Why Not You?

My favorite quote from the 2014 Superbowl was, “Why Not You?”

It was a saying attributed to the father of Russell Wilson, quarterback of the 2014 champion Seattle Seahawks.

The quote was referenced by the sports commentators and again by Wilson in a post-game interview. It was something Wilson’s father said to him many years ago when he was debating whether or not to play football -- because he was at the time too short and too small to be a football player.

When he asked his father for his advice, his father said, “Why not you?”

In my opinion, that question is one of THE best questions to ask yourself when you’re contemplating a new challenge.

In fact, it was what my friend Eric (now a partner at LEK) and I asked ourselves when we were 14 years old, debating whether we should try out for the football team. We debated. We hemmed and we hawed. We were too small. We had no experience. We hardly fit the profile of the typical football player.

In the end, I remember thinking to myself, “Why not us?” I mean, seriously... why not?

I have had a lot of self-doubt in my life. As many of you know, I have struggled with low self-esteem for most of my life. But, one thing I am grateful for is that despite this, I didn’t let these thoughts stop me from taking action.

And the one (rhetorical) question I’ve often asked myself through the years was, “Why not me?”

I said that to myself before I started to learn to play football (4 years later I would become co-captain of my high school (American) football team and my team would win the California state championship for our division).

When I applied to consulting firms in college, I was absurdly intimidated. I mean, who was I to think that as a 21-year-old kid, I could advise Fortune 500 executives? I mean... really, come on. But, I did say, “Why not me?” (ha... though I didn’t quite fully believe it! I did believe it enough to at least put in the effort, which is the key point here.)

Then low and behold, I actually did get consulting job offers. Then I was mortified. Gulp, now I actually had to go to work and see real clients. I mean who am I to be capable enough to do that?

I remember looking at those recruiting brochures (by the way, they are designed to impress/intimidate you and the average MBB consultant is often not as impressive as the ones cherry-picked for the brochures... but I didn’t know that at the time).

I was thinking, "Geez, there are consultants with a Harvard undergrad, a Harvard MBA, and a Harvard MD --- oh crap, that is impressive. I mean I’m not an MBA. I’m not an MD. How in the world am I supposed to keep up?"

Again, I did whisper to myself (extremely faintly this time), “Why not me?”

I believed it even less this time, but enough to show up for work and to do the work required to do the job well.

Then I was extremely intimidated by the clients. One of them was a billionaire who had a movie made about him. I thought, "Who am I to advise this client? I’m not a billionaire. They don’t make movies about me."

But, I eventually got over this.

(Hint -- clients are first and foremost human beings. Human beings are more similar than dissimilar to other human beings. Human beings have several common traits -- a lot of them worry about stuff, many have insecurities, and we all just want to belong. When you realize this, you realize a billionaire human being vs. a non-billionaire human being are still both... well, human beings.)

Later in my career as I moved to working for myself, it became important to work on my credibility as an expert. Interestingly, being ex-McKinsey wasn’t enough alone to get clients. So, I started to work on my media profile and began doing live national television interviews.

That really freaked me out.

I mean who am I to be an expert on live national television?

(Side Note: I can deliver a 3-hour talk with 3 minutes of preparation, but to deliver a 3-minute interview on live national TV took me 3 hours of preparation and practice in front of a mirror.)

You can see one of my live national TV interviews for Fox here: Fox Business TV Clip

As I’ve looked back on this interesting dynamic in my own life, my clients' and friends' lives, and through the many emails from CIBs informing me of their MBB offers (By the way, the vast majority of the people who get MBB offers are surprised they got it. Many did not think they could do it. But they followed my guidance, and practiced a lot and got it), I’ve learned a HUGE lesson from it all.

This lesson has been one of THE defining insights of my career (as in insight applied to my own career as opposed to insights for a client).

It is an insight that I think applies to 99% of people.

Here it is:

What you are actually capable of is GREATER than what you PERCEIVE yourself to be capable of.

Here’s how to visualize this point:

Imagine a piece of paper with a small photo of yourself in the middle of the page.

At the edge of the paper, draw a thick black rectangular line with a marker. Label this box “actual limit.”

This is the actual limit of your capabilities as a human being. Your capability in your lifetime will never exceed this limit.

Now, somewhere in the middle between this outer black box and the center of the page where your picture resides, draw another box -- this time using a dashed line. Label this line “perceived limit.”

For nearly everyone I know, there is a big gap of white space between those two boxes -- the box illustrating your perceived limits vs. the one for your actual limits.

The reason this discrepancy exists is due to a phenomenon that I call:

THE SELF-LIMITING BELIEF

This false belief holds back more people (myself included) than any other factor in a career.

Here’s why.

If you think a particular opportunity exceeds your actual limits as a human being, the logical decision is to not bother trying. It is the optimal decision because it conserves time and mental energy resources for a non-achievable outcome.

The problem with this line of thinking is most people perceive the limits of their own capabilities incorrectly. (Ha, I’ve been doing this my entire life!)

Despite all my self-doubts, I’ve very often had a tiny part of me -- sometimes as little as 5% of me -- that said to myself, “Why not me?”

And despite 95% of me thinking that I was in way over my head, I, fortunately, listened to that 5% and actually made the effort needed to find out for myself whether something was really out of my reach or not.

Looking back, it turns out this tendency was profoundly impactful on my career.

It was not my natural talent that has led to my success, it was my willingness to put in the effort. The wonderful thing about this is it is a CHOICE available to any human being.

Because talent without effort, still does not get you anywhere.

Nobody is born ready to be a management consultant, a Superbowl champion quarterback, or in any other career.

We are all born human... and human beings are often much more capable than they realize.

What are you capable of that you don’t even realize?

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51 comments… add one
  • NZ Feb 4, 2014, 5:40 pm

    This seems to contradict some of your earlier advice about focusing on your strengths when choosing a profession and taking on new challenges. Just thought it would be appropriate to temper it a bit – that natural talent does have some limits. You can work twice as hard for less return as the next guy.

    It seems like you’ve managed to succeed every time you’ve asked yourself “why not me”. Were there ever times you failed and how did you recover from that in a way that allowed you to still take on risks?

    • Victor Cheng Feb 5, 2014, 12:46 pm

      NZ,

      Oh there were many, many times I’ve said why not me and failed. I’ve failed much more than I’ve succeed, though most of the success have been more public and the failures more private.

      I will write about these in a separate article (ha because it is too long to list here!)

      In terms of the apparent contradiction, I wrote about this in the March 2014 issue of the strategic outlier letter http://www.strategicoutlier.com

      The why not me gives one motivational energy. Ones natural strengths gives one a higher probability of success. If you combine the two, that’s the highest odds of success. But I have seen people say why not me to an area that was not their strength. If the motivation is high enough, they end up developing that area into a strength — but it takes longer or requires much more work than going with a strength area.

      This was very true for me. I have a 7 year stretch of my career where I inadvertently focused on my weakness — but I was very passionate about doing so. I was not very successful during that time, but I developed a ton of new strengths.

      So I think the relationship still stands, but like anything there are tradeoffs.

      Victor

  • Altaf Feb 4, 2014, 3:36 pm

    Hi Victor, Highly inspiring article .. I was wondering if I will ever do something like this article, where I will be courageous enough to share my insecurities and yet be able to freely inspire people to realize their undiscovered potential.. and it reminded me of your “Why Not Me” ..

    • Victor Cheng Feb 5, 2014, 12:41 pm

      Altaf,

      I found your comment thought provoking. Honestly, half the reason I write is for me. For work, I’ve had to deliberately create an image that is as credible and impressive as possible. But, that image often implies certain traits (favorable ones) that aren’t really true (e.g., I have a lot of insecurities, I’ve failed a lot, etc…).

      So I often share the rest because that’s the real me and it takes an awful lot of energy to pretend to be someone I’m not (even if that perception is a often a favorable one).

      That said, I’m glad you and others find it useful too.

      Victor

      • Harinath Feb 9, 2015, 11:41 am

        Hi Victor
        This is what I love most about you. Your style has this subtle element which reminds the reader – hey, remember I am not all that perfect but here is what my choices made difference.

        This is what on the whole gives the punch and perhaps the reason why you have such trusted and ardent fan following. Perhaps, I won’t be alone in feeling that “you are my most trusted advisor, role model to emulate and yet normal to relate with our own imperfect self”

        I won’t say this about many others that I follow (excepting for Ruchard Branson and Bill Gates).

        Thank you for picking this story as one of the best 2014 and indeed this is my all time favorited article of yours.

        • Victor Cheng Feb 9, 2015, 12:13 pm

          Harinath,

          Thank for your kind words and being so articulate about how you perceive my style. I know my style is different in some ways from others, but I have never been able to articulate what specifically makes it different. Thank you for sharing your view.

          Victor

  • Bettina Feb 4, 2014, 3:14 pm

    Hi, thank you for that article. It made a lot of sense and is something I can use on a daily basis. Funny, I never would have thought that you had those thoughts also, being so successful. I was nice that you shared that.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 5, 2014, 12:37 pm

      Bettina,

      Ha! I have a LOT of those thoughts all the time!

      I’ve gotten a similar reaction from other people and have decided to write more about them because it’s more real.

      Victor

  • Anon Feb 4, 2014, 3:13 pm

    I just want to say that I feel this is something I struggle with in my life and reading that someone like yourself also struggled with it does give me a renewed sense of worth. Thank you for addressing it and making it relatable to the hundreds of people who follow your readings.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 5, 2014, 12:36 pm

      I’m glad you found the article helpful. You, as with all people, have inherent worth. My hope is my article reminded you of your own inherent worth.

      Victor

  • Nandini Nag Feb 4, 2014, 3:11 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Love reading your articles. This one is specially meaningful since self doubt almost prevented me from applying to Wharton.

    Growing up I always wanted to go to an Ivy League school – but always felt that it was out of reach. So the 95% of me did doubt but then the 5% said ” Why the hell not? Whats the worse that can happen? So I will get rejected . ”
    It was the certainty that I will get rejected that made me work hard on my application.
    And guess what – I got in . Going to Wharton was the best academic experience I had and I am so glad that I listened to my 5% and not my 95%.

    Warm Regards
    Nandini

    • Victor Cheng Feb 5, 2014, 12:34 pm

      Nandini,

      Great job!

      Victor

  • Jag Feb 4, 2014, 3:04 pm

    When Wilson mentioned in his interview, those are the words I took to bed last Sunday after the Superbowl. Very nicely captured and written, Victor ! Simply loved it.

  • Opinder preet Singh Feb 4, 2014, 2:47 pm

    Your words play a magic role to encourage me always and thereby help me succeed!! Thanks for your precious words Sir!!

  • Ligia Garcia Feb 4, 2014, 2:35 pm

    Truly one of your best writings I have seen.
    An inspiration for the everyday challenges in life (not only at a job interview, before a championship game, or so).
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us!

    Cheers from Brazil!

    Ligia Borin Garcia
    KPMG Global Strategy Group

  • Kgosi Feb 4, 2014, 2:29 pm

    Thanks for this Victor, it could not have come at a better time for me especially due to the current restructuring taking place at my company and the interviews I have been going to. After reading your article, I feel its okay to punch above my weight(within reason) because then again “Why Not Me?”!

    • Victor Cheng Feb 5, 2014, 12:30 pm

      Kgosi,

      Go for it! The worst thing that can happen is you will learn a lot.

      Victor

  • Margaret Bransford Feb 4, 2014, 2:05 pm

    Fantastic inspiration for anyone who is holding themselves back because they are afraid they can’t do it. Thank you for sharing your words.

    Margaret Bransford
    Undergraduate Career Services
    Indiana University Kelley School of Business

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