40 Years, 40 Lessons (Full Text)

NOTE: This particular post is the FULL TEXT (~8000 words) for those who want to understand my perspective completely. It provides more context on the rapid fire thoughts from the original post. 

For the MAXIMS ONLY post, go HERE

Hi there true believers!

As I approached my 40th birthday, I wanted to share some things I’ve found helpful. In this article, you’ll find a hodgepodge of considerations, suggestions, and thinking tools for a better life. After 40 years of thinking, reading, testing, and living, I’m confident the thoughts below will bring you more joy/ fulfillment and less suffering/ disappointment.

No set of maxims can (or should!) shield you completely from adversity; your failures, struggles, and mishaps are what will sharpen the saw of your humanity. But as the saying goes “A smart person learns from their mistakes, a truly wise person learns from the mistakes from others.” 

Some of these thoughts represent a radical departure from what I would have said on the eve of my 30th birthday. I suspect after ten more years of life these will further evolve, as they should. But for now, consider these musings some of my “Notes From The Road (So Far).”

AND if you like this kind of stuff, I’m posting a daily 1-3 minute stories over on Instagram for all of 2020. (Follow me HERE.) Topics include business focused content like time management, leadership, and customer service, AND musings on learning theory, psychology, and practical philosophy.

New DECADE… let’s GO!!!!


1) No maxims are 100% correct in all contexts.

For any maxim/ principle (including all the ones listed here), one can always find contexts where it would be incorrect. 

Virtually all maxims (including all of these) have an implicit qualification: “But of course, there are obvious exceptions.” Or as the staticians say, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” Many people discount the maxim because they can think of an exception. This is silly, because you can find an exception to all maxims. 

It’s useful to observe where/ when the maxim/ principle doesn’t apply. But it’s probably more useful to identify the circumstances under which would be correct.

RELATED: For an “all-purpose” maxim to be helpful, it should be correct 90-99% of the time. Otherwise it’s not a very good maxim. UNLESS you add a qualifier to stipulate the context in which it’s correct.

Social media is full of aspiring thought leaders making pronouncements without context that are correct 40-60% of the time. I never know if the individual is constrained by their attempt at brevity, or genuinely sees the situation in black or white. In these situations, I give people the benefit of the doubt.

2) When there’s something you want that you don’t have/ can’t get, there’s something you don’t know. 

Sometimes what you don’t know is how to apply knowledge. And sometimes there’s a mindset problem. But ultimately, if you’re not getting the results you want, you’re missing part of the puzzle.

If you’re not happy with an area of your life, invest time, energy, and money in studying that area.

This goes for pretty much anything. Relationships, money, fitness, marketing, management, happiness… if you’re not happy with your results, there are already solutions out there and people who are masters of those domains. It’s unwise to bang your head against the wall trying to figure it all out on your own. It’s also unwise to bury your head in the sand, though this can be a common response when we’re struggling so much with a given topic that it’s painful. 

Buy some books, find out who the experts are, look into conferences and coaches, do some Googling, search on YouTube, etc. etc. etc.

Check out my article on learning HERE. And for business challenges, you can find my favorite books HERE.

3) If you want to be successful in life and business, you’ve got to get the incentives right. 

This goes for you personally, for your team, for your clients/ customers, and for your society. 

And that’s damn hard, because whenever you incentivize a given outcome, you’re also creating second and third order consequences. For instance, in a famous example from colonial India, Delhi had a cobra problem. The British governor decided to pay people for turning in cobra heads to help reduce the cobra count. And… people start actively breeding cobras to have more to turn in and collect the reward. Womp womp.

Furthermore, in many situations, adding incentives can backfire by reducing motivation. Check out Daniel Pink’s Drive or my article on managing via incentives HERE.

However, if you have NO incentives, you don’t have any influence on behaviors. No one has “skin in the game” and you’re not leveraging the power of enlightened self-interest.

Think a few steps ahead, then do your best. It’s usually not possible to create a perfect system, but you can still create one that’s “good enough.”

4a)The most important ability is dependability.” – Zig Ziglar

People who always follow through on what they say they’re going to do are very rare. And what is rare is valuable.

There are many reasons for this. But in my experience, most people just don’t have a reliable system for keeping track of the things they say they’re going to do. And if you have any complexity in your life, your memory won’t cut it unless you write it down somewhere AND have a system to process your tasks. (Need help with this? Go to this article HERE.)

Few things lay a better foundation for personal and professional success than being dependable. When you become known as the person who everyone can always count on, you become infinitely more valuable. You don’t have to spend time healing damaged trust after broken promises. And you don’t have to be closely “managed,” so it takes less bandwidth and energy to work with you because you keep yourself accountable. 

Being dependable doesn’t require any special talent. But it does require caring enough to develop some system for organizing your commitments and deadlines. Admittedly, not everyone naturally takes to this sort of organization. But the payoff is HUGE: better relationships, more professional opportunities, more trust, more responsibility, more freedom, and more income.

4b) “Self esteem is your reputation with yourself.” – Naval Ravikant

Like all maxims, this is mostly correct, “but of course there are obvious exceptions.” Yes, sometimes low self-esteem is a result of trauma, socialization, or something that requires the support of a clinician like a therapist. Sometimes there’s even something going on physiologically that may benefit from medication.

But on balance, for most people, your self-esteem is a reflection of your reputation with yourself. Can you rely on yourself to do what you commit to do? Do you keep your commitments with yourself? Even the little ones, like getting up without repeatedly hitting the alarm? Do you have a track record of good faith effort and genuinely doing your very best most days?

If not, it’s a good place to start if you’d like to improve your self-esteem. To be successful, you’ll have to become proficient at “playing games you can win” and being realistic about your commitments to yourself. You’ll also need a heaping dose of self-compassion with your inevitable breaches. 

But if you go to bed most nights knowing you really did your best that day, your probability of being satisfied with yourself will be much, much higher.

5) Don’t care too much about what other people think. But it’s ok and ideal to care some. 

And you should weigh how much you care based on how certain you are that their opinion is credible in that domain.

“Fuck the haters” is a silly philosophy. Sometimes haters make accurate (if painful) observations.

However, it is also silly to give your power away willy nilly. Because you’ll never please everyone. And if you have any level of success, you WILL have rocks thrown at you. 

A related thought:

6) Feedback is just data. 

When you receive feedback, it’s your job to look it over and decide if it’s true or not. Carefully considering the merit of feedback is superior to automatically dismissing it (because of poor delivery OR you dislike the messenger OR because it makes you upset OR etc. etc. etc.). 

However, carefully considering the merit of feedback is ALSO superior to taking all feedback to heart, being reactive, solving problems you don’t have, giving away your personal power, etc. etc. etc.

Most feedback is bad. First of all, most people deliver it poorly. Second of all, many people aren’t clear thinkers and can’t see outside their own desires and interests. Third of all, their feedback is always based on a very limited bit of information about your behaviors. They have no real knowledge of your intentions, behaviors they didn’t see, etc. 

However, it’s still a gift to add someone else’s perspective to your own. Even if you ultimately disagree, you have more insight to how you (or your business) is being perceived. And that’s a valuable data point.

On average, I estimate about 70% of the feedback I get about Mark Fisher Fitness or Business for Unicorns is inactionable or incorrect. But think about it logically. Even with a 30% batting average, that’s still LOTS of helpful ideas. Also worth noting: leaving aside internet trolls, when a client or customer takes the time to share their feedback with you, it means they’re invested in your success. And that is awesome! You are lucky! They are cool! It may not always feel like it, but see point 31.

It’s also important to understand how sensitive you are to feedback. If feedback is scary and feels like a punch in the throat, you likely need to underweight it. Take time before you take action or you may needlessly overreact and solve problems that don’t really exist. On the other hand, if you don’t understand why everyone’s so tightly wound all the time and you only have a passing curiosity in what others think/ feel, you may be an UNDER responder. This too could lead to subpar decision making.

When you begin to get truly curious to understand feedback about you and/or your business, you’re on the way to expedited growth/ learning.

Read Thanks for the Feedback and Persuadable. For BFU thoughts on handling feedback, check out these articles HERE and HERE.

7) It’s particularly helpful to be able to learn from people that are not your cup of tea. 

People you don’t like and/or who dislike you are uniquely well positioned to help you discover things that aren’t obvious to you. It’s BECAUSE they’re unlike you that they hold so much value for you.

You may still disagree. But if you can resist the impulse to discount/ dismiss, you have an opportunity to learn things you won’t discover when studying those with similar values, personal style, philosophies, etc. See 30.


8) Be wary of cynics. 

Sometimes you can get helpful feedback from them ((see 5, 6, and possibly 7). But people that fundamentally distrust the sincerity and integrity of most/ all humans have a warped frame. Keep this in mind.

They (usually) mean well. But in their attempts to protect themselves and/or make sense of being let down, their worldview is as skewed, unhelpful, and potentially dangerous as naive Pollyannas. 

Consider their perspective and look for helpful takeaways. But remember their frame generally prevents them from thinking critically and seeing clearly.

9) Pretty much everybody could benefit from therapy of some kind. 

Unless you made it out of childhood and your adolescence without any wounds.

Now not everyone needs therapy. But pretty much everyone would benefit. This is analogous to physical therapy. Not everyone necessarily needs one, but a good physical therapist can do things that a fitness trainer can’t. Skilled therapists have helpful tools (though admittedly, personal fit to both therapist AND modality of course play a role).

You’ll just suffer less. And that’s not purely a selfish consideration. When you suffer less, you’ll be a better version of you for the people you love and the world at large.

Also worth considering:

10) Work on yourself some. But not too much.

This one is tricky, as each individual will have to decide what’s “too little” or “too much.” 

As a rule of thumb, people that love love LOVE self-work/ personal development/ retreats/ elaborate journaling prompts, etc. may be at risk of doing too much. People that find all that stuff to be mostly bullshit are at risk of doing too little.

It’s fair to say if you’re not spending any time on yourself via coaching, therapy, personal development, etc., you’re likely not growing as a human. A commitment to growth is a non-negotiable trait for me in potential friends, business partners, and team members. Complacency breeds bored (and boring) humans. (CONGRATS… you’re reading this, there’s a 99% probability you pass this bar!)

Conversely, and less discussed, it’s possible to do too much work on yourself. 

It’s possible for self-work to take up a disproportionate amount of resources past the point of diminishing returns. This can displace/ impede action-taking. 

There’s no algorithm for this, really, but a good proxy is the amount of time spent “sharpening your saw” measured against the amount of time “using your saw.” Working on yourself is valuable, but at some point you have to engage in the world, with other people, and with society. I don’t know the exact ratio, and as usual, context always matters. But there IS a tipping point.

For many people, self work can become a great justification for avoiding doing the damn thing and putting themselves out there/ shipping their work. Furthermore, many modalities of self-work require breaking yourself down, asking yourself hard questions, and focusing on/ looking for the areas that are not working well. This is very useful in the right dose (see 16). But if you do LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of this, you may become neurotic, self-doubting, and incapable of taking action in a quixotic quest to become “ready.”

11) “Your weaknesses are your strengths taken to their extremes.” – Ari Weinzweig

This little nugget is from one of my heroes, Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI. 

This is an important consideration. Particularly because by definition, if you’re capable of creating extreme results, you likely have some extreme tendencies. Be mindful of how far you’re pushing your strengths. They can come out the back door and bite you in the ass.

12) To be fulfilled, focus on two things: being a Student and being a Servant.

When uncertain what to do with your morning/ day/ life, learning things and/or serving people will be a satisfying choice.

I aspire to be a Student every day. By nature, I’m intrinsically curious as hell. I love to learn. But I also know being a Student is necessary for me to be a (good) Servant. I aspire to be a Student of 1) the World and 2) Myself. I need to know and understand both. I’ll never have perfect knowledge, but the more useful knowledge, skills, and wisdom I develop, the more effective I can be as a Servant.

Conversely, I can’t be a truly great Student unless I’m an aspiring Servant. If I’m learning in a vacuum and never synthesizing/ sharing/ utilizing, I’m not actually completing the final step of learning. 

If I’m awake, I think it’s fun to be learning things and serving people.

BONUS: The best and most foundational form of Service is unconditional positive regard (acceptance, compassion, and sincere love). Hard to do, but a worthwhile goal.

A related and paradoxical thought:

13) It’s a trap to define your self-worth purely in terms of what you can do for other people.

DOING is important to a good life. As Earl Nightingale said, “Happiness is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or idea.”

And while that’s true, this has to be balanced against the value of simply BEING. This isn’t to say one should resist the human urge for growth, progress, self-actualization, achievement, etc. It IS to say that one should also spend some dedicated time doing nothing, being bored, wandering, schedule-less, at Burning Man, etc.

This past year I took more time to simply “be” than any other year of my adult life. Since I can, at times, wrap my feelings of self-worth up in my value to others, this was occasionally challenging. It’s honorable to want to contribute to a better world. But high-achieving strivers also benefit from taking time to be still. 

Yes, this will refresh your brain. You’ll come back with more creativity and energy and laterally-attained ideas.

But spending time simply BEING isn’t (just) a means to more effective DOING.

It’s an end unto itself.

BONUS: This is part of the value of a meditation practice. It’s a consistent and daily commitment to spending part of my day just BEING. 

14) Happiness is best created by (spending time, energy, and money on) experiences and relationships, not things.

The human brain is wired to want “stuff.” Our society and its sophisticated marketing machinery expertly fans these flames.

BUT research (and common sense) has shown very conclusively that happiness doesn’t come from acquiring stuff. It comes from experiences and meaningful relationships. So if choosing between buying an expensive designer luxury thingamaroo or going on a weekend vacation with a partner or dear friend, it’s usually best to choose the latter.

15) A disciplined gratitude practice is the most reliable intervention to improve your mental well-being.

Scientists currently believe up to 50% of one’s happiness is determined by a genetic set-point.

And while happiness is not necessarily the mark of a life well-lived, people with good attitudes tend to be more effective. However our brains tend to focus on what’s going wrong and ruminate, often on negative things that are out of our power to control.

Creating some daily habits around appreciating the things that ARE going well in your life is a powerful way to slowly rewire your brain. You’ll still see negative things. That’s not only ok, it’s desirable; this can help spur action and identify opportunities for improvement.

If you tend to overweight the negative and and rarely appreciate what’s going well, take some time each day to identify what you’re grateful for.

BONUS: When you feel gratitude towards a person, let them know. And tell them why. Perhaps in a handwritten card.

“Feeling gratitude for someone and not expressing it is like wrapping a present but never giving it.” – Andrew Horn, founder of Tribute.

(Tribute is a very cool company that makes it super easy to make video montages of appreciation to celebrate humans you love. More HERE.)

16) If you’re not sure what you want in a situation, ask yourself what you DON’T want. That will probably be more obvious. Then explore the opposite of what you DON’T want. 

“Invert, always invert.” – Carl Jacobi

This is one of my favorite thinking tools, commonly called “inversion.” Many people do this intuitively BUT ineffectively. Since it’s so easy to articulate and focus on what you DON’T want, that’s as far as many people get. They spend their time and energy thinking about, discussing, and 85% focusing on what they DON’T want. The key is to use this knowledge to focus on what you DO want.

Feeling stuck? Ask yourself the magic question:

How would you like this to be different?

BONUS STRATEGY: If you’re not sure how to get what you want, identify the OPPOSITE of what you want. Then identify how you’d need to behave to create the OPPOSITE of what you want. Then identify the opposite of those behaviors.

Example: If you’re not sure how to have a great marriage, consider how you’d need to behave to have a horrible marriage. What are the OPPOSITE of the behaviors that would create a horrible marriage? It’s likely some of them would be helpful in creating a great marriage.

While he didn’t invent inversion, I attribute my purposeful application of this tool to Charlie Munger. He’s one of my heroes. More about Charlie in the fifth point on critical thinking HERE.

17) To increase your probability of achieving a goal, first decide on exactly what you want. Then track stuff. 

You’ll be best off tracking both inputs (behaviors, processes) and outputs (outcomes, results), though sometimes focusing on behaviors alone is sufficient.

For example, if you want your business to make a certain amount of money, it’s a good idea to create a specific number goal with a target date. Then track the (weekly, daily, monthly) activities that will contribute to that goal AND track the results along the way so you know if you need to change course. (Want more on creating numbers like this for your business? Go HERE.)

Sometimes people say weird stuff like “goal setting doesn’t work, focus on systems.” That’s a weird thing to say. A good goal setting system 1) should include systems for getting your goal and 2) should be realistic about the goal evolving over time. They’re not mutually exclusive. See the second point HERE.

That said, depending on the goal, sometimes you are best focusing purely on behaviors. This is usually the intention behind statements like “goal setting doesn’t work.” For instance, when it comes to my health and fitness, I’m not particularly focused on my weight or body fat percentage or any particular performance goals. While I’m not without vanity, I mostly care about brain function, happiness, and longevity. And my long term health is the ultimate delayed feedback loop; it doesn’t have clear daily outcomes for me to track (at least not at this age). So for my health and fitness goals, I simply focus on “core self-care” behaviors.

There are fancy apps for this, but I personally use a Google Sheet with conditional formatting. I keep it open on my “home” set of browser tabs (with my email inboxes and calendar). Then I update it throughout the day. The cell turns green if I hit it, and red if I don’t. This provides a dopamine hit of satisfaction for completing my habit. This in turn creates a positive reinforcement feedback loop for activities that aren’t intrinsically satisfying.

Since adopting this in Oct. 2018, it’s been remarkable how easy it is to finally adopt habits. Whether it’s cutting back on drinking, flossing daily, meditating, or warming up before lifting, it seems all I need to do is log it and… BAM! I suddenly find myself doing it far more regularly.

(Shoot me an email at mark@businessforunicorns.com if you want me to share a screenshot with you.)

NOTE: Clarity on your goals does not guarantee you will achieve them.

However, NOT having any clear goals makes it very unlikely that you’ll accidentally stumble into the life of your dreams. You can find a simple visioning system with prompts HERE.

And now… a counter thought.

18) What gets measured gets managed. But you can’t always measure what matters.

Many important things in life are not easily quantifiable. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Sometimes/ often they matter more.

Be mindful of “The Tyranny of the Quantifiable”: the sneaky impulse of your brain to accidentally prioritize goals that can be quantified over things that are actually more impactful for a good life. The classic example here is chasing money over satisfying relationships.

In some contexts, using subjective ratings can be a helpful workaround (e.g. organizational morale surveys, ranking your satisfaction in your marriage, etc. etc. etc.). The Net Promoter Score is a good numerical number to track for customer satisfaction. For more on the NPS, check out the first thought HERE, and for more customer service stuff in general, check out our course Clients for Life.

19) The best time management skill is the the ability to do one thing at a time without letting yourself get distracted. 

It’s (relatively) easy to set up a work session to avoid external distractions. You can take push notifications off your phone, put it on “do not disturb,” tell your colleagues not to interrupt you during certain periods of focused work, close your door, etc.

The bigger issue for most of us is internal distractions; we’ve been trained by our phones to get “itchy” when we’re working on something for more than a few minutes (…seconds). Many of us will feel a pull to check our email, or check social media, or pretty much do ANYTHING that will take us away from the work at hand. This isn’t a recipe for doing focused high quality work. 

Consider using the “Pomodoro Technique” and set an alarm for 25 minutes of uninterrupted focus followed by a five minute break. These short, intentional sprints can help override your “itches” because you know you have a break coming. Additionally, giving your brain a break every 25 minutes is a good best practice to maximize your creativity/ productivity over the course of a day. I also suspect this practice can help train your brain to remain on task for more than a few minutes at time.

Related Thought: Personal tech is ubiquitous; this is great AND horrible.* Although we’ve gained some convenience, many of us now let our work life bleed into our recreational activities or our time with loved ones. Instead of relaxing and being present, we’ve trained our brains to constantly look for diversions. Consider taking a weekly 24 hour break from digital diversions. 

If you want more stuff like this, check out our time management course Time Ninja.

*Another way tech is horrible: we’re trading away privacy for convenience. This will be one of the biggest issues of the next decade as we slowly start to understand the ramifications.

20) Good time management is about weaponizing (smart) laziness.

I’m better at time management than most people because I’m very, very lazy. This often strikes people as false modesty. A lot of people think I’m a hard worker and highly productive. And I am. But being a hard worker/ highly productive and being lazy are NOT mutually exclusive. In fact the latter is the key to the former.

I basically don’t want to do anything unless 1) it’s really moving me towards my goals (as a Student and Servant) and 2) I truly have to be the one to personally do it. 

Most people spend too much time on shit that doesn’t matter. And they’re too reluctant/ slow/ unskilled at delegating and getting things off their plate (see next thought).

Even if it only takes me 60 seconds to do, I’ll happily spend 30 seconds to write an email to delegate the task.

Seconds make minutes make hours make days.

And the days may be long, but the years are short.

And now, an inversion:

21) Few things will impede a successful life more than a tireless commitment to becoming world class at shit that doesn’t actually matter.

It’s helpful to be able to put your head down and get to work. But you will get nowhere fast unless you learn how to prioritize based on your long term goals and your personal values.

The essence of effective strategy is identifying what you’re NOT going to do. Minimize tasks and projects that don’t have massive impact and move you towards the life you want.

You will never get it all done. Particularly in today’s day and age. Eliminate the non-essential.

“Less but better.” – Dieter Rams

22) Conventional intelligence is just table stakes. Unless combined with the ability to consistently produce work AND emotional intelligence, it will not lead to success.

The world is filled with hyper-intelligent people who are professionally and personally unsuccessful. There are two main reasons for this. 

First, success is not just about how you THINK or your IDEAS, it’s about what you DO. Surely the latter benefits from clear thinking; to the extent that it helps you make good choices, more intellectual firepower is better than less. But you still have to do stuff to get results. And many productive people of average intelligence with “just ok” ideas outperform geniuses that spend their time lost in thought.

Second, if you have lots of brainpower but minimal emotional intelligence, you’re generally going to have big problems. In some cases, you can mitigate this by working with someone who can leverage your brains while protecting the world from you. And to be fair, if you do execute well, you can absolutely still have some professional success. But not only will this deficit set limits on your professional success, you will pay a real price in your personal life.

Brains alone are not enough. Commit to actually getting things done AND to life long learning about interpersonal skills.

If you need help with the latter, you can improve if you work on it. We offer coaching on emotional intelligence. More details HERE.

23) Training, delegating, and managing other people are non-negotiable skills if you want to maximize your output and impact on the world. 

Otherwise your output and impact is always be limited by your personal time, energy, and skill capacity.

Consider taking a “Training the Trainer” course. Learn how to effectively teach your team how to execute the systems that create your desired outcomes. Commit to become a world class delegater. Study the art of management/ leadership.

BONUS: Studying practical psychology is a good foundation for this work.If you don’t understand how people are wired, what they value, what motivates them, etc., you won’t build the positive relationships necessary for success. 

If you’d like to learn more about these skills, check out our course on leadership and building a team, The Care and Feeding of Superheroes.

I know some very successful people who have a lot of stress/ suffering in their life because of constant turmoil in their professional relationships.

A similar but related idea: Become a lifelong learner about technical automation. More and more things will be automated every single year. But until the robots really take over, mastering the art of training, delegating, and managing other people will always be a foundational skill for those who want to make a big impact.

24) “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity (or incompetence).” – Hanlon’s Razor

Since your brain is wired to create patterns AND be wary of cheats, most humans are on the lookout for villainy. But we tend to assign poor motives and unchanging character flaws when usually the person just doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing and/or is being lazy or thoughtless. This results in unnecessary suffering: for you

And if you happen to be a manager of the individual in question, it’s a great way to poison the relationship. It will ensure that the accountability conversation leaves them (accurately) feeling judged and misunderstood. Another common and painful truth: in many situations, the reason they failed was inadequate training/ coaching on your part (see 23).

A related customer service mantra: “Better naivete than paranoia.”

Everyone’s doing the best they can from where they are. Even though that may objectively be shitty. 

Everyone’s fighting a battle. Be kind.

25) You can be a great human without being a great leader. But you can’t be a great leader without being a great human.

Being a wonderful human being with great interpersonal skills and a keen eye for detail doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a successful leader. There are other skills that have to be stacked.

But if you master the skills of leadership without having done the requisite work on yourself as a person, you’ll always have a ceiling. Based on the organization, this may or may not impact your short term financial results. Admittedly, in many perverse scenarios, being a good human can sometimes prevent the best possible short term financial results.

But if the goal is the best possible long term financial results AND a culture where people are growing and feel valued and cared for… the mechanics of leadership alone aren’t going to cut it.

You have to be the kind of person that other high quality humans are willing to follow.

26) There is no such thing as a universally effective leader in all situations. And certainly not for all people.

Leadership is VERY contextual. Different situations, organizations, and goals all require different approaches. The best leaders know how to be flexible and adapt their style to the situation at hand. But since leaders are only human, they will naturally have modes of operation that are more comfortable and intuitive.

This is why a leader can thrive in one business and be a bust in another. It’s also why the person who starts an organization isn’t always the one who can lead it through various stages of growth. 

27a) Learn how to write (sufficiently) well

I don’t see a world in which this need goes away. Yes, more and more communication will happen via video. But writing has benefits that video does not, and it will remain more practical for many kinds of communication.

You can get better at this. Read books like Bird By Bird, Elements of F*cking Style, etc. Take a class or a course on it.

You don’t even need to be great. At a certain point, for most life skills, there’s diminishing returns after a certain level of competence. I’m an adequate writer at best. But I AM able to communicate quickly, concisely, warmly, and clearly. And without exaggeration, this “just good enough” skill is the parent of much of my professional success.

BONUS #1: Learn how to communicate via emails in particular. For the foreseeable future, they will be an important part of professional communication. Learn to organize your thoughts clearly and with good formatting to clients, co-workers, partners, etc. 

BONUS #2: Learn how to type quickly. If you can’t type at least 60 words per minute, upgrade this skill. If you spend anytime typing (and you almost certainly do if you’re reading this), this is a small hinge that will open a huge door.

27b) Learn how to speak (sufficiently) well. 

While writing matters in many contexts, at the risk of stating the stupidly obvious, much important communication will happen via conversation. Sales pitches, “sales” pitches (see 28) writing up a team member, having a difficult conversation with a loved one, giving a speech to a group of people, articulating your love for someone you adore… these are important skills.

This is why everyone benefits from studying public speaking. Whether you actually speak in front of groups of people or not, it’s a highly transferable skill. 

Unlike writing, this is one of my marquee skills. I have chosen to combine my natural talent, interest, and years of experience as a professional actor with disciplined ongoing study and effort towards incremental improvement. This may or may not make sense for you. But it will behoove you to become at least adequate. 

You can read some high level thoughts on the topic HERE and HERE. I also recommend signing up for Toastmasters. 

28) We are ALL in sales. We are all “Agents of Influence.”

Many people find the very word “sales” to be repugnant. Same with “marketing.:

And this makes sense. But what we all despise is low-integrity, high-pressure sales that don’t actually have more than a passing interest in what you actually need or want. Unfortunately, since most of us have experienced this in our lives, the word is scorched earth.

But effectively supporting people in taking action doesn’t require being shady. In fact, doing it well necessitates genuine care and concern. It’s appropriate to acknowledge there are other incentives at play, and any salesperson is incentivized financially and/or professionally to convince people to pay for a given service.

But at the end of the day, every human has desires that require “selling” other people on a shared vision and parting with resources (time, money, energy). You may be “selling” your child on finishing their homework. Or “selling” your mom on recycling. Or “selling” your boss on giving you a bigger raise.

The key to doing it with integrity (and frankly, to doing it well) is: 

  1. Genuinely care about the individual you’re influencing. 
  2. Sincerely believe your proposed plan of action is actually in their long term best interest. 
  3.  A deep respect for their autonomy in making their own decisions.

29) Intellectual humility – coupled with the right dose of introspection – is the foundation to continued personal and professional growth.

The moment you have it all figured out is usually the death of further growth. Or at the least, it’s a moment of “pride before the fall.” 

To be clear, it is possible to be overly introspective. Too much time spent questioning yourself can lead to subpar action-taking, which is always where real learning happens. But one probably can’t be too humble, provided you’re continually taking action on what seems to be true, while leaving the door open to having your beliefs challenged.

“The first principle is you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

30) “Seek first to understand.” Particularly when mad, hurt, confused, offended, etc. 

This is perhaps the most powerful of all of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

A curious, open mind is always a good look. It’s particularly valuable when emotions are involved. While emotions are important, they have a way of clouding your understanding. When you are upset with someone else, or perhaps more importantly, when they are upset with you, sincerely seek to understand where they’re coming from. It will benefit both you personally and the relationship.

31) Emotions are vital, helpful, and often slightly flawed tools for understanding our preferences and driving decision making.  

We don’t want to deny or ignore our emotions. And we should be realistic that total conscious control isn’t possible, or frankly, desirable. But we also don’t want to assume our emotions always lead to good decisions without at least some oversight. 

There’s a reasonable debate over how much control people actually have other their emotions. It’s pretty clear we have at least some influence over how we feel about things; on the other hand, it’s also clear no one has complete self-mastery of their emotional responses. Emotions function largely unconsciously. Most humans can relate to feeling something we knew wasn’t logical, and yet couldn’t shake the physical sensation. It can sometimes seem like there are two of us in our brains.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses this conflict in his excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt refers to these two different “selves” as the Rider (our thinking, logic brain) and the Elephant (our powerful, emotional brain). 

While emotions sometimes get a bad rap, we quite literally can’t make decisions without them. Like many things in life, we just want to find a sweetspot. We don’t want wild swings of emotion that result in impulsive behavior that moves us away from what we actually want most. Conversely, we don’t want desperate repression in an doomed attempt to be creatures of pure logic with no knowledge of or language for our emotional life.

What we want is a richly explored inner life that never makes emotions “wrong”; we fully accept, observe, and feel our feelings. We tune into the physical sensations they bring. We get curious about what our emotions are telling us. We find productive ways to process our feelings, often in conversation with supportive people and/or through physical exertion. But we also know our emotional responses are sometimes a well-intentioned but outdated defense mechanism. Or a completely reasonable response to an honest misunderstanding or miscommunication. And we know that in the very least, when we find ourselves overcome with emotion, it’s usually not when we’re doing our very best thinking. 

Your heart matters AND your brain matters. As is often the case, we want both.

32) An addiction to being “right” often prevents people from getting what they really want.

This is one is HYOOOGE. 

Everytime you feel your ego flare up during a disagreement, you’re slipping into an unhelpful place; it’s a warning sign you’re about to start arguing why you’re “right” and trying to “win.” You’ll stop seeking to understand. You’ll be unwilling to genuinely consider if you’re wrong. An opportunity to learn will be lost. And more than likely the quality of the relationship is going to take a hit.

When you find yourself in conflict with someone else (which is normal and often valuable, see 34), always zoom out and make sure you’re clear on what you actually want most. 

33) Be cautious when you have strong opinions about topics you don’t actually know much about. 

Questions are great. Theories are great. But strong and forcefully held opinions – with no knowledge base or track record of results in a given domain – are the source of much human suffering. 

Sure, many fields benefit from the perspective of an outsider. It’s entirely possible you are able to intuit something because you don’t know “the rules.” But this can be usually be offered with questions and theories. It doesn’t require the near certainty of forcefully held opinions.

This is all the trickier for smart and articulate people who’ve had success of some kind. When people look to you as a “thought leader” and your brain works very fast, you’re at risk of overstepping. When you’re asked a question about something you don’t actually know much about, you might immediately formulate a credible sounding answer and start spewing bullshit without even realizing it. 

There are huge swaths of the human experience that are not being commented on in these maxims. Some just didn’t make the cut. But most are topics I’m frankly not qualified to comment on.

34) Healthy conflict is the secret sauce to leveraging the power of groups. If you do this right, two plus two will equal five.

Without conflict, there’s no growth. In any community/ organization, the quality of thinking improves by marrying different perspectives and ironing out the conflict.

At some point, a leader has to make a subjective call about where to steer the ship, even if consensu hasn’t been reached. But to make the best decision requires vetting conflicting viewpoints.

“When two people in business always agree, one is unnecessary.”

35) The Law of Attraction may or may not actually be true. Regardless, it’s a good way to approach your life and work.

It’s entirely possible the Law of Attraction is just a trick of the mind that makes you feel like you’re drawing people and circumstances to you that are aligned with what you think and feel. But it sure feels like I’m creating my own reality most days.

Are there actually esoteric metaphysical currents of energy stirring the cosmic soup in the direction of your thoughts/ feelings? No idea. But it’s logically a useful strategy to focus on what you DO want. To greet your day like a happy warrior, confidently and boldly moving in the direction of your dreams. 

To be clear… “When you pray, move your feet.” I’m not saying you should buy something you can’t afford and then manifest the money. I AM saying a commitment to the tenets of the Law of Attraction – factually true or not – will lead to better outcomes. You’ll likely do better work, you’ll be more creative/ flexible, you’ll have more fun, people will like being around you more, etc. etc. 

“You become what you think about most of the time” may sound woowoo, but I think it’s logical. 

36) Authenticity is poorly understood, and possibly overrated.

This one is potentially provocative, so allow me to unpack…

What we DON’T want is to be fake, forced, disingenuous, conniving, etc. But is the opposite of these traits “authenticity?”

It depends on how you define it. While “being true to yourself” is a generally decent principle, what if your “authentic self” just doesn’t feel like paying taxes? Or what if you “authentically” want to eat ice cream every night? 

Let’s say you choose to write me unsolicited feedback about this article. Logically, I know your intentions are good. But I don’t know you. Furthermore, your reasoning has obvious and objective flaws. So my first impulse to unsolicited feedback is to dislike you for overstepping AND respond with a curt, dismissive comment pointing out your flaws in reasoning. Am I “out of my integrity” if I don’t honor my inner spirit’s intuition? Which is to judge you as a nitpicker who didn’t read the 1st maxim? Is it ok if I beat you over the head with my copy of Daring Greatly while reciting the Roosevelt quote about the man in the arena?

The challenge with “authenticity” is that humans are complicated. We have many layers and many sides. Furthermore, while we have genetic wiring and natural inclinations, we (the many versions of us) are also a product of our own self-creation. And sometimes what feels like your intuition is just your fear and desire for self-preservation dressed up in a tuxedo.

Again, this isn’t an argument for being fake, forced, disingenuous, conniving, etc. It’s simply acknowledging that “authenticity” is a nebulous concept since it implies there’s a true you. In fact… you “contain multitudes.” And you’re forever in the process of (re)creating yourself.

CONCESSION: Advice to “be authentic” is well-intentioned and can be helpful in some situations (“But of course there are obvious exceptions”). Particularly when it refers to exploring what you really want, what you really feel, what you really think, etc.

37) We are ALL practical moral philosophers.

Admittedly, some of us spend more time thinking about our impact on the world than others. Not everyone spends their free time creating thought experiments to consider how best to balance equality and liberty. Frankly, many people don’t seem to give a shit about this kind of stuff at all.

But by being a human and having any opinion whatsoever on – or taking part in –  a business, a community, marriages, family, politics, social justice, the government, the law, power dynamics, etc.… you DO have ethical intuitions.

Now some people have more or less explicit interest in moral philosophy and the study of ethics. Some people have beliefs that have been deeply examined and are endless evolving. Others haven’t thought much more deeply beyond what they were taught by their families and high schools.

But if we’re apart of any of the above systems, as we all are, we’re making choices every single day. So although it may seem strange, we are all practitioners of moral philosophy.

And that’s why I think it’s good to spend at least some time thinking about it.

38) Choosing the right people to build a life with will do much to mitigate suboptimal decision making and bad luck. 

Conversely, you can do almost everything “correct” to create the life you want, and yet have your happiness totally thwarted by poor choices of spouse, business partner(s), teammates, etc.

This is as obvious as it is vitally important.

39) Health really is the first wealth.

At the end of the day, health is the foundation of everything. But one of the biggest challenges with health and longevity is the feedback loop is massively delayed. You can “get away” with neglecting your health and fitness… for a while. Sometimes for years. And genetics are certainly a part of the equation, to good and ill effect. 

But you will spend time, energy, and money on your health and fitness at some point in your life. The more time you’re willing to spend on proactive measures, the higher probability you’ll experience long term robust health and fitness.

BONUS: There is LOTS of debate about the best way to pursue fitness. As most readers will know, my other business is devoted entirely to helping people find the path that works for them. But at the risk of being totally reductionistic, some non-controversial guidelines:

  • Eat a reasonable amount of mostly non-processed, perishable single-ingredient foods that you actually like. Emphasize plants.
  • Get in some kind of physical activity that you actually like at least several times a week, ideally every day.
  • Take sleep hygiene seriously. Strive for 7-8 hours a night.
  • Cultivate self care rituals that nourish you: walks in nature, meditation, prayer, reading, etc.
  • Find work you genuinely enjoy/ love. If that’s not possible, at least find work you don’t hate.
  • Spend time every with people you love and who love you back.

Final thought: remember you are robust. During a season of career focus (or young children!), you may not nail all of the above. Do your best. Accept it won’t be perfect. 

But also be honest about the difference between a temporary disruption and an indefinite lifestyle that needs an intervention.

40) Memento Mori. 

Remember you will die.

This is one of my superpowers. Like some of you reading this, I had a brush with death in my teenage years that forever changed me, mostly for the good. But I admit it does get in my way at times if I’m not being careful (see 11). 

In fact, one of the most meaningful experiences of my year was a health scare. Everything turned out ok, but I was completely and totally rocked (see 39). I’m grateful for the experience, as it forced me to address the darkside of this superpower. It was also the impetus to finally start therapy (see 9). But on balance, I believe a healthy awareness of mortality has always been my secret sauce. It powers my bias for action and the joyful urgency with which I approach my work AND my fun. More days than not, I bound out of bed in the morning. And this is because I don’t take my life for granted.

From one of my favorite websites/ blogs:

“The goal of personal growth should be deathbed clarity while your life is still happening so you can actually do something about it.” – WaitBuyWhy.com


If you actually read this long-ass version, I’m incredibly touched. 

Shoot me an email at mark@businessforunicorns.com to say hi and let me know.