To understand why I feel this way, I'd like to share a deeply personal story that reveals my most shameful secret about myself. With the exception of two or three people, I haven't shared this with anyone else before.
You see, I’ve spent most of my life thinking that I didn't really have anything to say that would be valuable to anyone else... especially in the area of business. I know this seems odd given that you largely know me from either my writings or my videos on business.
It all started when I was about 11 years old. I grew up in a small business family. My parents ran one of the first Apple stores in my hometown of San Diego, CA. Back then, Apple stores didn't look anything like they do now.
Unlike today's largely direct (to consumer) sales channel, back then Apple used an indirect sales channel strategy (e.g., they sold products through independently owned retail stores like the one owned by my parents).
I worked at the store on and off for most of my childhood. I would pack boxes, count inventory, move boxes in the warehouse, drag networking cable in the ceiling crawlspace to connect new computers, and pretty much do whatever was needed to be done that a kid could do.
For dinner conversation, my parents would discuss the business - revenue, costs, personnel problems, new entrants (like CompUSA), lines of revenue, and other strategic issues. (Later, as a young adult, I was shocked to discover that this was not normal conversation for everyone else.)
I remember one conversation that I had with my dad when I was 11. I wanted to be helpful to my parents and their business because I saw how hard they were working. I forgot what prompted the conversation, but somehow I got on the topic of how to grow sales through advertising. At the time, my parents store attracted customers through:
1) Yellow Pages advertising,
2) newspaper advertising,
3) drive-by traffic from people seeing the street sign in a good location, and
4) repeat customers buying an upgraded or second computer.
Since the first three were all very expensive and probably the second largest expense after personnel costs, I remember asking my dad what percentage of the customers came from each advertising source.
I had two questions in my head at the time:
(1) Which customer source worked the best in terms of absolute numbers; and
(2) which customer source generated the most revenue relative to its cost?
I thought that if we knew which one worked the best, we could do more of it. So, if the Yellow Pages directory ads worked really well, maybe we should run a bigger ad, like some of the competitors. If the newspaper ads worked really well, it might make sense to run two ads instead of one, or to run the usual ad twice as often.
I figured, unless you knew what worked and by how much, it would be hard to know which approach would be the most effective and least risky way to grow sales. So, when I asked my dad what percentage of sales came from each advertising source, he said he didn't know. The computer system didn't track this information, and the salespeople didn't ask customers this question at the cash register.
I became increasingly intrigued by these questions and thought long and hard about how to get the information needed to answer them.
It was during this time that Apple had introduced a new computer called the Mac. It had a completely graphically oriented user interface, which has since become the norm. You could write documents with different size fonts, write documents in bold or underlined fonts, and other things that were largely considered revolutionary for the average person at the time.
Well, one of the things these tools allowed me to do was to create a new order form - the form that salespeople fill out to record who purchased what item, how much it cost, and to provide the customer with a receipt.
I designed a new form that looked mostly like the old form, but with the addition of a simple one-question survey that asked this:
How did you hear about us?
* Newspaper Ad
* Yellow Pages Ad
* Street Sign / Drive By
* Previous Customer
(In hindsight, to be MECE, the hierarchy really should be new customer vs. repeat customer, and the advertising sources should really be grouped under "new customers" - but I cut myself some slack… Hey, I was only 11 years old!)
I figured, if we used the new order form for a few weeks, we could quickly figure out what was working, why it was working, and how much each advertising source was producing in revenues.
After spending a few hours figuring out how to do this, I was very proud of my new form. I thought it could really help my parents’ business. But, when I showed my dad, he took a look, saw what I did, chuckled, and told me to not worry about it and to just go play outside.
I remember feeling disappointed at the response and just assumed that my ideas must not have been very good. I don't know if my dad was distracted, set in his ways, couldn't fathom that an 11-year-old child could come up with a useful idea, or truly just wanted me to be a kid and not to worry about adult problems.
(In fairness to my father, he was 10 times the father to me than his father was to him. He did his absolute best with what he had to work with)
It was only in hindsight that I realized how much that experience, and others like it, influenced me over the next few decades. In class, I would often have ideas but would rarely say anything. On some unconscious level, I just assumed my ideas weren't very good and in hindsight realized I was ashamed of myself. And, even though I did get good grades in high school and college, this underlying assumption was always there just below the level of self-awareness, somewhere in the back of my mind.
When I was recruiting for consulting jobs at Stanford, I remember going to one information sessions and meeting one person who had a BA, MD, and MBA - all from Harvard. I remember being in awe at some of the people working in these firms.
At the same time, I also remember thinking that the case-interview "puzzles" were really intriguing. In the way that Sherlock Holmes was drawn to a mystery, I was always drawn to business "puzzles" and found the entire process of problem-solving fascinating.
When I received offers from nearly every consulting firm that came to campus, and discovered that I received three- to seven-times more consulting offers than any of my friends, I was shocked. I figured that the firms must have made a mistake somehow. While I liked solving cases, I somewhat assumed that my ideas probably weren't that good.
Before my McKinsey start date, I remember being scared to death. I would be advising clients 40 years older than me... people running $500 million to $1 billion businesses. Those businesses had way more zeros than I was used to seeing. The one word that describes my primary emotion during that entire time was:
To my credit, I never let this fear get in the way of taking action. I still practiced cases and applied. And, the more I practiced, the more confident I appeared on the outside, even though, on the inside, I was in awe of the whole thing.
By the end of my time at McKinsey, I stopped being intimidated by people in positions of power (CEO clients). I learned that no matter how much power one has, however many degrees from Harvard, at the end of the day, 2 + 2 still equals 4. For me, facts and logic became the great antidote to feeling intimidated. I found senior clients would listen to me when I had the facts and logic on my side.
As a result, I left McKinsey with a much higher confidence level.
However, it's useful to realize that a distinction exists between confidence and self-esteem.
Confidence is the outward conveyance of calm and competence around a SPECIFIC domain. I am confident in my ability to solve business problems. I am not confident in, nor do I project confidence about my ability to run a chemistry lab.
Self-esteem is an entirely different animal. It is how you feel about yourself in all situations and contexts. It is an internal feeling that is comprehensive in nature (not just tied to a specific situation or task).
This distinction explains why, in my experience, some people who project too much confidence outwardly (bordering on arrogance) often have very low self-esteem. Sometimes the people who seem confident on the outside are compensating for an empty feeling on the inside.
It is my belief that some billionaires use the acquisition of wealth to fill a low self-esteem "hole." They think: “If I just get the next billion, I will feel better about myself.” Of course, this is a fool’s journey. Any moment of success is a temporary high that eventually fades, and how you feel about yourself on a self-sustaining basis is entirely independent of achievement, success, or money.
You can't fill a hole in your heart with money, a degree, or a more prestigious resume.
You can solve financial problems with financial improvement solutions.
You can solve a career problem with a career improvement solution.
You can solve emotional problems with emotional well-being improvement solutions.
But, you can't solve an emotional problem with a financial or career improvement solution.
It just doesn't work (although a lot of people try)...
When I left McKinsey, I was confident in the area of business, but I still had low self-esteem. In other words, I was certain I was good at solving business problems (high confidence), but I felt like I was a defective human being... and, as a result, I felt bad about myself (low self-esteem).
The key emotional insight that I've only discovered more recently is to realize that it's NOT the degree of perfection that matters, it's how you FEEL about yourself regardless of the level of perfection you may or may not have. In short, I was paying attention to the wrong metric most of my life. I was trying to reduce the "What’s wrong with me?" metric when I should have been focused on the "How much do I accept and love myself just the way I am?" metric. That was a tough lesson to learn.
In my process of self-acceptance, there have been two things that have been very helpful to me. The first is having this and other forums to share my ideas with the people like you. My original reason for writing was to free ideas that were stuck in my head. In other words, I wrote so I could stop fixating on ideas and get back to work. Much to my surprise, my writings have found an audience in you and others.
Between the thousands of emails and blog comments, I've slowly come to realize that maybe what I have to say IS valuable to others. This has helped to slowly erode the false premise that has governed the last few decades of my life - the premise that my thoughts are unworthy of others, and therefore I do not have worth as a person.
Yes, this premise isn't very logical, but nobody ever said an emotion has to be logical.
Second, even more than the ability to write, I have been blessed with the ability to receive the many, many thank-you emails from people around the world on how my ideas have changed their lives for the better.
I get so many emails along the following that I've lost track: "I didn't think I could reach that high in my career, I didn't believe it would work, but I still followed what you said exactly, and I surprised myself and achieved something I never thought I could."
The only thing more gratifying than accomplishing something you didn't think you could do is to be thanked for facilitating that process in someone else. It is very hard not to smile from ear to ear when reading a message like that.
As my closest friends know about me, I receive so much more satisfaction from helping and watching others succeed than from any of my own successes.
I've also been deeply moved when people thank me for helping them develop the courage and peace of mind to deliberately NOT go into consulting (even though they were "supposed to").
But, best of all are the messages several of you have sent thanking me for just being me. Those have been more touching to me than I have words to express.
Your kindness and heart felt appreciation has given me something near perfect SAT scores, high GPAs, two degrees from Stanford, 7 consulting job offers, 3 live television appearances, 5 book publishing credits, and numerous other accomplishments have not.
You've shown me that I have "worth" just for being me.
While I am comfortable being described as successful or accomplished, I'm entirely uncomfortable seeing words like kind, generous, high integrity, stronger character, and trustworthy used to describe me.
That's because those are words one uses to describe somebody with inherent worth and couldn't possibly be applicable to somebody worthless like me.
I now realize that how I've been seeing myself my entire life was wrong.
For someone who went through life feeling like he was a "nobody", it has been quite the revelation to discover that I was actually a "somebody" all along. That discovery has been the greatest gift of all... the gift of self esteem and self acceptance.
Your collective kindness and appreciation has helped me to realize both.
I am and will be forever grateful.