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Appreciate What You’ve Got—and Kill Your Fear!
Today is an incredible time to be alive. Opportunity is everywhere, and people have so much. There’s never been a more level playing field, thanks to the Internet. Today anyone who can afford a cell phone has access to the Internet, and we all know that the Internet is crammed with knowledge, and that knowledge is power.
Access to knowledge is this century’s revolution. Think about it. Back in the day, the expense of education was always a barrier to a better life, but now facts are free. If you don’t know how to do something—literally anything, whether it’s code or design a website, learn Mandarin, master the flute, or anything else—you can just go to the Internet and teach yourself or be taught by someone halfway around the world.
Today you don’t even need a college education to be successful. Yes, college degrees are good, but today most employers care more about skills than degrees. On top of skills, smart employers care about drive, motivation, and balls—they’re looking for skilled people with bold goals and ambitions, and the courage to go out and make them real. Sure, the world isn’t perfect. And of course there are people with less access to opportunity than others. But in general, we are all surrounded by far more opportunities than ever before. It’s impossible not to feel grateful.
So how did I come to develop such an optimistic view of the world? Here’s the background. My dad grew up in a mud hut in China. His family struggled but was land-rich—certainly compared to everybody else. Then along came the Communists, and suddenly successful people who’d created something of value were considered enemies of the state. So he escaped to Hong Kong in the bottom of a fishing boat when he was five years old and grew up penniless, but he felt lucky to have the chance for a good life.
That’s how I felt too, growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, far from the lap of luxury, hearing stories from my mother and father about how they didn’t know that rice was white or tomatoes were red until shortly before they came to Canada as young adults—because they’d been too poor to afford anything but brown rice and too poor to be able to wait for a tomato to ripen before they ate it.
They were tireless and courageous, never took the easy way out, and succeeded professionally while raising a happy family. And now they appreciate every single thing they have.
So which came first: enough courage to create a life worthy of appreciation, or enough appreciation of life to have the daring that success demands?
I think attitude comes first. A positive attitude breeds success even more than success breeds a positive attitude—and in my opinion that’s especially true when it comes to succeeding as an entrepreneur.
A law of behavioral psychology says that you can’t be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time, and since the most successful of entrepreneurs are almost fearless, they must have the ability to appreciate what they’ve got, the ability to be grateful to be doing something interesting and fun.
When you’re having fun, when you appreciate the things you have, you stop worrying about success and failure. This cool part of a Rudyard Kipling poem said it best: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; / If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same . . . Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”
But, first, of course, you’ve got to have some balls. If you want to pursue your passions, you have to throw caution to the wind and take some risks.
I can speak from personal experience here. I came from an essentially unremarkable, middle-class background and had a business degree, but no fancy skills or credentials: no MBA, no specialized training in banking, advertising, or anything else.
But I have always been pretty fearless, which is why I had the initiative—at the ridiculously young age of nineteen—to jump into an industry that was gorged with incumbents, many of them huge, multinational advertising corporations, and many of whom had been in business since long before I was even born. And it’s why I had the balls to propose an entirely new concept in advertising.
It came from a simple concept: People don’t like ads. So why not create something they actually like?
Taking inspiration from the world of gaming, I thought what if, instead of just serving up annoying mobile ads that people would simply click away or ignore, we connected people with advertisers by offering them a free gift—like a moment of achievement in gaming when say, they leveled up or beat the boss? We later expanded that to other moments of achievement: for example, rewarding people serendipitously when they logged a run in their running app, or crossed off a to-do in their to-do list app. It was a radical concept, but what did I have to lose by trying to make it work? Nothing!
This fearlessness was the same attitude that drove my decision to skip four grades between kindergarten and high school and enroll in the University of British Columbia at age fourteen—a full four years ahead of my peers. Why did I do such a seemingly crazy thing? In the end, it all came back to fearless ambition. I felt ready to get out of school early and into the world and make things happen, rather than spend four more years sitting in a classroom—so I found a way to make that a reality. What did I have to lose then? Nothing! If it didn’t work, I was just back where I started.
But it did work, and in a big way.
And along the way I discovered that success isn’t about IQ. It’s not about academic pedigree. It’s not about who you know. It’s not about the money you have behind you.
It’s about you.
It’s about you throwing caution to the wind, working your ass off, and having fun while you do it. It’s about getting out there and acting like you’ve got nothing to lose.
Fuck fear. It’s irrelevant, and it’s the one great penalty that is completely self-imposed.
Steve Jobs once said: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
So don’t be afraid of what you can’t do. Appreciate what you’ve got—which is, by the way, more than most people have had since the dawn of civilization—and go from there. No matter what your dreams are, or what job or industry you’re in, you’ve got an incredible opportunity at your fingertips. Let go of your fear, and instead reach for the stars.
Get In Over Your Head
They say that the best way to learn to swim is to jump into the deep end—as long as there’s a lifeguard on duty, that is.
It’s better than having somebody throw you in. Unfortunately, not everybody in the business world recognizes this. In the days when soft-drink maker PepsiCo was a notoriously tough company to work for, its unofficial motto was “There’s no lifeguard at the Pepsi pool,” with the corollary “What do they throw you if you’re drowning in the Pepsi pool? A rock.” In other words, the philosophy for how to succeed at many companies used to be “sink or swim.”
Most employers don’t celebrate that gratuitously hard-ass attitude these days, but the truth is that in today’s competitive landscape, if you don’t jump in over your head every once in a while, you’ll probably be at a disadvantage, because whoever hired you expects you to learn new things every day. At least you hope they do, because the description of a job that carries no challenge whatsoever is “dead end.”
If you can do everything in your job without struggling, not only will you get stuck in your slot but you’ll never flex your mind muscles, and pretty soon they’ll start to atrophy.
This lesson came early for me, because I was four years younger than my brother, who’s not only very smart but extremely likable, people-oriented, and much more extroverted than me. So to hang out with him, I had to stretch myself to act older than my age, learn from him and his friends, and show some maturity.
I learned the same lesson at about the same time at school, when I skipped a couple of grades. Going to class every day with kids several years older than me pushed me not just socially but mentally. I got to be very comfortable with the feeling of “What the hell is going on here?” because the answer was always “Whatever it is, it’s pretty awesome, because I’m now learning things I didn’t even know existed.”
I became a member of the Fake It Till You Make It club, which is a Cheat in and of itself. It’s a constant reminder: “Dude, you really are in over your head—whether you’re fooling people or not—so keep your eyes open and your mouth (as best you can) shut, and just say yes to every opportunity you get.” It’ll be a constant learning experience, even if that means you sometimes have to flail around in the deep end.
You learn humility from that, and humility is the best possible trait for being in situations where you’re in over your head. It’s disarming and authentic, and so it will serve you just as well in the opposite situation. Even if you get to be a CEO, you’ll still walk into a room with the attitude of “You guys are all so much smarter than me—that’s why you’re here, so I’ll just toss out a couple of ideas.” People love that. Who doesn’t love respect? The best leaders don’t just fake it till they make it; they fake it after they make it, but in the other direction.
For me, starting Kiip was a stretch, like jumping off a cliff and growing wings while you’re falling—which is like entrepreneurship in general. I was not at that point an advertising professional, and I had no clue whether the idea I had—associating ads with rewards—would work, since at the time it didn’t even exist.
We soon found ourselves playing ball with huge advertisers—like P&G, Unilever, and McDonald’s—that were spending their money on mega-brands such as Apple’s iAd and of course Google. But we jumped in with confidence. We said, “We’ve got a better way,” and people took us seriously. Part of the cheat of jumping into the deep end is that people naturally assume you should be there, because you are.
Part of the reason we were confident was that we were letting our passion for our idea lead the way. We knew something was wrong in the whole universe of advertising (no one ever intentionally taps on banner ads on their mobile devices), and we wanted to fix it.
If you can find a universal problem, you can usually get universal buy-in to fix it. It’s like if I say, “Oh, I’m going to fix traffic jams.” There’s not a human being in the world who would go, “Don’t bother—I like getting stuck in traffic.”
So I went into sales meetings with these major companies with a genuine belief in what we were doing, and it helped generate the major advertisers’ initial buy-ins. I went in there with the total belief that our product could solve a problem they all had: Nobody wanted to click on their ads.
I could have gone in there intimidated, but why? When I jump in over my head, I expect to be challenged. That’s why I do it.
If you jump in over your head, before you know it, you’ll learn to swim.
Then you can jump in again, where the water’s even deeper.
Go Balls-to-the-Wall—But Only When It Counts
The number-one thing I told myself before I started Kiip was, “I don’t want to have any regrets. Ever.” That’s why I go balls-to-the-walls on all the important things I do. Of course, I can’t completely control the outcome of everything, so sure, some things fail. But that’s okay! In fact, if you’re not failing on occasion, you’re not aiming high enough.
When I fail after going all out, it doesn’t feel like failure at all. It feels like an education. Regret comes only when you don’t throw everything at your target. That’s when you hear the ugly little voice saying, “What went wrong?”
Here’s what went wrong: you.
You probably won’t get a do-over either, because if you did a half-assed job on something, whoever gave you the opportunity to do it probably won’t let you do it again. Or do anything else for them.
As I’ve said: Projects fail, people don’t. More precisely, successful people don’t, even when their projects don’t pan out.
This begs a question: How does somebody live a 24/7 balls-to-the-wall lifestyle?
You don’t. If you try to blast through life 24/7 like a rat in heat, you’ll spontaneously combust so badly they’ll need dental records to find out who you were.
I learned after my first couple of spontaneous combustions that I can’t be this ridiculous guy who’s on all the time, as everybody around me staggers to a halt and says, “Brian, how can you be so fucking energetic?” I learned (the hard way) that I can’t afford to be that way. It’s not sustainable.
Nobody is Superman. Not even Superman, because he’s Clark Kent half the time. Think about it. If even Superman can’t fire on all cylinders all the time, we mere mortals sure as hell can’t.
Even so, people in high-rolling companies want their leaders to be superhuman, to be on all the time. They think it ignites everybody’s confidence. That’s human nature. Of course, to be a great leader you need to be able to stand up and kill it in an auditorium, or in a boardroom, or in your own office with your team. You’ve got to give a great performance—and not just an act, because there’s a big difference between a performance and an act. A performance is when you’re totally on top of your game, and an act is when you’re pretending to be.
You need to, as I’ve said elsewhere, intentionally aim for excellence in moments that truly matter.
But then after your gig—and after the afterparty, and then after the after-afterparty, where the big things happen—you need to aim for moments of being a complete fucking sloth. A slacker. A slug. The kind of person who presses snooze—a couple of times, even—when the alarm goes off.