Finishing Strong

15 Sep 1972: Steve Prefontaine of the USA in action during a track and field event at Crystal Palace in London, England. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

I woke up early today and couldn’t get a thought out of my head – it was about finishing strong.

Finishing Strong.  That’s not a motto.  That’s not an inspirational quote.  It’s a way of life for those who are known as finishers.  People, companies, horses – whatever.

Starting is easy.  Closing is everything and finishing strong is the ONLY way to close. “Coffee is for closers” is a cheap movie line.  The concept of finishing strong was around centuries before that line was ever written.

My favorite finisher of all time was the Apostle Paul.  Regardless of whatever faith you have, what he went through from a historical perspective is incredible; “Five times I received forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea.”  That’s insane! How committed are we to our mission to endure ANY challenges let alone things like that?  One of Paul’s last quotes also shows how he objectively evaluated his own performance against that standard: “The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”  Wow.  Who can say that about anything they have tried?

I have another favorite finisher – a distance runner named Steve Prefontaine – “Pre.”  Have you heard of him?  Probably not – Pre ran in the early 1970’s.  (Photo Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport)  His approach to running – his chosen craft – was more about testing his own heart and limits in each race than by merely beating the other runners. Of his many quotes, these three are my favorites:

  1. “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”
  1. “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”
  1. “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”

If you want to read more about him, go get the book “Pre.”  It’s a somewhat weak bio, but you’ll get the story.  There are also two movies, but they are fairly average (“Without limits” is the better one).  With all the talent in the world, you’d think a great movie or great bio could have been written.  In any case, at least we have these.

It’s easy to get up early, grab a coffee and START anything.  I’ve been in hundreds (literally) of conference rooms, auditoriums, and stadiums where everyone gets pumped up and cheers at the start.  The test is who will be there at the end – finishing strong.  The crowd of finishers is usually small until it’s time to collect bonus checks and then everyone rushes back into the room and claims “Oh, I was there at the beginning.”  The finishers know who carried the load and who the posers are and they don’t last long.

Life has many metaphors that show us the fickle nature of the human heart.  How many sports fans go on stub hub and pay money to get the best seats and arrive early to watch their team warm up?  They want to see their heroes up close.  But many of these same fans leave early when their team is behind.  I’m not talking a regular game in the middle of the season – I’m talking playoff games.  Champions are very, very, very rarely undefeated.  My feeling is that defeats are the best weights to lift in order to become a champion.  You learn from defeats.  Defeats expose weaknesses and clarify opportunities.  Defeats also mold humility and character.  Those who finish strong already know this.

Who are you?  Paul, Pre or a fan leaving early?

The sun is rising – it’s time to rise and shine and find out who you are.

9 Things Successful People Do Differently

Book CoverSimple truths tend to ring loudest.  Such is the case with Heidi Grant Halvorson’s simple book 9 Things Successful People Do Differently.  It’s not an exhaustive tome by any means but it is a very accessible and applicable read in the same lane occupied by the timeless One Minute Manager.

It’s not often my daughter encourages ME to write about a business topic.  Particularly because she is in 4th grade.  Nonetheless, she did.  The journey started exactly a year ago when I gave her a copy of Halvorson’s little red book to read on a flight from LAX to DFW.  It looked like an interesting title on the habits of successful people and it appeared accessible for my 8-year old who sits in a 3rd grade classroom M-F while reading and engaging on a 7th grade level.  (She’s still a bit young for Blue Ocean, but I have a copy on stand-by – ha, ha)  Also, the author being a woman gave me the opportunity to reinforce the vision I have consistently shared with my daughter: You are among a new generation of women that will make an even greater impact in life and business as the male dominated world evolves.  So I handed her the book and off we flew.

I was and I wasn’t prepared for the response.  At the end of each chapter she talked to me a bit about the core point and I asked her a couple questions which led to more discussion followed by me encouraging her to make a note or two in the book itself at the end of each chapter.   The surprising angle, which should not be so surprising, was that she related each chapter’s core point to the context in which she lives.  In chapter 5 Halvorson describes getting better rather than being good.  My daughter related this to reading.  She measures the number of words she reads and set a goal to read 2 million words in 3rd grade, which she achieved.  Without my prompting she explained how she can ONLY get better at reading.  She noted that CAN’T merely get good at it because her school won’t let her.  How?  Well, upon achieving a new reading level, the instructors praise the student appropriately and promptly move the finish line to the next level which has a new list of interesting books.  There you go, she experiences “getting Better rather than being Good” in real life.

This chapter-by-chapter dialogue continued until she finished the book.  Then came the question “Do you tell people about books like this?”  followed by “Are you going to tell them about this one?”  So, here I am.

So, a bit of a spoiler alert – here’s Halvorson’s list:

  1. Get Specific
  2. Sieze the Moment to Act on Your Goals
  3. Know Exactly How Far You Have Left to Go
  4. Be a Realistic Optimist
  5. Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good
  6. Have Grit
  7. Build Your Willpower Muscle
  8. Don’t Tempt Fate
  9. Focus on What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t Dot

For the very good commentary that accompanies each chapter, go pickup 2 copies – one for you and one for a son/daughter or niece/nephew.  You may be surprised at the outcome.

4 Reasons Hopes and Dreams Can Be Bad

quote-Tracy-Chapman-peoples-real-hopes-and-dreams-can-be-70639Hopes and dreams are not what they are cracked up to be.

Yes, I believe in dreams (up to a point) but I prefer to describe the concept as thinking big with a specific, measurable, actionable, reasonable, time-based plan.  To me, there is no such thing as a dream home or dream vacation – there is only an earned home or an earned vacation.  You eventually wake up from dreams and get back to reality where you only have what you earned.

Not long ago two alarming conversations took place with people I deeply care about.  One involved a seasoned company founder hoping external macro factors would ultimately solve a revenue challenge.  The other involved an individual dreaming and yearning for a particular future while metaphorically running in place without a plan or even a plan to make a plan.  After listening, making innocuous comments and offering bits encouragement the discussion moved on.

Later I felt tremendous guilt.  On one hand, there was guilt for not opening up a deeper discussion that could provide usable perspectives to my friends.  On the other hand, there was a responsible, cowardly feeling because I avoided a deeper discussion only because I was not in the mood, or just too tired that day, to deal with potentially emotional responses.

Somewhere between being perpetually driven 24X7 “without a life ” -or- sitting around aimlessly hoping and dreaming while clutching a box of tissue lies a balanced response.  It does not take much energy to make a simple plan to address the problem, or at least start to do so with some reasoned effort.   After thinking, the dark side of dwelling hopes and dreams crystallized into 4 basic points:

  1. Dreams are often a morass of feelings and yearnings but these emotions too often betray us.
  2. Dreams usually have no action-plans and plans contain some level of accountability.
  3. Hope is not a method, it merely shifts responsibility somewhere else. (See also this book by General Gordon Sullivan)
  4. Hopes and dreams can mate which gives birth to the evil twins: excuses and self-victimization. (I was hoping that this would happen… I guess my dreams were not meant-to-be).

So, I am going back to finish both conversations without being a know-it-all or a screaming stepmother.  If I am to be true to these two relationships, then don’t I have a duty to deliver an encouraging, actionable response with care and compassion? Both conversations will include my encouragement to turn hopes and dreams into action-plans with clear objectives, no matter how small.  I will also give each person my commitment to hold them accountable and walk the path with them in whatever way they feel is most effective.  If I care, which I do, then I owe it to them.

Career Advice in a Free Book

Thanks to a comedy of errors on a print run, I have a surplus of roughly 500 copies of The Rat, the Race, and the Cage, my book on career planning and decision making.  Don’t ya love publishers?  Anyway, I asked if they could just be sold like the rest of the inventory.  The answer was “Tom, you can do that and make more per book, because at this point the cost to you is zero per copy.  BUT, knowing your charitable side, it made sense to mention that you can also give them away to a worthy organization .”  OK, NOW I get it… and I like the idea of helping some organization out and I am going to do that.  But I also thought – why not let my network of colleagues and friends know and see if they know of a few worthy organizations as well?

The Offer:

If you know of a group (college class) or organization (career support group) that could benefit from receiving some copies that they will, in turn,  give away, then drop me a note.  Just help out with the shipping (books are heavy) and I’ll happily send them your way.  Let’s turn the printing issue into a benefit for people who could use a little career advice in the form of a free book for their career bookshelf.

About the book:

bookThe Rat, the Race, and the Cage shows readers how to make better career decisions through a little self reflection.  The book presents readers a simple model to better understand the three components of their job: the function, the industry in which they work, and the type of company for whom they work.  Analyzing these three things enables the reader to define a “personal career compass” that helps them make better career decisions about job changes.

The Rat, the Race, and the Cage is about finding direction, whether the reader is a college grad or caught in a mid-career rut.  What we do for a living can be more than just a way to pay the bills.  We can find fulfillment and personal satisfaction in our work by making better career decisions – and the book provides information that, one hopes, echoes the advice from career counselors, mentors, managers and knowledgeable friends.

Business Books: The Great 8

I recently purged my bookshelves of books that I have not re-read or touched in the past decade. Goodbye to “Who moved my Cheese” and “Barbarians at the Gate” among other titles.

The process allowed me to reflect on the topics that comprise the “keeper” volumes in my library.  Eight titles stood out among those that stayed on the shelf.  These are regularly recommended to ALL entrepreneurs under 30 that I mentor:

– Good to Great by Jim Collins
Yeah, the companies have changed but the principles have certainly not.

 – The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The psychology and strategy of leadership and engaging the competition.

 – Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
Exposed (yet again) the fallacy of “doing the same things better” as competitive advantage and exposed it as a (very effing fast) race to the bottom.  Instead, it proved the value of the innovative creation of the truly new (and HOW and WHY such can be measured) when it comes to Product Management.

 – Competitive Strategy by Michael E. Porter
I still reference this book at quite often.  The competitive grid is pretty much stained into a permanent shadow on my whiteboard.

 – The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
OK, yes this is a “popular book” – but the timeless truth of simple management wrapped into a easily accessible parable makes this a keeper I refer to young managers.

 – The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
This book took me by surprise as “everyone was reading it.”  My take was that this book builds bridges back to, or ratifies, Blue Ocean Strategy and many sub-points within Porter’s classic.

– Built to Last (1994), by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras
Two books by Jim Collins was not intentional and I am not a pure-play fan boy of Jim’s but the depth and diversity of the examples is what keeps this book on my shelf.

 – The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
The first time I finished reading it, I went back and read it again.  Notes, highlights and more notes.  It was an instant classic for me.

There you go – my “Great Eight” business titles.

Risk and Reward

Risk_RewardRisk and Reward – There is none of one without the other.

When was the last time you took a risk?

I am not talking foolish risks like eating a yogurt that has been in the back of the fridge since last year or hitting on Aaron Hernandez’ girlfriend, I’m talking about an honest to goodness, carefully calculated risk.

The stories of educated risks turning into personal and financial rewards are strewn throughout the last 100 years.  History is a beautiful teacher – especially if you are not the one who died to make the point.

I grew up in middle class America with little more than the basics.  Since there was no Internet and no cable TV with 300 channels, there was no ‘magic window’ to look through and compare my existence until high school.  When I was old enough, I earned money mowing lawns and used the money to subscribe to magazines which became my window to the world, my inspiration and my mental gym.  Formula 1 racing and the Indy 500 caught my eye and I became a fan, not because all boys seem to choose a sport and have a favorite team, but because I was curious and inspired.

There was glory, competition, technology, drama and tragedy wrapped-up in one exhilarating package.  There also was a high price. In the 60’s and 70’s  you needed to beat death because there was a 1 in 20 chance of a driver being killed each year.  I thought, “Why did these men take such huge risks?”  I learned that the Formula 1 drivers, team owners and designers all had something to prove and their incredible stories became my curriculum:

–          To finish first, you must first finish. – Rick Mears, 4-time Indy 500 Champion
My Life Application: Have resources to get the job done and push hard until the end.

–          I don’t know driving in another way which isn’t risky. Each one has to improve himself and each one has a limit. My limit is simply a little bit further than others. – Ayrton Senna, 3-time Formula 1 Champion
My Life Application: You must improve and find your limit and it is higher than you think.

–          When I raced it was at a time when sex was safe and racing was dangerous. Now, it’s the other way around. – Hans Stuck, 2-time 24 hours of Le Mans Champion
My Life Application:  It’s a funny quote that has a very significant hidden meaning: The game WILL inevitable change and you must react to it.

–          To achieve anything in this game you must be prepare to dabble at the boundary of disaster. – Sterling Moss, 4-time runner up Formula 1 Championship
My Life Application: If you want to be #1 in anything you must accept that massive failure is possible and it might be far worse than just finishing 2nd.  If it was easy EVERYONE would do it.

–          When I started racing my father said, nobody has three balls but some people have two very good ones. – Cristiano Da Matta, Formula 1 veteran.
My Life Application: Be honest about your skills at any moment, but push to make them better.

–          The great ones drive alone but need a good team in the garage. – Me
My Life Application: Self-reliance when pushing to achieve is not the same as going solo.

That’s a collection of some pretty good advice.  In every statement there is an inherent acceptance of the risks associated with racing.  Everyone one of them knew the risk “going in.”

If you were a fan of Formula 1, you came to admire Ferrari.  Enzo Ferrari, dubbed “the old man,” built sports cars to make money so he could compete in Formula 1.  Think about that.  He built a highly successful business in order to make money to endeavor into something where failure and death were common as the sunrise.  Why risk ridicule?  Because Enzo simply knew no other way how to live and had something to prove.

In the beginning, Formula 1 was driven by technology.  Pushing technology meant speed and speed meant winning and winning brought glory.  Ferrari was manic in the pursuit of technology advantages.  In the early 1950’s winning cars were a puzzle: (1) Horsepower made cars fast but; (2) Powerful engines used a lot of gas and; (3) a big gas tank was needed but also heavy which slowed you down.

Ferrari solved the puzzle in 1956 with the D50 (below).  Note the big gas tanks on either side of the sleek car.  Can you imagine what happened if you crashed?  Those gas tanks are essentially bombs. Ferrari just needed someone to drive it.


Juan Fangio was already a 3-time world champion when approached by Ferrari.  As a champion, and the best driver of the day, he had absolutely nothing to prove.  But he understood the risk and said yes because he still felt he had something to prove. How did it turn out?  He won the 1956 Formula 1 World Championship, finishing not lower than 4th in every race except one, when the engine failed while he was leading by a large margin!

Here’s a black & white picture – look around and you will not see any modern safety barriers, just bales of hay.

D50 Racing

Fangio drove the car in 14 races and won 5 which is 35.7%!  That’s like hitting .357!  You would get a 9 digit baseball contract for that ability.

Fangio’s last win came when he was 46 years old and his record of 5 championships stood for nearly half a century until Michael Schumacher won 7 – and Schumacher did it in an era of the all-time highest speeds and the all-time safest cars.  There have been only 2 deaths in Formula 1 over the past 23 years.  Fangio passed away in 1995, living to be 84.

Thanks for reading this far.  My point is not to educate you about racing or how Juan Fangio had something to prove until the last moment he stepped out of a race car and into retirement.  It’s to underline that in 1950, the same human desire to take risks and earn rewards by people with something to prove was as alive and well as it is today.

Let’s find a life application for you.  Today we don’t need to take the risks associated with hopping into a race car with two ‘bombs’ attached.  But the simple rule about risk and reward remains as clear as it was in 1950: you may not have one without the other.

Are you hungry enough for reward to take some risk because you have something to prove?  Today economic rewards in the USA are tied to two things: starting a business or massive inheritances… and let’s leave out the one in a billion lottery winners.  Unless your grandfather is Warren Buffet, or one of his friends, that leaves one choice: do it yourself by building a business.

Starting a part-time business has risk but you can mitigate it with careful management of your time.  You can even keep your day job and test things a bit.  That allows you to taste a bit of failure and get over it.  According to Barbara Corcoran, multi-deca-millionaire real estate mogul, the key difference between basic and extraordinary sales people is, “How well you can take a hit and how long you feel sorry for yourself.  Something to prove is key.”  What do you have to prove?  A part-time business is a great way to see if you are up to the task and find out how far you can go.  Life and progress move fast and there have never been more tools available to help you keep up.  From mobile phones to the Internet, the weapons of communications and efficiency are at your disposal.

There’s also more frequent disruption than ever before and more uncertainty about things like social security.  Self-protection through insurance is more important than ever.  PHP not only offers such insurance from Nationally-recognized tier-1 companies, it provides a ready-made platform from which you can go out and prove something.

Is it time to take a calculated risk and prove something?   Your first effort may not go far, but live moves fast and opportunities don’t stay long.  Think about this: the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane 120 feet in 12 seconds on December 17, 1903 and Neal Armstrong stepped on the moon July 21, 1969.  From first flight to the moon in just 65 years!  If you were 7 years old and in 1st grade in 1903 you heard about the amazing airplane as your teacher read the newspaper to you.  Then, if you lived to be at least 72 you saw man step on the moon – on a TV that was not invented when Wright brothers flew.  Wow!

What’s your calculated risk?  How far will you fly and what do you have to prove?