How to live the life of your dreams
The following is a written version of the talk I delivered to 100 post graduate students at Durham University on 10th November. Thank you to Dr Mariann Hardey for inviting me to talk.
Thinking about what to share with you today, I didn’t know where to start. I’ve done so much, I’ve learnt so much but there are definitely some patterns or themes or principles emerging that I wish I’d known – sat there as you are now so I thought I’d share those ideas with you today.
I’m going to be talking about passion, purpose and trajectory, but I’ll also be telling you some personal stories along with stories of fellow entrepreneurs to inspire you to take bigger, bolder action. But before all of this, I’d best introduce myself and tell you a little of my background and how I got here today for context.
I own two businesses – a digital marketing agency and a business coaching and growth consultancy. I have also recently just sold my first business – a graduate recruitment business.
Currently, I work all over the UK, coaching and consulting MDs of multi-million pound companies. I help them with their business strategies, I help them with their marketing strategies and I help them to grow their businesses.
The funny thing about my job is that the people I work with already know the answers – they know exactly what they’re supposed to do – sometimes they just need someone like me to ask the right questions and give them some encouragement, or support them so they feel like they have an ally, or a friend, or a supporter as they make big decisions.
So, how did I get started?
Well, I am from the North East. I was born in Newcastle but my dad is in the army and so as a child I travelled, a lot.We’ve lived in Canada, Germany and all over the UK. When I was 11 I went to boarding school in Dover and so by the time I reached 18 I decided I wanted to come back to the North East for University and I studied English Language at Newcastle Uni.
One of my modules at Uni covered the evolution of language. We studied language from cave drawings all the way up to HTML and the language of the internet. I’ll never forget the lecturer that introduced us to HTML, the very basic code you use to write web pages, because it’s something that I would later come back to, and build a business around.
When I was at Uni, I always knew I wanted my own business, in fact I knew in school…I just didn’t know what in. I just knew I wanted to follow my own passion and build my own thing. So, when I left Uni, the first job I had was in fact running my own business, but for somebody else, as part of a programme. I left for America and I actually started working as a door-to-door salesperson selling educational books for children.
It was hard – very hard. 80-90 hour weeks in the blistering Chicago sun, a heavy book bag and door after door after door. This was my first taste of running a business and I learnt an important lesson there and it’s this: “every no will bring you closer to your yes”.
What do I mean by this? Well, I had to make three sales per day in America to eat, pay rent and survive, generally. But not everyone wanted to buy children’s educational books. In fact, only about 1 in 10 people did, if you were a good sales person.
And so, in order to make three sales per day, I had to speak to 30 people, and in order to speak to 30 people I had to knock on nearly 50 doors a day. That meant that every day I heard three ‘yes – we’ll buy your books’, but it also meant I heard 27 ‘no – get out of here’. That was tough but it tought me two things:
- You really have to believe in your product – you’ve got to know that you will make people’s lives easier or better by selling it; and
- You’ve got to have thick skin to push through each ‘no’ – you’ve got to persevere.
After America, I came back the UK and I joined a large, multi-national insurance company as a graduate trainee. I did well. I read a lot of books about performance and success and I worked really hard so I got promoted up the ranks quickly, much faster than my peers. By the time I was 23, I was the most senior, highest paid graduate of my group – some 20 odd of us and I’d worked my way in to the group Head Office in London, working for the group finance and risk director during the height of the recession. I learnt a lot – it was great exposure, but again I worked really hard.
At this point, an idea struck me! I thought that seeing as I’d figured out how to be successful, maybe I could help other graduates to do the same! And so, I launched my very first business – a graduate CV writing and coaching business. Building on what I had learnt in very basic HTML, I bought a book on how to build web sites and I taught myself! My first web site was rubbish but it did the job!
Within a few months, I had a web site and I’d even picked up a few clients (coaching graduates and re-writing CVs) and so I decided to leave my job, move to the North East and launch my business formally. Things didn’t go very well from there on in…I couldn’t make enough money to pay my rent, never mind make a living and so I went back to work.
But, when I did, a funny thing happened. When I was at work, I told people about Gradvert and one by one, people started asking if I could build web sites for them.
I did, and I got paid. And they recommended me and I got paid again. Before long, I had so much web design work, I had to leave my job to set up an agency – a digital marketing agency. And then I started offering marketing services and content writing services. Then I got into marketing strategy and I was off.
Two years later, I had a team of 8 and was turning over a couple hundred thousand!
It sounds painless when I recount the story like this but there were tough times. I remember sitting in my flat crying, wondering would this ever work, would anyone ever pay me for what I know? I remember times where I worked from home because I literally couldn’t afford the cash to pay for fuel! There were times when I wanted to run away from it all and I always used to think maybe I’ll just get a job driving vans where I can listen to music all day!
Doubting yourself is the hardest part but you can’t let that niggling, internal, self doubt dialogue slow you down or throw you off course but perhaps an even harder thing to overcome is the doubt you feel from other people – parents, family, friends, colleagues. This was another tough lesson to learn – don’t go looking for encouragement or permission from other people – that’s got to come from you.
Leveraging what I had learnt in digital marketing, I then relaunched Gradvert – the coaching business – but offered a new service: graduate recruitment and got that business up to six figures too!
So here I was, aged 27 / 28 with two six figure businesses, hitting nearly a quarter of a million in sales with about 10 employees and lots of cash coming in and going out.
Sounds good doesn’t it? Well it was, on paper, but do you know what, I wasn’t happy. In fact I was miserable. I never set out to build a marketing agency and I never set out to build a recruitment company. What I wanted was a coaching company to help people become the best versions of themselves – I had originally wanted to help graduates on their journeys – and so this year I had to take some very difficult decisions.
Firstly, I sold Gradvert and no-longer work in that business. Secondly, I dramatically reduced the size of Digitia.
It was really tough but I had to follow my dream and be true to who I am.
And so, this year, I launched a new coaching business, well, a coaching and business growth agency called IX7 and we’ve exploded on to the scene. Using everything I’d learnt about sales, marketing and working with people, I was able to get IX7 moving really quickly and now I work mostly in London consulting with clients of multi-million pound companies. I’m living my dream.
And so, in a nutshell, that is my story to date!
The funny thing about it all is that it’s been a journey. I would never have had a recruitment company without my marketing agency and I would never have had a marketing agency without first CV writing company…and I would never have won big London clients without building those two companies first…and so being successful in business is a journey.
A CHANGE OF FOCUS:
Steve Jobs famously said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back and I know what he means by that.
I love my job. I love my life. I am having the best time. But none of it came by accident, not one single aspect of my life. Everything I am, I chose to become. Everything I do, I made happen and everything I have I built from the ground up.
I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe that great opportunities come your way when you work for them.
Now I used to be pretty obsessed with the idea of success. I wanted to be rich, and famous and successful. I wanted money and cars and nice clothes and I was so focused on ‘making it’ that I forgot to enjoy the journey. In fact, it’s more than that, I probably made some bad decisions because I was pursuing the end goal – I wanted to get there in a hurry!
It wasn’t working, or rather I wasn’t getting the result I wanted and so this year I made a huge change and the results have been incredible.
Here’s the change I made.
Instead of focusing on achieving success, I focused on becoming a more successful person – that is – I studied hundreds, literally hundreds of successful people and I just copied them! I did what they did and guess what, good things started happening.
What I’ve done, for the purposes of today is I’ve distilled what I’ve learnt about into five core principles of success. These are the common themes I’ve found amongst the successful people I’ve studied.
Now you don’t have to believe me that they work, and they might not make sense to you now but jot them down, and keep them in your mind and over the next year you will see all of them come to light.
PRINCIPLE 1 – FOLLOW YOUR PASSION:
Follow your passion, not the money. Instead of asking “how can I make money today?”, ask “how can I pursue my passion and be of service?”. When you’re of service to people, they will make a trade – your time for their money. Money accentuates the qualities in people. If you’re sad and you make lots of money, you will accentuate that sadness – money can’t fill the hole. If you’re happy and make money, guess what – you’ll get happier!
Let me tell you a story to bring this to life. This is a little known story of a film director who always wanted to direct films from childhood. He knew he stood his best chance by joining Universal one way or another and so he paid to go on the Universal tour. But, unlike the other tourists, this director to be jumped off the tour bus and went wandering. His enthusiasm made such an impression on one of the workers, they gave him a pass to come back and watch directors at work. Spielberg made a point of being friendly with the security guards on the lot and on the fourth day he just waved rather than displaying his pass.
Every day for a summer, he returned to the set, found himself an office and just moved in. It was during this time he made his first professional release and executives at Universal were so impressed they signed him as a television director. He dropped out of college to take the job in 1969.
This man went on to direct Jaws, E.T and The Colour Purple. His name is Steven Spielberg. In mid 1990s, he went on to set up his own studio. He called it: Dreamworks.
PRINCIPLE 2 – FEED YOUR MIND…AND YOUR BODY
I’ve speak a lot about ‘negs’. Those miserable, energy sapping people who only ever see grey – they only ever the problem. Urgh, get rid. Value yourself and your time and don’t spend time with them. Even if they are clients, I don’t care how much they pay you – no money in the world is worth your time if these people deplete who you are. Successful people don’t hang around with people who don’t share their values. As it’s said, you become an average of the five people you most spend your time with. Successful people know this and choose their company carefully.
There is a story I heard about an American president who famously refused to hire someone because they had a miserable face! Now I’m sure on the specifics of HR these days and whether that’s strictly legal but you energy is your power and you are under no obligation to give it away.
People are responsible for their own lives. Be responsible for yours – be happy and positive and stay away from negative, miserable people! Take control of your mind. Fill it with positive thoughts, tell yourself positive things, exercise, eat right … give yourself a chance. In my bid to do this, I stopped watching the news, about six months ago when I realized it was full of sadness and fear. I mean you never hear a good news story, do you? I used to be obsessed. I wanted to know what was going on so I looked smart when people asked me. I did it for other people. Do you know how many times people have asked me about the news since I stopped? No-one, not one. And guess what, I feel happier.
Les Brown, a fab motivational speaker who I’ve mentioned before tells his team they can only give him bad news between 10-12pm. He said never tell him bad news when he’s on the road, or before he goes to sleep. There’s no point, he can’t do anything about it but worry. But once he’s up and meditated and fortified his mind, he can take on the news. As it’s said: worrying doesn’t take away tomorrow’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace. How about instead of worrying, we take the action needed to get the result we truly want?
PRINCIPLE 3 – SEEK LONG TERM HAPPINESS, NOT SHORT TERM PLEASURE
Did you know that humans are biologically programmed to seek out pleasure and avoid pain, at all costs. The pleasure-pain principle was first popularised by Sigmund Freud in modern psychoanalysis, but Aristotle noted the significance in his work, more than 300 years BC.
You’re literally programmed to stay in your comfort zone and in fact your brain will try to keep today much the same as yesterday because it’s safe. You’ve got to fight this.
Essentially, we will all do what brings us pleasure and put off or avoid what brings us pain. Sometimes, we see working late at night as painful and so we do what’s more pleasurable in the short term – go out, watch a movie…but what will bring happiness longer term: a movie, or doing the work towards your dream?
This is the idea of delayed gratification. You’ve got to sacrifice short term pleasure, for long term happiness. You do this by focussing on the end goals – always keep in mind what you’re working towards and give up life’s little pleasures now, for the bigger end goal.
PRINCIPLE 4 – PERSEVERE:
Fourthly, never ever give up on your dream. Successful people accept that failure is an event, and not a character flaw. Be prepared to get up again and again until you find the way, no matter what ‘feedback’ they get from the outside world.
And keep this in mind. When you’re aligned to your true purpose, when you’re pursuing your true goals you going to face all kinds of obstacles, and all kinds of emotions: fear, worry, panic, doubt. These are all good feelings – it’s your body telling you that there is more you can do…if you’re worried about a meeting, the chances are you haven’t prepared properly, or you’re relying on it. The solution? Do more preparation, or get more meetings in the diary – don’t make it your only one!!
When you get knocked back, and you will, get back up and go again. People who succeed fail 100 x more than people who never dare.
Will Smith tells a story about his father. When Will was 12, his dad knocked down a wall at his shop and told Will and his brother to rebuild it. It was 16ft high, 30 ft long. The boys has to begin by digging a 6 ft wall for the foundation. They told their dad they couldn’t do it and he said: just try. Brick by brick. They did. They mixed the concrete by hand and they focused on laying one brick at a time, the best a brick could be laid. 18 months later, the wall was complete and their dad stood beside them as said: “now don’t you ever tell me something can’t be done ever again”.
PRINCIPLE 5 – BE GRATEFUL:
Finally, remind yourself of just how lucky you are – be grateful for everything you have in your life in this moment…think about what you can build on.
Oprah Winphey starts each day by writing down three things she is grateful for that day. Alice introduced this ritual to me and it’s powerful. It makes you realize how much good there is already in your life. When you’re grateful, your energy changes, and more good things come your way. It’s the law of the universe and anyone who has read the secret will know what I’m taking about.
FIVE LIFE CHANGING QUESTIONS:
Not sure where to start? These questions are the perfect place to begin! They’re so simple and yet so powerful so write them down and ask yourself them often. Like I said, if I’d have known these questions sooner, I think I would have got to this point an awful lot sooner and so these questions are my gift to you!
As you answer these questions – be honest with yourself – you don’t have to tell anyone what you write down but be honest with yourself. I lied to myself for years about recruitment and digital…I like it but it’s not my gut wrenching passion.
- If you could change one thing in the world, forever, what would it be?
- If you only had three months left to live – how would you spend your time?
- Fast forward 12 months…what do you want to be celebrating. What must you do today to help make that a reality?
- What is your purpose in life? What’s that one thing that’s always been on your list…it always comes up for you? It might not be the answer but it’s a step!
- What’s the one thing holding you back? – Be really honest with yourself.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it, and telling the story. If you’d like more material like this, subscribe to our mailing list in the sidebar.
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