Luck v. Skill

I really like the podcast How I Built This, on which Guy Raz interviews entrepreneurs about the businesses they have built. At the end of most of the interviews he asks each entrepreneur how much of their success they attribute to luck and how much they attribute to skill. The answers can be interesting, but it always makes me apply the same question to my business and those of my clients. Since first listening to that podcast in the last few years I have been known to pose the same question to my clients and professional contacts.

For me, and for most of the people I have asked, I believe it’s a combination of both. I include timing as part of luck, because most times there is nothing you can pin a chance meeting or conversation on.

An example is when, many years ago, I interviewed at a law firm where a partner there asked me for references. In addition to asking for the usual type of references we generally know will say how great we are – otherwise why would we be using those people as references? – they asked for an adverse reference. I never had been asked that question and thought of an attorney who had been very complementary after being adverse to me in my first trial. The end result was that the formerly adverse attorney, after giving me a great adverse reference, asked me to come work at the firm where she was then employed. I accepted that offer.

If Law Firm A hadn’t asked for an adverse reference I never would have had the opportunity with Law Firm B. Additionally, the timing of this occurring was at a point in time when Law Firm B was interested in hiring someone with my background and skills.

Without those skills, the serendipitous timing wouldn’t have mattered. My skills allowed the opportunity to advance to a job offer and to succeed in that new position.

The point is that business and life are an amazing combination of luck and skill. You need to take the time to hone your skills in you chosen line of work. As you move forward you need to be open to luck and timing. This could be a job opportunity like I had, or a chance connection with a new client with really interesting work for you to do.

If any of you have a great story on the intersection of luck and skill, I would like to hear about it.

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Feedback is important

It is important to provide people with feedback in the workplace. Feedback should be positive or in the form of constructive criticism. Purely negative feedback accomplishes nothing and is the sign of a poor corporate culture.

If you are providing positive feedback, make it meaningful. You should praise someone’s work or actions when it’s really deserved and you mean what you say. Being overly complimentary all of the time won’t help morale or people improve in the long run.

In our participation trophy world, praise can be handed out too much and in situations where it’s not warranted. Don’t give positive feedback when it isn’t deserved. If you do it only will cause problems down the road.

In a similar vein, people withhold praise when it would provide validation for an employee who did a good job and deserves it. I know it can be hard to always know how complimentary to be or when to provide some constructive criticism. The better you know the person the easier it should be to know how and when to provide feedback.

If you start thinking about providing feedback more often you likely can find the balance in trying to provide the right amount of feedback to your co-workers. Try it and see the positive effect it can have on you and your workplace.

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Try new things and hold yourself accountable

It’s the first full week of a new year. I hadn’t decided what to write about when I saw a great quote from Anthony Bourdain. The last part of the quote caught my attention. He said “Open your mind. Get up off the couch. Move.”

Given his television show and how he lived his live, he may be referring to traveling and new experiences. I read the quote expansively. I read it to say to be active and try new things.

These are both good ideas. Being active is good for your body and mind. Don’t be a couch potato. You miss out on so much if you are, other than possibly some additional TV time.

If you haven’t been active in a while, start by taking a short walk. What you do should be dictated by your current level of activity, or inactivity. It’s okay to start slow and it will give you a better chance to stay active consistently.

When you are trying new things, whether exercise or something new in your work, accountability may help. Accountability partners help to keep you honest on how your new activity is going. It can be good to include your accountability partner in your new activity or work strategy. They can help you stick with it when you might otherwise give up.

It’s up to you if you want to call a new activity a “resolution” or not. The goal is long term change, so call it whatever helps you keep that in mind.

I also like the idea of traveling and new experiences. If you go on a great adventure in 2019. Please let me know because I always like ideas of places to go and people to meet!

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The 2018 version of why it’s time for an annual “checkup” for you and, if you have one, your company

Over the past few years many of you probably read my blog regarding having a checkup for you and, if you have one, your business. This does not involve the doctor, but it does involve all the other professionals in your personal and business life. Since that time, I decided to make this topic an annual tradition. This is based in part on the range of feedback I receive every year.

Some of you said “What a great idea. I am definitely going to do that.” Other said “Sounds like a good idea, maybe I will look into that.” Most of you were busy with the holidays and all that they entail, and probably ignored my advice. To be honest, any of these responses is okay and ignoring my advice may not have had detrimental effects to you or your business.

The point of the advice is that you only know what you know. If you do not check in with your professionals and, for example, make sure contracts or your estate plan remain enforceable and up-to-date, that is where risk comes in. For example, I always check in with my accountant at the end of the year to ensure that all is right with taxes.

In 2016 I had a reminder related to a different item you should check in on annually, auto insurance. We had two teenagers on our policy and a number of vehicles, and the premiums always seemed so high to me. But my insurance person knows me and shops the policy every year looking for the best rates rates for policies with similar coverage from quality insurers. He did that for me at the end of 2016 and we ended up with a new insurer, with pretty significant savings.

With the time constraints of life, it is sometimes hard for me to move beyond the higher-level checkup, but when I do I usually end up with some benefit. Unfortunately, in our time-crunched world, the question of who to check in with at year end is expansive, from your estate planning attorney, to your investment person, to your insurance person, to vendors you may use such as a yard or pool maintenance company, or your cell phone carrier or your Internet provider. You may be surprised what a company will do in lowering monthly costs to satisfy a current or longtime customer. Try it and see what happens. A good one to start with is your cable or satellite television provider (assuming you haven’t cut the cable).

I know, I know, who has the time? None of us do, which is why the choices are yours. Are your contracts up to date? Did you pay enough estimated taxes or withholding? Are you paying the cleaning service at your office or your lawn service for your home too much? The choice of what professionals to consult, what costs to check or compare, and what services to put out to bid is yours. Choose wisely!

And for those of you seeking a reminder or who did not see it in years past, here is my original blog post on getting an annual checkup:

The end of the year is always a good time to take stock of where you are personally and professionally. This can be checking in with your personal accountant to make sure you have withheld/paid enough taxes during the year or planning for deductions to planning for large corporate expenditures on things such as upcoming projects, planned corporate initiatives or planned equipment purchases. But the one thing that is a constant is that we all should be doing this.

In the past I have mentioned why it is good to sit down with various professionals you or your company work with just to check-in, be they attorneys, accountants, insurance professionals, financial planners, investment professionals, etc. The list depends on you and your business.

This does not have to be a formal appointment unless you think that is appropriate depending on the nature of the planned conversation. Instead, it can be you offering to buy them lunch or a drink. The point is the better the professionals you work with know you, the more they are able to make recommendations aimed to benefit you or your company.

So don’t wait, start making plans today to meet with these people this year, or at least first thing next year. We all are busy this time of year, but if you take these actions it will help you now and in the future.

Happy Holidays!

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Success

As we head into the end of the year it is a good time to reflect on the past year and plan for the coming year. Was your 2018 a success? If not, will you have goals and a plan in place to try to reach those goals for 2019? Whether or not your year was success, have you ever thought about how you define success?

We all look at success differently. For one person it may be to earn the most money they can. For another it may be to do the best job they can every day they are working.  For yet another it may be to positively impact the most lives they can. Your definition of success depends on you.

The great college basketball coach John Wooden looked at success more about competing with yourself than someone else. I think this is a good point. You may set goals that, if reached, will result in you doing better in some manner than someone else. How you define the goal is the difference.

For an attorney a goal may be about billing a certain number of hours or bringing a certain amount of money. This type of goal can be written in terms of what you will do, i.e. I will bill 1800 hours next year or it can be I will bill more hours than any other partner at my firm next year. Which goal will motivate someone to work harder depends on the person. When I set these types of goals I focus on what I want to do, but not how that will measure up to what others I work with will do.

So as the sun sets on 2018, take time write down goals. When you do, think about how you will measure success. There is no wrong answer. Plus, if you write down your goals, there is a much better chance you will reach them.

I will leave you with a quote from Richard Branson, who equates success with personal fulfillment:

“Too many people measure how successful they are by how much money they make or the people they associate with. In my opinion, true success should be measured by how happy you are.”

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Consistency and organization matter

Consistency and organization matter. The idea is to have a plan and put it into place. What that plan is and how you put it into place will be different depending on you, your business and how you like to work.

For instance, I use a hand written to do list, but also rely on calendaring and tasks in Outlook. This can result in redundancy, but with some of the types of deadlines I am dealing with, I like that.

Others I know block out certain times in their day for specific activities. This can include blocking out a block of time to review email, and not constantly monitor it. At times, I do something similar in part by blocking out time for specific projects that may take longer and on which I need to really focus.

Also, for me, this is an evolving process. I am always looking at how I can better plan and be better organized. It is very important in my day because many times I am working on a significant number of legal matters during the same day, which can negatively affect my focus if I’m not careful.

Think about how you plan your day to work on or be in touch with the projects and people you want and need to. Then think about how we can plan to be better organized to do so. Last, share the insights that work for you with others and pass it on.

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Don’t limit your imagination

The only person who can limit your imagination is you. What I mean is that if you think there are limits regarding what you can do or accomplish you will encounter self-created self-fulfilling prophesies. If you think about this you will know it’s true.

Negative thinking stops positive momentum. It doesn’t matter whether it’s me thinking I can’t do better than my opposing counsel at trial or a running back thinking he can’t get past the other team’s defensive line. If you approach a situation thinking you can’t, you won’t. Of course the opposite isn’t the same because if you think you can, you might, but you certainly will have a better chance of being successful.

It is better to be like The Little Engine That Could (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TPUwrURo6M) than thinking the challenge ahead of you is impossible. The Little Engine said “I think I can, I think I can” and, what do you know – spoiler alert – it pulled that long train over that steep mountain.

Next time you have a similar type of challenge, tell yourself you can do it, and give yourself a better chance for success.

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Show gratitude always

We are a week out from Thanksgiving. This is a good time of year to think of gratitude generally and what you are thankful for specifically. At the same time, it’s a great time of year to spread good feelings, which you can do by letting others know when you appreciate something they have done for you.

Those of you who have younger children (or older ones…) know that you end up reminding them to say “thank you” all of the time. That is because thanking someone or showing gratitude is a learned behavior. If it came naturally or from observing others we wouldn’t have to teach children to do so.

Hopefully you remember to thank people as appropriate in your daily life. In my day, this can be thanking someone holding the door for me when I get to my office, for holding the elevator for me, or for making a pot of hot water so I can have tea and get that needed caffeine injection upon arriving for work. Many of these situations are universal to all of us, but I notice when I hold a door for someone and they walk through without saying anything.

Of course, if you go through your day looking for when people should be thanking you, you likely will be disappointed. Instead, I think about how I want to come across to others, as well as ways I don’t want to come across to others.

We all have bad days, but most days we should recognize when thanking someone is proper and appropriate. Plus, it has the added bonus of making you or the other person feel good, making it a great way to go through life.

 

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Sit down and work

Many people wait for inspiration to strike them before doing something, whether it be work related or writing a novel. Those same people stop working once their inspiration wanes. It’s as if they are waiting for everything to be perfect, from how they are feeling, to the time of day, to whether the moon is full. You get the idea. The more hurdles they create for the timing to be right to get down to work, the less likely it is they will get much, if anything, done.

If you just take the physical act of sitting down and starting to work you have a significantly better chance to get your work done. It also helps if you cut out distractions. For instance, do not check your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. when you sit down, as it only delays getting to work. If you have a big or special project, sitting down at whatever time of day is the time of day you work best, without distractions, will get you on the road to completing your project.

Like most things, if you make this your routine, you will find you knock out important work when you are fresh and ready to work. It also will help you meet the expectations of those you work with and for. Plus, you don’t need to worry, your email and social media will be there waiting for you when you finish that project.

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Do you have character?

Have you ever thought about this? Even if you have, how would you know? I once read a quote that said “the difference between the ways a person treats the powerless and the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.” The quote is from Robert I. Sutton, who is a professor at Stanford.

The quote reminds me of my first employer after law school and someone whose lessons still resonate with me today. This individual was nice and respectful to everyone, whether they were powerful (think federal judges) or powerless (think the janitors or security people at the courthouse). Watching these interactions as a young professional had a profound effect on me. Now, in hindsight, I think it helped build my character and in turn, be a better person.

A corollary to the idea of how you treat different people can be seen in business organizations. In some businesses, people are allowed to get away with abusing people, especially if they are “stars,” and may even be rewarded for trampling people on their way up. Other businesses won’t tolerate this type of behavior no matter how successful and profitable the bad actor is.

Think about what is acceptable or not at your place of employment. Is the culture one that is built on people having character and treating people well? Or is the culture one where everyone is out for themselves and character doesn’t matter? We are all different, so you may not be concerned with whether someone like me would think you and those around you have character.

On the other hand, I would like to believe that most of us think having character is important. The positives that comes from having character are endless. The next time you have an opportunity to speak with the janitor at your office, do so. It’s the sort of thing that people of character do, and it will reflect well on you even if you are the only one who knows the conversation happened.

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