Chips and Shoulders

I listened to a fascinating business podcast the other day. The host was interviewing an entrepreneur who apparently has faced a number of challenges throughout her career. What struck me the most was her statement that she has a “chip on her shoulder.” We’ve all heard this phrase before, and often it’s portrayed in a positive light. The thesis is that a person has faced adversity and come away from the experience stronger and tougher. I actually downloaded the transcript of this interview (which lasted for nearly an hour) and read it carefully. What I pieced together led me to question how positive a “chip on the shoulder” notion actually is.

For starters, let’s look at some phrases that I excerpted from the transcript. “Not everybody had a fair shake.” “In another way the industry is biased and the numbers are terrible and bleak.” “I will say that it took an embarrassingly long time to get anyone to take me seriously, so that’s where the insult is.” “Some of these barriers are just insulting.” “One person has to climb the mountain and another’s gotta climb a fence.” “The person across the table has to get a fighting chance.” “I don’t play well with others.” “I’ll tell you this honestly, our goal post has moved – it’s also there is a microscope on what I’m doing and what my company is doing, that is not on other companies.” And how about this gem? “Back to the theme that it’s a meritocracy except you have to work five or ten times harder than everybody else which is the opposite of a meritocracy.” Other words were used like “dignity,” “gut punch,” “injustice” and “really screwed me over.”

This entrepreneur shared her journey of the past two or three years, and while she’s clearly made some progress with her business, a case could be made that she ought to be farther along. She obviously believes that the reason that she’s not is due to external forces that have conspired against her. I don’t think I’ve listened to someone sound more like a victim in a long time. Unfortunately, the podcast host played the part of enabler and sympathizer. He egged her on and attempted to validate her claims. Yet, she presented very little concrete evidence to support her mindset.

I can’t begin to know all of the experiences encountered by this entrepreneur. Undoubtedly there have been some trials and tribulations along the way – however, the world is not selective about this! The entrepreneur from the podcast has chosen to develop a “chip on her shoulder,” advocating that the deck has been stacked against her and others have stood in the way of her success. The result appears to be a bitter self-fulfilling prophesy.

What if this entrepreneur took a different path? What if this entrepreneur looked at the obstacles as opportunities rather than conspiracies? What if she believed in her heart that every failure meant that something even bigger and better was in store? What if she could visualize abundance and possibility instead of lack and limitation? Over the course of my career, I’ve always found that embracing optimism and positivity begat the desired results far more often than wallowing in pessimism and negativity.

For me, a “chip on the shoulder” is a cynical mindset. It is typified by wariness, suspicion, skepticism and distrust. Entrepreneurs that wrap themselves in a “chip on the shoulder” cocoon will have a much tougher time receiving the good which they are pursuing. Here’s an indisputable fact. The adversity we experience directly shapes our mindset. But we make a choice as to what shape it takes. When we dwell on “being screwed over,” “gut punches” and “not playing well with others,” we are setting that shape as a giant chip that rests on our shoulder. And what a weight that chip can become!

We can avoid a “chip on the shoulder” mentality by following the positive path to our success. This enables us to work through, around, over and under the obstacles that we face and see them as opportunities to grow.

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 83 – Hall of Famer.

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.

A Mt. Everest Mindset

Allow me to introduce Colin Timothy O’Brady. Born on March 16, 1985, O’Brady was raised in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from Yale in 2006 with a degree in economics. After graduation he went on a trip to an island off the coast of Thailand. During a fire-rope jumping event he accidentally caught on fire and suffered second and third-degree burns to 25% of his body with the most damage to his legs and feet. Doctors said he might never regain full functionality of his lower extremities.

O’Brady defied the odds and completed more than 50 triathlons as a professional, between 2009 and 2015.  Then roll the tape forward to 2016 and enter the Explorer’s Grand Slam. The Slam involves climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents plus expeditions to both the North and South Poles. O’Brady launched this effort on January 10 and completed it on May 27, 2016, setting the record for the fastest time. This included climbing Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,029 feet. According to CBS News fewer than 50 people in history have completed the challenge and only two in under a year. He made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) in less than 12 hours – a normal person takes six to seven days to climb it.

The extreme physical nature of this feat is beyond incredible. Imagine the stamina and endurance he had to have, not to mention the talent and agility it would take to conquer these dangerous towering peaks! But that pales in comparison to the mental focus and toughness O’Brady had to maintain. “I hope that people take away from this the power of the human spirit,” he said. “When you believe in yourself, and you dream big, that anything is possible.” The obstacles he faced were numerous. Fifty mile-per-hour winds, temperatures of -40˚ F., headaches (early signs of acute mountain sickness), icy conditions, a guide who suddenly left with his climbing ropes while on Mt. Elbrus in Russia in the middle of the night, and a cracked ice runway at the North Pole – just to name a few. Meditation was a staple for his mental health.

Colin O’Brady’s life experience offers a parallel to the life of an entrepreneur. Fortunately we don’t have to face the same physical dangers but the obstacles can certainly loom as large. Competitive pressures, cash flow (or lack thereof), recruiting talent, legal issues, unhappy customers, production problems, product problems, regulations, difficult economic conditions and maturing bank lines can add up to a challenge as daunting as a cracked ice runway at the North Pole.

To thrive and succeed we need more than perseverance and resilience. We need a Mt. Everest mindset. Just trying to “muscle” through often is not enough. A steadfast belief in a strong sense of purpose is a great place to start. For Colin O’Brady, he had been told that he might have difficulty in walking normally after his horrific accident in 2007. This provided a level of motivation that propelled him well beyond simply walking normally. Instead he set out to do something no other human being had ever done before – and he did it.

What is our sense of purpose? If it’s only to make a lot of money we may not be able to reach the summit. On the other hand, if we are driven to change the world in a profound way, our entrepreneurial endeavors may have a much better chance for success. We’ll press on through the pain and suffering. We’ll become calm as 50 mile-per-hour winds hammer us with metaphorical ice and snow. I submit that without this strong sense of purpose, we cannot muster what it takes to achieve the Grand Slam of whatever we are undertaking.

We can have a successful entrepreneurial career playing it safe – and there’s nothing wrong with this. However, if we want to dream really big dreams . . . and realize them, we’ll need to have a Mt. Everest mindset. It will be incumbent upon us to find that deep-rooted sense of purpose that drives us upward and onward. Have you discovered your strong sense of purpose, and do you hold a steadfast belief in it?

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 76 – The World’s Most Expensive Chocolate Bar.

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.

Mule or Tortoise?

Mules are interesting animals. They are a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. A mule is stronger than a horse and historically was used for heavy work in agriculture and timber. Mules are independent creatures and can be very obstinate and stubborn at times – hence the saying, “He’s stubborn as a mule.”

Tortoises are equally fascinating. They can live longer than 150 years and have hard shells that make them less vulnerable to predators. Tu’i Malila was the oldest tortoise on record, born in 1777 and died in 1965. If you’ve ever watched a tortoise, you know that they are slow, plodding reptiles. When they are presented with an obstacle they find a way to go around it.

The metaphor for entrepreneurs is obvious. And notice that I’ve avoided the even more obvious example of the tortoise and the hare – that’s a whole different blog someday. Instead, the lesson here is about stubbornness vs. perseverance. As entrepreneurs, we are continually confronted with situations that require some level of perseverance. If we fail to persevere, we end up flitting all over the place and accomplishing nothing. But when does perseverance turn into stubbornness? Presumably stubbornness is not necessarily a desirable trait. The dictionary defines stubborn as “unreasonably obstinate; obstinately unmoving.”

The story of Milton Hershey is inspirational. He launched three candy companies in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. And all three failed. Hershey moved back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he started another company that made a unique type of caramel. But he was convinced that chocolate was the wave of the future and sold his caramel business to start the Hershey Company. Of course the Hershey Company went on to become a huge success in the milk chocolate business.

Was Milton Hershey stubborn, or did he persevere? Back to the dictionary which defines persevere as “to persist in anything undertaken; maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement; continue steadfastly.” I believe Hershey epitomized the definition of perseverance. He had a vision. He was constantly tweaking and refining his products. He surmounted his obstacles and eventually became highly successful.

Stubbornness is evidenced when we keep banging our heads against the wall trying the same things over and over. And it’s not working. Suppose we have a business that is struggling to gain traction. We’re not making much money – maybe even losing money – and we continue to keep doing what we’ve been without making any material changes. Now that’s stubborn.

Let’s take that same example and overlay it with perseverance. The business has been struggling to gain traction. We’re not making much money – maybe even losing money. But we believe in the long-term vision and aren’t about to throw in the towel. Instead, we step back and analyze what we’ve been doing. We do the research necessary to identify refinements and adjustments to our approach. Perhaps we even make a major pivot. Think about the tortoise. He reaches an obstacle that he can’t go over. Does he keep trying to climb over it without success? No, he “pivots” and moves a different direction, eventually ending up achieving his vision – whatever that might be for a tortoise. Perhaps our business needs a different approach to marketing and sales. Maybe we need to eliminate a particular product and add another. Regardless, we must do things differently than we have in the past. We don’t quit. We aren’t a victim. We simply get better at how we play the game.

Stubbornness doesn’t require much brainpower. There’s a lot of wallowing that occurs. Perseverance is smart. The vision persists. The ideas flow. And success is ultimately achieved.

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 – Audio Episode 11 – Shooting Star.

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.

Mule

Headwinds

An airplane wing gains lift by taking off into the wind. This then causes the airplane to defy gravity and fly . . . an entrepreneurial metaphor if ever there was one. Interestingly, in my pilot days I once experimented with a downwind takeoff (on a very long runway) and could barely get off the ground. I quickly put the plane back on the runway and ended the experiment!

To build a muscle we exercise it regularly adding more weight and repetitions. Members of the military become elite Seals, Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers by undergoing rigorous training involving obstacles that severely test the physical and psychological strength of a human being. In Kenya, long distance runners often wear no shoes as they traverse inhospitable terrain, toughening the soles of their feet in the process. I think you can probably see the lessons here.

Adversity can be an entrepreneur’s best friend if we allow it to be. If success comes without challenge it’s easy to become complacent. We’re also robbed of growth opportunities that result from what we learn as we work through various hardships on the road to achievement. No one says we have to like adversity. But avoiding it and fighting it does not work. I’ve found that the most constructive approach is to actually embrace it. For me this means relaxing and easing into adversity. It means establishing a positive mindset and expecting that much good will comes from the experience. We’ve all heard the term “silver linings” and used it many times. Often we look back on what has transpired and almost as a consolation prize we identify the silver linings. Looking for them in advance can give us the lift that we need to fly through the clouds.

In addition to the tangible benefits that come from overcoming adversity in specific situations, there are numerous more global wins that can occur. Think about the last time you had a tough puzzle to solve. Perhaps one of the outcomes was that of heightened creativity and innovation. When faced with the prospects of failure our creative instincts kick in and the results can be amazing. We also find that collaboration and teamwork increases reinforcing the notion that two heads are better than one. While I thrive on making sense of complexity and solving tough problems, I find that doing it with others is more productive and builds a stronger organization.

Suppose a professional basketball team plays a game against the best high school team in the country. There’s no doubt about which team would win. Now, imagine that the same NBA team plays against the reigning world champion NBA team and beats them. Which win do you suppose offers a greater sense of accomplishment? We need to feel like we are doing something really worthwhile which can be difficult when we prevail without any struggle whatsoever.

Adversity helps us to identify weaknesses within our company as well as with our strategy. When we aren’t tested and succeed anyway we don’t really know what could happen if our feet were held to the fire. Challenges and obstacles also allow us to develop resilience and perseverance – both individually and organizationally. I truly hated those first few months of my career when I was an apartment manager. I was kicked in the teeth, the rear and every other part of my body – I was totally miserable. But something finally clicked and I figured it out. Quitting wasn’t an option for many reasons – thank goodness! Now I look back and understand how valuable the tough times were in teaching me how to get off the ground and back on the horse.

When we embrace adversity we can make it work for us like an airplane uses the wind to take off. Then it can become a powerful tool in the entrepreneur’s tool box.

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.

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Obstacle-Proof

The space shuttle had approximately 2.5 million moving parts. There are 100,000 miles of blood vessels in the human brain. There are approximately 2,300,000 stone blocks weighing from two to 30 tons each in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Chinese Tianhe-2 supercomputer is purportedly the fastest in the world with 33.86 quadrillion of FLOPS (floating-point operations per second).

“That’s really going to be hard.” “I don’t know if we can do that.” Ever heard someone utter these phrases? Sometimes we struggle to get our head around a difficult project or initiative and our default thinking goes to seeing the obstacles rather than the opportunity. This may be especially true for those who are linear thinkers. The obvious cliché here is that of “staying inside the box.” We are stuck in traditional thought patterns and are unable to immediately see the multiple options that exist with nearly every decision that must be made. It doesn’t have to be this way – witness the amazing feats described in building the space shuttle, performing complicated brain surgery, constructing the Great Pyramid and creating the supercomputer.

Every organization needs a combination of linear and abstract thinkers to provide a healthy balance of ideas. Those of us who are extremely creative and can dream in a big way need down-to-earth team members with whom we test our ideas. That said, I’m an advocate for the notion that the organizational mindset should be “how we can” as opposed to “why we can’t.”

Here’s an example of the “how we can” philosophy. Let’s say that Company A manufactures a particular type of fastener. Business has been growing and then the CEO receives a call from a prospective customer, Company B, indicating that it would like to place an order for fasteners that represents 35% of the company’s production. Company A is operating at full capacity and cannot divert any product away from its steady customers. But the CEO in typical entrepreneurial fashion, isn’t about to tell Company B that he can’t supply the fasteners. When he pulls his team together he could hear a lot of “why we can’t,” or he can challenge his team members to tell him how Company A can meet the current production requirements and also increase production by 35%.

Instilling the “how we can” mindset is not a walk down Pollyanna lane. Instead it involves convincing a team to develop a default perspective of looking around, over and under the obstacles and figuring out what steps can be taken to achieve the goal. We start by creating the path to success. Then we work backwards and look at the risks involved and how to manage them. Perhaps Company A can’t add a second shift to produce the extra fasteners because it doesn’t want to risk having excess labor capacity after the order is filled. But as an alternative, maybe Company C that’s not a direct competitor, could “white label” the fasteners and produce them under the watchful eye of Company A. While the profitability may be less by using Company C, Company A may be able to win a new customer in Company B, whose repeat business results in a permanent expansion of production capacity.

It’s also important that the entrepreneur not send the signal to his team that “we’re going to make this work come hell or high water.” The danger with plowing ahead is that the more skeptical and cautious members of the team may simply acquiesce rather than express their true opinions. And those who are the natural risk takers may run toward the cliff at full speed without realizing that there’s real pain 400 feet down!

We want to inspire team members to build a “how we can” enterprise. And simultaneously we thoughtfully measure risk and return on investment. The endgame is a dynamic organization that always pushes the boundaries to grow in a healthy fashion.

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.

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A Bucket of Blue Leaves

Question: It seems like everywhere I turn there is more bureaucratic nonsense to deal with. I have to fill out endless forms and jump through hoops to get anything done. What can I do to bring down my blood pressure?

Answer: People who know me will attest to the fact that bureaucracy makes me crazy too. And over the years I could have easily filled 100 volumes of books the length of War and Peace with my rantings about mindless, spirit-crushing bureaucracy. But recently a friend of mine told a story at a business conference we were attending. He called it “a Bucket of Blue Leaves.”

It seems as though he had experienced many of the same frustrations as had I, with a particular federal agency. Someone told him he needed to get a Bucket of Blue Leaves. He of course said, “There is no such thing as this. Blue Leaves don’t exist.” But after thinking for a moment he realized that all he needed to do was go to the Home Depot and buy a bucket and some blue spray paint. Then he would simply find some leaves and paint them blue. Ultimately he delivered this “Bucket of Blue Leaves” to the federal agency and got what he wanted.

What a perfect metaphor. We can do as I have done in the past which is to fight, stew, get angry and undoubtedly make other people mad. Or, we can be smart and figure out how we can deliver exactly what is being requested regardless of how ridiculous we believe the requirements to be. Often, what is being requested in such situations may seem completely illogical. We entrepreneurs generally want everything to be neat, orderly and logical. When this doesn’t happen our world can turn upside down. But it doesn’t have to.

I’m still working on this one. When things get in my way – especially bureaucrats – I want to bulldoze over them. However I’m now realizing that the idea of getting past an obstacle doesn’t always mean I have to go through it. So every time I have an encounter with another bureaucrat, before I get mad I get a Bucket of Blue Leaves. I suppose if this doesn’t work I’ll have to get a Bucket of Purple Leaves . . .

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.