An Entrepreneur’s SuperPower: Looking Past Negative Appearances

There is a trap that is well known to most human beings. This trap ensnares the young and the old; the rich and the poor; the healthy and the sick – it does not discriminate. The trap is that of seeing something negative and believing that it is so. You may think that this is black and white. Either something is negative or it’s not. Ah, but that’s the epitome of the trap. In fact, it’s not black or white.

For entrepreneurs this trap is especially dangerous. As we toil to grow our enterprise, we constantly encounter situations that could easily be perceived as negative. Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Eddie the Entrepreneur has watched his team work tirelessly to grow revenue. But the process has been slow, and Eddie is struggling to juggle his bills and keep vendors at bay. Scaling his company is happening but he’s quickly running out of cash. Eddie exhorts his team to pick up the pace and generate more revenue more quickly. Secretly, he thinks that his days are numbered and he’s going to have to face the inevitable and close the doors. Eddie sees what appears to be a negative situation and believes it. What do you suppose happens next? Yes, Eddie’s belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and his company goes out of business.

Then there’s the story of Ingrid the Impresario. Her situation is similar to that of Eddie. Her company is making headway, but revenue isn’t keeping pace with expenses. She hates the calls she receives daily from bill collectors. But Ingrid is not going to be beaten. Rather than see a negative appearance and believe it, she is resolved to look beyond it. She realizes that she needs to take action immediately before it’s too late. Ingrid asks her vice-presidents of sales, operations and manufacturing to spend a day with her off-site. During that day, they identify a small pivot that will drastically cut costs, pump sales and give them a much longer runway to reach consistent profitability. Rather than continue to try and “muscle through” they deftly make this tweak and quickly see the results they were seeking.

The difference in these examples is profound. In Eddie’s case he saw his business failing and became resigned to that negative appearance – he believed it. Conversely, Ingrid realized that adjustments were needed in her business – and she believed it. What Ingrid saw was not what others might have seen – a negative situation. Instead, she saw an opportunity to make changes that put her company on the path to success and looked beyond the negative appearance.

The ability to look beyond negative appearances is a superpower for entrepreneurs. Doing so takes discipline and a generally positive outlook on everything. I’ve often wondered why human nature seems to default to fear and negativity. I’ve concluded that while we  tend to be afraid of the unknown, it’s relatively easy to believe that we will fail. We hear the statistics about how many companies die an early death. We read story after story detailing the failure of retailers, restaurants, start-ups of all types . . . and the list goes on. It takes a supreme effort not to succumb to the constant drumbeat of negativity.

I learned long ago to ignore the admonitions and warnings of others who lacked a clear understanding of that with which I was involved. Instead, I choose to view every situation and circumstance as an opportunity to inject a healthy dose of creativity. Of course, I’m not naïve enough to ignore reality. But I look for ways to push the boundaries of reality to my advantage. We’ve abandoned business ideas (and businesses!) that did not work. But that was done in clinical fashion after first exploring all our options and determining that we could better spend our time and capital in a more productive and profitable manner. We weren’t resigned to the “inevitable” failure. Instead, we were coldly calculating in our assessments and made choices that were in our best interests. After more than 44 years in business, I’ve never yet seen the sky fall. We’ve had setbacks and hit speed bumps. But by steadfastly looking for opportunity in every situation, we always find a way.

Seeing beyond negative appearances is an entrepreneur’s superpower. Following this approach opens infinite possibilities to prosper and succeed in ways we may not even imagine.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Hard Times and Happy Times

The entrepreneurial experience produces emotions of all sorts, often extending across the positive to negative spectrum and all in the same day! Most entrepreneurs will attest to the fact that there have been hard times at different points in their careers. These hard times may be the result of personal challenges, professional challenges or both. They run the gamut from aging parent issues, marital strife, divorce, rebellious children, lawsuits, financial pressures, unfair competition, loss of market share/customers, and a multitude of other mole hills and in some cases, mountains – really big mountains. Through it all, there’s a central question that we grapple with. How do we make hard times into happy times? Is it even possible?

Let’s start with the whole notion of happiness. Are you happy overall? Where do you land on the happiness scale? Are you happy some of the time but not always? Are you moderately happy or are you ecstatically happy? When you encounter hard times, are you able to maintain your level of happiness or does it slide down (or off) the scale? Obstacles are a part of life. They’ll always be there. When we sign on to be an entrepreneur, we also understand that we’re signing up for a roller-coaster ride. Our gut check is determining if we can be happy while we’re riding the roller-coaster, the bucking bull or whatever metaphor is chosen to represent the challenges we inevitably will face.

Over the course of my 65+ years I’ve learned many things about happiness. Allow me to share them with you.

  1. Happiness is a choice. First and foremost, I’ve come to understand that my happiness is 100% my choice. Where I land on the happiness scale is totally my choice. This concept may not be easy to grasp when we’re in the throes of a crisis. But I’ll be darned if I’m going to let what is happening around me determine whether or to what degree I’m going to be happy. Some may say that this sounds like a Pollyanna type of response – after all the world is crumbling around us and we’re going to choose to be happy? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. It may not be as easy to dial up happiness when we’re getting punched in the gut . . . but it definitely is a choice that we make.
  2. Go to bed with a clear conscience. My wife is constantly shaking her head. When my head hits the pillow at night, I’m fast asleep within 30 seconds or so. One of the reasons is the fact that I go to bed every night with a clear conscience. I know that my integrity is intact, and I haven’t intentionally stepped on anyone’s toes. A sure-fire way to unhappiness is breaching the trust of others. There may be other problems that crop up along life’s road, but this isn’t going to be one of them.
  3. Be grateful. Gratitude is one of the keys to happiness. I find that when I am grateful to someone and express it, I feel an endorphin rush. And because it feels so good to express gratitude, I try to do it every single day. I have found that being grateful helps to create a balance in my life that pushes up the happiness meter.
  4. Serve others. Years ago, I discovered that getting out of myself was a major factor in being a perpetually happy person. Rather than dwelling on my own inadequacies, mistakes and failures, I found that serving others produced those same endorphins I felt when I was in gratitude. When I could make others happy it became infectious and made me happy as well. I volunteered at a children’s hospital; have served as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs; created a scholarship program for young people studying to be teachers, and many other examples.
  5. Turn the tables. Look, I said it before. Hard times are inevitable. But we can use them to learn and grow. We can use them to stimulate creativity and innovation. I have come to thrive on complexity and challenges that some might find would push them over the edge. Instead, I say, “bring on the tough stuff!” I’m not about to be defeated by hard times because they present an opportunity to excel and move to even higher levels of performance. And that’s just as applicable in my personal life as it is in my business.

Hard times and happy times can coexist. We need to recognize that happiness is a choice and it can be realized when we operate in integrity, express gratitude, serve others and use our challenges as opportunities for growth.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Joyful Entrepreneur

When you think about entrepreneurs what comes to mind? I’m betting that it’s something different for just about everyone. Some will visualize rugged individuals with a pioneering spirit while others will see highly driven and extremely creative people. To how many of us did the word “joy” come to mind?

Entrepreneurship isn’t all about 100-hour weeks and one sacrifice after another. It doesn’t have to only be about struggling to find the right value proposition or meeting the next payroll. Entrepreneurship can also be a truly joyful experience. After all of the “grind it out” moments we endure, it’s good to remind ourselves of the fact that there is much to be positive, optimistic and grateful about in our entrepreneurial existence.

Our joy is derived not necessarily from the financial rewards we eventually realize. After all, the dollars are simply a measure for keeping score. No, the joy comes from our leadership and coaching that enables younger or newer colleagues to blossom into confident and productive contributors – both professionally and personally. The joy comes from our ability to stop for a moment in the midst of chaos; assess a situation; identify a problem and then solve it. Great joy comes from creating a product or service for which the marketplace responds enthusiastically and perhaps a difference is made in the lives of many.

Joy is always there but sometimes (maybe often) we forget to look for it. We become so wrapped up in strategy and tactics that we miss that bright shiny apple that is there for the picking. Why does this happen? Why can we be so obsessively serious at times? Perhaps we’ve bought into the meme that entrepreneurship is going to be a difficult marathon. We’ve heard that we need thick skin and a ton of resilience to have any hope of succeeding. And thus we become conditioned to slugging it out and expecting the journey to be tough. Of course there’s some element of truth to this, but if we intentionally also look for the joy in what we do, guess what? We’ll find it!!

We can re-program ourselves to seek and find true joy every single day. It doesn’t take much effort to allow moments of jubilation and glee to permeate our being. That spark of imagination can also transform into an explosion of joy when we allow for it. Winning the competition for a new client can be reason for feelings of exuberance – if we give permission for such feelings to come forth. Those smashingly positive reviews on social media can be realized as a triumphant moment when we become immersed in their afterglow. There’s a common thread to all of this. We must be active participants in pulling the lever that opens the gate whereby joy is invited into our lives. It is after all, our choice.

I know many entrepreneurs who lead joyless lives. I look at their businesses and see all sorts of potential for joyful moments. Yet, these entrepreneurs are so focused on their KPIs or squeezing out one more nickel of efficiency that they are oblivious to how much a celebration of joy could mean to themselves and to their entire organizations. Joy is a mindset and it is critical to the culture we want to create.

Here’s a simple exercise. Get up early some morning and find a quiet place where you can watch the sun rise. Feel the warmth on your face. Watch the changing color of the sky in all its exquisite glory. Do you get a tingle up your spine as a wave of splendor washes over you? If not, were you a real participant in this moment? Or were other thoughts creeping into your consciousness? Perhaps you remembered something you absolutely must do today. Or a nagging worry that caused some tossing and turning during the night emerges once again from its hiding place. I love watching the sun peek over the horizon and I never fail to enjoy an endorphin rush while experiencing this spectacle. Finding joy throughout each day in everything we do is an identical process.

Happy and well-adjusted entrepreneurs realize that there are massive gold nuggets of joy just below the surface of their daily lives. They also understand that they can walk over these gold nuggets without even knowing they are there. Or they can choose to find them with very little effort. I hope that you decide to begin finding your gold nuggets of unlimited joy.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 117 – Little Steps to Sweet Success.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

100% TPR

At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, all cadets learn many valuable lessons about life. One in particular seems extra important in this day and age. When something goes wrong – anything at all – a cadet is expected to state to a superior officer, “It was my mistake, Sir, and I take full and total responsibility. I made the mistake because . . .” It matters not that someone or something else may have caused things to go awry. Cadets are taught from the very beginning to own the results of whatever may be happening around them. I call this 100% Total Personal Responsibility – 100% TPR.

Think about how much finger pointing occurs in our daily lives. The excuse factory is operating 24/7 and works at full capacity to produce victim after victim. Few people are willing to stand up and proclaim 100% TPR. Thus, it’s refreshing to see that young men and women, who are choosing a career in the Army, are doing so with a mindset of personal responsibility. They truly own their lives. Entrepreneurs should take notice of this concept to understand how to become effective leaders.

Think about a variety of every day scenarios where we witness the blame game being played. A basketball team with a losing score believes that the officiating has been too one-sided. “It’s hard to win an “eight-on-five” game,” some of the players exclaim. There’s no doubt that blown calls are a fact of life in sports. Players that have 100% TPR aren’t going to point the finger at the referees though. Instead, they will stand up tall and say, “It’s my responsibility that we lost because I didn’t execute on offense like I should, and I allowed my opponent to get past me to the basket too many times.”

A small business is competing for a contract and loses. The vice president of sales is visibly angry and says, “The playing field wasn’t level. We should have won, but our competitor had an unfair advantage by making promises they won’t be able to keep!” Conversely, the entrepreneur with 100% TPR says, “We lost because we didn’t do a sufficient job of differentiating our product from the competition. I take full responsibility for that.”

The whole point is that as adults, we NEVER blame someone or something for our failures. We ALWAYS take 100% Total Personal Responsibility for everything that happens. You may be thinking that there must be circumstances that are out of our control where we shouldn’t be held responsible. For example, what about the guy who steps off the curb after checking for traffic and a crazy drunk driver mows him down at 90 miles per hour? How can that guy be at 100% TPR? Here’s the thing. That guy made the choice to be in that place at that time. That’s not to say that the choice was right or wrong – just that’s the choice he made. Perhaps he could have looked further down the street to see the drunk driver barreling toward the intersection and waited until the car passed. And don’t misunderstand – this isn’t to say that the drunk driver wasn’t responsible – he was absolutely the one at fault. But when we are at 100% TPR, we aren’t worrying about anyone else because we have 100% ownership of our lives.

Eliminating any and all thoughts of victimization is critical to living a life of 100% ownership. It liberates and empowers us, allowing for constant self-improvement and growth. When we blame others, we interrupt this improvement and growth process. In my business and in my life, I want to evaluate the risks and rewards and proceed based upon the information I have gathered. The choices that I make may be right or they may be wrong, but they are my choices and I own them, regardless of the outcome.

We can practice the concept of 100% TPR by stopping ourselves when we are in situations where blame might normally be the default thinking. Instead, we say, “I take 100% Total Personal Responsibility for what has happened. It happened because . . .” This affords critical analysis to determine the root cause for a failure and gives us the opportunity to learn how we can make different choices in the future. And remember, taking 100% TPR isn’t enough unless the second part of the idea is explored – “It happened because . . .” We must know what we could and should have done differently.

Success can come through failure if we are willing to take 100% Total Personal Responsibility. It can also allow us to model great leadership for the benefit of others.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 92 – Death, Taxes and . . .

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Minefield

A lot has been made in recent times over insensitivity, hurt feelings and words that are seemingly offensive. There are many sociological factors in play – I’m going to refrain from debating them. Our culture is shifting in seismic fashion and where it will end is anyone’s guess. It’s easy for the modern entrepreneur to get caught up in this brouhaha which I can assure you is a losing proposition. Staying out of the fray is relatively easy but requires discipline.

There are two sides to this coin. Let’s start with our reaction as an entrepreneur to things that are said to us and actions directed our way. We are going to take slings and arrows from a multitude of constituencies. Customers may say horrible things about us and our product or service. Team members may accuse us of a wide range of transgressions. What our competitors say may be even worse. Regulators, bureaucrats, politicians and members of the public in general may be generous in taking their shots at us. At times it may seem that we’re a punching bag and a pin cushion all rolled into one.

So here’s where the discipline enters the picture. It’s 100% our choice whether or not we let ourselves be hurt or otherwise impacted by what others say and do. This isn’t just a matter of having thick skin and amazing resilience. When someone says or does something to us that is negative, we must be able to dispassionately analyze the words or deeds and look for the truth. For example, suppose we are slammed by a customer for a defective product. A product review is posted online that says among other things, “the ABC Company produces a substandard product and their CEO is a crook for taking my money.” Actually, this is a pretty mild review but will work for illustrative purposes.

What is the truth here? Does our company really produce a substandard product? We have to be able to objectively evaluate this claim. Have there been other complaints? If so, how many? Is there a chronic problem with the product or do we truly have a Six Sigma level of success? Assume for a moment that our extremely low error rate is exceptional which allows us to know the real truth . . . we do not produce a substandard product. And the personal statement about the CEO is easily dismissed as an ad hominem attack. Personal attacks like this can generally be completely ignored because they are inherently dishonest. Of course we want to try and solve the problem encountered by our customer, but we choose not to be hurt by what has been said. Boiled down to its simplest form, this is a case of, “if the shoe fits, wear it.” And if it doesn’t, then don’t.

Now to the other side of the coin. How is what we say and do impacting others? This also requires discipline on our part. But again, it’s really very simple. We practice the Golden Rule whereby we treat others as we would want to be treated. Do we make it a practice to denigrate or berate others? Are we guilty of making ad hominem attacks of our own? Before we say something potentially contentious to someone else, do we stop for a brief moment and measure it against the Golden Rule? While it’s true that we all make a choice as to whether we will be hurt or offended, it’s important that we as entrepreneurs try and avoid putting others in the position of having to make such a choice. This doesn’t mean we have to walk on eggshells or adopt political correctness. Instead, we must understand our audience and try and be sensitive to how they might react to us. I’ve always found that focusing on the Golden Rule in such situations is usually sufficient to avoid trampling on the feelings of others.

The interpersonal functioning of society today is fascinating, but can also be bewildering. We choose not to be hurt by what others say and do, and we practice the Golden Rule when communicating or taking action. Taking this approach will help us skirt around the current cultural minefield.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 32 – Three-Legged Stool.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

mine1

And So It Is

Question: When the world seems to be crumbling around them, some people seem to be able to stay positive no matter what. How do they do it?

Answer: This isn’t as hard as it may seem. I’ve said it before; we all make choices. When the sledding gets tough we can wring our hands in despair and play the victim card. Or we can maintain a positive outlook and move through the difficult situation. The choice is ours and only ours. Personally I find that it takes less energy to stay on an even keel all of the time than it does to ride the emotional roller coaster.

Staying positive doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of practice. The first step is to truly understand the physiology of positive thinking. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, reports that “activation of brain regions associated with negative emotions appears to weaken people’s immune response to the flu vaccine.” There are many other physiological benefits that have been proven to occur with positive thinking. Thus, we have to make a concerted effort to stay positive in order to protect and enhance our health. If we begin to feel a bout of negative emotions and thinking coming on, we must consciously remind ourselves that we must break this cycle in order to stay healthy.

There’s another thing that we can do to practice positivity. Some call it self-talk. I call it positive affirmations. Positive affirmations are statements that are meaningful to us – kind of a positive pep talk. We need to say them often and with gusto. We say them throughout the day when we’re feeling good and also when we may encounter the opportunity to move into negative thinking. For prosperity we might say, “My life is filled with unlimited abundance!” For health we might affirm, “I am healthy and whole in mind and body!” For relationships our statement might be, “I am harmonious with each and every person in my life!” At first it may seem a bit weird to be saying words like this. Why? Because the world may see this as a bit woo-woo. But that’s OK because I absolutely guarantee that it works.

Try saying positive affirmations in groups of ten, at least ten times each day. Eventually you’ll give a great deal of feeling to the affirmations and they in turn will become ingrained in your psyche. You will absolutely believe what you are affirming. Then, when a negative thought creeps into your mind, you’ll gently release it and replace it with a positive affirmation.

We are blessed by the fact that we have the power to make our own choices. And one of the most powerful choices we can make is to always remain positive about our lives. We affirm a positive thought . . . and so it is.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Winston Churchill

Ne’er a Discouraging Word

Question: I’m a pretty optimistic person most of the time. But sometimes when things don’t go quite right I get a bit discouraged. What can I do to avoid these kinds of feelings?

Answer: There is no doubt that maintaining a positive and an optimistic mindset 100% of the time is a high bar to clear. But to be successful entrepreneurs it must be our goal and we must always strive to achieve it. Why? Because an entrepreneur’s worst enemy is negative energy. It saps us of our creativity and our drive. If unchecked, it can trap us in a downward spiral.

I’ve been discouraged at times earlier in my career. And here’s what I learned. Being discouraged never solved one thing for me. Wallowing around in despair never made me feel one whit better. I’m pretty sure that I never made a single nickel as a result of being discouraged. Some might say that discouragement is simply a normal human reaction and that it’s Pollyana-ish to ignore it. Perhaps this is true, but it’s a human reaction that we must eliminate. But how?

Generally discouragement is the result of some sort of adversity. Teaching ourselves not to feel discouraged requires us to examine the way we feel about adversity. Remember this – adversity is a perception and only a perception. It is not reality. What we may have previously perceived as adversity instead is an opportunity for growth and experience. Staying cool, calm and collected when everything seems to be crumbling around us takes courage which is the antithesis of “discourage.” A colleague of mine stepped into his role running one of our business units at a time when that unit was experiencing some significant challenges. He had never run his own business before and not only did he have to learn how to do that, but he also had to learn how to fix some pretty big problems pretty quickly. I am pleased to say that he mastered both and in a big way!

Along the way, my colleague told me that he felt discouraged often. I can remember a number of times when he came into my office in a state of hopelessness and near-panic. There was no doubt that he could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. We talked a lot about how he was choosing to look at his situation. Eventually he understood that he was gaining an amazing amount of experience in a relatively short period of time. He concluded that any adversity he encountered in the future would pale in comparison to what he had initially dealt with. He also started to catch a glimpse of what his business would look like when his “trial by fire” was over. Today he has much thicker skin; he has sharpened his instincts; he has a much more consistently positive mindset, and his business unit is thriving.

When we become discouraged – when the task at hand looks insurmountable – the mindset we choose will lead us to succeed or fail. And if we resolve to maintain a positive perspective and look for the opportunity in adverse conditions, we will succeed beyond our wildest dreams.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Discouragement