What Iron Mike Got Right

Plan All You Want, But Be Nimble
by Ken Goldstein
Sixth in a Series of Ten

I’m not at all a fan of Mike Tyson, but his most memorable and useful quote in my mind remains: “A plan is something you have, until you get hit.”  I have a Hebrew carving in my home that says this a different way, “Man Plans and God Laughs.”  One of my earliest mentors, the great writer David Milch, said it yet another way, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

Yesterday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of books, magician and author Ricky Jay was asked by someone in the audience, “If I want to be a magician, what do I study in college?”  Ricky couldn’t answer the question.  A friend of his, a professor in the USC creative writing program was also in the audience, so Ricky kicked it to him — he couldn’t answer it either.  Ricky wasn’t sure how to tell the student to prepare for life’s later adventures, because as he reflected, if you asked him at college age if he would be writing for the New Yorker and doing radio commentaries and writing books of historical anecdotes and also doing magic at this age, he never could have predicted it, maybe the magic.  Patti Smith, who won the National Book Award for Just Kids, her memoir about artist Robert Mappelthorpe, was equally sage — she wondered why she had to be labeled an author or a musician or a poet or a painter, couldn’t a creative life be OK in simply exploring the creative process.  “What would Da Vinci have answered?” she asked, “Oh come on, Leonardo, which are you, a painter, a sculptor, a scientist, you can’t really be all of those.”  Did he know he would be all of those, and at a level that would last and command respect for so many generations to follow?  What if he had simply stuck to The Plan?  Could any of us predict where we are now at a level of detail that would paint an accurate picture?  Then toss in the hits.  I wonder.

To the point of a plan, yes, I think you should have one at any given time.  With a road map you will probably get somewhere, maybe not to the precise destination you originally intended, but somewhere that eventually makes sense.  Without any road map, you will more likely wander, which is not the same as exploration, and not necessarily a bad thing.  With no map, no plan, you may get somewhere you like in a time frame that is right for you, but how many of us are really comfortable with that little structure?  Even Kerouac and the Merry Pranksters thought they were going somewhere, but it was the detours that came to matter most to them.

So what about that part where the surprise left or right jab literally knocks the thinking process from your brain?  That was Tyson’s point, and the metaphor is crystal clear.  You train for the fight, you study your opponent’s every move, and you go into the ring knowing exactly what to do.  Then he does something different and you get clobbered.  Your head is ringing, you can’t see straight, but the fight is not over unless you let it be.  That’s when you decide if there is another chapter, can you react, can you recalculate on the fly, do you have another idea?  Your plan has crumbled, but you’re still in the fight, unless you choose otherwise.

The ability to plan and prepare, be directed and be focused, these are elements of success.  Yet equally critical is the know how to accept the extemporaneous and be ready, always ready, to seize opportunity on a second’s notice when every rule you believe to be true is changed, spun, flipped, or junked.  Knowing that a fork is there in the road takes staggering intuition that you may not even know you are calling on when it happens, because that fork won’t be labeled, that sucker punch won’t be broadcast, that opportunity when you get to it will not say “Walk This Way.”

I have one friend who recently went from a boss who thought she was a star to a boss who can’t find anything she does right.  I have another friend who thought he beat cancer, then awoke one day to discover he is going to have to beat it again.  Three friends who believed they were in forever marriages are now going through divorce.  A vast handful of former employees who never thought they would see a layoff notice were met over the past few years with a surprise to the contrary.  In no event did The Plans for any of these people include these brutal hits.  In no event have they wholeheartedly abandoned their long cherished plans.  Yet in no event have their plans gone without editing, adjustment, or real-time recalibration.  It would be too crass to say they are rolling with the punches, a true hit doesn’t much let you roll, but shaken as they are, they are reacting, and they are on their feet with resilience and conviction.

There is a difference between focus and rigidity, just like there is a difference between improvisation and chaos. You can’t predict an outcome, but when you are looking back, you’ll see where those inflection points appeared and you were simultaneously grounded and flexible.  It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s one that can separate win from loss, modest success from great success, definition from label.

Be directed, but be fluid.  Don’t get knocked off your game, and don’t refuse to play simply because someone changes the rules.  Prepare, then pivot.

In The Long Run

No Pay Out Is Assured, But Some Reflect History
by Ken Goldstein
Fifth in a Series of Ten

One of the hardest yet most pragmatic lessons I have had to learn and re-learn over time is the fundamental difference between speculating and investing. I have found in both finance and career choices, there is a considered role in my life for each. For my own digestion, I have boiled it down to this:

Speculation is a bet, a gamble, a short-term play where intuition plays a key role. If you win, you party; if you lose, you shrug it off. It can be fun and exciting, but it should never be meant to put what you most care about at risk.

Investment is an allocation of resources, capital or otherwise, a long-term play where logic plays the key role. If you win, you most likely got an outcome you wanted; if you lose, you refine and recommit to your strategy, then try again. It is hard work and often gruelingly repetitive, but it is the least emotional consistent path to success and independence.

Casino gambling, lottery tickets, buying individual equities on a friendly (but never insider) tip, quitting your job in a snit because you believe you are better than the job you have and are unquestionably in high demand — these are examples of speculation. You do these things — if at all — when you are in a safety zone, when you can sustain the outcomes without ruining your life or family’s security.

Higher education, buying a fairly priced home to inhabit with a reasonable mortgage, allocating your savings or retirement across a fully diversified set of passively traded asset classes, finding a mentor and sticking with a tough job while charting your career arc — these are examples of investing. You do these things as opportunity allows, ignoring the distractions and noise of the latest media ramblings or get rich quick schemes, to build your net worth and reputation day by day.

Does that mean you should never speculate? Of course not, but only when you can afford to completely lose whatever you have at stake. Risk and reward are not good or bad, they are real functions that warrant each other. If high reward did not accompany high risk, there would be no reason for either. Both when you invest and you speculate, reward is your compensation for the risk you are willing to take. That’s why a CD pays so little interest, because the risk of losing your capital is almost non-existent.  Meanwhile, the latest IPO could see a company double or triple in value in hours, because just as quickly it could be worth half or less of the capital that purchased shares.

There are many individuals, funds, and companies that are well positioned to take extraordinary risk, they might not even consider their choices to be speculation because they allocate resources without ever betting the farm. For most individuals, these risks are simply too extraordinary, but if you do choose to take them, understand what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Likewise in getting an education and building a career path, know what you are doing.  You don’t have to presume the investment path is slow and steady, it can be suddenly meteoric.  But for most of us, those “overnight successes” arrive after many extraordinary hard years of work, focus, and even sacrifice.  I remember David Seidler, the screenwriter of The King’s Speech, saying on the Academy Awards as he received his Oscar at 70 years old this year, “My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer.”  My sense is that award gave him great pride, but what gave him even greater pride was the quality of the work he had created, because of his own life choice to invest his precious time in developing his talent.  That to me screams investment, just like a 401k plan that bounced back if you stayed allocated in the market through the recession.  Others may win the Academy Award on the only screenplay they ever wrote, or quadruple their money on secondary market exchanges; I wish them nothing but well if they do, and hope they have a day job if they don’t.

Work hard, play hard; fully comprehend the difference between long-term and short-term.  We’ll get to the notion of luck in a later post!

It’s Not What You Need, It’s Who You Help

Networking Can Be Learned, Once You Dump All Your Bad Habits
by Ken Goldstein
Fourth in a Series of Ten

Networking is of the most misunderstood and underappreciated activities in which we partake.  We are taught to begin networking as early as we can, in high school and college, to build our network of contacts so we know important people downstream who can help us improve all our metrics — financial results, recruitment, sales leads, and career development, just to name a few.  Yet even though we know we are supposed to network, do we have a clue what effective networking is?  How do we calculate an ROI on time spent, and oh how I despise this word, schmoozing?

Let’s start with the basics — schmoozing is not networking.  Idle chit chat at industry cocktail parties is not going to help you achieve a record quarter or land the gig of a lifetime.  You can point to examples where it worked, but you can also point to people who win the lottery.  In my experience, with the exception of sales people, no one really likes schmoozing — it’s weird, it’s thin, it’s shallow, and it’s uncomfortable.  To be clear, the best sales people I know only pretend to schmooze, what they are really doing in these circles is selling, because professional sales people are selling all the time.  So for everyone who is not in sales, let’s toss out schmoozing as a way to move forward.  If you have that kind of time on your hands, spend it with family and friends, you’ll have a much better and more honest day or evening.

Networking is the single best chance we have to make an impression on someone, an impression that lasts, possibly for the rest of the time you are on the planet.  What better way is there for you to make a positive impression, to get someone to remember you and care about you and think about taking your call?  Help them.  Help them any way you can.  Answer their email, return their call, listen to their problem or concern, and if you have something relevant to share, share it.  You want to know what we really appreciate in life and business?  Any simple act of kindness or respect.  Do it, do it often, trade your schmoozing time for helping time.  Do it now, it doesn’t matter if you are at the top or bottom of your game, if you are busy or bored.  Don’t discriminate, you are building a base of support and trust, you have no clue whatsoever where anyone around you will be in several years time.  They may be CEO, they may be down and out, they matter equally; in another year’s time, the tables can turn very quickly.

So once you help someone, it’s like The Godfather, right?  They owe you a favor?  Fuggedaboutit.  You give and offer to give because it’s the right thing to do.  You do it selflessly and without expectation.  You do it because it feels good and right to you.  You do not keep score.  If you network correctly, you forget every act you ever did to help someone so you never make the awful mistake of reminding them.  Let them remember.  They will.

Successful networking is like successful investing, it’s long term results that matter.  I can’t tell you how immensely consistent a theme this has been in my own life.  My contacts list is something I cherish, I can call any one of the people I consider contacts and they will get back to me promptly.  Why, because they think I have something for them?  No, because we have a human connection.  With that human connection comes access and trust.  Do not mistake this for friendship, it might be friendship, but that is rare.  It is a covenant of interchange, where connection and productivity are rooted in history.

You want history?  Start now.  Help someone today, then again tomorrow.  You will be shocked at just how powerful your network grows in the years to come, and how satisfied you feel to be part of an endlessly winning circle.

When an A Minus is an F

Good Enough is Not Good
by Ken Goldstein
Third in a Series of Ten

Doug Carlston was the inspirational and visionary CEO and co-Founder of Broderbund Software when I had the privilege of joining that one-of-kind company.  Throughout my earliest meetings with Doug and repeated my first day on the job, he told me, “The world is filled with 90 percenters; in product development 90% is just enough to lose everything you have.”

We all grew up with a school grading system where 90% was an A-, certainly not an A+, but nothing you were usually afraid to show your parents or tell your friends. On the strict GPA scale, 90% got you the same 4.0 added to your cumulative tally (divided by 1) as 100%, so even though you might lose the bragging rights of a full A or a rare A+, in terms of your GPA it was mission accomplished, you had squeaked by with a top mark.

In business, squeaking by won’t cut it. We live in a fully global landscape with minimal constraints on distribution, vast market fragmentation, unending innovation, and almost unquantifiable competition for the loyalty of customers.  In almost every category of products and services, customers have immeasurable choices, more choices every year, month, week, and hour. Even in a society like ours that celebrates great deals and value prices, trying to keep a customer’s loyalty with products that reflect “good enough for what you paid” is a path to pure disaster. You may get away with it for a while, but you won’t build a great company like Apple.

Think of it this way, suppose you paid even for the cheapest seats to the symphony, and the symphony got 90% of the notes right. OK, rough extreme, you’d be gone by the first break, probably try to sneak out before. Suppose your hometown baseball team played 90% error free, that’s an A-, right? Gone. Suppose 90% of the features worked on your car, would you buy another of the same brand? Or your desktop software could be counted on to work 90% of the time (some of us learned to live with that for many years, until competition showed it was an unacceptable standard). You get the idea, 90% excellence for a consumer product or service as a sustainable proposition that will delight and “enchant” customers and bring them back to you time and again is an absurdity.

So where do 90% products comes from, and how do they still get released to market with a prayer for success? Do we think our marketing colleagues can just smooth everything over with a good story and reassure customers who are angry 10% of the time? If you think that, I invite you to request a shift on the phones in your company’s customer service department, I dare you to listen for an hour and try not to rethink everything you are doing. Listen to yourself the next time you call customer service to “offer feedback,” your tone may reflect much less than 90% satisfaction.  When you call, remember, they need you way more than you need them.  In your business, same thing, you need them way more than they need you. 

The point is that 90% products come from 90% employees, probably not all of them, and very unlikely intentional — very few of us set out happily on a path to be “good enough” but as deadlines approach, we test the corporate culture to see what is valued most. What Doug taught us at Broderbund over and over is that in business, getting to 90% is just not that hard, so many people can do it, it’s just not worth celebrating. You could often look at a Broderbund product development schedule and see we’d try to get to 90%, either Alpha or Beta, in a few months, leaving a year or even two to release the product. What’s that I say, 90% of the schedule for the final 10% of the product? That’s because in Doug’s mind, the final 10% of the product was the product, the 90% working model was the fun and easy part, the “inspiration phase” as another great inventor coined the phrase.

If you allow 90% employees to inhabit your company culture and let them think they are succeeding with 90% success again and again, you continue to allow your world to be filled with 90 percenters. It’s wrong, you don’t want them, and you can’t allow it. Customers work hard for the money that pays for their goods and services, just like you do, they deserve 100% all the time, and now they expect it. A 90 percenter is an evangelist for mediocrity. Besides, it’s no fun to squeak by, thinking that being a 90 percenter will either secure you a sense of accomplishment or a basket of rewards. See through the 90% haze with 100% people, and you have a shot at delivering robust, breakthrough, world-changing products and services that reflect the hard work and true values you believe are worthy of your brand.