Editor’s Note: Personally, I’m utterly fascinated by the entrepreneurial journey. I feel like hearing an entrepreneur’s story really helps you understand them, and just as often also furthers your understanding of yourself. A while back I asked my friend Justin MacDonald to share his story, and I’m just now getting around to publishing it (Sorry for the delay Jmac).
How I went from an exhausted, underpaid teacher to an executive for the “Harvard of Africa” in 4 years.
I’ve got two hours remaining of a 36-hour trip from Kigali, Rwanda, and saying I’m “excited” to see my wife of 13 years and our three boys, is a gross understatement.
You know those moments in your life where you catch yourself hyper-aware of being in the moment, in a place, time, and circumstance that you simply could never have imagined?
Where you find yourself thinking, “So, I’m having a cocktail at the president of the African Development Bank’s house,” or “So, that’s a family of gorillas in the Rwandan jungle; I wonder what we’re having for dinner later.”
I have those a lot now.
Four years ago, I knew what I was doing for the rest of my life, literally. I was an English literature teacher and high school football coach. I knew what I’d make, what my calendar was, and what my life would be like until I retired.
And now, I work from home, or Hawaii, or our family ranch in Idaho, or on a plane, or wherever I want, for a university in Africa that CNN and the rest of the world is calling the “Harvard of Africa.”
(My first intern had just graduated from Harvard, and my second just left for the London School of Business, and two nights ago, I had a shot of Jägermeister at a nightclub in Kigali with our Vice Dean who was a B-School professor at Harvard and Oxford. I just want to make it really clear that I am easily the dumbest guy in the organization.)
At a glance, in the last four years, I’ve somehow managed to make about three times my previous salary, get equity in an amazing institution, start and run my own two businesses, build my expertise in a few areas where I now speak for a fee, and still have more time with my amazing boys and wife than I did when I was teaching
The details that enabled this journey are remarkably specific, and perhaps less relevant to your immediate circumstances. So I thought I’d share the key principles I have tried to exercise that might explain just how the hell this transformation happened.
Actually do what you say are the most important things to you.
For me, I said that “Faith, Family, and Football” was the mantra that defined me. In reality, as a head coach and English teacher, that mantra was actually, “Football, and then whatever is left.”
Education is an amazing profession, but it’s needy and unquenchable, so it takes and takes, and never gives back, like that asshole in The Giving Tree. So football and teaching took from me, and I took from my wife and boys in turn, and in my effort to change a generation of men, I was neglecting the only three that mattered, my own. Eph that.
We were together five days total in my last year as a teacher and coach. And I finally woke up enough to be the man I was telling our players to be and I put my faith and my family first and crumpled up my 10,000 hours of expertise and threw it away. I didn’t have a job when I resigned.
Be humble. Be hungry.
Failing sucks. At least one thing Trump and I can agree on is our desire for “so much winning”. Admitting I sucked as a husband and father was really hard and embarrassing. Starting something totally new was scary and humbling, but I went into it as a blank slate, ready to learn and grow, and wanting to do it as fast as possible. Freeing myself from the BS of ego is what allowed me to fail and grow fast.
My approach to new challenges and professional opportunities is to make sure people know the truth about me, about what they’re getting, and more importantly, what they are not getting. It’s so much easier to perform when you set realistic expectations. So I don’t BS people to try to impress people. That authenticity is usually refreshing for them. Saying, “I don’t know, but I’d like to” has been a key to my growth.
Say no and never be afraid to get fired.
When someone asks me for professional advice, I warn them not to take what I’m about to give them because it doesn’t make any sense, and I extend that same disclaimer to you now. Do not listen to this; I will not be responsible.
I tell them to decline 90% of their promotion opportunities, and I tell them to never fear being fired. If you think of your job or business trajectory as a freeway with lots of lanes and lots of traffic and you doing your best to change lanes to move into a faster flowing lane, think how many times you’ve changed lanes only to have to slam on your brakes and watch the other lanes moving faster next to you.
They look like the right move at first, but often don’t live up to the promise they showed initially. That’s how I see most professional opportunities.
There’s always another lane and often, they will look faster and better, but I try to exercise extreme caution before I say yes to an opportunity.
And when I do, it’s a decision made through the lens of my priorities. I believe we are here to serve, and no matter what cause or job I’m in, I serve it with my all, so with that being a given, I want to know which opportunity is going to serve me back. Those that align best with the life we’ve designed as a family are those that I explore and take.
In that traffic analogy, I see myself as an off-road Baja Super Truck, and I simply look for off-road opportunities to pass the traffic; it’s the only way to leapfrog.
Care about people.
The only thing that matters is people. If I want to succeed, I have to have help, and if I want people to want to help and move at the speed of trust, then I have to build that trust which happens through conversations and acts of service for others. I don’t know any other way.
And I don’t mean care about people because they can be of service to you; I just mean care about people because they’re people.
To be honest, I’m not very good at this, mainly because I’m very much human – pretty much like that asshole in the The Giving Tree – but it’s the thing I strive to do better everyday.
A lot has changed in my life in a short period of time. I’m certainly not going to sit here and claim that I’ve got it all figured out, or that there is a recipe I’ve uncovered which has helped with the transformation I’ve undergone in the last few years. Really, there isn’t.
The four keys I’ve outlined above have certainly been instrumental in my growth, and my hope is that they’ll be helpful for you as well. But the fact of the matter is that entrepreneurship is a journey.
Small business is a journey. And that journey shows up differently for everyone. Much like that superb hiking analogy Greg wrote about a few months back; we’re all on the same trail.
I’m grateful for the people that cared enough about me to encourage me, to open doors for me, but above all, to be honest with me. So I hope this brief bit of honesty is useful to you.