Change is very difficult to embrace. On the one hand, everything around you is actually designed so that you don’t change. People profit far more from you not changing the way you are or the way you behave than from the opposite. Besides, change requires a trigger, either by an internal shift or by an external shock. Change needs catharsis.
I spent most of my youth racing cars, something I did professionally with some success (winning a few national titles along the way) until the age of 21. Then I dived into entrepreneurship when I decided to invest into and run a shipyard in Italy for a couple of years (note to self, don’t do that again!). I then joined Goldman Sachs in London and started a 10 year stint in investment banking. A stint that came to an end in late 2013.
Between 2014 and 2017, two decisions would transform my life. First, I went on to co-found ThirdWay Africa with my partners, leaving behind a comfortable banking career in London to be come an entrepreneur in Africa. Then came my divorce after almost 10 years of marriage and two wonderful kids.
You see, growth is not a consequence to things. Growth is a conscious decision made as a result of sheer self-awareness. For the first time, these two events made me look inwards instead of outwards. The person I needed to be to get to the next level was not the person I was. I had to work on the toolkit. And that lead to a conscious decision to grow, which then required a lot of action. Action. Doing. Work. You need to DO stuff to get stuff DONE. A simple fact of life that is pretty much ignored by most people, including me at the time.
Below are the top 38 things that I learned through this journey, through the good and the bad. And yes, some of these “notes to self” came with tears in the process.
1. Stop chasing. Start attracting.
Stop wanting things from people. Start attracting people to you. Stop wanting material things, instead let them come to you, if you want them, as a result of who you become. Focus inwards, on your awareness. Find your own method. Build something inside. Stop pleasing people. Stop seeking validation as your measure of success. Find your own voice. Own your responsibilities. Drop the excuses. Work on who you want to be first, set your goals later. Work on yourself so you can help others. Good things will start coming your way if you shift that paradigm.
2. When not working, focus on learning and creating.
Don’t fall for just being entertained and distracted. Who you will be in 5 years time will largely depend on the people you know and the use you make of your free time. Remember, sacrifice is the antidote to time-wasting.
3. It is easy to think that good things happen to other people for no reason. Well, it does not work like that.
“The greatest reward in becoming a millionaire is not the amount of money that you earn. It is the kind of person that you have to become to become a millionaire.” — Jim Rohn
The “chosen ones” choose themselves. Most people live their lives avoiding problems. Great people seek great problems, and success at solving these bring more (and potentially bigger) problems to them. That involves a lot of energy and a lot of hard work.
4. Before setting any goals, define the person you want to be.
Goals in the absence of informing principles are worthless. Want to lose weight? It is not about dropping 5 kg. It is about deciding to be a healthy, strong person. The weight loss is a consequence. I decided to write a mission statement for all the areas of responsibility in my life. These include my business, family, my partner, friends and my personal growth. Doing this anchored me in the moment of choice, when I needed to decide how to act. I had created a framework for myself. Only then I set my goals and aspirations for each of the areas. For this to work, make sure your calendar has some time for you to work on all of them with the necessary frequency. And I say this from crude experience: regular unbalance across any such domains comes with permanent long-term damage.
5. I replaced motivation and willpower — which I cannot control over the longer run — with systems.
“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily” — Zig Ziglar
Find your rituals, your routines. Your checklists. Whatever gets you to a peak state to kick-start your day. It will create a safe and energetic environment, like warming up for a big competition. I am not talking about drinking lemon water or bulletproof coffee here. I — for instance — write, read and/or meditate every morning. It works for me, it sets me up for action. You need to find your own rituals. Of course, this may mean you have to wake up a little earlier… but hey, you need to put the hours if you want progress.
6. Be willing to look bad and ugly while you grow.
People will doubt you and ridicule you for most of the journey, but you need to do it if it is important to you. For your own reasons, not theirs. Only when you succeed, people’s doubting and mocking invariably turn into admiration. This is a constant. It is human nature to resist change. They will resist your change as much as they resist theirs.
7. To love someone is different than being in love with someone.
“To say that one waits a lifetime for his soulmate to come around is a paradox. People eventually get sick of waiting, take a chance on someone, and by the art of commitment become soulmates, which takes a lifetime to perfect.” — Criss Jami.
Being in love is a passive state. Love is an active verb and requires action. Every morning you need to decide to love that someone. You renew your vows. And by doing this you decide to invest into the relationship for that love to be nurtured, to be fed. Daily.
8. Real commitment is a scarce commodity these days. If you can commit to something, you are already ahead.
Too much handy information and choice is deflating our ability to stick to things… and to people. We can find ourselves dating someone while thinking in the back of our minds that we can right-swipe someone else on Tinder at any time. There could always be something slightly better waiting for us round the corner, right? Optionality chokes the mental space we need to invest in our own decisions, and there is no future with no sense of investment. Make a choice and give it everything you have.
9. We live in an epidemic of average.
I am not only referring to the professional side of things. Most people will just go by, they will exist, survive, both in their professional and personal lives. Never before has the world more needed the best people possible in politics, in academia, in business, in development. Be the best you can be and make a difference. At work, at home, wherever. Be that person.
10. We all need to go through the garbage and focus on the real materiality of things.
“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.” — John Maxwell.
Most things don’t have that much importance, when we finally apply a bit of perspective. Worry, in general, is mostly in our heads. We fear what we don’t know.
11. I believe one of the most important things in life is acceptance.
I decided long ago to stop getting entangled in negative thinking, and to embrace things as they come, for situations fall in 2 large categories: those you can control and those you can’t. So stop trying to control the things you cannot control, and direct all your energy into the things you can control. Be proactive, and over time you will see how your circle of influence spreads over some of those things you once could not control. Worrying about the rest is filling your head with useless negativity and anxiety. Don’t spend more time than necessary in your own head, I know from experience it can be the most dangerous place.
12. Personal growth does not happen to you by accident. It is a conscious decision to make an investment in yourself.
We are buried with the need to produce, to deliver. We focus on the urgent stuff. Take a step back, and make a decision to invest 20% of your time (and why not, of your money too) in developing your ability to produce more, quicker and better. What got you here won’t necessarily take you wherever you want to go next.
13. Ask yourself why you could be fired today.
Or visualise yourself talking to a friend at some point in the future, explaining to that person why your business had to close down. Devote 10 minutes of quick intuitive writing to note down the reasons. Those are exact priorities you need to work on. That is the blueprint of your plan. You know what does not work, but sometimes it is easier to lie to ourselves. This exercise will keep you honest.
14. Aim to be effective with people and efficient with things.
Effectiveness is not about time but about the result. You can deal with things on a schedule, but managing people will need time and there is nothing that you can do to change that. And yes, that includes how you plan the time you devote to your partner and your children.
15. If you want to lead, don’t be a jerk
If you want people to follow you, it needs to be out of respect, not out of fear.
16. Things happen for a reason, so stop fighting it and embrace it, make it work for you.
“You can only connect the dots backwards” — Steve Jobs.
Believe in serendipity. You may not see this at first, but the universe will conspire for you to help you get where you want to go… as long as you work to visualize your goals and aspirations. I have seen this in action, and it is powerful. As Picasso said, “anything you can imagine is real”.
17. Happiness is about expectations.
“Happiness is not about what the world gives you — happiness is what you think about what the world gives you.” Mo Gawdat.
Therefore, when assessing what life gives you, be conscious of how much you are investing into it in the first place.
18. Giving back should not be only referred to money. Turn the dial to giving back your time.
Share your experience, teach, coach, develop others to the extent that you can. I have finally realised this now. For me, feeling a part of someone else’s growth and success if one of life’s most rewarding aspirations.
19. Don’t bore them with the details.
People, even good friends, generally don’t care about your business and your ventures as much as you think they would (or should!). Just be at peace with it.
20. When starting a company, the intrinsics of the people you hire are far more important than their hard skills.
When you are starting off, you need gladiators.
21. Writing changed my life.
I would encourage you to write. Even a couple paragraphs per day. About how you feel. About what you accomplished on that day. About what worries you. Keep a journal. It became my cornerstone habit. I download my mind on it every day and record my day as I get things done. It creates motivational momentum, and has been transformational for me. Start writing, and you will finally be asking questions to find answers for which you didn’t know you were looking. Paper will become your therapy.
22. Consistency beats any other character trait when it comes to success.
Not quality, not talent, not luck. Not nerve. Not personality nor charisma. You have to pay the price and put in the hours. Momentum is the byproduct of doing things repeatedly. If it is important to you, you will find a way. Mankind always did and so can you.
23. Make sure you maximise the opportunity you are given and utilize momentum when good things start to happen.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” — Vladimir Lenin.
24. Perfection is the enemy of good.
Progress is all you can really aim for, for it is all there is. Good enough is all there is. So focus on small consistent change and enjoy the great results over time. Never underestimate the results deriving from being 1% better every day, in anything, over long periods of time. It compounds.
25. Do not sacrifice who you are for anyone.
Do not sacrifice your true aspirations or your nature. Of course, work on adapting who you are to your environment, and to the people you care about, but don’t become a different person. If someone needs that from you then that is not love. It is a red flag. Likewise, stop trying to change people. Decide to be with them or to lose them, but don’t aim to make them something else. You cannot change the essence of a human being.
26. It is easier to settle on lesser goals because they are easier to achieve than bigger, more ambitious goals
“Any disparity between what you know you can do and what you are achieving is an ethical issue.” — Grant Cardone
Most big goals have no clear path, but lesser ones will put a highway in front of you and tease you. But keep this in mind: the world gives way to people that know where they are going, even when no path lies ahead of them.
27. Don’t feed negativity, don’t gossip.
Talk about people as if they were present in the room. Generate positive thinking and energy. Get away from negative people. Fast.
28. The most important asset in our lives is not money, nor time. The most important asset is attention, being present.
Without being able to genuinely “enjoy” the moment, it does not matter how much time or money you have. The world is full of successful and rich people that are profoundly troubled and unhappy. Tomorrow doesn’t exist for people who don’t do something today.
29. Courage is created through action.
Decompose large, daunting problems into smaller bits and tackle one after the other. I use the freewriting technique for this purpose. I will just set a timer at 10 minutes and get off to a furious, raw dumping session of my thinking onto a page. It allows me to set up simple actionable steps towards progress in a clear way. Make the threshold to start something so low and so easy to do that you cannot resist taking action.
30. Don’t listen to me. Listen to them. Books provide you with the ultimate return on investment.
“Read 500 pages every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.” — Warren Buffet.
“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none. Zero.” — Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner.
Read. Read a lot. About all topics. I cannot stress this enough. Someone has already thought about most topics, allowing you to benefit from the leisure of your couch. As per Michael Simmons saying: “Books compress a lifetime’s worth of someone’s most impactful knowledge into a format that demands just a few hours of our time”. Amen.
31. Positioning is everything.
Getting to people’s minds first is 80% of the job. Curate perception as your biggest asset, because in the absence of any other reference, that is all people will know about you and your business.
32. Success is what happens when an idea is well executed.
The idea in itself won’t get you anywhere. We are flooded with ideas all day long, but the doing needs to follow the thinking. I would rather invest in an A-class team developing a well tried business idea than in a B-class team with the most innovative idea in the world. No exceptions. For me execution is the most important thing.
33. We are all in our own race.
Stop looking over your shoulder and do not compare yourself to anyone. There is nothing to gain from it. The definition of success is very different to most people. Define what success is for you and stop thinking what it means for someone else.
34. Your instinct is there for a reason. Have trust in it.
Make informed decisions based on facts, numbers and data. Without those, you will react to things. Yet, your instinct is also there for a reason. Take into account the facts, but also always ask yourself how your decisions make you feel. Trust yourself and don’t do anything you don’t believe in. Then, once you have made the decision, keep notes of the these and review the results with the benefit of hindsight.
35. Stop with “I am too busy”. Seriously. Enough. You need to protect time to stop and think.
If someone like Bill Gates could disconnect to think for 2 weeks each year when he was CEO, so can you protect time regularly to think, to grow, to push your personal aspirations. Maybe just 1 or 2 hours weekly. Take a walk, lie down, switch off your email client. We are all drawn to the urgent, to the immediate need. We are constantly putting out fires. That won’t leave you time to grow yourself or your business. When all you have to monetise an opportunity is your work ethic and your brain, then you need to actually think about stuff. Believe me, it is not time wasted but one of the best investments you can make.
36. Be clear about the things you do well. Then maximise them, and aim to hedge your weaknesses as well as possible.
Be the best at something. It takes a disproportionate amount of energy to improve weak spots, and such improvements are never enough to “cure” those weakness. You cannot be the perfect machine, but you can be very good at some things. So surround yourself with smart people that can complement you on your weaknesses while you direct all your energy towards the things that you can do best.
37. Get used to making decisions with imperfect or asymmetric information.
Apply the MVP principle to most things in life. If you wait to have all the details you think you need to make a decision, you will never make one. You can decide you want to publish your writing and then take months crafting the perfect workflow and a plan to draft and market your posts. But if you don’t bloody write and publish, it will just be another great idea in your head. It won’t exist. Get on with stuff. Good CEOs decide on a lot of things daily, decide fast, and execute even faster.
38. Success will take longer than you think to materialise, and also will drain more resources than you ever expected.
You can only focus on progress. This is a constant in entrepreneurship. Be ready to invest deeply, and be ready to be resilient. Because although we love to plan ahead, there are very few things in business (and in life) that we can forecast. As Joe Black (Brad Pitt) reminded us in “Meet Joe Black”, there are only two things you can be certain about in life: death and taxes.
So what is my takeaway after all these years…?
Well, very simple really: that we are not programmed to learn through the experience of others. If you have children, you know this very well. They need to do it themselves, as learning will only happen through their own action. The experience of others will, at most, put us on a better track. But the running is only for us to do. So don’t borrow wisdom and live your life, practice a lot, try new ways of getting the most out of yourself. Be the person you want to be. And most of all, be ready to put in the effort… and maybe some tears as well.