It’s interesting to discover what people have found to be true about life and leadership, but it’s fascinating to hear what they’ve found to be false. In the “sh*t that isn’t true” blog we explore cultural clichés and lessons you should “unlearn” on Day One.

Sh*t That Isn’t True: ‘Be So Good they Can’t Ignore You’

“I

’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” 

– Isaac Jaffe in Sports Night, S1, Ep.3, “The Hungry and the Hunted” (written by Aaron Sorkin)

I’ve referenced that quotation hundreds of times in my life, and its truth hit me in the face once again as Kate Jennison, Head of People at the crowd-funding platform Tilt, shared with me her least favourite cultural cliché:

“That line, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you,’” she said. “I call bullshit on that.”

I had been pacing as Kate and I chatted on the phone, but her comment stopped me dead. She was only the second person I’d interviewed since we shifted this blog to focus on cultural clichés and “sh*t that isn’t true”, and the piece of advice she chooses to skewer? It’s one I’ve probably repeated a hundred times to people asking for insight on building their careers. Particularly since reading Cal Newport’s tremendous book of the same title.

“Really?” I asked, completely unprepared to have had a personal mantra taken down. “Please tell me why!”

“Inherent in that phrase is the idea that…your actions should be about proving your worth or your impact to others,” Kate explained. “And I think if you were to design you entire life around being so good that they couldn’t ignore you, sure you might create some good things…but I’m 100% sure that at the end of that journey you would feel empty and potentially not aligned with who you are. Having a plan to attack life that depends on external validation is, to me, ultimately signing up for failure.”

Having a plan to attack life that depends on external validation is, to me, ultimately signing up for failure.

I felt a slight sense of relief. Perhaps Kate wasn’t disagreeing with what I felt was the key takeaway from one of my favourite quotes of all time.

“I never thought of it that way,” I told her. “To me it always meant, ‘Focus on what’s most important. Focus on your craft, and don’t get distracted by noise: what others are doing, how many followers you have, what your website looks like. Worry less about how your brand looks and more about whether you’re great at your craft.’ I never considered what it might be teaching is, ‘You know what matters? What they think of you, not what you think of you.’”

Kate remained dubious.

“Can you imagine telling…a little girl or boy that what they should most focus on is being good enough for others?” She pointed out in response. “It’s just, to me, a very toxic value system or belief structure. I get what you’re saying, but maybe the way that I would say what you’re saying is, ‘Fall in love with your passion. Get lost in time with your art. Create and build what life you love.’ Because I believe if you’re doing those things, then peoples’ jaws will drop to the floor.”

Inner Swag

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The challenge for me was that “fall in love with your passion” is a cultural cliché in its own right, so I asked Kate to expand on how someone goes about doing that. Kate offered a perspective from Danielle LaPorte’s book The Desire Map:

“Figure out how you want to feel every day and invest in that,” she explained. “Ask ‘what are the top things that you want to feel?’… Once you figure out those key feelings, then you’re looking at, ‘What are the ways that I should be spending my time to feel more of that?’”

I was intrigued by this idea: instead of identifying what you have to do every day to achieve certain goals, identify how you want to feel every day, and engage in activities that create those feelings. It involves a recognition that it’s not actually the goals we want, but the feelings that achieving them brings. So why not make feelings goals? It’s a far more direct approach.

Kate pointed out that when we do things that feel good, we’ll likely spend more time and energy on them. This leads to an increase in skill for sure, but it has a far more important impact.

It’s not actually the goals we want, but the feelings that achieving them brings. So why not make feelings goals?

“When you feel more of what you want to feel, you put out  a vibration into the universe that really tells other people, even subconsciously, about who you are,” said Kate. “Do that, and they’ll be drawn to you.”

Kate then dropped her personal term for the energy put off by people who take this approach to life and work: inner swag.

“Inner Swag for me is somebody that you meet and they might be super calm and quiet, or they might be really loud, but whatever it is, they are really grounded in who they are,” explained Kate. “You can’t touch it or you can’t feel it, but you can’t help but just kind of be in awe of them because they’re so aligned with their spirit. People that I meet like that–who I say have inner swag–are people who have found a way to express themselves and it feels really good.”

Design Your Life

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So if Kate could sit down with the “Day One” version of herself, how would she teach herself the art of “Inner Swag”?

“If I were to sum it up in one sentence, it would be ‘design your thoughts and design your life,’” said Kate. “I believe that what you think, you are, so if you spend your time saying, ‘I want to be good enough for other people to notice me,’ then you’ll spend a lot of time asking, ‘I wonder what Bob and Jo will think,’ and, ‘Am I good enough? Do I have any worth? Where should I spend my time? Oh, I should spend it where people will notice me.”

“However,” Kate continued. “You can decide that you want to have a really healthy, nourishing inner dialogue of, ‘I am abundant, I am creative, I am truly infinite, I can do whatever I put my mind to’. If you start there, you acknowledge what you like to express and then spend time designing your life around your feelings and that creative expression. I believe that will lead to the healthier life.”

This perspective seemed at odds with the thoughts of my most recent podcast guest Kanika Gupta, who indicated she thought “goals are toxic” and cautioned about the dangers of over planning your life. I mentioned this to Kate.

Acknowledge what you’d like to express [in the world] and then spend time designing your life around your feelings and that creative expression.

“I don’t think of designing my life as planning it; instead, I think of it as working from a place of where I’m going to invest energy,” she responded after considering for a moment. “When I say ‘design your life’ I don’t mean plan five, ten years out who you’re going to be. I mean take your week, and if the feelings that you want to feel are soulful, wild, creative, connected, love, then design your life so that in a given week you are doing things that make you feel those ways…Do you see what I mean?”

I love that a conversation that began by challenging an idea I’ve always held dear ended on a note so congruent with the work that I do. Day One Leadership really is about designing your life: identifying behaviours you’ll undertake today because they are consistent with who you want to be, not because you have a particular outcome or goal in mind. Through embracing that process, you’ll likely generate outcomes far better than you could have planned for.

Design is about today. Plans are about tomorrow.  Design your life, don’t plan it.  Be your version of good; it’s too good to ignore. And if anyone does, you won’t care.

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