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As I’m about to head down to Austin for Techstars FounderCon (the annual meeting of all Techstars founders), I figured I crank out a few more Mentor Manifesto items this week.
Item 5 is “Listen Too.”
Pause and ponder for a minute.
Do you talk too much? I do – it’s one of my weaknesses. I often try to make my point by giving examples and telling stories. I’m not afraid to be wrong so often I’ll toss out and idea and talk through it. I don’t go so far as to “think out loud” like some people I work with, but I regularly find myself talking too much and have to consciously ratchet it back to listen.
There’s an old Irish proverb “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak” that is useful to consider in the context of being a mentor. My friend Matt Blumberg reminds me of this regularly and any great salesman knows that the ability to listen is a very powerful sales tool.
In a mentoring situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking a bunch of questions (being socratic) but then immediately give an answer. While some people are excellent at listening to the answers, many people don’t listen carefully, as they are already starting to think about the next question. This is especially true when the answer is vague or fuzzy, as it’s easier to move on to the next question rather than to use something like the 5 Whys to get to the root cause of the answer.
The next time you ask a question, empty your mind after the question and listen to the answer. Look the person you are talking to directly in the eyes and concentrate on what they are saying. Don’t feel an urgency to move on to the next question, or even to respond. Just listen – and let them talk. When silence eventually comes, let a little space happen before you go on to the next question.
Now, don’t be non-emotive. Make sure the person sees you listening. Give them whatever clues you can from your body language. Nod your head. React appropriately if they generate some emotion. Encourage them to “go on” if they stall out in the middle of what they are saying.
But listen. Really listen. And make sure you are hearing what they are actually saying.
Amy and I take a week off the grid every quarter. It is one of the things that has kept me sane and us together over the past 14 years.
This morning I saw a great short clip from the Today Show that got forwarded around on the US becoming a no vacation nation. They include an interview with Bart Lorang discussing FullContact’s Paid PAID vacation policy. It also shows an iconic picture of what stimulated this, which was Bart checking his email on his iPhone while riding on a camel with his then girlfriend / now wife in front of some pyramids.
Everyone in my universe works incredibly hard. But the really great ones know the value of disconnecting for periods of time to recharge their batteries and refresh their brains. If you want more on this, grab a copy of the book Amy and wrote called Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.
Today’s installment of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto is #4: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard.
Let’s start with “Be Direct.”
At some intellectual level, being direct is easy. You just say what is on your mind. You say it in a declarative way. You lead with it and support it with either experience or examples.
But humans have a very difficult time being direct. Many of us can’t get to the point. We thrive on inductive reasoning. We are passive aggressive in our behavior. This is especially the case when we don’t know the answer to something or when we are uncomfortable with the truth.
Reflect for a moment on how you answer a question when you don’t know the answer. Do you use the magic and wonderful phrase “I don’t know.” Or do you skirt around the question, searching for an answer that is somewhat relevant, while reframing the question more to your liking. Or do you just spew out whatever comes to mind, extrapolating truth from one data point you have lurking in your brain somewhere?
Don’t do this. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. But if you know, be direct.
You might think this contradicts Mentor Manifesto #1: Be Socratic. Remember that “be socratic” doesn’t just mean “ask questions”, it’s all about asking questions to get at the why of something. They key is that when you get at the why, and really get at it, then flip into being direct.
Now, consider the concept “Tell The Truth, However Hard.”
At 48, I’m no longer able, or willing, to lie. As a kid, I’d stretch the truth to exaggerate my own self-importance or the perceived excitement of a story. I did a few things I was ashamed of and lied to cover up and avoid exposing what I’d done. But whenever I got caught in a lie, which was most of the time, I felt badly about myself. My parents handled this really well. Rather than punishing me, they would talk about the deceit and make me face it. They were calm but direct and unyielding. At some point I realized dealing with the ramification of getting caught in a lie was much worse than telling the truth in the first place. I owe it to my parents for instilling this value in me.
By college I don’t think I lied very often. I still exaggerated the truth, but never purposefully lied. The next person to whack me over the head about this was my first business partner, Dave Jilk. At Feld Technologies, I was the primary salesman although Dave sold plenty of business over the years, especially with existing customers. I often made Dave frustrated with two behaviors. The first was when I oversold something and we ended up starting a new client relationship with expectations that were far out of line with what we could deliver. The other was when I was selling Dave on my position, trying to convince him of something by stretching the truth, exaggerating the wonderfulness of the outcome, or, in some cases, just trying to push through with the force of my personality, regardless of the reality of the situation. Dave would regularly challenge and push back on me, which eventually helped me realize that overselling, exaggerating, and overstating the situation ultimately lowered my credibility.
The killing blow for me on lying was when my first wife had a year long affair. The level of deceit in that dynamic, including between the two of us in our inability to be direct with each other about how we felt and what was going on, along with the corresponding emotional fallout for me, was overwhelming. I made an internal commitment to myself to never do that to someone else, regardless of the situation.
I proceeded to get involved in a relationship with a person I’d describe as a “truth teller” or a “fair witness” (for those of you who are fans of Stranger in a Strange Land.) Amy is incapable of not telling the truth, no matter how difficult, and after 23 years of being together, that has become deeply ingrained in my value system.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes. I make a lot of them. All the time. And when I do, and I realize it, I own it. Which is another version of telling the truth. It’s easy, especially as a mentor, to gloss over the fact that you made a mistake. But it’s much more powerful to the mentee when you own your mistakes and correct them.
Linking together the ideas of “being direct” and “telling the truth” is very powerful. You end up holding yourself up to a high standard of behavior and communication. And you set an example for those you mentor, just like I learned from my parents, Dave, and Amy.
Nope – Amy and I aren’t moving to Homer. While we have a home in Homer, where we will be for the next three weeks, we still call Boulder, Colorado our home. But we came very close to moving to Homer in 1995.
We were living in Boston at the time. I’d sold my first company, Feld Technologies, in 1993. By the end of 1994 I had a staff job, reporting to the co-chairmen of AmeriData where I travelled all over the US helping with acquisitions and generally causing trouble. At some point Amy and I realized we could live anywhere and we knew that Boston wasn’t home. During one of the long conversations we had at the time about our future, we started talking about calling it quits and moving to Homer, Alaska.
Amy grew up until she was eight years old in a town called Anchor Point, 20 miles north of Homer. If Anchor Point rings a bell to you, it’s because it’s the name of our foundation (the Anchor Point Foundation) and we’ve done some really fun things with it such as the Anchor Point Fellows Program at Wellesley College.
We did the math and realized we had enough money to live in Homer for the next 30 years if I made no more money. I wasn’t worried about that since I knew I could make at least $100,000 a year just consulting, even from a distance, so the conversation was about how we wanted to live the rest of our life.
At 29 years old I thought very hard about whether or not I was done. After selling my first company, I’d invested as an angel investor in a bunch of companies, was a non-executive Chairman / co-founder of a few, and had lots of ideas for new things to do. But I had also recently come out of a very deep depression and was very open to changing things in my life pretty dramatically.
Ultimately, we decided to move to Boulder, Colorado. We didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t have any business there, but it was a lot more centrally located in the US than Homer, Alaska. I figured we’d make a life in a beautiful place, but I wouldn’t have to drop out of what I was doing since the bay area was a two hour plane flight and the east coast was a four hour plane flight. We moved to Boulder in November 1995 and never looked back – it’s been amazing.
After moving to Boulder, we continued to spend a few weeks in Alaska each summer. The two week trips turned into three week trips and we ultimately bought a house in Homer in 2002. We spent between four and six weeks a year there in the summer until 2010, but haven’t been there in the past three years.
It feels like coming home to be back in Alaska. Landing in Anchorage was natural. Renting a car and driving to the Sheraton to spend the night felt totally normal. The low hanging cloudy gloom and light all through the night is just as we remember it. Things feel a lot slower here, which is both good and bad.
Our weekend in Anchorage is with a bunch of friends, including celebrating our close friends Jon and Doug’s recent marriage and spending time with Amy’s sister, her partner, and niece. And just hanging out as we get ready to head to Homer on Monday.
I’ll be working as normal for the next three weeks, just remotely from Homer. I hope to finish the final draft of my next book, Startup Opportunities (co-authored with Sean Wise), while I’m up here. And I’m going to read a lot since we don’t have a TV.
I’m glad I didn’t drop out at 29 and move to Homer – it was way too early in my life for that. But I’m equally glad we bought a house here in 2002 and have made Homer, and Alaska, part of where we live and spend our time.
I just got back from a much needed vacation – the sort of vacation you kind of think you need and then on day three of 14 hours a night of sleep you realize you really needed it really badly. We got home yesterday after a solid week off the grid and I was having trouble sleeping so I got up early to spend some quality time with my computer.
In the middle of a bunch of email I came across a gem from Elke Govertsen, the CEO of Mamalode. I met Elke in 2012 the weekend I was in Missoula to run the Missoula Marathon. She, along with some of her colleagues, were awesome hosts and while our relationship has been email only since then, I always smile when I get something from her.
The gem of an email was a link to a TEDxWhitefish talk that Elke just gave. Her note said is was on “self esteem, perspective and some of my struggles and solutions.” I fired it up and sat back to watch.
Fifteen minutes later I felt I needed to share it with you. Elke starts off strong and asserts that 85% of the world at any given moment is struggling with low self-esteem. Whether you agree with the 85% number of not, she analyzes self-esteem in a unique way. And then goes on to tell an extremely poignant story. Her story which includes a really shitty 2013, during which she completely wore herself out and then almost destroyed herself. During this time, she had to slow down, lie really still, and think a lot.
She came up with tiny little trick. Rather than try to “fix” your worst, she started to think about worst and best as a circle of goodness. Your best is your worst, and your worst is also your best. Instead of focusing only on your best, or trying to project a world to others that is your best, be authentic and actually explore both your best and your worst.
A line at 10:45 that I loved was “At a dinner party, instead of asking ‘what do you do’ ask what’s your best quality and how at some point has that been your worst?”
Elke continues to make the circle between best and worst, rather than have them on a line from best to worst. She has some powerful moments near then end, where she suggests we all “forgive and believe” and “live in the inverses where your best is your worst and your worst is your best.”
Enjoy 15 minutes of Sunday inspiration which will make you think a little differently today. Elke – thanks for sharing this with us.