It’s 2012, and we’re living in wonderful times. Wouldn’t you agree? There’s a lot of change happening both at the external or physical level and internal level for humans. Take business, education, media or how we connect for example – the only constant you will see is change. How do you follow your passion in the face of such turbulence? How do you find stability in the form of your ideal business or life? In an upfront talk with Charlie Gilkey – someone who’s been there, doing that – we spoke about how he created a thriving business from his passion and this is what he said.
Ishita: Welcome Charlie. Tell us about the past 3 to 4 years of your life.
Charlie: Thank you Ishita. 3 to 4 years ago, I was living a multi-layered life. On the one hand, I was completing a graduate program in philosophy, and I’m still working on my dissertation in absentia, still trying to finish everything up. Turns out it’s really hard to do that while running a business.
At the same time I had a career as a logistics officer in the Army National Guard. A lot of the jobs I got kept me not quite full-time, but not part-time. I was working for 3 or 4 hours on stuff here, and then I’d switch there. Then I started Productive Flourishing. I was reading all this stuff from both military literature and from philosophy literature, like getting things done and setting the habits. I also had dreams bigger than sitting and working for somebody else. Not that I had problem with that, but I mean here I was, a logistics officer moving battalions back and forth and also teaching students about philosophy. I really focused on ethics and social philosophy and it was this challenge of bringing it all together in a coherent way that Productive Flourishing started. It just kind of grew from there.
Ishita: What I hear, and you claim it, is that you were this contradiction on legs: teaching philosophy, right-brained and intellectual in this way and working as a logistics officer, practical and thinking about the best way to get from A to B. Firstly, tell us what logistics is. As a logistics officer, what did you do?
Charlie: Logistics is the art and science of getting this stuff here to there, safely, effectively and on schedule. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Obviously when you’re a military logistics officer, you have other things, like people attacking your convoys. You have to factor such things in, but still, there’s not a whole lot of difference between that and what the UPS people do.
Ishita: So you were teaching and in the army at the same time, then on top of that you had a lightbulb moment to get a PHD and also start your blog and Productive Flourishing. What were you thinking, Charlie?
Charlie: I’m a teacher at heart. So I’ve been teaching. I’ve been working on publishing a book and so that brings up a lot of stuff about who you are and why people should pay attention to you. And especially when the book is going to be about business topics, why should somebody listen to this 31-year-old dude who converted his house into an office? I do have a remote office but anyway, there’s this question of “who cares?”
I’ve been teaching people in one shape or the other since I was 8. I was involved in boy scouts and there was a lot of teaching elements there. Here’s the funny thing: The first time I learned about a blog was when I was an officer overseas. I was deployed to Iraq and there was one our troops using a blog to undermine her commanding officer. It was very well done, though. She didn’t use any names, she didn’t use any places. Like, you pretty much had to have the code to figure it out. This was back in 2004-2005. I knew she had put a lot of time in this. I caught a lot of heat because in my report I said, “Look, we don’t have enough guidelines and policies about this to reprimand her in a harsh way. She’s doing something new and that’s not really being documented very well. So to come up with a rule and try to use it against her just seems unfair.”
That was a hard one because you’re trying to explain to people who are 45 and 50 years old who really want to reprimand someone. They kept saying how she’s undermining the officer. I asked, “Well, is she really? Is this a personal journal? What is this?” So that’s how I first encountered a blog and carried that with me.
Ishita: Talk to us about leaving the army, leaving teaching and then focusing full-time on what you’re up to.
Charlie: I was on what I called a Phase Quitting Plan, because I couldn’t quite do everything all at once, just given where my life was. Angela, my wife, was finishing her degree in sociology — she’s got a PHD in sociology — and so we were figuring out where she was going to teach and how that was going to work. It wasn’t quite an option to drop everything and move to LA or New York City; that wasn’t our path. At the same time I wanted to figure out “Which aspects of my life do I need to start quitting now so I can start making room for other things?” So obviously the first thing to go was a lot of the academic stuff because as I started writing and getting some traction there, the revenue from the business quickly out paid what I was getting as a graduate student. It was a more viable option for me financially. But I still enjoyed and was involved in military as a logistics officer and was not going to quit that yet.
I come from a military family, a civic minded family, so it was one of those things where I knew at some point I would end up in the army. I actually went to West Point when I was 18 and decided it wasn’t right for me. Yet, I knew the army is still going to be there no matter what I do, so I got my civilian education, joined the army, became an officer, got deployed in that order.
I love getting stuff done. I love galvanizing teams, I love taking bigger, broader plans and chopping them down into realistic, doable things and making change happen in the world. So that’s why as much as I get myself in trouble in the marketing, branding side, I still stick with talking about productivity, effectiveness and planning. Because that’s what I wake up in the morning to do. I’ve got this vision, I’ve got these people, and I’ve got these resources — now how am I going to get them from A to B?
Ishita: If I were to call you and say, “Charlie, I have this big vision of XYZ and I need to be making two hundred thousand dollars by the end of 2012.” Can you walk me through what would you do next?
Charlie: Here’s one of the things. A lot of people will express a vision but when you really dig what’s under that vision, what’s the Why, what’s the bigger story there, you can get a lot of dissonance between their vision and why they’re doing it. So one of the first things I would do in this case is say, “That’s great, it’s clear, it’s articulate, it’s something we can understand. Now Ishita, why are you going to spend the next year of your life working on this and risking your capital and time? All of this for this vision? What’s going on?” And a lot of times what happens is the goal, especially if there’s a numeric goal, gets away from the qualitative or flourishing goal, the reason why someone’s actually doing it. So the first thing is to figure out is whether this vision is in harmony with why you’re actually doing it.
Sometimes it happens the other way: They’ve got a smaller goal, and because they’re scared to claim the real outcome that could happen, they put a cap on it. They say, “Well really, we could start there but there’s this broader view.” And then once we get that, once we get the vision and goal set, we start working backwards. How are we going to get this done? What do we have available? What are the different levers we can push in your life or in your business to start going towards that goal. And now to get super nerdy, I have what I call Symmetrical Planning. A lot of people work backwards; they know how to work backwards from December 2012, and come to the present, and other people can walk forward. So they have a plan and walk forward from today to December 2012. Why I like symmetrical planning is because it’s actually a process of doing both, because it allows you to work out the inconsistencies between both sets of plans.
Honestly, you know this because of everything you’re doing in the publishing industry. We’re going through a massive disruption right now across the board, especially when someone is just starting out a journey. I’d say, let’s focus on the next month, the next quarter, and the next quarter after that. Let’s focus on that first, because that gets people going. And that’s realistic. Think about how many people can’t see past 2012. It’s further than the headlights get, and that’s alright, that’s really okay because when you’re making a change, making venture, and you’re really in a hurry to get it done, you have to operate and in so much uncertainty and so much ambiguity and in so much of this understanding that how you see the world today is radically different than how you will see the world 6 months, 9 months, a year from now. When you’re in the process of changing the world you have to take seriously that the world is going to change.
To come back to the point here, you get the vision set, you get the resources set, then you start working backwards and say “This is what I should do now to get this momentum going. Here’s where this momentum might play out in 3 months, here’s how this momentum might play out in 6 months.”
Ishita: You being in the army must have this constant uncertainty about your safety. I’m sure you applied all those lessons learned to your business and life. How does one grapple with that real uncertainty of survival in those situations?
Charlie: You know I didn’t used to talk about my deployment because there were a lot of other people who had it bad. But more and more people said “Charlie, you can’t focus on what other people are doing because you need to tell this story,” so I’m trying to tell the story more.
People talk about the fog of war, and in my experience it’s not a fog, it’s a laser beam. When people ask me about deployment, and what it’s like to be on a tactical convoy, the best way I can explain it is that you live from checkpoint to checkpoint, or meal to meal, depending upon where you’re at.
A convoy is a collection of vehicles that’s hauling equipment or troops from one location to the next. You have no idea whether you’re going to be back or not. You have to become comfortable with a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. You live in that high stress, constant environment and you come back and it’s not there anymore. It’s like riding a rollercoaster every day and then suddenly getting on the road. It’s very disconcerting. The thing this — and I tell this to all my clients — my military background infuses with the work I do. We know how to work through these situations. If we get attacked, here’s the action we’re going to do. If we get attacked from the right, we’ll do this, if we get attacked from the left, we’ll do this, if we get attacked with this, we’ll do that. For every action, there’s a response that you could do.
We would get up in the morning, and leave for a new location at four o’clock in the morning when it was still dark, or two o’clock in the morning depending on where we were trying to go. We would drive all day until it was dark, or drive for a few hours and then spend all day unloaded, but basically as a leader of that convoy as soon you hit a base you would spend the next 4 to 6 hours coordinating with other people about where their stuff is and where it’s going or what stuff they could put on your trucks. You would end up in the convoy operations center or tactical operations center trying to figure out the intelligence of everything that’s happened over the last couple days relevant to your convoy, trying to figure out when you were getting out of the gates. It’s really a scary thing and I did that a lot. I lost a lot of sleep while we were on convoys.
We left early and the troops hated it until they realized why were leaving early. It’s really scary when you go through a checkpoint and your radio operator says, “Hey, sir, that checkpoint we went through five miles back is now under attack,” and you realize, “That could have been us!” Sometimes it’s chance, but mostly it’s this intersection between doing the hard work the best you can with the resources you have and making your best educated guess about what’s going to happen and then following through in such a ferocious way. Even we got attacked — as I always told my troops — we want them to know they picked the wrong damn convoy to attack. Be prepared, be vigilant, to be aggressive, be ever ready for that to happen. I knew that because I was analyzing the intelligence.
During my second tour I got pulled off the road because I did a few reports and they figured I could write and think, and I was a better asset in battalion, which is a unit higher than where I was in order. I was the person doing all the after-action review for convoy actions, so when any convoy got attacked, we would pull them into base and debrief them. What happened? Here’s what happened. I had a whole room full of white boards and I would just start cataloguing what happened in this face of battle, in that face of battle, they did this, we did this, and one of the consistent trends I learned from after-action reviews was that those convoys that really projected a firm, resolute, ready-for-action stance were the ones that did not get picked for attack. You could say it’s similar to “fake it till you make it” mentality. So if the enemies assumed you were strong and ready at a given point, they would not attack you and let you pass by. But if you appeared unprepared and afraid, you would become a clear target.
There are a lot of times when you work with some people and they just seem ready. They can be easily trusted. But internally, they may be really scared. They are just putting up a brave face.
Ishita: So are you saying people who are admittedly scared and nervous, but are the ones who have preparedness or ownership of themselves are the ones we should trust?
Charlie: I would call them resolute as if they are going to get things done. They may not be the best doers in the world, but at least they took a shot at it. There are so many talkers around us and very few doers. So coming back to what we spoke earlier, if you have a big vision, go after it and be resolute about it. Give it your heart, mind and soul. If you have a team of people, know who will get things done for you, which ones are the resolute team-members. You can trust them.
Another tip here: I think one of the things that leads to setbacks in people’s visions is the period when the go dark for a while and then show up.
Ishita: What do you mean by “go dark”?
Charlie: If they’re on twitter they’ll stop tweeting, or they’ll stop blogging or they’ll stop doing things in public. Remember, a lot of time people are just watching you, especially when you claim the whole vision, they’re watching to see what happens. They secretly want you to win at the same time they want you to fail. If you have this period where you’ll do something and then go dark for a while, you’re actually not building up that trust trail it takes for people to really invest in what you’re doing.
Even if it’s just an update, like “Hey guys, I’m working on this, we’re deep in the middle of things, it’s a fun process,” or if it’s not fun, “We’re having a hell of a go at it. We’re in the fourth round and we took a beating in the first three, but we’re still standing up fighting!” That keeps people involved.
We don’t make it all by ourselves. If you have a bold vision and are really out there trying to change the world, you need other people. It’s hardwired in some ways that we support the people who we see and interact with daily or routinely. We’re still tribes in that way. When you move yourself from the tribe and then come back, there’s this reintegration period. If they forget you, then you have a problem and you need to start marketing actively.
Yet, there are people in the world whose name pops up the moment you think of a concept. They’re a permanent character. They’re in your neurons. They no longer have to market actively; all they have to do is show up. Examples could be Seth Godin, Steven Pressfield, David Allen, Tim Sanders – I could go on and on.
Ishita: What do you tell people when they’re in such a trouble, or when the proverbial shit hits the fan for them?
Charlie: Okay, I may have a leg up here, but people exaggerate the bad stuff happening for them in their lives. We all have an innate negativity bias. You could be writing a blog and getting hundreds of rave reviews, but someone comes with a negative review and what do you choose to focus on? That one negative feedback. We’ve just overlooked the thousand supporters and put the one hater on a pedestal here. It’s hard to not pay attention to the hater because of the negativity bias. So I’d say very rarely does the shit hit the fan.
Ishita: What do you tell people who have the fear of failure?
Charlie: Failure is our best lesson. When you look at literature, you’ll find that we’re horrible at learning when we succeed. Think about how many times you’ve done something awesome, and you’ve gone back and figured out what made it awesome versus sometimes you’ve had a par, or a below-par success level, and you get fanatical, like, “Why didn’t it work? What could we have done better?” We have that bias. I don’t know why we do. But we’re hyper focused on what’s not working and pay very little attention to what is working. So one of the points is when the shit is hitting the fan and things are not going right, this sounds bad, try as best as you can to have an existential crisis afterwards. If the house is burning down, get the hell out of the house.
Ishita: Do you think we can train ourselves toward this?
Charlie: I know we can train ourselves. Every human skill is a trainable skill. It comes every day. As you gain more and more momentum, the stress and the uncertainty increases. A part of the book I’m writing talks about the life cycle of small companies and small ventures because it’s different, especially nowadays, than what Nike went through. But one of the things I try to remind people is that if you’re in the earlier stages of the entry stage and growth stage, the best blessing you have is that no one knows who you are and you can fail in a safe environment. It’s really hard to fail when you’re on CNN.
I have a client who wrote a book and he’s doing an awesome job, but he didn’t have the training ground that some of us have had. He’s on CNN and ABC, and we’re having to coach through some of the success preparations so that he doesn’t get stuck because honestly, failing on a 10 million viewer stage is a lot worse than failing when it’s your cat, your mom and your brother.
So to come back to your question, yes, we are absolutely trainable using success formulas are one way. It takes a while. It’s like yoga, or another mindfulness practice, you can’t learn it once and not use it.
About: Charlie Gilkey helps creative people thrive in life and business. His website is one vehicle he uses to do that, with the others being speaking, coaching, consulting and his forthcoming book. He also leads workshops and retreats – online and off.