Are you happy, or just smiling?

My first book went viral before viral was viral.

The website got over a million hits in one day, emails began pouring in from across the world and the nametag story spread like wildfire. My career was officially launched.

And to my surprise, that media storm lasted for nearly two years. You can’t pay for that kind of coverage.

Looking back, I estimate my advertising value equivalency to be in the millions.

Then again, what results did I have to show for it? Beyond the heaps of web traffic and the inflation of my ego, what economic return did all that attention convert into?

Approximately, zilch. Because I wasn’t ready. And neither was my business. When the media tsunami came crashing through town, there was nary a surfboard in sight. While I may not have drowned, I was still miles away from hanging ten.

I got taken for a ride before I was ready to go on one.

This phenomenon happens all the time. History is full of artists, politicians, athletes and businesspeople that became too successful, too early, too often. And because their trajectory initiated before their professional foundation was strong enough to contain and convert the experience, they left behind a wake of missed opportunities, wasted attention and underleveraged exposure.

And those are just the professional repercussions. It gets personal, too.

When our trajectory of achievement initiates before our existential foundation isn’t strong enough to cope with the experience, succeeding takes up our whole life. And the big questions go untended.

Am I happy, or just smiling? What void am I trying to fill with all this success? When will I have done enough to be okay with myself? And if it all burns to the ground, who will I be without my brilliant career?

We have to be honest with ourselves.

We have to decide which successes are worth succeeding for.

We have to understanding that getting what we think we want often comes at a cost we don’t expect.

Will you be ready for your ride?

Employees were merely tolerated, rather than welcomed

During my years as a valet parker at a luxury hotel, we learned how to bookend our service with something called the gold standard of hospitality.

Every guest would receive a warm, sincere greeting, and a fond farewell. This act assured that the first and last interaction, as brief as our exchange might have been, still reinforced our mission of extraordinary service.

Guests couldn’t walk in or out of the property without being reminded that we were glad to see them.

Moore’s book on ageless souls calls this the art of being seen. To be is to be perceived. To have your being, your life and vitality, you need to be seen. When you are seen for exactly who you are, you have your being. Your being seen pushes you forward into existence.

One way companies often fall flat with this act is through the first moment of the employee journey. Saying hello.

Takes me back to my first marketing job. Upon showing up at the new office on day one, there was hardly a peep among the team. A few people looked up from their screen and waved, but there was no orientation, no welcome email, no kickoff breakfast, just a desk.

My boss’s words still ring in my head:

Our tightly knit team is a bit of a cult of personality, and it takes a while for them to warm up to new people. Think of it an immune system, and it’s very protective of foreign bodies.

Good to know. Appreciate the hospitality. When’s lunch?

To my disappointment, their standoffish culture persisted well beyond the first day. Even as other new team members were hired after me, the place always felt like employees were merely tolerated, rather than welcomed. Which made people feel isolated, despite sitting at the same big table.

No wonder turnover was so high.

A chilly reminder that if you want to build an amazing company culture, you don’t need guards at the gates, you need a welcoming committee.

When someone new begins, a cadence of moments should follow. Announce their arrival, give them a tour, regale them with some company lore, bring snacks, take pictures, assign them a buddy, plan a team outing, and so on.

Whatever it takes to create a warm welcome.

Remember, hospitality is the work of the host, not the guest.

Don’t make new employees feel like furniture everyone is walking around. 

How does your company practice the art of being see on day one?

Grow beyond the boundaries of branding

When I started my company, I didn’t have a logo.

My only priority was getting my book into people’s hands, getting my message into people’s hearts and getting my name into people’s heads.

Everything else was secondary. Including design.

But about a year into my career, I noticed something pretty interesting. My brand identity started taking on a life of its own. Any time my book title, website address, company name, biography or surname showed up in the media, the editor would just go ahead and throw an image of a little nametag right next to it.

The thing is, I never asked them to do that. It just happened. The marketplace was filling in the gaps. They saw something that wasn’t there. Just like the human brain makes statistical estimates to complete the visual picture, people finished my story on their own.

Because the nametag was something that was already there. It was the universal experience. The nametag made it easy for people to tell themselves a particular narrative. It was the handle by which the brand could be lifted.

So in the end, I never had to design my logo.

Because the audience defined it for me.

And it hasn’t changed since.

What if the market targeted you?

Turn the radio up for that sweet sound

In espionage movies, government agencies put their spies on a need to know basis.

Their clearance to access sensitive data will gets restricted because it’s not necessary for them to conduct their mission.

Computer operating systems have something similar with a feature called the discretionary access control mechanism. This determines whether a user is granted access to a certain file. Considering how many different pieces of data are dynamically competing for finite user interface space on the computer, it makes sense for the machine to prioritize.

Both of these are examples of setting strong intellectual boundaries. And in a world where information is coming at us from every possible angle, faster than our constitutions can possibly handle, it might be a good idea for each of us to put ourselves on a need to know basis as well.

The prime example is with transportation delays.

Imagine you’re commuting to work, the train stops midway through the tunnel, and the conductor comes over the loudspeaker with one of his useless, vague stock phrases:

Attention passengers, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us. The train is currently being held momentarily by our dispatcher. Also there is a vomiting feral cat inside of the front car, the police are attempting to remove the animal, and when they do, we can move again.

Meanwhile, inside the subway cars, announcements are greeted with predictable rolled eyes, audible groans and other violent expressions of frustration and anxiety.

But the thing is, we don’t need to know that. Nobody does. Conductors may be obligated to tell us it, and passengers may want to hear it to justify their anger and have a believable excuse for being late to work, but let’s not shit ourselves here.

If we had put ourselves on a need to know basis, the pointless reason for a train’s sixty second delay would not qualify. Because knowing that information does not simplify or improve our daily existence, it only complicates it.

The same thing goes with the airlines, whose announcements always start with the classic two word hedge, well folks

Well folks…our flight has been delayed due to hail the size of cantaloupes.

Well folks…our flight is currently experiencing a maintenance delay after a member of the ground crew got sucked into the engine.

Well folks…the flight crew has arrived at the gate, but the ground crew is running about seventeen minutes behind, and our new departure time is approximately eleven. We’ll update you as soon as we know more information.

There has never been a more convincing argument for noise cancelling headphones. What better way to put ourselves on a need to know basis?

And surely our egos will have a problem with this protest, as it wants clarity and certainty and control. Heaven forbid we miss out on something.

Activate fomo censor in three, two, one, engage.

However, what our reptilian brain doesn’t want us to know is, every piece of information is not a crisis. There are so few emergencies in this life.

And so, do your nervous system a favor. Put yourself on a need to know basis. Information isn’t power, it’s an overwhelming burden.

Next time the announcement comes over the horn, remember the words of the great eighties pop song.

Turn the radio up for that sweet sound, hold me close, never let me go, keep this feeling alive, make me lose control. 

Where do you need to put yourself on a need to know basis?

Starting assignments before the teacher gives directions

Entrepreneurs start businesses so we can spend eighty hours a week avoiding having to work forty hours a week for someone else.

And that doesn’t even guarantee that our business will see any returns.

How absurd is that?

But this is our personality. We’re rebellious, individualistic and antiauthoritarian people. Independent souls who desire our own piece of ground.

Think of it this way. If you were the kind of student who couldn’t follow directions, or started your class assignments before the teachers even gave directions, you would probably make a good entrepreneur.

This is the perfect description of my personality, and it’s why starting my own publishing company was such a compelling career path for me.

Until it wasn’t. That’s one of those little facts entrepreneurs love to ignore. Labor statistics show that twenty percent of small businesses fail in their first year, thirty percent fail in their second year, fifty percent fail after five years, and seventy percent fail in their tenth.

Now, this doesn’t mean that your business is destined to fail, but it does mean that we should be ready to pivot if it does. Because in many instances, that pivot may require our entrepreneurial gifts to be reined in, or at least redistributed.

As my mentor always reminded me, anyone’s greatest strength can become their biggest weaknesses. Anyone’s cute coping mechanism as a child can become an infuriating character defect as an adult.

Manfred writes in a journal of entrepreneurship that there can be a dark side to this personality. Many entrepreneurs have traits and behaviors that allow them to succeed in their businesses, he says, however these same traits can often prove detrimental in their roles as managers or coworkers. The energy necessary to achieve a business dream may have origins in desires and needs that can be dysfunctional in the business setting.

As someone who made the rocky transition from entrepreneur to employee, let me tell you, this is no joke.

If you’re used to working in unstructured environments where you have complete control, collaboration might prove hard for you.

If you’re used to leaning into your obsessive concern over detail, you might be the one who derails productivity and annoy your colleagues.

If your overriding need for applause and recognition motivated you to overwork, the rest of the team might have a hard time keeping up with you.

Think about it. Entrepreneurship is a beautiful business model, when it works. And if it doesn’t, it’s critical to think about how your skills transfer into other arenas, and what potential disadvantages that might bring. 

Has your cute coping mechanism as a child become an infuriating character defect as an adult?

You’ve always made it easy to believe in you

In the beginning of your creative journey, when you don’t yet have the inner confidence to believe in yourself, and lots of people are telling you no, you need trusted voices.

You need to surround yourself with people who believe in your yes, like close friends and family members and mentors who know you best.

Everyone else you can pretty much ignore. In fact, if you don’t, you might end up micro optimizing your idea into oblivion.

During those first few years of wearing a nametag every day, thousands of the wrong people told me to quit, and a handful of the right people told me to stick with it.

But was obvious who was worth listening to. Feedback is source dependent, as my therapist used to joke. If a complete stranger who has no idea what you’re here to do has a problem with your dream, then that’s no reason to stop. You just have to learn how to give weight to the right voices and be selective about your receptivity to criticism and its sources.

Grazer, the producer whose films have grossed over thirteen billion dollars, gives the following advice in his outstanding book on curiosity:

Decline input when you’re worried about being persuaded out of something you really believe in. Just because someone smart and persuasive is sitting in front of you making their case, doesn’t mean you should try to recontextualize a decision that you have already made.

It’s a refreshing reminder that we don’t need that many people to believe in us. Less than a dozen will do.

Working as a brand manager at a global startup also taught me this lesson. We had about six hundred employees, and although my people pleasing tendencies wanted to impress all of them, frankly, there were only about ten people on the executive team whose opinions really mattered.

And so, focusing on building relationships with and creating value for them was my priority. Which meant that if some entry level programmer from a country that I couldn’t even pronounce had an issue with one of my training videos, that was no reason to beat myself up and go back to the drawing board.

Tillich’s book on the courage to be has a beautiful passage about this:

To believe in love in the face of hatred, life in the face of death, day in the dark of night, good in the face of evil, to some all of these may seem to be hopelessly naïve, wishful thinking and whistling in the dark, but each of these are manifestations of enormous courage.

Lesson learned, give weight to the right voices, and yours will surely shine for years to come.

Whose advice have you outgrown?

Taking out an insurance policy on our hearts

When mistakes are made and failures are met, compassion is always a better choice than criticizing, chastising or condemning.

Not only because it’s gentler in the moment, but also because it’s useful in the future. When we can get to know these imperfect parts of ourselves with as much kindness as possible, it’s like taking out an insurance policy on our hearts. One that protects us in the event of forthcoming disaster.

Leary’s research on the curse of the self is revelatory on this issue. He shows how compassion provides a bubble of emotional safety within which we can perceive ourselves and our life’s circumstances clearly without fear of condemnation. If we treat yourself with kindness and respect when things go wrong, he says, our ego won’t be battered by life’s circumstances and it will have no need to defend itself. It will not need to distort the sometimes ugly truth to preserve our feelings and esteem, and it will not cause us to suffer over the common but largely inconsequential setbacks that we experience.

We have to think of it as training ourselves to survive happily in spite of our future frustrations.

One tactic for strengthening this bubble of emotional safety is by speaking compassionately to ourselves immediately following mistakes and failures.

One of my younger coworkers struggles with this. The other day our client really laid into her about their increasing customer acquisition costs. And she was telling me about how she takes small failures like that quite personally, even though she’s only be they arise from factors completely outside of her control. Not to mention, she’s only a few years out of college, and is just starting her career.

My advice to her was to write out a few mantras that she could incant to herself before, during and after the meetings. This bookending practice has been profoundly useful in my own journey to stop beating the shit out of myself.

When people lash out at me for reasons outside of my direct control, telling myself that this is their prerogative, and it’s not an indictment of me, puts my heart at ease.

Telling myself that I am simply an accidental and arbitrary recipient of their vitriol, puts my heart at ease. Each of these compassionate moments is cumulative.

The kinder we are with ourselves, the more we can develop the courage to tolerate difficult moments in the future.

It’s a not the kind of insurance policy most of us are comfortable taking out, but it’s a hell of lot better than prosecuting ourselves for crimes past.

How could you practice being kind to yourself in small, concrete ways?

The fastest at something not worth measuring

Typing tests measure the number of words you can accurately process in a minute.

The average professional typist reaches speeds of about fifty to eighty words per minute, although certain positions can require up to a hundred.

This topic has been on my mind because several of my coworkers recently had a friendly office competition to see who could score the highest.

Definitely fun to watch, although the test got me thinking.

When did we decide that this number was an indicator of competence? When did we agree that it mattered how fast a person could type the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog?

Your words per minute score certainly matters for data entry, court stenography and transcriptionist jobs. And most companies probably aren’t going to hire candidates who use the hunt and peck technique to do their work.

But for the majority of modern professionals out there, there isn’t a strong correlation between hitting keys and creating value. Typing speed and accuracy is far less important than skills like creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, selling ability, communication skills and problem solving.

What good is writing something faster than anybody if your words engage nobody?

Michelangelo took three years to complete his sculptural masterpiece, yet no historians measure his worth as an artist in pieces of stone chipped per day.

Seinfeld claims that he often takes an hour to write a single sentence, and he’s the only comedian in history worth a billion dollars.

It may true that if we can’t measure it, then we can’t manage it. But you have to be measuring the right things for that equation to matter in the first place.

The danger in business is that we often become preoccupied with trying to quantify something that isn’t important.

And for most of the working world, bragging about how many words per minute you can type isn’t really productivity, it’s just corporate materialism.

Are you the fastest at anything worth measuring?

The only enemy is not having the thing done

Should we add a few more chapters?
Do we need one last round of copy edits?
Is there anyone else on the team who can review the manuscript?
Do we send a few copies to our clients for feedback?
Can we wait until more data comes out that will further prove our point?
Does the graphic art need another set of eyes?

Sorry, but the answer is no. Absolutely not. Whatever question you are about to ask, assume my response is no.

It’s like my favorite scene in the worst spy movie of all time:

Scott, you just, don’t get it, do you? You don’t. Shush. Just shush. Knock knock? Who’s there? Shush. Let me tell you a little story about a man named shush. Even before you start, that was a preemptive shush, just know that we have a whole bag of shush with your name on it.

Creative people beware. In the eleventh hour of whatever project you’re making, the only enemy is not having the thing done. We have passed the point of no return. The time for optimizing and improving and enhancing has come and gone.

Schwartz makes the point in his book about the paradox of choice:

Believing that accepting good enough will make our decisions simpler. Our ultimate satisfaction from our decision decreases with every minute we spend pondering about the opportunity cost of that decision.

There’s only one problem with this argument. It doesn’t hold water with certain personalities. If your team is full of people who have very specific goals and feel the need to do everything in their power to achieve their goals, no matter how long it takes, shipping the project is going to be an uphill battle.

Adams, the most successful cartoonist of all time, explains the difference between two types, simplifiers and optimizers. The first type prefers the easy way to accomplish a task, even though some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome. Optimizers on the other hand, look for the very best solution, even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems.

Personally, my tendency is more of a simplifier. Where done is not only better than perfect, it’s better than good. Quality isn’t the point, finishing is.

After finishing a writing project recently, one colleague of mine asked me if there someone specific we wanted to read the book.

And my response was, not really. It doesn’t matter if anyone reads it, it only matters that we wrote it.

It’s not about being the finest, it’s about being the first.

Can you tell the difference between patience and procrastination?

Submitting ourselves to the ancient rhythms of the internal sea

One beautiful feature of adulthood is that we can make intentional choices about important things like tempo, rhythm, cadence, pace, velocity and trajectory.

Instead of being snagged and troubled by the whirlpools of other people’s emotions and agendas, we can be the ones who dictate our sense of balance, proportion and efficiency. Our life becomes what we decide to make of it. We are responsible for its dispersion.

Pilates, the pioneer of the famous fitness system, had a beautiful maxim around this issue, which has guided his teachings for a century:

As much as necessary, as little as possible.

He trained students to get their bodies to perform simple movements without wasting their effort everywhere else. Instead of burning out by forcing themselves to keep some unnatural pace, he helped them unlock the right movement strategy and efficient distribution of forces.

Doing this requires real focus and effort, as anyone who has taken a few classes will attest. But it’s worth it.

Having been a yoga student for more than a dozen years now, this principle has paid dividends in many ways. During yoga postures, I have learned how to do as much as necessary with one particular muscle group, and as little as possible on the rest. Which leaves full of energy, rather than exhausted.

The cool part is, this lesson applies outside of the studio as well.

In our professional lives, each of us can take ownership of our work pace and see similar results. At my startup job, there are several running questions undergirding my daily work.

How can you do as much as necessary, but little as possible? To some, this may sound a bit like slacking off. But that’s just the capitalist in you. Assuming that doing more equals doing better.

But that’s not a sustainable pace. For me, there is a rhythm from which I can leap into improvisational forays and then safely return, without killing myself. And it really works.

Are you giving yourself permission to work at your own tempo?

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