‘Originals’: A Surprising Truth about Entrepreneurs

“Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice.” – Adam Grant

When people think of entrepreneurs, they tend to see them as the ultimate risk-takers: people who unabashedly take a chance on something they believe in. People who enjoy going out on a limb, taking leaps into the unknown and thrive on uncertainty.

Originals book reviewBut, it isn’t necessarily so. In fact, entrepreneurs are more risk-averse – and much more calculated – than you think. The proof is in Adam Grant’s latest book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Utilizing data and studies from across industries, Grant shows how entrepreneurs are fueled less by risk and more by the opportunity to try something new, pursue a passion and see things in a new light.

This doesn’t mean that risk isn’t involved, Grant explains, only that it is offset with careful considerations, experimentation and back up plans.

“To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk,” Grant writes. “But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case.”

A great example of this comes from the online eyeglass maker Warby Parker, the founders of whom approached Grant in 2009 about becoming an early investor. But, because they weren’t working at their startup full time (they were students), Grant assumed they weren’t committed and declined the offer.

“They weren’t serious about becoming successful entrepreneurs,” writes Grant.” They didn’t have enough skin in the game. In my mind, they were destined to fail because they played it safe instead of betting the farm.”

He continues: “But in fact, this is exactly why they succeeded.” (As of April 2015, Warby Parker was valued at $1.2 billion and was named the world’s #1 most innovative company by Fast Company in 2015).

Just one example of many, Originals is well worth the read for anyone looking to leave a mark on the world – because as Grant encourages us all to see: anyone can.

Enjoy a few thought-provoking quotes from Adam Grant below:

1. “Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.”

2. “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists…[t]he starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place.”

3. “If you’re risk averse and have some doubts about the feasibility of your ideas, it’s likely that your business will be built to last. If you’re a freewheeling gambler, your startup is far more fragile.”

4. “When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

5. “The greatest presidents were those who challenged the status quo and brought about sweeping changes that improved the lot of the country. But these behaviors were completely unrelated to whether they cared deeply about public approval and social harmony.”

6. “The drive to succeed and the accompanying fear of failure have held back some of the greatest creators and change agents in history…[i]f a handful of people hadn’t been cajoled into taking original action, America might not exist, the civil rights movement could still be a dream, the Sistine Chapel might be bare, we might still believe the sun revolves around the earth, and the personal computer might never have been popularized.”

7. “In every domain, from business and politics to science and art, the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment. As they question traditions and challenge the status quo, they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. We view them as self-starters, but their efforts are often fueled and sometimes forced by others. And as much as they seem to crave risk, they really prefer to avoid it.”

8. “Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward…their inner experiences are not any different from our own. They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try.”

Please note: this post also appears on Treehouse Technology Group’s blog.

A Post-Lenten Reflection on the Practice of Self-Denial

“Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’” – Vince Lombardi (football player and coach, 1913-1970)

It has been a little over a week since I ended my 40-day chocolate and “things I like most” fast in observance of the Lenten Season – the first time I have willfully committed to “giving up” something since I entered full fledged adulthood nearly five years ago.

A tradition that I gladly embraced at the start of Ash Wednesday during my childhood years, it became significantly less appealing as the demands of adult life made the idea of giving something up seem nearly unbearable.

In fact, it was only during these last 40 days that I came to a greater realization of just how challenging the practice of self-denial is – and how much truth exists in the age-old saying that life’s most valuable lessons are best learned through times of difficulty, struggle and discomfort.

Indeed, sacrificing pleasure or desire in many ways opposes the very principles that substantiate our existence. From the man in the cave to the hunter-gatherer, our survival has largely demanded that we prioritize our interests and needs, and protect ourselves from any physical or emotional obstructions that threaten our livelihood.

In an increasingly secular world, with a culture that caters to the glorification of instant-gratification and self-aggrandizement (“if it feels good, do it!”), the idea of self-denial can seem particularly inconvenient or disruptive to a lifestyle of “personal fulfillment” that infiltrates every aspect of our existence.

Its practice, however, can be a valuable exercise in seeing ourselves not just as living creatures, but as moral beings.

English historian and novelist James Anthony Froude (1818-1894) once wrote:

“That which especially distinguishes a high order of man from a low order of man, that which constitutes human goodness, human nobleness, is surely not the degree of enlightenment with which men pursue their own advantage; but it is self-forgetfulness; it is self-sacrifice; it is the disregard of personal pleasure, personal indulgence, personal advantage, remote or present, because some other line of conduct is more right.”

Far from being a self-preserving necessity, the value of self-sacrifice lies in its ability to give meaning to our preservation – to recognize the capacity of human beings to attain virtues that can thrust the human race forward in decency and civility.

Unlike the animalistic nature of self-indulgence and pleasure seeking, self-denial and self-discipline are conscious acts that require effort and energy, often leading us down a path of personal transformation and growth.

self-sacrifice quotesYou might even say that what separates us from our fellow living and breathing creatures – and what lies at the heart of acts of self-sacrifice – is the ability to grapple with a simple question: what is the “right” – the moral – thing to do?

Will I pursue my own happiness at the expense of others? Will I selflessly support others’ achievements without receiving acknowledgement myself? Will I be there to listen, help or support a friend or family in need when it is inconvenient for me?

The challenge of Lent – of self-denial – affords us an opportunity not only to experience an elevated existence, but to gain a more natural access to the spiritual world, whatever form we believe that world to take. It is in those brief moments, when our spirit overcomes the flesh, that we become fully aware of our humanity and can cultivate a greater awareness of our moral existence on earth.

As Scottish historical novelist and playwright Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) once wrote, “Teach self-denial and make its practice pleasure, and you can create for the world a destiny more sublime that ever issued from the brain of the wildest dreamer.”

It’s not that “giving up” something we enjoy for 40 days will transform us into virtuous beings. Or that sacrificing our temporary happiness for someone else will make the world a better place (though it might be a good start). It’s the practice and exercise – the willingness to endure a struggle and to recognize our agency – that befits the capacities of human beings to achieve a higher mode of living.

In the words of the Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing (1780-1842):

“I call that mind free, which masters the senses, which protects itself against animal appetites, which contemns pleasure and pain in comparison to its own energy, which penetrates beneath the body and recognizes its own reality and greatness, which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.”

So often we look upon self-sacrifice as an undesirable “thing”, an experience more fitting for others that we can view admirably from a distance. And from that distance, we might subconsciously and quietly hope that we are not called away from our earthly pleasures to the higher and more uncomfortable challenge of living life as accountable human beings.

We are inclined to think of self-sacrifice as limiting, something that imprisons us, obstructing our hopes and dreams and preventing us from self-fulfillment.

But, is it not the opposite? Do we not become freer, our will more bolstered, from conquering the very confines of our nature?

There’s a Saying in Gaelic, “Céad Míle Fáilte”…

Walls for the wind, 
And a roof for the rain,
And drinks beside the fire

Laughter to cheer you
And those you love near you,
And all that your heart may desire!

– Irish Blessing

In many ways, it was like a scene right out of a movie. We had entered into a small local pub, tired and hungry from a long day of traveling in the cold, rainy winds of an Irish November. We had stumbled blindly through the dark, a five-minute walk from our hotel along a narrow, winding road set amidst rolling hills.

There were just two other people in the pub, visitors, like us, evidenced by the large, worn backpacks towering next to their table. The bartender greeted us warmly and we asked if he had a menu for food.

“We do, but the kitchen is about to close,” he said. “We only have homemade beef stew and seafood chowder.” We ordered one of each, two pints of Guinness and sat down at a tableside fire for what was to be one of the most memorable stops on our two-week long journey.

Doolin accomodation
Inside McGann’s, Doolin’s local pub

Situated on the west coast of Ireland, and nestled just a sort distance from the Cliffs of Moher – Ireland’s most visited natural attraction – Doolin has become world renowned for its traditional Irish music, attracting thousands of international visitors each year. A seaside village with a population of just 500 people, its rustic landscape makes for a cozy, tranquil getaway, particularly in the off season, and even in the harsh, whipping winds of winter.

But, one needn’t be there long to fully understand its appeal. Its most distinguishing feature can be found by stepping foot in a local shop, restaurant, hotel or pub – as we did into McGann’s that first night (and as we would again for the following two nights) – and witnessing a most authentic display of Irish hospitality that seems to reveal itself more naturally in the Irish countryside.

Indeed, having arrived in Doolin after spending three days in Dublin, we were reminded of what some might call a universal principle of traveling: that the most authentic experiences are often found not in the lights and glamour of a city center, but in rural encounters with lifelong natives whose customs and behaviors portray a more accurate reflection of the people and character of a country.

Hotel Doolin
Fisher Street i.e. “Main Street” in Doolin

There was no one defining moment, however, that formed such a lasting, memorable impression of Doolin; no grand, sweeping gestures or calls of attention to the benevolent. In fact, the beauty of Irish hospitality was more in its subtlety and humility than it was in any specific act itself.

It was the bartender who introduced himself with a smile, took an interest in who we were, informed us of local happenings – i.e., that there was a “concert” at our hotel later that night – and suggested pubs for us to visit in Edinburgh, the next stop on our trip.

It was the two local men, standing outside the pub as we left, who excitedly shouted out, “See you at the concert!”, as we headed back up the winding road to our hotel.

Irish music doolin
The “concert” at Hotel Doolin

It was the palpable sense of camaraderie among a group of people in Hotel Doolin listening to local musicians play some of the best Irish music I’ve ever heard.

It was the local group of young friends who engaged us in a conversation – playfully challenging us to spell different Irish names – and invited us to meet them at McGann’s the following night for a dart tournament.

It was our shuttle driver who asked us about our lives, offered us tips on where to begin our hike, and made us laugh with his quick Irish wit as he sped over the hills to drop us at the bottom of the trail.

And it was the hotel staff who presented us with a freshly baked loaf of bread upon our early morning departure, knowing that we would be traveling all day.

They were small, thoughtful acts that not only confirmed the truth behind what has long been heralded as one of the Irish’s most venerated traditions,* but also reminded me of man’s yearning to feel welcomed and comforted, acknowledged and appreciated, by fellow man, no matter where we may find ourselves on life’s journey.

Doolin pubs

Washington Irving once wrote, “there is an emanation from the heart in genuine hospitality which cannot be described, but is immediately felt and puts the stranger at once at his ease.”

Nearly 3,000 miles from home, hailing from the disparate world of New York City, the people of Doolin had every right to consider me a stranger – an “American” or a “GDY” (God Damn Yank), as our Irish bus driver told us jokingly.

But, as much of a stranger as I was to them – and as much as the people of Doolin were “strangers” to me – I have never felt more at ease than I did during those three short days of my visit. Their genuine hospitality, exhibited in the most humble of manners – a warm welcome, a genuine smile, a thoughtful question, a deliberate acknowledgement – was enough to replenish and restore my soul, fulfilling the mission of my two-week long European adventure.

There’s a saying in Gaelic, “Céad Míle Fáilte.” Its literal translation is “one hundred thousand welcomes”, or “you are welcome, a thousand times, wherever you come from, whosoever you be.”

If ever there was a place to experience authentic Irish hospitality, to offer whosoever you be a thousand welcomes, Doolin – a village of just 500 people – must be it.

Please note: this piece was also published in The Huffington Post.

Doolin accomodation

*In ancient Ireland, hospitality was mandated by law via the Brehon Laws, which contained rules such as, “Whoever comes to your door, you must feed him or care for him, with no questions asked” and “All members of the tribe are required to offer hospitality to strangers.”

*Galway, just 45 miles northeast of Doolin, was named Travel + Leisure’s 2015 “friendliest city in the world.”

In Other Words: Life Lessons from Peyton Manning’s Retirement Speech

Peyton Manning retirement speechThere are many reasons to applaud football icon Peyton Manning for the speech he delivered earlier this week announcing his retirement from the NFL.

Delivered with grace and humility, it stands in stark contrast to the dastardly dialogue and vindictive language that we continue to hear during what is bound to be one of the most significant presidential elections in American history.

For football fanatics, his speech was a testimony to the greatness of the game and the ability of any player to rise, against any and all odds, on any given Sunday. For Peyton Manning’s fans, it was bound to confirm their fervent admiration and respect for an athlete who has role modeled hard work, dedication and integrity throughout his 18-year career.

But, for the every day man, for people who don’t necessarily follow football, nestled within his speech were tidbits of wisdom that we all can apply in our own lives, no matter the position, job or title we may hold – on or off the field.

Subtle and unassuming, they are important reminders of how to cope with challenges and setbacks and how to evolve into the person we aspire to be. They are nothing new or revolutionary – in fact, we hear and read variations of them all the time – but coming from someone whose actions have aligned with his words, they somehow seem more potent.*

After all, such messages require not only for us to understand and acknowledge them, but to act on them.

They are outlined below:

1. In the beginning of his speech, Peyton Manning remarked: “There’s a saying that goes, treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be and he will become what he should be.”

…in other words, challenge yourself not only to do more, but to be more.

2. He went on to say: “Grateful is the word that comes to my mind when thinking of the Denver Broncos” (he used “thank”, “grateful” or “gratitude” eight times in his speech).

…in other words, be grateful for the people and things in your life and commit to giving thanks each day.

3. Later, he said: “Football has taught me not to be led by obstructions and setbacks but instead to be led by dreams.”

…in other words, persevere through all challenges and obstacles with determination, hope and faith.

4. He continued on: “Our children are small now, but as they grow up, we’re going to teach them to enjoy the little things in life because one day they will look back and discover that those really were the big things.”

…in other words, make a conscious effort to live in the present and treasure each and every moment.

5. Toward the end, he said: “Life is not shrinking for me, it’s morphing into a whole new world of possibilities.”

…in other words, with every new or unfamiliar situation comes an opportunity to learn something that can help you grow in unexpected ways.

6. And, finally: “There were other players who were more talented but there was no one who could out-prepare me and because of that I have no regrets.”

…in other words, hard work, preparation, discipline and commitment pay off and will always help propel you to success and achievement.

Read the full transcript of Peyton Manning’s retirement speech.

*Full disclosure: As a diehard Steelers fan, I have very little reason to support Peyton Manning (he led the Denver Broncos to victory against the Steelers in the playoffs this year). But, as a seeker of All Things Good, it’s hard not to give credit where credit is due or commend someone of such fame for their humility, grace and integrity.

Waiting for a Ship from Spring

The icy cold waters of winter are breaking up, spring is on the near horizon, the final episode of the final season of Downton Abbey has almost aired…and the presidential candidates are steaming ahead to Super Tuesday.

Change is in the air.

2016 presidential campaign

“When the Ship Comes In” by Bob Dylan, 1963, from the album The Times They Are A-Changin’

Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathing.
Like the stillness in the wind
‘Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking.
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.

Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they’ll be smiling.
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand,
The shout that the ship comes in.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline.
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck,
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin.’
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watching’.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreaming’.
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they’ll raise their hands,
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands,
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh’s tribe,
They’ll be drowned in the tide,
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.

See also “Turning to Dylan During the Winds of Change” and some thoughts on the 2016 presidential election.

Happy Presidents’ Day!

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.  It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people.  Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.” – Ronald Reagan (40th President of the United States of America)

Ronald Reagan quotes on freedom

See also a reflection on the 2016 Presidential race and some thought provoking quotes from Thomas Jefferson

Happy Valentine’s Day!

“Love is the energizing elixir of the universe,
the cause and effect of all harmonies,
light’s brilliance and the heat in wine and fire,
it is the aroma of perfumes
and the breath of the Divinity;
it is the Life in all being.”
–Rumi (Persian poet, 1207-1273)

Quotes on love

“The thought manifests as the word,
The word manifests as the deed.
The deed develops into habit.
And the habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care.
And let it spring from love,
born out of concern for all beings.”
–Buddha

Valentines Day quotes

“Love is a treasure, yet nothing to possess.
Love is a way, a way of being in the world.”
–Ingrid Goff-Maidoff (poet)

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged cupid painted blind.”
–Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Try some royal Valentine’s Day recipes and winter cocktails to warm your heart (and cheeks!)

A Blue’s Melody for the January Blues

Please note: This piece was also published in OnBeing.

Following the sparkling glimmer of a light-infused season, the month of January can sometimes feel as if a heavy, wet blanket of snow is descending upon us. It’s a time when the body can feel overindulged and earthbound, a time when we dispiritedly plod through the weight of winter days.

January Blues

Sliding from the high notes of the holidays to the low notes of mid-January, nature’s force ushers us unwittingly from the warm cheer of family and friends to a still and penetrating solitude. Even our music changes tune, as the festive good tidings of December songs give way to introspective, tranquilizing melodies that help carry us away from the sluggish, gray days of January.

As American pianist George Winston – whose instrumental music has been likened to “flakes of falling snow” – once said, “Every song I’ve ever heard, that has gone in and stayed in me, has always reminded me of a season. A picture and a place, maybe, but always a season.”

It might seem unfitting, then, to turn to the music of legendary blues icon Buddy Guy in the midst of a season known for plunging tired souls into the depths of “January blues.” But his song “Flesh & Bone” has done just the opposite, propelling my spirit onward and upward into a brighter sky of possibilities.

famous blues artists

Featuring rock & roll soul artist Van Morrison (an ATG favorite), Buddy Guy dedicated the song to the “King of Blues”, B.B. King, upon his passing last May – an apt choice for the hopeful message it offers:

It ain’t over the day you die
We all live on in the spirit by and by

With a poignant refrain that invites us to contemplate a life “more than” our fleshly existence – more than our human desires and temptations, frustrations and fears, tribulations and doubts – it simultaneously encourages us to transcend those very things; to “live higher”:

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit lives on
This life is more than flesh and bone

The message is a reflection of Guy’s religious upbringing: “‘My mamma used to say, ‘If you get slapped, turn the other cheek, so they can slap the other side,’’”, Guy recalls in an interview with the Rolling Stone. She ought to have been proud, then, when Guy took the high road after waking up one morning to an egged home. He explains: “‘[My neighbors] said, ‘A black man gets eggs thrown on his house, and he’s still plowing snow off everybody’s sidewalk, corner to corner?…we were the best of friends after that.’”

More than a religious ballad, however, “Flesh & Bone” also provides a welcome reminder of the importance of perspective – the perspective that we’re more than earthbound creatures of the here and now with long lists of “things to do.” During these cold days of January, days in which we feel so acutely our fleshly existence and so easily succumb to the instant gratification our flesh desires, we can find a more enduring kind of solace in embracing the perspective of a “higher” world of mystery and spirit that this song evokes.

Buddy Guy Flesh and Bone

So, perhaps it is fitting to turn to Buddy Guy after all. Considered the last of the blues legends, he is representative of a genre of music, which although has become rather marginalized in our culture, is known for eliciting heartfelt and soulful emotion – music that reminds us that this life is, indeed, more than flesh and bone.

Recalling what he told his producer while working on his 2015 album, Born to Play Guitar, which features the “Flesh & Bone” track, Guy says in a Billboard article: “Let’s play some funky blues like these older guys, the ones that taught me, and hopefully we can hit a note that will get people to pay attention.”

Well, he sure hit a note. And he certainly got my attention.

Listen to “Flesh & Bone” here and read the full lyrics below.

Daddy read the good book through and through
Said the Lord’s word is the only truth
It ain’t over the day you die
We all live on in the spirit by and by

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit lives on
This life is more than flesh and bone

Now I know my daddy was right
I read that good book and I’ve seen the light
Mama and daddy have passed and gone
They’re still with me ‘cause love lives on

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit lives on
This life is more than flesh and bone

The God I feed on is real as rain
More than words can ever explain
We’ll meet again some sweet day
Far beyond this world of pain

This life is more than flesh and bone
Find out now before you’re gone
When you go your spirit goes on
This life is more than flesh and bone

In keeping with the “Flesh & Bone” theme, check out our piece in Around the Table on “Bone Broth.”