First and foremost, I wrote these words so that I can read them again and again, to remind myself of the actions I can take to make a difference in the world, and to accomplish the things that are most important to me. I’m sharing them with you in the hope that you may discover something of value that works well for you, too.
You can’t live by what you can’t remember, so I built my philosophy around a single sentence that anyone can remember:
Be generous and expert, trustworthy and clear, open-minded and adaptable, persistent and present.
Generous means to help others long before – and after – you need their help.
Expert means to be very competent in one or more areas that others value. It also means that whenever you take on a new task, do your best.
Trustworthy means to take ownership of your words and actions, and recognize that you live in a world in which they will increasingly be recorded, remembered, analyzed, and replayed.
Clear means to know what you want and to be able to communicate it effectively.
Open-minded means no matter how expert or successful you become, never stop listening and learning.
Adaptable means to keep your options open, so that when the world surprises you, it won’t be that surprising.
Persistent means to keep trying, even when times are tough and you are tempted to quit.
Present means that although you should learn from the past and be prepared for the future, you should pay close attention to the present moment as it unfolds - otherwise, you will miss a great deal.
Let’s get started…
“Generous acts strengthen the bond of friendship, and what’s more, studies show that your happiness is often boosted more by providing support to other people than by receiving support yourself.”
We all know someone like Fred, a former colleague of mine. When we worked together, he wasn’t that helpful. When I was looking for consulting clients, he ignored all of my emails. But every time he needs a job - which is increasingly often - he tries to renew the friendship we never had.
It’s far too late to network with me, I’m always tempted to write back. But to be kind, I help him a little. It’s hard to help him too much, because he doesn’t live by many of the principles I am urging you to adopt.
If you want to have a rewarding life, be a good networker, or accomplish anything… invest your time in helping other people. Think less about the people who can help you, and more about the people you can best help.
Six degrees of separation is an accurate way to summarize how we all are closely connected. That rumpled, seemingly confused, older person in front of you in line might actually be the father of a famous movie executive, CEO, or politician. He might know your soul mate, and introduce you. He might be the wisest and most gracious person you ever meet, once you help him instead of resent that he is “slowing you down.”
Being generous isn’t simply about work and business connections. It’s about who you are, and how you want to live.
It’s easy to be slightly or occasionally generous. Doing so does not require much sacrifice. But it’s difficult to be generous in a meaningful manner. That requires canceling plans, going without things that you want, putting in extra effort when you don’t have much energy left.
The people who aren’t generous, who don’t make sacrifices for others, they operate under a misconception. They think that giving is a cost. Not true. Giving is a benefit, to you. Giving makes you feel better. Helping others in a meaningful way will light up your life. It will sustain you. It will light up your life. You don’t just lose the time and money you invested in someone else. You also increase your sense of meaning, purpose and joy.
Being Generous Despite Yourself
I’m pretty good at setting my mind to get the things I want, which is a nice way of saying I can slip into mindsets that make me more concerned with what I want than what other people need.
Shortly after moving to my town, it occurred to me that I wasn’t doing anything to help others in my community. Knowing my tendency to focus on what I want, I volunteered to run for one of the boards in town, and ended up getting elected to the planning and zoning commission. For four years, I was committed to helping others. This took generosity out of the realm of daily decisions and made it a single decision I lived with for nearly half a decade. In other words, I acknowledged my own nature and forced my own hand.
Generosity comes in many forms: donating to charity, helping a colleague, picking up a friend’s kids because you know she is overwhelmed, giving advice or an introduction to job seekers.
Generosity is not a new virtue, but its role in our social media influenced world may be evolving. We all are learning to navigate a world that is less structured and more volatile. We depend more on seemingly random introductions and connections; we can rely less on finding an employer and working there for a few decades.
“We tend to like and trust experts whose expertise is born of a real love for their specialty instead of just a desire to be expert at something.”
David Foster Wallace
One December a few years ago, I managed to ski 17 days… in Vermont… over three hours from my (former) house in Connecticut.
16 of these days, I skied as a coach for young kids. Getting this much skiing in required a great deal of logistical effort and creative juggling. I scheduled conference calls before or after skiing, depending on the time zone of the other parties. I wrote articles and finished business plans when others were sleeping. I used my vacation to coach kids over the Xmas break. Why? I love to ski.
When giving advice to a seven-year-old, there aren’t many skiing conditions I haven’t experienced personally. Unable to get back up after falling in powder? Check. Skiing down a trail 100% covered in ice? Check. Jumping over a stream that goes straight across a trail? Check.
Power Mountain, Snowbird, Whistler, Stratton, Killington, Beaver Creek, Alta, Wildcat, Heavenly, Sunapee, Crested Butte, Telluride… I’ve been there, and many more.
On January 1, my day off from coaching and when the winds were blasting the mountain, I went skiing.
You can’t fake this sort of passion, but you can discover it. Whether you love carpentry or Lego, become an expert at something. In doing so, you will learn the difference between going through the motions versus devouring every detail.
Here’s the important part: then take this understanding, and apply it to all the other things you do.
If you are just out of college and in a training program, take every opportunity to deliver expert work – even if your assignments are deadly boring. The fastest way out of boring assignments is to show so much expertise that the people above you realize they are wasting your talents on grunt work.
As a freshman in college, I got a job on stage crew at the university's brand new 2,000-seat theater. For the first year, I tried my best to do what I was told. Near the end of that year, the stage manager stopped me and said, "If you showed a little initiative, you could become a crew chief. Instead of waiting for orders, look around and figure out what needs to be done."
This was the smartest thing anyone had ever said to me, or maybe it was the first time I paid attention to intelligent career advice. I eventually became a crew chief, one of only two students who held that role at the time.
If you accept a job, vow to become an expert at it. One of the first tasks I had to master on stage crew was sweeping the stage, which sounds trivial until you realize that the dancers of the Boston Ballet will be performing there and the stage must be immaculate.
Even if you are a generalist, become an expert at certain functions that other people value: negotiating, perhaps, or project management. The hard reality of the years ahead is that if you're not the best at something, you'll be underpaid or irrelevant.
“Do things right. Do the right thing. Proactively.”
Don Peppers and Martha Rogers
Back in 1995, I read The One to One Future in my car outside the bookstore. Don and Martha’s book was that good, and it changed my life.
A few months later I found out the authors had started a company based in my town, and soon thereafter I became a partner in that firm.
A couple of years ago, Don and Martha wrote an even better book, Extreme Trust. In the context of companies operating in a world of social media, it talks about the difference between being passively versus proactively trustworthy.
A company that bills you accurately for the exact monthly fee you agreed to pay is passively trustworthy. But they fail to mention the fact that their records indicate you haven’t used their web-based service in 27 months. In contrast, that same firm could send you a note asking if there is a problem. That’s being proactively trustworthy. One is more profitable in the short run, the other more profitable in the long run.
I always cringe when the son or daughter of a family friend posts on Facebook something to the effect of, “Still drunk. Blew off work.” They might as well buy a billboard in Times Square that says, “I am not trustworthy. Don’t hire me.”
One of the other lessons Don and Martha taught me is that, increasingly, memory is everywhere. Every interaction through a digital device leaves a trace. This means that every time you use your phone, tablet, laptop, and even your car, doing so creates a history of your life.
Living in the midst of this sort of pervasive memory changes how much we know about each other. It’s safe to assume that pretty much anybody can find out what you paid for your house, where you went on your summer vacation, how long you’ve been employed or unemployed, and when you flamed someone on a public web site.
And we haven’t seen anything yet. Over the next five years, sensors will spread from your phone (it is already jam-packed with sensors) to pretty much everything else you own or use. You won’t be able to escape the truth about your life and your actions. You will either be trustworthy, or not. “Not” will be a very difficult place to succeed.
Most of us have experienced some variation of the theme when either you or your child got a bad grade at school and failed to mention it. When this became obvious and the word “lie” was mentioned, the student protests that he just forgot, and that’s not lying.
This grey area will disappear. Trust in a transparent society requires proactive actions, because other people will discover the truth about you, and to protect your reputation and interests, you will need to tell them first.
“What do you want from life? Well, you can’t have that, but if you’re an American citizen you are entitled to: a heated kidney shaped pool, a microwave oven – don’t watch the food cook, a Dyna-Gym...”
Bill Spooner and Michael Evans
Talk, write and think with clarity.
As the parent of three, I’ve observed a trend: no teenager wants to write a second draft, but none figure out what they really want to say until – at least – the end of the first draft.
The same goes for me.
When I was young, I could get pretty good grades on my first draft. Today, I make five to ten passes through everything that I write. In some cases, my final piece bears no resemblance to my first draft, but when this happens, I am thrilled, because the ideas contained in the final piece soundly beat my original thoughts.
Take these words, for example. I spend most of my time working as a ghostwriter for entrepreneurs and executives. But this idea has been trying to get my attention for months, so I decided to start 2013 by investing a week in writing a short guide for people, like me, who could use a simple reminder how to successfully navigate the future.
That book turned out to be How to Self-Promote (without Being a Jerk).
Be clear about what you believe, and about what you are doing. If you want a summer job, an internship, or a new career – tell everyone. If you have an ethical problem with your current situation – admit it, and fix it. When you write, write clearly. When you speak, speak clearly. Even if it takes a long time to choose precisely the right words.
"It always has to be said that Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times. Trust me. I learned this the hard way. ... But one of the great blessings is the way one-time political adversaries have the tendency to become friends, and I feel such is certainly the case between President Clinton and me."
President George H. W. Bush
The more you feel it has to be your way, or else... the greater the chances that your way will end in tragedy.
Our world has become far too complex for one idea or one set of principles to work every time. We need blended solutions that take into account a range of diverse ideas and beliefs. This is true in politics, business, the arts, science and education.
I'd like to suggest that you keep two thoughts in mind:
1. Be open-minded to the ideas of others, because none of us are always right.
2. Look for win/win outcomes, not because you are selfless, but because you are selfish.
Let's face facts: none of us fully understands the big picture. I can't name one person - myself included - who understands in detail how to design, code, package, market, sell, and service a complex product. Each of us understands bits and pieces, but it's easy to delude ourselves that we know enough to be 100% sure our perspective is right.
Likewise, none of our politicians (or economists) understand how the interplay between taxes, regulations, laws, and the economy really works. I cannot comprehend how any among us can think with absolute certainty that their ideas are best.
The one thing school taught me was that human history is filled with societies in which the leaders were convinced they knew everything about, say, healthcare... and that bloodletting was the way to go. Or shock treatment. Or burning witches at the stake.
It is okay to have strong opinions, and to have the courage of your convictions – as long as you often challenge your own convictions and open yourself up to new ideas. Even when it comes to self-insight, we can be dead wrong.
I once took an aptitude test that measured whether I work best alone or with other people. The administrator asked me whether I wanted to guess the test result. I guessed alone. The result was strongly in the other direction, with people.
Human beings are extremely complicated. You want to eat; you want to lose weight. You want to take more chances; you are afraid of taking chances. Your parents were unpredictable so you always try to be predictable; you are bored to tears with how predictable your life has become.
We are doing our best. We are only human, and we make mistakes. We see the world through our own biases and preconceptions; that is not going to change. What can change is the degree to which we open ourselves to other ideas and experiences.
Travel outside your country. Read books that argue a different perspective than your own. Volunteer on a farm, or in an inner city. Attend lectures. Go to art shows and exhibitions that make you a bit uncomfortable. Or even better, just listen – really listen – when other people speak.
“Adaptable leaders can flex their behavior and relate more effectively with people who are different from them. They adjust more quickly to unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and unpredictable situations.”
Meena Surie Wilson
The one thing you can say for certain is that the world will not turn out the way you expect. Life surprises us in both directions.
On Wall Street, portfolio managers are paid a fortune to predict the financial markets, yet most fail to beat the market by even a few percentage points. If highly paid executives with vast resources can’t predict the future, neither can the rest of us.
Just because your gut or father or teacher or boss or spouse tells you what’s going to happen, never bet everything that this is what’s actually going to happen. In other words, the more volatile the times, the more important it is to keep your options open and be adaptable.
For example, you can keep your options open by renting instead of buying, or by applying to five schools instead of just three. You can take a course at night to broaden your skills, even though it would be easier to just watch TV. You could be friendly to everyone at work, instead of just to your boss and her boss. You could be respectful to all the other elected officials, instead of just the ones in your own party.
Part of being adaptable is understanding the limits you place on your own success, due to your own attitudes and beliefs. I've delivered hundreds of training workshops, and it always amazes me how many people say something to the effect of, "Wow. Technology is really going to change my industry, but I'm too old to adapt."
Most of those people were younger than me. Most of the people who have actually profited from my workshops were no younger than the people who claimed to be too old to change. Some people will always perceive themselves to be too old, or too young, or too something to succeed. Don't be one of them.
One of my professors from Wharton, Ken Smith, taught me an incredibly valuable lesson. He argued that everyone perceives himself or herself to be stuck in the middle. Middle managers feel stuck in the middles, yes, but CEOs feel stuck between employees and the board, investors and analysts. Star actors feel stuck between the studios, directors, and audience expectations. It goes on and on.
Decide right here and now that you are never going to stop changing. Always be ready to learn, to pivot, to experiment. If you do, you can be young at 85 and ready to lead at 18.
"People talk about mind over matter, and I believe in it, but you really have to dig deep. It's not enough just to think. You have to work past your limits. I actually don't think that people have any limitations.”
Rosie Swale Pope, who ran around the world
The things that come too easy terrify me, like winning the lottery. I figure the odds of winning the lottery are roughly the same as being killed by an engine that falls off an airplane. I don’t want any part of either.
What’s left is persistence. To be good at something, you have to work at it. To maintain something you value, you have to take care of it. This is true of your career, relationships, and health. It is true across the board.
Most of us know this to be true. There’s just one problem. It’s really hard. It’s hard to have three job interviews in a row that go south, or to have the CEO yell at you, or to exercise at 8 pm after a long and frustrating day. It’s hard to practice the piano, or fill out yet another college application.
As I write these words, I have two kids in college, but “we” have gone through the college application process a total of four times. Both transferred from their original college. Neither wanted to go through the stressful application process a second time, but both are delighted they did.
Jim George, whose quote opens the next section, is one of the most talented artists I know. He’s worked for Disney, has illustrated many books, and has helped create numerous TV shows and movies. He is stunningly talented.
Jim’s drawings look effortless, but even with his remarkable talent, each requires immense effort. He is better than most not because of his God-given abilities, but because he will keep working long after most others have settled for less.
For two years, I "watched" him draw every night from 8 pm to 4 am, while also working during the day. Never once did he deliver sloppy or disappointing artwork, but I am certain he discarded many drawings at 2 am, then started over again.
The great thing about persistence is that you can control it. Someone else may be naturally smarter or stronger than you, but you can decide to keep at it long after they have quit. You can write another draft, do additional research, keep at your diet, exercise more consistently, or simply never stop reminding yourself of why you are working so hard.
“Now. Right now. When was the last time you were there? When was the last time you weren’t busy remembering the past or mentally projecting yourself into the future?”
Most of the sports I play – skiing, squash and tennis – require you to be fully present.
In squash, the ball comes at you so fast that if you are thinking about the work project due tomorrow, you are going to lose.
Likewise, it is virtually impossible to think about anything while skiing straight through a mogul field on a steep slope. Sometimes at the end of a run, I almost have to remind myself to breathe.
These “flow” experiences are so remarkable in part because they are so rare. Most of us find it difficult to fully immerse ourselves in what’s happening right now. As a result, we don’t hear what others try to tell us. We miss some obvious opportunities, and fall into some obvious traps.
It’s pretty easy to recognize this behavior in other people, like when you tell your boss why you need another week to complete a project, and then you explain all the steps you still need to do, and he responds by saying, “So how much more time do you need?”
You may be frustrated when others start talking while you are in the middle of a sentence, or when you notice that the other person is texting while you are talking. Unfortunately, it is very hard to understand all the ways in which you personally are obsessed with the past and future.
Most people think that they are great at multitasking, that they can do two things at once, that they hear every detail. This is not true.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s bad to plan ahead. You ought to set aside time for planning. It is bad to think about the future when you should be focused on the present.
Think of your cute little niece proudly showing you how she can skip, while you are worried about whether you can make the 7:15 pm train back into the city and meet your friend for drinks. Do you really want to be the glassy-eyed adult who nods absent-mindedly at this child?
Great athletes, performers, teachers and leaders know how to be fully present. I sometimes attend yoga classes, and out of the 10+ instructors I’ve had, a woman named Megan stands out.
Megan notices everything, and remembers. She’s not necessarily better at poses than her colleagues, but she is far better at noticing if you are doing a pose wrong, or if someone is struggling more than normal.
I’ve noticed that the best trainers and teachers focus on the people in the room who are toughest to reach. In contrast, most teachers feel that if they can reach 90% of the students, they are doing a great job. But the best teachers aren’t happy until everyone feels included and involved.
The only way to do this is to be aware of what’s happening, right now, in the room.
The first step to get what you really want from life is to be aware of what's happening, right now, in your life. Give it a try. Does this sentence describe who you want to be?
Be generous and expert, trustworthy and clear, open-minded and adaptable, persistent and present.
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