Interview: Entrepreneur on Fire with John Lee Dumas and John K. Coyle

John and I discuss the role of strengths in breakthrough performance, why it matters, and "horology" - my fascination with time. 

Why You Should Design for Strengths

Tip #2 part 3: But does focusing on strengths pay off? (Yes!)

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this though. Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengths. (2 posts ago)

Challenge 2: Knowing (and accepting) your weaknesses  - then quitting or delegating them. (last post) 

Challenge 3: But does investing in strengths really pay off? Are the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths worth the risks and sacrifices? If you have ever quit something too early and regretted it later, then you can be certain that you'll naturally be driven to not let that happen again. Sadly, most of these kinds of regrets are legacies of childhood and teenage years where discipline and follow-through were not fully developed. For most people these same examples of regret are rare as adults. It is a sad fact that what most people regret in life is the things they didn't do...

Is it worth it to quit or delegate away weakness focused activities? Yes. Consider this, recent studies have proven that willpower is both a) a deplete-able resource and b) fairly consistently distributed across people of all walks. This whole notion of super-achievers having unlimited discipline and willpower is a pure myth. Instead, most highly successful people share two traits: 1) they have systems, routines, and rewards in place that remove as much of the discipline and willpower required for them to achieve their goals as possible and 2) they spend a higher percentage of their day pursuing their strengths - activities that recharge their willpower reserves.  

People always assume that as an Olympic athlete, I was a disciplined machine. But the reality is that it requires relatively little willpower to train hard while on the Olympic team. First, you have a program with set times and set activities that are NOT optional. Second, you have coaches yelling and exhorting you to work harder should you show up late or fail to put in your best effort. Third you are surrounded by high caliber, inspiring and competitive people. Fourth, and most important, you are doing something you are uniquely talented at (following a strength). Sure, lots of days that become long miserable slogs, but there are also those days it is pure joy to be able to skate 30mph hour and push 3G’s, flying around the corners like a jet fighter.  

I have been on a slow progressive journey to design a life for my strengths that has met with many unforeseen twists and turns. My first job after retiring from sport was a-now-laughable-position as a PMO (program manager) for a massive technology conversion - Y2K at Goldman Sachs. Laughable because that position could scarcely been more mis-aligned with my native talents. I hated that entire year, was completely exhausted every day and just showing up for work was a major effort. I'd say I was using perhaps 10% of my strengths and mostly spent time trying to fix my weaknesses. I then moved on to designing new business models and trading systems for Enron. I was very good at the initial design work, but had to work very hard at all the details required for implementation / launch - a mix of perhaps 50/50 strengths vs. weakness focus.

After Enron I quit consulting to join my favorite client U.S. Cellular where over time I took the reins of a massive innovation effort. My strengths / weakness ratio tipped up to 75% during that project and I worked crazy hours - not because I had to, but because I wanted to. For years I was jazzed to come to work every day. Then the innovation project was over, and I left to work for an innovation consulting firm. Sadly what the firm really needed (and wanted from me) was more of a program management role and I stepped back to 40% strengths / 60% weaknesses. Two years after that I asked the CEO to design a new role for me leading a new practice of innovation leadership development and moved back to a 70%/30% split of my strengths and weaknesses. Shortly thereafter I did my first paid keynote speech, and loved it, and it was very well received. Three people in the audience hired me, and then three more, and I suddenly realized I have found what I love most. 

Now I've left consulting and I'm doing full time speaking and workshops and spend 90% of my day living in my strengths and experiencing flow regularly. I have probably worked as many or more hours over the last months than ever: I didn't even take weekends off and worked late most nights, but it required no willpower because it was what I wanted to be doing. Over the last eight months I've never been happier, more fulfilled, or healthier AND I will likely earn more financially this year than I have. Because I'm using virtually no willpower to do my work, my risk aversion has gone way down, my resilience way up, and I've been willing to take the kinds of risks I previously would not have considered - including reciting an 88 line poem for the mayor of Chicago, writing a book, performing in a music / dance / poetry rant collaboration, perhaps even co-writing the lyrics for an album with the amazing and talented musician Anthony Snape. AND, more importantly, I’ve significantly slowed down my perception of time passing…

2015, for me, lasted about 15 years or longer in terms of my perception. The summer was far far longer than any I remember as a child, and 2016 is off to a similar pace – high speed in the present with travel, new people and new relationships, but expansive in memory as I continue to push myself to live in my strengths, take bigger and bigger risks, and create those event horizon moments of “really living.”

One of my favorite questions is, “what are you best at?” Do you know the answer? Do your friends, co-workers, and children know? If not, then how can you (or they) design a life to perform at your best, experience the joy of flow every day, and slow down time?

It is time: time to race your strengths and design around your weaknesses. To “really living.”  - JKC

PS: I just published a coffee table book of the Art of Really Living Manifesto: See it here at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1530709253 and buy it here on Createspace  https://www.createspace.com/6148570 and get a 25% off discount - code: SFM6BEU7

 

 

Why You Should Design Around Weakness (Rather than Fix Them)

Tip #2: Design your life to "Race Your Strengths" – Part 2 of 3 

IDEA IN BRIEF:

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this: Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, Challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally Challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

 Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengths (last post)

Challenge 2: Know (and accept) your weaknesses  - then quit or delegate themI believe that most driven, successful people are facing down a collective adult neurosis. This neurosis is the erroneous continuation of important programming received as children that becomes limiting to adults: the unwillingness to quit. To paraphrase Scott Adams (author of Dilbert) persistence is awesome, until it is stupidAdmitting and accepting weaknesses, and then actually quitting those activities is anathema to our beliefs, our pride, and our culture. We are wired to tough it out, to never quit, never give in. There exists a special kind of vertigo to stand at the precipice of failure and let go and accept. But, in order to spread your wings and fly you first have to become airborne.

I believe that this unwillingness to admit weaknesses and refusal to quit trying to overcome insurmountable obstacles leads many men and women to lead "lives of quiet desperation," as Thoreau so elegantly described. 

I've written at length about "how to know when to quit" and the two year rule, but even if one rationally grasps the concept, we are hardwired to never give up, so, what to do? 

What to do: ascertain areas in your life that are sucking your willpower or appear to have plateaued. Then quit one at a time… (a small one at first.) Often we pursue things because, "we should." Obviously the "biggest quitter" would be a career (or a relationship). But smaller things might be time-consuming hobbies, activities, projects, committees etc. I think the story of Warren Buffett is a great example of a "should" that he quit. Warren, through his amazing investing skills had become one of the richest men in the world, but until recently, he had not done much in the way of "giving back" in terms of philanthropy and charitable work. In an interview on (CNN) Warren finally admitted his weakness and then in a brilliant move, gave his money to Bill and Melinda Gates to give away.  

“What can be more logical, in whatever you want done, than finding someone better equipped than you are to do it? Who wouldn't select Tiger Woods to take his place in a high-stakes golf game? That's how I feel about this decision about my money.” – Warren Buffet on giving his money to the Gates Foundation

When I first heard this story I started thinking if there were any "should's" I could quit. Suddenly it dawned on me. At the time I was the head coach for a local speed skating club, not because I was good at it or liked it (I was not and did not) but because "I should." The sport had given me so much and so many had volunteered their time for me,that I "should" want to be a coach and give back… Except I wasn't great at it and didn't like it. So I broke it down… I DID like skating with the kids, teaching them technique and relays… what I didn't like was writing a program each week, doing drills and most of all, all the yelling required to get 35 kids to line up and do the program. Quickly I discussed this with the club president and we agreed I would step down as the head coach and instead become an assistant technical coach and focus on what I liked and did best: skating with the kids and providing technical advice. The relief I felt was palpable - I didn't even realize how much guilt I was carrying for not "loving" being a coach… because "I should."

What "should's" can you quit/delegate? Here's a few I've quit and a few more to consider: I've quit: mowing the lawn, shoveling, driving to the airport (Thanks to Uber), driving to the city (Uber/train), my consulting job, and 2 significant long term relationships that had become toxic. Think about it - what can you quit that will allow you to spend more time living in your strengths. The PTA? A school or work or charitable committee? yard work, housecleaning? Snow shoveling, owning (and maintaining) a car? Owning and maintaining a second home – or even a first home? Magazine subscriptions, cable TV, social media accounts… what time-sucking “should’s” can YOU quit?

I'm not suggesting abdicating responsibility or shirking your duties or not having discipline, but what I am suggesting is that you make a purposeful investment of your social energy and willpower as they are depletable resources. If participating in the homeowners association or PTA or coaching little league is leaving you with less energy for your spouse or career or your kids, that may be a poor investment of time. 

  COMING NEXT: Challenge 3 - Does investing in strengths really pay off? 

Strengths are Specific: What are You Best At?

 

Tip #2: Design your life to "Race Your Strengths" - part 1

IDEA IN BRIEF:

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this: Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, Challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally Challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

"IF YOU ARE OVER 25 AND STILL TRYING TO FIX YOUR WEAKNESSES, THAT SHIP HAS SAILED!" 

Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengthsI believe that most people wander through life stumbling into the first thing in which they have some interest or initial talent, and fail to discover the true artist, physicist, poet, mathematician, athlete or musician within. What a great loss to humanity! Our strengths, as it turns out, tend to be very specific. Let me share two strengths as an example: consider the talents of a) an athlete and b) a business person. In my case, I was described as "fast" in the first case, and the second as "a good communicator." 

Sure, I was "fast" as a child and I was pretty competitive in most sports at a young age. However, most sporting activities for young kids are of a very short duration, and as I got older, I began to notice that I was only "fast" in short events and I was pretty useless at any sport requiring hand-eye coordination. For example, in eighth grade I managed to play an entire season of basketball without scoring a point, and in high school I eventually quit the cross country running team after 2 years of suffering and mediocre performances. I was mystified at the time, but now it is clear - I'm not fast at everything - I'm only fast in short events. I am a sprinter.*

*One sad side note here is that many true endurance athletes may end up quitting sports before they have a chance to shine. Because they are naturally slower in the short-spurt gym events like basketball, baseball, soccer and track, these slow twitch athletes may conclude they are "bad at sports" before they've had a chance to run the mile, a 5K or participate in a triathlon. If your young child is "bad at sports" consider the possibility that they may be unstoppable endurance machines when it comes to longer events.

By high school I had the realization that I was sprinter and switched from cross country to track and field to run the 100m, 200m and long jump. However, even there I eventually determined that I was only regionally competitive, but, when it came to sports requiring intense bursts of power against resistance, I could compete at a national, even world class level. By my twenties I finally honed in on the specific nature my strengths starting from the initial generic label of "fast."

Here's the breakdown:

"Fast" -> as a sprinter -> against resistance - > in events requiring short bursts of immense power - > followed by short rests - > while balancing - > and traveling at high speeds - > in a pack of people trying to kill me 

That's a pretty specific strength. If I had stayed with the broad brush of "fast," I would most likely never have achieved any success in sports. In fact there are only a two sports that require the above unique combination: short track speed skating, and cycling - the two sports in which I have competed at the world championships. I'm pretty terrible at most other sports.

 

Now, using the same process, lets analyze the "good communicator" strength. This is another very generic description leading to a series of questions: A good communicator to whom? About what? Best with large groups? Medium sized groups? Small groups? Best with one-way "keynotes" or facilitating two way dialog? Best at taking complex information and making it simple? Or best at taking simple things and expressing the innate complexity? Best at storytelling? Or better at sharing data and analysis? Best with highly motivated groups of individuals? Or best at motivating people that need inspiration? Best one on one? More of a coach? More of a challenger? More of a listener? If you have been painted with the broad brush of "communicator" and you don't know the answers to these questions, then you cannot leverage your superpower to achieve breakthrough performance. 

Sadly I was in my forties before I truly figured out my career superstrength - I am a:

"Good communicator" -> to large audiences -> taking complex topics and simplifying them through metaphors - > and expressing them via storytelling -> to high achievers - >  seeking innovative ways to improve their lives.  

I only discovered this less than two years ago, when, on January 28, 2014, I gave my first paid keynote. Now, this is my full time job. I live in my strengths more than 90% of my day now.  

What to do: ascertain the highly specific nature of your strengths and design them into your life. How? Take tests and assessments. Ask others. Look at your weaknesses and identify their inverse - sometimes the best way to identify a hidden or latent strength is to look at the antonym of a weakness. As an athlete my weakness is low aerobic capability, low endurance, high production of lactic acid. This is a result of type 2b fast twitch muscles that fatigue quickly. The inverse is also my superpower - to generate massive power for short intervals, process the lactic acid produced and recover quickly. In business there are a number of great assessments - cognitive, personality, and conative. Take them, study them, find the patterns of "flow" in your life and thread them together. Here's a partial list of assessments with links: 

  • Kolbe (conative - measures drive) http://www.kolbe.com/
  • Myers Briggs (personality) http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/
  • Strengthsfinder (personality/cognative)  http://strengths.gallup.com/default.aspx
  • ZTPI (temporal perspective - personality) http://www.thetimeparadox.com/zimbardo-time-perspective-inventory/
  • DISC (personality) http://discpersonalitytesting.com/free-disc-test/
  • LSI (personality - leadership) http://www.human-synergistics.com.au/Solutions/DevelopingIndividuals/LifeStylesInventoryIndividual.aspx
  • Enneagram (personality) https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/guide-to-all-riso-hudson-tests/
  • Authentic happiness (personality - happiness - multiple free tests) https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter
  • Insights Discovery (personality - work preferences) https://evaluator.insights.com/

 

COMING NEXT:  Challenge 2: Knowing (and accepting) your weaknesses  - then quitting or delegating them