The question was asked most eloquently. It was posed during a recent speaking engagement at a tech company, one I did as a favour for a friend.
I won't do the preamble justice, but the gist was: "Given your 36 years in business, what was your worst mistake?"
It took me just a few seconds of pondering to land upon the right answer; quite the feat given the profundity of the query. Frankly, the setting of speaking in front of an audience helped speed-dial the response and, more importantly, the story that went with it.
"My worst mistake was any time I did something just for the money."
The story that went with it was actually two-pronged, and focused on a pair of speaking engagements that I agreed to do, knowing full well that the audience was not necessarily "mine." One was for a Cardboard Association (not a euphemism, an actual association of cardboard manufacturers), the other a gathering of residential real estate agents. On the "get-to-know-you" call with each group, I felt something was wrong; for the former, they were WAY too conservative for me at every level (even insisting on calling me "Mr. Nulman" on the phone), and as for the latter, a two-hour webinar (!) explaining me the ins-and-outs of their agent web tool had me pulling my hair out.
Yet instead of listening to the obvious incompatibility warning signals ringing like WWIII air-raid sirens, I bravely soldiered on with the gigs...solely because the money was so good.
"Just grin and bear it," I told myself both times. "It will soon be over and you'll be many thousands of dollars richer."
End result? Unmitigated disasters both times.
What's even worse is that both times, the client was so pissed that I didn't end up getting paid at all. So the two times I took a speaking gig "just for the money" not only netted me nothing...they cost me.
And what's even worse than worse is that I committed the cardinal sin of making the same mistake twice.
There are a couple of learnings here. Learning #1 is that "Sometimes, It's Not You...It's Them." Or put another way, you can't fight incompatibility. Go figure, the same speech format that bombed with the realtors destroyed with the tech people. A mega-hit.
Learning #2 goes back to the answer from the tech speech question: "Don't Do Anything Just For The Money." Trust me, this will save you so many headaches...and actually MAKE you money in the long run. (Ironically, when asked how much I charged, my answer was "Whatever you have will be accepted with gratitude." There was a different reason for my "Yes" -- as a favour to someone 3,000 miles away.)
But this week's major learning is about listening to the smartest person you know: Yourself.
It's amazing. We KNOW what's right, we actually FEEL what's right, but somehow question our own judgment and seek validation elsewhere. In my two speaking disaster examples, I knew going in that something was wrong. The disconnect was palpable. Yet I just didn't listen to myself. I ignored the smartest person I know. And I only have myself to blame for the end result.
In a recent interview in Bloomberg Businessweek, Apple CEO Tim Cook (sounds strange, I know, but...) talked about how he makes the hard calls.
"The most important things in life, whether they're personal or professional, are decided on intuition. You can do a lot of analysis. You can do lots of things that are quantitative in nature. But at the end of it, the things that are most important are gut calls."
There's a reason why our stomachs are called our "second brain." Yet even with two of them, both which ache when you're going down the wrong path, we look to others for guidance. So many of us continue to look outward instead of inward for the answer. This lack of intra-trust has led to a whole industry of motivational speakers and self-help books.
But if you really want to help yourself, help your self (there is a difference). Listen to you. So not only is this my Lesson of the Week, but my segue into a New Year's Resolution I'd like to share with all of you:
In 2013, I'm gonna start listening to the smartest person I know. Moreover, I'm actually going to act on what he tells me. Starting with...have a happy New Year.