On January 15, 2014, Ashwin Madia spoke on Leading Outside Your Comfort Zone as part of the University of Minnesota Law School‘s Corporate Institute Leadership Foundations Program. Below is a video and transcript of his talk:
Hi, everybody. Thank you very much for having me here today. I just wanted to start off by saying a couple of words. I think the title of my talk today is leadership outside your comfort zone and so I’m going to share a little bit about some of the things I have learned over the last ten years or so since I graduated in law school. But what I want to make clear is that I am sharing them mainly because I think I am little bit older than most of you. I think most of you are 25, 26. You are still in law school so I have had some more experiences but I don’t look at it as though I am in a position to give you advice or something like that. I look at it as we are all sort of in the same journey together and we all have stuff to learn from each other.
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These are just some of my experiences and things that work for me. The other thing is when I talk about a lot of these things, it doesn’t mean that I have necessarily achieved them or done them. So when I preach about certain things, these are things that I’m still trying to practice and strive for everyday too. You know what I mean? So it is like a constant struggle and constant journey and so when I talk about these things, these are things that worked for me, that I am striving for and that I think that might be helpful for other people to think about.
So a little bit about me. It was a really nice introduction. I went here to college. I moved out to New York for law school. After law school, I joined the Marine Corps. I did a year basic training in Virginia, went out to Japan where I was a defense lawyer for most of my time. It is kind of like being a public defender in the military.
Then I got sent out to Iraq. I worked on a rule of law mission out there so I was working with Iraqi judges and Iraqi lawyers trying to help build their legal system, came back here, worked at Robins for a year then had an opportunity to run for congress in my old district, won the democratic nomination but ended up coming up short in the general election and then spent about six months feeling sorry for myself and then I started the civil rights law firm a few years ago.
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I think this is a leadership program that they’re doing for you guys and what I wanted to say is as sort of preliminarily, I think it is such a great idea that they’re doing this and I’ll tell you why. Most lawyers, or many lawyers I should say, the path they go through is, they go through high school properly, they did really well, get good grades. Then they go through college, do really well, get good grades. Then come to law school, churn through and get good grades, get through law school and then they may go out to like a private law firm and become lawyers.
And the way that it works in a private law firm-I think you guys are thinking about your careers and all of that kind of stuff-the way it works is you start off as an associate and so you’ll be doing kind of litigation work, or whatever, and just by virtue of your time in-so you start off and there is a secretary who is assigned to help you out. Then the longer that you’re in that, maybe it’s a three or four years, and you get a few associates to manage. Three or four more years and you’ll be managing a team and then maybe they’ll make you a partner and you’ll manage even more people.
At no time have you really gotten any training on leadership or on management. You know what I mean? It’s just sort of happening. So oftentimes you’ll see law firms, or at least in my opinion, there’s real management problems in terms of the way they deal with their subordinates, the way they deal with each other, or whatever it is, and it’s because they never got any training on it. No one has ever gotten any real leadership training.
So I think that this seminar and this program, I told them this when we met for lunch a couple of months ago that I think it’s a fantastic idea. I think that’s really great that you guys took the initiative to be at something like this. You don’t to be here but taking initiative to do it is going to serve you really well. The more opportunities like this that come along you should really take them because they will be so valuable to you and they’ll really give you an edge on your peers and it will make it better for you just in your career for people you’re leading as you go forward.
So, I wanted to talk about leading outside your comfort zone. So when we talk about leadership, what do you think of? If I ask you guys what are some traits you think of for a good leader, what would you say? You, right there with the the tie, what would you say is like a good leadership trait?
Man: Emotionally, a [0:08:22 inaudible].
Speaker: Yeah. Anybody else? How about you, ma’am?
Woman: One that involves two-way communication and not just the speaker that’s speaking but someone who can also listen well.
Speaker: Right. Someone who is a good leader and can listen well. Yeah. Some more please. How about you, sir?
Man: Taking responsibility.
Speaker: Taking responsibility.
Man: Having the initiative to move forward. That’s it.
Speaker: Yeah, taking the initiative to move forward. All right, one more. How about you, man?
Man: Having integrity.
Speaker: Integrity, absolutely. It is good for everybody, essential for leaders, right. And you?
Woman: Someone who has a vision.
Yeah, of course. What about if I ask you, in terms of what circumstances though — sometimes I think about when we are comfortable like this. You know, when we’re in an area that we’re familiar with and when we’re kind of well- fed and we’re well rested and we’re healthy and we’re around people we know, it’s much easier to be a leader then, right? When you’re comfortable doing whatever it is that you’re doing then it is easier to be a leader.
And sometimes the leadership traits that I admire are when people, especially the ones that I admire, are people who in times of turbulence, that is when things around them really just suck, when everything is just blowing up, when money is not coming in, staff is quitting and unhappy, cases aren’t going well, whatever the heck it is, when things are just blowing up all around, people then who have the ability to step up and to manage their emotions, control their emotions and still maintain some of those things we were just talking about, still maintain that vision, still maintain their integrity, still take responsibility for their team, still treat their subordinates properly, still has sense of tact, still maintain their bearing, that’s leadership.
Some of the best leaders, at least that I admire — take someone like Abraham Lincoln. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book on him a few years ago. It’s so good. And one of the things that is described about him is that Lincoln, during the civil war, we think that, okay, so he had to deal with this civil war and he got this nation through it so what a great leader. Actually that’s true but at the same time, he had all kinds of family problems like with his wife and his kid, like one of his sons died. He had problems within his cabinet. People are trying to take over his position, problems with the congress, problems internationally. Even within the military, like his own generals weren’t listening to him — nothing went right for that man. For so long, for like a year and half, there was one thing after another. Everything was just going to pot and he just hung in there and he just with such grace and such persistence and such integrity. And now we look back at him as one of the greatest presidents in the history of our country.
So the point I’m making is that sometimes leadership, at least as I think of it, leaders can really sort of emerge in those tough, tough times. And so the question is how do we build those kinds of skills, how do we build our bearing. How do we build bearings so that no matter how much pressure is going on, no matter how much is going on around us or whatever, that we maintain our sense of calm and our ability to think through problems and to maintain our vision even in those circumstances. How do we build courage, both physical and moral courage, when things are just terrible, when people around us are freaking out. People freak out a little bit sometimes, right? At least in my school I found that that was real kind of herd mentality. Everyone is just always looking for what are people highlighting, who is still studying what, who’s doing this and that, and people would go nuts about it.
So what I always thought about was in the grand scheme of history and the grand scheme of what is going on in this world, the things that we’re doing, you know, taking a contracts exam, you know what I mean? If we can’t maintain our calm here where we, I mean, that’s not really strong on our part. You know what I am saying?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. At my school, finals were so I guess cutthroat. We had these study carols within the library and so people would put their stuff there and study. And after studying for a few hours, they would leave to take a break and people would then throw their belongings on the floor so they can take that study carol. I mean it was really just crazy and bizarre behavior. I mean not the way we would treat anyone in any circumstance. But it just shows you that in times of pressure people can do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do. But we can kind of use that.
What I would say is that maybe one way we can build our leadership skills is by throwing ourselves in situations that are unfamiliar to us and that where we might feel a lot of pressure where your heart starts beating and you start breathing really heavily and just that you are unfamiliar with. Maybe intentionally putting ourselves in the suck, for a lack of a better word for it, intentionally throwing ourselves in positions that we haven’t been in that are unpleasant that don’t feel good and then just learning how to deal with it because maybe every time we do that we sort of strengthen that muscle within us and we learn to be calm during the situation.
You know the Marine Corps is fantastic at this actually. The Marines have to see how officers are going to react and how they’re going to lead people in very, very stressful times and they can’t really shoot bullets at someone’s head and see how they’re going to react because that’s not a very safe way of training. So instead they make people really hungry so that you’re really tired then you’re doing very unfamiliar things, you’re leading people at night and then they would get a bunch of people to scream at you and give you a number of tasks that you can’t possibly accomplish at the same time and just see how people react over days and weeks and then evaluate then that way.
And so that’s one example of someone being put in a very unfamiliar circumstance and what happens. One of the reasons I joined the Marine Corps, in fact, is I don’t see myself really as an athletic guy at all and it’s my family — I think we are a pretty traditional Indian-American family. I have never been camping or either shot a weapon or held a weapon or anything like that, and so it was a very different sort of experience for me. And so like anything when you first get into it, you freak out. All those emotions are going through you like this isn’t for me, all the visions of your buddies on Wall Street making a ton of money dancing in your head like what am I doing out here, right?
But then over time it just gets stronger, right? I mean, you realize that there is nothing that you cannot really handle in the moment. So as long as you just breathe, you’re just there, that’s okay, I’m going to figure this out. And once you’ve done it once — the best time you ever do anything in your life is always the second time you do something, I think, because the second time you have the experience, you have the knowledge, that muscle’s been built. And then the more you do it the more you get more chill or more calm, that perspective.
I used to be very, very shy, incredibly shy like I could not talk to people. It just wasn’t a muscle I built up. We have these comfort zones in life and some of them we build on our own and some others are sort of we accept. We don’t really know where they come from. So the things we build on our own I think are, for example, people in this room are all pretty comfortable in an academic environment. Why everybody is here has some degree to do with academic success and taking tests. Otherwise you wouldn’t be at a top law school. So we’re all very comfortable in this environment. That’s of our own making and that’s awesome, right?
But then there’s other sort of comfort zone things to come and we don’t really know where they came from or how we got them. And those are the ones like well, you know, I would do that but that’s just not for me. I’m just too shy to do that or I’m too skinny to do that. I’m not really athletic or I’m not really a dancer, whatever the heck it is, right? We just have these areas that we don’t really want to venture out of, right? So you take me, I probably would never go to a club and start dancing because I would just feel self-conscious. I’m not a dancer. I feel self- conscious. People are looking at me, all that kind of stuff. Everybody has things like that in their life if you really think about it. Just areas that we don’t want to venture outside of.
And for me, for a long time, I was just very, very shy. I was just very shy around other people. I wasn’t good at talking to people, I didn’t want to meet other people. And I just kind of thought okay, well, I’m just who I am. I’m probably good at school and I’ll be, whatever. And then came law school and I got to the point where that’s a very depressing way to live. Eventually you get to a point, my gosh, this is really making me sad. This isn’t good. And then something just snaps, you know, I’m going to figure this thing out. And so I actually just went out. I was in New York at the time. It was kind of crazy. I would just go walk and started introducing myself to random people on the streets of New York like a madman. I just go up to like 10, 20, 50, 100 a day until that muscle just got built.
At first, it sucked, I mean, it was terrible. You can imagine someone who is just very, very afraid of talking to people going up to strangers and trying to make conversation with somebody you don’t even know. Even in front of you guys, even for me now seems very easy to do it. At the time it was terrifying. But you just do it and do it. And then of course like any fear what happens once you do it five times your like, my god, is that what I was afraid of this whole time? Like there was nothing there. The whole thing was an illusion the whole time. Nothing bad can ever happen and I think that is true if you really examine most of our sort of imposed comfort zones, I think that they are just illusions like it’s not real. There is nothing real to back it up. In fact, you can’t even figure out where this stuff came from to get it in your head in the first place like lots of our thoughts.
If you really think about in life how many of your thoughts in your head are really your thoughts. How many are really original and belong to you and weren’t put there by somebody either trying to sell you something or advertising it somewhere, or whatever it is, probably very, very few. So I would challenge you guys to really think about what you’re uncomfortable doing and why. What limitations we place on ourselves and why? Where that stuff came from? Because I think most of the time these viruses just get in your mind and you didn’t even know where they came from and so you really have to take an active effort to kind of get in there and rip them out. To me, the best way to do it is just to face it and go after it because as soon as you face it and do whatever the thing was, I mean, probably if I were to go to a club and I just started dancing-I mean, all right, clear out the club-but I probably realized that there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place. You feel silly for a few minutes but then its gone. And then that muscle is built.
The point I’m trying to make by all of this is when you do that you’re not just building that particular skill, the skill of dancing or the skill of talking to people, whatever, that is true and you’re definitely enriching your life in growing that way. But even more than that I think you are building that muscle of pushing through, of having the grit to push through discomfort which I think puts you ahead of 90% of people in the world. For me, that’s where real leadership is, having the grit to push through discomfort and you do it with grace and humor and humility and you grow from it. And I think that we can build those skills every single day just by focusing on things that may make us uncomfortable.
To me, a great sort of test is just whenever you get that feeling in your gut where you are just like oh, like I just do not want to do that. Like, oh, geez, there’s that general counsel of General Electric and I really should go talk to him. Oh, but you know, he likely already has a lawyer and what am I really going to say to him. Oh, like we’re maggots. When you get that feeling right there, that is your body and your universe telling you, you got to do it, man. You just have to do it. That’s like your sign that you just have to go do it because it’s just an alarm that’s helping you out. That is when you know.
So that’s what I would say in daily life as you kind of go through these things are everywhere where you can just like probably every now and again you get that feeling. I mean, just whenever you see that or you feel that, go for it and if you’re not getting that feeling, create that feeling. If you’re not getting it, then find ways of creating it. Find ways of creating challenges for yourself where you can build that muscle.
All right. Kind of what goes hand in hand with this is then how you view failure and how you view success because that feeling it’s being fed at least in some part by fear. Well, what if I go over and what if he says no, well, then I will be so embarrassed. It’s that part of this feeling. It is just fear. It is fear of failing. That’s the only thing that really keeps people back from doing a lot that they want in life. I mean, from the very simplest things like maybe approaching somebody that they like across a room to much more complex things like pursuing the biggest dreams that they have in their life.
It’s just that fear of failure and I feel like law students and lawyers are particularly susceptible to it because maybe we’ve been successful at some things for so long in our lives, like I was saying earlier, probably everybody here has been very successful in academics for their whole life. Everyone your whole life has been telling you how smart you are and you’re getting on the Dean’s list and the honor roll, and boy, you got this scholarship. So you get these things and then pretty soon your ego gets tied into your identity as being a smart person, being a lawyer, being successful.
Conan O’Brien actually has a great sort of metaphor for this. He says eventually it becomes like this bright, white tuxedo that you’re wearing, this bright, white tuxedo of success that you’re just wearing everywhere and you’re just so desperately afraid of getting it dirty or getting specks on it in any way. And I think that is why so many lawyers and law students for that matter like pursue this herd mentality. If I was to ask you guys, if I was to say how many of you guys are first year law students? All right. And then how many are second years? All right, so just a couple of second years. So the second years are the ones who go through early interview week and are looking for jobs and all that stuff. Is that right? Or is it first years that are doing that? You, ma’am, you’re second year, right? Yes. All right. So, you guys just went through on- campus interview week and all that stuff?
Woman: We did that last August, yes.
Speaker: Got it, all right. So, if I were to say to you what are the jobs that most people in your class are seeking, what are the most sought after jobs, what would you tell me?
Woman: I would say the jobs from the biggest law firms.
Right. Probably Dorsey, Faegre, Robbins, and all that stuff, right? First years, would you probably agree with that? I mean, that’s what everybody is gunning for. And I would say, well – and that’s cool. But if I said why are those the most sought after jobs, it becomes this weird circular thing where people are like, well, those are the most competitive jobs. Yeah, I get that they are the most competitive, the most sought after but why? Why do you want that job? Have you talked to people who have those jobs who are really happy and really satisfied with their lives? Have you thought about what that life is and what you want. I don’t know.
And I’m not saying that they are wrong to do it. I’m not saying that they’re bad jobs. So don’t misunderstand me. Absolutely, if that is what your passion is and if that is what you want to excel at, that’s what you want to be great at and you thought it through, that’s great. I’m just saying that maybe many people are doing it because everybody else is doing it and because if you get the job then automatically people know of your success.
If I said, yup, I am going to be an associate at Dorsey, people are like, “Holy cow, he must really have his stuff together. That guy is really smart.” And do you know what that first year at Dorsey is thinking? It’s just this whole herd mentality. I’m not saying that all people are basically like this. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m just saying that oftentimes we can all get caught in this mentality where we are not really examining what it is we want for ourselves and why. I think that part of that is because we haven’t pushed ourselves to do these different things where we got to think for ourselves in this very separate context. I think a lot of this stuff just gets implanted in our heads from sources we don’t know.
Here is what I would tell you. Yes, you want practical advice on all this. So far it has been very kind of theoretical, I know. So let me give you some practical advice. The law students I’ve talked to that, you know, I get the chance to talk with these law students still from time to time and what everybody is telling me is that everyone is very, very concerned about jobs. You know, where are the jobs, what’s the job search like, all that kind of stuff. All right. Here’s what I would tell you. I would give you absolute, practical, 99% guaranteed advice on how to get a job if you want it. The thing is if you do this, I think it would be very hard not to get a job but I bet you probably 80% of people in here won’t do it because it’s outside of your comfort zone. All right, it is outside of most people’s comfort zone I would say.
I think that the way that at least when I was on law school, the way they teach you to do your job search is that they have this format for a resume, this format for a cover letter and then they help you mail your cover letter and your resume off to everybody and hope that something comes back. What I would say is that the first step is figure out what you want to do. Figure out what kind of law specifically you want to practice, what would drive you and make you passionate everyday to get up and do. Like for me it is doing you civil rights law. I love it. And I can’t believe that I get paid to do this. It’s so fun for me to try cases against big corporations.
There is nothing wrong with this but maybe it is working for Fortune 100 companies. Maybe it is saying, you know what, there is Wal-Mart. They make a lot of awesome stuff in this world, they make a lot of jobs and they get sued a lot and they need a good lawyer. Maybe it is for small businesses. Maybe it is doing transactional. That’s the first step. Figure out what you want to do, where you want to end up and what city you want to do it in.
Second, find 20 lawyers that are doing it right now. They are practicing it now and are doing it. So if you want to be a Fortune 100 company lawyer in Minneapolis, go online, do your research and make your inquiries. Find the 20 people in Minneapolis who are doing exactly what it is that you want to do, exactly what it is that you want to do. And then, smile and dial. Just pick up the phone and start calling people. That’s it. And when you call them, you just say, hey, look, I was just looking online. I’m a law student here in the University of Minnesota. I was looking online. I saw your profile. I’ve read about you. You’re doing exactly what I want to do. I want to sit down with you and learn exactly how you got there. Boom, that’s it.
Take them out to coffee. Take them out lunch. Do that 20 times, do that 50 times. Once you start doing that then you will be making connections with people who are already doing stuff you’re going to be doing. So one, they’re going to know who you are. They’re going to know what you’re doing. You’re going to know the steps that they took to get there and what they’ve done. You’re going to be able to plan some things you want and just let the universe work. I’m telling you then let the magic happen. That is absolutely the way to do it.
Now why won’t most people do it? Because it’s hard. I’m telling you unless you got a background in sales or something, it is really hard to pick up the phone, call someone you’ve never met before, and say, hey, you know, here I am. You want to get coffee? It’s tough. And there’s going to be people like oh, who are you? I’m busy right now. Duh-duh-duh, yeah. Right? And whoa, so you’re going to hang up the phone and I never want to do that again. That felt terrible. I just feel so vulnerable. I feel like I’m hanging myself out there I got to do 20 of these? I got to do 50 of these? Right. It’s going to suck and that’s why most people will not do it. But I promise you that the ones that do that stick with it, you’ll be fighting off job offers.
And by the way, that is a good strategy not just for getting a job. It’s a good strategy just for life. Wouldn’t it be cool if you saw someone that you wanted to meet and that you wanted to talk to in any context if you just did it. If you see someone in the papers doing awesome stuff like, holy cow, that’s awesome. Let me learn about it. Wouldn’t that be a better way to live, more interesting and more rich and fuller experiences? And by the way, it doesn’t just have to be with, whatever, superstars or all- stars, or people even if you don’t have an agenda with that you want. Probably the lawyers that you’re calling, you probably want to learn what they did to get there. You want to try to replicate it. Hopefully you want to make an impression on him so you can try and get a job.
But what if like you just have that mentality? What if you go on a challenge? Like starting today and you say everyday for the next 30 days, 30-day challenge, I’m going to talk to two people. I’m just going to make like a five- minute conversation with just two strangers randomly. And so what if and they can be the janitor outside, they can be your grocer, they can be one of your classmates you never talk to, they can be your professor. They can be anybody. And that is it. And there’s no agenda to it. You’re just going for the purpose of adding some positivity and adding some value in the universe. Just like talking to someone for their own sake.
Here’s what going to happen. One, you got to learn some awesome stuff like there is really, really cool people in this world that because we’re so busy and we got these blinders on that we miss a lot, we don’t get a chance to talk. So you’re going to learn some cool stuff.
Two, it’ll put you in a better mood. I find when I’m talking to people it just makes you a little more chill, a little more cool or puts you in a better mood.
Three, you are putting positivity back in the universe so it’s going to put that other person in a better mood and they’re going to do their thing.
Four, how many of guys want to be trial lawyers in here like actually want to try cases, those kinds of lawyers? Just like five of you? Are you kidding me? This is a law school? See the only reason you are going to law school is to be a trial lawyer. All right, that’s a joke. Well, for the five of you who want to be trial lawyers, this is going to make you awesome trial lawyers. What do you do as a trial lawyer? You talk to people. Your juries aren’t the people sitting in this room. Your juries are the people who make up the rich fabric of our society. The best trial lawyers are the coolest people. You want to know how to tell a trial lawyer from a bad one? You never even need to see him in the court. You just see who is cool like who would I like to hang out with, who would I like to talk to. People like that are awesome trial lawyers. I’ll tell you, I get calls, I deal with lawyers a lot. The ones that are barking at me like ah, we’re going to do this to you, I’m like whatever. The ones that I fear are the ones who are like, Ash, what are you going to do to let me have this case? I got a wife and kids. I’m like if I like this guy, what the hell is the jury going to think of this guy? That’s it. It’s always the coolest people that are the best trial lawyers. And how do you get to be cool? Just by talking to people that you meet all the time. That’s the fourth thing that’s going to happen.
The fifth thing that’s going to happen is what happens any time you put good energy in the universe. I know I’m sounding a bit new-age here. The universe will just spit it back at you like tenfold. I’ll give you an example. I think I told you I lost my election and so after I lost, to add insult to injury, I looked down and I had like 15-pound gut that I just put on through the course of the campaign because you’re not exercising and you’re just grazing at these fund raisers are just terrible things. And during the campaign you’re not thinking about it, but I look down, I was like holy cow, like this is even worse than I thought. Things really need to change and so I started just going to the gym and for a few months and trying to get back in shape and so while I was there some guy came up to me and he started telling me, he was like aren’t you the guy on TV? I was like yeah, that is me. He was like you’re not going to raise my taxes, aren’t you? Damn it, I’m not raising your taxes. And so anyway, we just started talking a little bit. We had like a five to seven-minute conversation. I don’t even remember what it was we were talking about and that was back in end of 2008, beginning 2009 timeframe. Just a conversation with somebody in the gym. Never heard from him or met him again, never thought of him again.
And then the beginning of last year, I get a call from someone and she says well, you know, we haven’t been getting paid properly, not even getting overtime at my employer and it’s not just me. It’s a whole class of people. I looked into it a little further and it started out to be, I mean, [knocks on wood] it could turn into a class action case and could be the biggest case I’ll handle in my career. I was like how did you find me? Like how did you call me? She’s like oh, my husband had a conversation with you a few years ago at the gym. He comes in he is like yeah, I remember you. He was like you were really cool to me. You said you were a lawyer and you’re out for the little guy and that’s what I remember. And I was like wow.
That is just an example of like you don’t know, like that’s not a reason to do it. The reason to do it is for the other things I’m talking about. The other point I’m making is that when you do, amazing things sometimes come back to you and more even than that. You’re just working that muscle. That muscle of just being outside your comfort zone and just working at getting better, getting stronger, getting cooler, getting more calm under pressure. Soon it just doesn’t faze you. It just doesn’t matter who walks in whether it’s another law student, someone on the street or Michael Jordan, or whoever because that you’ve just done it so much that that muscle, that feeling doesn’t really pop up as much.
I also want to talk to you about failures, that is what I’m going back to. It’s changing the way we think of success and failure. I think that we think of them as opposites. We think of success on one hand and failure on the other hand. What I will tell you, at least in my opinion, is that they’re not. They are companions. You can’t have one without the other. You must have failure in order to have success. And so if you call someone, if you’re doing this method I’m telling you, if you call someone and that if they tell you that to go pound sand, or if the first ten people tell you to go pound sand, then that’s awesome. That’s success’s companion. You can’t get to the person who says yeah, let’s go sit down. Let me tell you how to try a case, let me tell you. You can’t get to that person until you get through these first ten. Not just because of a game of numbers but because as you go on to these first 10, you’re gaining the distinctions and the skill set that you need that makes you better for the next time. You know what I am saying?
Like Michael Jordan couldn’t be Michael Jordan if he didn’t give himself the freedom to fail. It’s the freedom to fail that gives himself the freedom to succeed and be the best. It’s the freedom to like miss the game winning shot that gives him the freedom to make the game winning shot. You know what I am saying? And he has just developed that muscle overtime so much it didn’t even affect him at times. It got to a point where he was taking last second shots and everyone expected them to go in. Can you imagine how insane that is? You are expecting the most improbable last second shot under the most incredible pressure from this guy, everyone is expecting it to go in because he has just mastered that part of him so much, which comes back to one of the central lessons from all these is that the toughest battles are never outside of you. They’re never with opposing counsel. They’re never with the people you are talking to on the phone.
The toughest battles are always within you. You know what I mean? Whether it’s being a leader, being a good lawyer, always conquering what is in here. It’s conquering what you believe about yourself and the expectations you have for yourself. If you can fight that battle, in some ways that is awesome news and in some ways that is terrible news. It’s awesome news because it means, alright, great, I don’t need to worry about any of those external factors because it is all irrelevant. The only thing that matters is me controlling my mind. That’s the only limitation on this. That’s great news.
It’s bad news because that’s the toughest thing to control. You can spend a lifetime trying to just master. It is like an art. It is like study. It takes constant dedication and meditation and thinking, or whatever you’re going at and working these muscles. I know that when I say these different exercises, you can do all that and it might seem kind of crazy or whatever but the only point of it is what I am trying to encourage you guys to do or what I say has worked well for me is trying to challenge yourself to develop that muscle that can take you outside your comfort zone so that your comfort zone keeps expanding and expanding and expanding because I think that that is going to make you a better leader because the more you have comfort zone then the more chill you’re going to be, the more calm you are going to be, the better your bearing is going to be, the more you will be able to maintain true to your ideals, your integrity and your vision, to take responsibility for your team when you are not freaking out like everybody around you like everybody usually does.
When you think about what kind of society we live in and what time we live in now, you know, [knocks on wood] for the most part it’s a time of plenty. Probably most people in this room, you know where you’re going to eat tonight, and probably most people in this room you know that you got a roof over your head, and probably most people in this room have people who love you and probably most people in this room, we got pretty good health. Right. You have those things and you got a great education, you are going to a top law school. I mean, in the grand scheme of the world, we’re all doing pretty well. I mean, we’re all very, very lucky. We all have so much to be thankful for. But it’s important to be thankful for it but not get soft because of it. There’s nothing good or bad in life. Everything has a positive and a negative. All those things are positives that I just said but they can be made negatives if they make us soft and weak. One can get soft and weak and one can get spoiled through these things so that the smallest of problems, uptown problems become magnified. You know what I am saying?
So with our law school exams, we lose perspective. Or our cases, we lose perspective. You know what? Probably somewhere in Africa or Asia right now, there’s some civil war going on and somebody has got real problems. There are warlords doing all kinds of things. There are people with severe health problems. These are all kinds of things in this world we don’t need to worry about. So let us focus on getting harder a little bit everyday on pushing our comfort zone, on developing that muscle, becoming a little bit harder so that we can stay calm and become leaders as the people around us who are also kind of soft or when things hit the fan that we can sort of be a calming voice and show some clarity, show some direction, makes some decisions.
Okay. That’s what I wanted to say. I got one last thing to say and then hopefully we’ll have like a few minutes for questions or comments or a discussion. Just to kind of build off the last point I was making. I think that the last sort of thing from my perspective about leadership is the importance of gratitude and of thankfulness and of humility as we do this. One of the other things I think about being a lawyer, especially about being a lawyer, is the problem of ego like the influence that ego can have on everything. And ego will ruin you, man. I promise. It’s a constant battle that we have to fight against. Ego, because we’re so smart, we want to prove we’re smart. We want the other person to know they are wrong and we want it and you just keep going. It will cloud your judgment, it will get in the way and so as much as you can-and this is something I struggle with a lot to try to keep it in check-trying to be humble and remember how much we have to be grateful for. In the grand scheme of things like how lucky are we that we get to be here right now talking about this stuff in this warm room and well-fed while talking about these things. We all get to be lawyers, right? We all get to go out and do what we want, work for some great companies or litigate, work for plaintiffs, be in air-conditioned rooms. I mean, so much we have to be thankful for. I think that’s really important also as we talk about leadership and so remember that gratitude and humility and try to keep that ego in check. That would really help a lot.
So I know that was a lot. I just kind of spit out a lot of my thoughts over the last five or seven years but I really hope that someone has comments or questions about this stuff because I agree with you I think who said that part of leadership is having an on-going discussion, which I haven’t done a great job of so far in this 40 minutes but hopefully in this last 10 minutes we can. So any questions or comments? Yes, Sir?
Man: So I’m curious. I imagine that starting your own firm you kind of feel that white tuxedo sort of metaphor. I’ve invested so much, I’ve gotten it off the ground. It is functioning. How do you balance and combat that tendency to not want to spoil it with the smallest stain kind of a thing?
What’s good about it is that it’s very humbling to start your own firm. So when I lost back in ’08, I had taken a year off of work from Robins so I just lived off my savings and campaigned full time for a year. And so when I
lost I was broke and I really didn’t have any money left. I moved back in with my parents for a while. It’s funny in our society like it’s really viewed as a sign of a failure. Do you know what I mean? Like, what a bum, he’s moving with his parents, all that kind of stuff and that’s how I really felt at the time to be honest with you. But it ended up being one of the best things that could have happened to me because I felt like I had been going so much since high school I hadn’t really gotten the chance to know my parents as an adult. Do you know what I mean? To talk to them, and whatever, and no one in this world once loves you more than your mom or your parents. You get chance to get acquainted, or whatever.
But, look, that’s kind of aside but the main point I was making is that it’s very humbling, right? You start off — I didn’t have any book of business or something like that. You are really just staring out the window and thinking what do I do now, or I got to get some clients in here. Then clients come in and you try to get their cases going and you mess things up and you’re asking people, especially when your first getting going you just make a lot of mistakes and you’re going up against – one of the blessings you have is you’re going up against very large firms. You’re going up against Faegre or Dorsey, or whatever, and you’re going up against various experienced attorneys so it’s a blessing because with that level of competition you learn very, very quickly. You know what I mean?
Your learning curve is just so fast and it also motivates you to be better to just bring it. I love it when I have those cases because it just motivates you to be that much better. But you lose. I mean, I lost some and you make stupid mistakes, and whatever, and so what’s good about it is that it’s like this journey where you’re being humbled but you’re gaining on it every day. I mean, they may be ahead of you but at the end of the day they’re like this. Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear. You just gain on every single day and then before you know it you’re tapping them on the shoulders and saying hey, what’s up now?
For me, the bright white tuxedo, it’s just wasn’t that much of an issue because at that point I had just lost. All my buddies went to work at kind of big New York firms and I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go crawl in the mud and shoot machine guns and stuff like that so I joined the Marine Corps. So for me I don’t think it was as much of an issue. But then now, you’re right, then you start having some success and now I’ve been at it for four and a half years and start getting employees and start running big cases and start getting reputation. That’s when you need to worry about it. For me, it’s not so much of the bright, white tuxedo as it is ego that you should really have to keep in check. There’s this temptation to think oh, I built this thing, I am taking on these people, I’m just this. Well, hold on a second, man. Like you had a lot of help and you had a lot of people, a lot of blessings that help to get you there so that’s what I try to focus on. Thank you for the question.
Anybody else? Yes?
Man: Have you thought there any particular leadership skills that are especially necessary to starting and running your own firm different from working at an already established firm?
You bet, man. Awesome question. Everyone get that? What are skills that are unique to starting your firm as opposed going with an established firm? And the number one skill I’d say is the one that we talked about which is smile and dial, man. The ability to put a smile on your face, dial up people you don’t know and smile at them and say, “Hey, I’m doing this. Let me take you out to lunch. Let me tell what I’m doing. Hey, this is what I am doing.”
The ability to be on that phone and to work — you guys seen the Wolf of Wall Street? Did anyone see that movie? Great movie. The guy, Jordan Belford, who’s the kind of the protagonist/antagonist of the movie, is basically based on a true story of a guy that did some very unethical things. He sold worthless securities to middle class people, which is terrible, right? But one thing that he did that I liked was his persistence on the phone, was his ability to get on that phone and to make calls and to push, push, push through adversity. I mean, he was very unethical in what he did and so I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone but if there is anything is that there is always something to learn from anybody. I mean, one thing to learn from him and one thing I would say is critical in setting up your own firm or starting a new enterprise is the ability to talk to strangers and inspire confidence in them, in you, in your brand and your way to inspire confidence in others is to give confidence in yourself. If you believe so much in what you’re doing, your ability to just bring it, it will probably transfer to the other person.
Do you know what I’m saying? Like you’ve met someone and they believe so strongly in something, they don’t have to tell you. You’re just like, “All right, man. Sign me up. I’m ready to go.” When you’re passionate about something it’s coming out of you. They’ll just be silent and you can just feel it in the room. So that’s I would say if you’re building — and that goes back to that muscle we were talking about earlier, that ability to just – and also when starting your own enterprise, the ability to close your eyes and just take that step and just trust that there’s going to be a bridge there when you do because it’s risk, right? Like what’s everybody’s fear of starting a small firm, starting an enterprise? What if no one calls? What if I go broke? What if – it’s going to be terrible, I’ll be a failure. You just have to trust in yourself. I’m going to throw myself in this situation and trust that everything is going to be okay. I’m going to do my best and I’m going to work my butt off and I’m going to learn every single day and I know it’s going to be okay. And everything that has happened in my life, I’ve been through some terrible things but there’s never been anything that happened that I couldn’t handle in that moment. Do you know what I mean?
And this is going to be the same way. That’s mentality I think that I’ll tell people that I think is sort of unique and important to starting your own enterprise is that ability to just believe even though you don’t have the evidence you have to believe. When I take a step here, when I walk, I know I can walk because I’ve been walking my whole life, right? I have a whole lifetime of evidence to support that I can walk. When you’re starting a firm, you don’t have any evidence that it is just going to work. You just have to believe it. You just have to believe it. Does that make sense?
All right. If anyone has more questions, I’ll take one more or else we’ll cut it and I’ll stick around for a bit if you guys want to talk individually.
All right, well no more questions. Listen, thank you guys so much for having me here. It’s really like a pleasure to talk to you all. I’m telling you that I look at you guys and I’m so envious of the opportunities that you got in front of you right now to be in your position and to have your whole career in front of you. You have so much to look forward to. The one thing I’ll tell you is don’t get stressed out by all this stuff, by jobs, by your peers, by all this stuff. You have so many opportunities you’re going to blast through it – I have no question about it. If you ever want to talk to me individually, if you want to meet for coffee or whatever, just smile and dial. I’m pretty easy to find on the internet. Pick up the phone and give me a call and I’d love to meet up. So I wish you all the best of luck.