Do It Better

In my last post, I told of a speech I gave to a room full of competitors in a StartUp pitch contest. I gave them three ideas to improve the quality of their thinking and of their pitches. At the end, a woman asked me how her team could win if everyone followed my advice. I answered in three words:

“Do it better.”

I didn’t mean to be flip with that answer. There really is nothing more that really needs to be said. Assuming my advice was on target—and of course I believe it was—it was like handing a treasure map to three teams and then getting out of the way. The team that did the best job of following the directions would get the treasure.

The limitation of most blog posts (including this one), most training programs, and even most university degree programs is that they can only point the way; they can’t do the work for you. Every time I deliver a training class, I know that there will be a bell curve distribution describing how well participants will apply the ideas they learned. Out of the 90 people who heard me last week, some didn’t listen fully; some didn’t totally understand what I was saying; some didn’t fully believe me, so they are automatically headed to the left side of the curve. Of those who heard, understood and believed, they will sort themselves out along the right side of the bell curve according to how hard they work and how intelligently they apply the ideas.

The pint, though, is that winning or losing comes down to executing better than everyone else, and that’s something that is almost totally within their control.

To give a real-life example, my friend John Spence, who is an enormously influential and successful management thinker, actually failed out of college his freshman year, mainly because he loved to party a little too much. It was a wake-up slap in the face to him, so he was determined to make a fresh start at community college, and he decided to figure out what he did wrong and what he could change. The most mind-bogglingly obvious, simple and yet powerful insight he got was: the answers are in the books.

If he wanted to succeed, he need to find, remember and apply those answers better than everyone else—which is exactly what he did, and he graduated number one in his program.

We’re always looking for a new angle that will help us get ahead, or a fresh answer to our existing problems, which is why so many thousands of self-help books are published every year and so many billions of words of well-meaning advice are avidly consumed every day. But most of what it takes to win is already in the books or in our heads. Maybe what we all need to do is stop trying to learn the next new thing and work on applying the time-tested old thing better—better than everyone else, or maybe just slightly better than we did yesterday.

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Is There an Upside to Stress?

This blog post could change your life—maybe even prolong it.

If you get stage fright before a presentation (and who doesn’t?), if you are under stress (and who isn’t?), if you think stress is bad for you (and who doesn’t?), then I strongly recommend that you read and take to heart the central message of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Kelly McGonigal.

Whether you think stress is bad for you or good for you, you’re right.

To put that last statement in a less cryptic way: stress can improve your performance, make you stronger, and even make you a more caring person—as long as you believe it can. In fact, the best way to succeed in stressful situations is not to try to reduce your stress, but to embrace it as a resource to propel enhanced performance.

I realize that sounds like superficial motivational hooey, brought to you by the same people who tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to, but McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford, backs up her assertions with extensive research and a few eye-opening studies.

In some ways, The Upside of Stress does not tell us anything new. We’ve all heard the meme that what does not kill you makes you stronger, and I have long been telling students in my presentations classes that anxiety before a speech means that you care and that you are gearing up for superior performance. So, yes, we have heard some of this before, but this is the first book I’ve come across that backs that up with research and explains the biology behind these ideas.

What is also new is that we learn that there is more than one possible response to stress. We’ve been taught that stress is caused by the activation of the fight or flight response in our minds and bodies. That response is a natural reaction to threat, which prepares our minds and bodies for superior performance, but it evolved many millennia ago in a far different environment than our modern world. So, according to the mismatch theory, our stone-age brains respond to modern circumstances in ways that can hamper performance and over time can severely damage our health.

That makes sense if fight or flight is our only option, but McGonigal explains that there are actually three different possible responses to stressful situations. Besides the familiar threat response, we can have a challenge response or a tend-and-befriend response. Although both possible responses are equally important to well-being, my focus in this blog is on the challenge response.

The difference between the threat response and the challenge response lies in our estimation of our ability to meet the situation that faces us. When we’re fearing for our life, our body does the sensible thing: it goes into defensive mode and sends out hormones that cause a lot of changes; one of the most important is that it constricts blood vessels around our heart, because it might reduce blood loss in the event of severe injury. When we’re not in fear, different hormones cause the blood vessels to relax, which allows for greater blood flow and more energy to rise to the challenge and drives better performance, not to mention being better for us in the long run.

Evoking the challenge response does not reduce stress, but it does make the stress work in our favor. In studies, it has been shown that simply informing people that stress can help them perform better, can lead to improved performance on standardized tests, for example. One reason may be that the threat response narrows our attention and places greater focus on signs that things are going badly, but the challenge response opens our attention to more positive possibilities and opportunities. In numerous studies, those primed to generating a challenge response through prior education led to better performance. Even better, the benefits tend to last far beyond the initial priming.

So, how do you generate the challenge response? The most obvious first step is to avoid the threat response by creating the conditions so that you are not actually in danger. If you are well prepared for a presentation, you should take comfort in the fact that you are equipped to handle any difficult questions that might come up. (Or as I tell my students, if you’re nervous because you haven’t prepared well, you deserve to be!)

You can also activate the challenge response by viewing the stressful situation as an opportunity for learning and growth. As I’ve written before, this mastery mindset has been shown to improve performance in several different areas, including sales.

Actually, you’ve already completed one of the most important things you can do to generate the challenge response and benefit from stress: simply by reading this article, you are more likely to bring a different mindset to your next stressful situation!

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The Technology of YOU

The time is now and always

The time is now and always

Selling is simple when you have something that customers value and competitors can’t copy. Most companies strive to accomplish this through technology, which is simply defined by Peter Thiel as making improvements to a product that customers will pay for. When that’s the case, you can sit back and earn monopoly profits.

But here’s the rub: just as nature abhors a vacuum, a free market economy abhors a profit. Whenever you make an improvement that customers will pay for, others will begin plotting how they can get in on the action, either by matching what you do and offering it cheaper, or by leapfrogging your offer. In a flat world, here where competition can come from anywhere and technology changes so rapidly, the idea of enduring competitive advantage seems like a quaint relic, something that old-timers talk about while youngsters roll their eyes.

Unless you work for yourself, you’re selling a product that someone else is responsible for improving, so there’s not much you can do about that. But you are part of every selling transaction, and the technology of you is something you can control—in fact, treatment it’s the only thing you can control.

What are you doing to avoid becoming a commodity yourself? What improvements are you making to you that customers will pay for?

The only way to escape the personal commodity trap is to constantly make improvements to your personal technology, in the form of your professional learning and performance. You have to constantly make improvements to the product, and you have to do it in such a way that it’s difficult—if not impossible—to copy.

Why can’t they copy your professional learning and performance?

Learning is an individual responsibility and it’s hard, which is why most people stop at a comfortable plateau early in their careers. If they do make the effort, their laziness draws them to approaches that promise “secrets” and easy tips to improved performance, and easy tips are worthless as a source of competitive advantage because even if they work anyone can copy them.

Even with the best intentions, many people don’t know how to learn. Some think that it’s like punching a ticket—you attend a class and now you’re an expert. But the other side of the learning curve is the forgetting curve, which starts immediately unless you actively and deliberately practice the skills you’ve learned. Others get enthusiastic about a topic and start tackling it without either being systematic or being critical and choosy in their sources.

If you learn the right things right, you will be almost impossible to catch. First, knowledge is cumulative and it earns compound interest—the more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Second, by keeping your learning focused on what customers value, every improvement you make sets you apart from the competition.

So, you have to be smart about what and how to learn

The test for what to learn is, “what improvements will customers pay for?”

Know what your customers don’t know, because they won’t pay for something they already have. Look at all relevant levels and functions that you impact—technical, operational and business decision makers—and brainstorm ideas about what additional knowledge would make them more effective in their roles.

Compare your customers’ needs with an honest assessment about your current skills and knowledge; identify obvious weaknesses and discover positive opportunities. Have a “beginner’s mind”, and know what you don’t know. If you find this tough, ask around: there are many people who will give you an honest opinion, and most experts are proud to show off their expertise and will share a ton if you just ask. You’ll need a balance of broad and deep knowledge, or what I call being a “hedgefox”; depth will earn you the right to be heard and breadth will give you the perspective to bring valuable insights.

Learn how to learn. A lot of what we’ve learned about the best way to absorb and retain material is wrong, according to recent research. Rather than making this a tutorial, I recommend picking up any one of several excellent books about this, such as How We Learn, by Benedict Carey.

Copy and improve. While you want to make it hard for others to copy you, there’s no reason not to copy what others know. It’s called research and reading. But be careful what you put in your mind; it’s better to read one or two quality sources deeply than to skim a lot of shallow crap. Depth is critical because it’s hard, so those willing to put in the work will be rare and valuable.

Make it a habit. Set aside time in your regular schedule for professional learning and skill development. You have to take control and responsibility for your own “product development”, because relying on others will only put you at the same level of everyone else.

Let’s conclude with a good news-bad news sandwich. The good news is that continuously improving the technology of you can’t fail in propelling you to the top of your profession. The bad news is that you don’t own that spot—you have to keep paying rent to remain there, in the form of even more learning. But the final good news is that it will keep you young: Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.” So, learn early, learn fast, and learn well.

Stay curious, my friends.

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Making Meaning through Service to Others

andyImagine waking up one day with a little tingling in your toes and the tips of your fingers. You might wonder a little about it, but shrug it off. But if a few days later you began noticing a weakness and a bit of klutziness in your limbs, you would definitely be concerned. Fast-forward a few days, and you’re lying in a hospital bed unable to move any muscle below your neck, and the doctors tell you there’s a chance your lungs will shut down too, and you would be terrified.

That’s what happened to Andy Coan a few months ago. Before that, he was a tremendously fit man in his mid-fifties, who looked like he could still swim a 100 freestyle in world-record time, just as he did as a high-schooler in 1976. His body had totally failed him, and he had absolutely no idea what to expect from this strange and savage disease called Guillain-Barre, which attacked his nervous system. Fortunately, he remembered that another swimmer, Rowdy Gaines, had gone through the same ordeal years before. We were able to track him down, and Rowdy gave Andy two things: useful information about what to expect, and–more importantly—hope.

That hope is what sustains him in his fourth month with the disease as he makes his slow and arduous comeback. He can move his legs somewhat and is relearning how to walk with a lot of support. His arms are all but useless. He can move his shoulders slightly, which is what he’s doing in the picture. When I visited him today, he was on the phone with a fireman who went through an even worse version of the disease (he spent four months on a ventilator because his lungs did shut down). The fireman told him that when he began his recovery, he could barely lift a three pound weight, and yesterday he benched 300 pounds!

That’s the kind of stuff that someone like Andy needs to hear, but it took a lot of trouble and some luck to find people who could help him like that. Now, besides his number one goal of getting better, Andy has another project in mind which sustains him. He wants to find a way—maybe through videos, a blog, and so on—to make it easy for others to get the information and the hope they need as quickly as possible if they ever get into the same situation.

What’s wonderful about listening to Andy describe his project is hearing and seeing the enthusiasm he has for helping others, and when he’s thinking about others, his own troubles are the furthest thing from his mind. To be clear: he knows he will get better eventually, but he doesn’t know how long it will take, and his rehab sessions are as tough as any workout he had back in the good old 10,000-meters-a-practice days when he was training for the Olympics. It’s not easy by any means, but there’s no feeling sorry for himself—because he’s focused on something bigger than himself.

Someone at the hospital today said “Everything happens for a reason.” That’s a cliché, and I don’t know if it’s true in the metaphysical or religious sense. But I am definitely sure that it can be true in a practical sense. Because when something devastating happens to you, you can choose to give it the meaning that you want to give it, and the service of others is about as fine a meaning as you can choose.

The list of ordinary things that Andy can’t do right now is long; but the list of extraordinary things is even more impressive. He can teach, and he can inspire, and that’s also about as fine a list as you can choose.

Note: If you have ideas for how Andy can spread the word and reach out to others who may be facing the terror of Guillain-Barre, please let him or me know, or share this with someone you think can help.

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