepts of honesty and integrity? Few would define themselves as liars, but how many can say they are fully authentic? How do we account for that gap?

What thinks you?


friday kick to the head

A big ol’ caution this morning. Do NOT watch these two videos if you’re really comfortable going with the crowd, hanging out at the corner of Average Avenue and Mediocrity Drive. There are some tough choices represented here and tough choices carry consequences. And, often, beautiful rewards.

First up, Joe Gerstandt reminding us we are either Plagiarism or Revolution and encouraging us to Pick That Fight:

(a second caution: do not let Joe’s youtube channel keep playing unless you’re really, really wanting that kick in the head)


Next, by way of Kris Dunn, the HR Capitali$t, who shared this beauty from Ray Lewis about getting pissed off for greatness:

What thinks you?

conforming our way to greatness?

There is tremendous pressure to fit into the known. We warn our kids about peer pressure and the dangers of going along with the crowd just to fit in, but succumb to it in business.

“Conformity Now!” might well be the battle cry of Wall Street and the business world. And, just like in any group, the ones who really seem to make a difference are the outliers. We see it everywhere. The successful actor who chooses to live on a ranch in Wyoming instead of playing the Hollywood games. The motocross hero who lives far away from the epicenter of the industry so he can focus on championships instead of living the lifestyle. The doctor whose new techniques are ridiculed even though there is strong evidence they work and save lives.

We respect them for being different, are thrilled they are getting better results, and then criticise them for being different, and insist they conform to “best practices” – the very practices they achieved better results by avoiding:

Southwest Airlines created a huge advantage by investing in their people and culture yet it’s not unheard of for investors to suggest they “create more shareholder value” by reducing the investment in their people and culture. Huh?

Apple has long targeted a niche market with its elegant, powerful, and expensive computers. They can be credited with creating the smartphone industry and are now seen as one of the world’s top companies. Yet, there are Wall Street analysts suggesting that what Apple really needs to do to be successful is to change the entire business model and start catering to the cheap, low-end market. What?

There are a growing number of businesses who are turning the organizational structure on its ear and are getting great results. W.L. Gore, Valve, and Semco all come to mind. The organizations profiled in Jim Collin’s classic book Good to Great seemed to consistently go their own way and pay little heed to doing what everyone else was doing. And there is no shortage of critics who insist that their business models are unsustainable, don’t work, can’t work.

The nice thing about conformity is that if feels safe. No one will criticize you for sticking with the known, the status quo, the best practices. The problem is that if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you will never get better results than everyone else.

The great myth and cosmic joke is that we will achieve greatness by doing the average. We insist that the road to greatness is best navigated with the tried and true. We enforce mediocrity. Any business and any person that dares to step outside the circle immediately gets pounced on, slapped around, and drug back inside the boundaries of conformity.

There is a choice to be made every with every decision and every action. Do you choose greatness or do you choose mediocrity? It sounds like an easy choice, but it really isn’t. Mediocrity comes with a map and endorsements and approval. Greatness comes with the big risks of never having a map, of letting go of the known, and with disapproval and criticism. If it works you’ll be attacked and if it doesn’t you’ll be ridiculed for trying. Yet…

If you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you will never get better results than everyone else.

Your thoughts?

3 favorite short videos: truth, innovation, 21st Century worklives

Thought I’d do something quick and fun on a Saturday morning. Being able to communicate big thoughts in a short time is very difficult to do, but powerful. Below are three of my favorite short videos that quickly serve up big ideas. Enjoy.

The first is from Joe Gerstandt (@joegerstandt) on Why Profanity Kicks @ss. It’s not really about using swearing words, more about bringing truth, passion, and authenticity into our jobs and lives (but, yeah, there’s some swearing words in it). Time to BBQ those sacred cows in the company.

Next is Max McKeown (@maxmckeown) and his brilliantly short Why Does Innovation Stop?

Wrapping it up is a song about modern worklife from Doug Shaw (@dougshaw1) called Livable Lives.

Thanks for the inspiration!

another amazing person

“How am I so lucky that I keep getting these amazing groups of people?” It was question that I asked myself several times. Several years ago I facilitated 4+2 day leadership programs that focused on enabling people to bring out the best in themselves and others. It was introspective, different than most participants expected, and could be fairly intense as leaders grappled with who they were, who wanted to be, and how they were going to make it happen.

The very first group I facilitated was phenomenal. They were concerned, caring, had big dreams, and were striving to make a difference. I was surprised and humbled. And the next group I facilitated was just as amazing. And the one after that. And the one after that. Different companies, different countries, it didn’t matter. All were incredible people.

How could it be? Sure, some groups were going to be above average, but all of them? Where were the normal people? The ones who cut others off in traffic, the ones who make complaining their personal mission, the lazy and unmotivated folks, the jerks? Where were they?

It took me an embarrassing long time to realize that the participants in the program were the normal people. Normal people want to be successful (however they define success) and want to be happy. They are caring and concerned and have big dreams, hopes, passions, and inspirations. Strip away the filters and masks and superficial layers we all wear as armor against the world and we’re all amazing, interesting, compelling, phenomenal.

But there’s the challenge. It’s those very filters, masks, and layers we create to protect ourselves that ironically prevent us from being our best. They are the overused strengths that become weaknesses and trip us up. They are the barriers that keep us from being real, authentic, transparent; the walls that keep us from connecting with others (and even ourselves) in ways that matter.

The people who stand out are the ones comfortable with their vulnerability, confident with their strengths, and open about their challenges. What will you do today to be more of the person you really are yet rarely let others see?

Your thoughts?

who do you think you are?

In the business world authenticity and transparency are getting more and more attention. As customers, employees, friends, and spouses, us humans don’t like fake, hypocritical deception. We want the people we deal with to be straight with us, we want to know that what we see is what we get. We want to be around people who are real and comfortable in their own skin.

Spin that around, now. The people who deal with us want to know that we are authentic, that they can trust that we are who we present ourselves to be. They want us to like who we are.

SCREEEEEECCCCHHHHHHH…. and that’s where it grinds to a halt. We spend so much or our lives  learning how we need to be that we never learn who we are. How can we authentically be who we are if we don’t know who that is?

WHO ARE YOU? Chances are you don’t know. I can’t tell you who you are, but I can tell you what you’re not.

You are not your nationality. You are a citizen of your country, but it isn’t you. Move to another country and you are still you.

You are not your job. Your job exists independent of YOU. If you leave the company, your job will still exist – it’ll just be done by someone else. If your job gets eliminated, you don’t disappear.

You are not your accomplishments. Trophies and certificates acknowledge and authenticate what you’ve done, but not who you are. Who you are does not change if you get a degree, renew a certification, or win the softball tournament.

You are not your material goods. Although we often try to define ourselves by aligning ourselves with the brand image of the products we buy, it’s not you. You are not Red Bull Under Armor Levi’s Sprawling McMansion. Your house? Your car? Oversized TV? Storage shed and garage full of stuff you never look and but means too much to get rid of? It might be a reflection of your taste or priorities or income, but none of it defines you as a person.

You are not your income. Yawn.

You are not your family, friends, or relationships. I hope you’re a great friend, fantastic partner, and even better parent, but that’s not who you are.

You are not who your parents, teachers, bosses, and friends said you are. Their opinions are not you.

You are not your favorite sports teams, musicians, authors, TV shows, or movies.

You are not your hobbies.

You are not your manners or social niceties.

You are not you clothes or haircut.

You are not your “brand”.

Notice the pattern. When we strip away all the things we use to define ourselves, we still exist. Underneath all the layers we pile on, all the costumes we wear, all the things we distract ourselves with, is our true self. Tear it all away and we are what’s left: our hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and humanity.

WHO ARE YOU? What are your hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities? What are your gifts and talents? What is the humanness that propels you and compels you and makes you laugh and cry and shout and tremble? Only you know, only you can define it, and only you can be real about it.

Can you be real about who you are? Can I?

Your thoughts?

flashback friday: fear of a human business (the freak flag advantage)

[This was originally posted on May 27, 2012. Enjoy!]

Business is run by humans for humans so why is the business world so, so scared of showing their humanness?

With rare exception, corporate social media policies shout: “We’re terrified our customers will find out that actual people work at this company!” The policies are very clear that you should never, ever associate yourself with the company. Don’t reveal that you have opinions, actual thoughts, passions, dreams, hobbies, families. Don’t give customers the opportunity to appreciate each individual’s uniqueness, good and bad. Assume customers are so easily offended that they will boycott the company because of what an employee posted on a social media site. Give no one the benefit of the doubt.

It’s so sad, it’s funny. There’s so much good that comes from recognizing humanity and individuality. It makes companies and their products real and relevant. Companies (marketers anyway) want us to have a relationship with the brand, yet don’t realize that no one develops attachment to faceless, soulless, neutered, beige vanilla sameness.

One of the easiest ways to differentiate your company is to let your humanness shine. But few get that. They miss that the root of differentiation is being different. And that celebrating your authentic differences and actually standing out is daring and wonderful.

Yesterday, though, I came across a magazine advertisement for the Jaguar XF that blew me away. The company not only got it but made it the absolute core of the entire ad campaign!

At risk of plugging products I know nothing about, let me describe the ad. Maybe you’ve seen it: two page spread with three electric guitars and amps taking up almost the entire space, in the lower left is a small picture of a sports sedan, in the lower right is a small and understated  Jaguar company logo. The headline is: “Some of the other machines our designers play with.” It goes on to brag that the lead design of the new car is the “spike –haired, head-banging lead guitarist of his own band, Scattering Ashes…” and describes how he brought that amped up rock passion to designing this car.

Wow! An ad that gets attention, an admission (no, a celebration!) that they have passionate-not-quite-mainstream employees, and a darn good looking car. A great, eye-catching ad that takes a risk and shows commitment to shattering old images and shaking up the status quo. Then it gets even better. There is a QR tag to hear the music. Whip out your smart phone and you’re taken to a youtube video with a tongue-in-cheek opening warning and a Scattering Ashes song playing while three Jags make lurid slides around the tarmac.

Wanna see?

Some of the commenters on youtube mention that the song isn’t all that good and it seems out of sync with the Jag image. Yeah, it’s not the greatest song ever. And, yeah, it runs counter to an image of  traditional, stodgy, understated, quiet class. Cleary, Jag is looking to aggressively redefine their image. It’s an electric scream against the what you think they are and an overdriven invitation to join them where they want to be.

But wait! This isn’t a neon colored hatchback with extreme graphics being sold to the fast & furious crowd. This is a luxury sports sedan being marketed to people that can drop $50 – 70k+ on a car – you know, uptight, conservative folks in suits and ties. Shouldn’t you be telling them how much status the car will bring them, or focusing on safety, or winking at how sporty you’d like them to think it is?

Sure, you could. But then you’d be just like everyone else. Or you could celebrate the glorious passion and humanness of your employees, crank your company culture up to 11, and actually differentiate yourself by actually being, well, different.

Don’t know if the car’s any good or if the campaign will be successful, but I love the bold stance. Anyone could have done it, but only one did. Unfurl the freak flag and rock on!

punk rock HR worksluts

I’ve got punk rock and HR on the brain this week, so let’s build on it. A little while back, Laurie Ruettimann over at The Cynical Girl ran a great post on 5 Lessons from Henry Rollins. Tons of great stuff in there (go read it!), but the lesson that really stuck with me was “Don’t be a workaholic, be a workslut.”

As Laurie says:

Henry Rollins works hard, but he doesn’t have one job that defines him. He speaks, he writes and he plays music. He works in media, he travels and he volunteers. He doesn’t say no to opportunities that can lead to more opportunities. What’s the alternative? Sit at home and let your muscles (and your brain) atrophy?

I love this. As a jack of all trades with too many interests and too short of attention span, I’ve struggled with being defined by one job, one category, one field. How freeing to open things up and embrace it all!

We tend to over-define ourselves through our jobs and under-define ourselves through our interests and passions. Remember, there is no such thing as work/life balance. There is only Life and work is but one (significant) component of it. Every aspect of our life is a potential outlet for our passions and interests.

Some (including me) will point out there are opportunity costs to everything you say “yes” to so you need to be selective. Absolutely. But how much fun is it to be engaged it things that really jazz you. Being too focused on any one thing creates burnout – you tire of it. Slipping back and forth between interests builds stimulation and ideas and recharges. Exercise provides a great example: if you only do one exercise you set yourself up for injury, boredom, lack of interest, and diminishing returns. But if you keep changing it up, the routine stays fresh, challenging, invigorating, and your results don’t plateau.

My 11 year old daughter recently demonstrated all this beautifully (and made me feel like a no talent slacker). The world will need to step it up in a big way if we’re going to keep up with her. I recently mentioned that she wrote a short book for National Novel Writing Month last year and she’s back at it for this year. Saturday morning, I got up at 6:30 and she was already typing away before she had to get ready to compete in a horse show where she won High Point for the day and the season before leaving to go do a final evening performance in a school play (where she also sold several copies of her book to other kids) before coming home and getting in trouble for staying up too late working on the new book. Start to finish, it was a 16+ hour day of focused effort. An unusually long day for her, but a great demonstration of how to be successful in several arenas without becoming overly defined by any one.

What do I take from my daughter, Henry Rollins, and Laurie’s insights?

1. Passion is the heart to motivation. I could never-in-a-million-years get anyone to put forth the effort my daughter does willingly and without a paycheck.

2. Having several interests is good. Over-commitment is a real risk, but mixing it up keeps the spark alive. When we’re tiring of one thing we can fluidly shift to another. Also, creativity, innovation, and inspiration are ignited when we pull disparate concepts together (some refer to this as being at the intersections of ideas). From my experience, the most innovative people have wide ranging interests and experiences to pull from.

3. There is a huge difference between saying yes to all things asked of you and saying yes to the things that excite you. The first prevents you from doing the things you’re passionate about; the second keeps you focused on them.

4. You never know where the opportunity is going to come from. Pour enough passionate effort into the world and it will come back – even if it’s not from where you expect it. Name one other punk with Henry Rollins’ longevity, credibility, and vibrancy.

5. Define yourself before the world does it for you. Authenticity is a doubled edged sword, but a key advantage when used well. When we allow others to define us by their narrow perspective of who they think we are, we get typecast and stuck. Look at all the musicians, writers, and actors unable to move beyond their past success. They are damned to recreate the past over and over and over.

6. All work and no play is no good at all. But when we can hit the sweet spot of working really stinkin’ hard on “play” – our areas of passion – really amazing things can happen. I use the phrase “play bigger” to describe this. Changing the world, denting the universe, being the difference we want to see in the world is hard work and big fun.

The title of this post is Punk Rock HR Worksluts, so how can we apply these lessons to HR?

1. How broadly have you let HR in your company be defined? Are you the “payroll people” or the “policy police” or are you the place employees and leaders go to make better decisions about careers and leadership? Do people only see you when they have been called to HR (ugh!) or is HR a strong and continual presence throughout the company? Is HR involved in non-HR committees and task forces (you know, beyond the Christmas party) or is HR isolated, barricaded, siloed, and remote?

2. Do you like HR; are you passionate about it? Were you drawn to it or did you just sort of end up here? Are you passionate about people and business or did you just need a job and HR seemed as good as any?

3. Can you understand and talk all aspects of the business? You don’t need to be a CFO, but can you understand the income statement? Does the marketing strategy make sense? Can you explain your company’s core business and competitive advantage? Do you know the most important company goals for next year (and how your job supports them)?

4. What projects are coming up that you are really excited about? What new skills are you fired up about learning? What are you actively doing to make next year 2X better than this one?

5. Who shows up at work – you or the plastic worker drone persona so many of us have perfected? Are you playing safe or playing to win?

6. As an HR professional, do you like you? Are you proud of who you are, what you do, and how you do it?

Your thoughts?