In his book, My Father’s Business, Cal Turner Jr., the long-time CEO of Dollar General and the son of the company’s Founder talks about how his grandfather was one of the smartest people he ever knew. What makes this particularly interesting is that his grandfather dropped out of elementary school to help run the family farm after his dad died in a freak wrestling accident. (I’m assuming it wasn’t cauliflower ear.)
Turner goes on to say that his grandfather’s lack of formal education offered a significant advantage.
It says a great deal about Luther Turner that he was able to turn his third-grade education into a plus. He was convinced that everyone he met was smarter than he, and that he needed to learn some thing from each of them. He became a first-rate observer, a great listener, and a dedicated student of life. What he practiced was more than empathy. It involved valuing the other person and his or her information, insight, and perspective.
– Cal Turner Jr
To be clear, I’m not encouraging you to drop out of school after 3rd grade. (Very few of my readers are in the 3rd grade and under demographic.) But it’s important to recognize the danger of assuming you are the smartest person in the room. We all have blind spots which limit us. But if you remain open to the ideas of others you have the potential to become as smart as everyone you have encountered combined.
Everyone you interact with has amassed their own unique combination of knowledge and experience. Which means they have insights and perspectives you don’t have. Listen to them. Learn from them. Add their lessons to your own. The only limit to how much you can learn in life is your own curiosity and receptivity.
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You are the greatest project you will ever have. As a human being, you are the most complicated machine on Earth. Which means there is no limit to the amount of self-improvement you are capable of.
Your improvements can be highly specific. They can be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, psychological, philosophical, or professional. But even these broad categories that all end in -al barely scratch the surface.
You can get better at signing your name, walking, selling, replacing an organ, or serving a tennis ball. You can get better at eating hot dogs. Just ask Joey Chestnut. You can get better at streaking. Just ask the dude who invited himself onto the field at Super Bowl LV. Heck, you can get better at eating hot dogs while streaking. And if you do you can probably get a sponsorship deal.
The 2 Ingredients
Regardless of what you want to do better, there are 2 key drivers of self-improvement: the things you learn and the things you do. Because you improve through a combination of knowing better and doing better.
1. The things you learn.
This is all about gaining new information. This can come in many ways.
Reading books, magazines, articles, and reports.
Watching instructional videos
Taking classes and courses.
Learning from others through discussions, conversations, observation, and spying.
Working with a coach or mentor
2. The things you do.
All the knowledge in the world does no good without action. Your actions drive results. Those actions include:
Learn all you can. Then put that new knowledge to work through your deliberate actions. By doing so you will end each day better than you began. You are the greatest project you will ever have. And you are nowhere near finished.
*If you know someone who could benefit from this idea, please share it with them.
In 7th grade I had a social studies teacher named Mr. Wilson. I think his first name was Roger. Although Brian, Russell and Annandnancy all sound right as prefixes to Wilson. So it may have been one of those.
I remember Mr. Wilson as a portly, middle aged white man. But it wouldn’t surprise me if I discovered that he was the same age I am now. Because when you are 12 years old you think all adults are old.
Like most teachers, Mr. Wilson had go-to phrases that enabled us to do some hilarious impressions of him when he wasn’t around. We did hilarious impressions of all of our teachers. It’s probably why I never wanted to be a teacher.
The Sound Bite
Several times in every class, while we were supposed to be working on our assignments Mr. Wilson would bellow out, ‘T-O-T.!’ He was not announcing his craving for tater tots (at least I don’t think so). It was an acronym for Time On Task. When my friend Marcus Chioffi (rhymes with coffee) and I would hear T.O.T. we would snicker at how much Mr. Wilson sounded like our impression of Mr. Wilson.
Fast Forward 3 Decades.
Today I own my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry. And I find myself thinking about T.O.T. a lot. As I reflect on what has worked for me throughout my career and my entrepreneurial journey, I keep coming back to T.O.T.
Time To Make It Real
We all have dreams, goals and wishes. But we tend to spend far too little time working on them to force them into reality. The amount of time you actually spend working on a task is the key determinant of success in that area. There simply is no substitute for the focused work. It is why Time On Task is the key to progress.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, or achieve any lofty goal, you have to spend Time On Task. Focus your time. Block your time. Invest your time. Block out distractions. And do the work. It’s the only way to make great things happen. Just like Mr. Wilson said.
*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.
When I was a kid I collected baseball and football cards. Today I collect something far more valuable: knowledge. I add to my collection every day by reading, listening to audio books and podcasts, and talking to experts. I tap into my inner Oprah, and ask questions to try to expand my knowledge, my abilities and effectiveness. Which is why every night I go to bed a little wiser than I was when I woke up.
Pass It On
To return the favor to all those who have shared with me, I try to share what I know with others. That’s why I write this blog. It’s why I guest lecture to college students and why I try to make myself available to those who want to meet with me one-on-one, like Hall & Oates.
Because I have openly demonstrated a willingness to talk about the things I know, I get a steady stream of requests to discuss a wide variety of topics. I am happy to share what I know. However, there is one question I really dislike being asked when people want me to share my knowledge with them.
‘Can I pick your brain?’
No one wants to have their brain picked. The idea of brain picking conjures a variety of unpleasant images in my head, of my head. I see graphic depictions of ice picks to the cranium. And vultures picking at my lobes of squishy gray matter. I imagine someone picking my nose and really, really getting up there.
Brain picking makes me think of picking at zits and picking scabs. In other words, asking to pick my brain is not an intellectually enticing pick up line.
Reframe In The Membrane
Brain picking is really focused on the person trying to extract value. Not the person offering the value. Which makes it sound like a selfish request. So let’s not use this phrase anymore.
Pick Your Pick-Your-Brain Substitute.
The next time you want to pick up on someone else’s knowledge try one of the following pick up lines:
I would love to learn more about __________. And I don’t know anyone who knows more about it than you.
I would love to hear your philosophy on _________.
You are the smartest person I know when it comes to _______. Can I ask you some questions?
You are the Queen/King of ____________ and I would like to be your subject, of this subject.
If I bought you a Butterfinger would you drop some of your knowledge on me?
I am extremely impressed by how much you know about __________. Would you consider acting like Sonny, and share?
I want to learn how you _______________ because no one does it better. (Baby, your the best.)
Note: you are suppose to replace the ________ with the topic you want to discuss. So don’t actually say, ‘I would love to learn about line from you.’ Unless you want to learn about line dancing.
Think about what you are saying before you ask someone if you can pick their brain. There are much better ways to ask those you admire to share their knowledge, guidance and perspective. Including asking someone to share their valuable knowledge, guidance and perspective. Be empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes. Flatter, praise and respect those you would like to learn from. You will be sure to create a mutually beneficial exchange that leaves all brains better than ever. And potentially better than Ezra.
*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share it with them.
I love talking to college students. Throughout my career I have guest-lectured, judged class projects, and spoken on numerous panels. I enjoy these opportunities to encourage students. It’s fun to see how your personal career path can provide a map for future professionals. It is fascinating to see the world through the students’ eyes again. But best of all, I like telling students that the need for internships is a myth created by kids who have internships.
The past three semesters I have guest-lectured for an advertising campaigns class at Marquette University. In this class, the students spend a semester creating a campaign for a real client. At the end of the semester, they then present to that client. I come in for a class or two to teach the students what I can about the creative process.
This year my lesson consisted of 3 parts.
I shared the journey of my career, from college student at the University of Wisconsin, to launching my own advertising agency, The Weaponry.
I talked about creativity and the creative process.
I gave the students a creative assignment that they had one week to complete.
I wanted the students to have a significant creative problem to solve. So I chose retail traffic. As you have probably heard by now, an invention called the internet makes it easy for people to buy virtually anything from their computer or smart-thingy. In fact, smart-thingy is just shorthand for an electronic device that lets you shop from bed.
As a result, people are no longer reliant on physical stores for anything. This is a major problem for retailers who have significant physical spaces. Because those stores become unprofitable and unnecessary when people stop dropping by to drop off money.
How do you get young people to shop at physical store locations?
Here is the assignment I gave 35 Marquette students:
We need to get Marquette Students, who are entering the workforce, to visit a Kohl’s physical store location, by telling them it is the best place to find their new workforce wardrobe.
The universal knee-jerk reaction to this challenge from the students was:
‘Why would I have to visit a store? It is so much easier to shop online.’
‘This is the greatest challenge facing retailers today. Your mindset is a major problem for them. Since college students represent the next great hope or the nail in the coffin for brands with significant retail locations, you hold the key to this perplexing problem.’
The Thinking Began
We gave the seven groups of five students one week to come up with their solutions. They could advertise to the student population anywhere on, or around the Marquette campus. There were no media restrictions or requirements. The ideas the student shared were both surprising and somehow obvious at the same time.
4 key takeaways from college students for retailers.
Here are the buckets of ideas we heard from the seven groups
1. Offer Me Services.
There are a host of services that students are not getting right now that would offer real value.
Help me understand how to dress professionally appropriate for my career.
Help me find clothes that fit well.
Help me coordinate, accessorize and create multiple outfits to make my money go further.
2. Help Get Me There
The rising generation does not see transportation the way previous generations saw it. Car ownership will not be ubiquitous. It may not even be popular. To get younger shoppers to the stores you may need to actually give them a ride to the store, or help them foot the bill.
The students had ideas like receiving UberCredits from the store when they show their college IDs.
Retailers could advertise on the campus vans that offer students free rides around campus at night. During the day, Kohl’s could hire these vans to take student to shop at Kohl’s. Think Express route to Express
3. Find Me Where I am
If I should be thinking about you, meet me where I am. And that’s on SnapChat. Join the story.
Find me on campus. The students had multiple good ideas about Kohl’s showing up at places they are spending their time, like the student union, library and even bars and restaurants. To be top of mind, you may just have to show up and say hi.
Influence the influencers. The students talked about involving the professors, staff, other students and advisors. The Kardashians may not be the only people influencing these students.
4. Get Involved
The students had ideas for fashion shows on campus that Kohl’s could sponsor.
At Job Fairs retailers can offer advice on how to dress for interviews and the workplace.
There are great ways to get people to visit retail locations. Personalized services and unique experiences will be key. Think about services as much or more than you think about the products you sell. Remember to fish where the fish are. Not where the old fish used to swim. You may have to coordinate or compensate the travel. This may sound weird, but it is important. It’s no longer business as usual. And the new business may feel unusual. But that’s what keeps it interesting.
These modes are not sequential. You can shift from one mode to another in any order you choose. Read a book and you are in Growth Mode. Do some drugs and you are in atrophy mode. Brush your teeth and you are in Maintenance Mode. (Listen to some 80s English electronic music and you are in Depeche Mode.)
Right now I am spending as much time as I can in Growth Mode. I am reading for learning. I’m working out regularly. And I have started my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry, which pushes me to grow every day.
Growing By Learning From Others.
To push myself for more growth, I am soaking up as much as I can about inventors and pioneers. Recently I’ve studied Walt Disney, Lewis and Clark, the team at Pixar, and Ernest Shackleton. Right now I am studying Orville and Wilbur Wright. Notice I say that I am studying them. Not reading about them. You can read simply to be entertained. Or to kill time. I’m studying because I am trying to learn and grow.
The Wright Brothers
For those of you who aren’t up to date on your turn-of-the-last-century trivia, Orville and Wilbur Wright, from Dayton, Ohio, invented the airplane. Which changed the world forever. In fact, if it weren’t for them you wouldn’t be able to complain about the lack of leg room or that spotty in-flight wi-fi as you cross the entire country in just 6 hours.
One of the things that stood out to me about the Wrights was their highly pragmatic approach to their own growth and learning. Today, you and I can use their approach to develop our own breakthroughs, both personally and professionally.
The Wright Stuff
To learn and grow like the Wright Brothers read the following excerpt from a talk Double Dubs (my nickname for Wilbur Wright) gave to a group of engineers in Chicago:
Now, there are two ways of learning to ride a fractious horse: One is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks.
The latter system is the safest, but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial. -Wilbur Wright 1901
Applying Wilbur’s Approach
The same holds true for you my friend. You can study that challenge in front of you from the comfort of your couch. You can read about it, talk about it and watch other people do it. But if you really want to learn how to do it yourself, you have to climb aboard your own flying machine and learn the tricks yourself, through trial and error.
That’s how I started The Weaponry. I read and studied and tried to prepare ahead of time. But eventually I had to jump in the cockpit, pull back on the wheel and start messing with the controls. I’m learning by doing. And I’m learning faster than I ever could from a book or a class.
The same approach holds true for learning anything. You learn how to kayak, juggle, write code, start a non-profit, lead, cook, invest and speed-eat hot dogs by doing. Experience is the greatest teacher. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes help you course-correct and keep you moving forward.
Don’t settle for Maintenance Mode. Avoid Atrophy Mode at all costs. And keep growing. Not by watching or reading. But by doing. Get off the fence and climb aboard your own horse, bicycle or flying machine today. Then just keep at it until you get it Wright.
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Starting something new is hard. I’m not just talking about things like going to prison. Which I imagine is really hard at first. And in the middle. And towards the end. It’s hard to be a rookie at anything. Some people enjoy the luxury of not caring whether or not they look dumb doing something new. I don’t have that luxury. I care.
But I also really enjoy taking on new challenges. And I have developed my own technique for starting new activities that you may find usefeul. I refer to it as my Double Dutch technique. You remember Double Dutch. It’s the playground activity where you try to jump two ropes, swinging simultaneously, in opposite directions. Because jumping one swinging rope just isn’t hard enough. Double Dutch can be a ridiculously intimidating activity. Those ropes are relentlessly nipping at your heels. And once they bite your foot the game immediately halts to bring everyone’s attention to your failure.
But I like Double Dutch. It’s an activity for people who like to try hard things. It’s much more challengeing than single Dutch, or non-Dutch rope jumping. And it’s infinitely harder than just jumping up and down with no rope (which always earns me funny looks).
I like to try hard things. It makes me feel stronger, more confident and more capable. It makes me feel like I am growing. And I like to work with others who enjoy pushing themselves.
Today, I utilize my Double Dutch technique all the time as I grow my advertising agency, The Weaponry. Because not only am I taking on new challenges personally, I want our entire team to continuously expand our capabilities and find new and better ways to help our clients.
Here’s how my Double Dutch technique works.
I get close to the activity. To get a feel for Double Dutch you have to step into that space right next to the ropes. And when I start something new I try to first get really close to the action without fully engaging. There is something about being close to the activity that helps you absorb how it works quicker. If you want to climb Mt. Everest go to basecamp first to get aclimated.
I watch others. Aside from the very first Double Dutchers on Earth, whom I assume were twins from Amsterdam, I bet no one has ever tried jumping the two-ropes-of-doom without first watching someone else do it. That’s why I always watch other people performing the task I want to learn. I study the moves, the attitude and the technique. Much like an actor studies others when preparing to play a role.
I find the rhythm Double Dutch has a unique rhythm all its own. You have to get in sync with it to succeed. Most human interactions are like this. The interactions at a networking event, a yoga class, and in business meetings follow a certain flow and cadence. Learn them so you can anticipate the order and timing of the activity.
I jump in. At some point if you want to Double Dutch you have to jump in. Once I have armed myself reasonably well by getting close to an activity, watching it, and finding the rhythm, I channel my inner Davd Lee Roth and I jump (might as well, right DLR?). Sometimes it goes well from the start. Other times I need a mulligan.
I recalibrate In Double Dutch the rope tells you what you did wrong. And the problem is always that you touched the rope. The question is where. Use that feedback to do better on the next try. If you jumped too soon, wait another beat. If you jumped too late, go a bit sooner. This is little data at its best. Create a new plan based on the learnings.
I jump in again. And again. To jump ropes you have to keep trying. This is how life works. Get in and jump, over and over until you get it right. Whether you want to build a great brand, learn how to knit, or run QuickBooks, there is ultimately no substitute for doing. Be a do-er.
As you focus on growth and acquiring new skills consider the Double Dutch approach. Give yourself a chance to get close, observe, absorb, try, learn and try again. Soon you will find yourself in rhythm, jumping, and singing, ‘Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, Quarter Pounder, French Fries.’ Let’s talk about how well you’re doing when I see you at recess. Until then, here’s a little inspiration.