Trough & Peak (#169)

I often joke with my kids that most of the challenges they face are “First World problems,” and they’ve learned to remind me of the same thing.

This phrase is a healthy reminder to be grateful for all the things we have and can do in our lives. It’s also about understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, what we identify as “problems” often really aren’t.

Not only can situations remind us of this, but so can people. Sean Swarner is one such person.

At the age of 13, Swarner was a happy-go-lucky eighth grader playing a baseball game when he heard a pop in his knee. The next day, all his joints were swollen. A few days after that, he was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma and given a prognosis of three months to live.

He immediately began aggressive treatment, adding 60+ pounds to his small frame as a result of various steroids.  While his friends were focused on trivial things, such as what shoes they wore and how popular they were, Swarner was focused on fighting for his life. He borrowed a visualization technique he learned from his swimming training and would imagine a microscopic spaceship flying around in his body with chemotherapy guns killing all the cancer.

A year after his diagnosis, Swarner beat the cancer and was in remission. He refocused his efforts on being a kid and playing sports, including returning to competitive swimming.

After being in remission for 20 months, Swarner went in for one of his regular check-ups. It was then that he learned that doctors had discovered a new, completely unrelated cancer in his body called Askin’s sarcoma.

Not only was Swarner the only person in the world to have been diagnosed with both Hodgkin’s disease and Askin’s sarcoma, but the latter has a six percent survival rate.

Given just 14 days to live, Swarner was started on treatment, the goal of which was to extend his life as long as possible. However, the chemo was so intense that he was put into a medically induced coma for each cycle and the radiation was so severe that he lost the use of one of his lungs.

Miraculously, Swarner beat cancer again, even though he does not remember anything about being a sixteen-year-old. Understandably, he wanted to enjoy the lost years of his youth. In college, he focused on having fun and decided to become a psychology major to eventually help other cancer patients.

Then one day he decided that, to really help and make an impact, he needed to scream hope from the highest platform in the world: Mt. Everest.

With only one lung, Swarner became the first cancer survivor to summit the peak. Ironically, an illness forced him to stay behind at camp on the day his group attempted the summit, which they weren’t able to reach due to inclement weather. After recovering from being ill, the weather cleared and Swarner was able to summit on his first attempt.

Since Everest, Swarner has gone on to become the world’s first cancer survivor to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam—scaling the highest point on all seven continents and then hiking to the North and South Poles. On his last trip to the North Pole, he carried a massive flag with names of thousands of people touched by cancer. He’s now preparing to run seven marathons, in seven days, in seven continents.

In sharp contrast to last week’s Friday Forward, Swarner’s father always told him that he didn’t have to be the best, he just had to be his best, a core value that he’s carried with him into adulthood. Today, Swarner leads people on trips to Mount Kilimanjaro through The CancerClimber Association, a non-profit he founded to help those touched by cancer learn how to focus on hope. These experiences help young people gain confidence through overcoming adversity and challenge.

Incredibly, Swarner considers himself lucky. Lucky for the knee injury that likely saved his life – twice – and for the serious illness that kept him behind on Everest and allowed him to summit.

By choosing to focus on living rather than dying, he is an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit.

Not surprising, his life story has recently been made into a documentary titled, True North, which my youngest son watched intently. I’d also recommend listening to the emotional interview I did with Sean Swarner on my Elevate podcast. Our conversation has forever changed my perspective on what it means to keep climbing and own your reality.


Quote of The Week

“Want to feel wealthy? Take away everything money can buy and look at what you have left.”


Sean Swarner


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Success Disease (#163)

If you’ve been following Friday Forward for a while, you had to know this post was coming…

Earlier this month, the New England Patriots (a professional American football team for those of you outside of the U.S.), won their sixth Super Bowl championship, cementing them as one of the greatest professional sports dynasties in modern history.

Think about a business having this level of success. Naturally, it would attract more talent and have money to spend. The Patriots, however, don’t have this luxury. In fact, the inverse is true.

The amazing thing about their victory and sustained dominance is that they play in a league (NFL) designed for parity and competition. The league’s hard salary cap, where each NFL team has the exact same amount of money to spend on players’ salaries, is structured to level the playing field. And, come NFL Draft time, a highly competitive event where newly eligible players are picked by round, the team that most recently won the Super Bowl picks last within each round.

In a 32-team league, the Patriots have been in just over half of the last seventeen Super Bowls. Those numbers mean that the Patriots have fallen in the bottom- to last-place during draft picks. Yet, they still find a way to win year-after-year.

Imagine if Google and Apple had to pick last for talent each year?

There will undoubtedly be many history and leadership books written on the collective success generated from the pairing of Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick and quarterback, Tom Brady (B&B). Both are sure to be immortalized as the best in history in their respective positions.

In dissecting the Patriots’ winning formula, historians are likely to pay special attention to Brady and Belichick’s fanatical attention to detail and to the Patriots’ prioritization of team and winning above individual superstars. However, perhaps the single greatest factor in the Patriots’ success, and the one likely to be studied by leaders for generations to come, will be the Patriots’ immunity to “Success Disease,” a concept coined by legendary coach, Bill Walsh.

According to Walsh, Success Disease makes people forget, to different degrees, the effort, focus, discipline, teaching, teamwork, learning and attention to detail that brought “mastery” and success in the first place. With success, especially repeated success, comes heightened confidence, followed quickly by overconfidence, arrogance and a sense that “we’ve mastered it; we’ve figured it out; we’re golden.” In turn, that hunger is diminished and even eliminated.

Renowned confidence expert, Peter Atwater, has even uncovered connections between confidence and architecture. It’s during times of high confidence when great castles, college buildings and sports stadiums were built. In the case of empires, these buildings almost always precede the beginning of their demise.

The problem, as Walsh sees it, is that mastery requires endless remastery. Success is a process, not an end destination. Few winners realize this, which helps explain why repeated success is so difficult. In his writing, Walsh recounts how, after his team’s first Super Bowl victory, they lost twice as many games in the next season—even with the same personnel.

Warren Buffet has even shared that one of his biggest challenges is helping his top people—all wealthy enough to never have to work another day in their life—stay interested enough to jump out of bed in the morning.

It seems as though the key to sustained success may just be believing deeply that you don’t have it.

This is where the Patriots really shine and why they are so rare. Collectively as a team, they are known for enjoying their victories and then quickly getting back to work on the next season. They simply don’t look down from the top of the mountain for long. After the champagne has been sipped and the parade is over, they bring themselves back to base camp and begin looking up at the next peak.

Of course, some players will choose to use their newfound success to sign lucrative contracts elsewhere. Not surprisingly, that new team often gets a less motivated and more expensive player than a year earlier. This is why few, if any, of these players have ever gone on to reach the same level of personal or team achievement with their new team as they did when playing for the Patriots.

I know many are tired of hearing about the Patriots’ continued dominance, however, their formula for success can teach us all a great deal about how to sustain it and avoid succumbing to Success Disease.


Quote of The Week

“There is nothing that fails like success.”


G. K. Chesterton




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Life Hacks (#161)

These days, everyone seems to be looking for a shortcut or a “hack.” Apparently, things like “growth hacking,” “social media hacking,” “biohacking” and so on are all the rage. It appears everyone wants to find that magical shortcut that will lead them to getting more output with less effort.

And, of course, hacking “experts” and gurus are on hand to help! The number of seminars, webinars and pitching services focused on the “hack economy” are unprecedented.

Recently, I came across a great post about useful hacks by Morgan Housel, a partner at Collaborative Fund. He wrote about attending a three-hour session with a social media consultant who walked attendees through a slew of social media-related “hacks.” However, although she talked about things like when to post and why to create hashtags, Housel notes that the trainer never actually talked about the most important component: creating good content to post.

As someone who writes a lot, I understand exactly where he’s coming from. Good writing takes time, creativity, patience, determination, perseverance and careful editing. In other words, it’s work.

With this in mind, Housel provided a list of hacks that he finds useful. You can check out the full list within his post, but here are a few of that I really relate to:

Marketing hack: Make a good product that people need.

PR hack: Do something newsworthy.

Writing hack: Write every day for years.

Learning hack: Read a book. When finished, read another.

Work culture hack: Trust people and pay them well.

Investing hack: Give compounding the decades it requires.

Savings hack: Lower your ego and live below your means.

Career hack: Work harder than is expected of you and be nice to people.

Organization hack: Clean up your mess.

Fundraising hack: Make a product lots of people will pay for with decent or better margins.

Scale-to-a-million-users hack: Make a product a million people need.

Making college more affordable hack: Go to an in-state public school and work full time.

The takeaway is, rather than focusing on what you can “hack,” it’s a far better use of time and energy to follow tried and true principles of productivity and achievement. Here are five of my favorites:

1. Follow the 80/20 Rule. 20% of our inputs are responsible for 80% of our outcomes. Therefore, it would stand to reason that the ultimate “hack” is to identify and spend time on what has the potential to provide the greatest outcome. The rest is a distraction.

2. Separate Urgent from Important: One of the most important productivity concepts that goal-oriented individuals understand is the difference between those things that are urgent and those things that are important.

3. Give consistent effort and have patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Things worth doing take time and consistent effort towards the goal.

4. Create a Stop Doing list: To do more of the right things, you need to also stop doing the wrong ones.

5. Last, but not least, if you do something, do it well. Two of my favorite Friday Forward stories are about how world-class photocopies launched the career of one of America’s top venture capitalists and how a plumber showed a client what commitment to excellence looks like.

History is a great teacher, showing us time and again that qualities such as focus, patience, practice and a commitment to excellence will always trump a hack in the long-run.


Quote of The Week

“You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant. It just doesn’t work that way.”


Warren Buffett




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Missing Out (#155)

I have always been intrigued by Jason Fried, the charismatic thought leader and creator of the very popular blog, “Signal versus Noise.” He’s also the CEO of the popular project management tool Basecamp, which is used by millions across the world.

A Chicago-based company, Basecamp has only 50 employees, all of whom work remotely on a 30-hour per week schedule. What’s more is that within this work structure, Basecamp generates over $25M in revenue each year and is very profitable.

Jason wrote one of the leading books on remote work titled, REMOTE: Office Not Required. To date, Basecamp has also turned down unsolicited offers from over 100 investors.

Certainly, Basecamp could grow faster. Many might argue that they are missing out on an investment market that is willing to pay a jaw-dropping amount to acquire software companies like Basecamp with recurring monthly revenue.

There is no question that, if they wanted to, Jason and his partner could make hundreds of millions, retire and financially set up future generations for decades to come. Yet, that viewpoint comes from the FOMO mindset, or “fear of missing out.”

FOMO has become a major psychosocial phenomenon due to the presence of social media and our ability to see what others are doing in real-time. Rather than being content with what we have or even realizing that we are happy with what we are doing, many of us benchmark ourselves against others and assume that the grass is greener. For some, FOMO is a debilitating condition that is exacerbated by scrolling for hours through Instagram and Facebook.

Jason Fried does not live within a FOMO mindset. In fact, in his upcoming book, he coins the term “Jomo” The Joy of Missing Out.

Jason doesn’t pay much attention to what anyone else is doing or thinking. He reads the paper once a day. He has no long-term goals for himself or his business. Everything at Basecamp is designed in six week sprints; if something can’t get done in six weeks, they don’t build it.

Jason and his team focus intently on what they are doing now, discovering what is most important to their customer and doing the best job they can to deliver that. They aren’t driven by an arbitrary growth goal. Years ago, they even decided to stop selling a few of their ancillary products. They felt their flagship Basecamp product was world-class and other complementary products were not. Less was more.

While Jason’s JOMO mentality and company philosophies are not for everyone, they contain three very healthy principals that we can all learn from.

  1. Intrinsic motivation: Jason not only displays this himself, he works to cultivate it in others by removing traditional carrot-and-stick motivators. He rallies his team around doing great work, rather than by demanding that they look at what their competitors are doing or acting on market/investor pressures.
  2. Living in the present:The biggest manifestation of JOMO for Jason is simply not worrying about what came before or what will come after. It’s about enjoying the present and taking the time to “think”.
  3. Tuning out the noise: Developing a remote workforce. Not taking investment. Being profitable for 17 years. None of these were historical blueprints for creating a great software company. Yet, by tuning out what the market touted as the “right path” to business success, Jason’s been able to build an enormously successful company that reflects his values.

The next time you are worried about “missing out,” perhaps reflect on JOMO and what you might gain from not knowing what others were, are or might be doing.

Often, ignorance really is bliss.

Quote of The Week

“That fear of missing out on things makes you miss out on everything.”


Etty Hellesum



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Controlling Reactions (#154)

Apparently, the past few weeks have been a roller coaster ride for global stock markets, with volatile trading and daily swings of several percentage points.

I hadn’t really paid much attention to these events, but that would have been a different story ten years ago.

I developed an interest in the stock market at an early age, influenced by my grandmother who was an enthusiastic, but notoriously poor stock picker.  I started trading and following the markets regularly in college and would get excited by the highs and anxious when the market declined. I distinctly remember during the 2007 market crash being glued to the TV and feeling physically ill as the market dropped 800 points in just a few days in September. I allowed it to negatively affect my work, my mindset and my interactions with others.

Shortly after, I made the decision to stop watching the market and shifted my investments to mutual funds. Later, I hired an investment advisor to make those decision for me without any emotion or short-term bias. It was one of the best decisions I have made.

The stock market hasn’t changed, but my reaction to it has. The same goes for sports.

As a lifelong Boston sports fan, I’ve experienced both improbable victories and agonizing defeats (most of my childhood). Today, I enjoy the games and may get animated watching them, but I’ve trained myself to mentally walk away the minute they’re over.

If Tom Brady has a bad football game on Sunday, I can understand why he would want to think about it on Monday; it’s his job and life. But for me to do so? It’s a useless expenditure of energy. Yet I see others let professional sports affect them mentally for days or even weeks after a game. It’s self-defeating.

Walking away from playing the market and changing my reaction after a game is won or lost are both examples of improving emotional capacity, a critical skill high performers must learn to develop.

Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.

For example, consider two people who have a negative interaction with each other early in the day. The person with high emotional capacity is able to shrug it off, move past it and continue on with the priorities of their day. The person with a lower emotional capacity would be easily rattled by this interaction. It would likely consume, if not ruin, their entire day and affect their performance at work and at home.

They each experience the same event but allow it to impact them differently. That delta is the differing degrees of emotional capacity.

When dealing with people and circumstances that influence our mindset, high achievers see two options: walk away or change your reaction. While I was able to do this with the stock market and watching professional sports, I’ll be the first to admit that I have many other examples in my life where I am mindfully working to better apply these principles and continue to build my emotional capacity.

The key is to focus on what we can control (emotions and reactions), not the event or external forces. No one should believe they can control the stock market, sports games or unfortunate run-ins, but we each absolutely have the ability to choose how these events will impact us.


Quote of The Week

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”


Charles R. Swindoll



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Going Bananas (#153)

Over the past year, I have started to share and post more of my content on LinkedIn.

Most of my articles are written in a positive tone and attempt to propose solutions to common leadership and organizational challenges. Therefore, I’m always surprised by people who choose to comment on articles with insults, banter and accusations, often about something that wasn’t even directed at or personal to them in any way.

Posting these kinds of responses and comments on such a public forum is not only unproductive, it’s shortsighted for those in leadership positions; and it’s downright foolish for people who are actively seeking employment.

I would never hire or partner with anyone I found spending their time and energy in this manner and I can only imagine how bosses and team members react when they come across this sort of behavior from a colleague.

I simply can’t comprehend why anyone would intentionally go out of their way to make strangers feel bad about themselves or their beliefs. It’s bananas.

Speaking of bananas, a lot of these individuals could learn from the example of Stacey Truman, an inspiring leader and cafeteria manager at an elementary school in Virginia Beach, VA.

Using a black marker, each morning she writes inspirational messages on the bananas that are a part of lunch that day.

Here are some examples of messages she’s written on her now designated “talking bananas:”

“Not all those who wander are lost.”  

“If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”  

 “You get what you give.”

“Never give up.”

“Your future is bright.”

Writing uplifting messages on bananas was a practice she started for her two daughters (10 and 7) to build them up and help them start their day on a positive note. She then thought that the kids at the school might have a similar feel-good response, and she was right.

In an interview, Truman said, “I want them to succeed in life and have an awesome day at school. Whenever I can put a smile on all of those little faces, I’ve done my job.”

Her “talking bananas” have made a bigger impact than she could have imagined and her story has taken off on social media. She’s now garnering national attention for the right reasons and inspiring strangers to want to uplift and build capacity in others with far less effort than it takes to troll social media looking to pick a fight.

While I don’t expect “talking bananas” to become ubiquitous in corporate cafeterias anytime soon, the lesson is that while we don’t have to agree, we can all be nicer in how we disagree. And we all have the ability to use our energy in more productive ways that inspire and lift others up.

You never know how something as simple—and free to give—as an encouraging word can impact people for years to come, especially if it comes at the right time.


Quote of The Week

“Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.”

Blaise Pascal


Image Credit: Washington Post.

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