Carpe diem

First published on BizCampBelfast 2010-08-02

In high schools everywhere the graduating class elect a valedictorian to speak on the class’s behalf about their dreams and aspirations for their future. It is a great honor, it often changes the chosen speaker in quite profound ways, and often starts them on a journey of leadership. maybe you were your schools valedictorian? Whilst many of these speeches follow familiar themes, world peace, elimination of disease and hunger, the one thing they always come back to is living up to your potential. Though less well known in the UK, the Latin phrase Carpe Diem, “seize the day”, finds itself in almost all of these graduation speeches. Everyone expects it, some even count occurrences as a drinking game (!), but few hear it.

In the last few days, in one of those strange, serendipitous confluences of incidents that all line up to tell us something we needed to hear I have been reminded of what it means to be an entrepreneur. I’ve been rereading, actually listening to, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers book about what it takes to be a leader. At the same time as I have been traveling I have been keeping up with podcasts and a thought provoking one from Cameron Herold on teaching kids to be entrepreneurs was in my queue. My daughter is applying for a job and the interview has required her to prepare a 15 minute presentation on Picasso: when I saw her briefly at the weekend she was busy preparing. I met with two very successful entrepreneurs last week: one was setting up a service to train CEO’s to overturn thinking in their companies, the other debating if email is really the answer and wondering if there is a better email than email. And for myself I have been thinking about what is next in tech too in preparation for a talk I am giving tonight at the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.

All of these threads have led me to the obvious conclusion that we have to have goals, ambitions, dreams but also to the not so obvious conclusion that those who achieve them, those who succeed are those that seize the day. It may be simplistic to say this, but if you want something badly enough you have to work to get it.

For those of you who are feeling daunted by the impossibility of getting your dream started I’d like to tell you the 10 most important things I have learned along the way.

  1. Dream big: the thing about dreams that we achieve is that it makes us stop achieving. Let your reach exceed your grasp, always be striving for more
  2. Choose: procrastination kills dreams. You have to make decisions in business so start making them now. The more you practice making decisions the easier it will become. Each time you are faced with a choice:  ask yourself “Which option brings me closer to my dream?”
  3. Accept failures: you are going to make some bad choices, far fewer than the brilliant ones you make – you’ll have to trust me on this, but you are going to have failures. Learn from them, analyze them, dissect them. Being on a winning team is fun but you never learn anything. Losing from time to time gives you something to work on – so work on it.
  4. Trust your gut: if your employee, your partner, your accountant says everything is “OK” but you don’t think it is – trust your gut. Get them to prove it to you. And if you’re still not convinced go with your gut. You are the boss – you get the right to make the decisions, even the wrong decisions.
  5. Hire the right people: there is no more important skill than this. Get good people. Hire people who are smarter than you, who are different from you, who will challenge and question you. Hire people who do not need to me managed, who share your beliefs about customers, service, quality. First impressions matter – so trust your gut again.
  6. Empower your people: your employees are the key to your success. You can’t do it all. Trust them, enable them to take more responsibility, to improve the business. Let them become entrepreneurs inside your business.
  7. Reward your people: when they do good work, praise them. Reward them when times are good and they’ll stick with you, at reduced pay, when times are bad. Recognition costs nothing but changes how a person feels about themselves. In your newsletter single out the great job done by the kid in the warehouse – he’ll take it home and show his mum and his girlfriend – and he’ll come back next day and work even smarter.
  8. Set clear expectations: don’t accept what you can’t accept. If you hate lateness – make it clear before day 1. If you hate untidiness – make it clear. Don’t think you can’t ask for the things you expect. But always remember you have to hold yourself to the same standards or higher.
  9. Deal with it now: if it isn’t right deal with it now. If you have to terminate someone do it now. If you have to redo some work for a client – do it now. Make it clear to everyone that you have high standards and that if they are not met you deal with them there and then. No recriminations, no blame, just an opportunity to get it right and for everyone to learn.
  10. Have fun: and never forget the reason you are doing this is – whatever that reason is. Come to work smiling and go home smiling.

And if you can do all of this, the remarkable change you will find in yourself, the Empowering Change you are creating for you, will bring you to a point, a few decades from now, when you’ll be able to say I achieved something, I seized the day and made a difference.

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