Or rather, what occured to me while listening to Richard Branson speak (although he never mentioned it). And then from listening to Joe Polish talk about Richard Branson.
For me, this was a perfect case of the teacher appearing when the student (me) was ready.
A little background is in order.
If you’re awake, questioning, and willing to connect the dots, the things you learn in one sphere of life will have much carry-over into any other sphere of interest you so choose.
Call it the fractal universe, or serendipity or whatever. But it’s proven to me to be so over and again.
Because – and as we’ll come to see in this post – greatness (or a kind of “fierce ambition”) is the common denominator. Over and above the specifics in which that greatness expressed itself.
That is to say, greatness is revealed in a wide array of applications. And note that greatness may (but doesn’t have to) coincide with monetary success. Value and monetary “worth” being largely culturally defined.
For instance, your Stuart Hughes suit is next to worthless in the jungles of the upper Amazon.
And ninja skills with a fine jungle machete will just get you arrested in New York city.
Allow me to tap the brakes and present a little more context for where I’m going here:
So I recently returned home from the Traffic and Conversion convention in San Diego. T&C is a comingling of the best and brightest minds in entrepreneurship and marketing.
Which is where I saw both Richard Branson and Joe Polish speak. I actually saw Joe speak twice (once in a small, private mastermind group), but that’s beside the point.
The people who flock to T&C come for two things: networking (the after parties and masterminds/meetups are incredible), and learning the latest and greatest techniques for successful marketing. Which translates, of course, into successful entrepreneurship.
Now as you might imagine, the marketing world is a totally different landscape than it was 25 years ago. And few of the people who were considered top of the game in the pre-internet days are still considered that today.
Except, that is, for Joe Polish.
More on that following. But Joe found a way to transfer marketing skills from the mid ‘90s (direct mail, newspaper ads, etc.) to today.
Now I talk alot about establishing rock-solid systems and processes to produce effective habit change. And the need to reevaluate and tweak those processes as the environment changes.
In other words, these systems have to be considered “living entities”. They have to flex and morph according to where you are NOW and in relation to your current situation.
Our aim ought to be to make these systems and processes antifragile. In other words, they have to become – YOU have to become – increasingly more resilient in the face of the continual chaos that is life.
Just like your immune system. Or your overall physical conditioning.
A recovering alcoholic may legitimately have to go through an extended period of time where he is never exposed to booze of any kind.
But is that a realistic life-long strategy? No. And so the system and process supporting continued sobriety has to change accordingly.
Back to Joe Polish and Richard Branson.
Although they are both incredibly (at least, financially) successful, they each took wildly divergent and (key point) unique paths to get there.
The takeaway: while the particular path is indeed an interesting story, attempting to emulate it in the hopes of achieving the same outcome is futile.
We have to dig deeper to uncover the underlying psychology of what makes these successful people tick.
The trap: Survivorship Bias
Survivorship Bias refers to our tendency to focus on the winners in a particular area of expertise. We attempt to emulate what was their unique path (including specific systems and processes) while conveniently forgetting about the losers who’ve employed the exact same strategy.
Same terrain, same map, same vehicle. Different outcome.
Instead of focusing on LeBron James’ determination, grit and fierce ambition, we try to unravel the secret sauce particulars of his training.
The reality though is the thousands of athletes who train with the same specifics, but who’ve never – and will never, even if they double-down on those specifics – make it to the NBA. Much less become superstars.
And you’ve never heard about those athletes for a good reason. It doesn’t make for a compelling story.
If David doesn’t win, there’s no David and Goliath story. Marketing 101.
You can hack a system and process. And that’s smart; it’ll get you in the ballpark. But there’s no hacking the foundational elements that support those systems and processes. And that’s what we don’t want to hear.
As with diet, exercise, and lifestyle, we want the shortcut. The want the results of the hard work… without the hard work. We want to have our cake and (literally) eat it, too. And without the accompanying wild blood sugar swings and fat gain.
For example: Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college and became billionaires. Joe Polish (who barely eked-out a high school degree) completely bombed his junior college business classes. The implication being, you don’t need school to succeed. Entrepreneurs just need to stop wasting time in class and get started.
The path though is not, in and of itself, the success.
It’s more likely that the dropout billionaires succeeded in spite of their path, not because of it.
For every Branson, Gates, Dell, Zuckerberg, and Polish, there are thousands of other college dropout entrepreneurs with failed projects, debt-heavy bank accounts, and wrecked relationships.
I know; I’ve seen it up close and personal.
So survivorship bias isn’t merely saying that a strategy may not work well for you, it’s also saying that we don’t really know if the strategy works well at all.
We have to go deeper – much deeper – to understand what underpins the successful systems and processes to get to the underlying greatness that expressed itself through those systems and processes.
And we haven’t even touched on the luck aspect.
Yes, luck is where preparation meets opportunity. Fair enough. But still, the trash bin of history is littered with geniuses who suffered the fate of “right idea, wrong time”.
Nikola Tesla, anyone?
When the winners are remembered and the losers are forgotten it becomes very difficult to say if a particular strategy leads to success.
What does matter, then?
The attributes of greatness, that’s what.
This is what I’ve learned from observing the highly successful (and what “clicked” when I heard Branson and Polish speak): what they all have in common is what I’d defined earlier as a kind of fierce ambition. An inordinate drive to succeed.
That is to say, they’ve found a way to leverage what gifts they had while not letting their perceived shortcomings get in the way.
They’ve faced an array of obstacles with courage. In fact, they’ve embraced those obstacles as an inevitable part of the process. They exude the Zen Buddhism idea of Shoshin: the beginner’s mind.
More on the concept of shoshin in a later post. But for now let’s just say that children are naturals at shoshin. They know (and accept) that they don’t know. They are absolutely unconcerned with appearing as if they don’t know, and are not afraid to experiment and fail. They are the epitome of ignorance on fire. Incompetence on the way to mastery is a natural part of who they are. They embrace the here and now of playing with the methodology vs being attached to the outcome.
In Richard Branson’s case, the technical intricacies of business are not his strong suit. He’s happy to play the”fool” in the boardroom.
But his talent for connecting and networking is unmatched. He can see a future that others cannot. More importantly, he places others before himself. He genuinely wants to connect with and help others succeed.
There is an old Zig Ziglar quote that says, “If you help enough people get what they want, you will get what you want.”
Now, take that to the bank as your business plan and you’ll get laughed out of the lobby.
Banks want to see a solid system and process. A plan of action that makes sense. In that way (and by playing the odds) they win more than they lose.
The intangibles though are what really matters. Drive. Greatness. Fierce ambition.
It’s the expression of those qualities through those solid systems and processes that really matters.
A middling training plan undertaken with drive, conviction and consistency will always outperform a great plan that’s half-assed.
And you can take that to the bank.
Heal thyself, hone thyself, change the world –
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