They say there are only two certainties in life, death and taxes. I’d argue there is a third: change. Life always turns out different than we expect. Sometimes our dreams and aspirations fade and disappear into the sunset. Sometimes we manage to feel the joys of high achievement…but it never happens along the exact path we envisioned at the start. This realization is uncomfortable to some. The idea that we can never really execute our plans... But there is a secret very few people know. The best path, and subsequent result is SUPPOSED to be completely different than you initially planned on.
Have you ever met someone who had a lot of passion? It is inspiring. A person with an ardent belief that things will work out possesses a magnetism that is intoxicating and contagious. A lot of people like this become business owners, and it is understandable. If you are good at XYZ, you will want to found a company that is the best at XYZ – like a chef wanting to open her own restaurant. But while these incredibly heartfelt and adrenalized people are great to get a drink with, I am always wary of them as business owners. In my experience, people like this are not successful.
In business, hubris can serve you extremely well. Confidence in your mission, your capabilities, and your opportunities can separate you from the pack. A healthy ego can make or break a businessman, and I often encourage the people I work with to move through their career with self-assurance. But while hubris and ego can help get a project started, I have seen it become a liability more times than I can count.
When it comes to building and selling a company, the path to success is pretty direct. In order to enjoy a successful exit, business owners need to keep cost down, revenue high, and growth promising. That may sound simple enough, but just because the path is direct does not mean that it is easy.
When someone refers to the “season of giving”, most people conjure up images of roaring fires, volunteers in Santa hats ringing donation bells, and ample amounts of family time. The holiday season calls generosity forward in a way that helps unite communities in a beautiful way. I know that I personally, always find myself in a giving spirit around that time of the year.
A few weeks ago I came across an article that completely transformed my thinking. The piece is titled This One Question Will Make Every Decision In Your Life Easier, and you can find it on Medium.com. The article profiles the British rowing team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They started out as a mediocre team, but once they started asking themselves “Will it make the boat go faster?” they completely turned themselves around and wound up taking home the gold.
Have you ever donated money and thought, “I wonder where that’s really going?” It is a sad reality that donated funds do not always wind up where we think they will. In fact, you can actually find entire charitable organizations whose sole mission is to help you find other charitable organizations worth giving your money to. This phenomenon of your money not going where you think it will happens at every level. Some organizations spend most of your donation on operational expenses, some are outright scams – even the guy asking for change on the corner probably won’t be spending that money on food.
The trick is finding reputable organizations that will use your money responsibly. You want a charity that is transparent.
When people hear that I am an entrepreneur, images of power suits and beautiful office suites often pop into their heads. After all, when we see entrepreneurial success on network television, it almost always takes the form of someone in designer clothing dashing across a busy city street in order to make it to their swanky office in time for the big meeting. All decisions are made mid-stride and everyone you see is confident and successful. You know what they don’t show you? Someone crouched over a computer 12 hours a day drinking cheap coffee and pouring over spreadsheets, relying on cold hard facts rather than their gut.
Have you ever heard the phrase, Jack of all trades, master of none? What it implies is that someone who tries to be sort of good at everything, will never be incredibly good at anything. Basically, anyone looking for a diverse set of skills and a wide breadth of knowledge will never be an expert.
A few months ago, I spoke with a writer at Inc. about how entrepreneurs can stay open to new opportunities, both in business and in philanthropy. You can read the full piece here. In the article, we discuss how good entrepreneurs look for openings and needs within different markets, and how working harder and longer than your competition is what will ultimately get you across the finish line. The piece more than covers why it is important to look for new opportunities, but it falls short of what a good entrepreneur does when an opportunity arrives. Here’s the big secret; that opportunity is going to change.
I am an entrepreneur. At least, that is how most people see me. I launch, grow, and sell businesses, and I have been lucky enough to enjoy some success. But while I love what I do – there really is nothing like the thrill of getting a new business off of the ground – if I am ever asked do define myself, I prefer to call myself a philanthropist. I have been focused on giving back for my entire life. Ever since the Boy Scouts taught me to value generosity, I have looked for ways to bolster others. It is the reason I seek financial success so aggressively, and why I began The Blake Johnson Alliance.
Let’s talk about grit. Grit is what separates the winners from the quitters. Grit gets you through the tough times – the struggles. But grit isn’t just about buckling down and doing what is tough for the sake of getting it done. In order for someone to truly possess and exhibit grit, there are three essential things that have to be present:
Every single person on this planet is unique. Everyone develops their own skill sets, takes different things from their educations, experiences childhood differently, and values things their own way. It is true that if you are smart and dedicated, you can turn your uniqueness into a super power, but the sad reality is that your individuality can just as easily lead to your demise.
I am often asked what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur. What skills or qualities are prerequisites for successfully launching a business? In my opinion, the most important ability in any successful businessperson is the ability to prioritize.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Let’s say there are four wildfires raging at one time. Three are relatively minor, but one is large, and is getting closer to civilization. What should the firefighters do? Should they attack the smaller ones first and claim easy victories? Or should they go after the largest, most life threatening blaze first? The answer here should be obvious.
Murphy’s Law states that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. This may strike you as pessimistic, but when it comes to launching a business, it is incredibly pragmatic. Throughout my career I have started a half a dozen businesses, and I noticed the same phenomenon with every single one of them. Everything I did took twice as long as I thought it would, cost twice as much, and was twice as hard to accomplish. That lesson was hard learned the first time around. It lead to a lot of frustration and sleepless nights, but ever since then the journey has become incrementally easier.
When does a company cease to be an idea and instead becomes a real business? Is it when you get your tax ID? When you hire employees? When you accept investment? To me, the ultimate measure of a business is whether or not it can provide a product that people will buy.
Years ago, in the midst of a heated argument, I heard someone stop the discussion and say of their opponent, “I want to hear their side of the story before I respond.” Now, I mentioned this little piece of wisdom in my previous post, “Moderation is Key,” but it bears repeating here. Instead of immediately launching into his take of the events at the crux of the disagreement, this man stopped in order to entertain the opportunity of discovering more information. He wanted to make sure he had a solid understanding of his opponent’s position before he responded with is own thoughts and feelings on the matter. This may seem like a simple thing, but for something as simple and fundamental as having all of the information before choosing a side, it is incredibly difficult, and incredibly rare.
We live in an age of automation. Jobs are being taken over by machines. I have discussed this before in my blogs, The American Dream is Quickly Dying, and The Problem with Automation, but it bears addressing again. It is shocking to me to see how drastically certain industries have changed. When I was growing up, reporters controlled the flow of news. Today, the only space left for them seems to be in deep investigative journalism, since anyone and everyone with a twitter account now covers breaking news. I used to have to book family vacations through travel agents. Now, sophisticated searching databases like Kayak and Google Flights have all but eliminated the need for one. I am sure that reporters in the 80s and travel agents in the 90s thought that they had job security, and yet where are they today?
Today is Theodore Roosevelt’s 160th birthday. Here is my favorite thing that he ever said.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out where the strong man stumbled, nor where the doer of good deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who knows the great devotions, the great enthusiasms and who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best wins, knowing the thrills of high achievement but who if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Over the past few weeks as I watched the Kavanough hearing unfold, I couldn’t help but reflect on how divided and critical everyone seems to be today. Maybe it is because I am getting older, or maybe it has always been like this, but it is shocking for me to see how quickly and easily one person can become the scapegoat of some group’s agenda. The moment someone sticks their head out, their entire life becomes fair game. This hearing is incredibly emotional for a lot of people, so let me just say that I am not here align myself with either Kavanaugh or Ford. I am here to preach a stance of moderation.
Everybody on earth, without exception, yearns for an easy path through life. Most people won’t admit it, but when faced with a challenge everyone pines for a simple solution. The truth of the matter is that the easiest path will never get you to your destination. This is what separates people with motivation from people with drive. Motivation will get you out of the door, but drive will keep you going when the path takes a more difficult turn. Please don’t mistake this; the path WILL get very difficult. Anyone who has attained a high level of achievement in any kind of profession has struggled and has relied on their internal drive to get them through it.
Negotiation is an unavoidable part of life. Whether you are negotiating a starting salary at a new job, the purchase of a home or car, or whether you or your spouse are going to go pick up your sick child from school, negotiation simply cannot be avoided.
Over the past few years, I have noticed a trend taking hold at an alarming pace – the trend of technology weeding out people’s jobs. This will not seem like a revelation to many of you. After all, we have all seen the self-checkout lines at grocery stores and watch with bated breath as Tesla attempts to perfect a self-driving Uber. I just flew from LAX to Toronto to visit the Bombardier factory where the plane we took completely flew itself from takeoff to landing without a human being. The pilots were there only to make us feel safe and actually fly the plane in the event something went terribly wrong – but of course, it did not. Once in Canada, I visited a McDonalds that was all but automated except for the cooks. Half of the jobs in the restaurant that traditionally had been needed were flat out cut. It’s all fascinating but what really keeps me on edge is the slow boil of it all. Today, tasks have already been automated. Automated skills are coming next. What happens when technology replaces management, medical care (doctors) or even legal representation (lawyers)? It may seem far-fetched but pay attention. It’s already happening and will only continue to evolve at a more rapid pace now that the foundation has been laid.
Imagine a world in which professional sports were not transparent – a world in which the general public didn’t pay attention to games or matches. Instead, every few days we would get news on wins, loses, rankings, and team value. We would have no context for what a win meant, because we would not have seen the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the victory.
Growing up, the mother of a close friend of mine worked as a teacher. She always used to say that people looked at the wrong indicators to predict success. Grades, standardized testing, and essay writing almost never determined someone’s value. Instead, she could tell how someone was going to do in life based on the friends they kept in high school. If an individual spent time with people less intelligent than themselves, they were unlikely to ever reach their potential, having learned to aim lower than they could reasonably achieve. Similarly, if someone who was struggling decided to hang out with a more driven crowd, good habits were likely to wear off. Those are lifelong and largely subconscious lessons.
Last year I joined the acquisition and collection committee for the Museum for Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. As a result, I have been exposed to many different artistic styles, periods, and creators. The entire experience has led me to wonder, “what makes one piece of art better than another?” I eventually came to a conclusion after hours upon hours after considering countless pieces, genres, and artists. The conclusion: one genre isn’t necessarily better or worse than the next but there are artists within each genre that are clearly better than the others.
When I was growing up, whenever I faced a problem my father would turn to me and simply say, “Boy, find a solution.” It may not sound like much, but decades later I still hear that ringing in my ears whenever I am faced with a challenge. By simply telling me to “find a solution,” he was assuring me that there was always a way to beat what I was facing. If the way was not immediately obvious, it was my responsibility to figure it out – to find a solution. To this day, when I am facing down something that seems insurmountable, I take a breath and think to myself “just find a solution.”
Have you ever been backed into a corner? I am speaking literally here. When you are backed into a corner, it means your options are limited. If you want to move, you only have one, maybe two directions you can go. If given the choice, I am willing to bet that a lot of people would prefer to have more freedom than that, which is why it always perplexes me when I watch people back themselves into corners with their decision making.
I once chose to go into a business with a man who had no long-lasting friendships. He had an abundance of nearly everything: energy, drama, wealth….but he lacked in one specific and vitally important area; relationships. When I looked at his personal and professional network, I noticed that everyone around him had only been present for a few years at most. He was like a billionaire Jason Bourne.
Have you ever been given a lesson that has just stuck with you? Maybe you can still hum that song from third grade that alphabetizes the fifty states, or maybe a boss, coach, or parent once imparted a piece of wisdom that you can still repeat verbatim. I learned a lesson like that on one of my first jobs when I was barely a teenager, and I still find myself thinking about it monthly and repeating it to new employees decades later.
Have you ever seen the ABC reality show “Shark Tank”? Their weekly viewership of over 6 million suggests you have, but just in case, let’s have a quick review. Shark Tank features scrappy entrepreneurs and inventors pitching their ideas to high profile investors. They accept cash in exchange for shares in their success. When a deal is struck the music swells and the entrepreneur walks confidently off the soundstage, believing that the millions they have just accepted equals sure-fire success.
We’ve all heard that time is relative, right? An hour spent watching your favorite movie passes much faster than an hour spent in traffic. Well, the same basic principles apply to personal productivity. Something you are excited to work on is likely to go much faster than the annoying tasks that you would rather not do. Unfortunately, sometimes the fate of our passion projects rely on those menial tasks that are the mental equivalent of staring at the bumper in front of you for 60 minutes.
When I was in my early – mid 20s I worked in a high stress sales position for a commercial finance company. While the rewards of success in that position were amazing, few actually attained them. There were on average 150 other men and women that had the same job within the company and I was #1 and also the youngest in the company to ever attain that rank. We were given aggressive goals, and thus had a high failure rate and by extension, a high turnover rate. I wound up staying there for five years, which was much longer than most. Extended time in an environment like that afforded the opportunity to study my colleagues. I began to scrutinize. What made one guy succeed, and another fail? Was it dedication? Hours sunk into the job? Natural charisma? Turns out it was none of those things. Far and away the largest predictor of success at that company was attitude. If someone had the innate belief that they were good enough to do the job, then they were going to do the job.
Everyone has a list of personal strengths that come naturally. Everyone also has a list of things that do not come as easy as they do to others. I find that people’s strengths and weaknesses generally fall into one (or more) of three categories:
My definition of each is generally defined as follows:
I often say that I only hire people with track records of excellence. I think that every business owner would agree that it is ideal to hire the best of the best – after all it is not controversial to want hard working, dedicated people on your team. What is controversial, however, is the way in which hiring managers determine who the best of the best are, and I think that everyone is doing it wrong.
What would your life look like if you could do exactly what you wanted, all day, everyday? I think that most of us would collapse into unproductive, hedonistic shadows of our former selves. The more righteous among us will buck against that prediction, claiming that the outcome of hard work is satisfying enough to justify the journey. While that may be true, there is no denying that many elements of the journey are less than ideal. The path to success is rife with un-fun activities. Toil is the rule, not the exception. Even Michelangelo is bitterly quoted in saying that "If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful after all."
I would say that nine days out of ten, I am a very happy person, but that tenth day is no picnic. Every time I begin to feel my life sliding in the wrong direction, I stop to take inventory of what is happening in my world. Am I feeling good about life? About myself? And if not, then why not?
Over the years I have paid close attention to when I wasn’t feeling my best, and I have also paid close attention to the people around me who seem happy and content. In trying to emulate the satisfied people around me, and I have found that genuine happiness is dependent on three things:
Every year as the calendar changes I pay attention to the season’s most popular resolutions. This year I have noticed that a lot of people are trying to “do more with less”. I have seen 30-day social media blackout challenges, and pledges to shed things that are not productive or beneficial. I think this is fantastic, and strive to maintain this attitude all year long. As January draws to a close and the diets are abandoned and Facebook re-downloaded, I want to urge everyone to keep up with the attitude of self care, particularly when it comes to the people you surround yourself with.
Have you ever had employee that you just couldn’t make happy? I have. I have had employees complain about everything from pay rate to the brand of coffee we serve in the kitchen. I have tried bonuses, accolades, and free lunches, but at the end of the day some people find the negative in everything.
Anyone who has spent time at a water cooler can tell you that business doesn’t just take place in the boardroom. At some point, you will be expected to socialize with the people in your professional circle. At the beginning of your career, that might mean bar trivia, or an after work kickball league. The higher you climb, the more important these business/social situations become, and the more sophisticated the surroundings. It is an inevitable truth that at some point, you will be judged by your taste in restaurants, choice in sports, and drinks you order. At a certain level of business, there is a high expectation that you know your wines and your alcohol. Some of the most successful businesses people ever will judge you on your understanding of wine and spirits.
As 2017 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on what I have accomplished this year, what I have failed at, and what lessons I can take away from it all. Below are the three most significant things I have learned this year, I hope that some of them will resonate with you.
Over the past few months a lot of news stories about horrific behavior have broken. Sexism and sexual harassment dominate the narrative. Prior to that we focused on LGBT rights, and before that, racism. As these terrible stories rotate through our news outlets, I cannot help but notice how absurd the discriminatory practices seem, and how swiftly society condemns behaviors that used to go unreported or ignored.