personal development

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.

real world champion

What I do today matters. What I do every day matters more. Our reputations, our relationships, our lives are the sum total reflection of every decision, action, and event.

Observation shows it’s pretty easy to live an OK life. Get to work on time, pay your bills around the due date, say “please” and “thank you”, give other people the respect and courtesy you’d like to receive, don’t commit felonies, etc. Nail the basics and an average life is yours without too much effort. You probably won’t have a fulfilling life but you won’t be too miserable either.

The jump from OK to fantastic appears much more difficult. When we look at those we admire, words like “focus”, “discipline”, “integrity”, “unique”, “dedication”, “enthusiasm”, “responsibility”, “honor”, “vision”, and “purpose” start coming to mind. No one creates excellent results in any aspect of their lives with a mediocre mindset or average actions.

Interestingly, few people declare that what they want most in the world is to be mediocre. Few dream of average. Seldom do children hope to grow up and become dull normal. What if we stopped thinking about just getting through life and started thinking about becoming champions in our lives?

It probably feels weird to even answer. Seriously though, what does “champion” mean in the areas of life most important to you? What would it take to be a champion parent, spouse, or friend? What does being a champion salesperson, manager, HR pro, teacher, etc. look like? How does becoming a champion change how you think about your day?

Moving beyond ordinary requires asking better questions of ourselves. “How can I find a job I like?” is a much different question than “How can I become one of the best in my field?” “How can I argue less with my kids?” is not the same as “How can I build a close and enduring relationship with my kids?” Likewise, “Why am I fat?” produces different answers than “What do I need to do to get fit?”

Being champion requires applying what we already know (and learning all we can as we go along) with consistent, focused effort. It means risking failure – oddly if we give it our all and it doesn’t work out we tend to think of that as more of a failure than if we don’t try at all (LIE!) It means breaking free of the herd and finding our own vision and our own destiny. And that probably doesn’t fit in well with those content with marginal.

Champions design their lives so every aspect supports what they are creating. One of the biggest challenges you will face in being a champion is simply that most of the effort isn’t very sexy or fun. In the movies we see a cool three minute montage with an upbeat song when the hero takes control of their lives and turns thing around. In real life, it requires continual, unceasing effort. It means getting up when you don’t want to get up, taking action when it would be easier not to, having uncomfortable conversations that you’d really rather avoid, and standing out when you’d rather fit in.

So we try in fits and starts, but one effort, one time, one day doesn’t do much for us. Johny Hendricks, one of the very best mixed martial artists summed it up: “If I’m going to be a champion, I’ve got to act like a champion every day.”

Starting today.

year end unreflections

Year end is a time for reflecting, reminiscing, and summing up. I don’t know what kind of year you had, but I hope:

You learned something about yourself that had been holding you back.

You shared more of your true self than ever before.

The people in your life are better because of you.

You have the pride and satisfaction of digging deeper within than you thought possible.

You chose happiness despite, not because of, your circumstances.

You were challenged in new ways, pushing you sickeningly beyond your comfort zone.

You lived – truly lived – a new year and not just repeated the same year you’ve been living for a decade.

You had the torment of having to choose between too many options rather than not enough.

Your children or friends overcame their challenges, not because of the help you gave in the moment, but because of the lessons you taught them in the past.

You learned to give up on the idea of control and put your heart into communication and influence.

You intentionally tried at least one thing that terrified you.

You got to connect with and meet a rockstar in your field. And you discovered they were just as human and real as you.

The family, friends, peers, and colleagues you have surrounded yourself with push you and challenge you and inspire you.

You gave your absolute best, failed, and created even better from the ashes.

You found or deepened your passion for something, anything.

You have more and better relationships today than you did 365 days ago.

You shed a bit more of the fear of being authentically, vulnerably, powerfully you.

You left the comfort of being a victim and took on the unyielding double-edge of full responsibility.

You discovered you fear the certainty of the way life was far more than the unknown of the future-now.

It’s an uncertain world and, as much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there are no guarantees. Natural disaster, disease, loonies, poor decisions, and freak accidents conspire to remove us from the planet before we think our work is done.

Our choice, our obligation, is to live, learn, and move forward with all our heart, soul, and sloppy-messy humanity. What other choice is there? What other obligation more noble?

I hope that all the pain, joy, challenges, learning, fear, laughter, tears, and acts of courage in 2012 have positioned you to do more, to be better, to play bigger in 2013.

Celebrate and rest well tonight my friends for there is significant work to be done tomorrow!


Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone. ~ Pablo Picasso

run what ya brung

It was his first time sparring in front of judges and the first of his age group to compete and my son wasn’t faring well. His opponent, the eventual second-place finisher, was clearly experienced with martial arts tournaments, knew what was expected, and was significantly taller. With about 8 extra inches of legs, his competitor had a large advantage and knew how to use it. My son made a great attempt, but there would be no trophy for him.

If it were a movie, he would have won against the odds and earned the respect of his mortal enemy while learning to appreciate true friendship, etc., etc. In real life, he was just a slightly overwhelmed six year old trying his best and probably wishing he were somewhere else.

We all have different strengths and weaknesses. No matter how hard we try, we may never fully get rid of weaknesses or be able to learn or develop to the level of other people’s strengths. We’re not all 6’ tall, we don’t all have 150 IQs, we don’t all start life with a nice trust fund, we haven’t all been to an Ivy League school. Yes, life is not fair. Agreed. Move on.

It’s cliché to say, but it doesn’t matter where we start or what our innate limitations are. Not because with enough heart and perseverance we can create a Hollywood ending. No, that’s the happy myth we are routinely sold.

It doesn’t matter because there isn’t a thing we can do about it. NOTHING. We cannot change our starting point. So not much use putting any thought into it.

The more important question is: What are you going to do about it? How can you use your strengths, weaknesses, and the package of brains and heart and talent and interests and life experience that is you to your advantage?



the toughest part about leadership development

Becoming a better leader is difficult, no doubt there. Many, many books and classes exist to help you, but there is one particular challenge that rarely gets mentioned, yet is at the heart of all real leadership development. Here it is, you might want to commit it to memory:

All leadership development is personal development.

You can get promoted into a leadership role with very little leadership ability. It’s sometimes just a matter of tenure, being in the right place at the right time, or being very technically skilled and having no other career path available. And there are a lot (emphasis on a lot) of bad managers out there whose people get results despite their poor leadership skills. But we’re not talking about continuing on as a bad manager, we’re talking about growing and developing as a leader.

You can never become a better leader without first becoming a better you. Your team won’t get better until you get better. You cannot sustainably get more out of others without getting more out of yourself. That’s not quick. It’s not easy. It’s not sexy. And it’s a hard sell. But it is truth.

Say it again with me: All leadership development is personal development.


yesterday, today, tomorrow

It’s a mistake to think that today’s actions created today’s results. There is a natural lag between action and outcome.

Where we are today is a result of yesterday’s decisions and actions. Yesterday’s actions are today’s results.

Where we will be tomorrow will be a result of today’s decisions and actions.  Today’s actions are tomorrow’s results.

What tomorrow are you creating? Where will today’s choices take you in five years? Where do you want to be?

never as good as i think i am

I have tried to train myself to view feeling comfortable in my job as a big warning sign. The flashing red lights start going off when I catch myself thinking, “You know, I’m actually pretty good at this.” Hubris is a dangerous thing that leaves us blinded to reality. It feels great, but it’s a dangerous place to be.

It was bicycling that tipped me off to the dangers and often re-reminds me of it:

A couple of times a year, I’ll be out on my road bike pedaling along and just be flying. Beautiful day, landscape rolling past, feeling great, and thinking I’m in much better shape than I thought. Then I’ll turn around to head home and realize that I had a strong tailwind. I wasn’t in great shape, I just didn’t notice how much I was being helped along.

I regularly mountain bike on a pretty challenging set of trails and it’s easy to start thinking I’m pretty good. Well, no. I just know my trails really well and that’s very different from being good. I recently rode a different set of trails and got my hiney kicked. Turns out I’m not quite as good, fast, or strong as I fooled myself into thinking. A painful lesson, but necessary.

Success is the product of good thinking and hard working. It’s important to celebrate our accomplishments, but it’s easy to over-congratulate ourselves for our successes. Yes, we have quite a bit to do with our triumphs, but sometimes they are helped by additional factors that we don’t notice and can’t control. The tailwind, familiarity, being a big fish in a small pond, a lack of real competition, staying within our comfort zones all help us think we’re doing better than we actually are.

Consider some of the key places we see this show up:

People often have a hard time making the jump to the next level of whatever they’re good at. For example, athletes who are superstars at the regional level, are just another decent player at the national level. Another example is MBA programs, where people who were the standouts as undergrads are just another face in the crowd, surrounded by lots of equally smart, aggressive, and talented people. That’s a humbling experience. Some relish the challenge and love being surrounded by people who push them to bring out their best. Others struggle to come to terms with the idea that they are just average in their new peer group.

When hiring, how do you determine that an applicant’s previous successes will translate to your company? We’ve probably all seen people with impressive resumes not do well because the new environment was too different and didn’t mesh.

Or what about the rising star employees who flame out when they are promoted too soon. They show some promise, have some early successes, and then get pushed to a level they are not yet ready for. Something unexpected happens that they don’t have the experience or luck to deal with and it all caves in. Worse, they start believing their own hype and because of their past successes they are given a lot of rope to hang themselves. When it all catches up with them it catches up hard.

This is also an issue with employee development: how do you develop people fast enough to keep them engaged, but slow enough that they can really,  truly learn what they need to know? How do you acknowledge and applaud them without instilling a false sense of confidence?

In our own jobs, we want continuous and never-ending improvement, but how do we push ourselves beyond our comfort levels when it’s so, well, uncomfortable? We want success, but easy success fool us into thinking we’re better than we are. If we don’t consciously try new things, experiment, and sometimes feel like we’re failing, it can prevent the growth that leads to bigger, long-term success.

Where are you feeling confident in your job? What would you need to do to make your job feel challenging? Where is the edge of your skills and what can you attempt that is slightly beyond the boundary? What new settings, projects, or tasks can you take on that might push you just a bit?

good enough isn’t, but great enough is

I was discussing the idea that good is the enemy of great the other day and someone said, “You ever notice how people say something is’good enough’, but they never say it’s ‘great enough’?”

Great enough. Love it.

I’m a big believer in the concept that good enough isn’t. Hitting the bare minimums isn’t success, it’s temporary survival. Sadly, most companies seem to struggle to reach even the level of good enough. They shoot for good enough customer service, good enough prices, good enough hiring policies, good enough management development, good enough training, etc. The problem is that, at the very theoretical best, it will only be good enough. In the real world, a bunch of attempts at good enough added together tends to equal not good enough. Aiming for “good enough” seems to get us to “doesn’t completely suck”.

In fact, I’d like to propose a real world rating scale. Feel free to use it for performance appraisals, evaluating processes, due diligence for investments, whatever you need a rating scale for. Here it is:

  1. Sucks
  2. Doesn’t completely suck
  3. Good enough
  4. Great enough
  5. Phenomenal, but exceeds the point of diminishing returns
On this scale, there is only one rating worth hitting: “Great enough.” Although “Phenomenal” sounds like a good thing, there comes a point in any quality improvement where the costs/effort/resources required for additional improvement become an exponential curve while improvements move along a very flat linear curve. In other words, you’re spending tons of resources for ounces of improvement.
But, “great enough”… Getting to great enough requires a completely different set of questions, decisions, actions than it takes to be merely good enough. Consider this: getting your life to good enough is easy. You’re probably already there. But what would having a great enough life look like and what would it take to get it there?
How freakin’ cool would it be to work for a company that focused on doing everything great enough? How incredible would it be to know that all your efforts at work were consistently great enough? Who wouldn’t sing the praises of a company that only hired people who were great enough?
I’ll give you tonight to mull it over. Tomorrow morning, what are you going to do to start kicking butt and creating great enough relationships with your friends and family? What are you going to do to create great enough health? To start getting your finances into great enough shape? Come Monday morning, what are you going to do to take your team to great enough? If you’re in HR, what are you going to do to create great enough selection and onboarding processes? To help the managers you serve to become great enough leaders? To create a great enough company culture?
Great enough. Love it!