When People Try to Keep You Down, Remember This Story

This is a joke!” screamed an overly amped-up koala. “These trees are way too big! I don’t know a single monkey — let alone koala — who could possibly make it to the top!”

Shaking slightly with quickly growing self-doubt, the nine brave koalas attempted to claw their way up Lonely Eucalyptus —a patch of trees so tall the furry animals believed thunder was a result of their branches tickling the clouds.

And sure enough, the negative noise from the ground began to impede the positive advancement above as each minute that passed the faster the koalas began to drop.

“Ha ha ha!” belted out caffeine koala from the top of his lungs. “Ha ha ha!” joined in the others. “It’s called Lonely Eucalyptus for a reason! You’re all fools for even trying. No one has ever made it to the top and no one ever will!”

But to the amazement of the crowd, one young koala kept climbing. And climbing. And climbing. And after two hours, she’d done the impossible and was rewarded with a view no koala had ever seen before and quite possibly a view no other koala would see again.

“How’d you do it?” shouted the masses once the young hero had finally put her little paws on the firm ground. “We gotta know your secret!”

“You’re wasting your time!” replied her father while giving his daughter the two-thumb salute in typical koala fashion. “She’s deaf!”

I like to make up stories for my kids while we’re laying in bed at night. Most of them are pretty awful. But they like this one. So do I. It serves as a strong reminder that the ultimate form of personal slavery looks a lot like allowing the public to define what you can and cannot do.

If you want to be a writer, write.

If you want to be a designer, design.

If you want to be a teacher, teach.

This may sound obvious but during the eight years I spent as a career advisor I can’t begin to count the number of people I met who acquired a pair of cement feet due to the passing comments of others. “I heard this!” “Someone said that!” Much of the time it wasn’t even people who really knew them. But despite this, they allowed the words to shackle them.

The beauty of getting older is patterns begin to emerge. One of the most glaring is that the day you prioritize the words of others over your own internal signal is the very day you can kiss your dreams goodbye.

Maybe you don’t reach the top. You may not even come close to reaching your goals.

But that’s not the point.

Building your confidence or being able to sleep well at night isn’t only achieved by getting things right or what society defines as “winning”— it also comes from trying. You never know, you may find that by embracing that attitude you’re presented with opportunities you hadn’t even considered before as the opinions that matter come from those who understand the importance of consistent effort.

I recently got asked to give weekly lectures to MBA students on how to communicate with clarity and persuasion. I don’t have a fancy education. If I’d listened to the people who told me a guy with a speech impediment had no place in the communication world, I never would have left my house let alone put in the work to get to the point where I now attract the jobs I want.

The same thing happened when I began writing. “You’re embarrassing yourself!” I can’t count the number of people who told me this despite doing something as harmless as publishing articles online. It’s ridiculous when you think about it. I wasn’t hurting them. I may not have always gotten my message right, but I certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong. It’s true what they say that the only way some people feel big is by keeping others small.

I could go on and on about how many of the things I’m most proud of were met with criticism. Taking a sales job out of college with my stutter drew a particular amount of heat. The same goes for moving to Spain after being financially wiped out in Central America. People in my hometown in the US even had a bet going of how quickly I’d be back asking to sleep on their couch.

True freedom isn’t tied to money. It took me a long time to learn that. True freedom is found by having the courage to bet on yourself.

You gotta create your own green lights when others yell red.

You gotta give yourself permission to be bad so you’ll eventually get better.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting laughed at. In fact, it’s often a sign you’re on the right track as most people don’t have the stones to risk humiliating themselves. It may hurt. You may even get a few scars. But so what? If you take the time to dissect the multitude of things you got right that eventually led to a perceived wrong, you should identify loads of things worth building upon.

Plus, the older you get, the more you should begin to realize that it’s our scars that make us beautiful. They show you actually stand for something which is a helluva lot more attractive than spending your days tossing words at others from the sidelines.

Think hard about what you really want. Get clear on the one thing you’re willing to do even if it means being laughed at. Remind yourself that the last thing you want to realize when you’re old and grey is you sabotage yourself because of what other people say.

We have one shot at this life.

The next time you catch your internal self-doubt is a response to external noise, remember the story of the little koala. Then put your head down, block the noise, and do the one thing you already know how to do — climb.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.

You’ll Never Get What You Want If You’re Too Scared to Ask For It

The woman sat at her kitchen table staring at the four names laid out in front of her. In this moment, despite her 83 years, she felt like a nervous teenager. She couldn’t believe what she was doing.

Months earlier, while walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek across northern Spain, she’d met a man. It seemed to be just another friendly encounter with a stranger, one of many she’d had since arriving in the country. The conversation had lasted only a few minutes, and they parted without exchanging names.

But when she eventually made her way back to her home in Norway, she couldn’t stop thinking about that man. There was just something about him… something kind, maybe. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she knew she wanted to see him again.

When she’d originally planned her trip, meeting someone new was the last thing on her mind.

She’d decided to go on the walk to help her come to grips with the passing of her husband.

It was a way for her to reenter the world after being deep in despair for so long. Yet she kept replaying the exchange with the man in her head, until one day, she decided to do something about it

Following the advice of a friend, she called the information offices of the Camino de Santiago and shared the whole story. She explained how she met a man during the walk. She said she didn’t have much information about him, but she knew he was from the Netherlands. She laughed when she admitted she didn’t even know his name.

Fortunately, the person who answered the call had a soft spot for her situation. It took some digging, but by the time the phone call ended, the woman had the names and mailing addresses of four Dutchmen who finished the walk around the same time as her.

Later that day, after hours of trying to figure out what to do next, the woman hatched a plan. She spent the rest of her evening writing out four identical cards.

Years later, my father was walking the Camino de Santiago and stopped in a café outside of Leon, Spain. He began chatting with an elderly couple. After sharing a few glasses of wine together, my father asked the two of them how they’d met.

The couple smiled as the man explained that one day, he received a card from a beautiful stranger.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling stuck, I imagine that woman sitting alone at her kitchen table, thinking about the man she had met. I imagine her picking up the phone and then putting it down, wondering if the whole plan was absurd. I then imagine her thinking, “What have I got to lose?” and slowly dialing the number to the information center. I imagine her writing out the fourth letter with the same level of care as she did the first. I imagine the lines on her face shifting when she finally looks down at her mail one day and sees the man’s name staring back at her.

I can practically feel her heartbeat.

When I think about her actions, I’m reminded of the fact that we’ll never get what we want out of life if we don’t summon the strength to ask for it.

How many days do we waste living in a state of hesitation because we’re scared of being rejected?

How many opportunities have passed us by because we’ve given more power to our excuses than our possibilities?

I don’t want to live my life like that.

I want the courage to ask for what I want.

And I don’t ever want to stop treating my curiosity like a responsibility and giving myself permission to make my own green lights in life.

Everywhere we turn, we’re bombarded with advice on how to get the most out of life. All of it is worthless if you don’t make the decision to be brave in the moments that matter.

Maybe you’ll have to send out a thousand letters.

Maybe you’ll get rejected, and it will hurt.

Maybe you’ll find out that what you thought you wanted isn’t actually what you want, and you have to change your course.

It’s all part of the deal.

But when you default to asking, you open yourself to opportunities that can bring joy and meaning to your life.

I don’t know about you, but being told no beats the hell out of not knowing.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

What Happened When I Recorded Myself Speaking Every Single Day

I sat down on my couch, switched my phone to selfie mode, and hit record. Then I started answering the dreaded interview question: “Tell me about yourself.”

After what felt like the most awkward four minutes of all time, I played back the recording. It was painful to watch. My body was stiff and my eyes darted all over the place. I clenched up in some parts and rambled on in others. I said “like” about 4 billion times. Tell me I don’t really sound like that, I pleaded to an audience of zero in my empty living room.

In my head, I cursed my business coach for recommending this exercise after I’d mentioned I was nervous about possible upcoming job interviews. I’d always been anxious when it came to speaking with new people — as a kid, I grew up with a severe speech impediment. My coach had suggested that I record myself answering common interview questions every day, and see what happens. After that first sweaty episode, I wondered if there was another way to improve my speaking skills — one that didn’t involve staring straight at my mug, growing increasingly uncomfortable while watching myself be uncomfortable (it was all very meta). It turned out that sure, there are tons of ways to become a better speaker, but this one allows you to see immediate improvement, make changes as you go, and best of all, you can do it at home behind closed doors. I decided to stay with it.

The second time I mustered up the courage to hit record, something happened: I was less terrible. Not great by any standards, but my response began to resemble an answer rather than a jumble of words. Then I did it again the next day. And the next. After about a week or so, I noticed that I was able to maintain eye contact in the right moments, keep my responses to the point, and even look like I was having a real conversation. After two weeks, I stopped feeling so self-conscious and started showing glimmers of confidence. By week four, I was having fun.

Years later, I must say that keeping with this tiny exercise has shaped my career more than any other. Yes, I received job offers, but beyond that, I was promoted to management in my first year in sales, and when I moved to Spain, I became a communication coach and have been invited to teach presentation skills to politicians and business leaders.

Try it for yourself. If you want to improve your interview skills, print a list of the most common interview questions in your sector, then grab your phone, hit record, and start talking. Whatever you do, don’t stop recording until your answer is finished. Learning how to recover well is just as important as learning how to respond well. If you simply want to improve your speaking skills, you might try talking about the high and low of your day — or any other topic.

Give yourself a 30-day challenge. As you watch your recordings, look for areas where your body language, facial gestures, and tone can improve. Find spots in your responses where you can slow down or pause to drive a point home. The difference between the first take and your 20th will astound you.

Throughout your career, your interests will change and jobs will come and go.

However, strong communication skills will always be critical.

Hit record and allow yourself to be terrible.

It won’t be long until you’re not.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.

If You Aren’t Screwing Up, You’re Aiming Too Low

“Thank you, I really appreciate the opportunity.”

And with that, I said goodbye, hung up the phone, patted myself on the back for being the most talented person in my empty room, and then proceeded to dive head-first into self-destructive mode imagining all the different ways I could screw up an opportunity that was a month away.

Over the last two decades, I’ve worked across three continents in half a dozen different sectors. The circumstances changed. So did the titles. But no matter the stakes, from starting my own company to publishing a simple article, my baseline is terrified.

For whatever reason, I thought life would get easier the longer I lived it.

Like most people, I’ve had some hard falls. I’ve been laughed at. I know what it’s like to lose a boatload of money. Despite the bumps, bruises, and times I’ve felt like I was bleeding out, over the last twenty years my overall confidence has consistently been trending up.

I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish.

I’m proud that I’ve moved from a shy, stuttering kid to a shy, and at times, still stuttering mostly functional member of society who makes a living in the world of sales, entrepreneurship, and coaching.

I’m proud of the fact I’ve made my obstacle my way.

I know I should change my framing from nervous to excited like all those professional athletes do during interviews. I’ve tried. It sticks sometimes. Other times, not so much.

I’m not a professional athlete. No matter the accolades or recognition, at times, I still don’t feel very professional at all.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to give myself a bit of a break. I’ve realized I don’t ever want to not feel scared, or nervous, or terrified when starting something new.

It would mean I’m aiming too low.

It would mean I’m not putting myself in a position to grow.

It would mean I don’t care as much as I used to.

I don’t know much. But one of the few things I know for certain is I don’t ever want to do something that makes me “care” less.

Caring is king.

Not content like some copywriters say and not community as some community builders imply. If you look under the hood, caring has always worn the crown and reigned supreme.

Hopefully, it always will.

It’s the source of all good art.

It’s the foundation of all great communities.

And if nerves and self-doubt are a part of it, so be it as it’s all part of the journey.

Everything I love today hurt in the beginning. Nothing worth having comes cheap.

The day I met my wife, it wasn’t my top-notch or alpha delivery of a presentation seminar I gave at her office that sparked the attraction. A decade ago, I had no idea what I was doing.

I’d just moved to Barcelona and I was struggling to make ends meet. She thought my story was interesting. I made a load of what I considered mistakes. She liked the fact that I was willing to put myself out into the world.

A very solid argument can be made that bold yet vulnerable is the ultimate combination.

I wasn’t good at sales when starting out. Some people didn’t accept me. A lot of people rejected me. Despite this, I kept at it. Over time, the right people began to notice.

But this wasn’t because they could see my potential of one day being the smartest, fastest, or most talented or charismatic person in the room.

It was because — cliché or not — they could see that I cared deeply about growing.

Think about your accomplishments.

Think about how far you’ve already come.

Think about the times you’ve learned the most.

Sure, some of these experiences may have gone off without a hitch. But I’d be willing to bet a high majority were hard. You had daily spills. You cleaned yourself up. You took what you learned while lying on the ground and got to work again.

Contrary to popular opinion or viral tweets, success isn’t standing up after massive failures. For the massive failures, more times than not, the biggest lesson we learn is not to do that again.

Success simply comes from those who have the guts to collect and learn from their daily mistakes.

It may not be in the descriptions, but our primary job is to be cool with falling down as it’s the fastest way to level up. And the best part about this is most people don’t even care if you make a mistake. They’re too busy worrying about their own problems and nerves. If they do laugh, good, it’s a solid way to weed the wrong people out.

The past few months I’ve been asked to get involved with various projects that I initially deemed as over my head.

The people in all of these situations are smart. I’m terrified of this. They’ve done big things.

But it’s because of this fear — not despite it— that I know I’ll be fine.

Go out into the world.

Be scared.

Nerves are a sign you care.

Lean into that.

It’s hard to grow if you don’t put yourself in situations that make you question your confidence.

You need to aim high enough that your legs shake a little.

Good things come to those who are willing to open themselves up to being bad to one day get better.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.
— Michael

How to Get on the Radar of People You Admire

I’ve never found a “hack” for success more effective than this one, a piece of advice I used to hear all the time from my dad: The best way to get what you want is by getting to know the people who already have it.

It’s advice I’ve relied on throughout my career. Over the years, I’ve reached out to well over 200 people doing things I thought were cool, requesting a chance to speak with them. Only three people have declined my invitation to talk. (Well, technically four — Oprah never got back to me.) This practice of cold-emailing has helped me build a professional tribe that has become a place for support, connection, and more opportunities than I ever thought possible.

At a time when everyone is dealing with a lot, the ability to craft an email that not only gets read, but gets a positive response, is an increasingly valuable skill. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do it well.

If I learned anything from my experience of reaching out to strangers, it’s that the world is full of incredibly talented people who can help you grow. You don’t need Oprah, Bill Gates, Tim Ferriss or any other high-profile figure who will definitely never see your request to “put some time on their calendar.” Start smart by identifying friends of friends who are doing cool things.

Don’t limit your list to people who are in your exact field, either. Breakthroughs often come when you surround yourself with people who view things through a different lens.

After you’ve made a list of people to reach out to, it’s time to craft your email. The subject line “Friend of [mutual friend’s name]” is a solid option, but it’s not the only one. In one experiment, the entrepreneur and author Shane Snow found that simple subject lines like “Quick question” net strong results when you’re reaching out to new people. (Marketers, however, are starting to use this subject line more often, so its effectiveness may be waning.)

When I first started becoming more serious about my writing, the speaker and entrepreneur Conor Neill gave me this advice: When drafting an article, write at the top of the page: “After reading this, I want the reader to ________?” He told me to use this question as my North Star to guide my writing.

You can apply this same strategy to writing your email. Have one clear agenda, even if it’s simply to try to get them on a call so you can learn more about them. Make sure your goal is clear so the message you send supports exactly what you are looking to accomplish.

One of the oldest principles in marketing is the Rule of 7, which states that a prospective customer needs to be exposed to an advertiser’s message seven times before they will take action. This doesn’t mean that if you send an email and don’t get a response, you should follow up six more times (please don’t do that). But it does mean that a person will be more open to an email from you if they’re somewhat familiar with your name.

Play with ways to get your name in front of them before making that initial direct contact. Sharing their work on social media is one way to do this. If you have a blog, you can write a post that mentions how their work has positively affected you and then tag them on Twitter, thanking them for the inspiration. Get creative. Just don’t do too many things at once, too close together, or you risk turning them off.

Successful people get a lot of fan mail and requests to chat. To help your email stand out, make it clear that you’ve been following their work for a while (instead of just gushing over the latest thing that went viral) and that it has impacted you in a specific way. You can use the formula: “Thanks to your work doing X, I’ve been able to accomplish Y.”

I like to pull out a small detail from their work that has made my life easier. For instance, I’ve always admired the energy and sense of humor that Noah Kagan, the founder of AppSumo, brings to his work. But instead of giving him this generic message, I recently let him know I was writing an article about something he had mentioned in passing on a podcast — his “Holy Shit Jar” — and asked him how I could best link to his work. We didn’t automatically become best friends after that, but we do have plans to talk.

To really forge a connection, it’s important to let the person know that building a relationship with you would be mutually beneficial. Maybe that person is writing a book and you can be a part of their launch team. Or perhaps they’re starting a business and your work as a designer can help them to create a more persuasive website. One of the best habits you can form is to ask yourself every day how you can make the lives of the people around you better.

This advice isn’t foolproof — some people are busy, while others may not be prioritizing meeting new people at the moment. But keep at it. When you grow your network, you expand your world.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael

The 7 Emails You Should Send Every Week to Get Ahead in Your Career

Most people see email as a strictly transactional tool, using it only when they need something or owe someone something. That’s exactly why you should use it to stand out.

Taking a moment to send these seven emails every week can help you strengthen your connections, stay top of mind as opportunities come up, and learn about industry trends. (Slack messages and texts also work, but I’m into email because most people have their inboxes open all day anyway.) None of these messages should take more than five minutes to write, but each of them will go a long way in helping to advance your career.

Imagine opening your inbox after lunch and seeing, sandwiched between a coupon from the local pizza place and a message from an acquaintance asking if you could tweet their new article/contest/course, an email with the simple subject line: “Thank you.” Now imagine how much those two words could improve your day.

People love to feel appreciated. Instead of worrying about all the things you need to do in the morning, take a moment to thank someone for what they do for you. “Thanks for all your support during that last big project” or “I’m so glad we get to work together. Thanks for being my sounding board” is all you need to say to make an impact.

The fastest way to get what you want is to get to know the people who already have it. Send a message to someone a step or two further ahead in their career and let them know how their work has impacted you. I like to use the formula: “Thanks to your work doing X, I’ve been able to accomplish Y.”

I’ve been sending cold emails every week for the past three years, and many of those messages have led to great phone calls, which in turn have led to close relationships and interesting opportunities. Amazing things happen when people we admire turn into friends.

Earlier in my career, Conor Neill, a leadership expert and the person I admire most in the business world, would send me short messages telling me that he was following my work and that I was progressing. The fact that he’d take the time to do that meant the world to me.

There’s something magical about someone you don’t know very well showing interest in you. Often, it’s even more validating than when a friend encourages you, because they really don’t have to do it. One sentence can impact someone for a lifetime. Neill taught me to always lift as you climb.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that when it comes to learning about new opportunities, “weak ties” trump “strong ties.” This is because people who run in different circles than you are exposed to different ideas, whereas people we see on a regular basis tend to have similar conversations.

Reach out to someone you recently met during a training session or through a mutual friend. See if they’re up for a chat. We all need more eyes looking out for us.

Starting a weekly boring email chain with a few of my buddies from high school has vastly improved my quarantine experience — I realized the easiest way to have friends right now is to keep up with my old ones. The same is true for maintaining a professional network.

It’s harder to network with new people, so why not use your energy to check in on the people you used to work with? It’s a good way to learn about what’s going on in your industry.

Save your boss from having to make rounds before the weekend. Tell them what you’ve got going on: “Here’s where we stand regarding W, X, Y so far this week. I’m focusing on Z tomorrow. But if there’s something that needs to be pushed, let me know.” It will help you understand your priorities and show that you’re organized.

When I talked to Melody Wilding, LMSW, the author of Trust Yourself, she suggested I send myself a Friday afternoon message with a run-down of the week. Try it: Write down your wins, a few things you learned, and any idea that made your week a successful one. It’s a simple exercise, but it really helps you transition out of work mode and realize that what you’ve done is enough.

Thank you for reading.
My best to you and yours.

The 5 Sentences You Should Write Each Day

“Go big!” 

“To reach your goals, you need to take massive action!” 

Everywhere we turn we’re bombarded with such suggestions. From my experience, it simply isn’t true. 

Sure, you need to be bold in the moments that matter. But when it comes to your day-to-day, you’re better off focusing on taking the right small steps and allowing the power of compounding to go to work. As the author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, so eloquently said — “You get what you repeat.” 

And I don’t know about you, but I’d much prefer to go for a nice leisurely stroll each day instead of trying to climb castles as quickly as possible. 

If you too believe all positive progress is made in the present and the best way to win your race is by owning your pace, here are five simple sentences you can write each day that have a magical way of helping the dots you collect, better connect.

1. Write one thing you’re proud of 

“Liam and Luc (my kids) fell asleep before I finished reading their bedtime story but I read every word anyway.” I loved coming across this note when flipping through my daily entries. It serves as a reminder that I’ve chosen to be the type of person who doesn’t cut corners on the things that matter most.

Confidence isn’t everything. But it is a big thing. And it isn’t only found by accomplishing your big goals. It’s also found by consistently doing what you feel is right. 

Track the good you do.

Rather than look for outside validation, validate yourself.

2. Write one thing you learn

This should be the only homework we’re ever assigned in school. Not only will you begin to proactively seek out learning opportunities. But when you review your list, even after a few weeks, the connections your brain will begin to make will astound you. 

Imagine how you’d feel if you did this for five months and had 150 ideas and sources of inspiration in front of you. Now, envision yourself at 83 flicking through a lifetime’s worth of knowledge.

If life’s about anything, it’s being a curious life-eater. 

This simple action can seriously help cement this mindset.

3. Write one memory 

The world belongs to storytellers. This was true in the past when community leaders sat around the fire and entertained and educated their people on the wonders and worries of the world. And it’s true today as the spotlight has a funny way of tailing those who know how to spin a story,

In addition to choosing a life of adventure, create quiet pockets for reflection. What were you like as a kid? What challenges did you face? What advice were you given as you got older? How did certain situations make you feel?

The more memories you collect, the better you’ll get at telling stories that connect.

4. Write one thing you could have done better

We’ve covered tracking what you’re proud of, now it’s time to flip the script and lean into what you could have done better. Maybe you snapped at your kids or were impatient with your partner over something trivial. Or maybe you wrote an email to someone you admire that didn’t get a response or maybe judged someone harshly.

Look at these instances. 

Identify where you could have done better. 

I once stepped in dog shit twice in the same day. The first time it could have been avoided. The second time it definitely should have been avoided.

5. Write one specific way someone helped you 

“Who am I grateful for?” Asking yourself this question each day is a healthy habit. But to maximize its impact, take it one step further by asking yourself why as it forces you to get specific.

It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be as simple as someone getting you a glass of water. Or someone jumping in to help you out with a project or firm up an article.

Relationships are everything. Every day, whether we take the time to notice or not, people take the time to help us. This simple habit will get you out of your own head while reminding you of the heart of others.

And if there was ever a time in humanity when we needed to remind ourselves there are good people out there, this is it.

The beauty of these questions is that the longer you stick with them, the more they will teach you how to see — which is arguably the most important skill in life that very few people talk about. 

Your eyes will naturally look for learning opportunities from your past and present, where you can improve, the good in others, and the good inside yourself. 

Good things happen when we keep our eyes open and make a commitment to walk.

9 Timeless Principles for Career Fulfillment

“Knowing what you know now, if you were starting your career today, what advice would you give yourself?”

This past winter I began teaching leadership and communication skills to MBA students and I was asked a variation of the question above numerous times.

In addition to prioritizing hobbies that strengthened my brain cells instead of ones that stole them, below are the pieces of advice I touched upon along with a few extras I’ve been thinking about.

For over a decade, Oliver Burkeman — the author of the new hit book “Four Thousand Weeks” — ran a weekly advice column for The Guardian. I was devasted when I learned he was publishing his last post. But my tears quickly dried when I began to read his parting words and came across this whopper of a statement —

“When stumped by a life choice, choose ‘enlargement’ over happiness.”

I couldn’t agree more with this. Nothing worth having comes cheap. Every single aspect of my career I love today initially hurt.

If given the choice, follow Oliver’s lead and choose to take on projects that stretch over how happy you think you’re going to be.

You’ll learn a ton while also learning what you’re made of — which is the very definition of career advancement.

I made a smart decision five years ago when I began writing by making a commitment to reach out once a week to speak with someone who wrote words I admire. This habit sped up my learning curve when developing this new skill. It also made my days more enjoyable as I was making new friends.

But the opportunities didn’t begin to flood in until I mixed the calls up and began to also connect with people who were playing in the same arena but holding a different weapon.

  • If you want to be a writer, get to know photographers.
  • If you want to be a marketer, get to know writers.
  • If you want to be a web designer, get to know small business owners.
  • If you want to be more productive, get to know single moms.

In today’s world, very few things can be done alone.

A diverse network of people with varying skills who share ideas, contacts, and opportunities with each other is the equivalent of career gold.

“They say think big, have a compelling vision. I say think small and do something super cool by the end of the day. Most people see excellence as some grand aspiration. Wrong. Dead wrong. Excellence is the next five minutes or nothing at all. It’s the quality of your next five-minute conversation. It’s the quality of your next email. Forget the long-term. Make the next five minutes rock!”

I love this piece of advice from management legend Tom Peters. It’s one of the 3 quotes I have hanging on my office wall. Focus on writing the best sentence you can in the next five minutes.

  • Focus on exercising as hard as you can for the next five minutes.
  • Focus on giving people your full presence for the next five minutes.

Most people think about what lies ahead of them or get paralyzed by what’s behind them.

The future belongs to the focused — those who develop the discipline to zero in on what’s directly in front of them instead of building castles in the sky.

Who’s more attractive — a talented coder or someone with strong coding skills “and” a commanding stage presence?

Who’s more attractive — a talented writer or someone with strong writing skills “and” a master community builder?

Make a list of the qualities and skills you possess that other people compliment you on.

Then look at how you can merge these qualities together to make a unique pairing.

The days of being one-dimensional are over.

It’s your “AND” that makes you interesting to others.

It’s your “AND” that also makes you indispensable in your career.

I asked one of my closest childhood friends — who’s built and sold multiple 8-figure businesses in the national security space — for his best piece of advice. Without hesitation, he gave a nod to a woman he worked under while studying at West Point —

“When faced with adversity, be punctual, be present, and be positive.

The reason most jobs exist is to solve a problem. Yet, many people break when facing them. Remember the 3Ps and be punctual, present, and positive. Remind yourself that all progress is made in the present and nothing has ever been solved by complaining.

Choosing to be the type of person who’s a calming presence when things go wrong is a seriously attractive quality.

The same goes for deciding to be a forward-thinker when life pushes you back.

Write down the names of the successful people you know. Without even knowing them, I’d be willing to bet all of them are strong communicators.

But this doesn’t mean they’re all super charismatic.

It simply means they’ve done the hard work to learn how to distill complicated ideas and feelings into words the average person can understand.

Start a blog. Lean into Linkedin or Twitter or any other platform with character limits to tighten your message while testing it out to see if it resonates with the masses. Suck it up and pay an interview coach to learn how to sell yourself. Take a public speaking course. In a few weeks you’ll develop a skill that will never go out of style while paying you handsomely for the rest of your career.

“If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.”

Warren Buffett said that.

He’s done well for himself.

“Leave 30 percent of your day unscheduled!” Dan Sullivan, one of the world’s leading business coaches said this is his number one piece of career advice.

If you’re anything like me, at first glance, this recommendation may seem dramatic or impossible.

But the benefits of carving out time for yourself each day are too big to ignore.

  • Prioritizing white space forces you to get clear on the work that matters while helping you weed out which tasks don’t.
  • Prioritizing white space will teach you how to pace yourself which is crucial in achieving long-term success without burning out.
  • Prioritizing white space gives you time to get to know yourself and chase your curiosity.

Every Sunday, or better yet, every Friday afternoon so you can truly disconnect over the weekend — grab your calendar and block two hours each day for yourself and fight like hell to make it non-negotiable.

Use the time to ask yourself better questions, reach out to old friends or make new ones, tinker, explore, or do nothing at all.

Some people think being busy all the time is a sign of importance. But it’s not. It’s a sign of a lack of clarity.

You can collect all the dots in the world but they don’t do you very much good if you don’t give yourself the space to allow them to connect.

Always being ‘on’ truly is the enemy of productivity.

Reserve time to sit and think.

I teach MBA students. I’ve also been a mentor at leading accelerators like Startupbootcamp. Without a doubt, the people who receive the most attention when starting out are those who focus on chasing advice instead of stressing out about how to make money.

Maybe most billionaires are assholes like many people today seem to imply.

From my experience, most moderately — or even very successful people — are pretty solid and they take pride in doing what they can to help other people reach their goals.

But these people will never invest in you if you approach them as a way to get rich instead of viewing them as a wealth of potential knowledge.

“Who should I be learning from?” is the single most important question you can ask yourself throughout your career.

Position yourself as a learner and be curious about others.

Al Firth, Peter Diamandis’s mentor said it best —

“If you ask for money, you’ll get advice.

But if you ask for advice, you may get money.”

Most people get tunnel vision and only think about how they can get on the radar of people ahead of them without realizing a big part of fulfillment comes from helping those behind them.

  • Be thoughtful and make the new person feel appreciated on their first day of work.
  • Be patient and sit down and talk with someone who you can tell is having a bad day.
  • Be kind and tell the people around you they are talented and you sure are glad they are on your side.

Most of all, don’t worry about finding a mentor and instead be a mentor to others.

The right people will notice.

The fastest way to carve your path is to help other people carve theirs.

Thank you for reading.
— Michael

To Stand Out, Make Yourself Small

My friend and book-writing partner, Kevin Ervin Kelley, AIA, is full of wisdom. This is particularly true with the message he shared with me this week. 

Much like a ghostwriter, Kevin’s a “ghost-designer.” For over thirty years, his company has assisted household brands from Whole Foods to Harley Davidson — and hundreds of mom-and-pop shops in between — to thrive in the ever-changing world by focusing on creating places and spaces that bring people together and promote prosocial behavior.

At five-foot-eight inches, Kevin isn’t the biggest guy. Most of the CEOs and executive team members he meets with tower over him. The same goes for some of his team members who accompany him to these meetings.

“It’s interesting to observe how people respond when I walk into the room holding my notebook and pen surrounded by my colleagues who have a more commanding presence,” he told me.

“Countless times, people looked right past me and assumed one of the bigger guys on our team was the owner and I was an assistant. At first, this bugged me, and I wanted to make it known how important I am and that I was the founder. But I learned very quickly how much of an advantage being unassuming can be. People immediately felt comfortable around me and spoke freely with me which is key in building trust.”

I love this about Kevin.

The guy’s a rarity.

He’s run a successful business for a very long time by doing one thing really well: understanding the importance of suspending his ego, and what he refers to as — “keeping himself small.”

Early in Kevin’s career, in addition to being a business owner, starting at the age of 29, he was asked to teach design, branding, and marketing at Harvard University alongside one of the world’s leading architects, Gene Kohn (which took me well into our tenth conversation to learn this about him).

His friends often asked him how he was able to make friends with people in high places so early in his career, including the leaders of some of the world’s largest banks and global organizations — 

“There are two things about successful people most people don’t realize. First, they’re surrounded by impressive people all day every day. Trying to impress them by acting like you know all the answers is a sure-fire way for them to walk right past you. Second, the right ones love to teach and share their wisdom. I was able to become part of their circle because I positioned myself as a sponge and soaked up every lesson they imparted at me. No matter the person or client, to this day, it’s my go-to strategy.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this approach equally inspiring and refreshing.

We live in a world where people lead with titles, blast their credentials, and even talk about how much money they’re making in an attempt to grow their influence and cement themselves as a leader.

What they fail to realize though, is true leadership isn’t about being the best but rather doing what you can — with what you have — to help other people become better.

This starts and stops with being a learner as it’s the key ingredient to being a better teacher.

After all, it’s hard to argue that “teacher” is the simplest and most accurate definition of a leader.

As someone who isn’t much taller than Kevin, and who grew up shy with a severe stutter, for much of my life, I constantly doubted myself and had very limiting beliefs of what I was capable of achieving. Even worse, I made the crucial mistake of choosing to buy into the narrative that the truly strong crush things, and in order to be respected and seen, I had to put on a mask and hide my true nature.

It’s the Kevin’s of the world, however, that helped me realize the only thing I needed to change about myself were the self-defeating messages I was telling myself.

Ask most CEOs and they’ll mirror Kevin’s words that it’s not the loud ones who are the most dangerous. But rather the quiet and unassuming ones who observe and listen more than they speak that you have to keep an eye on.

Kevin’s not imposing. By not trying to be, he’s able to quickly connect with people from all walks of life and build trust.

Kevin doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. By not acting like he does, people see him as someone who will help them ask better questions of themselves to uncover their own answers.

Kevin doesn’t try to dominate conversations. By not trying to, he’s able to quickly zero in on what other people value.

  • Observant. 
  • Listener. 
  • Curious. 
  • A confidence builder of others.

These are the skills of the future. They allow you to change someone else’s world while expanding your own without adding to the noise and constant distractions.

Steal a line from Kevin. 

Flip your “perceived” holdbacks on their head. 

Roll them over until you can see them from a different angle.

Make “small” your new big.

The faster you realize your primary job is to make other people feel bigger is the very moment when anything is possible actually becomes possible.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but I think quiet confidence  —  the kind that allows others to have the stage while they sit back to learn and listen  —  is a seriously attractive quality.

Kevin recently published a book — IRREPLACEABLE: How to Create Extraordinary Places That Bring People Together — and has already been named by the Next Big Idea Club and the Financial Times as a must-read. Check it out if you’re interested in how to design places that build community to keep the digital giants and tech titans at bay.

Thank you for reading.
My very best to you and yours.