I had dinner last night with a new acquaintance who owns a highly successful manufacturing operation in the Midwest. It was fascinating hearing his story of how he left a job running a similar operation for a Fortune 500 company in the same town, because he did not like the way they did business. After several years of trying to work within the system (the big company had bought the privately-owned operation that he started with out of high school), he left, scraped up every available dollar he had saved, mortgaged his house to the hilt, purchased some used equipment, and opened his new company seven miles away from the old.
So many customers followed him that he was profitable within two months, and within four years the corporate-owned plant had shut its doors. He has since expanded to four times his original size, and is now enjoying his semi-retirement in South Florida, where I met him and his wife.
Here’s the funny thing: the company he originally worked for is a sophisticated $23B operation, founded over 125 years ago, with facilities around the globe. No doubt it enjoys cutting-edge strategic planning and best practices, as well as strict standards for talent acquisition and management. They could have made my friend the GM of their plant and saved a lot of trouble for themselves, but he was ineligible for the job because he hadn’t gone to college.
I asked him what his competitive advantage was that made him so successful. Was it low price, quality, service, some secret sauce? He immediately responded that it was not low prices at all—in fact, his prices are higher than his competitors’. He said:
“Jack, the reason people do business with us is that we do what we say we’re going to do. When someone calls us, a real person answers the phone. When they have a problem, we fix it as quickly as we can, even if we have to eat the cost. I’m old school, I never went to college, but I know what I’m good at.”
His words remind me of the Woody Allen quote: “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” Business pundits have written billions of words about what it takes to succeed, and maybe all their innovative ideas just mask the fact that there is a lot of money to be made by just doing the simple things well, and being someone that customers can rely on.
This post pulls together several separate threads that I’ve experienced over the past few days. First, I’ve been working on a new speech about healthy sales cultures for a new client, and I’ve found that what seemed to be a straightforward and routine undertaking has gotten much deeper than I expected. Second, I listened in on a podcast by Tim Hurson on The Sales Experts Channel, in which he introduced me to the concept of the “third third”. Finally, in a conversation with a new client this weekend, he told me that he had begun working on his first book, but abandoned the project when he got negative feedback on his first chapter.
These three separate incidents helped me to spot—or maybe just clarify—a pattern that seems to apply when you take on a difficult project that requires both deep understanding and creativity. I examined similar situations that I’ve been in before, including writing three books, creating new courses, and—of course—major speeches. I can’t say for sure whether it applies to anyone besides me, but I’m not that different from you, so you might find it helpful.
I noticed that these undertakings seem to go through three phases if they are to succeed:
Ambition: The project has to be ambitious, with just a slight whiff of “fake it ‘til you make it”, for the next two stages to kick in. If the project is comfortably within your current capabilities, the good news is that you won’t go through the concern/crap stage, but the bad news is that you won’t produce anything to get excited about either. On the other hand, it has to be close enough within reach that you have to have some sense of confidence that you can rise to the occasion. For example, for my project I knew that my experience and wide reading have given me a good grasp of the topic, although I’ve never put it together into a coherent package.
It has to be big enough and worthwhile enough to stimulate your interest and sustain it during the inevitable next stage. Even better, make a commitment so you don’t have the option of backing out when the going gets tough, because it will.
Concern/crap: This is by far the hardest but the most productive phase of the entire project. As you get deeper into the topic, you generate concern and inevitably produce crap. The concern arises because as you dig into the nuance and detail of the points you’re trying to make, you realize that you have to learn far more than you thought—and the more you learn, the more you figure out how much more there is still left to know. You discover that others have more expertise than you do, so you begin to doubt your own abilities, maybe even your right to talk about it.
The crap comes out as you start regurgitating everything you know onto the paper or your slide deck, because your concern causes you to overcompensate, and you haven’t thought through the patterns and linkages carefully enough. The less you understand something, the more words you use trying to show otherwise.
But there’s value in just getting stuff on paper, regardless of how bad it is. It builds momentum and helps you think out loud. Plus, as long as you allow yourself enough time, you’ll find that your mind is somehow working on the problem in the background. In my own case, I inevitably wake up in the middle of the night with new insights or a clearer idea of how everything fits together.
The most important thing is to keep going. As Tim Hurson says, we stop thinking before the good stuff comes. So, when my friend quit writing his book because he found out it wasn’t as good as he thought it was, he forfeited his chances of working through to the good stuff. During the concern and crap stage, remember to keep pounding the rock, because frustration can mask the real progress that’s going on underneath.
The crap stage can easily frustrate and discourage you, but here’s where your ambition comes to the rescue. If you’ve committed in some way, you can’t get out of it, so there is no way out but to keep plowing forward to produce something that won’t embarrass you and will truly add value to your audience. With a customer it’s one thing, but if it’s a personal project such as writing a book you might need to go for some type of public commitment to raise the cost of failure.
Excitement: When you break through the concern and crap stage, the glittering prize at the end is the incredible excitement you will feel knowing you’ve produced something fresh and worthwhile. As your key ideas crystallize in your mind, you start cutting out the crap and clutter—chipping off the rough edges and additional polishing makes the hard diamond sparkle through, and you can’t help but be charged up to deliver it.
You know you’re going to deliver something that others will value, and you’re going to look good in the process. You get to the point where your only thought is, like Jack Welch: “I can’t wait to get out there and do this!”
What if you get through the first two stages and you’re still not excited? Repeat steps 1 and 2.
This Wednesday, I began the day by reading the sports section in the Miami Herald. Then, I went to my desk to work on my current book project about high-margin selling. Somehow the quirky chemical mixture in my brain catalyzed both those activities into the idea in this post: goals are good, but expectations are better.
The article in the sports section concerned the Miami Dolphins, who are on a six-game winning streak after beginning the season with just one win in five tries. As a fan, I’m just happy about the wins, but as a blogger I’m more impressed with how they have won. In almost all their victories their chances of winning were either bleak or severely threatened late in the fourth quarter. Two weeks ago, they looked pathetic for the first three and a half quarters against the LA Rams, and trailed 10-0 with five minutes left. Somehow, their offense came to life and they scored 14 points to win the game. Last week, they had a 17 point lead in the fourth, but had to make a last-ditch goal line stand to prevent the 49ers from tying the game in the last seconds.
The “same old Dolphins” of recent years would never have showed the resiliency to deal with adversity late in the game. The article I read explained how the culture of the team has changed under new coach Adam Gase. While the Dolphins have always wanted to win, and have gone into every game with the goal of winning, for the first time in a long time they now go into games expecting to win.
“Coach Gase came in trying to establish a winning culture,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. Now, “we go into games not hoping to win but expecting to win. When you approach the game expecting to win, that’s usually the outcome.”
Even when things might have looked bleak to the fans, the players have expected to win. When quarterback Ryan Tannehill took the field with five minutes left, he told the players that they would win the game.
So, what does this have to do with high-margin selling?
Negotiating a fair price for your product or service with demanding buyers can be just as tough a game as football, one in which relative power, strategy, skill, and attitude are all critical factors in determining the outcome. The first three factors shape your expectations, and then your expectations shape your attitude.
As Wharton professor G Richard Shell says, “Research on negotiation confirms that anyone who is willing to take the time to develop higher expectations will do significantly better and do so without putting his relationship or reputation with others at risk.”
He then adds: “What is the difference between a simple goal and something that has matured into a genuine expectation? Basically one thing: your attitude.” 
So much has been written about the importance and the power of goal-setting, and I agree that it’s critical to set goals. However, there is a clear difference between a goal and an expectation:
- An expectation is a considered judgment, which means it’s based on hard-headed reality, on knowing and not just wanting. An expectation is “earned belief”, as Roger Bannister showed the world.
- You can choose any goal you want, but you can’t choose your expectations; they grow organically through the work and preparation you put in.
- Goals can often be extrinsic, imposed on you by others, but expectations can only be intrinsic; intrinsic beliefs put down deep roots and produce hardy plants.
Don’t get me wrong, goals are extremely useful and valuable. But expectations are even better, especially in any competitive activity that involves a clash of wills, whether it’s sports, sales, or even politics and war. That’s because your expectation shows through in the way you interact with others. The attitude that you bring to the field or negotiating table is contagious, and imbues your dealings with others with a quiet but palpable confidence. When they see your confidence despite their best efforts, it has to shake theirs a bit.
Dealing with your customer is different from sport in that it does not have to be—in fact, should not be—competitive. If you’re doing your job right, earning a higher price is not necessarily a zero-sum game in which one side wins and the other party automatically loses. That’s why if you have a reasonable expectation based on fact that your solution is better and worth the higher price, you can accord your buyer with confidence that they’re making the right decision, which is especially helpful if they have to sell the deal internally.
The resiliency the Dolphins have showed is a direct result of their expectations. Expectations cultivate conviction which in turn affects your perceptions of what happens during the process. Many things happen that can be viewed as setbacks or opportunities. When the Dolphins returner fumbled a punt on their own two yard line in the San Diego game, the defenders said to themselves, “This is exactly what we like, an opportunity to show how good we are.” It’s confirmation bias at work: if you expect to lose, anything that goes wrong is confirmation that you were right. If you expect to win, anything that goes wrong is just a minor speed bump. That attitude is at the heart of resiliency; it’s not just a refusal to surrender, it’s an incapacity to even consider surrender.
Keep on setting goals. But then get to work immediately to turn them into expectations.
 G. Richard Shell, Bargaining for Advantage, p. 24.
I’ve just finished reading Walter Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success. In the 1960s Mischel ran a series of experiments in which small children at Stanford’s Bing preschool were given a choice: there was a single marshmallow on a plate, and the researcher told each child that she had to leave the room for a little while; if the child wanted, they could eat the marshmallow at any time, but if they waited until the researcher returned, they could have two. The main purpose of the experiment was to measure differences in self-control, and to study what the successful kids did to keep themselves from gobbling the marshmallow immediately.
The experiment might never have become known outside the specialized world of psychology, except for one thing. The kids tested were classmates of Mischel’s daughters, and several years later he decided to see whether there was a correlation between self-control exhibited on the test and life results. He found a clear and strong correlation that was beyond what he expected; for example, those in the top third of self-control averaged 210 SAT points higher than those in the bottom third. These differences, and others, such as obesity rates and income, persisted over time as he continued to monitor results through the years.
By themselves, these results can be very disturbing. Does this mean that our success in life is so dependent on a single trait—self-control—that you’re born with and is easily measurable by the time you’re four years old? If you fail the marshmallow test at age four, are you doomed to a life of failure? Or is there something you can do about it?
Actually, there is a lot you can do about it, and low self-control does not have to be destiny.
Mischel’s key point is that self-control is not a fixed, unitary trait. It’s not fixed in the sense of being totally determined by our genes; it’s a product of our genes, our environment, and our learning. Most importantly, it’s a skill that can be learned, practiced, and strengthened. It’s also not unitary, which means that we don’t apply the same amount of self-control in every situation. We all have our own unique combination of hot and cool buttons. Bill Clinton is the poster child example for this. He obviously had enormous self-control that got him from a small town in Arkansas to the presidency, but not enough to prevent a sexual scandal once he got there.
The most surprising and potentially useful finding to me was about the relation between mindset and self-control. Researchers such as Roy Baumeister have told us that willpower and self-control are a finite resource, which means that exercising self-control in one task depletes your ability to exercise it as strongly in a subsequent task. This “strength model of self-control” has become an enormously influential and insidious idea. It’s insidious because it tells you that you can only do so much, and even that it’s OK to limit your aspirations for self-improvement. It tells you that it’s not your fault when you fail—it’s biology.
I’ve had my doubts about the strength theory for two reasons. Looking at the big picture, history contains so many examples of people who have accomplished great things without seeming to be affected by willpower limits, who have persevered in many situations despite hunger, fatigue and deep discouragement. Closer to home, I have been working for the past month on a deep work project, which has made me spend much longer blocks of time and attention working on tasks that require a lot of self-control. So far I’ve found that I can work much longer and get much more done than I previously thought possible, and the best part is that I now finish the day with more energy than before.
Yet despite those doubts about the theory, the idea that self-control is finite has lingered in the back of my mind and imposed limits on my work habits. For example, writing can take a lot of willpower, so after about a half hour of writing I start telling myself that it’s time to take a break; sometimes I give in and sometimes I make a conscious effort to try to power through my “limits”.
But Mischel tells us that those limits may be self-imposed. If we think our willpower is limited, we’ll be right. Fortunately, if we think it’s not limited, we’ll also be right. According to Mischel, our mindset about self-control also influences whether we suffer depletion. If we believe in the strength model, we do get depleted from difficult tasks; if we don’t believe in it, we can escape the effects and even gain more stamina and strength from tasks that require self-control. Even more promising, we can learn the new mindset and gain the same benefits.
Carol Dweck and fellow researchers ran studies that found that the amount of willpower fatigue that participants exhibited was affected by their prior beliefs about whether willpower was a limited resource. They also found that just teaching college students the new mindset carried over beyond the lab and led to less procrastination and reducing excess spending.
I learned first-hand about the power of mindset many years ago. When I was still in my 20s, I began having a lot of stomach issues, and went to several doctors to try to discover the cause. I remember one final test, after which the doctor told me they could find nothing physically wrong, so they assumed it was stress related. Literally from that moment on, my symptoms disappeared and have never returned. I figured since it was only in my mind, that I could change my mind.
I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising that our self-control can be affected by our mindset. Dweck has already shown us that our beliefs about whether intelligence is fixed or malleable can have a significant impact on what we attempt and achieve, and in effect can become self-fulfilling prophecies. I learned that even our mindset about stress can affect whether it helps or harms us.
Now it’s gratifying and enormously empowering to find that the same idea applies to self-control. If you know you can self-control your self-control, the sky is the limit!