I define success as maximizing my own physical and mental potential, while improving the lives of others around me. I didn’t set this as an objective and then change my behavior to match it – I always found myself testing the limits of my personal abilities and realized later that it was my primary source of motivation. I learned several things about myself and about life through this experience – many of which have stuck with me as guiding principles:
1 – Don’t let anyone decide your course in life (or at work). Define success for yourself.
What sort of lifestyle do you want to live? How do you envision an ideal day? What do you want to create or change? These should be the things we define before pursuing a career or a job change. This applies to my little brother entering college as much as it applied to me at 27 when I decided to leave a $1/2 million dollar salary at BlackBerry.
What we should do less of is make decisions based on what others expect of us. Some people are willing to exchange 40+ hours per week of limited effort for the ability to enjoy their time away from work. For me, I want to spend my waking hours creatively, productively, actively – I want to be engaged in something that provides me with purpose. I am not a paycheck collector and I don’t work for (or with) paycheck collectors.
2 – Crush your goals with mental fortitude and determination. Do things that others won’t. Inspire them to join you.
Top-level athletes know what it means to grind. Some of the most gifted ones can apply this work ethic to mental endeavors as well. Since I skipped most of high school (I couldn’t handle the structure), I never had the luxury of pushing my body to its limits in team sports. I wasn’t able to reap the rewards of mental toughness that resulted from the physical grind until later in life.
Standing in a ring and sparring with someone bigger, faster and stronger than me when I started kickboxing at 19, prepared me for intimidating situations at work better than any training program could. Lifting heavy things in the weight room, and then lifting heavier things the next time, has taught me more about work ethic than any job I’ve ever had. Henry Rollins writes eloquently about the value of doing things that are hard.
At 19, I also started my first commissioned sales job at Verizon. As an introvert, coming around the counter to have a conversation with a stranger was a terrifying experience. I embraced the discomfort until I became really damn good at it. It gave me a rush – I faced my fears and not only achieved my goals, but surpassed others in my store, in my district and across the region. I did things others wouldn’t – I skipped my 15 minute breaks, because two 15-minute breaks a day is 2.5 hours per week and 10 hours per month – which meant I had an extra full day of selling to leapfrog my co-workers. I didn’t get to kick my feet up and talk about my weekend in the break-room – but I got promoted in three months and then again in six months and then again in twelve.
As my responsibilities grew, so did the number of people that looked to me to set the pace and to define the standards. What I found was a surprising number of others that had the [potential] work ethic and mental capability to do things that had never been done before, but never had the permission. I learned that listening to the team and looking out for our mutual interests was the best way to build a kick ass culture at work.
3 – Do whatever you want to do. You are not required to uphold any social conventions.
I don’t drink alcohol. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but I don’t. Why? Because for me, the pros don’t outweigh the cons. I value mental and physical sharpness and the thought of paying money to diminish either of those things never appealed to me.
What’s my point? I broke a societal norm by not drinking, and instead of spending my weekend nights in my teens and twenties getting hammered, I worked. Or I learned. There are 168 hours in a week and just over 4,000 weeks in your life. Spend them in a way that’s going to make you most happy, most often – for the next three minutes, three months, three years and three decades. Is there something that you do only because you’re expected to? Is there a better way you could be spending that time, money and energy? Some people won’t understand your unconventional approach, but don’t let it bother you.
4 – Ignore the a**holes. Pretend they don’t exist.
Some are behind the wheel with road-rage. Some are in your family. Others are your friends, classmates or colleagues. Take that mental fortitude you’ve earned by doing things that are hard and focus that on completely ignoring a**holes. They are a waste of energy and only exist to drag you down and create self-doubt. Put a confident smile on your face and look right through them. The ones in the office will be working for you someday anyways if you keep finding better ways to get the job done. Which leads me to my next point.
5 – Maintain your composure at all times. Act like a Russian in a dash-cam video.
Have you ever seen the Russian dash-cam videos on YouTube? How about the one where two Russian guys drive their car off a bridge (accidentally) and then have a calm conversation about it? Americans watch five hours of TV per day, so it’s no wonder that we dramatize so many simple things in life. Maintain your composure and react in a measured, useful way – whether someone is challenging you in the boardroom, or trying to punch you in the face in training.
The days of the boss ranting and raving in an emotional outburst are coming to an end. Our generation rejects tyrants in the workplace. We want to work for (and with) intelligent, composed and inspiring leaders. If you find yourself being abused by a hierarchy obsessed dinosaur, that doesn’t value your contribution, calmly fire your boss.
6 – Find other trailblazers. Learn from them. Earn their respect. Help them and let them help you.
The personal and professional friends I’ve become close with over the years share one quality – they’re slightly insane. Every one of them is a mad scientist in their own way – completely obsessed with perfecting one (or more) area of their lives, and they’re perfectly happy sacrificing food, sleep, television, social activities and even their financial security to pursue it. Shameless plug, this is my obsession: SpeakUp (getspeakup.com).
If it weren’t for people like this, I would have never quit High School. I would have never applied for jobs that were reserved for people twice my age. I would have never believed in my ability to be an entrepreneur. Thanks to these amazing people and the experiences that I’ve had, I now actively seek out discomfort – and I’ve achieved a calm contentment because of it.
What are your guiding principles? Comment below.
Ray Gillenwater is the Co-founder and CEO of SpeakUp and a tech investor/advisor. His most important role as CEO is attracting and retaining exceptionally talented people. With continuous input from the team, Ray is responsible for defining the strategy and ensuring that company operations connect the team to the strategy as efficiently as possible. As a progressive leader, Ray was underwhelmed by the archaic processes and software tools in business. Frustrated by the inefficiency he experienced in trying to capture the best thinking from his teams in previous roles, he created the concept for SpeakUp – a way for anyone at a company to solve problems and generate new ideas. After vetting the vision for SpeakUp with industry pros, Ray and Co-founder Keith Barney, assembled a high-performance engineering team and financed the company’s inception. Prior to SpeakUp, Ray was a Managing Director at BlackBerry where he was responsible for the the company’s Australian business. He spent five years at BlackBerry across three continents and managed billions of dollars in revenue. Prior to his tenure at BlackBerry, Ray began his career in tech at Verizon Wireless in California.
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