Don’t Worry, Be You

BusinessWeek

August 7, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Bill Jensen, who is a work-life philosopher, had a fascinating idea. He asked lots of people, including me, to write a letter to their loved ones expressing their views on what they thought was important in life. Bill then took 64 of these letters and turned them into the book What Is Your Life’s Work?: Answering the BIG Questions about What Really Matters … and Reawakening Your Passion for What You Do (Collins, 2006). I decided to write a letter to my yet-to-be-born grandchildren that they could send to their grandchildren, long after I am dead. Following is my contribution to Bill’s book.

Dear Yet-to-Be-Born Grandchildren,

Greetings from the past!

One of the greatest thinkers in my field (and in my time) was a man named Peter Drucker. I am very lucky. I got to spend a lot of time with Peter. He always encouraged people to ask, “Who is the customer?” before they do anything.

I finally understood the deeper importance of that question when Larissa MacFarquhar, a writer for the New Yorker, wrote a profile about me. Larissa spent two months traveling with me, and interviewing my family, my clients, and many of the people who work with me. She then wrote a long story and published it for 800,000 people to read. This was a little scary, since some of the New Yorker profiles can be pretty negative, and I didn’t get to read it ahead of time.

I originally thought that my “customers” in doing this profile should be my clients – the people who pay me to do my work. I thought that maybe I should “be careful of what I say” and try to act appropriately. Maybe I should be careful not to embarrass anyone. But, as Larissa began to follow me around, I figured out who I really wanted to be my customers for this profile. It was you, my yet-to-be-born grandchildren. I decided that this profile was a special opportunity for you to get to know me.

I decided to just act like myself. If I had acted like someone who was too careful of what he said, it would have been a story about an imaginary person. And not me. You might not have the chance to know your grandfather.

All For the Best Your grandmother and I discussed this, since she’s in charge of our money. I told her to assume that we were going to lose $150,000 in business because of this profile. I figured that by just acting like me, I might annoy someone who wouldn’t want to work with me anymore. I figured that it would be worth the $150,000 to have a brilliant writer spend two months on a story about me (that I could send to you, and hopefully, to your children – long after I am gone). I hoped that I wouldn’t lose any more money than this!

As it turns out, I was glad that I just acted like me. I received approximately 300 e-mails about the profile. They almost all said the same thing: “The good news is: It sounds just like you. The bad news is: It sounds just like you!” My fears about losing business as a result of this profile were unfounded. Not only did I not lose any business, I was later interviewed in the Harvard Business Review and many other publications. I ended up with more clients – not fewer.

I learned something from this experience that I would like to share with you: Just be you. You are good enough. In the long run, any success you achieve, if you don’t act like yourself, won’t seem real anyway. You will just feel like an imposter or a phony.

Do What is in Your Heart In my career, I am sort of a pioneer. I was one of the original developers of something called 360-degree feedback. I help successful leaders achieve a positive, long-term change in their behavior. I also try to help the people I work with (and everyone around them) have a happier life.

If I look back on what I have contributed in my career, my largest contributions have all come from stuff I invented myself. No one can tell you how to do anything that hasn’t been done before. If you are going to do anything creative, you have to make it up yourself. There is no guidebook.

If you have an idea that sounds good to you, go for it. Just be you. Do what is in your heart. You may fail, but at least you will have tried. Don’t waste your life worrying too much about being normal. Lots of people are normal. It is more fun to be different. Just be you.

When your grandchildren read the story of your life, make sure that it is really about you.

(I am grateful to Bill Jensen for allowing me to reproduce the letter in this column.)