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Having Potential (#119)

Much of our motivation in life is driven by two feelings that are often at different ends of the emotional spectrum: inspiration and discomfort.

This week, the focus is on discomfort.

A few months ago, a friend of mine spoke to a group and imparted some harsh but salient wisdom that stuck with me. He said, “When you are ten, potential is cute. When you are 20, it’s nice. But by the time you get to 40, it starts to become an insult.”

While this can be painful for some to hear, I think there’s a lot of truth in his words. Here are two definitions of potential, courtesy of the Oxford dictionary:

Adjective: Having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.

Noun: Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.

Based on these definitions, it makes sense to refer to something as having potential when it’s early in its lifecycle, be it a person, product or organization.

However, as time goes on, using that same phrase moves from something inspiring to something that becomes a crutch to, eventually, an insult.

Don’t believe me? Tell a mom or dad of a 15-year-old that they have the potential to be a great parent and see how they react.

It’s not that a person who has been dabbling in something for 10-20 years without success doesn’t have potential. What’s more likely is that they lack the talent or the conviction to convert that potential into something meaningful.

For instance, when an entrepreneur talks about the potential of their product yet, and it’s been a decade or more since it’s generated any meaningful sales, they are fooling themselves.

The same goes for an organization that’s been doing essentially the thing for ten years and getting the same results. Saying they have “potential” is no longer the right word to use.

Indeed, potential has an expiration date.

Ultimately, we need to decide where we want to convert our potential into achievement. These will likely be areas in your life that are most important to you, not what others decide are most important or valuable.

The question to think about in your own life or organization is, where in the future would it be an insult to look back and hear that you had had potential?

I have asked myself this very question. At no point in my life do I want to look back and feel that I had the potential to be or do better – as a father, a husband or a leader in my business – and not lived up to it.

With that in mind, pretend it’s five years from now and ask yourself the following:

  • Where would I not want to be told I had potential in my business (either overall or for a product)?
  • Where would I not want to be told I had potential in my family and personal life?
  • Where would I be really upset to hear that I had the potential to be an X?

If you’re not on track to live up to your potential in any of these areas, then go do something about it.

Don’t be someone who had potential. Be someone who acted on their potential.

Quote of Week

 “There is no heavier burden than an unfulfilled potential.”

Charles Schulz

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Raising Values (#118)

As a company, we have always aspired to not have a lot of rules. Instead, we prefer to focus on and reinforce our company’s core values. We believe they are key directional markers that can help team members make more thoughtful, sound decisions.

Recently, while reading Adam Grant’s book Originals, I learned about a study done by two sociologists who studied non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust (rescuers) with a group of neighbors who lived in the same town but who did nothing (non-rescuers).

The study revealed that what ultimately differentiated the rescuers from the non-rescuers was how their parents disciplined bad behavior and praised good behavior.

When the rescuers were asked to recall their childhoods and the discipline they received, researchers discovered that the word they most used was “explained.” The focus of their parents was on the Why behind their disciplinary action and the moral lesson or value to be learned, rather than on the discipline itself.

This practice conveyed the values their parents wanted to share while also encouraging critical thinking and reasoning. Grant notes that by explaining moral principles, the parents of those in the rescuer group had instilled in their children the importance of complying voluntarily with rules that align with important values and to question rules that don’t.

The rescuers were almost three times more likely to reference moral values that applied to all people, emphasizing that their parents taught them to respect all human beings.

Another key to creating these moral standards that researchers found is praising behavior or character over the action itself. For example, in one study, children who were asked to be “helpers” instead of “to help” were more likely to clean up toys when asked. Similarly, adults who were asked “Please don’t be a cheater” cheated 50 percent less than those that were asked “Please don’t cheat.”

The same researcher suggests that we replace “Don’t Drink and Drive” with “Don’t Be a Drunk Driver.”

It turns out that values are far more effective than rules at eliciting the outcomes and behaviors that we want. In either a family or an organization, it is virtually impossible to cover all possible rules or monitor the adherence to them. Doing so would create a lengthy process manual or a draconian set of guidelines.

I’ve observed that highly successful families, organizations and companies select and focus on a few values that are most important to them. These aren’t token values that sit on the wall. They explain the Why behind those values to their group and regularly reinforce them, both in terms of accountability for not meeting the standard as well as celebrating decisions that are made which support those values.

These values can cover hundreds, if not thousands, of situations, far more than any set of rules could. Most importantly, people are encouraged to openly question decisions that are incongruous with the values. Enforcement is not top down; it’s made by all the members of the group.

The individuals who acted bravely to save would-be victims of the Holocaust were never explicitly told to do that. It was following the values that were instilled and strengthened throughout their lives that brought them to a logical, courageous decision.

Quote of the Week

“The moral values, ethical codes and laws that guide our choices in normal times are, if anything, even more important to help us navigate the confusing and disorienting time of a disaster.”

Sheri Fink

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Karma Cycle (#116)

Amanda Needham was pissed and she wanted it to be known.

A thief had stone her bike from outside her house in Brooklyn, leaving behind only a tire and the lock. Her bike was her only transportation to work.

In her anger, Amanda created an 8-x-3-foot cardboard sign and hung it outside her house. It read:

“To the person who stole my bicycle, I hope you need it more than I do. It was $200 used and I need it to get to work. I can’t afford another one. Next time steal a hipster’s Peugeot. Or not steal. PS Bring it back.”

Three days later, two young men rang her doorbell. With them was a blue mountain bike sized for a teenager. One of them, Michael, had his bike stolen as well and was moved by her sign. Since he was not using this bike anymore, he offered it to her for free. Even though it was too small for her, she graciously accepted because she saw that they really wanted to help.

A few days after that, her bell rang again and it was a woman at the door. She asked Amanda if there was any way she could help or anything she could do for her.  Amanda explained that she had recently signed up for Citi Bike (bike share) so she now had transportation, but they shared a laugh about the Peugeot comment and hugged before saying goodbye.

At this point, Amanda’s husband wanted her to take down the sign, but to Amanda, it was no longer about the bike.

Soon, her buzzer rang again. This time she was greeted by a man who explained that he was an art dealer and had heard of her situation from an Instagram conversation about it. He liked her sign and offered to buy it for $200 dollars. She accepted.

Touched by all the gestures, Amanda took the bike that Michael had given her to a local bike shop to get serviced so she could donate it to someone in need. In exchange for doing the repair work, Amanda got the bike shop set up on Instagram and Twitter so they could share the story.

The one thing that Amanda wanted most from this whole experience was acknowledgement. She wanted people to recognize, reach out and support each other, something she felt humanity is lacking these days.

Not only was she heard, her story and message really inspired the best in others. Here are a few lessons we can all learn from Amanda’s story:

  • She did not play the victim. Instead, she used her energy proactively and creatively to do something about the situation.
  • As cliché as it may be, she brought to light how there is always an opportunity to make lemonade from lemons.
  • Ingenuity is a good outlet for anger, especially when your back is against the wall.
    This is the same formula Kyle McDonald used to eventually trade his red paperclip for a free house, fundamentally changing his life along the way.

You can read the full story about #KarmaCycle in Amanda’s own words.

In the meantime … let’s remember to acknowledge each other, even if it’s just to provide an encouraging word, give a hug or listen when someone is going through a rough time. At the very least, it’s good karma.

Quote of The Week

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

Scott Adams

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Having Confidence (#115)

(Podcast audio link at the end of the post)

About four years ago, I attended a fascinating presentation given by Peter Atwater to a group of CEOs.

Peter, a renowned expert on confidence, studies how changes in confidence affect our inclinations, decisions and actions. He looks at things like books, music, architecture and food preferences when researching social, political, financial and business mood.

A few days prior to Peter’s presentation, the house majority leader at the time, Eric Cantor, was defeated in one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history. Peter addressed this election loss in his presentation, observing that it served as another data point showing historically low confidence levels on main street versus Wall Street.

He observed that other politicians who failed to give their primary focus and attention on their own “backyard” would be in trouble over the next few years. The same went for companies who weren’t paying attention to the shift in consumers’ moods or aligning with demand.

Fast forward to today and much of what Peter shared with that group has come true.

Confidence, he said, is a cognitive state of being.

It turns out that when we feel confident, our horizons and timelines expand. We have a more optimistic, global, big picture viewpoint and believe that the future will be better than the present. This has a strong effect on our decision making and timelines, often resulting in us making big bets on future-focused things.

As an example, Peter has uncovered connections between people’s general optimism and architecture. He found that these times of high confidence were when great castles, college buildings and sports stadiums were built, often right before or at peak confidence levels. Look around at today’s technology sector and you will find that almost every major player is building a massive new headquarters.

On the flip side, when we don’t feel confident, our horizon window narrows dramatically; we’re much more focused on the present and what’s right in front of us, not the future. We see things as riskier and concentrate on preservation, not growth or future-focused investments. We want tangible problems solved now, not large problems in the future. In Peter’s terms, we’re about the “me here and now.”

We see this phenomenon today in the “buy local” movement and the preference for political candidates who focus on issues “at home.”

An example that tapped into this sentiment is Keurig® K-Cup® Pods. This product has seen explosive growth due to its convenience and speed, much to the dismay of the inventor who regrets the long-term ecological disaster that his invention has become.

At different times in our life, our confidence levels go through peaks and troughs. To make better decisions, we need to be aware of how our mindset effects our decision making and understand whether we are at low point of confidence or a peak. Both extremes can get us into trouble.

If you can’t see the embedded player above, you can listen to it on iTunes or Stitcher.

Check out my interview with Peter on our Outperform podcast to learn more about his work and his projections around what political candidates, financial markets, products and business models will be successful in our current environment and upcoming years.

Quote of the Week

“Successful people have fear, successful people have doubts, and successful people have worries. They just don’t let these feelings stop them.”

 T. Harv Eker

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Clutch Performers (#113)

Over the past two weeks, we all witnessed a lot of “clutch” performances in the Olympics.

From Shawn White’s gold medal-winning run in the half pipe to Ester Ledecka becoming the first woman to earn two golds in different sports at a single event, many incredible athletes stepped up and delivered. And they did so on the world’s biggest athletic stage.

Their performances made me reflect on what it really means to be “clutch,” a term often used in sports to denote a dramatic improvement in performance under pressure or doing something awe-inspiring at the last possible moment; turning defeat into a victory.

Certainly, there is a strong mental component of not caving under pressure and letting the moment overtake you. However, I’m of the belief that the biggest contributor to having a clutch performance is everything that goes on behind the scenes–well in advance of the actual performance. The countless days and hours of practice and mental preparation. The blood, sweat and tears shed. The exhaustion. The grind.

Recently, a good friend of mine, Conor Neill, was teaching a public speaking course as part of an intensive leadership program. The participants were getting frustrated at being forced into action without sufficient time to practice and were vehemently vocalizing their displeasure about getting pushed out of their comfort zones.

Calmly, he told everyone to sit and said, “Training should be more painful than real life. My job is to make this really hard so when you need to do it for real, it is easier.”

In an instant, the mood changed and everyone got back to work.

Practice and preparedness is why, when a speaker’s slides fail, they can continue without skipping a beat and deliver an engaging presentation. Similarly, when I gave an “in the moment” speech last year, many assumed it was a “clutch” performance. In reality, I had spent over a month preparing for it.

Sports and the performing arts are two areas where the practice time-to-game/performance time is a factor of at least 10 to 1. Yet, how many of us can honestly say that we practice things ten times before we do them the one time it counts? Often, we are lucky of we practice something once before putting it into practice.

Much like the myth of the overnight success, when we label someone’s performance as “clutch,” we are attributing an unexplained force to their success. I see this as a form of cognitive dissonance as it allows us to relieve ourselves of the obligations and countless hours of commitment, practice and hard work that’s required for high-level success, especially when it’s under pressure.

The truth is, being clutch has far more to do with what we do before stepping onto the stage or into the spotlight than being in the moment itself.

When Michael Phelps’ goggles filled with water during his 200m butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was still able to win the gold. He had visualized the entire race and counted out his strokes well in advance of the actual race day so that, even though he couldn’t see, he was clear on where he was going. Clutch or preparation?

We all have the ability to be clutch performers, we just need to do the work. And, as leaders, we cannot be afraid to make practice uncomfortable or more difficult than what others deem necessary.

Quote of The Week

“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen”

Michael Jordan

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Copy Cats (#112)

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

I have never liked this phrase. I think it’s something we tell ourselves to feel better when we are annoyed at someone incessantly copying us. Or, even worse, something others tell us when they blatantly reproduce something we did first.

In business, we all have that company that drives us crazy. The “competitor” that never seems to have an original idea. They copy our content, ideas, website etc. without remorse or shame.

Same goes for that person who buys the same car, clothes or waits to see what we are doing before making their own decisions.

We might tell ourselves we’re flattered, but we really aren’t. We are annoyed.

The consolation, however, is that people or companies who are happy to just imitate or copy others generally aren’t very successful in the long run. As they aren’t focused on originality or innovation, they typically commit themselves to a path of mediocrity.

Great people and companies look to innovate, stand out and bring new ideas to the fore – especially within their market. They are passionate about learning and take inspiration, not imitation, from many different places.  They focus on themselves and on what they can control. They are leaders, not followers.

As a father, I can already see the difference emerging between the kids who are happy to be imitators and those who have the courage to ignore what others are doing; those who are confident enough to forge their own path. Learning to blend in and not rock the boat is playing the short game, not the long one.

One thing that history has taught us is that simply being first does not guarantee success. More often, pioneers pave the way for settlers who have greater success. They’re able to sit back, analyze mistakes. In business, this often manifests in coming to market with a better offering. Different from being a copycat or imitator, these individuals pay attention to a developing market and then innovate at the right time.

For instance, Apple did not have the first MP3 player or smartphone. Facebook was not the first social network. Tesla did not invent the electric car and Google was not the first search engine.

The next time you see that pesky competitor copying your company, take solace in the fact that those who are focused on imitation aren’t very likely to innovate. Instead of wasting your energy in frustration, relish in the fact they are likely complacent in a state of mediocrity.

At the same time, never assume that just because you were first, that you are guaranteed success. Someone can always do better. Resting on your laurels is just as dangerous, if not more, than resigning yourself or your company to being an imitator.

Quote of the Week

“The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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