What are you afraid of *not* achieving?

I attended an awesome Microsoft Research Visiting Speaker session with Keith Ferrazzi last week. Keith Ferrazzi is, of course, the youngest partner in Deloitte Consulting’s history, now-CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, and the author of the New York Times Bestseller, Never Eat Alone. The book speaks of the importance of building real relationships based on emotional connections and mutual trust, to success in business and life. I haven’t read the book, but I had heard plenty about it from various sources, so I knew Ferrazzi himself would have something interesting to say, the way bestselling authors usually do, so I took a break during the middle of the day and checked it out.

The topic of the talk was called “Who’s got your back?” loosely related to another book of his of the same name. Here’s the summary from the book cover itself:

Disregard the myth of the lone professional “superman” and the rest of our culture’s go-it alone mentality. The real path to success in your career and in your personal life is through creating an inner circle of “lifeline relationships” – deep, close relationships with a few key trusted individuals who will offer the encouragement, feedback, and generous mutual support that every one of us needs to reach our full potential. Whether your dream is to lead a company, be a top producer in your field, overcome the self-destructive habits that hold you back, lose weight or make a difference in the larger world, Who’s Got Your Back will give you the roadmap you’ve been looking for to achieve the success you deserve.

The first thing that struck me was how true the above was. It seems obvious that networking is critical to professional success, everyone needs friends, and proper people skills are often the greatest barrier to massive riches. Sure, everyone understands that, but so often, it’s from the practical perspective of, “how do I use this relationship to my advantage”, or “what can I get out of this relationship”; in other words, a purely business, or tactical relationship–like a game of Risk, (or Monopoly, as I recently realized), where you form a relationship so long as it is to your personal advantage. As sad as it is, it’s often accepted as the stressful, impersonal reality of corporate life…

Or is it really? These views of the social cynic trying to climb the corporate America ladder haven’t impressed me much–mostly because I believe that all relationships, even those formed in industry are personal, and will have impact far longer than you might understand. Keith corroborated that line of thinking by asking us to think of three people that’s “got our backs”. These are three people, friends, coworkers, family, whom you trust to have your best interests in mind, and are committed to your personal and professional success. And these aren’t just the occasional mentor, or career coach (although they certainly can be)–these are three people that understand you, your dreams, and are bold enough to push/prod and challenge you when you need it. If you didn’t have three people, you’d better have a way in mind to build those critical life relationships.

Do you have three people?

When I tried to name my three in my head, a lot of names and faces bubbled up. People I’d grown up with, my parents, old mentors, pastors, friends… but *very* few actually stuck as people whom I was truly open with, and shared my dreams, hopes, fears, and ultimately people that understood me enough to help me make purpose of my life. And this isn’t to say that I’ve false-friends; rather, that I haven’t been entirely honest around the people closest to me; that even amongst my closest friends, I’ve structured a façade to build an image for myself which I would try to live up to. Holden might have called me a phony.

In any case, that question made me rethink of what my role was in ensuring my own success. I think the best advice I could glean from that was… “keep it real”.

The second question he asked was a derivative of a common childhood question about life, also frequently used as an interview question. The original was boring, but his made me think:

“What are you afraid that you won’t achieve in your life?”

All too often, I try to answer the reverse question: “What do I want to achieve?”. It’s a great question; it gets you to think with life as a blank slate, and find possibilities to get from A to B. It makes you bubble up all the idealistic things you want to accomplish. His question was different. On the surface, it’s the same, but it makes you think differently, as if life was a picture all complete, and now you had to take a big bad eraser and start wiping away dreams. It makes you ask yourself, what is most important to you? At least, that’s how I interpreted that question, and I really thought about what would be most important to me at the end of my life.

For me, it boiled down to three things:

  1. Family. Self-explanatory.
  2. Significant contribution to society–preferably a positive technological impact in the way we live, share, and reflect on our lives.
  3. Been good to my friends, family, and community–being someone that I can live with.

Fortunately, for me, the answers were nearly the same–(showing that ive minimized cognitive dissonance over the past few years); yet it gave a fresh new perspective of looking at my life in terms of things I can’t do without. It was good.

The final lessons I learned from Keith were his struggles with insecurity; the fear that you weren’t measuring up. I laughed at this point, because that’s exactly how I feel quite often; even in the face of clear success, somewhere deep down, I ask self-defeating, skeptical questions to myself, “was this a fluke?; do I really deserve this?; is this gonna be the best I’ll ever be?” It’s like I’m subtlety asking for someone to scream at me at tell me on a job well done, but even then, I might not have believed it.

He spoke of when his first book got to the NYT Bestsellers list… how instead of cheering, and being happy, he freaked out and asked those very same questions. Funny, isn’t it–that if your personality doesn’t allow you to relax, even in the face of success like this, you’ll be stressed out. The key is to work hard, be humble, but to give yourself a pat on the back from time to time.

I don’t have much else to say beyond what I”ve already said, except… I’ll definitely be attending more MSR Visiting Speaker seminars from now on. 🙂