Decided to read this again since the new organization I recently joined has had its challenges and is actively working through them. Interesting how I internalized more of the content this second time around since it’s more timely and relevant at this stage in my career. Unlike Patrick Lencioni’s other books which are more fable format, this was more of a traditional business book with practical tips and a roadmap to follow.
I’ve worked in digital marketing for over 15 years. First, it was for small online businesses I launched from home. Then I got into corporate marketing for several retailers. Now, it’s primarily freelance for one person … me as a writer.
During my corporate marketing years, I learned about the different effects between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ marketing approaches. In simple terms, writer Tanya Robertson describes the difference in this way: “From a business perspective, pull marketing attempts to create brand loyalty and keep customers coming back, whereas push marketing is more concerned with short-term sales.”
Most of my time at corporate was spent pushing. Trying to be at the right place, at the right time with the right offer. The Internet made that so much easier and Google was our best friend. Not only did their products — AdWords, Product Ads, and once upon a time, Google Affiliate Network — give us the best return on our investment, our Google friends always came to visit us and treat us like royalty. I had every reason to keep pushing.
Interesting. Google is great at pull marketing.
For me, the biggest challenge with the push approach is that you become insatiable. You always want more. Always looking for something to increase year-over-year marketing revenue while maintaining efficient advertising spend. It’s exhausting.
Obviously, pushing for growth is important. We all want to keep growing. It feels great to make big strides. And in business, it helps keep the doors open and the lights on.
That said, in retrospect, I wish I spent more time on pull marketing. Effective pulling still requires a lot of effort. What I like about it is that it’s focused on the long game. It focuses on developing relationships more than one-and done transactions.
What about personally?
Whether you’re looking for that next promotion or interviewing for a new job, you have to market yourself at some point. There are countless ways to push market yourself. Perhaps you have an online portfolio or blog that you share. Maybe you’re active on LinkedIn with a well-crafted profile. Some use their social channels to push messages to their followers and friends. I’ve been spending a lot of time on many of those things. Not so much to get a new job, but to develop as a writer.
It can be frustrating.
Like when I was deep in e-commerce, I still spend a lot of time with the analytics and other reports. Constantly refreshing data dashboards to see if the needle is moving in the right direction. Though now — instead of traffic, conversions, and revenue — I’m looking at views, likes/recommends, shares and follows. I get encouraged when there’s a spike in activity. When the trend is down week-over-week or month-over-month, I feel like I’m doing something wrong.
That’s not the only reason I’m frustrated though.
I’m also frustrated because I feel I’ve lost focus on what’s really important. Rather than just practicing for the sake of continuous improvement, I’m putting too much weight on the immediate metrics at the expense of the higher-level goal. I find myself choosing topics, or adjusting my writing, to see if I can generate more green hearts. It’s beginning to feel like I’m slowly losing myself in the process. As much as I preach the value of being yourself and being comfortable in your own skin, I still succumb to doing not-really-me things for the attention. For the immediate gratification of external validation. To improve my marketability.
I keep pushing. And I’m tired. There’s got to be a better way.
Word of Mouth (WOM) About You = Your Reputation
This morning, as all of these thoughts were dominating my free association time, I remembered that the best form of marketing is a kind of pull marketing — word of mouth, sometimes referred to as viva voce. In marketing, the acronym is WOM, or in the digital realms, eWoM (Electronic Word of Mouth).
From a marketing perspective, the beauty of WOM is that you can pretty much consider it free, and other people are doing the work for you. People spread the word because they want to, not because you’re paying them. Most likely because they had such a great experience, they can’t help but share it with a friend. If the experience was really share-worthy, they’ll be telling the story to many friends. And because the story is not directly coming from you, it doesn’t come across as bragging. Marketing doesn’t get much better than that.
I’m shifting my marketing approach to pull, working in a way that encourages others to share. I’ll still push occasionally, just not to the point of obsession.
If enough people start talking, maybe I’ll start developing a reputation. Hopefully it’s a good one.
Developing a Good Reputation
I’ve had my share of bad reputations growing up. In college, apparently I was considered a “player” with the ladies. During my career as a department manager, I was known for being “fluffy” with my management style.
Word gets around and eventually it gets back to you. Regarding your reputation, this is your feedback loop for something that’s difficult to measure. I use this feedback to focus on what I need to improve.
I find that the best way to improve and develop a good reputation is to choose to do the right things all the time especially when you think nobody is looking. This approach assures me that I’m coming from the right place … a place of personal integrity. Not just to impress or please others, but to be good and to do good because that’s the person I want to be.
I love reading articles from writers that do that.
I’m impressed with the likes of Coco Shackleton. During the course of June, she set a goal of writing 30 articles in 30 days. As I followed her, I noticed she didn’t submit anything to publications, even though I’m sure many would have gladly accepted her articles. She wrote from the heart and it was refreshing. I could sense that she was writing more for herself. She wasn’t stroking her own ego. She doesn’t even use her real name. (Coco Shackleton is her pseudonym.) I’m drawn to Coco because of how she represents herself. She exudes authenticity.
I’m not sure what happened to Coco. She hasn’t posted anything in a while. I miss her.
But you see that? I’m talking about her. And I do so gladly. Because reading her words during those 30 days was a great experience for me.
If I can write more like Coco and stop worrying so much about the stats, I think the frustration will subside.
This post still feels a bit forced. Heck, I’m thinking about what publication to submit this to, so I can extend my reach. I won’t, but it’s tempting. Well, then again, maybe I’ll include it in one of my own publications. (Not really push marketing since I have zero followers.) I also promise not to share on Facebook or tweet this time.
I guess I’m still recovering and getting to know myself again.
What’s different is that I don’t feel like I’m trying so hard this time. I don’t care so much about what you may think about my writing ability. Yes, I hope this might connect with another person going through something similar, but I’m letting the words spill out as they may. This is how I write without a whole lot of editing. Incomplete sentences and all. At least I’m feeling more like myself.
Whatever kind of reputation I might develop as a writer, I’m fine with it as long as it develops long-term relationships and I don’t sell out while I’m at it.
Over the years I’ve struggled in 3 important areas of life. Even with the best intentions, I’ve had a history of embarrassing — even traumatic — experiences. During the worst of times, the anxiety and stress would wreak havoc on my emotional and physical health. Then it would become a vicious cycle spiraling downward. Took a while, but I finally came up with an effective way to avoid the unnecessary headaches.
Create and maintain buffers.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll define “buffer” as:
1. a thing that prevents incompatible or antagonistic people or things from coming into contact with or harming each other.
“family and friends can provide a buffer against stress”
synonyms: cushion, bulwark, shield, barrier, guard, safeguard
“a buffer against market fluctuations”
I began rethinking buffers after reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, where he describes the disciplined pursuit of less but better. Critical to this pursuit is the ability to create buffers that afford us emotional breathing room. Within that space we are also better able to think strategically.
Consistently maintaining buffers in my relationships with people, time and money has had a compound effect on my overall quality of life.
Relationships with people — family, friends, coworkers, followers, etc. — are give and take. As Covey would say, you have an emotional bank account with each person in your life. Investments of your time and attention to that person make deposits into the emotional bank account. Occasionally you may need to make a withdrawal because of neglect, or simply because you need a favor.
Making deposits can be as easy as showing that you care, and truly listening when others don’t. Recognizing someone’s effort even if the results were disappointing. Remembering personal details. (I like addressing people by name even though we only met once before.) It doesn’t take much. Just a little effort where others don’t usually bother. Random acts of kindness. Establish trust with empathy and integrity. Make deposits regularly.
Make time and the effort to maintain a healthy balance in the emotional bank accounts of the key people in your life. When forgiveness is needed, you won’t be overdrawn. In other times of need, they’ll be there to help without being asked. It’s not about the number of connections you have. It’s about the quality of those relationships that count.
There was a time in my life when I was late for everything: family parties, doctor appointments, work…you name it. By incorporating buffers into my time blocks, punctuality is now easier by design. Instead of scheduling everything back to back, I also block out enough time between meetings, appointments and other responsibilities to accommodate the unexpected.
For example, as much as I try to get done in the morning, knowing when to stop and consistently leaving early for work dramatically reduces any commuting stress. If there happens to be an accident or unusual congestion, I’m still on time. When conditions are normal, I’ve got ample time to mentally switch gears before jumping into a productive workday. Planning for adequate lead time sets the right tone to start the day which has a positive ripple effect on the rest.
Find a scheduling strategy that works best for you. I recommend time blocking — per Gary Keller and Jay Papasan in their book, The One Thing — based around your priorities.
“ Designing your life starts with designing your days.”
— Srinivas Rao
Proactively use your calendar to schedule not only your priority activities but your transitions and down time as well.
When I first started my career many many years ago, I would live paycheck to paycheck. And because of credit, I would often spend more than I had. When large unplanned expenses would pop up, I’d be at a complete loss. By the time I was married and expecting our first child, I knew things had to change. While I personally didn’t mind eating ramen to make it to the next paycheck, my wife and child deserved much better.
Fortunately, my wife is much more fiscally responsible than I am. While I was primarily focused on the percentage growth of our year-over-year income, she continued to save, invest and diversify. As CFO of our household, she has managed our money well and established a healthy buffer for rainy days.
The past year or so, it’s been raining. After my Career Break, I deliberately chose a different career path which brought our annual household income from six figures down to just above the Federal Poverty Level. If it weren’t for our financial buffer, we wouldn’t have been able to afford that decision. (And yes, more than a year later, it still feels like the right choice. We may make less, but life is better.)
This is what has worked for us:
Leveraging the compound effect wherever we invest time and money
Creating multiple streams of income including forms of passive income
Having many egg baskets but choosing our baskets wisely
Living well below our means
Thinking long term
My Dad once told me, “It’s not how much you make. It’s how much you keep.” I agree. The more I think about it, it’s really a combination of both. You can’t keep what you don’t already have, so I work hard to continue building that financial cushion. My wife always makes sure we keep enough for everything our family might need in the long term. This usually means making disciplined trade-offs and delay of immediate gratification.
You would think all of this is common sense but from what I can see, not enough people act on it. This actually helps those who do. The space is less crowded. It’s easier to stand out and get ahead. Unlike the masses in the mainstream who get caught up in the current, people who create and maintain buffers only flow with the main stream when the current is taking them where they want to go. Otherwise, they slip away on their own to yin when others yang and to ebb while others overflow. It’s in this space where they strategically choose the vital few over the trivial many.
The Compound Effect
By getting started and taking even small yet persistent steps, you can build momentum. Habit fuels a virtuous cycle spiraling up. In the long game, you experience the compound effect of focusing on less but better.
Buffers are like life insurance. You don’t think you need them. Until you do. Life rarely goes as planned. Give yourself some cushion just in case.
Today I continue to face daily challenges with my relationships to people, time and money. Fortunately, safeguards are in place. If ever I veer off course, I catch myself sooner and course correct earlier. And because of the buffer, I avoid accidentally colliding with anything.
Respect the people around you by giving them both time and space when needed. Healthy relationships maintain a healthy balance (as in emotional bank accounts).
Value your time and the time of others by scheduling and committing to the important things with enough flexibility to accommodate downtime and the spontaneous.
And continue to insulate your finances for those rainy days. When it pours, you’ll be ready.
Creating buffers in these essential areas of life make room for peace of mind and abundance.
As a semi-retired DJ, I’ve always known the high that comes from the right music at the right time. Music really is like a powerful drug. It can take you back in time where a particular song anchors memories from the past. It has the power to transform ordinary moments into special events. And this affective influence can touch the heart, the mind as well as the body.
Some of my favorite songs not only make you feel good, they’re good for you. More than words, there is harmony between [lyrics with substance] and [melody that moves].
Here are some samples. No prescription needed.
Antidepressant or Stress Relief
“I, recommend getting your heart trampled on to anyone, yeah
I, recommend walking around naked in your living room, yeah
Swallow it down (what a jagged little pill)
It feels so good (swimming in your stomach)
Wait until the dust settles
You live you learn, you love you learn
You cry you learn, you lose you learn
You bleed you learn, you scream you learn
I, recommend biting off more than you can chew to anyone
I certainly do
I, recommend sticking your foot in your mouth at any time
“So basically all I need
Is to be everything but me
And some implants
Somehow that don’t make much sense
I must be out of my head
If I think, that I am governed by material things.
So I decided I’m
The definition of fly
And if you want to know why
I know what money can’t buy
Don’t go believing the hype
There’s no runway in the sky
And no way you could be fly
Not if it costs you a dime.”
“You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up
Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
And they settle ‘neath your skin
Kept on the inside and no sunlight
Sometimes a shadow wins
But I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave
With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave”
“Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten”
“Now better men, than me have failed
Drinking from that unholy grail
(Now check it out)
I’ve got her, and she got me
And you’ve got that butt, but I kindly gotta be like
Oh baby, no baby, you got me all wrong baby
My baby’s already got all of my love
So nah nah Honey, I’m good
I could have another but I probably should not
I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone
No, honey, I’m good
I could have another but I probably should not
I’ve got to bid you adieu
To another I will stay true
(oo oo I will stay true)
(who who I will stay true)
Oh, I’m sure ya, sure ya will make somebody’s night
But oh, I assure ya assure ya, it sure as hell’s not mine”
“Young mom on her own
She needs a little help got nowhere to go
She’s lookin’ for a job, lookin’ for a way out
’Cause a half-way house will never be a home
At night she whispers to her baby girl
Someday we’ll find a place here in this world
This is our temporary home
It’s not where we belong
Windows in rooms that we’re passin’ through
This is just a stop, on the way to where we’re going
I’m not afraid because I know this is our
“I know sometimes you’re feeling lost
It’s hard to find your place in it all
But you don’t have to fear
Even when you mess up
You always got my love
I’m always right here
Come what may
Don’t look back forget yesterday
It’s not where you come from
It’s where you belong
Nothin’ I would trade
I wouldn’t have it any other way
By love and you’re wanted
So never feel alone
You are home with me
Right where you belong
Don’t matter where you’ve been
You’re here for a reason”
— Kari Kimmel, Where You Belong
“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” — Billy Joel
Mixing and Sharing Medication
Even if you’re already feeling pretty good, music can amplify that. When I DJ, the desired effect is to mix music that lifts your spirits and makes you move. When I’m in the zone, I can alter your frame of mind, enhance your mood and get you dancing instinctively. The right songs act as a catalyst. As everything comes together just right, we share the high. The act of sharing the experience — grooving and dancing together — can bridge differences between time and space, language and culture.
JT sums up the feeling quite nicely…
“I got this feeling, inside my bones
It goes electric, wavey when I turn it on
All through my city, all through my home
We’re flying up, no ceiling, when we in our zone
I got that sunshine in my pocket
Got that good soul in my feet
I feel that hot blood in my body when it drops, ooh
I can’t take my eyes up off it, moving so phenomenally
Room on lock the way we rock it, so don’t stop…
I can’t stop the feeling
So just dance, dance, dance
I can’t stop the feeling
So just dance, dance, dance, come on
Ooh, it’s something magical
It’s in the air, it’s in my blood, it’s rushing on
Don’t need no reason, don’t need control
I fly so high, no ceiling, when I’m in my zone”
Now that you’ve had some samples, here’s your prescription:
Assess your mood, pick a theme and create a soundtrack. You may even share your playlist on Spotify. (There are links to my playlists at the end.) For whatever ails you…cue up your playlist. Plug in. Take a lyrical hit (or two). And call me in the morning.
You have undoubtedly been inspired by a piece of music either because of the lyrics or the melodic composition. I’m always looking to take another hit and add it to my playlist. Please share in the comments section.
It was the summer of 1991. Although I hadn’t officially finished school, I boarded a plane for Tokyo after being accepted into the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme. I had taken a semester of Japanese language during my freshman year but proficiency in Nihon-go wasn’t even a prerequisite.
My time as an Assistant Language Teacher was only contracted for a year. Six years later, I was still working in Japan. I had extended for a couple more years with the Ministry of Education. Then as I was packing my bags to head back to the States, a Japanese student/friend referred me to the CEO of a local language school which led to another 3 years in the private sector.
The entire cross-cultural experience influenced my perspective on everything from communication to customer service to relationships in general.
In terms of communication, I quickly learned the value of paying close attention and listening more than talking. It took incredible concentration just to carry on everyday conversation in a language I could barely speak, much less read and write. Surprisingly, even if I couldn’t find the right words, I was still able to carry on meaningful exchanges. Sometimes it was enough to just listen respectfully and then combine broken Japanese, simple English and a whole lot of gestures to respond. When totally over my head, I would bow and excuse myself as gracefully as possible. Sumimasen! To the Japanese, there were unspoken expectations and varying levels of formality depending on who you were speaking with.
Being a gaijin (translation: foreigner or outsider) I was often excused for making inappropriate or ignorant comments. I knew I could only play that card for a limited time. After the first year, I had no excuse not to understand the local lingo. More importantly, I needed to better understand the cultural expectations and social context surrounding both verbal and nonverbal exchanges. The more I familiarized myself with what made the Japanese culture unique, the more I appreciated the differences. It became easier and easier to understand what my Japanese friends really meant despite what they actually said.
My Takeaway: Words Are Important but The Nonverbal Means So Much More
More than 20 years later, this perspective still influences every interaction regardless of whether I’m with a client, a co-worker or family and friends. Understanding the subtleties of body language, or knowing when it’s better to keep my mouth shut, has had a huge impact on the quality of my relationships and the differences I’ve made in the various roles I’ve played. It has shaped who I am today and the opportunities that have come my way.
For example, when I DJ a party, the music is the language of choice. How I segue from one song to the next is based on how I read the audience and the mood of the moment. I pay careful attention to how smooth the transitions flow and how the party reacts. When I’ve done my homework and made the effort to understand the audience before the event, our “meeting” leaves everybody pumped up. I put the needle on the record and communicate through the song selections and the crowd replies by packing the dance floor. A track record of packed dance floors makes securing the next gig easy.
Whenever I’m responsible for a team, I flex my management style depending on the person or the group. As I’ve mentioned in my post about simply effective leadership, I always take the individual and the situation into consideration. This tends to produce much better results than the one-size-fits-all style I used to have. In turn, being an effective leader has afforded me greater responsibilities with greater rewards.
At the heart of it all, it comes down to understanding the details within the context of the bigger picture. The meaning of any words spoken or actions taken can change drastically depending on how you frame them. The frame can shift the focus. The context can change the meaning.
So this is what I learned so many years ago thousands of miles away:
It doesn’t matter what language you speak (Japanese or English, Music or Business). what you do and how you respond can mean so much more than the words you actually say. There’s a universal language out there that we all understand, and words have little to do with it. Da yo ne!
During a monthly senior management meeting, I was once asked by the President of the company how I became such a good manager. The question caught me off guard (it took me a minute to realize he was being serious) so my answered really sucked. I was flattered but embarrassed at the same time. (As an introvert, answering questions on the spot in front of a large group, without having had time to think, often leads to embarrassment. Anyway…) After the meeting, I gave it more thought. If I had to boil down the major contributors to my unique leadership style, it would be my psychology background and a library of management books combined with painful lessons learned along a colorful career path.
I’ve tested many theories in various roles and in different environments, with mixed results. What worked well in one situation would fail miserably in the next because the variables changed. Very few techniques are universal, only working case by case. My conclusion: stick to overarching principles and don’t get hung up on specific techniques or methods. The right techniques can be called upon as needed depending on the people involved and the situation at hand. The trick is to have enough experience and practice to instinctively know what to use and when.
There are certain things I put into practice regardless of whether or not I’m in a leadership position. They seem to be effective in any case and I like to practice them at work as well as outside of work. These simple practices tend to have very predictable outcomes for me. Even better, they’re a natural extension of who I am. Below are a couple examples.
Many managers I’ve worked with were inconsistent with who and what they acknowledged, so whenever I was in a management position, I decided to be different. Where other managers focused on calling out mistakes, or what needed to be better, I made every effort to spend more time recognizing a job well done and what was working well. What seemed to make even more of a difference is that I started with each person as an individual. I always kept in mind that every person on the team was unique. Everyone had their own style, their own story and different priorities. What was important to one may mean nothing to the other. It didn’t matter what was good for the company unless I could find a way to tie it into the goals of each individual.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
This might seem overly simplistic, but one thing I picked up early on was the importance of remembering people’s names. Especially as I’ve gotten older, this gets harder and harder with every new person I meet, but I continue to practice remembering someone’s name after only one meeting. The next time I see that person, I always greet them by name. This seems to make an incredibly strong impression for two reasons:
I care. When many people bump into me after we’ve only met once, I often hear, “Hi…,” “Hey Buddy,” “How’s it going?”…or something along that line. It’s when someone says, “Hey Donn” that something special happens. I feel important, at least important enough for her or him to remember my name. And so this is how I want everyone to feel after I meet them. Because we’re all important and we all like to feel special.
It’s unexpected. When it comes to remembering names, most of us don’t expect others to routinely address us by name unless we already have a good relationship. I try to do it every time and from the very beginning.
One time, at a company party, I had the chance to ask someone from another team why they would always look away and avoid eye contact every time we passed each other in the hallway. I was curious because I would always say, “Hi Laura.” This seemed to make her feel uncomfortable and she would hurry past. (I thought maybe it was the “creepy” factor.) Anyway, she said something like she wasn’t sure how to act because I was a Vice President and had absolutely no reason to know who she was, much less greet her by name. That’s sad but I guess many would consider that normal.
As a manager, it is one of my pet peeves when someone doesn’t follow through. So I try to make sure I lead by example so I’m not one of those people. Now, it’s one thing not to follow through on a big project or a major initiative. I’m mainly talking about the simple everyday things.
For example, if I’m stopped by someone while I’m rushing to a meeting and I tell him I’ll catch up with him later, I make sure that I actually do. Sure, they would probably understand if I didn’t. We all get busy and there is always some other priority calling for our attention. But by keeping my promises, even the ones made in passing, I do for others what I would want others to do for me.
Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
I could go into additional details but for now I’ll stop. There’s a lot more that goes into my management approach that varies depending on the company and the role. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, even with these two practices. It took a lot of effort for me to get good at remembering people’s names. And to this day, I still catch myself not following through all the time. That’s ok though. There’s something about simply making the effort. It sends a message to others that you care, even about the little things. I’ve found these little things can bond teams together and inspire great work. At that point, you don’t need to manage. You can focus on leading.
There are many influential leaders out there and I’ve been fortunate to work with some great mentors. They taught me the essence of timeless leadership principles and I put my own spin on them. What matters is that whatever methods or principles you follow, they’re effective. Then add your personal touch.
For a while I believed I was exempt. I had already survived several mergers and acquisitions over the years but then it happened. Where and why doesn’t matter here. This is about the process that followed. Some career breaks are planned. This one was not.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
First, there’s the shock. For some it’s expected, but as I mentioned, I thought I was immune. Like falling off a ladder, it hurt. My ego was bruised.
“The fall from low to lower hardly hurts; the fall from middle to low is devastating.”
– Adam Grant, Originals (p.83)
Insecurity set in. Questions about the future felt overwhelming. Looking back, how I decided to respond made the difference. I put my psychology studies into use and self-administered some therapy…
Get Over It
Easier said than done, I know. My first reaction was to immediately get back in the game and lock in the next gig quickly. I decided to be methodical in my approach. To measure my efforts, I kept a log of everything related to the job search and the results of every interaction. Every call with recruiters, every interview, every resume submission…all of it. Months of calculated effort were only leading to wrong turns and dead ends.
Depression eventually caught up with me. Anxiety prevented any restful sleep, no matter how exhausted I felt. I was spiraling downward and couldn’t break the funk. Then I made a concerted effort to slow down and pause.
What you choose to pay attention to can dramatically alter your experience (the whole “perception is reality” thing), so I chose to focus on right now instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Some days were easier than others, but I kept exercising a skill that had atrophied in recent years – my ability to choose rather than fly on autopilot. It wasn’t long before I crawled out of my hole.
Time heals all wounds. I just didn’t want it to take too long. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t doing anybody any good. It was time to move on, ready or not.
Look in the Mirror and Then Out the Window
Looking in the rearview mirror, I took a good chunk of time to reassess how far I’ve come and the road that got me here. Then looking at myself, I was no longer sure that I was happy with what I saw in the mirror. Who had I become? What would I have done differently? How could I correct course? Where am I headed now? Is it time to go in a different direction?
At least, I felt I was asking the right questions.
I had become a workaholic. Developing the discipline to work long and hard hours was a badge of honor for me. Getting up every morning at 4:30am, working 12-14 hour days, and not sleeping until after midnight eventually led to burnout. Promotions and financial rewards fueled that fire for many years but towards the end, I burned up any remaining mojo and was only running on fumes. All the while, I failed to realize―or maybe I was denying that―I was trading off important things for all those work hours…time with my family and time for myself.
Now was my chance to slow down before I ran myself off a cliff. To find balance instead of working all the time. To remember what was really important to me. As I looked ahead, the fog began to clear and I hit a fork in the road.
To the right, was the continuation of the road I had already been traveling. I could get back into life as a corporate executive and continue my climb up the proverbial ladder. It was a toll road, and at what cost, I could only imagine. To the left, looked like it might take me back home but I could see the route might be a bit bumpy.
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
If you’ve already read the post about my colorful career path, you know I chose the road less traveled. Once I made that conscious decision, I simply started by making a few promises to myself:
Remain true to who you are
Live in the present and use good judgment
Leave it better than you found it
“To thine own self be true.“
Over the past few years, I got a little lost and lost myself in the process. I became increasingly insecure about who I was and found myself trying too hard to be what others wanted me to be. For example, although I’m an introvert, I pretended to be an extrovert. I thought that was the only way you could be successful as an executive. I do believe it’s possible to “fake it until you become it.” That said, I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t me. I wanted to be myself. Being myself also meant doing things at my own pace. As an executive, I often felt rushed and pressured to deliver results quickly. In most cases I was able to adjust as needed, but lately I saw more and more that quality was being sacrificed for the sake of speed.
After reading Quiet by Susan Cain, I began looking at introversion in a new light. I became comfortable in my own skin again. Another book, In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, helped me slow down and appreciate ‘tempo giusto’ – what musicians use to refer to the “right speed.” (Used in reference to living life with balance…fast when needed and slow when called for.) Moreover, this respect for time translated to better appreciation for the present. The gift of now.
“If you presence doesn’t make an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”
Ever since childhood, I’ve found it difficult to live in the moment. The exceptions were times when I was absorbed in activities such as blending vinyl music with 2 turntables, choreographing a hip-hop dance routine, or pushing out one more rep in the gym. My usual MO was to dream about the future or worry about the past. I found it hard to enjoy the present because my mind was always elsewhere. If there were only one important change I could make to my approach from here on out, it would be to live in the here and now.
(This usually requires an inside-out approach which begins with yourself. To some, this is misconstrued as selfish behavior. Important to get past that stage. I’ve learned that living in the present is much easier when what you focus on is self-less rather than self-centered.)
Here’s how I see it: The past is past so no sense lingering there. No one knows what the future holds and life is rarely linear. The best way to set yourself up for a good future is to do the best you can with what you’ve got today. You don’t have to be perfect. You just need to use good judgment and make every effort to leave everything better than before you found it. That includes every action and every word spoken (or unspoken). At the end of the day, you’d be surprised how big of a difference you made to the people and world around you. All those thoughtful actions, no matter how small, add up.
Oh, I promised myself one more thing. Never take for granted the blessings you already have.
There’s really not much more to say about this. I just realized that more is not necessarily better. By appreciating all the good things already in my life, I’m learning to be happy with less. I drive a Prius and I’m cool with that. I live in a modest home, have great neighbors and live comfortably. It’s almost 20 years later and I think my wife still loves me ;). Honey, I’m good. Three beautiful children to kiss goodnight. I am blessed.
I believe that everything happens for a reason. In the moment, it may not make sense, but it often does in retrospect. What felt like an imposition turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to reassess my life to date and what was truly important to me. This was what I needed. I was so obsessed with achievement and accomplishment that I was taking for granted my family and losing myself in the process. The break in my career gave me time to realize that, before it was too late.
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast―you also miss the sense of where you are going and why” – Eddie Cantor
In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I Don’t Have a Degree I get e-mails every day. “I’d like to work at Google but I don’t have a degree,” Or, “I’d like to be a success but I don’t have an MBA.” And it’s not just degrees. I get e-mails from people who think they need yoga teacher certification. Or a medical degree (you can be a healer without writing prescriptions). Or any flimsy piece of paper that ultimately is no indicator of value. Google’s head of HR has even announced that graduates’ GPAs are a waste to look at. And that more and more of their hires have no college degrees at all! It’s just another way the world is changing, and you have to grasp it now. It used to be that a stranger knew he could cooperate with you if you had that stupid piece of paper. Come up with ten ideas on how you can escape the trap of the degree and demonstrate you still have value. Ideas for the company you want to work for, or the person you want to work with. Or just go get a camera and start making movies without a film degree.
When actor Andy Samberg was starting at Saturday Night Live he didn’t just huddle in the writers’ room with everyone else and try to come up with jokes. There was too much competition! Instead, he took a camera and with his buddies Jorm and Akiva went out and shot “Lazy Sunday,” which was the first YouTube video to get over 100 million views and became his first SNL digital short. He didn’t wait to rise through the ranks and hopefully get a joke or a sketch produced. He went out and produced it himself.
Before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” got a billion views on YouTube, the rapper turned down every record label. He realized he didn’t need the validation they have provided to generations of artists. The distribution is there to reach the world no matter what your field is. You validate yourself now through your work.
Apologies to Mr. Altucher for taking that much verbatim from his book. I just read those pages this morning and it hit home.
The Trip Full Circle
I fall in the category of those who dropped out of college. While I had many an opportunity to finish, life went on and I eventually decided not to. When I’m having an insecure moment, I like to remind myself that I only had two classes to finish (and they were both freshman level electives!) so really, I earned pretty much everything I needed for that Liberal Arts degree in Psychology. I guess I just didn’t cross the finish line which could be perceived as inability to follow through. I understand and respect other perspectives. I just don’t personally see it that way. It doesn’t have to be a negative. I have worked very hard since then to show that it doesn’t have to matter if you don’t let it.
The Road Not Taken
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
It was 1991 and I was scheduled to graduate at the end of Spring semester. This was all the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) needed to know at the time I applied and interviewed. They didn’t actually ask to see my degree before it was time for me to board the plane that summer. By the time the University of Illinois notified me that I failed two classes (English 101 Introduction to Poetry and Classic Civilization 115 Mythology of Greece and Rome), I was already all set to leave for Japan. Although becoming an Assistant English Teacher (AET) had nothing to do with my major, it was a 1 year adventure abroad with all expenses paid as well as a monthly salary. I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity unless absolutely necessary. That degree would have to wait.
I had lady luck on my side. After the year was over, I had the option to extend for another year and I definitely wanted to. The only catch – I had to renew my work visa and I was told they required a copy of my college degree in the process. I figured I had better start packing my bags but then again…why not just go through the motions and see what happens? Even if they sent me home, I already had my adventure. For some unknown reason, the Japanese government renewed my visa without any questions. One year turned into two and next thing you know 3 years later I was still in Japan. That was the maximum length that anyone could stay with the Jet Programme. As the third year winded down, a Japanese friend referred me to the CEO of a private language school under the Terakoya Group. They offered me a job and I had to go through the process of renewing my work visa for another year. Again, nobody asked to see my college degree. Surprising enough, the person in front of me in line was asked for his. To this day I can’t figure out how I got away with it year after year, but my luck lasted long enough for me to meet my future wife. Caro was on a 9 month work-study program and just happened to be assigned to Matsuyama City where I also lived. After 6 years in Japan, instead of calling it luck, I’d like to think it was serendipity.
Unlike I did in college, note that I wasn’t just sliding by while I worked in Matsuyama. Knowing that I didn’t finish school, I felt like I had to prove something and make my mark anyway. My second year, I was elected as the Ehime Prefectural Representative for AJET (The Association of Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and after 1 year at Terakoya, I was promoted to Head Teacher at the private language school.
Ok. The story goes on, but I need to pause here for now. The kids are awake and I’ve been writing since 5am.
[2/16/2016 4:38am] Picking up where I left off…
When I returned to the States in the summer of 1997, it was like “Oh sh*t, what do I do for work now? I don’t have a degree.” I was going on 28 years old and still didn’t have any solid plans for my career. I was back with my parents and when my Dad asked me what I was planning to do next, I told him I was thinking about starting a DJ business. I could sense his disappointment. When your parents go against all odds to earn their college degrees in the Philippines and then move the entire family to the Unites States so we can have a better life in the Land of Opportunity, I can understand why being a DJ might not be what they had in mind for their son. When I was still at the University majoring in Electrical Engineering, I think I was living up to expectations. We all imagined my future becoming an engineer like Dad and having a secure and well-paid profession for life…I guess I’d be disappointed with my DJ ambition too.
Got to get ready for work. I’ll continue later.
[2/16/2016 7:45pm continuation]
While I worked to put things in place for the DJ startup, I took a commissioned sales associate position in retail. Retail store positions don’t often require a college degree. I chose Bachrach, a men’s clothing retailer founded in Decatur, IL with locations all around the Chicago area. I’d always been into fashion so this would be aligned with my interests. Sales was not my strength, but it paid the bills and helped fund the DJ equipment and music I would need. For years, I tried to work both paths in parallel without any breakthrough success. I knew very little about operating a profitable business and everything I learned was from trial and error.
The DJ business wasn’t growing fast enough and we were getting deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of dollars spent on music, lighting and other gear without enough gigs to pay for it all. When I found out that Caro was pregnant with León, I knew I needed to change my approach if I had any chance of providing for my growing family. I decided to focus on Bachrach and work my way up the ladder. We could stabilize our finances and buy me time to figure out what to do as an entrepreneur. Looking back, that was a pivotal point. After my motivation shifted from selfish ambitions to providing for the family, my career started to take off.
Within a few years, I went from Sales Associate to Store Manager to Director of E-commerce. (I’ll save my success strategy for a different post.) I worked in several locations and eventually had my own office at the downtown Chicago corporate headquarters. There were several rungs in between and along the way, but I won’t get into those details now. What happened with the DJ business? One thing led to another and it eventually led to the launch of ChicagoWeddingServices.com. Although small potatoes compared to other dot coms, it was a business model that made money while I slept and the site could often run on autopilot. It supplemented my income at Bachrach quite nicely. (For more details, see my post on Website Experiments Throughout the Years)
After 10 years at Bachrach, I had to move on. Too many acquisitions had taken place and it was no longer a fit. I began looking elsewhere. When I was offered a position at Dreams Retail in 2008, I jumped. Fortunately, during the interview process, my college education wasn’t a deciding factor.
I would have to say that my years at Dreams, Inc. have been the highlight of my career to date. Kevin Bates and the team he built created a work environment that brought out my best. I started off in an Account Management role but followed the same strategy I used to work my way up at Bachrach. I went from non-management to executive management with a team of more than 50 people to lead. I eventually got promoted to Director of Marketing and in less than two years after that, became VP of Marketing.
This too eventually came to an end. Dreams Inc. was acquired by Fanatics Inc. and I relocated from the Chicago area to the Jacksonville, Florida area. (The kids didn’t like the move, but we had a new house built in a nice neighborhood. It also helps that we live only a couple hours from Disney.) I was able to keep my position as VP of Digital Marketing but with so many changes during and after the integration period, it was the beginning of the end for that chapter. My time at Fanatics officially ended in January of 2015. Without having anything lined up yet, I spent 6 months in what I call “mid-career retirement” – a career break if you will. We didn’t have to worry about finances, at least for a while, so I had the luxury of time to decompress, reconnect with my family, and think about the next chapter. As scary as it can be to lose a 6 figure salary, I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten in return.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot
Today, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back in fashion retail and am making about the same income as I did when I first started my career. I see everything through a different lense though. While money is still important, it’s no longer the carrot. It’s no longer about the prestigious title, but more about the unique contribution and value. Being hourly no longer has a negative connotation to me. It now means I have more work-life balance. Instead of thinking so much about what I want in the future, I spend more time appreciating what I already have and whom I’m with today. Things will have to change again I’m sure. Even though we’ve always lived below our means, our current lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run with my current income. Surprisingly, I’m not very worried though. We’ll figure it out. I know because we’ve done it before.
Regarding my college degree, or lack thereof, it has definitely made a difference in my career choices and the life I’ve lived. I’ve spent most of my career proving that you can succeed without a degree. When the competition was smarter, I just worked longer and harder to compensate. Most of my lessons learned were from the school of hard knocks. I learned the simple yet important lesson on how to make a positive difference…always strive to leave it better than you found it.
I’m content with what I’ve accomplished as a college dropout. I have no regrets.
Caro and I were married in 1998, not too long after I started at Bachrach. Although she has seen and experienced all the ups and downs of my career, she has never stopped being supportive. Even when she didn’t agree with all my choices, she has stood by my side and was always there to give me strength when I needed it most. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out without her. All these years later, I don’t worry too much anymore about climbing the corporate ladder or making lots of money. With her and our three beautiful children, I already feel successful. Together we’ll make life good no matter what comes our way.
To my band of brothers who joined me on my crazy adventure as an entrepreneur: That was an awesome ride, let’s do it again!
Grateful to the many coworkers who I had the privilege to work with, and my bosses/mentors who also shaped who I am and how I work today – they were some of my best teachers. To the organizations and hiring managers who took a leap of faith and gave me a shot, thank you.
I also want to give a shout-out to all my family and friends, near and far. You’ve never judged me and accept me for who I am, warts and all.
And special thanks to Mom and Dad, for always loving me even when I disappoint. From you I learned what is possible when you work hard. [2/17/2016 4:38am] Today is Dad’s 70th Birthday. I dedicate this post to him.
Essentialism /əˈsen(t)SHəˌlizəm/ (as defined by Greg McKeown)
The disciplined pursuit of less
Even though I specifically wrote down at the beginning that I would curb my smoking this past weekend, I didn’t. I think I actually smoked more than I usually do. I often blame stress as one of the main reasons I smoke. It helps take off the edge I say to myself. So when I work, I smoke due to the stress at work. You would think, then, that I would smoke less when I’m off work. For me that hasn’t been the case. At home, I smoke due to a different kind of stress. Being a parent can be stressful. When the children test your patience, or you feel non-stop busy running the kids around to their various activities, or just daily chores you feel obligated to attend to. Of course, it all depends on what you focus on, and your attitude towards it. When I find myself overly concerned with the things that I want to do, then everything else is a distraction, but when I catch myself doing that, I can often course-correct and start focusing on what I can do for my family since I’m home. This is my way of transforming the stress to joy.
Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten Season. Growing up, I was always under the impression that we had to give something up during that time. That’s how my Dad stopped smoking. He gave it up for Lent one year and then never went back. In the last few years, I haven’t taken the tradition very seriously. This year, I had no real intention to give anything up, but then yesterday Sofia asked me what I was giving up for Lent. She noticed that I went out to the backyard to smoke and had already done it only about an hour before. She cautiously mentioned that she knew something good that I could give up for Lent. Smart cookie that one. Very subtle and sincere without leaving me feeling picked on. I didn’t feel angry like my knee-jerk reaction would have it. I felt guilty because I could see Sofia really cared and she said it with that childlike innocence that you just can’t get mad at. Normally I would get annoyed, whether it be at Caro or Mom, because I simply get bothered when the topic comes up. Everyone means well so I try very hard to keep my knee-jerk reaction in check.
Anyway, I was thinking about it again this morning. Giving up something aligns with the whole “Essentialism” philosophy I’ve been drawn to after reading Greg McKeown. I’ve learned from earlier attempts that promising to stop smoking would just lead to disappointment for everyone. What could I give up that was doable and be a good thing to let go of so I could focus on better things? It would have to be something challenging but that I would be confident enough to pull off. As I did a cursory mental review of how I spend my time, I thought of just the thing…watching TV. That would include Netflix and Redbox which I gravitate towards when I need an escape or comfort from the daily stressors.
This I can do. Even if the only side-benefit is to give me more time to sleep, that would be worth missing a night of Gotham or waiting a little longer to watch “The Martian” recently released on Redbox. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe if I can get a smaller win this Lenten Season, I’ll go for the bigger challenge of a smoke cessation program.
Although I prefer the whole abundance mentality thing, daily life can definitely feel like a series of trade-offs. Trying to do it all and have it all leaves most of us burnt out and still not satisfied. As pointed out in “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown, when deciding how to spend your limited time, it really helps to let go of the trivial many for the vital few. “Less but better.” In other words, find the discipline to do less of the unimportant so you have time to focus on what really makes a difference. Funny how we often choose otherwise.
So when it comes to Lent this year, I’m not giving something up for the sake of sacrifice. I’m exercising my ability to better choose how I spend my free time. Watching TV is now on my “to don’t” list, at least until the Lenten season is over.