What Is Normal?

I have never given a commencement address. Maybe someday I’ll be asked. No, I’m not fishing, just pondering the opportunity to rant a bit in academic garb. Ah for the chance at an honorary doctorate of anything from anywhere! Okay, now I’m fishing.

If I were invited to give such a dignified speech this year, I think the question I might pose to students is:

What is normal?

Why that? Much of what I’m hearing these days is all about getting back to something called normal.

What is normal after the Covid-19 pandemic?

What is normal after three months of shelter-in-place directives?

What is normal after the brutal police murder of George Floyd?

What is normal after millions of people flood into the streets for weeks to protest against systemic racial discrimination and social injustice?

Maybe what bothers me isn’t so much the idea of normal as the notion of getting back to some previous state that is somehow better than where we are at the moment.

Perhaps we want to believe there will a new normal. In that new normal, would it be possible we could all agree on what would constitute a better normal?

Could we all agree that honesty should be normal, that we shouldn’t lie, particularly when the consequences to others of not getting the truth could be dire?

Could we all agree that believing in science should be normal, and in unforgiving matters such as health and safety, documented facts should triumph over manipulating opinions?

Could we all agree that exercising our right to vote should be normal, that in a democracy we are better served if every citizen votes, that it should be easy to vote, that elections focus on well-reasoned policy instead of lobbyist agendas, and that politicians seek office to be public servants where scandal and mudslinging take a back seat to critical issues?

Could we all agree that the unquestionable dignity of human beings should be normal, and that matters of race, ethnicity, gender, faith, sexual orientation, and age have no place in one person casting judgment on another?

Could we all agree that acknowledging life as precious should be normal, that empathy is preferable over insult, that competition can make us better when we all play by the same enforced set of rules, that learning is preferable to ignorance, that opportunity is unequally distributed and a more level playing field lowers the barriers that help us pursue our dreams?

I suppose that might be a new normal, even a better normal, but I doubt a vast majority of us could agree on the details that constitute that level of agreement. It’s not something we can go back to, because it’s not something we ever had.

So what is this normal we’re thinking is just over the next big hill, after the coronavirus vaccine is widely distributed at low cost, every racist criminal who has committed an atrocity is prosecuted, and national unemployment returns to 3%?

Would it surprise you if I suggested that the new normal will not be dissimilar to the prior normal?

That normal is likely to remain turmoil.

Remember, this is a warm-up for a commencement address. I have to make a critical point you are supposed to encode as part of an inspirational framework for the many difficult choices you will face for the next five to eight decades.

That’s my point. Normal is turmoil.

Notice I didn’t say that form of normal is good. I just called it out as real. Turmoil came before us. We are in turmoil now. When this turmoil is behind us, there will be more turmoil. I didn’t invent it. I’ve just lived it.

Turmoil is normal because we live in an age of enormous change. Change is also normal, but most people really don’t like change. They say they do, but they don’t. Change is unsettling. Change forces us to embrace new norms. A normal reaction to change is turmoil.

Another word for turmoil is volatility. If you invest in the stock market, you have likely learned that volatility is not the exception, it is the norm. Certainly there are periods of trading calm, but the truth is the market is wildly volatile. If you put your money into equities and haven’t braced yourself for seismic fluctuations, you have either deceived yourself or been deceived. You can’t control or predict market fluctuations. No one can. Before any strategy of diversification matters, you have to decide if you’re in or you’re out.

To the extent we have acquired any form of assets, we have the choice to get in or get out of investments, to accept or reject the upside or downside of the norm of volatility.

We don’t have that choice with everyday life. We’re stuck with volatility.

Why would my commencement advice be to ready yourself for perpetual turmoil? I haven’t the intellectual authority to examine the realms of good and evil as states of nature one way or the other, but I will be so bold as to embrace the notion that progress and reform are directionally consistent. We may not follow a linear path of questioning all that has come before us or how to address it, but the state of upheaval that erases former ills and allows us to tackle the next set of falsehoods repeats itself generation after generation.

It’s usually messy. It’s usually painful. You can wish it were otherwise, but there is scant evidence to prove that it’s not.

I don’t believe anyone said it better than Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The same can be said for science. We are going to be wrong way more times than we wish before we are right. Then when we are right, we are going to be wrong about something else. The trick is not to replace an established fact with an irresponsible opinion while we are wrestling to replace a terribly concocted opinion with a newly demonstrated fact. If any aspect of your work involves the proof or disproof of hypothesis, you know the path is about as linear as the tunnels inside an ant farm.

The question of trying to live with normal raises the question of what is extraordinary, the very definition of which is NOT normal. Yet in our dynamic, global, connected world, extraordinary events will continue to be our norm. Exponential advances in technology assure this.

No broadband internet, no working at home. No mobile phones with built-in video cameras, no catching a vicious cop in the act of murder and broadcasting the evidence. More technology is coming, folks. It’s all going to be very normal. If you don’t think it’s going to bring turmoil, I think I’ve lost you.

If you were graduating today and I had something that I could assure you would be true, it would be that all of the maturing years ahead of you will be filled with volatility. You are going to have to make a lot of decisions swiftly in response to turmoil. Precedent is not always going to be relevant, because precedent too often is going to be old-normal wrong.

Nimble thinking, quick thinking, flexible thinking, balanced thinking, and compassionate thinking will be consistently required to navigate this turmoil. Accepting turmoil as normal requires the essential skill of close listening and lifelong learning. Quickly separating noise from authenticity in order to process and respond to unknown situations is not a nice-to-have tool; it is an essential skill that must be honed.

Noise is the enemy. Facts are your friends. Sound evaluation and informed consensus-building are the building blocks of crisis avoidance and resolution.

Let me wrap up with a parting thought. Earlier this year, before this latest round of turmoil and while focused on the last (remember the ancient impeachment hearings?), I was at a social justice panel where the final question posed to one of the panelists was to offer a brief phrase of hope.

After a long pause, that panelist, an immigration attorney, suggested that her longstanding immersion in vicarious trauma has led her to some minor comfort in vicarious resilience.

Vicarious resilience. That was a notion I found both humbling and empowering.

Vicarious resilience. That was a notion I wanted to embrace.

This attorney represents refugees and asylum seekers stuck at the border facing endless obstructions. They never give up hope. She takes on their vicarious resilience and makes it her own to continue fighting the nearly impossible fight against all odds.

I have written a lot over the years about resilience, but not in that frame of reference.

If normal is turmoil, then our path through normal just might be vicarious resilience. Write that on the back of your diploma and remember it through your retirement.

Never give up hope.

Oh, and as Steve Jobs would say, one more thing:

Black Lives Matter.

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Photo: Pexels

How That Vicious Inner Critic Can Be Your Closest Ally

TMT1There’s something about optimism. Nothing in business is quite as powerful in motivating people to believe in a mission as a leader who undoubtedly believes. The energy that radiates from a passionate entrepreneur is engaging, uplifting, and inspiring. When we hear someone tell us he or she is following their muse, boldly pursuing a personal dream, we want to root for them. We want to become a part of it. We want to hitch our cart to their wagon. We want to step out of the ordinary and get onboard the outrageous.

A leader who won’t be deterred can bring purpose to a business enterprise.

A leader who rises above petty criticism and backstabbing naysayers can turn a hundred dollars into a hundred million dollars.

A leader who is “all-in” and won’t be dissuaded from a cohesive, organic vision can literally change the world.

Over and over we hear the speechifying that tells us never to give up, that resilience is all that matters, that we should forget the critics and ignore the naysayers.

Already doing that? Great. But there’s a catch.

Walt Disney was told he was no good as an illustrator, that his characters would never be popular. Steve Jobs got fired from his own company for being difficult, and refusing to compromise his ambitions. They were never dissuaded. They were resilient and persevered. They could not have cared less what their critics were saying.

Walt and Steve are held up as classic examples of rejecting rejection. They maintained an uncompromised vision and carved their place in history because of it. Detractors who called out “their folly” could do them no sustained harm. Walt and Steve evidenced a form of courage that set a new high water mark for leading teams beyond the fog to unbridled innovation. They remain heroes to those who aspire to transcend the ordinary.

So what’s the catch? You want to be That Leader, right? Or maybe you just want to sign on with That Leader? What’s the missing element that is most likely to take you down?

Is it that the odds against a startup succeeding are enormous?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs know this long before they quit their day jobs. Many are wacky, but few are stupid.

Is it that capital is very hard to raise, especially for a first time entrepreneur?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs discover this lesson the first time mom or dad says, “What!? Are you kidding me? You’re not a CEO… you can barely manage to get matching socks on your feet!” They secretly know that mom and dad are just negotiating their share of the deal for the seed round.

Is it that it’s nearly impossible to get super-talented people to work for deferred or limited pay for the long runway until a business is cash flow positive?

Nope. Most entrepreneurs are confident that if they articulate an exciting enough plan, the right people will get with the program no matter what, and the ones who said no just saved the entrepreneur the pain of having to fire them later for their mediocrity.

Then what is it? What is the Achilles Heel of the resilient? What is the repelling force that stands counter to the success of leaders brave enough to shake off a world that tells them No No No when all they hear in their heads is Yes Yes Yes?

Presume for a moment this entrepreneur is You. Get your highlighter ready. You’ll want to make note of this for the rest of your career.

The problem might be YOU.

Don’t highlight that. I haven’t gotten to the important part yet. The part you need to highlight is this:

If you’re not going to listen to the critics who will tell you every reason in the world why you are going to fail—and believe you absolutely must tune them out in order to be a renowned, world-class leader—you are going to have to be the hardest critic in the world on yourself.

Yes, in order to earn the privilege of ducking all the pessimists trying to steer you away from your dream, you must beat yourself up in ways they can’t even imagine. There is no luxury in resilience. There is only a level of self-critique so necessary that the pain it will cause you as a lone wolf makes child’s play of the third-party negativity you will never hear. What you hear in your head must be far more thundering—and far more impactful.

The real reason most startup leaders fail

It’s not because of a lack of devotion, or a lack of passion, or even because of a lack of talent.

They fail because of a lack of self-critique.

Does this apply to you? Have you actually established yourself as your own toughest critic? I don’t mean a little tough. I mean vicious, brutal, send yourself into a tailspin tough. Sorry to break the news, but that’s why Walt and Steve were often perceived as miserable. They were always very, very tough on themselves, an order of magnitude more thrashing than what any bleacher critic was or even could have been.

I have had the privilege to lead a handful of creative companies and I have had the privilege to be a published author. In all cases I was told innumerable times why I would not be successful. I didn’t hear a word of it. I didn’t need to hear a word of it. In all cases I was already way ahead of the peanut gallery, working and reworking the scenarios of why I wouldn’t be successful.

I study product features like I study word choices. I might tell you that no one on the market has anything like this, but before you’ll hear me utter those words, I have done the homework to assure myself this is worth defending. No one else can do that as stridently as I can. I say “no” to a sentence a hundred times before I let you see it. I edit it, erase it, rewrite it, rework it, change it, question it, then pick it apart word by word until I have exhausted all its failures. Same with a product. Same with a service.

I can only ignore the amateur naysayers because I am my own best professional naysayer.

Let’s take it deeper, to a place you may not want to go. Here’s another reason why startup leaders fail: they doggedly champion a product that is no good. It’s not because the naysayers are right. It’s because the startup leader doesn’t embrace the radical discipline to relentlessly question themselves and, by extension, their product.

If running out of time and money don’t apply as explanations, most entrepreneurs fail for a very simple reason: their idea was not good enough to create a category defining product or service. Too often we dupe ourselves into believing the ordinary is extraordinary. We fall in love with an idea because we gave birth to it, and rather than beating that idea into something exceptional—or dumping it, learning from it, and finding the fortitude to reinvent it into something else—we tell ourselves we will not be dissuaded and we go to market with mediocrity. That’s when we get walloped.

Once again, the tough love, get out the highlighter:

The only way you can defy the odds and ignore the critics is if you have a massive built-in crap filter. If you don’t want someone else to tell you your product is crap, you better be willing to tell yourself it’s crap or you’re going to blow a lot of time and money on nothing.

Artists and inventors have a crap filter no matter how successful they are. Walt did. So did Steve. Walt was told that audiences would never want to see a feature-length animated motion picture. He didn’t hear it, because Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way to make it something people would never want to see.

Steve was told there would never be a market for something as intimidating as home computing. He didn’t hear it, because the Apple II was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way that it would intimidate people.

Both of these visionaries agonized over perfection and were never satisfied. When they were starting out they were never satisfied. When they were at the bottom they were never satisfied. When they were at the top of their game they were never satisfied. The critics failed to resonate with them because they were lightweights in comparison to their own pounding criticism.

Are you embracing this burden of innovation?

Why do I need you to hear this? Why is this so desperately important to everyone who wants to make a difference and change the world? Because too many hopeful leaders are embracing the rhetoric of “going their own way” without embracing this burden of innovation. Every single day someone shows me a derivative app and begs me to believe in them. It’s a minimum viable product, they tell me, they will build on it and make it great later.

Right, after customers have yawned.

You really think they’ll give you another chance? So yours is 12% faster than your competition? So what? So yours addresses a tiny niche with a quirky set of differentiating features that matter mostly to you for pitching on demo day… So what? Get your eyes off the IPO listings and back on the shelf where the war for customers is lost or won. Don’t be Happy. Be Grumpy.

Incrementality is toxic. Don’t tell me how all your competitors have slightly weaker products than what you’re proposing. Convince yourself you can blow my mind with something that leapfrogs the entire market if not in one product cycle then over a generation. If you don’t want me to tell you that your app is crap then be sure you’ve asked yourself a hundred times before you ignore me. If you don’t know that your app is crap because you aren’t being honest with yourself then you haven’t earned the right to ignore the naysayers.

That’s the secret sauce—knowing when you are ready to play and when the cards you hold are not worth playing. Be that critic and you’ll never need another. When you stand up onstage and tell your story of success, it will undoubtedly be preceded by the chapters of failure that led you to your day in the sun. I want to come to that speech and applaud. I want to see you do it again and again. I want to see you tell the naysayers to jump off a peer.

Are you ready to take on the responsibility of being your own toughest critic? Wield your inner critic in such a way that it allows you to do the best work of your life. Then yeah, tell us all to bugger off and let’s get to work changing the world.

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This article originally appeared on The Modern Team.

Photo Image: Courtesy of Exclusive Collections Gallery (Fabio Napoleoni)

Act Two Begins When You Say So

F Scott Fitzgerald“There are no second acts in American lives.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon, 1941

“I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City, 1932

Like many everyday admirers of American literature, I grew up only hearing the first use of Fitzgerald’s famous quote, which in fact was published posthumously. And like many people who misinterpreted that quote due to a lack of context, I grew up confused, conflicted, and even angry every time I read it. Fitzgerald the social observer worried about the American Dream, but he also celebrated idealism and courage. Would he want to be remembered for an inaccurate observation that is not only untrue but damaging? I doubt it.

Without diving into a diatribe on American literature, let’s just lift from the earlier interpretation of Fitzgerald’s quote and bury the latter forever. To the complete contrary, I assert with full confidence that it is entirely the DNA of American lives to reignite with second acts—in many cases, multiple second acts. In fact you can have as many acts as you want. Your life’s work can be singular, dual, multifaceted, multithreaded, a sine curve of milestones, or a pastiche of overlapping landmarks. If anyone tells you otherwise, run away as far as you can as quickly as you can and clear your mind of the naysayer’s rub.

Our economy is a place that celebrates reinvention. Our democracy is a place where resilience triumphs over cynicism. I believe these things not because I am a Pollyanna motivator (quite the opposite if you know me), but because I see these traits in winners who repeatedly defy the odds. Entrepreneurs, respected leaders, creative professionals who challenge the status quo—they all have to be good at what they do, but they all get knocked down for believing that change has to happen. They seldom bring change to the world on their first try, and when they win, they seldom win once. Why is that? Because before Act One is over, Act Two is in the works, and probably Act Three.

There is only one thing that can prevent an Act Two curtain from rising: Your own decision that a failure is too much to bear. The Information Age has turned that notion wholeheartedly on its head. As long as there is learning extracted from failure, failure is a pit stop, not an endpoint. As long as risk is sufficiently mitigated to bypass a cataclysmic wipeout of resources, you are not failing if you are learning. You are on a path to where you need to go. You are on your way to Act Two.

Read Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. We all know Jobs founded Apple. Then he got kicked out of his own company for being an uncontrollable rebel, the very thing that put Apple on the map. Jobs gets fired around p.206 in Chapter 17. He is personally devastated, emotionally crushed. That’s when his Act Two begins. The book ends on p.571 in Chapter 42. Through it all, Jobs’s Act Two is fueled by a spirit of resilience and a commitment to personal reinvention. He lives an arc that resonates.

Read Neil Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. Disney Bros. loses control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit around p.109 in Chapter 3. Mickey Mouse is born in Chapter 4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—which simultaneously almost crushed Disney’s financial interests and then put the Disney name into American lore forever—arrives in Chapter 6. Disneyland doesn’t even make an appearance until Chapter 10. The book continues until Chapter 11 is finally exhausted on p.633. If you’re looking to count second acts, start early.

Reinvention does not only apply to the famous. When I personally decided to return to writing after a twenty-five year hiatus, a lot of people made snide remarks, both to my face and behind my back. I had enjoyed a respected career in management at the intersection of entertainment and technology, but I never wanted to consider that my whole story. Starting over and writing a novel with a half-century under my belt seemed absurd to almost everyone around me. I would be competing with established authors who had amassed a lifetime of credits. I would be doing it for a fraction of the income I earned previously. There was absolutely no way to predict critical or commercial success of any kind. Critics can be harsh, public evaluation even more ominous. It was a challenge filled with possibility, a path to sharing ideas with authenticity and voice that was mine. That sounded like a decent Act Two to me. I wonder what Act Three will be.

In my new book, Endless Encores, a seasoned CEO spends an entire evening stranded in an airport executive club talking with a rising young manager who is about to hit the wall on his first failure. The less experienced leader is terrified that all he has ever wanted to achieve is about to be lost in a single product cycle. It’s a business parable, with only a few simple plot points, yet it encompasses a Socratic dialogue around what it means to learn from failure. Daphne, the veteran, has survived a seemingly infinite number of product launches, enough of them successful to keep her in the game. Paul, the rookie, comes to learn what it means to embrace resilience and reinvent himself to form a career of linking “acts” that over time reveal the arc of his personal development.

Neither Daphne nor Paul would ever buy into the idea of a terminal Act Two, let alone Act One. That’s a driving factor in the purpose that underlies their lives. Products have to sell, but more importantly, teams have to work well together and values have to emerge as shared conduits to satisfaction. Few of us get this right the first time. No one gets it right every time. You don’t have to get it right every time. You just have to know that potential for improvement always exists, recognize the aspiration for excellence as a mandate, and approach the ideal with unbridled enthusiasm. The curtain goes up on Act Two when you commit the passion to ensuring that it happens.

Don’t misquote or misunderstand Fitzgerald. Don’t tell me there are no second acts in our lives. As long as you are learning and readying yourself for what comes next, you can start anew any time you want. The courage to pursue that can only come from you.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Dreaming and Doing

Some people focus on dreaming. Some focus on doing. The ones who find a way to bridge the gap make change happen. Every once in a while, as Steve Jobs would say, they put a dent in the universe.

Many people elicit feedback. A few of them take something away from that feedback and apply it to what they are dreaming and doing. Yet too many solicit the feedback and then bat it away, a check mark on their roadmap to convince themselves they are not building in isolation. They have no interest in taking their vision to another level if it means wandering a bit from a too rigidly determined path.

The combination of dreaming and doing creates the flint and steel of innovation. Without both the status quo rules.

The combination of listening and interpreting is what hones an idea and an action plan, shaping and molding it into a viable product.

Walt-Disney-2Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” For decades I’ve been trying to decipher what he really meant by this. What I do know is that this calling is aspirational. It is incredibly difficult to meet this challenge. Walt defines a promise, then delivers the promise. This has taught me that when I make a promise to customers, I must be fully committed to delivering on that promise. If I allow a gap to remain between dreaming and doing, the dream becomes cynical. Failure is okay if it’s part of the path of learning, but a cynical promise is never okay. That’s when words become hollow, and customers abandon a brand.

Recently on a cross-country flight I saw the movie Jobs.  I don’t know if it’s a great movie, but it did remind me clearly of Steve’s near maniacal obsession with perfection, with making excellence a reality, with getting everything right. That’s a standard that will surely break the mediocre and inspire those who want to be inspired. He was a dreamer, he was a doer. In his own weird way, he was also a listener. You had to listen closely to hear where he was hearing, but Steve was always listening.

Walt Disney was always listening as well. He would sit in the center courtyard at Disneyland and listen to the people around him. He never stopped dreaming. He never stopped doing. He never stopped listening,

Over the past few years I have worked with several emerging companies, to help them craft and realize their articulated strategies. I have seen magnificent dreams get stuck either because they were too unformed to realize or because the dialogue around the table became stunted by poor interchange. When you travel a great deal and interact with a wide range of customers, you begin to see the difference between actual listening and pretending to listen. You also see the results—who is gaining ground and who is stuck at the table. In my observation, the people stuck at the table might still be dreaming instead of doing because they are not listening.

As a team grows, the voices on that team expand, none more important than the voice of the customer. Does that mean a powerful vision should be diluted into compromise so everyone’s voice is incorporated? Of course not! I have written about that many times before, secure in my belief that product development is not democratic. A big idea is almost always pure, and consensus is not the same as compromise. Yet I have also sat in the room when the small spark needed for bringing dreaming into doing was snuffed out time and again. No matter how many times it was said, it was not heard. Thick heads prevailed. The status quo ruled. An ordinary idea was dressed up as something extraordinary only to be exposed as counterfeit when stared down by paying customers.

The bigger the dream, the harder it is to get it right.  Listening, editing, sifting through, and interpreting feedback is your path. That’s how you build engagement. That’s how you build momentum. That’s how you build loyalty.

Big dreams are rallying cries; small dreams are not. Incremental dreams do not put a dent in the universe. Dreams that overcome entrenched hierarchies fire up those around you and fire up your customers. The fire starts with a spark. The spark? Listening.

Business is pragmatic. Say what you are going to do and then do it, otherwise your brand promise will be empty and your customers will abandon you.

Dream big, but understand that once you share a dream, you must be committed to bringing it to life.  That is a dream worth dreaming, worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth celebrating.  Hold people accountable for their role in the dream and cause them to own a share in its success.  That is a much more worthy endeavor than just doing a job.

And listen.

The end of each year is a great time for personal reflection. What can you do next year that you weren’t able to do this year? Are you dreaming it or doing it? And as you embark on doing it, make a point of listening to those you need to hear. Then make the hard calls, just like Steve Jobs, just like Walt Disney.