Saying no to yourself

Just how good are you? What’s your title in the organizational structure that is your mind? Are you a worker bee or are you the CEO? And of what? The enterprise is? Everyone first looks to you to tell them how they should view you. And when you are used to saying no to yourself then everyone can feel that. They smell it on you. Why should they be the ones to say yes to you?

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Muse

I am not referring to the English rock band – although what a terrific and ambitious name for a performing arts group. Such bravado! The muse I am talking about is the classic definition of the word: “something or someone that is the source of inspiration for an artist.” It’s interesting that there exists a word to describe the source of inspiration for an artist? What about those among us that are not artists? Wait. Is that actually a true statement? That there are those among us that are not artists. What is an artist anyway and how precisely are you NOT an artist? How genuinely do you believe the completed version of this sentence, “I am not an artist because…” Do you have sources of inspiration in your life? Are you a creator? Do you have a muse? Are you an artist?

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Honoring associations

What do you think about the people you spend most of your time around? What do you really think of them? Are they a reflection of you or do you think you’re different from them? Can you name 3 people you are around on a regular basis that are more evolved than you?

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One to two

Going from “zero to one” is hard. Peter Thiel laid this out eloquently in his book by that very name. He was referring to the process of creating something new from scratch. However, that initial process of creation has something going for it that no other stage in the lifecycle of the project will have: the initial thrill and excitement. That beginner’s fairy dust. Everything feels new and exciting. Potential clients and new team members can feel the charge of new energy. Once the project has launched though, you enter the stage of “one to two.” This is when the rubber hits the road and the initial fan base goes mute. Will you persist through this stage to get to the next wave of energy?

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Stop adapting so much

You see this all the time at job interviews. Applicants show up ready to play the part. Their need to get the job greatly overpowers their assessment of the company, culture and people that they are seeking acceptance from. By altering key aspects of themselves, applicants deprive themselves of helpful rejection. Sometimes rejection is a GREAT thing. It’s a good thing if it is clear that there is a lack of resonance between you and the place you are seeking admission into. Once you join an institution that accepts YOU, you will need to work a lot less hard to achieve a lot more.

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More than trust the process

Ed Catmull’s “Creativity, Inc.” is one of the best books in the market on building a robust organizational culture that incubates creativity. Ed was the technical mind behind Pixar’s ascension. He delves into a common phrase that his team used early on in Pixar’s life: “trust the process.” He reflects on how that phrase gave the team faith to carry on even when the fruit of their labor did not yield immediate progress. But there’s a twist. Over time, he realized how much of a platitude the phrase had become. It felt good to say but didn’t really mean anything. And it did not incorporate the agency of the people who would be involved in the process. Pixar’s success was more rooted in trusting PEOPLE to trigger the PROCESS.

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Importance

Importance defined: “the state or fact of being of great significance or value.” How important do you feel? Why are you so important? What’s lacking?

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Of childhood

One of the most fascinating things I have noticed while interviewing people who are changing the game in their respective fields is how much childhood comes up. These creators are tapped into the way in which their childhood selves viewed the world. Their dreams and aspirations as children come up often. One superstar I interviewed had a picture of himself as an 8-year-old in his wallet as a reminder of his authenticity.

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That pattern is your body of work

What is a pattern but data that is organized in a particular way. Lines. Colors. Then symbols. Ideas that we have been trained to associate with emotions, things, quantity or sensation. What are the patterns in your life? What are you repeating to your friends over and over again? What patterns are you creating? The pattern is there. Do you see it? Do you want to?

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Premature epiphanies don’t exist

There’s no such thing as a premature epiphany. The earlier the better for that epiphany. Better it causes disruption earlier than later.

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Currency

What are you trading to get what you want? Are you stacking up cash to trade it in for influence down the road? Are you stacking up a network of people to facilitate your next professional moves? Maybe you’re stacking up time? How? Perhaps you are selling your time? At what price? Is it worth it? Are you selling your time at a wholesale price or a retail price? To what extent is energy your primary currency? Do you know how to transmit it to others? To motivate them. Inspire them. Elevate them. Do you even care about that?

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Your 50 year fantasy

We are so used to thinking in 3 year and 5 year time horizons as we plan our lives and careers. It is certainly a decent approach to making incremental progress and honing tactics. But what is your 50 year plan? What is your 50 year fantasy? What is the broader arc of your life? Why? What is your ultimate purpose? Is your 3 year plan consistent with your 50 year plan? How did you manifest your 50 year fantasy yesterday, today, and tomorrow?

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Sitting in awkwardness

Awkwardness is an emotion that demands our attention and affects our behavior. We fidget. We look around the room. We sweat. And at the extreme, we leave the situation. While leaving an awkward interaction may very well be justified in many circumstances, there are those situations where you may stand more to gain if you accept the awkwardness and learn to sit within that awkwardness. Situations may arise at work where that is the case. What is it about those situations that is not matching your expectations? To what extent are you the issue and to what extent does it reflect a breakdown in expectations and assurances (whether implicit or explicit) that others have set?

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Name the game

Accurately describing a situation to all parties involved is one of the most powerful techniques to diffuse tension and potential discord. It works so well because it first requires a real awareness of one’s environment and the actions of various actors. Often, we are quick to assume intentionality. However, regardless of intentions, if you can name the game to the parties involved in a negotiation, business meeting, family get-together or even to a disagreeable love interest, then you are well on your way to a more harmonious and productive encounter. Naming the game means describing events and encounters while couching your assessment as “your” perception of what’s going on.

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Your natural frequency

Resonance happens when one vibrating system causes another to vibrate at an increased amplitude due to frequency matching. As individuals, we have an individual frequency. This is evident when you spend time with toddlers. Their personalities and predispositions are already in full effect. That frequency gets honed over time through nurture. How would you describe the different contours of your natural frequency? Have you used personality testing to better understand some broad categories that you are inclined to reflect or naturally resonate with?

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The burden of why

If you find yourself in a typical social gathering of the bourgeoisie, the first question that comes up is, “What do you do?” Sometimes it comes up even before someone asks you for your name. People ask this question to “place you.” Put you in a box. Some answers make it easy for people to place you: lawyer, doctor, banker…you know those jobs. Rarely will anyone ask you why you do those jobs. They will nod knowingly and keep the conversation moving. Same thing happens if a college student tells her parents and friends that she wants to pursue these traditional paths. She will often encounter little resistance. But what happens when you tell people that you are a professional juggler? Or, as a college student, tell your social network that you want to pursue professional juggling? You will hear the words “how” and “why” more than any other time in your life. That is the burden of why. It is the need to answer for your choices when you pursue non-traditional paths. And it is a gift. The absence of this burden for traditional jobs means that people’s aspirations are not adequately vetted as those nearest and dearest are quick to accept and affirm at a surface level.

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You own nothing

Ownership is an idea that evokes a lot of emotion. And rightfully so. We live in societies that judge us by what we own. Social status is tied to what assets are affiliated with you. But what does ownership really mean? How do you own things that may outlive you? Some of the ultra-rich among us understand that there is a limit to ownership which is why they declare that they will give away the majority of their wealth before they die. But how does ownership apply in the creative sphere? In the world of ideas. I remember how surprised I was during a problem solving session at my first job at McKinsey when someone took an idea I put out there and just ran with it. Everyone knew I had some up with it but no one really cared to keep affirming the idea as “mine.” Perhaps we would be better served by honoring our stewardship over material things as well as accepting that we are merely conduits for ideas and inspiration?

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Be water

There is that famous Bruce Lee line about resilience. That we should “be water.” That we should adapt and absorb stress and reform ourselves to our previous state. It is certainly easier said than done and takes practice. And the only real way to practice is by experiencing adversity. The work needed to be done become water provides a different perspective on adversity altogether. Each blow to the gut is really just another rep. Over time, you become defined by how you react and not what happens to you.

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Thought-provoking but not that helpful

When I left my high paying investment banking job to lay the foundation for Superstar Agenda, I received advice from a mentor that kept grating at me. I needed to “focus.” Focus focus focus. I was exploring a wide variety of ideas at the time and the advice that I needed to focus was irrefutable. But what exactly was I supposed to focus on?! It is the type of advice that has the illusion of being helpful but actually isn’t. Quite frankly, you can “focus” on the WRONG thing. The more interesting question is how to determine the primary use of your time. What are the top three things that you care about and can execute on? How will you bring a differentiated offering that is of value to the market place? What are small initial steps that you can take to make your dream real and not just a business plan or long term vision? These are the types of questions that push you forward productively.

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Seamless inhibition

It is easier to get a job when you already have a job. And it is usually a job in the same field that you are in or a logical advancement of what you are doing. But what happens when you are in the wrong career, job or role? And you need to make a radical switch. What happens then? You will likely experience something I’ll call seamless inhibition. You become trapped by the path of least resistance. Least “external” resistance in how you navigate life BUT filled with significant “internal” resistance and strife. Breaking the cycle of seamless inhibition is hard and will require letting some people down and being selfish as you restore your factory settings.

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Company versus product

Pixar’s success hinged on whether or not a cartoon would take off. OK, let’s call it what it was billed as, an animated feature film. To be honest, the technology that Pixar had developed had the potential to be deployed to other commercial uses. But such a use is unlikely to have resulted in the kind of worldwide commercial success that has resulted from Toy Story and subsequent productions. The company was banking on a product to make the entire enterprise real. Pixar is not unusual in this regard. Content creating companies need to be clear on the product they are selling and marketing. As founders, we can get confused between marketing and selling the COMPANY versus marketing and selling the PRODUCT. Get clear on product. Product is your mission. Company is your vision. No one cares about your vision like you do. But your product? That’s what is in it for them.

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Gossip

First thought is, “Who has time for that?” But gossipers play an important social role. And they are not going anywhere. So, know how to manage them and make them work for you. If you know who the gossipers are, you can actually control your narrative. Think of them like carrier pigeons. While gossipers are not the most inspiring or creative tribe to be around, avoiding them altogether is like navigating life with blinders. Can you handle the truth? Can you handle the various versions of the truth that are circulating about you? Any interest in directing that message?

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This is what I came for

Muscular training teaches us a lot about physical endurance but more importantly about breaking through mental barriers. There is always that moment 45 minutes into your workout when you’re depleted and want to stop. But then you remember, “This is what I came for. I have deliberately created these conditions of adversity in order to overcome them.”

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What Are You Selling?

It doesn’t take long to know what people are selling on social media. And the truth is that everyone is selling something. Everyone. Including you. We are all selling. Even the guy with the worn out khakis and blue button-down shirt is selling something. He may be selling the idea that he doesn’t think that much about his clothing and/or that he is a conformist. “Nothing to see here. I am just like you.” He is making a choice every day he wakes up and puts on those khakis and a blue button-down shirt. Do you know THAT you are selling? Do you know WHAT you are selling? Do you know WHY you are selling?

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Uninformed Versus “Objective” Probability

Most people tend to assess their likelihood of succeeding at something by the “objective” probability that they will succeed. An example of this is in college applications. Rutgers university has an X% admission rate and therefore the likelihood of getting admitted is X%. General statistics are also bandied about when it comes to the likelihood of successfully launching a business. 90% of new businesses fail they say – or something like that. What people are missing when they make claims based on general probabilities is that having additional information actually fundamentally changes the odds. There’s a famous experiment that underscores this point. Assume you have three inverted cups. Under one of the cups is a check for $1 million. You are asked to pick the cup that hides the prize. You proceed to pick the middle cup. At this point, you have a one-third chance of being correct. You are then told that the cup to the left of you definitely DOES NOT have the check for $1 million. You are now given the choice. You can stick with your original selection, OR switch and pick the remaining cup to your right. The wrong answer is that is doesn’t matter whether or not you switch. Since there are only 2 cups left, one might incorrectly surmise that the odds are

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Z-list actors

One really important reason why we are drawn to actors is because we know when they are acting. And even while they are pretending to be various characters, they still elicit certain emotions from us. Core human emotions. In fact, skilled actors seem to become the very characters that they are portraying. They seem utterly authentic. But there are actors and there are actors. There exists a category of people I will call Z-list actors. The opposite of an A-list actor. Z-list actors are people playing roles in everyday life that they are not suited for. They are uninspiring due to the profound lack of resonance between their predispositions and their roles. Unlike actual actors, most Z-list actors don’t even know they are pretending to be someone they are not.

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But you are nobody

Everyone was nobody at some point. In the literal sense that you didn’t actually exist – as presently constituted anyway. But also in the non-literal sense. Babies aren’t born with reputations. Even children of celebrities and aristocrats are not born with reputations. They are merely famous. And yet naysayers will be quick to critique a novel idea by asking, “But who is she to be doing that? She’s nobody.” But everyone was once nobody. So that critique, while pervasive, is inherently flawed.

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Vuja de

Adam Grant in his book “Originals” discusses a concept that is the inverse of déjà vu. As we know, déjà vu is the feeling that something is familiar when you are in fact encountering it for the first time. Vuja de on the other hand is a feeling of strangeness when we encounter situations that were once familiar and comfortable to us. Vuja de happens when you experience a change in perspective that manifests itself by feeling strange towards previously familiar situations. Being aware of vuja de can be an interesting way to assess personal growth and change. How do you feel when you visit a prior employer after being gone for a few years? How about revisiting your high school? Or meeting up with childhood friends on your old stomping grounds?

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Talismans

A talisman is an object that is thought to possess certain magical attributes. But talismans don’t have to be so mysterious and distant. There are these personal talismans that we possess. It might be your favorite necklace – the one gifted to you by your grandmother. It might be your favorite cufflinks. My talismans are usually certain items of clothing that I wear again and again. Mostly sweatshirts to be honest. A funny thing has been happening recently. My friends seem to be going off with my talismans. Or I just give them away – while they are at the peak of their powers. And so it seems like a personal talisman may have a period where it appreciates in value before declining. Does it matter that you hand it off at the peak of its value but the person receiving it has no idea of its subjective worth?

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Mistakes

The famous advertiser, Paul Arden, nailed it. Those who rarely make mistakes also rarely make anything.

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Eat what you kill

If you have ever worked in professional services, you may have come across this expression: “Eat what you kill.” The most competitive firms in New York have the reputation for having partnerships whereby professionals get paid depending on how much business they bring in. This creates a competitive, and oftentimes, ruthless dynamic between colleagues. The alternative is to have a “lock-step” compensation approach in which earnings are generally evenly distributed amongst partners depending on tenure at the firm. Generally, firms with a lock-step approach tend to weather downturns in the economy much better than those where compensation is heavily skewed towards a handful of professionals. A lock-step approach seems to inspire loyalty and camaraderie. Some may argue that the non-lock-step approach fosters greater overall value creation because partners are hungrier. Consequently, the fittest survive, and the overall size of the pie is greater even if some get left behind. My guess is that one of these two systems instinctively resonates with you – that sentiment is part of cultural resonance.

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How do you wait?

Kute Blackson wrote a terrific book entitled, “You Are The One.” He guides the reader through a number of great insights. One of them that really struck me was Kute’s analysis of the waiting person. Most people wait impatiently. They are impatient because they believe that their lives are on hold until the thing they are waiting for happens. So, if a flight is delayed, this results in an existential crisis. The passenger is caught in a limbo. His or her life has been paused. But is that really true? No, of course not. The point is that the person you are is as much the version of you while you wait, as it is the person that arrives to the final destination.

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Egolessness

The vast majority of us are afraid of “putting ourselves out there.” This applies in both professional and personal settings. The fear is that by being honest and authentic, we will get hurt after experiencing rejection. This fear is like the fear of public speaking – it is maladaptive. It doesn’t actually protect us from a real threat. And yet our egos succeed in paralyzing us. What has your ego done for your lately?

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Make it real

Going from vision to reality is hard. Especially if the vision is expansive. How to make it real? Small steps. A small audience. Creating value for a small group of people. Start with one person. Think big, start small. Everything starts small.

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Finding humor

A lot of what we are and what we do is absurd in nature. Even our mammalian forms are somewhat absurd. We are just used to being this way. Our problems in general are also fairly absurd in nature. Because of this absurdity, it is always possible to find humor in them as well. That is what stand-up comedy is after all. A skillful commentary on the absurdity of our “problems” to an audience that is open to laughing. That stage is set. We can set our own stages as well. And learn to be our own stand-up comics.

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The Protagonist

Who is the protagonist in your story?

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The annoying stuff

Having predispositions means that there will always be annoying stuff that needs to get done. What’s annoying for one person may be bliss for another. It’s funny how accepting that you are doing the annoying stuff makes it less annoying. It goes from suffering to a dull pain. That said, if you are spending 80% of your waking hours on annoying stuff then that dull pain will eventually lead to suffering. Ah, annoying stuff. So necessary, but let’s not go too crazy with it either.

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Slowing down time

What would winning the lottery of time look like? Does it translate into more vacation time? Does it mean you have more years to live post-retirement? Is it related to quality of life? Or perhaps it’s being more productive? Achieving more or creating more within an allocated period of time. There are certainly times that we feel like we’re ahead of time or behind time. So time seems relative. It is our relationship to it that matters. In that sense, our perception of time seems like it is inherently subjective. And if that is the case, then we have more control over our perception of time than we think, and consequently, we may have more control over time itself.

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The Calling

There’s a popular ice cream spot in yuppie Brooklyn: Van Leeuwen. Their product is talked about in local circles as if possessing magical attributes. As the weather gets warmer, few will resist the call for a 50-50 blend of organic and gluten-free mint-chocolate chip and coffee ice cream. This calling will receive far less resistance than other callings in the Milky Way.

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Integration

“I have my work friends and my non-work friends…nowhere shall the two groups meet. It’s not a Venn diagram…just two circles side by side. No overlap.” It’s unclear when compartmentalization became an accepted and even lauded approach to life. But for many people, it is a preferred approach. How much energy is expended in moving between various compartments? Are some people just compartment-types and others not? Or is integration an objectively superior approach? Those among us pursuing art for a living seem to have a more integrated approach to work, leisure, and relationships.

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The vibe is off

Just how much of a mystery is the idea of resonance? Resonance in social systems. Resonance between you and someone you meet for the first time. Resonance between you and a restaurant that you walk into for the first time. “I don’t like that place.” “Why?” “I just don’t like it…the vibe is off.” Could it be that we are simply unconsciously aware of resonance stimuli that are in fact readily visible to the trained mind? Could it be that “vibe” is in fact an identifiable characteristic that we can learn to discern and describe in clear terms? And then use that information to decide where and with whom we choose to associate? What’s your vibe?

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Not because you judge me

Working hard at something to prove your doubters wrong generally seems like a good idea. This approach is widely accepted in popular culture as a legitimate source of motivation. Countless movies have been made with that idea as a key sub plot. It arouses emotion. Adrenaline. Fight or flight. But just how truly fulfilling is it to achieve goals to prove people wrong? To what extent does it distract from pursuing your natural predispositions? To what extent does that approach cloud judgment and inhibit learning? And do you ever really prove that person wrong? How do you know that the person’s fundamental attitudes have changed? And what about the next doubter? That agenda rooted in avoiding or correcting judgment raises more questions than answers.

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Are you a superstar?

Whenever I interview people for The Superstar Agenda, I ask them very plainly and directly, “Are you a superstar?” Often, it is the very first question I ask. 9 out of 10 people squirm. The remaining 10% immediately give a definitive answer. “Absolutely,” or, “Of course not. Are you serious?!” Not a single person has responded, “What do you mean?” The reason for that is simple. The word “superstar” means something to us. And that meaning is not the primary dictionary definition of the word. We all know that being a superstar doesn’t just mean being a famous performer or athlete. That’s why John at work is a “superstar” and gets all the marquee assignments and client meetings. That’s also why Lisa is a “superstar” real estate agent and her name always seems to come up whenever a new deal is in the pipeline. Superstars seem to experience disproportionate results for their effort and everyone knows who the superstars in a particular system are. Are you a superstar?

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