Ambition On Steroids

This guy is an animal. That was my first thought as I finished reading Stephen Schwarzman‘s new book titled What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence. Steve is an ambitious guy. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever read another life story about someone as ambitious. We like ambition. Our society likes ambitious people. We are attracted to them in many ways. I liken reading his memoir to reading the story of Genghis Khan’s conquests, written by Genghis Khan (if there was such a book). Not that Stephen is going around and putting people’s heads on pikes, well I guess you could say in some ways he did do that, figuratively speaking, of course. Stephen is arguably one of the greatest investors and businessmen of all time, and he has the investment returns, net worth, and philanthropic gifts to prove it. Stephen’s story is fascinating to say the least, and kept me interested from beginning to end. It was inspiring as well, and throughout this book I kept thinking what can’t this guy do? His life is a portrait to the possibilities of the human spirit and seeking excellence in every decision and in every action.

Now I’m not going to repeat to you all the details and chronology of his life. If you want to know that, read the book, which I highly recommend. Here are just a few highlights. He did his undergrad at Yale, and studied at Harvard Business School where he earned his MBA. Stephen worked at Lehman then later founded The Blackstone Group, which is now the world’s largest alternative investment firm in the world. By alternative investment it means that they basically focus on private companies, hedge funds, credit investments, mostly the types of investments you won’t find trading on a public exchange. Stephen is also very active politically, advising U.S. and foreign presidents/leaders, and a tremendous donor to educational institutions and public causes.

Usually when I read a book like this I’m looking for golden nuggets, or what I also refer to as wisdom nuggets. Basically they’re quotes from books that speak to me or that I can apply in my life, but more importantly they are quotes that speak universal truths. This book was chock full of these types of quotes. Stephen is great at getting to the root of complex problems and restating them as simple truths.

Here are several that I really enjoyed and resonated with. These are the types of ideas that anyone can apply in their own lives to improve their current situation:

Hard Problems

“We have a project,” Watkins said. “We’re just starting on it. We thought maybe you could work on it.” Maybe we could work on it? We were sitting around worrying about going broke. But I knew that he wouldn’t have come to us if the situation were simple. There were lots of advisers who could help. Watkins had a difficult problem, and he wanted an inventive solution. As an investment banker and later as an investor, I found that the harder the problem, the more limited the competition. If something’s easy, there will always be plenty of people willing to help solve it. But find a real mess, and there is no one around. If you can clean it up, you will find yourself in rare company. People with tough problems will seek you out and pay you handsomely to solve them. You will earn a reputation for doing what others cannot. For a pair of entrepreneurs trying to break through, solving hard problems was going to be the best way of proving ourselves.”

Success

“When I began my career, I was like most other ambitious young people: I believed success was achieved in a straight line. As a baby boomer, I had grown up seeing only growth and opportunity. Success seemed a given. But working through the economic ups and downs of the 1970s and early 1980s, I had come to understand that success is about taking advantage of those rare moments of opportunity that you can’t predict but come to you provided you’re alert and open to major changes.”

Sales

“As a salesman, I’d learned you can’t just pitch once and be done. Just because you believe in something doesn’t guarantee anyone else will. You’ve got to sell your vision over and over again. Most people don’t like change, and you have to overwhelm them with your argument, and some charm. If you believe in what you’re selling and they say no, you have to presume that they don’t fully understand, so you give them another opportunity.”

Rejection

“The rejections were horrible and humbling. The setbacks seemed endless. We met people who lied to us or never showed up for appointments even after we had traveled across the country. People we knew well in positions of authority rejected us. Pete and I talked throughout these struggles. He was not someone who failed. He hated failure. But at the same time, he was sixty years old. He was at a different place than I was, with a different mentality. If I had the drive, he had the patience and equanimity. He picked me up and kept me going. He assured me that when you believe in what you’re doing, overwhelmed or not, you have to keep moving forward, even when the quest feels hopeless. Which it did.”

Real Value

“You often find this difference between different types of investors. Some will tell you that all the value is in driving down the price you pay as low as possible. These investors revel in the transaction itself, in playing with the deal terms, in beating up their opponent at the negotiating table. That has always seemed short term to me. What that thinking ignores is all the value you can realize once you own an asset: the improvements you can make, the refinancing you can do to improve your returns, the timing of your sale to make the most of a rising market. If you waste all your energy and goodwill in pursuit of the lowest possible purchase price and end up losing the asset to a higher bidder, all that future value goes away. Sometimes it’s best to pay what you have to pay and focus on what you can then do as an owner. The returns to successful ownership will often be much higher than the returns on winning a one-off battle over price.”

Excellence and Integrity

“We formulated a clear set of expectations, which I laid out in a welcome speech to our new analysts. It boiled down to two words: excellence and integrity. If we delivered excellent performance for our investors and maintained a pristine reputation, we would have the opportunity to grow and pursue ever more interesting and rewarding work. If we invested poorly or compromised our integrity, we would fail.”

Energy

“I don’t feel a day over thirty-eight, the age I was when I started Blackstone and a year before my first trip to MIT. I sleep the same five hours I always have and am blessed with the same endless energy and unabated drive to engage in new experiences and tackle new challenges that I had when I was younger.”

Growth

“The 10s we hired have hired other 10s, and our meritocracy has created one of the most famous and admired financial companies in the world. We have been able to turn $400,000 of start-up capital in 1985 into over $500 billion of assets under management in 2019—a growth rate of about 50 percent a year since we started.”

Culture

“But beyond our size, our growth, and even the external accolades, I see a firm that reflects the core values I have worked so hard to instill. Establishing and imparting a strong company culture is perhaps one of the greatest challenges any entrepreneur and founder is tasked with, but it is also one of the most gratifying if you get it right.”

Failure

“Regardless of how you begin your careers, it is important to realize that your life will not necessarily move in a straight line. You have to recognize that the world is an unpredictable place. Sometimes even gifted people such as yourselves will get knocked back on their heels. It is inevitable that you will confront many difficulties and hardships during your lives. When you face setbacks, you have to dig down and move yourself forward. The resilience you exhibit in the face of adversity—rather than the adversity itself—will be what defines you as a person.” Failures, I want them to know, can teach us more than any success.”

At the end of the book Stephen’s lists 25 principles for work and life which if you applied in your life to any degree, would make you a better and more productive person. Here they are:

25 RULES FOR WORK AND LIFE

1. It’s as easy to do something big as it is to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate to your effort.

2. The best executives are made, not born. They never stop learning. Study the people and organizations in your life that have had enormous success. They offer a free course from the real world to help you improve.

3. Write or call the people you admire, and ask for advice or a meeting. You never know who will be willing to meet with you. You may end up learning something important or form a connection you can leverage for the rest of your life. Meeting people early in life creates an unusual bond.

4. There is nothing more interesting to people than their own problems. Think about what others are dealing with, and try to come up with ideas to help them. Almost anyone, however senior or important, is receptive to new ideas provided they are thoughtful.

5. Every business is a closed, integrated system with a set of distinct but interrelated parts. Great managers understand how each part works on its own and in relation to all the others.

6. Information is the most important asset in business. The more you know, the more perspectives you have, and the more likely you are to spot patterns and anomalies before your competition. So always be open to new inputs, whether they are people, experiences, or knowledge.

7. When you’re young, only take a job that provides you with a steep learning curve and strong training. First jobs are foundational. Don’t take a job just because it seems prestigious.

8. When presenting yourself, remember that impressions matter. The whole picture has to be right. Others will be watching for all sorts of clues and cues that tell who you are. Be on time. Be authentic. Be prepared.

9. No one person, however smart, can solve every problem. But an army of smart people talking openly with one another will.

10. People in a tough spot often focus on their own problems, when the answer usually lies in fixing someone else’s.

11. Believe in something greater than yourself and your personal needs. It can be your company, your country, or a duty for service. Any challenge you tackle that is inspired by your beliefs and core values will be worth it, regardless of whether you succeed or fail.

12. Never deviate from your sense of right and wrong. Your integrity must be unquestionable. It is easy to do what’s right when you don’t have to write a check or suffer any consequences. It’s harder when you have to give something up. Always do what you say you will, and never mislead anyone for your own advantage.

13. Be bold. Successful entrepreneurs, managers, and individuals have the confidence and courage to act when the moment seems right. They accept risk when others are cautious and take action when everyone else is frozen, but they do so smartly. This trait is the mark of a leader.

14. Never get complacent. Nothing is forever. Whether it is an individual or a business, your competition will defeat you if you are not constantly seeking ways to reinvent and improve yourself. Organizations, especially, are more fragile than you think.

15. Sales rarely get made on the first pitch. Just because you believe in something doesn’t mean everyone else will. You need to be able to sell your vision with conviction over and over again. Most people don’t like change, so you need to be able to convince them why they should accept it. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

16. If you see a huge, transformative opportunity, don’t worry that no one else is pursuing it. You might be seeing something others don’t. The harder the problem is, the more limited the competition, and the greater the reward for whomever can solve it.

17. Success comes down to rare moments of opportunity. Be open, alert, and ready to seize them. Gather the right people and resources; then commit. If you’re not prepared to apply that kind of effort, either the opportunity isn’t as compelling as you think or you are not the right person to pursue it.

18. Time wounds all deals, sometimes even fatally. Often the longer you wait, the more surprises await you. In tough negotiations especially, keep everyone at the table long enough to reach an agreement.

19. Don’t lose money!!! Objectively assess the risks of every opportunity.

20. Make decisions when you are ready, not under pressure. Others will always push you to make a decision for their own purposes, internal politics, or some other external need. But you can almost always say, “I need a little more time to think about this. I’ll get back to you.” This tactic is very effective at defusing even the most difficult and uncomfortable situations.

21. Worrying is an active, liberating activity. If channeled appropriately, it allows you to articulate the downside in any situation and drives you to take action to avoid it.

22. Failure is the best teacher in an organization. Talk about failures openly and objectively. Analyze what went wrong. You will learn new rules for decision making and organizational behavior. If evaluated well, failures have the potential to change the course of any organization and make it more successful in the future.

23. Hire 10s whenever you can. They are proactive about sensing problems, designing solutions, and taking a business in new directions. They also attract and hire other 10s. You can always build something around a 10.

24. Be there for the people you know to be good, even when everyone else is walking away. Anyone can end up in a tough situation. A random act of kindness in someone’s time of need can change the course of a life and create an unexpected friendship or loyalty.

25. Everyone has dreams. Do what you can to help others achieve theirs.

All in all, if you’re looking to read about the inspiring life of someone who has reached the pinnacle of success in their field, I would highly recommend this book. It paints a clear picture of the ups and downs that it takes to reach this level of success and also the many sacrifices that have to be made along the way. Stephen definitely has his fair share of sacrifices. As with anything in life, if you want to something deeply enough, you can achieve it. Make sure that you know in advance why you want it and what you are willing to give up to get there.

Can fear be a good thing?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. – Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.” – Gandhi

“Fear is an illusion.” – Everyone on the internet

I like quotes. I like pithy quotes. The pithier the better. I like the aforementioned quotes. Fear is an illusion. That is the title of every TED talk and every entrepreneur’s book. I still like the quote. These quotes are great reminders of what fear really is. It’s this abstract thing in our heads. Try saying that to someone in the middle of a panic attack. Let me give you some of my actual panic attack responses, “shut up, you’re making it worse”, “you’re not helping me at all”, and my favorite, “I think I’m dying, I am like literally dying”. My wife can attest to them all.

Anxiety

I’m an anxious person by nature. Let me paint a picture. I’m six years old, sitting on a plane that’s at the gate. I’m praying to God that we don’t all go down in a blaze of fire while sweating profusely. The plane hasn’t even taxied out of the gate yet. We haven’t even moved an inch. The plane eventually takes off, and my little six year old heart beat is beating like the Energizer bunny being chased by an eagle. Did I mention my dad was a commercial airline pilot, and my mom worked in the travel industry all her life? So I’m flying all the time. Always on a plane since I was a few months old. You would think at some point, on the umteenth flight, the fear would’ve left. Here I am now in full blown middle-aged adulthood, and Mr. “I meditate and visualize everyday”, and yet still can’t keep his childhood fears in check. I can be sitting in a casual meeting and all of a sudden I get an abnormally high rush of adrenaline. My initial thought is always to get up and run out of the room, not a good look. I’ve gotten to the point where I can mentally talk myself back to some semblance of normalcy. It’s kind of embarrassing. Which brings me to the next point.

Fear of Embarrassment

In several articles I’ve read that the fear of public speaking is one of the worst fears. I’ve never looked into this in detail but I would imagine the underlying fear isn’t just a fear of public speaking. I think the real fear when it involves other people is usually just the fear of looking like a fool and being embarrassed. A fear of saying or doing something in front of others that will embarrass you. I think that this fear of embarrassment also ties into a fear of failing, or a fear of starting a long held dream. We are worried what others will say or think if things don’t work out. We will be so embarrassed. That reminds me of another pithy quote. This is from Eleanor Roosevelt. She once said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I think that applies perfectly to embarrassment, or even harmful guilt and shame. No one can make you feel anything. We do it to ourselves. Want to know a cool thing about that quote that has helped me for years? You can use it for almost anything.

Just change for the word “inferior” with any other word like this:

No one can make you feel embarrassed without your consent.

No one can make you ashamed without your consent.

No one can make you sad without your consent.

Fear of embarrassment or the way others perceive us is usually the root of any fear of interacting with others. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to just let go in many cases, not all. It’s just too exhausting to put up a facade and to be everything to everyone, or worry how people view me.

This is a problem I’ve seen described in scriptures. The circumstance is usually someone disobeys God because they fear more what others will think of them (don’t want to be embarrassed), as opposed to God’s consequences. In Latter Day Saint scripture, known as the Doctrine & Covenants, there is a verse that reads, “For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.” Believe it or not, those few words compiled in that verse have gotten me over a number of fears, and over the worrying of what others will think of me. But as I already explained, sometimes, I still get embarrassed. Learn to do what is important to your own values regardless of what others think. You don’t want to compromise your values to fit in with others. You’ll regret it.

It’s Okay to Feel Fear.

It’s okay to feel fear. It’s built into our DNA. It’s our mechanism for sensing and avoiding danger. According to Wikipedia, citing this article, Fear and anxiety: Evolutionary, cognitive, and clinical perspectives, “Fear is closely related to the emotion anxiety, which occurs as the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.” It also states that “The fear response serves survival by engendering appropriate behavioral responses, so it has been preserved throughout evolution.”

Fear has its place. It engenders appropriate behavioral responses. Could you imagine if you had no physical fears? You’d be dead in a day. No emotional fears? You might ruin every relationship. No financial fear, you might go bankrupt quickly.

Look, I get it. In our current culture if you feel fear or let it influence you, you perceived as weak. I get it. It doesn’t look great to say fear is okay. It doesn’t sound like a great inspirational book or an Instagram post. But the reality is fear is a part of our mind and bodies. It’s part of our evolution and natural selection. That fear has allowed our species to outlive and outwit far physically stronger species. That fear even helped your ancestors outlive the more adventurous guy who got sliced up like chicken nuggets by a hungry bear.

From what I can tell, it seems like what we really have a problem with is people limiting their lives because of unwarranted or low probability fears. We might even scoff at someone who has let their fears impede their everyday life. The reality is that we all have fears. Even the bravest among us, and some of us are really good at overcoming our fears.

I would say that most highly successful people I know are regular everyday people who battle the same fears as you and I. They just don’t let those fears consume them, or get in the way of action. Look, I still love the no fear quotes. They sound great. The reality though is that you can’t live life without some fear. It’s okay to acknowledge when you’re afraid and when fear has a hold of you. Then you find a way, little by little, or maybe all at once, to get over that roadblock, that nagging fear.

Fear gets a bad rap. But it’s not all that bad. It has its place. Next time someone tells you that it’s all in your head and you need to get over it, let them know that it’s okay to feel fear. Remember the only reason you’re even here on this earth today is because your ancient ancestor listened to their instincts, trusted their internal feeling of fear, and avoided being a tiger appetizer.

The Beauty of Diversity

My mother is black. My father is white. My mother is a from a small caribbean island. My father is from Switzerland. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, raised as a devout Latter Day Saint (Mormon), in a Jewish neighborhood, while I went to Catholic school. It was an interesting childhood to say the least. I love diversity in all its forms. There is a beauty to this melting pot we call the human race.

Homogeneity is a bore. Believe me, I’ve lived in some very homogenous places and it is tough to endure. Homogeneity of appearance, speech, religion, and thought is not a good thing. It encourages fear and hatred of anything or anyone that is different.

Diversity of Race.

I love the variation of skin colors and faces in the world. I love the fact that no two people are exactly the same. What’s even better is that our world is becoming even smaller day by day, providing more opportunities to interact with each other. Sure we are all on lockdown for the next few months. This too shall pass. In the history of our human experience this will be a minor setback. Eventually we’ll get back to traveling to see each other, and we will continue the blending of cultures, languages, and our differing experiences.

What makes cultures like America so great is that it is a hodgepodge of people from all over the world. The vast majority of Americans are not native to this land. We all came from somewhere else, except for the Native Americans of course. That is heartbreaking story to discuss for another day. Our country is one big social and racial experiment. Sure it’s been turbulent, slavery, social injustice, prejudice, and continued discrimination. That being said, things are getting better all the time. Is it perfect? Of course not. But the times they are changing. Little by little.

For as long as I can remember I’ve felt that the differences in our racial and ethnic backgrounds are what make this country so strong and innovative. We’re not a feudal nation, we are a meritocracy, where it really doesn’t matter the color of your skin, or where you come from. As long as you’ve got something the market wants or needs, there is an opportunity.

Diversity of Religion.

I love the Bible. I love the Quran. I love the Book of Mormon. I love the Vedas. I love the Talmud. There are many other modern and ancient texts that I love as well, too many to write. The point is I love all people of faith, and I am genuinely fascinated by how people practice their faith. I even love the faithless, because although they might not understand or know it, they too have a faith in something, beit science, technology, or even the unknown.

Is it just coincidence that people have an innate sense of something higher or greater? It’s in our DNA. It’s something that we were given from before we came to this earth. This longing to believe in something more. We are something more than just an evolved organism spinning extremely fast on a rock hurtling through nothingness.

I think the fact that we all have these various beliefs, even though we are separated by time and place, point to deity, and is a testament to me that we are all one. We are all the children of a loving Creator and our minor differences are insignificant.

Diversity of Ideas.

One of my favorite things to do is to sit with someone I don’t know very well and hear their life’s story. I love to hear their ideas, their background, their experiences. The way they string thoughts and sentences together, and the lens through which they view the world. Everyone has ideas and they are worth learning.

No one has a monopoly on all of the ideas that are out there and there is something to be learned from everyone. We can learn how to succeed, how to fail, what to do, and what not to do. We can learn from the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the wise and the foolish. We can learn from the faithful and the non-believers, from the loving and the hateful, from the prideful and the humble.

It’s a beautiful thing to be surrounded by people that don’t think like you and to learn from them. It is human nature to want to hang out and be friends with those who agree with your worldview. It makes for a peaceful and uncontentious life. We don’t need to contend with those who see things differently. There is no need to resort to tribalism. We should extend an olive branch of understanding and seek to see from their view of the world. If we are seekers of truth we need to seek it in all its forms, and accept it from whoever it may come from. We must also be willing to accept that we are often wrong.

We live in a beautiful world of many different races, beliefs, and ideas. May we accept these differences and the people they come from. Not only do they make the world a better and more interesting place, but they help us to become more loving and compassionate beings.

Top 10 Coronavirus Myths and Truths

First, before we start, my disclaimer. I am not a medical/healthcare professional or an infectious disease expert. I have compiled information for you from leading experts and credible organizations, and their websites. Please use this information at your own risk and as with anything in life, be prudent, and apply your own common sense. Do not use this information as a recommendation or advice to your particular health or medical situation. When in doubt, seek the advice of your trusted medical or healthcare professional. Said otherwise, don’t be an idiot. Be safe. Protect yourself and others around you.

All information below is from the following sources: https://www.cdc.gov/ https://www.who.int/ and https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/. Each fact is a link that you can click on to take you to more information from these three websites.

Myth # 1 – Exposing yourself to higher temperatures prevents the COVID-19 disease.

FACT: Exposing yourself to higher temperatures DOES NOT prevent the disease.

Myth # 2 – The coronavirus only affects older people.

FACT: Everyone is susceptible, both the old and the young. Those who are older and/or have pre-existing conditions are at higher risk of severe complications or death. Young people with pre-existing conditions have died from this disease.

Myth #3 – There are treatments for the COVID-19 disease.

FACT: As of now there is not a treatment or medicine that can prevent coronavirus.

Myth #4 – There are antibiotics that can treat and prevent Coronavirus.

FACT: Antibiotics are used for treating bacteria, not viruses.

Myth # 5 – The coronavirus is only spread through the air.

FACT: According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can live in the air and on surfaces between several hours and several days. The study found that the virus is viable for up to 72 hours on plastics, 48 hours on stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard, and 4 hours on copper. It is also detectable in the air for three hours.

 What’s getting a lot of press and is presented out of context is that the virus can last on plastic for 72 hours—which sounds really scary. But what’s more important is the amount of the virus that remains. It’s less than 0.1% of the starting virus material. Infection is theoretically possible but unlikely at the levels remaining after a few days. People need to know this.

Myth # 6 – The coronavirus was man made.

FACT: Viruses can change over time. Occasionally, a disease outbreak happens when a virus that is common in an animal such as a pig, bat or bird undergoes changes and passes to humans. This is likely how the new coronavirus came to be.

Myth # 7 – Any face mask will protect you from COVID-19.

FACT: Certain models of professional, tight-fitting respirators (such as the N95) can protect health care workers as they care for infected patients. For the general public without respiratory illness, wearing lightweight disposable surgical masks is not recommended. Because they don’t fit tightly, they may allow tiny infected droplets to get into the nose, mouth or eyes. Also, people with the virus on their hands who touch their face under a mask might become infected. People with a respiratory illness can wear these masks to lessen their chance of infecting others. Bear in mind that stocking up on masks makes fewer available for sick patients and health care workers who need them.

Myth # 8 – Ordering or buying products shipped from overseas will make a person sick.

FACT: Researchers are studying the new coronavirus to learn more about how it infects people. As of this writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that the likelihood of becoming infected with COVID-19 from a commercial package is low since it has likely traveled over several days and been exposed to different temperatures and conditions during transit.

Myth # 9 – You can protect yourself from COVID-19 by swallowing or gargling with bleach, taking acetic acid or steroids, or using essential oils, salt water, ethanol or other substances.

FACT: None of these recommendations protects you from getting COVID-19, and some of these practices may be dangerous. The best ways to protect yourself from this coronavirus (and other viruses) include:Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly, using soap and hot water.Avoiding close contact with people who are sick, sneezing or coughing.In addition, you can avoid spreading your own germs by coughing into the crook of your elbow and staying home when you are sick.

Myth # 10 – I don’t need to practice Social Distancing or Stay at Home.

FACT: Everyone should be practicing safe measures to prevent the spread of the disease. According to the CDC, here is a list of the most at risk. Please prevent the spread to yourself and those around you, especially the high risk loved ones in your life.