Sep 182011
 
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Can entrepreneurship be taught?

Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

A question I get quite frequently is, “Can entrepreneurship be taught”?  It’s a tough question and the answer is highly dependent on how you define “entrepreneurship,” so let’s start there.  If you look in Webster’s dictionary online (http://www.merriam-webster.com), there is no separate definition for entrepreneurship, but here’s the definition you find for entrepreneur:

One who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.

Frankly, I find that definition a bit lacking, as it’s very dry and does not embody any of the spirit or mindset it takes to be an entrepreneur.

If you take a look at first the definition of entrepreneur on thefreedictionary.com it’s similarly unexciting and dry, but a bit further down there is another definition that is more in line with the way I think about entrepreneurship.  That definition is:

The owner or manager of a business enterprise who, by risk and initiative, attempts to make profits.

This one appeals to me a bit more, because entrepreneurship is all about taking initiative, and the motivation for taking that initiative and assuming the related risks, is usually to make profits.

We could wordsmith the definitions of entrepreneur and entrepreneurship all day long, but the definition above should be sufficient to allow us to think more about the question at hand: Can entrepreneurship be taught?

The short preview of my opinion is that I believe certain aspects of running a business can be taught very well; however, the “entrepreneurial mindset” is difficult to teach and correspondingly tough to learn, but for the most part, it is possible.  In order to look at this aspect of the mindset a bit further, let’s review my list of the 5 Key Character Traits To Be Successful As An Entrepreneur.  Though I acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive list, in my opinion, the five key traits are as follows:

1.)  Perseverance

Having been in the entrepreneurship game for more than 30 years now, I have learned that, without a doubt, if you don’t have perseverance, you are highly unlikely to achieve any meaningful level of success as an entrepreneur.  Although you may plan and do your best to predict the future, I haven’t met anyone who can do that with 100% accuracy.  Therefore, there are going to be unforeseen challenges and you will need to persevere in order to overcome them.  The good news is that, like many of the key characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, this one can be learned — you don’t need to be born with it.

2.)  Goal Setting

I’m not sure this is one that I would always have included on this list, but over time, I have learned that the ability to set goals correctly, monitor progress toward those goals, adjust course as necessary, and make sure they are completed regardless of the obstacles you encounter, is critical to the success of most entrepreneurs.  The alternative is to not set goals, but where does that leave you?  As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.  Setting goals and keeping them on your radar on a regular basis can also help to keep you motivated and on track when times are tough.

3.)  Tolerate Uncertainty

One thing most successful entrepreneurs I know do very well is to tolerate uncertainty.  They are comfortable and very often stimulated in situations of uncertainty.  Unlike many other traits, this is one that may be difficult (but still possible) to learn — to some extent, you’re either born with it, or you’re not.  Those of you who have sought certainty and predictability in your careers and elsewhere in your lives may find it very challenging to be in the relatively chaotic world of entrepreneurship, particularly at the early stage of a venture.  In your case, you would be wise to associate yourself with others you know who perhaps have more of a tolerance for those situations, so you can lean on them a bit when the inevitable chaos and uncertainty arrive.  You may also want to take a role in the venture that allows you to deal with some of the tasks that are a bit more routine and predictable.

4.)  A Strong Desire to Succeed

Most of the great entrepreneurs I know have an extremely strong desire to be successful in everything they do.  They are usually quite competitive, sometimes to an annoying degree and sometimes regarding tasks that, at least on the surface, don’t seem very important.  This drive to succeed is what pushes them to be the pioneer, to take the proverbial arrows, while others are content to sit back and fall into a routine.  If you don’t have such a strong desire to succeed, this may be another one that is a bit difficult to learn — but I do think it’s possible.

5.)  Different Definition of Failure

Hardly any entrepreneurs in the history of time have achieved great success without a failure, usually many, many of them.  Sure, a few have done it, but some people have hit the lottery as well.  It happens, but it’s highly unusual.  Much more common among successful entrepreneurs, are stories of repeated failure — sometimes 10, 20 or more failures — then what appears to be a sudden success that came out of nowhere.  The reality is that it did not come out of nowhere; it came from the ability to learn and course-adjust, based on previous approaches that did not work.  As with achievement in most disciplines, mindset is everything as an entrepreneur.  This is best illustrated by a comment made by Thomas Edison, when someone asked him if he had failed on a particular experiment.  His response was to the effect, “no, I just eliminated another way that does not work.”

So, let’s take a look at each of these traits in a bit more depth at it relates to “teachability”.  In the case of perseverance, perhaps the most important trait, let’s say it can be learned but cannot be taught.  A coach or other third party may be able to help you push your way through difficult situations (i.e. persevere), but the drive to do so must come from inside.  Another person can teach you how to set goals correctly.  They can also teach you and encourage you to monitor your progress toward those goals and to course-correct along the way.  A third part cannot teach you to have a personality or mindset that tolerates uncertainty well, at least not easily.  Your risk and uncertainty tolerance is something you’ve developed over a lifetime, so it’s not easy to change.  It’s possible, but only with concerted effort and incremental progress, mainly on your part.  A coach or mentor can encourage you in this process, but the desire to change will need to come from within.  If you are to develop a strong desire to succeed, that too will have to come from within.  Again, outside parties can encourage you, however, the desire will have to come from you, and it will likely be based on how important your goals are to you.  You need to set goals that really get you “fired up”.  You can redefine your definition of failure and this is something that can be taught.  It may take some time, but it is vital to your success as an entrepreneur.  If you are going to look at every small bump in the road as a failure and allow it to cause you to get off track, rather than learning from it and moving on, entrepreneurship is going to be a very tough road for you.

In summary, in my opinion, many aspects of entrepreneurship, include some parts of the “entrepreneurial mindset” can be taught and learned.  For all aspects though, the desire to learn and continue becoming a better and more successful entrepreneur will need to come from within.  You will need the drive to succeed that leads to the willpower to overcome obstacles and “make it happen”.  If you don’t have, or can’t muster this drive and willpower, no amount of teaching or learning is likely to allow you to become a successful entrepreneur.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin

paul@companyfounder.com

www.companyfounder.com

 

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Jul 312011
 
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Why Goal Setting Is So Important

I finally figured out and understand at a visceral level why goal setting is so important.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, based on my extensive work and research with entrepreneurs and achievers of all types, the strength of your willpower is perhaps the most important differentiating characteristic for those who accomplish “great things” versus those who don’t.  My interaction with “super-achievers” has been even more intensive lately as I write and prepare to release my latest book, called 10 Steps to Greatness:  The Super-achievers’ Little Handbook.  This more intense interaction with those who’ve achieved “greatness” has convinced me more than ever that having an indomitable will to succeed is the single most important characteristic of those who most everyone would agree have achieved exceptional levels of accomplishment in their fields of endeavor.

Ok, so what does all this have to do with the importance of setting goals?  Well, today I experienced first-hand something that I’ve experienced many times before without a similar “a-ha moment”:  a simple goal can keep you on track and keep you from quitting, no matter how much you might like to do so.  Let me explain the circumstances of this “a-ha moment” and how it drove home the importance of short-term goal setting as it relates to the all-important matter of willpower.

Today I was going for a standard weekend workout, which consists of 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise of varying levels of intensity.  In this case, the workout was a combination of running and cycling.  As is customary these days, I do the running first, and then finish off the workout with cycling.  The difference today, which hit me in the face as I walked out the door to get started, was that although it was just 6:15am, the heat index was through the roof.  Although it was pretty early and the sun had not yet come out, the humidity made it feel like being in a sauna on full blast – not an ideal environment for an intense workout.  We decided to give it a go anyway.  My wife wanted to do just the first half of the workout with me and we decided to do it at a quick pace.  So by the time we finished the first half, I was already relatively spent, but I decided to take an energy gel and another electrolyte pill and push on through the rest of the workout.

When I arrived at the one mile circuit for cycling, which is about four miles from our house, I knew I was going to be in for a tough hour and roughly fifteen minutes.  The sun had come up and it felt like a sauna with no roof and a strong sun shining in.  That was the first point where I would have liked to have quit and said, “I’ve done enough already; there’s no need to push it,” however we’re preparing for a couple of upcoming races and I knew if I could just push through it, it would be excellent preparation for those races, which will take at least 2.5 hours and may be in relatively high heat conditions as well.

Even though I wanted to “soldier on,” I was feeling pretty lousy, so I knew I needed something to keep me going and not throw in the towel.  That’s when I remembered one of the articles I’d written relatively recently about the Navy SEALs Pool Competency Test and how short-term goal setting could get you through pretty much anything that’s very uncomfortable and challenging.  So I decided to give it a try in this pressure cooker heat environment.  I calculated exactly how many miles I needed to do to reach my overall goal for the day, taking into account that I’d also ride another four miles to get back to my house.  The calculation led me to realize that my cycle computer would read 202 when I reached that number.

So, from then on, whatever negative thoughts came into my mind were quickly replaced simply with “202”.  I would not allow myself a single negative thought.  Into my mind would pop, “man, this is ridiculous,” only quickly to be replaced with “202”.  Then would come up “who would ride this many miles in a sauna without a roof,” which would be quickly erased by “202”.  And so on.  I’m not sure how many times this happened, but it was a bunch.  And you know what?  It worked.  Before I knew it, I looked down at the cycle computer and it read 200.3.  I was virtually ecstatic.  I knew it was just a couple more miles and I could head for home.  Without this approach I’m pretty sure that all the suffering I was feeling would have caused me to head for home much earlier.  [Note:  I was sure that I had everything covered from a hydration and general fitness perspective, so I wasn’t worried about serious physical problems – this is obviously extremely important any time you’re “pushing the envelope,” especially in high heat conditions.]

Why did this work?  As I was going through this experience and coming up to my “a-ha moment,” and when I wasn’t saying “202” in my mind, I was asking myself that question:  “why does setting simple short-term goals and focusing on them help you get through tough challenges?”  At some point, it occurred to me that the effectiveness of this approach is strongly linked to the importance of willpower in success and extraordinary achievement.  The human will can be absolutely incredible, but we need a way and a reason to access it.  We need a simple and powerful “why” to keep pushing on through exceptionally difficult circumstances.  In the immediate- and short-term, that “why” is a simple, clear, easily understood goal (or goals).  For me in this case, it was “202,” which I knew would get me to my overall mileage goal for the day.  This only explains the immediate- and short-term, of course, but we must get through them before we can get to the medium- and long-term.  The graphic below shows how this “virtuous cycle” works.

Goal Setting - Willpower - Virtuous Cycle

So, how can you put this goal setting “virtuous cycle” approach to work for you?  First, you must decide what, if anything, that you are trying to accomplish at this moment would make it worth “turning yourself inside out” (to use an expression the Tour de France commentators love) in order to achieve.  Is there anything you care that much about achieving to put in a “superhuman” effort?  We’re not just talking about a sports or exercise setting here.  The reality is, no matter what your field of endeavor, if you want to accomplish extraordinary things, you will need to put in a “superhuman” effort sometimes, if not very often.  Second, you need to decide what you are willing to do to achieve something extraordinary.  How far are you willing to push yourself?  Third, you need to do it!

The key is that you know what “it” is.  Do you know what it takes to be great in your field of endeavor?  If not, find out.  Once you have discovered what it takes to achieve greatness in your endeavor, formulate your goals accordingly.  You’ll need short-term, medium-term and long-term goals to keep you on track, focused and interested.  Make sure the short-terms goals build toward the medium-term goals and that the medium-term goals put you on track to accomplish the long-term goals.  Once you’ve done this, make an agreement with yourself regarding what “price” (pain, sacrifice of other activities, etc.) you are willing to pay, then, to quote a famous shoe company, “Just Do It”.

Once you’ve used this technique of having simple, clear short-term goals to access your willpower and get through difficult challenges, let me know how it goes.  For my clients, we’ll be talking in any case.  For others, shoot me an email or, if you have comments to share with everyone, please leave them below.

Paul Morin

paul@CompanyFounder.com

www.CompanyFounder.com.

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Jun 232011
 
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Don’t Fear Making Mistakes

Don’t fear making mistakes; fear not making enough of them. Let’s consider two scenarios: 1.) The person who hardly ever makes mistakes; 2.) The person who makes A LOT of mistakes, but is careful to learn from them each time. Who do you think will accomplish more in their chosen endeavor (and in life in general)?

In my experience, chances are very high that the person who is willing to make mistakes, but also very careful to learn from each one, is likely to accomplish significantly more than the person who is not willing to make mistakes. Let’s look at a simple scenario to understand why this is so.

Let’s say you are an entrepreneur and you are launching a new product. As a good entrepreneur, you have developed the product because you saw an unmet need in the market and validated your perception by talking to potential buyers and even receiving substantial orders in advance of the release. In fact, the pre-launch orders were so substantial that you decide, for the time-being at least, not to seek other channels of distribution or pursue other potential customers for your new product. You feel comfortable with the $2,000,000 million in first year sales due to pre-launch orders and don’t want to risk going after other potential markets/customers that are not a “sure thing”. In other words, you’d prefer not to make a mistake and decide you are satisfied with the results of your initial foray.

Across town is another entrepreneur, a competitor of yours, in fact, who has developed a similar product. It only does about 80% of what your product does, but that competitor is confident that it is the “80% that matters” and that it will not limit the ultimate success of the product. Because the product does not have all the bells and whistles that yours does, your competitor only achieves $500,000 of pre-launch sales. Not satisfied with this, your competitor aggressively begins to explore alternative markets, uses, and distribution channels for the product. At first she finds little success, spending several months with very little to show for her incessant efforts. In the fourth month post-launch the competitor hits “pay-dirt” and strikes a relationship with a then little-known (in America, at least) Asian distributor of similar products. The relationship yields first year sales of $4.25 million, with strong profit margins, despite the distribution cost, as it turns out the Japanese demand is through the roof, permitting higher prices. The exchange rate also helps your competitor out.

So, in the end, your competitor achieves more than double your first year sales on a similar, competing product. What happened here? First, your competitor was not content with the pre-launch sales achieved, whereas you were. Second, for a wide variety of reasons, potentially including having a strong enough level of self-confidence to not be daunted by the prospect of encountering a bunch of “failure” before success, your competitor pressed on in looking for alternative markets and sales channels. Finally, your competitor viewed every “mistake” as an opportunity to learn and a step in the direction of their ultimate goal of maximizing sales and profitability of the newly launched product.

This situation repeats itself endlessly in the business world and in all other endeavors. Certain “players” become content with their achievements very quickly, long before achieving their ultimate potential. They become comfortable. They become afraid to make mistakes. Their ego is not strong enough to take any hits. They like their position as it is and they like the recognition they are receiving, so they don’t want to risk making mistakes and damaging their self-perception and the positive opinion others may have of them.

On the other hand, there are players who experiment endlessly, enjoying their successes, learning from their “failures,” but never completely content that they have achieved all that they can. They see mistakes and “failures” as opportunities to learn, not as a hit to their sense of self-worth. They learn to make as many mistakes as possible, as quickly as possible, so they can achieve their goals more rapidly and not stagnate. They understand the importance of making incremental progress and make smaller mistakes where possible — mistakes that will not “kill the company”. They’re not indiscriminate risk-takers betting the farm at every chance they get. Rather, they take a constant series of incremental risks, in order to learn, gaining whatever insights they can from each mistake, and then moving on. They do not dwell on mistakes.

Do you fear making mistakes, or do you see them as an opportunity to advance toward your ultimate objective(s)?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com.

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Jun 202011
 
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Where Does Greatness Come From?

Let’s focus in on human greatness here, as there are a lot of types of greatness in the world. So, where does human greatness come from? No one knows exactly, but I will give you some ideas of the steps to get there, based on my in-depth study of over 250 of the all-time great historical figures in a variety of fields, as well as my interviews and conversations with a large sample of contemporary greats, in fields ranging from entrepreneurship, to the military, to science, sports and many others.

The first and most important lesson is that generally speaking, people are not “born great,” simply knowing from the very start that they are gifted in a certain area and that they will become one of the “greats” in that area. As previously discussed, as much as there’s a great deal of folklore and exaggerated stories out there to that effect, most human beings do not become great at something from one minute to the next, without a huge, concerted and inspired effort. The common wisdom now is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to move from beginner to expert in a particular endeavor. That does not necessarily make you “great” of course, but usually, if done correctly, it will at least get you to “expert” status. You will know more and be better at your chosen endeavor than the vast majority of the remainder of the human population.

So if it’s relatively clear what it typically takes to become an expert in a field, is it also clear what it takes to achieve “greatness” in a particular endeavor or field? Unfortunately, not really. In my experience as an advisor and coach and in my research, I have found a wide variety of paths to greatness. That’s good news and bad news, as the saying goes. It’s good news, since even if you are not or have not been on a particular path, it doesn’t, de facto, mean that you cannot become great in your chosen field or endeavor. It’s bad news because it doesn’t give us one well-defined path to zoom in on in an effort to achieve greatness. That being said, in my experience and my research, I have found some common threads of the path to greatness. I will lay out those commonalities in the form of a ten-step process to become great at anything. There are no guarantees, of course, as most of the hard work rests on your shoulders, but by using this approach, in my opinion, you will maximize the probability that you can become “one of the greats” in your endeavor.

The first step is to identify the area of greatness that you are pursuing. You should be as specific as you can, given that the more nebulous you leave it, the more difficult you will find it to make focused efforts toward achieving your goal in the steps that follow.

The second step is to uncover the key requirements to become great in your chosen endeavor. The four main approaches you will pursue in uncovering these requirements will be the following:

a. Go directly to the “horse’s mouth”. That is, you should contact one or several people who have already done what you’re trying to do – become great in your field – and ask them how they did it. Try to get as many specifics as possible.

b. Talk to one or several coaches in that domain. These could also be referred to as subject matter experts (SMEs) or maybe even SMEs with a bit extra, as they have chosen to be coaches and thus are likely oriented toward understanding how to maximize performance in your particular endeavor.

c. Read books by experts in the field. Reading appeals to some folks and does not appeal to others. There are also many books on tape now, which you can listen to when you are driving or exercising. If you are more oriented toward learning from video, you should also be able to find plenty of resources in that medium.

d. Watch true professionals in action. If what you’re trying to become great at is a sport, watch as many events as you can, but don’t just watch as a fan or casual observer; watch as a student of the game. Likewise, if your focus is in business or another area, become a curious student of all that happens in your field.

The third step is to take stock of your natural abilities. Take a look at your physical and mental attributes. Don’t judge yourself or determine whether these attributes are good or bad at this point, just take stock. Are you exceptionally tall? Are you great with numbers? Etc.

The fourth step is to look at your strengths and weaknesses relative to what you’ve determined that it takes to be great in your chosen endeavor. You’ll want to go into great depth here, as understanding where your weaknesses are, for example, will allow you to structure your practice in a way that helps you to optimize your use of time and accelerate your road to greatness.

The fifth step is to focus in on your “why”? That is, why do you want to become great at this endeavor? What is it that’s driving you? Is it a “strong why”? In other words, do you think it is sufficiently strong to drive you to put in and maintain the extraordinary effort and concentration level that will be required to become great?

The sixth step is to set goals for yourself. You will want to set short-, medium- and long-term goals that take into account the requirements to become great, as well as the specific areas you’ve determined where you need to make improvements. Monitor progress toward your goals and make sure that you set a timeline for completion of each goal.

The seventh step is to constantly reinforce your belief that you can attain the goals that you’ve set for yourself to become great in your endeavor. This belief will be reinforced regularly if you have set your goals in a way that they are achievable on an incremental basis. Allow yourself to achieve small victories along the way, as this will nurture your belief. As with the later step of maintaining calm, you will also want to use positive self-talk and visualizations in this step.

The eighth step is to develop a detailed preparation schedule that is oriented toward reaching your goals and achieving greatness. Regardless of what your endeavor is, you may want to work with a coach or other qualified third party to ensure that your preparation schedule makes sense in terms of getting you to where you want to be without burning you out in the meantime.

The ninth step is to make sure that you have in place a calming mantra and approach for when you get into stressful situations on the road to achieving your goals. If you are trying to become great at anything, no matter what the field, it is inevitable that you will encounter some, maybe even a huge amount of stress along the way. You need an approach to deal with fear and stress and keep progressing toward greatness. That approach will likely involve extensive use of positive self-talk and visualization.

The tenth step is to constantly work on and nourish your will to succeed and concentrate. In fact, based on my experience and research, this may be the most important step and factor in your success. There are very few exceptions among the historical and contemporary greats that did not have to exercise enormous power of will and concentration, usually on many, many occasions. Becoming an expert is challenging enough. Becoming great is another whole level and it almost always requires many instances of calling on massive willpower to overcome the inevitable obstacles that lie in the path to greatness.

We’ll go into each of these steps in much more detail, but this summary gives you an idea of the path you need to follow to move from beginner to expert, and then, if your “why,” your belief and your willpower are strong enough, on to greatness.

I look forward to your thoughts, comments and questions.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com.

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May 312011
 
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You Won’t See Them Practice or Prepare …

Unless You’re One of Them

It does not matter your field of endeavor. You could be an entrepreneur, an athlete, a scientist, a musician, or the CEO of any size company, but unless you are one of them, you will not see the “greats” practice or prepare. They are up early or they stay late, in order to perfect their “game” and bring it to its highest level.

I am in the midst of an in-depth study of “greatness” throughout the ages. This includes taking a close look at the lives of hundreds of history’s greatest people in a wide variety of fields and endeavors. It also includes interviewing dozens of contemporary “greats” throughout sport, business, science, music, art and beyond, and looking for common threads in how they have reached such heights.

One such common thread is that those who reach an extraordinarily high level of achievement in their field almost uniformly are preparing when the rest of the world, including their competitors and often times colleagues or teammates, are sleeping. They shoot free throws, they do extra workouts, they prepare speeches, they create, they analyze, they synthesize, and they hone their skills to levels that others only hope to achieve. This is the time they “steal” to take their game to the next level.

Does this mean that they don’t do all the other preparation that their teammates, colleagues and competitors are doing throughout the rest of the day? Of course not. They’re doing that too. The pre- and post-workday “workouts in the dark” and preparation are fueled by their dedication and drive to become the best they can. Sometimes it’s as though they cannot stop themselves from additional preparation in the “off hours”. They are driven by something deep inside that pushes them to put in all that extra work.

Is such drive and dedication something that can be imposed from outside? No. It must come from within. Sometimes it’s hard to even understand the source of this drive. But in the “great” ones it exists. Their bodies and their minds become “vehicles” of greatness, pushed by a force larger than them to do their best and always try to take it to the next level. Does it feel like a burden or extra work to them? Sometimes. But most of the time, it just feels natural. It feels like what they’re supposed to be doing to fulfill their dreams and accomplish all that they can, individually and for their team or organization.

So, if it comes from deep within, can you try to find it? Can you look for a formula to become great? Well, there’s no simple formula or recipe, like if you were going to bake a couple dozen chocolate chip cookies. One thing is clear, however, based on my experience as a coach and as a researcher in the area of “greatness”: before you can find this drive and become “great,” you must first find the endeavor or pursuit that will allow you to bring out your own greatness. It must be something that “lights the fire” within you. It may take a while and it may show up when you’re least expecting it, but if you’re paying attention, you’ll know when you find it.

It is not something that can easily be forced, even if you have the aptitude. Sure, we try to force it all the time, on ourselves, on our kids, on those around us. We focus on what we think we want or what we think society wants or what we think we “should” do. Trust me; this approach will not work. Yes, you can become good at something because others want you to, but you will not become “great”. The only way anyone becomes great at anything is if THEY want it, and only if they want it REALLY bad. Only if they want it so bad that they will not stop at anything short of greatness. Again, the drive MUST come from within. You can receive guidance and support from those around you, but the drive has to come from WITHIN.

What is the source of this desire? From what I’ve seen, it varies widely. For one person, the drive and desire may come from having been told they cannot do something. For another, it may come from following a family tradition of greatness in a particular endeavor. For yet another, their “why” may come from early childhood exposure to a sport or other endeavor that lights a fire within them. Frankly, this question of “why” is one of the hardest ones to understand. It’s a highly personal and individual driver. There really isn’t a lot of uniformity, but there are some common threads. More on this later, as my study into “greatness” continues.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com.

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May 232011
 
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Punished by Praise

The Early Achievers’ Curse When Seeking Greatness and Peak Performance

Be careful when receiving praise or when heaping it on yourself (self-talk) or others. Too much of the wrong type of praise can be counter-productive and can actually undermine your efforts to become great and achieve peak performance in your chosen field or endeavor.

This sounds counter-intuitive, you may say. Doesn’t praise help to build up your self-image and make you a stronger performer with more confidence? It is indeed a double-edged sword. Praise, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The issue is that when something comes easy to you and you hear from everyone around you things like, “Wow, you are really great at this … you’re a natural,” it tends to make you say to yourself, “You know what, they’re right; I am quite good at this”. In some cases, this leads to over-confidence and engenders a mindset that is not in touch with what it takes to become great at anything – hard work and “deliberate practice” over an extended period of time.

Based on everything I’ve seen in my own consulting, coaching and execution, there are no shortcuts to greatness, no matter the area of endeavor. You of course do have to believe that you can be successful and you have to have the willpower to make it happen, but it is very dangerous to believe that it will come too easily to you. I’ve seen it time and again, in fields as diverse as soccer, chess, mathematics, sales, entrepreneurship, art and music – the young student or adult beginner gets a lot of positive feedback early in the process of learning. They then do very well for a while and are at the “head of the class,” but then with time, they inevitably get passed by someone with less initial “talent” who wants it more and works harder and smarter to make it happen.

The other aspect of getting too much praise early is that for some, it makes them reluctant to take risks and step outside their comfort zone in the future. In order to become truly great at something, to become a true expert, you need to “take your knocks” and you need to be willing to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and then move on. However, if you really enjoy the early praise and recognition that you receive, it may make you less likely to take the necessary risks to achieve greatness in your chosen endeavor. The praise and recognition can actually become addictive and you don’t want to risk damaging your self-image by taking a chance of making a mistake or “failing”. Without the willingness to take risks, you can unknowingly place an artificial ceiling on your growth and your ability to become a master or an expert in your field. Such fear of failure can put an end to an otherwise promising “career” in anything.

So, what’s the answer? Well, it certainly isn’t excessive negativity. Nor is it ceasing to give or receive praise. Rather, when you give praise or receive it, you must include a counter-balancing reality check every time – a reminder that there is always more to learn – that no matter how good you are, there’s always room for growth. If the feedback, whether it be praise or criticism is not balanced this way, it can be very dangerous and can severely limit your potential to become great and achieve peak performance.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com.

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May 202011
 
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We all have fears. It is part of the reality of being human. Those who deny having any fears typically are lying or are not being honest with themselves.

The following comments are based on my work and research with athletes, business people and other elite performers such as Special Forces members. Further resources for information on this topic include many articles, books, audio and video works, including the 2009 History Channel documentary called The Brain. The GAMES Approach mentioned below is adapted from a Navy SEAL approach to dealing with fears, which was covered in the History Channel’s The Brain documentary.

Can fears get in the way of accomplishing your objectives? Can they keep you from becoming great at whatever it is you want to conquer? Absolutely! Fears can stop you dead in your tracks, quite literally. This is due to how the brain functions and sometimes this reality works to your benefit, particularly in the area of physical safety.

However, in the area of “mental safety,” fear can be a real problem. In the brain’s desire to protect you from the unknown and apparently dangerous, it can actually impede you from accomplishing your most important goals.

Rather than focus in depth on the physiological realities that cause you to stop “dead in your tracks,” I’ll give you a basic primer on what happens in your brain when confronted with “scary” situations, then we’ll quickly move on to what you can do about it, so that you can, to quote the Doors, “break on through to the other side”.

When you are confronted with a scary situation, in basic terms, your brain presses the “panic button”. The danger is perceived by your senses then makes it way over to the Amygdala, one of the regions of the brain that deals with emotion, where if the danger is perceived to be real and imminent, the brain starts a cascade effect of panic responses. Your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, your blood pressure rises, and if the level of panic is sufficient, chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into your bloodstream. The fight or flight system is thus activated and you’re in full panic mode, like it or not.

Unless the Frontal Lobes of the Cerebral Cortex can get the Amygdala’s panic cascade under control, or prevent it from occurring in the first place, the likelihood of pushing through your fears is quite limited. The Nervous System response and blood stream chemical effects are simply overwhelming. The problem is that research has shown that the sensory data arrives more quickly to the Amygdala than it does to the Frontal Lobes, where rational thought could potentially prevent the fear reaction from cascading out of control. Then how can the Frontal Lobes possibly prevent the Amygdala from reacting and triggering panic mode? Per The Brain documentary mentioned above, this was a question very much on the mind of instructors at the Navy SEALs Special Warfare Command in San Diego, California.

They came to the realization that they were losing a large number of potential SEALs from the training process due to one simple fact: they could not control their fear response.

Image of BUDS - Navy SEAL Pool Competency Training

Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr

This inability to control the fear response was most apparent in what’s called the Underwater Pool Competency Test. This is the test where SEAL candidates spend as much as 20 minutes underwater with SCUBA equipment, during which time they are constantly harassed by instructors. The instructors will turn off their regulators, tie their breathing gear into knots and generally make it difficult to breathe from the SCUBA tank for more than a short time. This harassment leads to a steadily worsening mental and physical condition and the candidates must do everything they can to resist the desire to surface for air. It is an incredibly strong desire that is extraordinarily difficult to suppress. The human brain has been hardwired to understand that breathing is absolutely fundamental, that we cannot breathe underwater, and without oxygen for any prolonged period, we’re dead.

So realizing that the Amygdala pushes the panic button, and further realizing that the only way to overcome this automatic response would be to get the Cortex/ Frontal Lobes involved, the SEAL commanders came to the conclusion that it was important to be pro-active and condition a “non-panic” response by repeated exposure to the “right” emergency procedures. What it boils down to is that the Cortex / Frontal Lobes cannot get involved “realtime” before the Amygdala at the moment the danger is perceived, as they receive the sensory input more slowly, so the response needs to be conditioned based on practice before any event that could induce panic. The candidates need to override their panic system, based on previously obtained and internalized knowledge and a set of step-by-step procedures and techniques. While there are more, SEAL instructors decided to focus on what they call the “big 4” techniques: Goal-setting; Mental Rehearsal; Self-talk; and Arousal Control. I have added a fifth, “Endurance,” and re-orderded them a bit to come up with the “GAMES” Approach to conquering your fears. Next we will touch on each of the elements of the GAMES Approach.

[G]oal-setting: This involves creating very short-term and achievable goals, so that you are not overwhelmed by a bunch of extraneous thoughts and concerns and can remain focused on the task at hand. So, for example in the case of the Underwater Pool Competency Test, when you were underwater and the instructor tangled your breathing apparatus, you wouldn’t think to yourself, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me next…”, or “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”, or “I wonder how the candidate next to me is doing…”. Rather, you would say to yourself, simply, my goal is to untangle these knots – nothing more and nothing less. You would then say to yourself: I will employ the knot untangling procedure we learned in training step-by-step. Then you would execute step one, step two … etc. In other words, you would block out all extraneous thoughts and factors and focus totally on the task at hand, step-by-step. Can you see how you could use the same approach with any fears you may have in business, sports or life?

[A]rousal Control: This element focuses mainly on breathing. Taking deeper breaths with longer exhales stimulates the body’s relaxation response and helps to mitigate some of the effects that the Amygdala’s panic response can create. So, in the Pool Competency example, when the instructor tied your hoses or pulled your mask off, rather than immediately starting to try to breathe rapidly (which you couldn’t anyway if what the instructor interrupted the air supply), you would calm your mind with a decent exhale and then calmly get to work on accomplishing your goals and following procedures to address the issue, step-by-step. The relaxed breathing is harder to do in this example underwater, but can you see how breathing in a more relaxed fashion in business, sports or the rest of your life, and remaining calm rather than immediately going into panic mode, could help your performance?

[M]ental Rehearsal: Often referred to as visualization, mental rehearsal involves running through in your mind whatever it is that you are trying to accomplish, envisioning all the steps, then reacting calmly to any stress and ultimately, achieving a successful outcome. Mental rehearsal is seeing yourself doing it over and over again successfully, as if in a movie. You can visualize the scenario from a first-person perspective, where you are seeing it through your eyes as you perform the actions, or from a third-person perspective, where it’s as if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone else who is watching you perform the task successfully. You should visualize the scenario in as much detail as possible, so it looks and feels as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of research out there that indicates that your mind has a hard time differentiating between a scenario vividly visualized and one that actually occurred. As one SEAL psychologist says, by performing this step of mental rehearsal, the first time you do something “in real life,” as far as your mind is concerned, it won’t be like the first time at all and you may have greater success controlling the panic reaction that typically would occur. The process of mental rehearsal has been of great assistance in enhancing SEAL performance; can you also see how doing this could help you perform better in all of your endeavors?

[E]ndurance: This element is a recognition that this pro-active approach to mastering the fear response is not something that will happen quickly. It is a war of attrition against your Amygdala’s fear response. You will have to have a great deal of endurance and determination as you do as many iterations as necessary to conquer your fear response(s) in your particular endeavor. You will need to commit to stay at it as long as necessary, bravely confronting and conquering your fears head-on, knowing that by doing so, you will greatly increase the probability of achieving greatness in your chosen endeavor. Your mantra should be: As long as it takes, as many times as it takes. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Commit ahead of time. Be brave. Do not give up until you conquer your fears and reach your objectives.

[S]elf-talk: As has been discussed and proven in many other contexts, the Navy SEAL commanders came to the realization that in becoming an effective Special Forces team member, what you say to yourself, particularly in times of stress, is very important. You can say as many as 1,000 words to yourself in a minute, but at a minimum, you are likely to say several hundred words. If you are filling your mind with negative thoughts, you don’t increase your chances of success; instead, you increase your probability of failure. Discipline yourself to focus on positive self-talk. Repeat encouraging phrases to yourself. Find specific phrases or words that are particularly calming for you, or particularly motivating for you. Use them constantly to prepare for scenarios and use them during scenarios that occur, in the “heat of the battle”. Be your own best fan. Be your own cheering section. Prove by your self-talk that you believe in yourself and in the probability that you will succeed. This will help you keep the stress response under control and it will help you succeed in every aspect of your life.

So there you have in a nutshell the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears and achieving your goals and “greatness” in all areas of your life. Don’t limit yourself to one or two of the elements of the Approach; use all five. Use them pro-actively and use them together, in concert. Some fear responses are so strong that they will overwhelm anything but a coordinated effort to make sure that your rational Cortex wins out over your emotional, panic-prone Amygdala. In the effort to control the fear response and increase the probability that you will accomplish your objectives and become great in your chosen endeavor, you need all the reinforcements and coordination you can get.

I look forward to your comments and questions.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com

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May 102011
 
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Your Will To Succeed

The Most Important Character Trait As An Entrepreneur

In my consulting and coaching practice, I have the good fortune to interact with a lot of top entrepreneurs, CEOs and athletes. I’m in a particularly intense period of such interaction right now, as I’m in the thick of research for a book I’m writing on peak performance and what it takes to be “great” at anything.

My coaching, research and consulting look at many factors that impact peak performance on an individual and organizational level. Even though we look at a wide range of factors, there is one factor that always stands out in successful individuals and organizations: the will to succeed. Given the complexities of talking about this factor as it relates to teams and organizations, I will focus here on the will to succeed on an individual level.

In talking and working with top performers in business and sports, we cover a wide range of factors including: natural ability, clear goals, preparation, belief and the will to succeed, among many others. I see a wide range of variability on all but the will to succeed. In peak performers, almost invariably, when we look at their will to succeed and talk to them about it, its importance comes out as a “10” on a scale of 1-10. When you take a closer look, it’s relatively easy to see why.

First of all, we all start out with different levels of natural ability. In reality, it’s something that’s beyond our control. As the saying goes, “you’re born with it, or you’re not”. Secondly, some people are extremely goal driven, while others are not. Next, some people are fanatical about preparation, while others tend to do the minimum to get by, and yes, this is even true among top performers in many disciplines. In terms of belief, it’s true, most peak performers do have a strong belief that they can be great at what they do, however this belief is something that usually develops over time, with each successive milestone reached.

The will to succeed, on the other hand, is a different sort of animal. While it’s true that many people that have a strong will to succeed seem to be “born with it,” the majority appear to pick it up from environmental factors, often in the early and formative years of life. In my case, for example, I grew up in a very competitive household, mainly with adults. I was not an “only child”, but my siblings are much older than me, so I spent most of my childhood with adults. I observed what they did and how they competed, and from a very early age, even though I was a child, I wanted to and I believed that I could beat them. When I was wrong in certain disciplines, mental or physical, I worked as hard as I could – I studied and trained as much as necessary, in order to beat them, despite the difference in years.

Other peoples’ inner drive to succeed comes from other factors. Perhaps, for example, as is so often the case, a person may grow up seeing what other people have and wanting to be more like them. When I say seeing what people “have,” I’m not necessarily referring to material things. Sometimes we see that other people have the lives we think we want, whether those lives include a lot of wealth, or an apparently happy family, or an apparently rewarding job – whatever it may be. In my coaching work, I often see that people are driven by trying to obtain the lives that other people have. Although this is often misleading, which people only realize once they obtain those things or “that life” that they had been envying, nonetheless, it can be a great source of motivation, drive and willpower.

Then there’s that inner drive that cannot be simply explained by childhood rivalries or by trying to keep up with the Joneses. That harder to explain drive and will to succeed may in fact be the most powerful of all. Where does it come from? I don’t have a great answer for you. For the religious, it comes from a God, that is whichever God they worship. For the non-religious, it comes from some inexplicable source, perhaps from some unknown drive within the human species to continue to evolve and improve constantly.

Regardless of where you may believe the will to succeed comes from, in my experience, it is the single most consistent and powerful factor in all peak performers in all areas of endeavor, including entrepreneurship. Cultivate your will to succeed. Make sure you focus on endeavors where your will to succeed, to compete, and to be at your best is alive and well. If you don’t feel such willpower in what you are doing, ask yourself why. Should you be doing something else? Or is it simply that you need to be more focused so that you can fully engage your will to succeed? Be honest with yourself and realize that without a strong will to succeed in any particular endeavor, your odds of achieving “greatness” are severely diminished, as you simply will not have the strength to overcome the inevitable roadblocks and challenges you will face.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments. Do you agree that the will to succeed is the single most important factor on the road to greatness in any endeavor?

Paul Morin
paul@companyfounder.com
www.companyfounder.com.

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