People Are More Impressed With Who You Are Than What You Do

We’ve all been asked that dreaded question at a networking event.

“So… what do you do?”

I drive myself insane wondering why people lead with that question in social situations. My guess is they are just nervous and it’s the first and easiest thing that comes to mind and then out of their mouths.

Yet, it’s the dumbest and worst question to lead with once you shake hands with someone. It shows the other person you are about to judge them and looking for the lowest hanging fruit to make your snap judgement. So do yourself and the person in front of you a favor and don’t ask it anymore.

So what SHOULD you ask?

Anything. Except for the above question anything is fair game. Ask about their clothes. Ask about their background or where they came from. Inquire about something unrelated to the topic of the evenings event like the weather, local sports team, the coffee shop where you are sitting, a funny off-the-cuff joke about the random people you are watching. Really, anything will work here. Absolving yourself of the “what do you do” question will invariably raise you right to the top of the list of people the other person wants to converse with.

But why is this so?


The “what do you do” question makes people feel like they are being interrogated. Especially if the person you find yourself talking with has recently made a huge life change and is in between jobs or startups. Take it from me, when in that phase of life this is the last question any of us want to answer. And the thing is you never know who has recently made that decision or is currently in that phase so better to be cautious and not take a salt shaker and dump it on someones fresh wound right out of the gate.

The “what do you do” question also makes people feel uneasy since its origins can be found in us humans trying to compare ourselves to others. Instinctively, our goal is to find someone who we feel superior to so we can make ourselves feel better, even for a brief moment. If I ask you what do you do and you tell me “I’m a lawyer” or “I just sold my startup to Google” I now know where we stand economically and socially. If you respond with a lower status job description I also know where we stand and feel better about myself.

But what about the people who ask the question only so you ask them the same question so then they can pitch you their business? Same result holds here: not a good idea to lead with your elevator pitch to a stranger that didn’t ask for it. I don’t know about you but I don’t want the first interaction with every person I meet to be a pitch session about what they are working on and how I can get involved. This is also a very shallow and quite self-serving interaction and again puts people on the defensive.

What I have found works best is to be genuinely interested in other people, and ask questions about them and what they care about. Becoming interested in others is quite easy if you don’t lead with “what do you do” questions. I try to challenge myself and get creative in how I converse with people, how much I can get them to talk about their ideas and passions. Initiating conversations without asking about profession or job shows the other person you are genuinely interested in their story and them as people, not just about professional comparisons. One or two great questions or comments unrelated to their profession can jump start a quality interaction with pretty much anyone.  I have found this is the best and quickest way to illustrate who I am and my inner character without saying a thing – outside of asking the intriguing questions.  The less I say the more I listen – and thus show who I am – resulting in a strong trusted connection with the other person.

The crazy and counter-intuitive thing about this strategy is once you start a conversation with another person not asking about their profession the other person will inevitably bring it up, but on their own terms. And since you didn’t come across as aggressive or interrogating you will find they are very engaged in the conversation and will walk away thinking you were one of the best conversationalists they have ever encountered even though they did most of the talking.

And in this way you will find each and every conversation is a way to learn something new about the world, something new about another person and a fun way to add to your wisdom of the world.

Seek first to understand, then be understood.

This Is One Of The Best Commencement Speeches EVER

Well, this is an insta-classic.

U.S. Navy admiral and University of Texas, Austin, alumnus William H. McRaven returned to his alma mater last week to give seniors 10 lessons from basic SEAL training when he spoke at the school’s commencement.

McRaven, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command who organized the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, stressed the importance of making your bed every morning, taking on obstacles headfirst, and realizing that it’s OK to be a “sugar cookie.”

All of his lessons were supported by personal stories from McRaven’s many years as a Navy SEAL.  You need to watch the 20 minute video to grasp the magnitude of his words, but here’s the list of his 10 lessons.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

If you want to change the world, find someone to help you paddle.

If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.

If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

If you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

If you want to change the world sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle head first.

If you want to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks.

If you want to change the world, you must be your very best in the darkest moment.

If you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.


The Old Wise Man And The Eager Young Chap

“….But I thought it would be easier than this. It’s really hard.  It’s tough and I don’t know what I am doing.  What am I supposed to do?”

A long time ago in a far away land an old wise man and an eager young chap were taking a walk and talking about life.  The young chap was eager to do great things in the world but seemed to stumble each time he pushed forward.  Desperate and in despair, he sought out the wisdom of the old village elder in hopes to find his answer.

SadhuThe elder – being the oldest and wisest man in the village – had heard such worries before and was no stranger to these youthful cries.

“Young chap, I sense you need to understand something very important about this life.”

“Huh, what’s that?” The eager boy snuffed and wiped his head to push his hair out of his face.

“What you don’t realize is your most pressing and worrisome issues are everyone else’s least pressing and worrisome issues.  They are yours and yours alone to figure out.  No one can tell you what to do, you need to discover the answers yourself.”

“Wait, what do you mean?  You don’t care about me and my problems?”

“I didn’t say that, young man, but I do think you need to look deeper.”

Confused, the young boy lowered his head and looked down towards the ground.

“Do you know what I am struggling with right now, just as you have come to me with your hardships?”

“No I don’t, what?” the young chap whispered.

“I have lived a long time, many years more than you have.  I fear my time on this earth is coming to an end very quickly, and although I have lived a blessed life I am having a hard time letting go of life.  I love my family, my community and all the great experiences I have encountered.  Even as you notice me struggling to walk up this path, my heart is as young as yours and desires exactly what your young heart does.  I cannot let go of life but will be forced to very soon and this troubles me.  And because of that I live each minute as if it is my last – just as this moment is the most important thing to me right now – and I choose to not have a care in the world.  I put my entire heart and youthful energy into experiencing everything about this moment so as to take in as much as I can before I go.  I turn my biggest fear into my greatest strength.  And in that way, I fully live and discover things I would normally have not.”

“I sense you aren’t doing that, are you my young chap?”

A long silence fell over the old wise man and the young chap.

After a while, the young chap responded.  “No… ummm, I’m not.  I think I’m scared.  I think I’m scared of what others would think about me if I lived without any limits or cares as to what they thought.  What if I fail?  What will they think then?”

The old wise man stopped, turned and looked the young chap in the face with his piercing blue eyes and said “Son, never forget this lesson, it is you who cares the most about if you succeed or not.  It is you who is holding yourself back.  And if this is true for you it is true for the rest of the world.   No one cares but only about themselves.  You must go forth and do everything you dare dream of with little worry about what the rest of the world thinks.  They are too busy searching for their own village elder to help them figure out why they are struggling…  just like you.”

And with that, the wise old man vanished through a small path between two trees and was gone.

Smiling and a bit fazed the young chap scratched his chin, thought about the wise words for a moment and with a renewed look of determination walked the other way.

Building Confidence

My last post talked about the confidence the Seahawks portrayed throughout their Championship season.  In it, I pointed out founders need to embody a confidence about themselves if they want others to follow.

But how do you do embody confidence?

And how do you build it stronger, especially when you are just starting out?

Find, understand and polish your vision

The first step in developing your confidence is to figure out who you really are and why you are doing what you do.  This comes in the form of identifying your vision – the reason for your businesses existence – and putting it in terms others can relate to.  One must ask themselves questions like “why does the world need my idea?” “what is the problem I am solving?”  “what is it that if I gave it to people, and then took it away, they would break down my door and demand back?”  These questions will help define your vision for a better world.

This is especially hard to for technical people since they think more in technical/functional terms, which most laymen don’t understand.  Most people can’t grasp “we are creating a device smaller than a desktop PC, specific to telephony, but can also access hypertext protocol and other applications for utility.”

But, people easily understand “connect with people across the world  from the palm of your hand.”

Get comfortable at rejection

The only way to get a yes is to get through a no first.  Think of the most confident people in your own life, and know they have been rejected more times than most.  A prerequisite to a strong confidence is the ability to take a no, to be rejected and be shot down by others around them.

How do you do that?

Put yourself out there, take investor meetings and allow them to critique your concept and vision.  Ask the smartest people you know to join your startup.  When these people say no, ask why?  Using these inputs, you will learn how to adjust on the fly and what you should change in your approach.

Rejection challenges one’s constitution.  It makes them look in the mirror, take account and look deeper as to why they are doing what they do.

It’s important because like exercise, these negative experiences put the individual into a position to either learn from it and get even stronger in their confidence, or face the reality they need to leave their vision  altogether and go a different direction.  Which road will be taken?  Either way, they are progressing toward a position of more confidence.

Bring more people along with you

Armed with a vision and the strength built up from taking no’s along the way, it’s now time to find others to join you in your pursuit.  Nothing builds more confidence as much as the feeling of people jumping onboard and joining you in your vision.  It’s the social proof principle, meaning the more people that join you, the more other people will want to join you.

The first few hires are always the most challenging, since people will ask themselves “why isn’t anyone else on the team?”  But once you have a team behind you (even a small team) you will feel invincible.  The confidence that comes with teammates standing behind you and convincing others to join their cause is indescribable.  Soon enough you will find yourself actually having to turn away people because they don’t quite fit the profile of who you are looking for.

It all starts with confidence.

Confidence begins when a person knows who they are and where they are going.  They determine that by identifying something in the world they want to change.  Once they can explain it clearly, others will understand and will want to join.  At that point, they will feel unstoppable.

I told You So

RG3I hate to say it but I will.

I told you so.

You may remember almost a year ago I wrote about The Washington Redskins and the failure of their team leadership when dealing with Robert Griffin III and his knee injuries.  During that post, I detailed their game against the Seattle Seahawks in which the Redskins – wanting to win and advance in the NFL playoffs – kept playing their highly talented rookie quarterback even though his was visibly hurt, risking his future at the same time.  One specific part of the article I will share again:

RG3 went down, and the future of the franchise lay on the ground to the disappointment of the silent stadium full of Redskins fans. Although the injury is not career threatening at this point, it’s arguable if RG3 will actually be able to play at the level he was before the injury.

So whose fault is it?

Not RG3′s. The problem is the person involved is not thinking clearly or wisely at the moment. They are focused on themselves, considering only the moment and the short term, not the long term. They do not understand the long-term ramifications of their actions. Even though RG3 said he could still play the responsibility to make the right decision ultimately falls on the coach, the leader of the team. He should be realistic enough to make the right decision.

Well, I told you so.

This year, The Washington Redskins – once favorites to win their division and challenge for the Super Bowl – are 3-10.  They will not even be making the playoffs and their coach is under intense scrutiny. Their quarterback RG3 has looked awful this year and it seems he still isn’t fully health, hasn’t regained his speed and quickness from before the ACL injury.

CBS reports Coach Shanahan is contemplating shutting RG3 down for the rest of the year so he can get healthy and concentrate on next year.

Though Griffin hasn’t been nearly as good in his second season as he was when he was a rookie, Shanahan said this isn’t an instance where he’s benching his quarterback because of performance issues. Instead, he’d do it to keep Griffin healthy going into the offseason.

Hmm, maybe something he should thought of last year before he chose to risk his future investment.

The point here is to not make fun of a struggling team (ha, the Seahawks are league leading 11-2) nor pick on an injured player.  It’s to review a huge leadership lesson from a year ago and look at it from the framework of what has transpired.

As I predicted last year, keeping Griffin in the game risked not only that season but they ended up losing the next one (that being this season).  It was a risk and they took it.

The thing is, as a leader our decisions have major consequences.  Sometimes the most drastic affect the immediate, such as the choice of throwing the ball to the wrong team as to cause an interception.  But sometimes – and often most times – our decisions have consequences we cannot see or aren’t even aware of yet.  They are long term consequences.

That last statement is the hardest part of Leadership.  Being a Leader is all about taking risks – albeit calculated and well thought out risks.  During a time of decision, you must be able to inuit enough about the future to understand the long term consequences of the choices right in front of you.  And unfortunately, maximizing for the immediate usually comes with a huge price tag in the future.

In this case, it might even be a shortened career of one of the most gifted quarterbacks to come out of college.

It’s tough to watch a highly talented athlete struggle like how RG3 is currently.  But it’s even harder to be in the leadership role and faced with difficult decisions.  Next time you find yourself in a challenging conundrum ask yourself what would you think about each choice a year from now.  Almost always, the one you will think higher of a year down the road is the choice you need to make today.

Better take time to think about the future now rather than mentally replaying the past and wishing you made a different decision.

The Value of Youth Sports In Startup Founder Success

A few recent conversations have turned towards youth sports participation and the valuable life lessons they provide.  One in particular stood out to me – youth sports participation is one of the best training grounds for a startup founder.

How would I know?  I was a competitive athlete pretty much since the time I could run, competed up until college and still remain athletic and competitive today.

soccer1Although I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, as I was playing youth soccer, basketball and baseball I was adequately preparing myself for a life long battle in the business world.  Learning to cope with immense challenge and competition is paramount to a person’s ability to achieve success.

I am so grateful for the experience and for my parents not forcing me into any specific activity, but rather allowing me to participate in a number of sports so that I could further develop my athletic ability, maximize my leadership skills and mature enough to determine which sport I more fully wanted to pursue.

It turned out it was Soccer, and it’s crazy to think back and imagine me as an 8 year old running around in a grassy field on an early Saturday morning thinking I’m just having fun when in actuality I was taking in and absorbing lessons which would help me in my life 20, 30 and 40 years down the line.

Below are just a few ways youth sports help develop a young energetic child into a strong willed startup founder.  I thank John Cook of GeekWire for the conversation that sparked these thoughts.


One of the first things you learn as a young athlete is how to play as a team and how to become the best teammate possible.  No soccer team can win with one person trying to play alone – teams must be able to depend on their offensive players, their defensive players and ultimately their goalie to perform to their best ability.  Players must be willing to step up and take the shot, yet at the same time be able to support and assist their other teammates if the organization is going to function properly.  This requires youth to understand which is which, and the appropriate timing of each decision.

Companies are the same way, they aren’t built by one person. Startup teams must be well rounded, supportive and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve success – for all members of the team.  That, or the team won’t exist.


Even at the earliest of ages sports teams will vote on a player to become captain, basically naming the leader of the team.  I believe this is the single best thing we (should continue to) do for our youth.  Captains are usually the more talented of players, have wide ranging experience and are outgoing and not shy in their ways with others.  But most importantly they are willing to take on responsibility.  They must lead the team, delegate when appropriate and stand up for a teammate if something goes wrong.

I believe giving responsibility as early as possible is one of the best ways to develop great leaders.

Imagine the lessons a 10 year old is learning as they lead their team during youth competition.  He/she is learning the basic tenants of team leadership, things they can apply to almost any endeavor.  In short, they are the on-field CEO and the success or failure of the team will rest (at least somewhat) on their young shoulders.

I cover startup leadership quite a bit so if you are a regular reader you will know my basic thoughts on the subject.  Simply put, startup CEO’s need to take full responsibility for their organization from day one.  They must wear the captain’s band on their sleeve in plain view so everyone knows where the buck stops.  This is not for their ego; it’s for efficient and effective organizational structure.  Why should an employee ask 3 people a question when really they should go directly to the decision maker to get the best and quickest response?  If employees in a startup don’t know who the decision maker actually is, whatever startup they are a part of ain’t gonna be around very long.


I get it, losing is not why we play the game.   Go visit a sports park on a weekend and watch how kids react to losing nowadays.  Yet losing in sports – just as in life – happens.  It actually happens a lot.  Learning to fail gracefully is a huge lesson any person, especially for someone thinking about starting their own company.

Why am I telling you failing is good for children?  Failing, maybe even getting injured  in the process, and then getting back up and trying again shows young athletes that if you do not quit then each new day is a new opportunity to win.  Losing teaches children not everything in life is guaranteed.  In fact, it teaches us more often than not things will not go as originally planned.  Sometimes shit hits the fan and you need to retreat and regroup to determine your next move.  There’s your basic “strategic thinking” lesson in action, a skill founders must employ A LOT.  Losing teaches youth hard work is required to experience success against your competitors.

This is essentially the experience of any early stage founder.  Startups fail most of the time.  Using lessons from our youth we can realize we just need to get back up and try it again, and hopefully we learn something in the process.

Enduring Hard Work

Finally, part of learning from failing is gaining the endurance to last long enough so we can experience success.  I distinctly remember our training sessions during soccer season.  They sucked.  Even if we weren’t going to be the best in the state of Washington (which we were 3 out of 4 years) we were definitely going to be the most in shape.  Coach made it very clear we would be the team with the best endurance around.

So we ran.  A lot.  We ran until we dropped, and then we ran some more.  We learned to embrace hard work and earn our success.  We learned anything worth winning was worth enduring tough challenges and the hardest of practices.  It was our standard and we embraced it wholeheartedly.  We spoke it.  We lived it.  We practiced it and we played it.  No wonder we won the state championship 3 out of 4 years I was on the team.  It was in our our DNA and our blood.

Startup founders need to take ownership of their future.  They simply need to determine where they are going, commit to a standard and uphold it no matter the cost.  They need to bleed confidence to the point where their success is inevitable.  They need to work harder than their competition.  This doesn’t mean work the most hours as humanly possible, that would be as dumb as our soccer coach running us until we all pulled hamstrings, eliminating us from competition completely.  Startups must figure out how to work harder but also work smarter.   Determining and following quality performance standards will do wonders to founders and their startup teams.

Youth sports are fun but they are also incredibly valuable to our society.  If you are a parent I would encourage you to place your children in a positive environment where they can develop leadership and success skills as early as possible.

Just like you.

The Best Example Of Leadership I Have Ever Heard Comes From Bill Campbell

This is one of the best examples of leadership I have ever heard, given from Bill Campbell.  He was/is an executive coach to individuals such as Steve Jobs, the Google Founders (and many more) as well as Chairman of the board at Intuit.

A man asks a question late in the interview around how leaders should traverse the unstable landscape between political issues within their company.  Bill’s answer is spot on.

“As a CEO, your job is to break ties within the company, and if you cannot see where the ties are within your organization – then you shouldn’t be there.  You need to get to the bottom of it ASAP.”

Watch the clip at the 56:00 mark and if you have time watch the entire hour long interview.