Nineteen-year-old Tim Sanders was out for a drive, enjoying a beautiful Texas summer day in his red Pontiac Astre when he noticed his uncle’s car approach from behind him.
The two cars pulled over to the side of the road, and his uncle got out of the car and delivered news no one should ever hear: Tim’s father had been murdered.
For years, Sanders grappled with the loss of his father. Feeling crushed and cheated, Sanders’ poise was replaced with a burning negativity. He pursued various passions and vocations, but nothing made him happy. Sanders endured nearly 15 of these “sideways years” until his grandmother knocked some sense back into him.
Billye King was a senior in high school when the stock market crashed in 1928. She was raised on the values of generosity and unwavering kindness, and instilled those ideals into her grandson, Tim. These were lessons he forgot in the wake of his father’s death, but once he rediscovered the power of his grandmother’s morals, he returned with a new attitude and achieved unprecedented success. In five short years, Sanders went from the breaking point to breaking the bank, earning a job as chief solutions officer at Yahoo.
We caught up with Sanders before he headed out to Dallas for the Inc. Leadership Conference starting today. (Get more information on the conference.) Sanders’ latest book, Today We Are Rich, describes how to break out of the doldrums and power your career forward. Feeling stuck in neutral is a common sentiment among entrepreneurs, but Sanders believes to have found the perfect recipe for lasting achievement and happiness. To Sanders, the key to everlasting business success all boils down to one word: confidence.
Your book is very inspirational, but also very personal. What inspired you to write this?
It was October 2008. I think the market was down 5000 points that day. I was in Atlanta doing a big speaking gig, and everybody was just so terrified. This is the same group of people I’d seen a few years ago: top of the market, incredibly confident in themselves. And something just triggered inside me that said I need to write a book about how some people are confident at the bottom and others aren’t. Some people are the phoenix, others are the fodder.
It just caused me to think about that library on the family farm of classic books written by, who I think were the original motivators: Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich; Claude Bristol, The Magic Of Believing; Dale Carnegie, How To Stop Worrying and Start Living; Norman Vincent Peale, Guide To Confident Living. The last two aren’t the most well-known books by those authors, but they were written during this time to help people cultivate confidence through lifestyle design. What I didn’t realise until 2008 was that confidence is the underlying foundation for everything: generosity, the willingness to take risks, clarity of thought, being persuasive and charismatic to others—it all comes down to confidence.
There are two kinds: there’s circumstantial confidence—or, as Mark Cuban used to always say, “Everyone’s a genius during a bull market”—and there’s cultivated confidence, a lifestyle design principle that has to do with the information you put in your head, the conversation that comes out of your mouth, and your thoughts and deeds. So that’s really what the book’s about, and that’s why I wrote the book.
Why do people have sideways years?
Success isn’t really a destination, because you’ll never get there. Talk to anyone with millions or billions, they’re always thinking of the next thing. Success is a direction, and that direction is forward. And in our careers, we have those forward leap years. These are years where we either grow internally, in terms of our capability, or externally, in terms of our influence and ability to extract value.
So when you’re moving forward, you’re usually capturing a lot of financial value, you’re gaining a lot of assets along the way—many of them intangible, such as intellectual or your network of relationships—and you have a feeling inside yourself that you have big momentum. And it feeds on itself: The more you realise it, the more you feel it, the more it improves your performance, the more you get it, the more you leverage, and that’s how people really make leaps in life.
Then there are those times that something has just gone haywire in your head, and you have self-destructive thoughts, and you go backwards in your career. And that’s rare, really; most people that think they’re going backwards are kind of in between, and those are what we call those “sideways years.”
Sideways years is where you have voices in your head sometimes, and they’re triggered by voices in the real world, or what I call the “scare merchants”—on cable TV, the authors of “USA Yesterday”—these people that give you reason to be fearful as a way of drawing attention from you. What it does is it triggers the scarcity mindset inside of you. You believe there’s not enough to go around, so you go from that I’m-trying-to-move-forward feeling into survival mode. Or, you just lose your fire and you don’t have the ambition to move forward, as Napoleon Hill would say.
In these situations, you have a “one step forward, one step backward” type of career. Get a good job, do well initially, peter out a little bit, move to the next job. It’s a cycle. But inside yourself, you know you’re not moving forward. That’s the one thing I’d say about everyone I’ve talked to who’s had sideways years, is when confronted with the thought, “Am I going sideways?” they absolutely know it each and every time.
I see many of these sideways years triggered by economic adversity. It always seems to happen right after a macro-recession where the economy stops growing, and it then changes the buying behaviour in almost every market, even ones not adjacent to the epicentre and millions of people come down with personal recessions. They stop growing as people because they personalise the recession.
You created a set of seven principles to give your life a new trajectory, to get out of those sideways years. Of those principles, which one had the greatest impact on your life?
[The principle] “Give to be rich” has had the most impact on me, because nothing sets you in a forward motion more than generosity. What generosity does is it focuses the mind on what you have, and not what you lack. Generosity forces that kind of thinking, because you’ll typically never give to someone who’s got more than you. So when you’re being a mentor to somebody who’s struggling at work or in a transition period and you see that you helped to move the needle, it helps you realise how insignificant your problems are.
The other thing generosity does at a more physical level is it triggers the reward centre in your brain, which releases a variety of chemicals. When you help and you realise you’re helping, it creates a chemical reaction which would unload things like dopamine and endorphins and serotonins. The most important thing that happens is your body will release a hormone called oxytosin. Oxytosin is known as the bonding hormone: It changes your point of view about people a little bit, and it makes you much more sympathetic and emphatic.
For entrepreneurs, this is important. Your ability to bond with your customers, bond with your start-up employees, and trust them is the key to everything, because you can’t scale, if you can’t trust. You can’t scale a consumer business if you don’t trust consumers to give back more than you give them—ask Tony Hsieh at Zappos, incredible level of trust he has. You can’t create a great place to work like Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett did at Southwest [Airlines] if you don’t trust your people enough to say, “The customer is not always right.” Trust is difficult to create, but I have seen in the best entrepreneur circles that the most trusting are always the most giving. There’s just something about helping other people that causes you to realise that all people are good.
How can you adopt this generous attitude even if you don’t have a “full cup” to work with?
Everybody’s got something they can give. Go back to 1998, I’m working for Mark Cuban at what was called AudioNet, making $30,000 a year with no net value, living in an apartment—what did I have to give, right? The first thing I did was I stockpiled knowledge. I became the second most voracious reader I knew besides Mark, and I leveraged what little reputation we had to get access to a mastermind group of writers—like early guys at Wired and Fast Company—and other business executives and traditional real world people who mentored me, like Stanley Marcus Jr. from Neimann Marcus.
In just a few years, I got a pretty good stockpile of specialised knowledge about the nature of the Internet economy. That opened doors for me, because as they began to redistribute it, I made friends. I leveraged that information from local giants to global giants, and they all reciprocated greatly by handing me great information in return, talking about me in the space, helping me make more introductions, or, in the case of Sony, doing a $20 million deal with Yahoo! [in 2002] at a time where we really needed the cash. I was really able to leverage knowledge sharing, and I think anybody can. It’s the great first step.
I want an entrepreneur to think that every time you have an opportunity to either educate, mentor, or network someone who’s got less than you but the same desire, you should consider yourself mastering your mind. Henry Ford once said that was really the secret to his success, is that he conquered his mind. One of the greatest ways you conquer your mind is by giving, because you release things that don’t own you anymore—[André] Gide, the French philosopher, always said, “That which you can’t release, it possesses you.” I always encourage people to stockpile stuff just so you can give it away, and that you should spend prospecting time every week trying to find good opportunities and be aggressive about it. It’s not a social responsibility; it’s a social opportunity.
Let’s talk about one of the most interesting principles you share in your book, about feeding your mind “good stuff.” Why is it important to monitor what we feed our minds?
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day for your metabolism because it informs the body what to do with the stuff you put in it for the rest of the day; it provides your core fuel. The same goes for the mind. What you feed the mind, especially in those waking moments—researchers debate whether it’s the first half hour or first hour—instructs the subconscious, which runs the central nervous system, as to whether or not today we are ahead versus behind. Calm versus nervous. Happy versus upset. Good mood, bad mood. All of this gets formed early in the day and becomes very very difficult to shape without a huge exogenic shock.
I’ve been asking high performance people that I meet, “Tell me about your morning routine,” and what I’ve noticed is that the calmest big dogs that I’ve ever done business with—like Mike Rawlings, the former Pizza Hut CEO now running for mayor in Dallas, or John Maxwell, the great leadership author—always say, “You get up like a bird. You stretch, you own the morning.”
The big recommendation I make to entrepreneurs is no matter how you do it, don’t go online for the first 30 minutes you’re awake, and specifically, don’t check your e-mail. E-mail is just too random. In Vegas, they have a rule that if the gambler stays at the table long enough, they lose. That’s why the drinks are free and they pump fresh oxygen in on the strip. If you subject yourself to random media intake, that’d be just like going to the store, putting a blindfold on, and just eating anything you got in your hands. That’s what you do when you open up your inbox. That’s what you do when you begin to surf the web—turn on Twitter and Facebook, are you kidding me?
For whatever reason, the Internet is a wonderful hate incubator. Bad stuff travels faster than good stuff. Political hatred, economic bad news, natural disaster updates—those are grease lightning, especially over social media or television. If you wake up, check your e-mail, surf social media, and watch the early news, you’re sunk, because there is no way your subconscious is going to be programmed to be moving forward that day. You cannot resist your thoughts, and your thoughts are a function of what you put into your head.
When the mood surrounding your industry is dark and the outlook isn’t good, how can one truly find confidence? Should you fake it until they believe it, or does confidence need to be organic?
The trick is that mood isn’t reality. Napoleon Bonaparte said that the leader’s role is to define reality and then give hope. When disaster strikes, it’s really important for entrepreneurs to understand that it’s a great levelling of the playing field. All of the weakest people with the poorest media habits will be scared for a really long time. You cannot trust the media during a recession; the accuracy level of economic and financial reporting is so low on the back-end of these recessions, it is alarming.
You just have to understand that this is a time where you’ve got to create a mastermind group of writers, journalists, and bloggers that you trust, you absolutely believe, that their editorial intent is accuracy above distribution, that they care more about being right than being big. That’s really important, and you have to reduce the number of lines of information you get, and cut off the bad news networks. Companies that do that, as a culture, will be able to make much better jumps and leaps.
If you looked at every recession since 1901, you always see entrepreneurs or organisations make great leaps during this down cycle before the recovery hits. In that tepid period, like we are right now and have been for the last two years, they always say that you’re three times more likely to make it during that period than a market top.
In 1932, Kellogg’s makes the move and jumps over Post after being the Yahoo! of search engines, and they do it because they release Rice Krispies in 1932 against all recommendations. They understood that the technicals were strong for a promotion of a new cereal, there was still market demand, that one slice of CPG wasn’t dead in the water, and they knew Post was going to sit around and ask themselves, “Is the Depression over?”
In 2001, the worst idea ever is to release the iPod when the dot-com crash was clearly on and Apple was taking a beating in the market. [Steve] Jobs noticed, though, that Sony, as a big slow company would be freaked out as much as he was, and they wouldn’t respond for a year or two. He really had to make that bet at that time because everybody had a Sony Walkman; if you told me that Apple would own the personal music device space in less than 24 months, I would’ve told you it had to be perfect timing. He had to do this when no one was watching, and that’s exactly what he did, and he did it again with the iPad.
How do companies do this? They do this because there’s a gap between the mood and the technical condition. In that gap is opportunity, but to seize that gap, you’ve got to have confidence. It gets back to the whole idea that you have to feed your mind the right stuff, because the fear of poverty is incredibly big. That’s why Napoleon Hill wrote the book Think and Grow Rich in 1937: The fear of poverty, he thinks, is the greatest fear known to man. It’s something that entrepreneurs should take advantage of. I always increase my revenue and wealth personally in the most dramatic forms during recessions. If we didn’t have recessions, I don’t know what I would be doing right now.
Entrepreneurs love to fly solo, but in order to get out of the bad loop, do entrepreneurs need to ask for help?
Yes. Stan Woodward was my boss at AudioNet/Broadcast.com, and I remember the first day Stan came on the job taking over business services for [Mark] Cuban. He gets us up in the crow’s nest and he says, “Listen, there’s no such thing as the self-made man. It’s just not true, it’s arrogance. You can neither do this by yourself nor enjoy this by yourself. The other thing you have to remember is your dream is bigger than you, so don’t go down alone. Swallow your pride, and go get help.” I’ll never forget that, and that’s the true entrepreneurial spirit.
You’re not a lone ranger. You can’t do this by yourself, no matter how smart you are and how great you make presentations on the fundraising roadshow and how awesome you are in the cube farm. There’s still a bunch of other people that made you successful. You have to own that, you have to understand that, and with that humility, you can also maybe reach out to previous bosses in your life—people you looked up to and respected—or your competitors, who are besting you.
That’s one of the best sources of mentorship, and that’s something I learned really early in life, is that success is not exclusive—it’s really contagious. If you want to really suck in business, just go find the other losers and create a community of them to pick on the big guys. There’s nothing worse than underdog mastermind groups. It’s like all of those bands that don’t have a following, that stand in the back of the room while a commercially successful band is playing. They say two things: One, “I wish they let us open for them,” and two, “They’re lucky.”
If you’re a disruptive entrepreneur and you’re in a space where you’re causing problems, go hang out with traditional companies who are still stomping you, offer to tell them what little you know, and you’ll be surprised what they’ll teach you. I tell people all the time as authors, don’t be jealous of that author that’s on The New York Times list, go see if he needs help. You might learn something.
If there’s only one thing you hope readers take away from your book, what would it be?
There’s enough to go around. There’s enough to share. The only way you’re going to believe this is through confidence, but when you believe there’s enough to go around and you share in that moment, you’re worth something. This point of view, “enough to share,” is the secret to success in personal life and in business life.
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