Made in Sheffield: now stay hungry, stay foolish

Thursday last week saw me wearing my ‘proud Dad’ smile, and tears welling up in my eye (don’t be silly, it’s just hay fever) as my daughter Katie graduated and now the proud owner of a crisp piece of parchment that says ‘2:1 BA Honours in Business Management from the University of Sheffield’, made more poignant as it is my Alma mater. It doesn’t seem five minutes since I was taking Katie for her first outing in the pram.

Amidst the celebratory transition from graduands to graduates, I reflected that the graduation ceremony is where the vice-chancellor tells hundreds of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that individuality is the key to success. Wearing square-shaped mortarboards pulled down to fit snugly on their heads, my hope is that from time to time these folks will let their minds be bold, and wear sombreros.

Graduation is a joyous time full of personal celebration and recognition, warm reflection tinged with sadness about the passage of an era now ending, and anticipation about life beyond the student bar and university library. Of course being a new graduate you feel like a right clever-clogs but in real life never try to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people, or find a different room.

Do you need a plan from here on life’s starting grid? Not for me, throw that thinking out. To me it’s all about working hard and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. Be curious, live with an open mind, don’t settle for the status quo. All you can do is try very hard to be in the right place at the right time, g o where there is no path and leave a trail. I’ve observed that most undergraduates living their three years at university do leave a trail, mainly of wet towels or dirty pots.

From standing on the shoulders of giants, and a paradoxical lifestyle of intellectual stimulation and alcoholic degradation, graduation releases you from one world and catapults you into another. Moving from the security of university life to the insecurity of real life is, I recall, daunting.  Clearly, life isn’t all about your job, but it’s the first step on the ladder to realising your potential.

I recall my own graduation. Well, just about. It all stays as good memories later in life. I think this is a period in life everyone should enjoy to the fullest. When you’re young you’re not afraid of what comes next, you’re excited by it. Katie, just lie back in the sun and count every beautiful thing you can see.

So let’s capture this future thinking, exuberance and energy of a new graduate and imagine we can take it into our daily business thinking. If you had the vitality, the naivety and swagger of a young graduate, what more could you achieve? You’d be hungry, eager, always looking forward, never resting on your laurels, curious, restless and bold. This would make you alert, full of beans and unafraid to try new things.

Agility in our constantly changing business world is a key to success, formulating strategies ahead of our competition to find a faster way to the future. But I think many people miss pivotal opportunities because they expect and accept the status quo. Yet surely inertia is a version of complacency, acceptance of where you are. Don’t allow complacency to keep you in mediocrity. Don’t grow comfortable where you are and use that as an excuse. Be agitated and restless.

For Katie today, her best years are ahead of her, and there is nothing much to look back on at this time aside from some glorious friendships and escapades, and memorable moments. As we get older, we spend a lot of time looking back over our shoulder with fondness for the good times past, but looking back in business can be a trap that hinders you.

We tend to spend too much of our business time lamenting the past – lost customers, lost projects, regretting the lack of discipline to get things done.  Whatever you did yesterday is gone. It is over. There is nothing you can do about it. The spare change you’ve lost down the back of the sofa yesterday is gone forever.

This tendency to continually and obsessively rehash and analyse the past isn’t helpful, you get lured into constantly looking backward, stuck in your past instead of looking forward and building your future. Live in the business of tomorrow, don’t try and fix what’s broken today, make some new stuff.

Katie will create her fortune by anticipating future trends and envisioning her own ambitions. She knows where she is going and how she is going to get there. Rarely do youngsters rest on their laurels or allow themselves to bask in the security of today, so adopt this attitude to your business.

Your challenge is to lead two businesses, simultaneously – your business of today, and your business of tomorrow. Long-term vision shouldn’t be scuppered by short-sighted, short-term actions, future orientation enables you to stay ahead of the game. I really don’t think that you can ever plan the future by linking it to the past.

We are not here to fear the future, we are here to shape it. The future is always more important than the past, you have to believe this, or why get put of bed in the morning? The future is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned.

Katie has boxes and scrapbooks filled with mementos, clippings, postcard, concert and plane tickets, old letters, and trivia. This memorabilia is great, but if you want your business to succeed, your mind must focus on where you are going, not on where you have been. It would be more productive to make a scrapbook with pictures of where you want your business to go and what you want to be in the future.

So what are the key messages I’m giving to Katie as a new graduate that you could put into your own entrepreneurial business thinking? Here are ten thoughts.

Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it.

Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.

Don’t care about being right, care about succeeding Steve Jobs used this line in an interview after he was fired by Apple, and I think it’s a great guiding principle for anyone, as a person or business leader.

Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

JRR Tolkien’s words in The Hobbit are inspiring about your choosing your attitude for personal or business growth:

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead. Today and tomorrow are yet to be said, The chances, the changes are all yours to make,The mold of your life is in your hands to break.

Be Unique Our world today is full of ‘me 2’, replicas and imitations, so craft a life of originality, novelty and innovation. Conformity to the norm will merely sentence you to mediocrity, who wants to be average, surely that’s just a blank face in the crowd of irrelevance – be the voice that other folks want to listen to.

Life’s too short to go unnoticed – be audacious, but with humility Life is all about progression from good to great, wanting to be with other people, and other people wanting to be with you. Push yourself to be there, at the top table, but never be afraid to wash the pots too.

Leaning back, or leaning forwards, which do you think is the best stance to take? The first thing you need to do is to make others sit up and take notice. Catch their eye, don’t catch a cold stood waiting.

Reach beyond your expectations – a Shackleton quote. Success means different things to different people, and that’s okay, but it’s not other’s definitions you should be concerned with, but your own expectations. As you continue your journey of growth, it’s my hope your sights will shift from the modest pursuit of success to the passionate pursuit of significance.

Live at your Personal Best Following on from the above, in this Olympic year, look into the minds of Beamon, Owens, Lewis, Fosbury, Redgrave and Liddell. Push yourself at every moment, seize the day. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost.

Be a lifelong learner Graduation isn’t the end of learning, just the start. Learning defines the person and is a lifelong endeavour of discovery, improvement and fulfillment. The minute you stop learning is the minute you cede your future and check out on the race with yourself to realise your potential.

Be mindful Mindfulness isn’t just a state of mind, temporary and fleeting, but a real place to be, conscious of living in the moment. Pay attention to the moment, and make it happen. Fantasy of ‘what will be’ is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, but don’t take life too seriously, be happy.

Stay hungry, stay foolish ok, that’s eleven, but the closing lines from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford speech captures a sentiment that seems on the face of it somewhat flippant, however, when you reflect, it’s a statement about keeping your ambition and being adventurous, never taking yourself too seriously, and keeping the zest and attitude of youth.

In addition, Jobs made three other points to the Stanford class, which are worth repeating here and relevant to all entrepreneurs, not just graduates:

  • You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future, so follow your curiosity, intuition and your heart.
  • Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick, but keep going doing the thing you love, that is great work. If you haven’t found it, keep searching until you find it. Keeping looking don’t settle.
  • Live each day as if it is your last, because one day you will be right. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it by living someone else’s life, don’t be trapped by dogma of other people’s thinking, don’t let your own voice be drowned out by other people’s noise. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Everything else is secondary

Check out Job’s inspirational speech here:

There is a light that never goes out from your time spent at university – Katie, like myself, was made in Sheffield – so keep that alive in your business thinking. The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

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