Transcript below, for those of you who prefer reading over listening!
This is part 2 of a conversation. In part 1, Jeff shared a template for understanding what is happening in the macro environment, and why this downturn feels different than ones that CEOs, founders, investors may have lived through in the past.
He helped us build a mental model to look at what’s happening to
- the cost of capital – not just price but the cost of capital;
- the cost of talent – both in terms of wages and salaries, and what talent is demanding in terms of a workplace environment and what talent needs from its leaders; and
- the cost of driving growth.
Jeff, building off of last week’s model, help us understand, what do we do about it?
Thank you, Angie. We just had the SVB collapse and a lot of things are happening, so we see the cost of capital rising. Hundreds of people are reaching out to us and asking, what do I do about this?
Given what we talked about last week, we say, hey listen, when you’re in this kind of environment, there’s really no playbook. And when there’s no playbook, you need to learn your way to success. I think that’s a very scary answer for people, because it creates the imagery of being dropped in the middle of a jungle, not knowing where water, food, or shelter is, and having to slash your way out. Meanwhile, everything is trying to eat you.
That’s not what we mean when we say you have to learn your way out of it. There are experienced explorers who get dropped into unfamiliar places and successfully navigate their way out. And there are people who are unpracticed explorers who really struggle with even a minor dislocation or change. We want to help you become effective explorers and learners.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I decided this past weekend I want to tell a deeply personal story. I’ve written about it internally at Talentism, and I haven’t talked about it more broadly than that. It’s about a health experience I had starting almost exactly a year ago.
So let’s go back to November 2021. I’m starting to experience weird health symptoms. I’m in pain all of the time. I’m popping Advil like vitamins. It’s hard to get out of bed. It’s difficult to move. There are a lot of other symptoms. Obviously these are all bad signs. But at the same time, I’m losing weight – which is something I’ve always struggled with. My weight is something that I track religiously. I was thrilled when it was going down. Yet I felt terrible, and by March of 2022, I’m thinking, this probably really isn’t good.
So I finally went to a doctor. They do an A1C test for blood sugar. You’re hoping that the result is going to come in somewhere below 5. And if it’s between 6 and 7, you’ve got problems. And if it comes in between 8 and 11, you are type 2 diabetic. The nurse walked in to give the results to the doctor, and the doctor literally dropped her clipboard and said, I’m so sorry, your number is 13. We haven’t seen a number this high. You have very advanced diabetes and we should talk about what this means. This is a life-threatening illness. Your symptoms suggest neuropathy. We expect you have fatty liver disease – which further tests confirmed. We expect you’ll start going blind soon.
She said that very few people turn around from this when the number is this high, so I should talk to my loved ones. I’m in shock. I walk to the car and start crying. My wife’s at home when I arrive and I just burst into tears – just to be clear, I love crying, but I rarely cry out of shock, I’m more of a good movie crier. I didn’t know what to do. For a few days, I walked around shell-shocked. Then I started doing some research, and you realize everybody’s got their playbook. Like you need to go on insulin – don’t go on insulin – you need to cut out all carbs – you should go on the Mediterranean diet – you need to exercise a lot – you need to exercise a little – here’s all the nutritional advice…
I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and I was pretty despondent. A week after my diagnosis, I had a business trip to California. I’d been trying to see an old friend, Kurt Schwarz, who I had worked with in the days when Talentism worked with Palantir. It’d been difficult to get together until that point, but this time we did, and I shared this story with Kurt. It so happened that Kurt was at a point in his life – after a very long and distinguished career in tech – where he’d decided he really wanted to prioritize helping others with their health. He’d made that decision within the last week, and I was the first person he was talking to about it. And here I was, presenting this case of despondency. Long story short, Kurt saved my life, and I’ll forever be grateful to him for that.
There’s a really important lesson here. To go to the end of the story, I’ve dropped my A1C down to 4.1, I’ve reversed the fatty liver disease. I did start losing my sight – I reversed that. I’ve reversed the neuropathy. All my tests are normal – as a matter of fact, far superior to where I was when I was the healthiest in my entire life. It’s been almost exactly a year since the diagnosis.
I think in the conventional wisdom, people would think: Jeff got scared and then he got disciplined – Jeff’s got grit, and so he set an audacious goal, and he worked at it. That is wrong. That is not what happened because that’s not how success happens.
It’s important to understand this journey through the lens of how founders and leaders should navigate the current environment. Because they’re getting a dire diagnosis right now. It’s a diagnosis that they could lose something they really care about – maybe not as much as their lives, but they care about it a lot, and that’s their companies. And they are hearing lots of different advice: you need to cut everything – you need to cut your way to success – you need to grow your way out of success – you need to do A – you need to do B… Just like when I started researching diabetes. I can’t tell you how many world experts I either talked to or read about, that contradicted each other, point by point, and were completely confident the entire time that they were right and the other person was wrong. For a disease like diabetes, there is no playbook that is guaranteed to work for you. When you are a founder in the current situation, there is no playbook that is guaranteed to work for you.
While diabetes and the current environment are very different things, they follow that pattern – you have to learn your way out of them. And the question is, how do you do that? Well, you have to actually understand the simple premise that you don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. I’m quoting that from James Clear, Atomic Habits – great book, everybody should read it. It is a nice articulation of something that I’ve been saying for a long time: humans are not robots with hearts, we are apes with calculators. We create our environment, and then we are affected by that environment. This is all happening unconsciously, and so what you have to do, if you want to learn your way out of the jungle you’ve been dropped into, is you have to have a system that gets you out of the jungle. The system isn’t: I’m just going to have the sharper machete and swing harder for longer and that’s what’s going to work. When I look at the advice that founders get today, that’s what the advice looks like – sharper machete, swing harder, swing longer, and you will get out of the jungle. That is a hope-is-a-strategy premise, and it doesn’t work.
So I wanted to go through what I did in order to get to this point of this success. And who knows what the future holds. But right here, right now I have my health numbers and leading indicators in front of me. Right now, I’ve got a lot of confidence that this thing has been reversed.
First, thank you for sharing your health journey with us. That’s a personal story, and opening that up to the Talentism community and and to our listeners and our readers – it’s very much appreciated. Second, boy am I glad as somebody who works at Talentism, that this is something you’ve prioritized and you’ve created a system in which you can learn into what a healthy path looks like for you. We count on you, Jeff.
I want to highlight a couple of things that you said that I think that might sound scary or provide relief to people.
The first one is: this is a moment which is relatively unprecedented. But because you as a founder or a CEO are surrounded by well-meaning people who will give advice of the nature “do as I did” or “do as it would benefit me” – they’re going to try and tell you what to do. And that might give you the false impression that there’s a playbook here, and think that all you have to do is listen to people who have been through this before. But I think I hear you saying, Jeff, that there are two things wrong with that: (1) people telling you what to do haven’t actually been here before because this time is different, and (2) also they’re not you, and that’s a really important part of the equation. That’s an important point that we want to make sure lands with folks.
And then the other point that I heard you say, this is not about doing one thing, it’s not about “okay, I’m going to be a wartime CEO now and I’m going to apply discipline management, which means cutting the fat off my team. So I’m going to do a 10% RIF.” This is about creating a system that allows you to experiment and learn your way towards getting where you need to be.
Am I hearing those two things right?
Yes, an excellent distillation as always. There’s no advisor who’s talking to you who actually has been through this exact moment in time before. And any advice you get needs to be predicated on what you are like, as opposed to how things should work. You need to find your own path. And there is an effective way to find your own path.
Let me just clarify for listeners – I don’t think Jeff is saying ignore your supporters, mentors, and board. I hear Jeff saying that we’ll talk about the system that you can create that allows you to metabolize all those different inputs and pieces of advice in a way that works for you, and allows you to treat them as hypotheses that you test and experiment.
Yes, you said it far better than I did. I believe that everybody’s well-meaning. In order for somebody to be very good at giving advice – very good, not just okay – they have to first have a high degree of personal mastery, and most people don’t have that. So therefore you should be suspect of all advice, because it’s not clear whether the advice is coming from a place of “I see you clearly, I see this situation clearly, and I have a good way to navigate” or “this is of freaking me out, and I’m going to convert that fear state into a reactive statement, and feel good that I gave you that statement, and judge you if you don’t take it to heart and do something with it.”
At some point we might want to share our perspective on the difference between advice and coaching, because I think it’s important to say that part of what we’re doing here is we’re sharing our observations, and not trying to offer advice.
Correct. Okay, so I’m having lunch with Kurt, and he says, I want to help you. To be clear, Kurt is not a diabetes specialist or a doctor. He is a guy who has cared about health his whole life. He’s tried and experimented purposefully, failed a lot, and had gotten to clarity about the ways to think about health – not on what I should do about it. Kurt was playing the role of a clarity coach. So I want to talk about the different kinds of coaches, and why having Kurt as my clarity coach was the best first step towards setting up the learning system – to setting up my way to learn my way to success.
So let’s think of coaching in terms of what the coach is trying to do. Sometimes a coach is trying to provide a safe space where you feel okay about discussing the things that are either unmentionable or unspeakable in other company. Leadership is a lonely place and I can’t walk around talking about how I think my people are terrible. And I can’t share with them that I’m afraid for the future of the company. I can’t do those things because people freak out, so I need a safe space to talk about that, and I turn to my business coach, who listens to me. And it makes me feel better to have a person to talk to that I trust. And the way the coach helps me navigate the conversation actually helps me talk my way to a bit of understanding. Or at the very least, a sense of peace.
I think that form of coaching is incredibly important. In fact, this morning I was struggling and my wife sat down and listened to me as I rambled for 30 minutes, and by the end of it, I felt much much better. I think that has a lot of benefits. But when I got my diabetes diagnosis, my wife didn’t know what to do about that. She was almost as affected by it as I was. She didn’t know what to do. So this thing that we often call ‘comfort coaching,’ where a coach creates a system, a space for you to be able to articulate what you’re going through, and through that articulation, that externalization get to some level of peace and comfort. That wasn’t what I needed at that moment. In order to save my life, that’s not what I needed.
There are other kinds of coaches who are experts at a particular skill. They’re experts at a particular form of something. This often is equated with sports coaches, like football or hockey. They know how to win a game. They know the individual skills that people need to win that game, and so they know how to hold people to account to practice, to measure that, etc. In my health journey, what that would have been like is, hey listen, we need to get you on insulin, we need to radically alter your diet. Here are the skills that are needed. It’s pretty clear. This is very close to advisory. It goes beyond advisory in that it’s also a delivery mechanism for that advice, and following up, and accountability on that advice. But I had already talked to a number of world experts, and they disagreed. They were equally qualified, and they fundamentally disagreed on the path forward, because they weren’t putting me in the picture, they were just talking in general about how things should work. So I knew I didn’t want that kind of coach.
What Kurt did was, he said, let me understand your goals, let me understand why those goals are important, and let’s start learning about you and learning about the system around you to understand what got you here in the first place – because until I understand that, I’m really not going to understand how to help you get to where you want to go.
We started having these really profound conversations – which in the moment felt pretty luxurious. I was sitting there with Kurt and wondering why are we talking about this? I’m dying. You want to talk about my life in 30 years, and I’m telling you I’m hoping to make it 3. So why are we talking about this stuff?
But he asked me to trust him, and I did. So we started talking about my vision for what I really cared about. And we started talking about what my life would be in 30 years, if I achieved my goals. We started discussing this concept that we came to call ‘30 bitchin years’, which is: what would it be like to live the next 30 years into your health potential? When Talentism clarity coaches work with clients, it’s about their business potential.
He said: Imagine this – what are you doing?
I said: Well, someday I hope I have grandkids and I’d really like to play with them.
He said: Okay, good. Well, what does it feel like to play with your grandkids, etc. Do you want to be helping people build their businesses in 30 years?
I said: Yeah.
He said: Okay, well that’ll be tough if you’re not here. You got married relatively young. You had kids relatively young. You’re 57 now. Do you want to travel in your 70s?
I said: Yeah.
He said: Well, isn’t traveling pretty exhausting?
I said: Yeah, I can barely do it now.
He said: Okay, well what would it be like to not have it be exhausting?
And we had this series of conversations where we kept adding up this picture to get a rich visualization of my goals and why they mattered to me. He was using evidence to get there. He wasn’t just saying “hey, just draw a picture.” He asked, “do you like spending time with your family? Have you spent time with your family today?” He was asking those kinds of questions. The first thing he was helping me do is invest in getting real clear on where I wanted to go, even in the midst of fear that was guiding me to say, I don’t know why we’re talking about this, things may end real soon.
I see this with my clients and I think Talentism coaches see this with their clients, because the client will say, you don’t understand – I’m going to run out of money in six months. I need to talk about that. And we have to reorient them to: the only thing that’s going to fundamentally drive you through this is this deep sense of meaning and commitment, because you’re about to go through hell.
So that was the first thing that Kurt did. The next thing is he started helping me reorient who I was in the picture of that goal. I had struggled with my health all my life, and so I had this narrative that I’m really bad at my health, I’m bad at exercise, I’m bad at eating, I’m bad at everything with regards to my health. And through asking for evidence – not atta-boy-speeches – we started to put together this picture. It wasn’t true that I was bad at health. What I was bad at was the speed of change. So in other words, we were able to go back through my history, and we figured out that there were at least 15 different times where I had tried to tackle a health challenge. And during those moments where I was trying to tackle that challenge, I had been pretty disciplined. I had focused on diet, I had focused on exercise, and I had done a reasonable job by all the lagging measures that we typically use to evaluate health. I had done a pretty good job with that. And then I would drop it. And in dropping it. I felt like a failure. It’s a classic health thing where you go on a diet, you drop it, you gain the weight back and then some. I didn’t understand why that was happening. I really judged myself harshly. And in that harsh judgment, I was totally missing the big picture. The big picture was that I had a compulsion to health that had a bad system of support.
I had built a bad system of support. I had prioritized a lot of other things. I had put a lot of other feedback mechanisms in place that gave me immediate feedback on how I was doing as a parent, as a husband, as a son, as a brother, or in my business. I didn’t have those feedback mechanisms in my health. And so therefore you’re falling to the level of your systems. In the areas where my systems were good, I was experiencing some level of success. In the areas where my systems were bad, I was having a lot of volatility. The evidence was there that I cared about my health, but I was fighting my own system.
The first thing that I heard you say that was really important in this journey was that you were in a moment of fear, and when fear is motivation, it doesn’t give us staying power to do the hard stuff. So Kurt was helping you find motivation – to go through what you were about to go through – that came from a different place than fear. And for you it was, what could the future be that was meaningful to you. So starting by recommitting from meaning, from purpose, and not from fear.
The second thing I heard you say is that you had a story you were telling yourself about how you got to this place. And implicit in that story was a diagnosis that, hey, I’m just not good at this – we hear this a ton with our clients. What I heard you say is, Kurt didn’t accept that story. He said, okay, maybe, but he asked for evidence. And the evidence actually suggested that there was an orientation to focusing on health, but that compared to other areas where you have an orientation or compulsion or drive, you didn’t have a good system when it came to health. So now you’re armed with this different diagnosis: in places where I have a compulsion or a drive and I have a good system, I get good results. This is a place where I have compulsion but no system. Maybe that’s the reason I’m getting bad results.
Those are the two things that I heard are critical elements of setting up this system around you.
Correct. A perfect articulation.
When I reframed it from self BSL – that thing that exists in all of us that judges ourselves harshly and actually obscures the truth that we just aren’t designing well. The reason we start with “we’re apes with calculators, we aren’t robots with hearts” is you have to orient to the fact that we design our lives in such a way that limits us. And I had designed my health in a way that limited me. There are different components to that, we went through each of the components. When I saw clearly that the story wasn’t “Jeff is an overweight guy who can’t deal effectively with his health” to “Jeff is a guy who’s compulsive about his health, and keeps ignoring how bad the system is he set up to support that compulsion,” it completely changed me. It completely opened my aperture on the solutions and what I could do.
I believe when I’m talking to founders, and they express to me imposter syndrome – or the things that a lot of founders think, like wow I’m just not a good CEO. I’m not a good manager I’m not a good hiring manager I’m that good at raising money I’m not good at fill in the blank – and I reorient them to: You actually have shown talent or compulsion in these areas, but you have built a system that doesn’t allow you to gain mastery and leverage those things so that you can achieve your goals. It’s a reframing from the old narrative of “if we have something that other people judge bad in us, we suck” to “if we have something that is preventing us from achieving our goals, we are blind.” And I believe that pivot is essential and inherent in clarity coaching, and missed in other forms of coaching.
There could be folks listening who are saying this seems a little Pollyanna-ish, like, oh I can do anything if I have a system for it. But what I heard you say is, if there’s evidence of compulsion (you keep going towards this thing) or there’s evidence of talent (there’s something that you’re doing here well that it’s worth supporting), then it’s worth asking, okay, if those things exist, why isn’t it working? And the default oh, I’m just not good enough is a disservice. Instead, you should look at what would allow you to amplify the compulsion and the talent that exists.
I wanted to differentiate that from “you can be good at anything.”
Yes, This is inherent in the Talentism IP. You may be able to get “good at anything,” but you cannot be excellent at anything – and excellence is the standard. In my health case, my standard wasn’t “I want to be a little less diabetic, I want to die in 5 years instead of 3” – that wasn’t the standard. I wasn’t trying to go for a little less worse. And typically, when we see people accepting goals or missions or visions from others, that’s basically the standard they’re setting (oh, I’ll be pretty good at this).
We believe inherent in business competitive advantage, personal competitive advantage is – you have to actually be excellent, and you have to be on the path of excellence. So in my case, I needed to live. I needed to have a system that took all my leading indicators down to: you’ll always be a diabetic, but you’re not going to die from it, you’re not limited by it, so you can actually live the 30 bitchin years you want. So we’re not seeking to say: just be a little bit better.
This is something we talked about in the prior podcast – if you got dropped into this jungle where the cost of talent, capital, and growth are completely unfamiliar, and you’re sitting there, confused about what to do and saying, all I need to do is getting through this next 3-6 months, you’re probably not going to get through the next 3-6 months. If all you’re saying is, I just need to survive, remember that you can’t sit in the middle of a jungle and hope that food, water, and shelter are coming to you. That’s not going to happen. You’re going to have to chart a path to success. And if your path to success at this point in time is: I’m going to cut my way to success, I’m going to hunker down and survive… Maybe you sort of survive. I think the odds are low. But maybe you sort of survive, but you aren’t going to have the company you want. You aren’t going to achieve your goals.
So what I’m talking about is: look at the evidence of where your compulsion really is, look at that evidence of what you did even when nobody was watching? What you did even when it seemed like there was no incentive to do it? And if you show talent and compulsion in those areas, and it still isn’t working for you, it’s a system-level diagnosis. It’s not a personal failure.
This was a useful tangent, but I want to make sure we get back to this idea of how to help people who are looking for a playbook, recognize that what they’re actually trying to build is a learning system. So let’s go back to that conversation with Kurt and what changed for you.
The first thing that happened is Kurt’s my clarity coach, and he’s starting to help me see that I need a system, and I need to reorient myself in that system – I need to understand my past successes and failures and struggles in light of the system-level diagnosis, not in the Jeff-is-bad diagnosis. Not because we’re trying to buoy everybody’s self- esteem, but because it’s the most practical way to unleash potential and improve performance.
So the next, Kurt says, okay, let’s define what a good system looks like.
And the first thing he asks is: how do you know you’re healthy?
I said: I weigh myself.
He said: That’s a terrible way to know whether you’re healthy. First of all, you were losing weight as you were dying.So you can’t possibly believe that as your weight was dropping, you were getting healthier. Secondly, weight is a highly fluctuating indicator of what’s happening in your body and it actually can go up when you’re getting healthy, and go down when you’re getting unhealthy. In general, of course, people’s weight does correlate to some degree to their health over long periods of time in different ways. But it’s a lagging indicator of your health. We need to start synthesizing your health through leading indicators.
And it was brilliant, because what he helped me see is that there are other indicators that gave me a really clear articulation of whether I was building a system that would support my health. So I stopped focusing on weight, and I started focusing on the number of hours on my feet. I stopped focusing on whether I could do some big event – run a marathon or whatever – and started focusing on a measure called VO2 max, the amount of oxygen my body can consume in a certain period of time under load or stress. I started measuring lean body mass – which actually increases my weight.
These leading indicators formed and informed a picture for me of whether I was doing the things day in and day out that were going to lead to long-term success and my 30 bitchin years goal. In our business and what we do, we talk to people about the leading indicators of whether your organization is actually healthy. Because we believe that financial indicators are lagging indicators. If you have a bad revenue month, that month actually occurred many months ago – sometimes a year ago. That bad revenue month is because of your strategy, which you formed a long time ago. It’s because of bad hiring practices, bad management practices, taking your eye off the ball, letting things be broken for long periods of time. All the indicators that people typically look at to assess the health of a business are lagging indicators, and sometimes they are far lagging indicators.
The other thing about lagging indicators, just like when I was stepping on the scale and I was losing weight while I was dying, sometimes those numbers are going in the right direction for the wrong reason. Sometimes you are growing because of a weird point-in-time thing, not because your business is doing better. And I would point out that all the big layoffs that are happening in high tech are to take their headcounts back roughly to pre-pandemic levels. Because pre-pandemic, there was this point-in-time of easy capital, easy growth, relatively easy talent. And that got interpreted as: we are a killer business, we know what we’re doing, we’re making the right strategic move, the right investments, and this shit’s going to go on forever. And guess what? When the capital dried up and the talent and therefore growth got more difficult, it didn’t go on. Each of these places had to make sudden drastic moves that impacted their employees, investors, etc. Because all the numbers were trending in the right way, and it was because of the wrong reason.
When you are thinking about building a system of health, you need to be focused on leading indicators, not lagging indicators. And in our mind, the ultimate leading indicators are: your state of mind and your 3C, the 3C of the people around you, and the 3C of the enterprise – the degree of Confusion, Clarity, and Certainty that people have about the critical elements of how your business functions and what it’s trying to do.
When I saw that from my health perspective, it radically altered my life. I exercise a lot more, not because of my diabetes diagnosis, but because I’ve just found a real love of it after going through like four months of hating it. The change happened when I asked my wife if I could unload the dishwasher in the morning, because I realized I was waking up and immediately picking up email, because that was my reward system. So I decided to put my phone in the other room and go into the kitchen and start doing chores. And the data clearly showed that my activity was going up throughout the day by starting that way – not with a big exercise routine, or anything dramatic. Just getting on my feet, staying busy staying on my feet, which started to give me a sense of motion that then led into exercise. Kurt was the first person who helped me see this.
I said: I’m going to do this big workout this weekend.
He said: No, don’t do that. Could you just go on two short walks instead?
I said: What, are you nuts? Working out is the secret. That’s what I should be doing.
He said: No. We want you to start to enjoy being active. That’s a system you want. You want a really positive reward signal in the moment from being active.
With our clients, what we would typically say is: don’t think about that big or design change or big overhaul. How about this week you just go have a really good feedback conversation with your CFO, and then once you have it, let’s talk about it, do I can help you see all the ways that that was awesome.
We want to build in simple things that start to reinforce the system that is supporting you towards your goal. It’s not a big bang thing, it’s not one big change. It’s consistent learning. Once you have those measures, then you can experiment quickly. It’s super cool. Once you have a hypothesis about what you’re trying to achieve, and you can actually do something in a short period of time and get feedback through a measurement system… then it’s super cool because all you’re doing all the time is experimenting. I wasn’t focused day to day on 30 bitchin years, or trying to survive more than 3 years, or whatever it was. I just thought, I wonder if I do the dishes in the morning, whether I’ll have more activity that day. Then the next day I thought, I wonder if I go outside when I first get up, whether I’ll sleep better that night. And it was those little interventions and those little experiments that led to massive changes.
And in our work, I believe the same thing. Our clients are coming to us asking for the playbook. We say, there’s no playbook. They’ll ask us to tell them the one thing they need to do to actually be more effective with time management. I’ll ask, have you ever read a time management book before? And they’ll respond, of course, I’ve read 20 of them. I’ll ask, why do you think the 21st is going to take hold? There’s a reason you’re not prioritizing. And it’s not because you’re bad, stupid, or lazy. It’s because you’ve built your environment to make sure you don’t do that. So let’s figure out what your environment is and why you’re getting all these reward signals when you do bad things; why you’re feeling like you’re ineffective when you’re doing good things; and what’s happening and why is that happening.
Kurt helped me see that the path to learn fast was these small learning loops that were driven by small experiments that enabled me to measure leading indicators in different ways. Kurt always said that those leading indicators will add up to lagging to success – and they did. That happened with my blood sugar, fatty liver, neuropathy, sight, and weight. All of it was worked on, but I didn’t prioritize any of those things. Prioritizing those things would have focused me on the wrong thing – I would have focused on my failures and struggles as opposed to the design of the system that was going to lead me to success.
Jeff, there’s something in what you’re describing that feels very hard when I practice it with my clients. I heard you say: I was in a moment of fear and panic. I could lose my life. Thankfully that’s not what most of my clients are saying right now, but many of them are saying that it’s the end of their company if they can’t raise because they can’t drive sales, or prove product market fit, or prove that they merit their valuation. I heard you say that even in a moment where the temptation was to try and manipulate those measures that felt most correlated to making a difference in your longevity, you pulled away from those measures and focused on the system. It’s kind of like telling our clients: don’t try and force the sales, figure out what is the system that enables you to lean into what you’re compulsive about that will eventually fuel sales in your organization – and that might mean you don’t actually participate in sales, it might mean that you mentor and nurture people who drive sales, it might mean that you’re cog in the machine of people who run sales because you’re actually just brilliant at describing the vision of the company.
The reason I bring that up is because that counterintuitive motion – backing away from the thing you actually feel like you need to make impact on, and taking more of a systems view – can feel very difficult in a moment where you feel the urgency and the panic around the possible demise of your organization (or even looking at a down round or a RIF or something like that). And so I’d love your thoughts on what enabled you to take that counterintuitive motion in that scary moment, or how you help founders in that moment.
I want to first acknowledge that there are many things in our lives where people tell you something that is a simple and profound truth. It’s much simpler and more likely to lead to success than the thing we do today, but we hold on to the thing we do today. We all do it. It’s very difficult for the mind to see itself in its own mental model. It’s very difficult for the mind to break out of those patterns. And it feels much more comfortable to do the wrong thing to death than to do the right thing to life. I know the wrong thing to do, I’m familiar with the wrong thing to do, and I’ve lived a life where I’ve seen that succeed sometimes and I didn’t think, maybe I got lucky. Instead I think, I did that, and it works. And then you just keep doing it again and again, and that’s the definition of insanity. But at some level we’re all primates with calculators, and we’re all a little bit irrational and insane.
So it makes a lot of sense when my clients say: No Jeff, you don’t understand. I know what I’m doing doesn’t work. But what you’re saying is crazy.
And then I say: Does it sound better?
They’ll say: Oh yeah, it sounds better than what I’m doing. But it sounds crazy, and so I can’t do it.
And I understand that. I understand why – I’m sure I’m going to get this statistic wrong – 85% of men who have heart attacks do not alter their diet or exercise routines. Even though it is materially life or death. I went in about five months after my diagnosis and a set of blood tests and my A1C had dropped 6 points – which they thought was physiologically impossible by the way. And this endocrinologist who took this blood test came back in and said, this is a little shocking, we’ve never seen this before. Could you talk to the doctors of my practice and tell us how you did it? So all of these doctors gathered in the room and I went through it and I said, I’m really struggling to see how anything I did is revolutionary. It seems pretty simple. There’s lots of literature out there. It’s pretty common sense. They all agreed and they all said: but nobody ever does it.
So it’s not like people don’t know that if you’re in unfamiliar territory, it’s territory that’s really unique to you. And there’s no real playbook for it. You’re going to have to learn your way out of this situation. You need a good system. You need a coach to help you through that system. You need to measure success in different ways. You need to run smaller experiments…
It’s not like any of that is news. I can point to a hundred different texts that lay out all of that. The thing that put me in the 15% – or whatever the percentage is that didn’t fail – is I found a clarity coach and I trusted him. And I don’t know how many of our clients are willing to do that.
Let me explain it this way. After I started working with Kurt, we started mapping out the entire health system around me. Every element of my food environment, activity environment, my relationships. It was an ongoing weekly dialogue to keep mapping out this system and seeing all the feedback loops. At a certain point, I created this big, hairy, audacious goal that I’m very excited about, which is: I want to swim the English Channel. Just to be clear – if you drop me in the English Channel today, it wouldn’t go well.
This is a big goal. And I realized that I’m not going to get there without help. Again, there’s no real playbook for the English Channel. There’s lots of advice. People will tell you that you have to gain some weight, you have to lose some weight, you have to hydrate before…etc. Everybody that I talked to said: you have to do some things the same as everybody else, but you’re gonna have to figure out your own form and a lot of things for yourself. So I needed a coach to help me with that. Which isn’t what Kurt was doing. Kurt was helping me with the overall health system. Now I needed a swim-the-channel system, and Kurt connected me to Andrew – and I won’t give Andrew’s full name because I didn’t get his permission – but he’s another amazing human being. And Andrew started doing the exact same thing Kurt was doing, but at a smaller level. Andrew would say: Jeff I want you to do this exercise. And I’d be like: that’s nuts, Andrew – I’ve lifted weights before, so why is lifting 5 pounds this way going to do anything for me? But I trusted Andrew, and I did it, and it worked. I had to hang in there for a little bit with it. But it actually solved the underlying structural problem I was trying to deal with. This little movement with a little weight did this massive unlock on this whole muscle group.
My point is: I don’t know how to get to clarity on these things. I turn to people I trust who have actually worked hard to develop an expertise, a level of personal mastery, a level of skill mastery, and personal responsibility, to tell me when they don’t know, to invest in me, and be available to me. Both Kurt and Andrew hear from me all the time. In my coaching relationships, I’m surprised by how little my clients use me compared to how much they could – because I’m a total sucker for their problems, so they could write to me anytime. Some of my clients do that, but a lot of them think, okay, we’ll talk every 2 weeks. I’m thinking that that’s two weeks of learning we could lose. I use my clarity coaches. I’m trying to figure out what they’re seeing. I’m trying to make sense of their advice. I’m trusting them. I’m running the experiments diligently. I’m tracking the outputs. I’m comparing it to the hypothesis going in. I’m tracking the pains I’m feeling, the confusions I’m having – and I’m sharing that with my coach. Every week I write a big health reflection to all the people in my system. So I’m telling them what I’m struggling with so they all share that view within the system of what I’m going through and where I need help.
That’s a long-winded answer to your question, Angie. Clarity coaching is expensive, and if you are going to pay that money, you probably should trust the person who’s trying to take you down that path. That person might say, I understand you’re scared shitless and I understand you think you have to go get product-market fit by diving into the Do-level and micromanaging, that’s probably not going to work. And even if it does work, it’ll only work for a little bit of time, and then cause a lot of fragility later. Here’s a better way to do it. Let’s learn our way into what the best way is. If you can’t listen to that, and if you can’t find some peace or comfort in the fact that somebody is helping you through that, and instead your reaction is no they don’t get it… Maybe you’ll be successful, but probably not.