presidents laughing

We tend to imagine that we live in a Just World. Especially in the field of technology and startups, we want to believe that the skilled, insightful and dedicated are rewarded and the suckups and sycophants are weeded out.

But people do not sit rows on a giant spreadsheet, with the best ones easily identified via a quick “sort-by” function. We are social creatures and treat those we know and like, better than strangers. Relationships matter.

And when considering people we don’t know, we are more likely to favor people similar to ourselves, often because we share the same race, social group, alma matter, or membership in a particular group, among other qualities.

I know someone who was hired a while back in an exciting new role at a large technology company in Silicon Valley. The guy who hired him was in member of a certain fraternity and confided that he was planning to fill his entire team with fraternity alumni. [1]

Is this fair? No. It’s complete bullshit. Do things like this happen all the time? Yes.

You can respond to the fact that cronyism [2] exists in two ways:

  1. Rail against it as unfair and stupid. Refuse to play games or get involved in politics. Struggle to gain influence over others and limit your potential.
  2. Realize that this is human nature, and make it work for you. Have coffee meetings with influential people, build social capital by making great introductions, create weak ties by working at companies like Google or joining startup communities like Hacker Dojo.

When I was younger, I fell into the first camp, hoping to avoid gamesmanship and stay ‘principled’. I eventually learned that to be effective with people, you have to enter the fray. Favors, friendships, fame — these things matter if you wish to enlist the support and involvement other people.

Lest someone misunderstand this article, let me be clear: the more we can operate in a world where positions are filled with the most qualified people, the better. We should do our best to bring about this kind of a world and avoid perpetuating corrupt practices. However, I believe that by refusing to play any kind of politics, one writes oneself out of the opportunity to gain any sort of power and thus will have little ability to influence the system toward becoming better.

Play the game, but don’t let the game play you.

[1] Now this newly hired person could be a fantastic fit and the best qualified person for the job. But because the hiring manager indicated a clear bias for an arbitrary quality in his team, the true qualification of the entire team could be called into question.

[2] The appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without regard to qualification

Photo Credit: Shandi-lee via Compfight cc

I recently read a book called The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane. She’s an executive coach who trains people on developing powerful social skills to influence and connect with others.

I thought she brought up some really interested ideas about charisma: specifically that it’s a skill not an innate quality, and that it’s the confluence of three elements: power, warmth and presence.

One of my goals in 2012 2013 is to develop different forms of media, so I’ve put together a slide deck with some of the key highlights from the book. You can see it below, or click here to view the deck directly. You can find the book on here (referral link).

Photo Credit: Kevin_Morris via Compfight cc

Setbacks are a pillar of an ambitious life. If you’re looking to do big things in 2013, you will encounter obstacles and challenges and may find yourself moving farther away from your goals, rather than closer to them.

Big setbacks can be a lot to handle. They can be discouraging, exact damage to our bodies, bank accounts and social status, and getting your groove back may take a long time and never be fully complete.

While I’m very grateful for the life I’ve lived thus far, it was not without setbacks. I’ve encountered them as an athlete (injuries and training plateaus), entrepreneur (investor rejections, unhappy customers, hiring difficulties) and human being (missing flights, trouble with the law, arguments among friends).

I was recently talking with two people – a parent of a young child, and a former coworker about dealing with setbacks and thought I’d share some thoughts that might be useful for anyone who has recently faced a difficult setback.

13 Steps to Rebounding from a Big Setback

  1. It’s OK to feel bad.
     It’s completely natural to feel strong negative emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment and humiliation. Don’t deny these feelings or take them as indication that you are a failure. You’ve hit road block on your way toward a goal and that never feels good.
  2. You won’t feel this way forever
    We tend to project our current state into the future. If we feel good, we think we’ll always feel this good. If we feel bad, we think we’ll always feel this bad. Realize that like how the pain from stubbing your toe subsides over time, the strong negative emotions you feel from your setback will subside with time, allowing you to heal and move on.
  3. You are not alone
    Because failures and setbacks are not broadcast the way successes are, we tend to think that no one has ever dealt with the situation we’re dealing with. But chances are —  whether it’s a divorce, a criminal charge, a job loss, a public failure, the death of someone close to you, a huge debt or a natural disaster —  someone you know has dealt with it before.
  4. Continue reading

This is a multi-part series on Sales, Marketing and Persuasion. To see the blog post that inspired this series, click here. To see a list of all the blog posts on this topic: How to Sell Market and Self Promote.

I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts about sales — well really sales, marketing, persuasion, self-promotion, etc. Basically how to instill the desire in people to take the actions you want them to take — and make sure they follow through with it, while treating them with respect (ie not being a douchebag). So while I might use terms like “sell”, “buy”, “customer”, these are just placeholder

There’s a lot to cover so this will take a while. I’m going to pour everything I know into these posts – backed with examples, phrases to use, research and more. I hope it turns out to be really useful for readers. Here’s a list of the chapters I have in mind so far, with a brief description of what I aim to discuss.

  • Life is sales – Achieving almost any goal in life involves getting other people to do things (for you, with you, etc). You’ve had to sell people on things your entire life – it’s time to get serious about it.
  • Why smart people suck at selling – Smart people focus too much on facts and on being right. They think the force of their arguments is what will win people to their side, when that’s usually only a minor element of the process.
  • People buy feelings – Human beings do things because they think it will make them feel a certain way.  Figure out what that person wants to feel and show them how you can help them get it.
  • Sales is a relationship – No matter what you are selling – a widget, a web app, a political candidate or worthy cause – the key factor in the sale is the relationship.
  • Get inside their heads (and hearts) – A successful sale starts with questions – lots of them. You have to really understand where the other person is coming from. Never start with you.
  • It’s all about how you tell the story – We are a story-driven species. The stories are the ideal vehicle for conveying information and stimulating emotion.
  • Help them kick ass – The focus is not on why your thing is awesome. The focus is on how your thing can help THEM be awesome.
  • The proof is social – Like throwing a party, selling becomes a lot easier when you already have some people. Sometimes it’s better to let others do the persuasion for you.
  • Take away the fear of buying – People are more scared of the downside than they are enticed by upside. Allay their fears and win the sale.
  • Fit the ask to the task – Make it easy to say yes and hard to say no. What you ask for and how you ask for it matters – and it varies depending on the situation.
  • Followup, followup, followup – It’s never over. Remember: it’s a relationship. Stay in touch with people even after they refuse. Keep building that connection and providing value. Positive persistence = winning.
  • Special Report: Self Promotion / Personal Branding – Self promotion is a special kind of sales. Here’s how to sell yourself, without looking like a douche.

What do you guys think? Is there something you want covered that I’m missing? How can I do this in a way that best serves you? Let me know in the comments.

(photo credit jwhairybob)

I taught a course at Stanford all about the psychology of personal change. There is a ton of research dedicated to understanding why people succeed (or more likely, fail) to maintain diets, begin exercising regularly, quit smoking and more.

One paper published by researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth looked at 119 people’s self-reported stories about successful or failed life change experiences. They examined various elements of these stories and coded the content for things like whether “major suffering” or “moving to a new location” or “received help” played a role in stories of success or failure. Consider some of these:

  • Critical / focal event: 59.4% (Change) vs 9.1% (No Change)
  • Crystallization of discontent: 57.8 (Change) vs 12.7% (No Change)
  • Change from negative to positive affect: 75.0% (Change) vs 9.1% (No Change)

Some of the most important factors that can make or break a change is transformative moments where people realize how much pain and frustration certain behaviors cause and reorient their mindsets from how hard change will be to how much positivity it will bring. In other words, people change when they get inspired.

James Prochaska is a professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island and has authored some of the most influential papers on behavior change in the past quarter century. He has articulated a theory of change that involves 5 separate stages.

Precontemplation (not even concerned about changing) to Contemplation (considering whether to attempt to change) to Preparation (gathering the resources / plans necessary to make change) to Action (actively attempting to change behavior) to Maintenance (continuing with the new, better behavior and avoiding relapse)

What causes someone to move from one stage to another? I believe that often, it’s when you get inspired by an external event. When you see your friend go from being out of shape to running a 5k or read an article about an 80 year old woman finally getting her college degree or see a TV interview with a first-time entrepreneur who’s business is growing profitably, you get inspired.

Those moments of inspiration are what drive you to really think hard about getting back into running, start researching online courses to take and fire up your text editor to keep plugging away at that side project. When you hear stories of other people triumphing over adversity, over internal struggle and their own fears and doubts, it lifts you up and makes your obstacles seem a little smaller.

I believe that inspiration is a key part of a successful change effort. So you can imagine that I was a little peeved to read this article by Jim Taylor called “Why Inspirational Talks Don’t Work“. He leads with this:

Have you ever listened to an inspirational talk, for example, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch? Have you ever read an inspirational book such as Born to Run? Or watched an inspirational film like Hoosiers? How do you feel after? Well, inspired, right? What a great feeling! You’re fired up and ready to take on the world. You’re brimming with confidence. Your eye is on the prize and, by gosh, that prize is yours!

Then something rather deflating happens. You wake up the next morning and the inspiration is gone. You’re still the same old you. And you may even feel worse about yourself because, after the previous day’s inspiration, your failure to take even one small step towards your goals is all the more glaring.

What’s the problem here? He assumes that no one did anything after being filled with inspiration and confidence. “You’re the same old you.” Except that if you had taken that opportunity to tackle some portion of your change efforts – or to move from one stage to the next – then you are most certainly in a better place. Jim assumes that everyone who gets inspired immediately turns around and does nothing with that inspiration.

Yes, of course you have to do something. But the point is, most people KNOW what they have to do but they still have trouble doing it – often because they find the task too daunting or they keep making excuses for not starting. After engaging in an inspirational event/material, you are in a heightened state where things feel less scary and the impetus to begin is present.

Go talk to one of the hundreds of people inspired to start (or restart) running because of Born to Run. Or the millions of basketball teams who have bonded over Hoosiers before their championship game. Or just chat with ClicClickBang, who posted this on The Last Lecture youtube video:

I was never taught by this guy. I never even knew this guy until he was dead.

I heard his book on tape when I was on a road trip, and I had to pull over for a long time to stop and decide whether I was to listen to the last disc or not. I just didn’t want to hear this guy stop talking. I wish that I had been fortunate enough to meet this amazing man face to face. This man made me rebuild my life.

Rest in peace, Randy Pausch. I owe you my life.

While he isn’t specific about how Randy Pausch helped him rebuild his life, I don’t think it was because he just got puffed up with inspiration one day and then deflated the next day. I would venture to guess that the video sparked the beginning of a long road of action, struggle and triumph.

What’s Jim’s take on all this?

The truth is that you, and millions of other people looking for inspiration to change their lives, have been hoodwinked by the “inspirational-industrial complex,” a multi-billion dollar industry. Why, you ask? Because the inspiration that comes from other people is manufactured from the outside. This “synthetic” inspiration simply can’t last long because when the source of the inspiration (i.e. the talk, film, or book) is gone, its shelf life is very short.

Ah – it’s the old “corporations are evil” trick. If companies are making billions of dollars from selling you something, it must be bad. I agree that self-help gets a bad rap from stuff like The Secret and late-night infomercials but that doesn’t make the core product bad. Perhaps lots of people get inspired and do nothing. Lots of people try to join gyms or start diets or enroll in smoking cessataion course and fail as well. That doesn’t mean that working out, eating healthier or quitting smoking is bad. Just that those things are hard. Jim’s advice?

If you want real inspiration … look deep inside and see if you can find it in you.

Thanks for the help. What happens if I don’t find anything after looking deep inside? Does it mean I have no chance of succeeding in my change efforts?

At the end of the day Jim Taylor sells books, coaching and speaking engagements. I have no problem with the fact that he is part of this “inspirational-industrial complex”. I suspect that in the end, he’s making this controversial statement to gain attention and perhaps find some new clients. But there are people who whole-heartedly agree with his argument, particularly the “synthetic” nature of inspiration. The argument is weak. You know what else comes from the outside and doesn’t last long? Eating food, taking showers and cleaning your room. You need to keep doing it to experience the effects and that’s ok.

Inspiration is an crucial part of the human experience. Whether you find it from a close friend or from listening to passionate speaker, you should never feel embarrassed about seeking inspiration to spark your change efforts – knowing that it’s part of a greater process that will take time, effort and strategy. We need it as much as we need food, water and shelter and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Inspiration Matters.


If you’re feeling inspired and looking for some concrete steps to tackle a new change in your life, feel free to check out some of the articles I’ve written on this topic:

Finally, The Last Lecture and Born to Run are both truly great and highly recommended. Hoosiers is a classic but as a former NCAA athlete and watcher of inspirational pre-championship-game films, I’d have to go with either Miracle or 300. Just saying.