By Dr. John Eliot
"There is no such thing as too much confidence."
- Dr. Bob Rotella
I agree. In fact, as a very confident protégé of Rotella’s, I would go even farther and say that great performers require a measure of confidence that would strike many as absurd,
unfounded, in fact, downright irrational. They believe in themselves utterly without question – even when everyone else is questioning how good (or sane) they are.
How confident is that? This confident: Rolling into Tallahassee, Florida for pre-season football camp as an undersized, unproven freshman entering Florida State University’s national powerhouse program – with “PRIME TIME” emblazoned on your license plate. That’s what Deion Sanders did in 1985. He had been a left-handed option quarterback in high school but switched to defense in his first year in college because, as he announced to teammates, “I want to be special. Anyone can play quarterback!” Deion insisted that the team create a special poster featuring Deion to be sold at games. Before the opposing team punted, he’d walk over to their bench to warn them that he was going to return the punt for a touchdown – and he’d dare to do that in the opposition’s home stadium!
In 1989, The Atlanta Falcons selected Sanders high in the first round of the NFL draft, offering him $400,000. “That’s nice,” responded Deion, “but I’m worth way more than that. You’re going to have to pay me $11 million.” And by the way, he was already playing baseball for the New York Yankees. Drafted by the Yankees in 1988, Deion held out of the NFL draft so he could give college baseball a try. His “hobby” generated a record number of stolen bases, a trip to the College World Series for Florida State, and a pro contract. Did I mention that in college Deion also ran track when he had the time? He won an NCAA 400 meter relay event – wearing a pair of baseball pants – because he had a spare 15 minutes between games of a doubleheader. Deion hustled back for the start of the second game and proceeded to knock in the winning run.
The Falcons were dumbfounded by Deion’s ridiculous salary demand. In the history of the NFL, no defensive back had ever signed for a million dollars, and here was this kid, barely 21 years old, who had never played a second in the National Football League, demanding eleven – “to make it fair.” The Falcons refused. But Deion knew he was better than the average wage. He was also busy thinking about making the jump to Yankee Stadium, which he pulled off after fewer than 100 games in the minor leagues – while winning no fans in the New York media by announcing “Football is what I love; baseball is my girlfriend.” By the end of baseball season, the Falcon’s finally gave Deion a $4.4 million deal, short of the eleven mil. he had asked for but still the highest salary every paid to a defensive player.
Pretty outrageous, no? Surely, the definition of “sheer arrogance.” The press certainly thought so. They ripped him for not being well conditioned, insisted that no athlete could be in both football and baseball shape at the same time; and they accused him of dogging it in both of his occupations, deriding Deion relentlessly for avoiding tackles and striking out against good pitching. They all laughed at the self-annointed “Neon” Deion – who proceeded to run back a punt for a 68 yard touchdown just five minutes into his first professional game, win Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, start in the Pro Bowl every year, lead the Major Leagues in stolen bases, and hit over .500 in the World Series. Deion Sanders is the only player to hit a homerun and score a touchdown in the same week. He’s the only person to have suited up for a professional baseball and professional football game on the same day. He holds the NFL record of running back 14 interceptions for TDs, and he averaged 16.9 yards every time he possessed the ball. For 12 years, Deion’s high-wattage personality, and daily confidence level that seemed to be stuck at “irrational,” nettled management – especially his insistence that he should be playing every second of every game, offense and defense – and drove headline writers to overkill. Deion – well, Deion remained Deion, and he certainly didn’t give a damn about what a bunch of over-weight sports columnists thought of his mental health. He knew what he was going to accomplish. “When I get the ball, I’m taking it to the house, thinking about scoring every time I touch the ball.”
Deion retired in 2001 and soon made a deal with CBS Sports to do commentary as part of their football broadcasting team. Even his biggest critics saw the wisdom in CBS’s choice: Deion, who still carried his teenage nickname “Primetime,” had the perfect mindset to be in front of a camera. But when Deion announced in late 2003 that his latest dream was to be the coach of his old team, the Atlanta Falcons, the guns were turned back in his direction. “He can’t do it,” said the critics, pointing out that he had never coached before; “lobbying” for the job was unseemly; it was an insult to the veteran Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, and so on. “I think it would be fun to coach,” replied Deion, and then as if to prove himself an exceptional thinker, he added: “I get disturbed when someone in his right mind tells me I can’t do it.”
Indeed. I’m advising you to aspire to Deion-like levels of confidence. I know, most people are very uncomfortable tooting their own horn. In our culture, it is not considered “good manners” to talk about yourself or brag about your exploits. What about “modesty” or that bogeyman “over-confidence”? What about the age-old principle of “Don’t bite off more than you can chew?” Ignore such warnings; forget being modest. If you’re going to become good at what you do, you have to be confident that you’re going to succeed; you cannot be afraid to “flaunt it”.
“But Deion’s a jerk!” People always say that when I raise his example. He may be a jerk. I don’t know Deion Sanders personally. Though, I have known a couple of his former teammates who talk about him like he is a saint – “the best teammate a guy could ever have.” Regardless, whether their public air is interpreted positively or negatively, accurately or not, truly exceptional (and thus confident) thinkers – in every field – do not worry about such things. Donald Trump surely does not care that many think he’s a bit over the top. Do you think Rupert Murdoch cares what you or anyone else thinks about him – or Ted Turner, George Steinbrenner, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, or Mark Cuban, the outspoken zillionaire dot-commer who owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and has picked up over a million dollars in fines from the NBA for the brash things he’s said? These guys have been hammered in the press for decades for their “arrogance,” “over-confidence,” “over-reaching”; most of them have been attacked as “crazy” if not downright “evil.”
I’m sure you know some extraordinarily successful characters in your own field whose names may not be household words but who could compete with all of the above for the title of “Supreme Jerk.” I will also concede that it is harder to find successful women in this category; talented women seem to have a lot harder time getting away with a Trump-like or Steinbrennerian high-handedness in public. But when they charge ahead after their dream, committed and confident, female overachievers get denounced, too, for being too aggressive, and that other word that begins with a “b” is used a lot, too. (Cf. Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Barbara Walters, Hilary Clinton, and Martha Stewart.)
Genuine confidence is a way of thinking about yourself and your abilities. Confidence is your perception of your own potential; it’s a kind of long-term thinking that powers you through the obstacles and tough times, helping you to solve problems and putting you in the way of success. Your confidence is quite a separate matter from your social skills. I could give you a list of real estate tycoons, for example, known for their low profile or dignified charm in public – who also think Donald Trump is a jerk. But they also know that Trump’s (or any other mogul’s) social skills are irrelevant when a deal is on the table. As much as you may like to be liked, I would advise you to get rid of that concern when you are performing, and work instead on your confidence and exceptional thinking. You might also consider that no matter how nice a person you are, if you are extraordinarily committed, confident, and successful, there will always be someone who will point to you and say, “What a jerk!” The best performers in every field always have a lot of Deion in them, even if the only showing off they do is in their own head.
I am not advising you to take a “positive thinking” seminar. When you are up against a tough competitor, a grueling day, a difficult assignment, you cannot create confidence with some kind of on-the-spot routine such as visualizing a happy ending or telling yourself to “be good” or “be strong” or “stay calm.” Exceptional performers bring confidence with them. They know what they know and go for it. Confidence is a resolute state of mind by which you believe nothing is impossible. “I am the greatest,” proclaimed Muhammad Ali, one of my favorite examples of a supremely confident thinker. Ali used to recite poetry about his prowess in the ring (“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…”); he used his rhymes to call the round in which he would knock out his opponent. Ali boasted, “I’m young, I’m pretty, and I can’t possibly be beat.” America’s taste-makers were appalled by the brash young fighter they called “the Louisville Lip.” But Ali’s image was snatched up by marketers, his poems were extremely clever, and he did become indisputably one of the greatest boxers in history. What bothered people was exactly what made him great – he believed in his success and predicted it – long before he had results to show for it, and against all the odds-makers.
“Over-Confidence”? – No Such Thing
As Deion once said, “Nobody gets paid to be humble.” Elevated levels of confidence are omnipresent among history’s greatest overachievers. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous men in the world even before he signed the Declaration of Independence, once lamented about humility that “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue.” The young naval officer Horatio Nelson knew that as the son of a country parson, his prospects for promotion would be slim in class conscious Great Britain; so he decided to bypass the usual route up the chain of command by becoming a national hero. The crowds that turned out to cheer him after he annihilated Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar were surprised to see a not so heroic looking 5 ft. 6 in. house of bones with one arm and blind in one eye. Historians have noted that no admiral had ever been as decisive and as strategically bold at sea as Nelson.
Artists and writers, too, have been known for the same kind of superstar mentality. Neither Picasso nor James Joyce was celebrated for their modesty. The American poet Robert Lowell raised many literary eyebrows when he compared himself to Milton, and his contemporary, the novelist Norman Mailer, was declared an “egomaniac” for suggesting that he was as good as Hemingway. When the actress Katherine Hepburn once ignored a swarm of autograph hunters, an angry fan yelled at her: “We were the ones who made you!” Hepburn turned around and with fire in her eyes replied, “Like hell you did!” And then hopped into her limo and was driven away. As a young actress starting out, she was cut from several plays. When asked later in her life how she kept going in the face of such public humiliations, Hepburn laughed and said, “I am terribly afraid I just assumed I’d be famous.”
If there were a Nobel Prize for Confidence, there would not be a shortage of business leaders in the running. In his recent book, The Mind of the CEO, Jeffrey Garten, the Dean of the Yale School of Management, recalls the first time he met C. Michael Armstrong, the Chairman and CEO of AT&T. Garten was Undersecretary of Commerce and Armstrong, then the CEO of Hughes Electronics, had just been appointed chairman of President Clinton’s National Export Strategy. Garten and his colleagues at Commerce had spent weeks preparing for this first meeting with Armstrong to help him get started in his new job of gathering information from U.S. business leaders on how to improve U.S. exports policy. Garten and his colleagues were surprised to see Armstrong walk into the conference room without the usual battery of assistants. He shook hands and sat down. Recalls Garten: “I was about to give an overview of the administration’s policies and objectives, but I never had a chance… ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’ he said, in a tone that indicated he was already running and we had better catch up… from the first minute it was his show.” And then there’s Lee Iacocca, who, despite being terminated for public failures at Ford Motor Company, was so certain he could turn Chrysler around that he agreed to an annual base salary of one dollar! “Right up front, tell people what you're going to accomplish and what you're willing to sacrifice to accomplish it,” he said. When Sanford Weil stepped down last year (2003) from his position as CEO of Citigroup, the New York Times described him as “a brash, voluble man with a robust ego.”
Surely the sort of person chosen to run AT&T or GE or Chrysler or Citigroup is likely to have had so much success in their careers that it’s little wonder they are loaded with confidence. It’s an objection I hear often when I lecture about confidence – and it’s wrong. It’s not a chicken versus the egg debate. Confidence precedes success. Sit in pre-season team meetings all around the country and you will hear coaches warn about over-confidence: “Confidence is the result of years of hard work and focused performance,” they preach. But seriously, folks, who would put in all that effort unless they believed they’d come out on top?
One of the drawbacks in our media-saturated world is that we’re always looking at people (and companies) in the glow of their most impressive – and recent – victories. We tend to view confidence as a product of accomplishment rather than part of the process that leads there. But supremely confident people were confident long before they achieved anything. Confidence is not the child of their success, but a major factor in it. Deion Sanders was “primetime” years before he starred on Monday Night Football or in the World Series.
The young Cassius Clay announced he would “whup” anyone (including the kid who stole his bike) even before he started to study boxing in Louisville with policeman Joe Martin, before his gold medal sweep in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and years before he converted to Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Ali or refused to be drafted during the Vietnam war (“I’ve got nothing against those Viet Congs,” Ali explained, logically, annoying millions more American sports fans). Richard Branson, Michael Dell, and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs were confident enough about their abilities to start their businesses as kids, without college degrees. In 1998, after his first appearance on the stand defending Microsoft against widespread charges of monopolistic practices and illegally undercutting the competition, Bill Gates seemed so “arrogant,” according to press reports, that he had to be coached on how to appear more personally appealing in public. Sanford Weil grew a small brokerage firm he helped found in 1960 into the major Wall Street player Shearson Loeb Rhoades, which was acquired by American Express in 1981; he created a second financial empire, again starting with a small Baltimore based financial company, Commerical Credit, and swallowing bigger fish (Primerica, Travelers Insurance, Shearson, Salomon Brothers) which he merged with Citicorp in 1998, creating the new company, Citigroup.
We rarely see such successful people early in they’re careers, moving up, falling down, making mistakes and poor decisions, getting their lunch handed to them. Few people know that starting out at GE as a young man, Jack Welch accidentally blew up a warehouse and was sure he would be fired. Luckily, Welch has reported, his boss was also an exceptional thinker who backed self-confident employees. By the time Sandy Weil stepped down at Citicorp, most people had forgotten that he had been squeezed out as the number two at American Express. Few remember that Steve Jobs was booted out of Apple in 1985, only to return 12 years later to save the company. Donny Deutsch, the Chairman and CEO of a hugely successful New York advertising agency with his name on the door, has conceded for the record that “I’ve always been a guy pegged as having a great ego. But I’ve never met a guy who has built a business who has not had a great ego. If you can’t build your own brand, how do you build brands for people who pay you for it?” Deutsch has boosted such brands as Bank of America, IKEA, Pfizer, Mitsubishi, Coors, and Revlon. But few of his critics or even his fans remember that at the beginning of his advertising career all the evidence suggested that he was in the wrong line of work.
After college Deutsch worked at Oglivy & Mather for six months, where, by his own account, “I was a terrible account executive, I didn’t like it. I was bored.” He left (“They would’ve fired me”), did some traveling, needed some money, went on television’s “The Match Game” and won $5,000. He then went to work at his father’s ad agency. His father fired him. “I wasn’t any good,” concedes Deutsch. But when his father later announced he was going to sell the agency, Deutsch jumped back in because he knew his father didn’t really want to sell. In 1984, he landed his first account for his father’s agency, the Tri-State Pontiac Dealers. To get his foot in the door, Deutsch sent a fender to the Pontiac rep’s house with a note that read, “We’ll cover your rear end.” That deak doubled the agency’s size, and from there on, it was, according to Deutsch, who took over the company from his father in 1992, “a fun ride.”
A major part of the fun came in 2000 when he sold his 87 percent share of the company – Deutsch, New York – to Interpublic for $200 million. Deutsch, whose swagger and black t-shirt cool guy style one might easily mistake for belonging to a professional jock, now has his own show on CNBC. Why the new additional career? “It’s easy to play the game and say ‘I’m good at this, and I’m going to keep playing it,’” he says. “The fun is, the juice is, playing other games, facing other challenges, while recognizing who you are and what your competency is.” After failing twice in advertising jobs, a person might conclude that he was not any good at advertising. Such early stumbles might cause many to lose their confidence. Not Deutsch, who has proved to be one of the most talented pitchmen of his generation (and not shy about agreeing to that label). He just needed to discover – on his own – that what really got him out of bed in the morning, what blew his hair back, was having some fun in the advertising business. The trade press calls him a “wild man,” competitors prefer “yahoo,” but no one disputes his talent for advertising. What sets him apart, says Deutsch, is “the fairy dust” of confidence, and, as if to prove it, Deutsch announced to one publication – with a big laugh, “I can kick the ass of any CEO in advertising.”
Superstars think like superstars long before the fans or the press anoint them. What comes first is the confidence. Deion had it to spare long before he had anything to show for it, and, according to Deutsch’s father, Donny always had confidence, even when he didn’t have a clue how he was going to use it.
Understanding the Science of the Confidence Habit
Confidence is consistency of thinking – thinking about what is possible and how to make it possible. How can you believe in something that has not yet happened? We do it all the time, though usually negatively. Most people tend to let detrimental thoughts and beliefs control them: “I might fail, I might lose. What if I screw up? Yes, I’ve poured myself into this project, done everything in my power to get it right, but what if the boss doesn’t like it?”
To be sure, the future is not knowable, at least in any complete way. Yet the human mind seems wired to demand a complete picture. Gestalt psychology teaches us that a structured whole does not depend on its specific constituents; a drawn figure, for example, will appear complete in our mind and will still have meaning even if the actual representation is lacking or replete with holes. Our mind fills in the blanks based on experience. If you take any sentence in this paragraph and cover up the bottom half of the line of print, you will still be able to read and understand it. Even though your eyes cannot see the entirety of each letter, your brain fills in the gaps. If that sentence were in French and you had never studied the language, your brain would still be able to help you sound out words based on your experience with seeing letters of the alphabet. If it were in Greek, however, with entirely different characters (again assuming you didn’t know how to read Greek), you wouldn’t even be able to sound out the words. Your brain would have no relative information to substitute for the missing data. But when there’s familiarity, the Gestalt phenomenon kicks into gear, matching whatever we see to our experience. Try this experiment: Draw the letter C on a piece of paper, then put another piece of paper on top, covering the open half of the letter. Ask people what they see. If you’ve set it up correctly (so they can’t see through the cover sheet, and so forth) most everyone will say they see the letter O, or a zero, or a circle. Their mind is making up information that is not there!
The brain can be even more creative. If you make up a story with a few major facts, tell it to someone, and then go about your business, when you come back later and ask the person to repeat the whole story, they are likely to add more “facts” than you first gave them. It’s a favorite experiment among cognitive psychologists, particularly those who study eyewitness testimony, that reveals what we call ”False Memory.” If you ask subjects how they know so many details, they are likely to explain that they must’ve read it in the newspaper or heard it from another friend. To justify the added information, they manufacture an explanation. When confronted with the verity that the story was fiction from the beginning, part of a psychological experiment, they insist that they must have heard about the experiment somewhere!
Then there’s the “Waterfall Effect”: When watching a pattern of motion or color for a while, the brain will stick with that pattern even after it has stopped or been changed. The repetitive triggering of perceptual neurons cause activation in the memory areas of the brain which continue to fire after the environmental stimulus ends. By way of our hardwiring, neural signals coming from our memory center override those in the visual or sensory cortex, thus allowing our “habits” of thinking to alter or filter what we actually see, hear, or feel. If, for example, you stare at a grid of red and white checkered squares for a while, and then look at a grid with black and white checkered squares, you will still see red and white, until the brain adjusts with enough neural firing to form a new “memory.” Anyone who has been to the movies has probably experienced the Waterfall Effect when watching the credits roll. We get so used to the rolling letters that even when the credits end and the final, stationary visual pops up (usually the studio trademark) we still have the sensation that the image is moving. The brain is wired for interpretation based on our most common experiences and thoughts. Regardless of the accuracy of the sensory data coming in, because of this filter of experience, we interpret what we’re seeing based on our own set of information and are tenacious in defending our decision.
We can look at our future and potential in a similar way, using confidence as the cognitive filter of choice. Though you cannot predict the result of tomorrow’s big sales meeting with absolute certainty – the client is notoriously difficult and tight-fisted – you have been working hard in preparation for several days and do have a certain amount of reliable information on which to base your expectations. You might know, for example, that the company lacks a resource which your product provides; you know that your product has tested better than anything else on the market. As you play the scene in your mind, the details you’ve been most attentive to are the ones your brain will use to fill in the gaps in the picture of what will happen. It’s up to you what those details are. When you sit in front of a group of potential investors, you cannot know for certain what their ultimate decision will be. Your idea is great, but the history of business is filled with examples of missed opportunities. You can go into that meeting with confidence or not. If you have an appointment with your boss to defend your strategy on a particular deal, you know what you know. How do you feel when you walk into the boss’s office?
It’s up to you. Confidence is about looking at an incomplete circle and filling in the remaining 60 degrees in a way that will give you a better chance to be successful. It’s also about spending enough time looking at circles that when you eyes view an arc, your mind sees a circle. Confidence is not a guarantee of success but a pattern of thinking that will improve your likelihood of success, a tenacious search for ways to make things work. Most people tend to be specialists in projecting “realism,” disappointment, or total disaster. They log in an extraordinary amount of thinking about the things that might go wrong. Most people are not great performers as a result of their intelligence. Great performers don’t get smart; they develop and then rely on their Gestalt-style confidence. But I repeat: it is not something they do on the spot. They don’t suddenly stare at black and white checks and see red. They have been staring at red and white so long, either through training or experience, that they’re geared for red and white, even when presented the darkest of pictures.
Confidence is about Possibilities not Probabilities
When I ask my clients to tell me about their dreams, they often reply by compiling an odds sheet on their careers – as if they were betting on a horse. They’ve clearly put a lot of thought into the chances of a promotion in the near term, landing a big client, becoming a department head in a few years or a senior VP, getting recruited by a better company, maybe eventually becoming a CEO, or starting their own multimillion dollar company. Many people come to me with the purpose of improving their odds. “Who cares about the odds?” I say. “What does that have to do with performance?” The more they stumble trying to explain it to me, the more I see someone who’s either not confident or not excited about the prospect of making their dreams come true.
Most people are not inclined to bet on long-shots. If someone thinks the odds are 20 to 1 that they’ll land a certain account, they are unlikely to bother trying; they certainly won’t pour in every ounce of effort and tie up all their free time. I find that when people translate their goals into probabilities, they tend to look for even money or a 50-50 chance. They’re into safety over happiness. I advise them to stop thinking about the probabilities and start focusing on the possibilities. Exceptional thinkers are turned on by the concepts in their mind and the feelings in their gut, not by ideas based on some external, mathematical prediction. If what juices them might come true – somehow, some way, some day – then they know they’ll have a blast trying to figure out how to make that possibility happen. Whether it does or not is immaterial.
Computing the odds against you is one way to make a rational decision. It’s also a good way to lower your confidence. If there’s something in life you really want, you won’t get it, or experience it, by sitting around doing calculations. By basing your efforts on better criteria than statistical probability, you can save yourself a lot of misery and depression – energy that you can then put into finding ways to make the things you believe in come to fruition. “Why risk your reputation?” is a question exceptional thinkers do not understand. What they hate risking is being complacent, bored, or unfilled. The best in every business are always looking for the next big challenge.
In 1992, when an IBM board member asked Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. if he was interested in running the company, the former CEO of RJR Nabisco and ex-President of American Express passed. IBM’s sales were plummeting, its stock had decreased by 50 percent over the past five years. Gerstner was aware that both the Wall Street Journal and the London Economist had predicted that IBM was on the verge of becoming another late, great American company. After he got his first look at IBM’s current financials and budgets, he saw that the company’s sales and profits were declining too fast for comfort and that its cash position was scary. “On the basis of those documents,” he later recalled, “the odds were no better than one in five that IBM could be saved and [they indicated] that I should never take the position.” But the board was persistent, Gerstner grew intrigued, and the advice of an old friend also caught his attention: “IBM is the job you’ve been training for since you left Harvard Business School. Go for it!” Gerstner agreed; his track record as “a change agent” might be just what the company needed. These were the variables that played into what Gerstner later called “my gluttony for world class challenges.”
To my ears, that’s a superstar talking. Gerstner signed on as CEO of IBM, watched profits decline $800 million over four months, and then refocused the company’s mission. Ignoring critics who warned that IBM would have to be broken up to survive, Gerstner proceeded to buck the conventional wisdom even further by slashing prices on the company’s core (and most profitable) product, mainframe computers. Gerstner even had the self-confidence to say in public, “Computers are magnificent tools, but no machine can replace the human spark.” Ten years later, he had pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in American business history.
Embrace the Unknown
I know it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of superstar athletes and celebrity CEOs who get stoked by hanging it on the line. But I find it a worthwhile imaginative exercise that helps you get inside the heads of exceptional thinkers. They never measure themselves by outcomes; they do not care about how much money they’ve made or even their win-loss record. For athletes, enjoyment happens in the moments of greatest tension: bottom of the ninth down by a run with two outs, a runner in scoring position, and the bat in your hand, or the final two minutes of fourth quarter of the Super Bowl ticking away as you step up to center looking at the NFL’s number one ranked defense standing between you and a championship. Pure success tends to be about creating opportunity and seeing what you can do with it. For great – and supernaturally confident – business leaders like Lou Gerstner or Bill Gates or Donny Deutsch, a new challenge is what keeps their work interesting and, as Deutsch would be quick to add, “fun.” If the outcome were certain, where would be the satisfaction, the excitement, the fun?
Confidence is about ignoring external or other people’s realities in order to believe in yourself and your ability to make great stuff happen. What “great stuff”? Someone has to make it to the Major Leagues, so for thousands of dedicated ball players, the big leagues are a possibility. There are also thousands of CEO positions out there in the market place, so any ambitious executive has the option to imagine himself or herself sitting in the corner office. (Also keep in mind that many of the most successful CEO’s in American business never had the top job before – GE’s Jack Welch and HP’s Carly Fiorina are two who come immediately to mind.)
In the 1950’s when Robert Johnson was in elementary school in Freeport, Illinois, what were the odds that he would become a billionaire? What were the odds that he would become the first African-American billionaire? What was the probability that he would create Black Entertainment Television (BET), the largest black-owned and operated company in the country? Zero probability. In Mississippi, where Johnson was born, black kids still could not go to the same schools as white kids or even drink at the same water fountain. The son of a factory worker and one of ten kids, whose only entrepreneurial experience was a local paper route, such goals were inconceivable to Johnson. But he did dream of going to college and was the only one of his ten siblings to do so. While at the University of Illinois, he dreamed about joining the foreign service and becoming an ambassador. He took the first step by going to Princeton for a masters degree in international affairs and then accepted a job as an aide to Washington D.C.’s congressional delegate.
One night at a party at a neighbor’s house, someone told him that he would make “a good lobbyist for the cable industry.” Johnson admitted to knowing nothing about cable TV, but he took the meeting and got the job as vice president of government relations for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. He quickly learned the business, including how programming could be segmented to a specific audience, which sparked his idea for creating a network aimed at African-Americans. With a $15,000 bank loan and one major investor who loved the idea, Johnson started BET in 1980. Five years later, BET was profitable and growing. In 2001, Viacom bought the network for $3 billion. Johnson, who remained in charge of BET, made $1.5 billion off the deal.
The history of business is full of such unlikely stories. Do not think of yourself as the puppet master of your life, trying to pull the right strings to make all the steps required to get to one particular destination. Confident people are explorers, navigating their potential, always testing their abilities and talent. Trying to control your life or steering it in one direction or the other is a recipe for frustration; too many things can happen that are unpredictable. The people who say, “I’m going to work here for five years, then get married, then get promoted…” will not be prepared for accepting a great but risky job offer, not to mention walking around the corner tomorrow and bumping into the man or woman of their dreams. That is goal-setting, and, as you now know from Chapter Four, the most tenacious goal-setters get tied up in the their goal achievement strategies. Steps toward to the dream, rather than the dream itself, become the main focus. Yes, you always have the right to choose a new opportunity, but will you recognize it when you are wrapped up in the details or minutia?
Often, clients faced with an unexpected opportunity will express their concerns to me about resigning in the middle of a big project or leaving colleagues in the lurch. “Their livelihoods depend on me,” they’ll say. “I have a responsibility to the company and my fellow employees.” Sure, but the company and your colleagues will survive without you. And if your departure causes someone to lose a job, you’ll help them find another, write recommendations, hook them into your network. Do not downplay your responsibilities to your own career and family. Robert Johnson, for example, did not tell that person at the party who saw him in the cable business that he preferred to stay in his current job – “Thanks for the compliment, but I already have a road map for my life.” He was curious about an unforeseen opportunity; he wasn’t trying to control his destiny, but rather explore it.
And what if that new opportunity doesn’t work out? Confident people are not hung up on how things work out because the challenge is what excites them, they’re into the process, and they know that whatever happens, they will be able to take advantage of the situation. Too many people let setbacks demolish their confidence. The best performers take it on the chin – in fact, welcome it – and still believe that success is just around the corner. Most often, they use obstacles as the drive behind maintaining high confidence and excitement. Setbacks can be a reason to believe in yourself even more, holding all kinds of experience, knowledge, and data to show you how you will be able to move forward and succeed. Not succeeding can be a window of opportunity, not to mention thrilling. For great thinkers, life would be very boring if it were filled only with easy wins.
The very place where most people lose their confidence – after a failure – is where exceptional thinkers build theirs.
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Reprinted from Overachievement: The New Science of Working Less to Accomplish More by John Eliot, Ph.D. © 2006. Permission granted by PORTFOLIO, a division of PENGUIN GROUP (USA).