Our Work is Derivative

Our ego is deeply intertwined with our work. When we perform well our ego gets a boost, and when we don’t perform well our ego takes a hit.

The reason this happens is that we oftentimes isolate the source our work – good or bad – to our own talent and ability. Our work in many cases…is us. But is that the truth?

Our work, whether it be creative work like writing this post or tactical work like leading a sales team, is a derivative of countless people that have come before us. In both conscious and subconscious ways, we’ve taken the work that other people have done and iterated it enough to make it our own. This is how knowledge and skills are transferred from one person to another, and has been for all of time.

Those Terms & Conditions on your company’s website likely originated as a copy of someone else’s terms.

That compensation plan you have in front of you is a variation on some other company’s compensation plan that someone brought with them into your organization years ago.

That one on one you just had with your boss is a format passed down from leader to leader for the past decade.

The presentation style you have when in a company meeting is an amalgamation of people you’ve observed throughout your career.

None of this is bad. This is simply how work…works.

We observe other people. We learn from their work. We borrow the things we like. We discard the things we don’t. And we iterate like this throughout our career until we’re left with something that seems like our own work, but is truly a style built on the backs of the people before us. As author Austin Kleon puts it, we Steal Like An Artist.

So the key to a successful and happy career lies somewhere between the lines written above.

If we have serious ambitions in our career we should not be thinking in terms of my work and my talents. We should be thinking about ensuring that our work is a derivative of something worth copying.

Inputs lead to outputs. If the inputs are junk, the outputs will be as well. This removes ego from the equation entirely, and forces us to answer the ultimate question:

Do I have the right inputs in my career?

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The thing about advice…

Advice. It’s been given since the dawn of communication, and will continue be given as long as us humans are around. It’s the packaging of choice for encouragement, rebuke, and wisdom. It’s good, it’s bad, and it’s neutral. And it’s the thing that can lift us up, and thing that can hold us down. But the main thing to understand about advice…

It’s given and received by imperfect people. And that’s okay.

Hidden beneath the veil of advice is personal experiences, biases, blind spots, ego, insecurity, confidence, and every now and then…wisdom. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give advice. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t receive advice. It means that we should filter advice. And we should filter it without attaching emotion to it.

If it’s useful to us, keep it. If it isn’t, discard it. Just like this post.

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The Answer No One Wants to Hear

What workout program do you do?

It’s a question I’m asked at least once a week – in the gym, at a social event, from a reader, from a friend – and what they’re really trying to ask is “How do you look the way you do?”

I usually try to satisfy their question with some version of lifting weights, doing sprints, or rowing. This generic response will usually suffice, and the person will likely draw the conclusion that I must have some tricks up my sleeve that I won’t talk about.

But the real answer to their question?

I’ve had a heavy barbell in my hands or on my back nearly every day for the past seventeen years.

And therein lies the problem. While this is the truthful answer to their question, it’s not the one most people want to hear. Because if they wanted my advice and I told them to lift heavy weights for fifteen years straight, the conversation would be over before it began.

Repetition is the master of all great, predictable outcomes.

We are inundated with ways to cut corners in everything from our work to our workouts. Media thrives off of ways to burn belly fat, get rich, or feel your best in just a matter of weeks. Our social feeds are filled with friends doing some new 30 day workout or nutrition program.

We want the results, but we also want to see the finish line in the near future.

But alas, this is not how life works.

If I were to ask Seth Godin how to be a great author, he’d tell me to write every single day for the next 20 years.

If I were to ask Jerry Seinfeld how to be a great comedian, he’d tell me to write jokes and practice every single day for the next 15 years.

If I were to ask the top sales rep at any company how to be a great sales rep, they’d tell me to pick up the phone 100 times a day, every single day.

Success is not sexy, as much as we want to make it so. It also isn’t accessible via a shortcut, band-aid, or “hack”.

So now whenever someone asks me what workout program I do, I’m just going to tell them the truth, the answer no one wants to hear…

…that I’ve had this heavy-ass steel bar on me for 17 years and counting.

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The Only Thing That Matters When Creating Your Best Self

Why don’t you have any food?

This is a question I’m asked virtually every time someone is at my house. A quick peek in the fridge reveals some fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, and a jug of almond milk. A peek in the pantry reveals some rice, coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, RXBARs, and baby food.

This is what our fridge and pantry look like every single week. It’s not because we don’t eat. It’s because we make eating healthy as easy as possible. Let me explain.

When we think of someone that is in really great shape, we think they must have incredible discipline and willpower to eat healthy and workout a lot.

When we think of someone that is very successful in business, we think they must work harder than everyone else and be smarter than most.

But in my experience studying successful people, both in my own network and through reading, rarely is it the characteristics we “think” lead to success that actually do. Instead…

Creating our best self boils down to making it easy to succeed and difficult to fail.

If you pull back the curtain on the daily lives of people we deem successful, there is a good chance they’re no different than anyone else. They simply make it as easy as possible to be successful, and make it as difficult as possible to fail.

Which brings me back to the food in my house. I am not in good shape because I have iron will. In fact, if you put me around a large pizza or a dozen cookies, they will both be gone in a matter of minutes. Instead, I am really good at controlling my environment, which then leads to my success. With food, I keep the bad stuff out of my house so I’m not tempted to eat it. With workouts, I set my bar low by simply trying to lift heavy weights for 30 minutes a few times per week. For some insurance, I fast nearly everyday until 1pm and have done so for the past 7+ years.

When we think of creating the best version of ourselves, we should be crystal clear about the characteristics we’re striving to normalize in our lives. Once we’re crystal clear about those, we need to ask ourselves:

  1. How do I make it easy to succeed at this?
  2. How do I make it difficult to fail at this?

Limiting the food in your house is a system. Putting the alarm clock in the other room is a system. Putting your fish oil or multivitamin next to your toothbrush is a system. Putting your phone on airplane mode while you write or make sales calls or work on your most important project is a system.

Willpower is limited. Discipline is overrated. To create our best selves, we need to use systems – systems that make it easy to succeed and hard to fail.

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An Antidote to the Low Points of Life

I was lying in bed curled up in a ball, unable to do much more than glance around the room, trapped in my own head.

I wasn’t physically ill. I wasn’t coping with some great loss or catastrophe in my life. I admittedly didn’t even have that much to be upset about. But that didn’t change the fact that I was here – internally caving to the throes of life that all of us deal with.

I won’t bore you with the details, but a string of things occurring in my professional and personal life had left me mentally and emotionally paralyzed, unable to do anything other than retreat to my bed for the majority of this particular weekday.

I hesitate to use the word depressed, because there are people that have clinical depression deeper than I can even fathom, but that’s what it was a form of – depression brought upon by a string of setbacks. As the saying goes, when it rains it pours, and it was pouring in my world.

Staring at the ceiling trying to process what was going on in my life, I was at a loss for what to do next, at a loss for how to claw my way out of another low point of life.

But being a writer that focuses on the mindset and habits that allow us to create our best selves, I knew the answers were at my fingertips. I just needed to dig in and apply them. So I set out to do what I’ve done so many times in my life – simplify the situation and execute on the solution. Here’s how I did it.

  1. Focus on Strengths All of us are good at some things, and not good at others. This was a moment in time where I needed to get back to focusing on my strengths. When you’re in a depressed state, any minor thing can set off a string of emotions and reactions. You’re frustrated, on edge, and sad. Doing things that are a struggle for you can result in deepening that state. Instead of pushing myself in areas that I struggle with, for the next two weeks following my bed-ridden day I only did things I was good at and that came easy to me. More on this in point #2.
  2. Help Others My outlet to do these things was other people. I gave hours and hours and hours of my time away to others, using my strengths to help others in the areas they weren’t as strong in. I joined the board of directors of a company I deeply admire. I spent a day with a founder helping to craft a management strategy. I spent a day with another founder helping to craft a sales strategy. I picked up the pen and wrote what you’re reading right now.

In effect, I just kept giving myself minor rewards by doing things I knew I was good at. When you do things you’re good at, you naturally receive the egoic reward of success. Couple it with giving that thing away for free to others, and you double dip into the tub of happiness by also receiving the egoic reward of giving.

I would be exaggerating if I said this was a perfect recipe for getting out of my low state. While it did get me out of it, I am still regularly returning to the state, albeit for shorter periods of time. What was days-long prior is now hours-long. But now when I dip back into the state I am armed with tangible and recent experiences of getting out of it. This helps me understand that it’s temporary, and these things pass in due time (and due action).

Life is not perfect. Even for people like me who write about creating the best version of ourselves. The reason I write is because, like all of us, I also have that worst version of myself that I’m trying to keep at bay. Creating our best self sometimes just means slightly improving our worst selves. And that’s okay. Because this too shall pass.

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