I’ve had a lot of time to think lately. Being on the road for weeks at a time, driving long distances with no one but my beloved but possibly autistic puppy, and with a mission to observe, understand and ultimately correct my own bad habits, has given me the space to see some of the patterns in my life, and how potentially they have held me back.
“I want to get there on my own terms”
When I was in my early-20s, my group of friends in Australia went to a Tony Robbins seminar. Unleash the Power Within. You get to walk on hot coals. It’s a course everyone should probably do, and dive into wholeheartedly while attending, but not turn into a self-help addict as a result of the experience. I met a lot of people during the course for whom this was their 10th time coming… at a few thousand dollars per course, that just seemed ludicrous to me, more an unhealthy addiction than a normal focus on self-improvement.
To my dismay, however, I found that about half the friends I went with were lured to this “dark side” (as I saw it). One guy quit his well-paying job at his family’s sail-making business to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Another guy quit a new graduate job he’d just started at a management consulting firm to start a keyword arbitrage business. And his girlfriend quit her job to actually join Tony Robbins as a telesales operator for his course, trying to convince other poor sods to become self-help addicts for commission.
I found it massively distasteful, short-sighted, and uninspiring. All these dear friends of mine became consumed with making money as easily as possible, rather than doing the hard but meaningful work of building something with purpose. But what really drove me nuts was they stopped being interested in films and TV and fiction books, and turned all their attention to reading only self-help, business, and non-fiction books.
I felt that this limited their imagination, made them less rich and interesting as humans, and – the biggest crime – crushed their individuality and sense of pride. “Even if this strategy works for them”, I thought to myself at the time, “it will mean they achieve success by emulating someone else. I don’t want that for myself. If I make it, I want to know I did it because of me, my own way, using my own imagination and prerogative, rather than by copying a money-obsessed strategy set by others.”
Fast forward to today.
I think this philosophy – or rather, my strict adherence to it – has held me back. I do still passionately believe that fiction, tales, stories, myths… are essential for exposing oneself to what is possible, for challenging ones beliefs and stepping into new and fascinating territories. It trains one in how to achieve deep and sincere empathy, and how to speak and act in a way that attracts others to follow your mission, to trust you, to want to see you succeed. I would say that what success I’ve had to date likely stems from these aspects of my character, and I attribute those to my determination to read fiction and to “go my own way”.
However, I can’t help but thing how much *more* I might have achieved, if I’d read a little more non-fiction. If I’d watched a little less America’s Next Top Model re-runs, and instead read some key business books before or even while I was running my businesses.
I’m reading a lot of non-fiction about focus and flow (“Deep Work” and “Essentialism”), plus other business books on strategy, execution, and solid life principles from wiser and more successful people than I’ll likely ever be. And I’m kicking myself. Hard. Damn. “I *wish* I had known this back then!”, or “Fuck, I made *that* mistake all the time, and now I see how it affected my team or business”.
Don’t get me wrong, we did great, and it’s bloody hard to start and run a business no matter who you are or what you know. But still. It’s important to be grateful and self-loving, while at the same time, open-minded and eager to pursue self-growth.
Focus was not something I was great at. Because I was capable of holding and cross-referencing lots of different threads and possibilities in my head at the same time (which is the role of a CEO, really), I naturally assumed this was a universal ability, and shared my thoughts, ambitions and plans with my team, without a filter. It led to an open, exciting and dynamic workplace, but also one where it could be stressful, with too much to do, and not enough focus on the small number of things that really mattered. I can see that now with clarity, and am kicking myself, for what greater heights at greater speed with less effort could have been achieved.
And you know what… I look back at my friends reactions to Tony Robbins all those years ago, and see that my gaze was not only uncharitable, but massively flawed. It could have been possible to read fiction and develop empathy, while at the same time reading non-fiction and learning actionable skills from real-world luminaries. It could have been possible to forge my own identify and way through life, while at the same time be armed with the knowledge and vicarious experiences of those who came before me. It could have been possible to be proud of myself, even if I used the experiences of others as stepping stones to my own success.
“I’m the exception”
Having a God Complex can be a pain in the arse. I mean, it has its moments: the belief that one is bestowed with some time of divine providence or is the unsuspecting saviour of the world is the same belief that is needed to start a business on your own, or to backpack around Africa on your own. However, it can also mean you eschew commonly held wisdom as being “for others”, and that normal rules don’t apply to you.
Again, this is not uncommon amongst entrepreneurs. Of course everyone wants to be the Steve Jobs for whom rules around delegation and product design didn’t apply. Or Jack Dorsey for whom rules around focus don’t apply (he’s CEO of two big tech companies at once).
And similarly, I truly believed I would be the exception to most rules around business. Focus? Nah, I am the special one that is able to push through on multiple difficult projects simultaneously and still succeed. Prioritisation? Nah, I have 15 items of priority #1 on my list, my team is up for it! Clarity? Well, sure, I’m being clear when I tell me team all the many ideas I’m having all the time, they can work out what I mean by all this.
It is so obvious now, when I write it. I’m red-faced even now. But yes, I truly believed I was the exception. Maybe because I was a woman, and most business books are written by men that can’t multi-task. Maybe because I came from a working class background, and grew up accepting that work sometimes was just a slog to tenaciously get through, and by golly, I could be tenacious. Maybe because I spent all my time reading stories and tales of heroes and protagonists who *were* exceptions to the rule, you believe “why not, it could be me too”.
And maybe it was this bloody-minded determination that *was* the source of what success I did have. Maybe one needs a reality distortion field to get through some of the horrific hurdles faced when growing a business for 11 years.
But – as before – I can’t help but wonder what could have been, if I accepted the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t *that* exceptional, and accepted some commonly held wisdom as truth.
What if I accepted that it really wasn’t possible or desirable to do multiple hard things at once. That the collateral damage to team and company were too much, and I instead adopted commonly held wisdom to double-down on the small number of things that really mattered, and had the courage to say “no” to everything else.
What if I accepted that I really wasn’t some natural business leadership messiah, and instead invested the hard work into learning functional business and leadership skills. My ego and god complex held me back from real education opportunities that I could have applied more easily to my day-to-day, than the grand visionary and people motivator education I instead focused on.
It is somewhat pointless to be too hard on myself now. But it is certainly pointful (sic) to be a little hard on myself, especially if I can now learn from my mistakes with grace and self-love. So… here I am, publicly abasing myself and my failings to you all. Thankfully, due to society’s eroded attention spans, it’s unlikely anyone has even read this far, so these words may remain unread and private. So to myself, I say, it’s ok, now, let’s embrace new beliefs and stride forward.