Not sure what to do after College? Party. (Seriously)

Thinking about what you’re going to do when you graduate from college can feel overwhelming.  I get it.  For the first time in your life no one can tell you what to do.  When the choices aren’t clear it can be hard to know where to start.  If this is you, allow me to (humbly) offer some suggestions.

Option #1: Party (I’m serious)

When I was in my early 20’s I could party all night, wake up the next day and be ready to go.  Now that I’m in my mid 40’s neither are possible without pills and pain.  If having a good time is your thing, I say take advantage of your youth and do it.  Practically speaking, this is what it looks like:

1) Move to a fun city.
2) Find a job.  Ideally one you like, but tolerate at worst.  If a desk job isn’t your thing then let me suggest restaurant work. A good restaurant gig is not only a way to make decent money but a great way to meet people.
3) Party.

I realize sharing this option with the responsible adults in your life won’t be well received so let me offer some language that should smooth things over when they inevitably ask.

“I’m moving to L.A. to explore a career in __________”

“I’m moving to NYC and taking some time to figure out my next move.”

“I’m moving to Chicago with friends and researching a few industries that interest me.”

When my wife graduated from college she moved to NYC to officially “gain experience in the professional art world”.  Unofficially, she partied hard all the time.  She did this for a few years, before moving on to another phase of life, but the stories are….legendary!  Big picture, she had a ton of fun and zero regrets.  Don’t poo poo this option.

 

Option #2: Bet on yourself 

This one hits close to home because it’s what I did.  In my case, I started a business, but this can also mean launching a career as an artist, a writer or even an athlete.  There’s no better time to take a big professional risk than in your 20’s.  There’s little to lose and time is on your side.  I realize student debt can make doing your own thing challenging.  But if this option speaks to you, send me an email and perhaps I can help.

Fortunately, choosing this option worked out for me.  Twenty years later the business is still going strong and has allowed me to have a pretty great life.  But it’s not been without sacrifice.   Yeah, starting a business is exciting, but it’s also hella stressful.  And for the first five years I worked ALL THE TIME.  Still, I have no regrets.  Since I was a little kid I always knew I wanted to start my own business.  As it turned out, choosing to do it early in life when I was single was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  By the time I did have a family, the business was more established, I was less stressed and had more money.  Win/win.

Option #3: Travel Overseas

If you really have no idea what you want to do, I suggest you hit the road. Travelling is the best way to have crazy awesome experiences, meet people and test the boundaries of your comfort zone.  Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself.  No money? No problem. Opportunities to live and work abroad are much easier to find today than they used to be.

A friend of mine spent a year in Australia right after she graduated college.  In between taking surf lessons and hanging out with her Aussie friends she started a career in corporate recruiting which continues to this day.

 

 

 

Navigating the soul suckage of running a business right now

Taking two (or three) steps back to take one forward.

If you’re reading this and running a small business my guess is that your work life might feel like one big shit sandwich.  Between supply chain issues, lack of staff  and Covid restrictions just surviving a normal workday can be challenging.  Sadly, I’m telling our people to strap in and get used to the bumpy ride – I don’t see a quick end to the current macro environment.  So with that cheery prediction out of the way, here are some of things we’re doing in our business to get through this.

 

Hiring is a full time job

If you are short staffed, putting up a sign and hoping for the best isn’t going to cut it right now.  You need to do more. A lot more.  In the past few months we have gone overboard with marketing our hiring needs.  We are also fortunate to have a full time HR person working on screening and interviewing candidates.  This means our managers can focus on training and running their stores.  Is this giving us an advantage over other restaurants?  Probably.  I get that few small businesses have the luxury we have.  Any additional re-direction of resources towards hiring will make a difference.  Even, if you, the owner, can put an additional 30 minutes per week towards this, it’s better than nothing.

 

Focus on quality – think long term

Many years ago, I remember being desperate to find a pizza delivery driver.  For whatever reason, we just weren’t getting any applications.  Finally, a young woman who had just moved to Madison from Alaska applied.  She told me she knew her way around town and her driving record was clean.  I hired her on the spot.  The next day, on the first delivery of her first shift, she got lost going to an address that was two blocks away.  That’s right.  Two blocks away.  What should have taken 10 minutes to complete took an hour.  When the order arrived the customer complained directly to the driver.  Instead of offering an apology, the driver cursed out the customer who then called me to voice her displeasure (rightly so).    When the driver returned I fired her.  It was the shortest tenure of anyone who has worked with us.

In the current environment it’s tempting to hire anyone who applies even if they aren’t qualified.  As hard as it may be some days, we are trying to stay true to our hiring goals; we want to hire people for the long run.  But I’m not going to lie and say we’ve been perfect.  Recently, we held on to a staff member who was a bad fit, because we needed “a body”.  He knew it too and walked out on us during the middle of a busy shift.  We took a bad situation and made it worse.

Quality staff help create a quality work environment, which leads to quality food and quality customer service.  Focusing on a quality creates a virtuous cycle.  The opposite also is true.  Which do you want?

 

Reduce hours

It sucks to reduce hours or reduce your operation when demand is so strong. That’s where our business is right now along with many others.  One of my friends who owns a restaurant has been killing himself all summer to capture all of the business he can.  After what his restaurant went through during Covid, I don’t blame him.  But he also looks burnt out and acknowledges as much.  Getting our business to bounce back from Covid is a marathon not a sprint.  Right now, I don’t want to burn out our staff, so if it means closing that’s what we’re doing.  It doesn’t feel great, its not our goal, it’s just what we have to do to preserve our quality and human capital.

 

Double down on the people who are awesome

You know the saying, “Squeaky wheel gets the grease”.  In practical terms it means your staff that is underperforming get the attention.  Meanwhile the people that kick ass get taken for granted.  Instead of focusing on the former, my mentor Paul Saginaw, has preached investing in the latter.  When you double down on taking care of your best people you will increase the chances of them staying with you and help achieve the virtuous cycle I described above.

 

Look for opportunities

Opportunities can arise when you least expect them.  Right now might seem like a crazy time to start a new restaurant but one of my friends just did it.   He negotiated a phenomenal deal on a great space, signed the lease and opened a few months later.  So far, it’s worked out really well.   Yes, he’s dealing with all of the problems and stress the rest of us are, but when the macro picture stabilizes he will be coming out ahead.

Seizing opportunity doesn’t just mean expansion.  For our original location Milwaukee it’s meant radically improving our efficiency.  Where as the pre-Covid paradigm was to chase volume and hope profits follow, today this location is focusing on the reverse.  The results have been incredible.  Sales are down 10%, but profits have nearly tripled!

If you are reading this and feeling like I am, you too are tired, fed up and hoping for “normal”.  “Normal” will return but it will look different.  The sooner you can figure out how to adjust the quicker things will improve.  I know.  Easier said than done.  As alway, feel free to reach out.

Our next 10 years

A vision for Ian’s Pizza 

In 2008 a group of managers and staff met to create a ten year vision for Ian’s Pizza. The goal was to define a picture of a future we believed was worthwhile pursuing. Over the course of two days we explored different scenarios. The conversations were fun, engaging, and creative, although at times they were also difficult and uncomfortable. All of it was honest and necessary. It forced us to answer important questions we rarely think about.  

Why do we come to work? What do we want to accomplish? 

In early June of 2009 we finalized our 2020 vision and launched it.  

Since then we’ve slowly worked to make the vision reality. It hasn’t always been pretty, or as process-driven, as I would like. But the size, structure, and principles we operate by today are consistent with what we envisioned in 2008.  

Four years ago we realized 2020 was rapidly approaching.  It was time to start creating a new vision for the next ten years! 

The process of writing our new vision has meant taking stock of our collective identity and figuring out what will inspire us going forward. It’s also required owning up to areas where we’ve fallen short in the past.  

Out of multiple group and individual discussions two central themes emerged which are the core of our 2030 vision.   

Taking care of our staff and improving their experience is who we are.  

Strengthening our connections and leveraging our human capital will make us a better company. 

As of this writing we find ourselves in crazy pandemic-stricken times. One of the goals of having a 2030 vision is to take us beyond the present moment and to channel our efforts towards achieving a meaningful, positive outcome. We remain hopeful. 

Thanks for reading our 2030 vision and being a part of our journey.  

Ian

March 2021

 

 

Ian’s Pizza 2031

Today is December 31st 2031. Ian’s Pizza is a federation of businesses located throughout the U.S. with a combined revenue of $35 million. We are united by a shared set of values and a people centric mission.  Diversity in who we are and how we operate has made us a stronger business. Today, 30% of our management team are from historically underrepresented groups. Half of our locations operate in residential neighborhoods and we are now selling more non-pizza products than ever before.  

Structurally, we have achieved a long sought-after goal: All of our owners support and benefit from the growth of the federation. The growth of our business is driven by the growth of our people. Our managers have documented career goals which are reviewed regularly. A robust slate of classes, along with a mentoring program, has strengthened the fabric of our company and helped staff thrive. Today there are multiple, clearly-defined career opportunities within Ian’s Pizza.  This includes a streamlined path to ownership and assistance with financing.  Since 2020 we have doubled the number of employees who also hold ownership stakes. 

Cross-company communication and leveraging our collective resources has improved dramatically. In 2021 we created an Operations Group composed of staff dedicated to solving problems and improving operations. On a few occasions ideas that have sprung from the group have led to product development. Regular staff exchanges occur across the business and when a location needs assistance company support is made available.  

 Over the past decade we’ve improved our efficiency and our profitability. Revenue Per Employee (RPE) is at an all time high and profit margins range from 12-20%.  Strong financials allow us to pay industry leading wages and fuel our popular profit sharing program.  The gains are not just financial.   Technological efficiency has created more space for us to personalize our customer service.  We take pride in the human connection we have with our customers and the memorable outcomes we create on a daily basis. 

We are stewards of our planet’s natural resources. During the past 10 years we have focused on reducing food waste to help address food insecurity, preserve the environment, and save money.  We’ve also partnered with environmental organizations and university programs to support their work.  This includes support for students working to create a sustainable future. 

The quality of our food improves with each passing year. A culture of excellent execution is our norm. Today, all of our vegan ‘meat’ products are made in-house from whole foods. The success of these products has led us to sell them to the public. Using ethnic flavors as a source of inspiration, we’ve developed several cult forming sauces and spice blends.  

Since 2023 employee happiness has been part of our bottom line. We have shaped our culture to promote hope and manufacture positivity. It sounds cheesy, but it works.  Mental health is recognized as vitally important to well-being and work performance.  Working with outside partners, we make resources available for staff who need support.  Lastly, we have improved our ability to balance the scheduling requirements of the business with our staff’s lifestyle scheduling needs. The impact of these changes has yielded enormous benefits. We are a company people seek out. Today, the majority of our staff report working for Ian’s Pizza as a career move.

Book Recomendations

In the past week a few people have asked me for business book recommendations. Here are a few of my all time favorites.

  1. Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

Interviewing is one of the most important skills a business owner can develop. The methodology for interviewing described in this books is fantastic. I became a much better interviewer after reading this book.

2. A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business by Ari Weinzweig

Ari Weinzweig is a hero to many in the restaurant world and the business he co-founded with Paul Saginaw, Zingerman’s Deli, is a national treasure. This book covers a variety of topics and is a great place to start if you don’t know “what you don’t know”.

3. Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

New York City’s top restaurateur, Danny Meyer, details his philosophy on customer service, leadership and how to grow a business.

4. Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing by Harry Beckwith

A quick read packed with lots of great insights and fun stories. As someone who has struggled with marketing this books was immensely helpful.

5. The Profit Zone by Adrian Slywotzky and David Morrison

Why are some businesses immensely profitable while others barely make any money? In this book, the authors describe several models for creating not only a successful business, but one, that makes fat profits.

6. How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins

This short book takes a deep dive into the causes behind some epic business failures. A great read for anyone running a successful business, but also worthwhile for those interested in creating a long term, sustainable enterprise.

7. Small Giants by Bo Burlingham

This books breaks down what make a business “great”. It also challenges the notion that for a business to be great it has to be big.

Covid Survival Mindset

These are screwed up times.  For everyone. A few monhts ago my small business was on pace to have a record sales year.  Today, I’m happy we still have a business.

Here is what I’m thinking to get through this.  

1. This is going to take longer that any of us want

When state lockdowns first started rolling out, I assumed the disruption would last a few weeks.  Then a few months.  Then through the summer.  Now my planning is based on “normal-ish” starting July 2021.  My hope is that we can develop a vaccine.  Or treatments so CoVid becomes something that is manageable but not a death sentence.  Either way we need something to change everyone’s risk calculation.  

2. Start Developing an Opportunity Mindset

Here is the number one piece of advice I’m sharing with other small business owners: 

If you ran a good business before Covid (BCV), you need to find a way to survive this.  If business wasn’t great BCV then consider cutting the cord.  

Anger and fear are everywhere right now.  Rightly so.  For a few weeks I was angry.  Many of us were closing businesses, firing staff and applying for loans.  There’s no joy to be found in any of that. 

But I also know that I don’t make very good decisions when I’m emotional. 

The business landscape is changing and new opportunities are developing.   Stay pissed and you will miss those opportunities.  

So, I’ve been trying to develop an opportunity mindset.   One that helps me choose to work on positive activities.  

If you ran a good business BCV you should be able to do it post Covid.  In fact, now might be a great time to plan expansion.  

For those who were barely making it before this, now may be a good time to close.  I realize this is not an easy decision.  Seven years ago, I closed a business and lost a lot of money.  For months afterwards, the decision bothered me.  But it was the right call because it allowed me to focus on other opportunities which were successful. The sooner you can move on from a situation that isn’t working the sooner you can start working on one that will. 

3. Profits matter

When the pandemic hit and we could see that this was going to have a major impact on our businesses, my wife asked me how stressed I was.  On a scale of 1 to 10 I felt a relatively low 3.  The reason was simple.  Both personally and professionally we saved money.  

Financially speaking, the past several years have been good for our businesses.   Profits reached all time highs.   This helped us pay for a big remodel, reward our staff with awesome bonuses AND we saved money.    This nest egg, is buying me peace of mind and will help us survive.  We are very fortunate.

My hope is that Covid teaches us to develop a new narrative around business profits.  And how we manage them.  All too often I hear people talk about profits in the context of greed.  Or, if you’re in the restaurant industry, resigned defeat.  

“It’s the restaurant business, you don’t make money.” 

Just a few weeks before Covid hit I was in a meeting discussing the 2019 financials for one of our locations.  Sales were great, but the profit margin was barely 4%, which is awful considering how hard we work.   “We pay our people really well” was the rationale I was told.   That’s great! But we still need to make a healthy profit if we want to run a healthy business.   As one of my heroes, Maggie Bayless (co-Managing Partner of Zigtrain) told me many years ago, “Profits are the lifeblood of a business.”

When Covid ends, one of my goals is to help all of our locations to achieve greater financial success.  Not at the expense of our people or by sacrificing quality, but by running a better business.  If you are getting your business back on its feet or starting completely over, I encourage you to do the same.  Because profits matter. 

This is How you Own a Restaurant

A few words on how to do it right.

This is how you own a restaurant.  Start small.  Avoid a lot of debt or investors.  The less you spend up front, the sooner you will be making money.  If possible own your real estate.  This will help finance your business needs now and “retirement” later on. 

If you can’t buy real estate, find a cheap lease.  You don’t need an A+ location to start.  Serve great food and people will find you.   Don’t rent from stingy landlords or large, faceless corporations.  Both will screw you. 

Have a clear vision of your restaurant before you start.  Share your vision with employees, purveyors and contractors.  Fire anyone who doesn’t help to make your vision a reality.

Culinary chops and business acumen are the foundation of a successful restaurant.  Consider taking on a partner to compliment your skills.  

If you need to hire a chef, find one who is humble and curious.  Humble doesn’t mean push over.   Don’t get seduced by talent.  Chefs with big egos only care about themselves.  Avoid them at all costs. 

The kitchen has a culture of its own.  Respect it.  Don’t bend it to your will.  You will lose.

When your doors first open, good food and good service matter most.  Word of mouth is the best form of marketing. 

If you’re not making money within the first year, consider closing.  Its easy to dig a financial hole you can’t get out of.  Don’t begrudge the shitty restaurant down the block that has more customers than you.  This is a vanity business. 

If you are making money within the first year hire a great General Manager.  And then do everything to keep them.  GMs are the unsung heroes of the industry.  They don’t appear on TV shows or score product endorsements but their job is vital to your success.

Drugs, alcohol and dysfunctional behavior are part of the industry.  Minimize their presence in your restaurant as much as possible.  Drama will cost you money.

Assume theft in some form will happen.  Put systems in place to safeguard against it, but don’t obsess.  Trust but verify.  

Hold your staff to high standards.  Pay attention to details.  Teach a lot.  Yell only if you must.   The restaurant business has enough lunatic assholes.  Please don’t add to the ranks. 

Make time for your staff and take an interest in their lives.  Share the spotlight when it comes your way.  A photo-op of your dishwasher will raise staff morale a lot more than a picture of you.   If you take care of your people they are more likely to be loyal. 

Read business books to run a successful enterprise.  Read cookbooks for inspiration.  Read food magazines to keep tabs on the industry. 

Bend backwards to build goodwill and a great reputation for yourself.  Treat even annoying sales people with respect.  The restaurant industry is very gossipy.  If you grow a shitty reputation it will cost you opportunities. 

Take advantage of the perks of your job.  Whenever possible go on “research” trips to relax and eat well.   Shamelessly ask for product samples.  

Spend 98% of your time focused on your restaurant and 2% on the competition.  Praise your competitors when they’ve earned it.  No one holds a monopoly on great food. 

Schedule time off.  Don’t forget to sleep.   If you find yourself in your restaurant with nothing to do, leave.  Thank your family and friends for their support.  They have to deal with your crazy hours and bullshit constantly.

This is how your own a restaurant.

When to close a business

Four things to consider before closing your doors for good.

Recently, a friend of mine, let’s call him Mike, had one of his worst fears come true.  His business had run out of money.

This was strange.

Mike owned a deli with a cult following.  Every week customers waited in long lines to buy one of his sandwiches.  Anyone familiar with Mike’s deli assumed he was “killing it.”

Instead he was broke.  How could this be?

Was someone stealing money? Were his books being “cooked”?

Nobody knew.  So, Mike started to investigate.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was wrong.

The first problem was bookkeeping.  Yes, he had professional looking financial statements.  But they didn’t match reality.  Invoices were missing.  Statements weren’t reconciled.  Deposits were off.

Not only did Mike lack a strong grasp of his business’ finances, he was making decisions based on numbers that didn’t exist.  It was a recipe for disaster.

The second problem was debt.  Six months earlier Mike borrowed money to expand his business.  But he didn’t borrow enough.  His bookkeeper should have sounded alarm bells.  Instead she played “whack-a-mole” with outstanding bills.  Whichever vendor complained the most got paid with the limited cash on hand.  Bills kept piling up until the finances were swamped.

Lastly, payroll was bloated.  Some of this was intentional.  Mike was training additional staff to further expand his business.  This was a good idea, but you need to have spare cash to do it.  It was a luxury he couldn’t afford.

Once Mike knew the causes of his problems, he felt overwhelmed.  He asked me a simple question.  “Am I done?”

The answer was clear to me.   “Absolutely, not”

Here’s why:

1. Sales are half the battle.

Mike had done an awesome job of building sales.   This is hard to do.  If your business has no sales, it’s a legit reason to close.  But this wasn’t his case.   The problem was bad financial management.  For the past several years Mike was so focused on operations he had taken his eye off of the numbers.  This was on him and he knew it.  Although the situation wasn’t good, its easier to fix a bookkeeping problem than building sales.

2. Popularity contest.

When my bakery first opened our sales were terrible.  On our six month anniversary the business was barely surviving financially.  What our bank statements didn’t show was how much our customers loved us.  We just didn’t have enough of them.  We soldiered on, word spread and sales grew.  Two years later, things were going so well, we moved to a larger location.

Mike’s business has a cult like following.   Some of his customers buy from his multiple times per week.  Its easy to assume if sales are strong your customers love you.  Not true.  My local Walgreens is always busy.   When was the last time you heard someone say they love Walgreens?

A customer base that loves your business is a big asset.  Their loyalty can be the foundation of long term success.  This is something that shouldn’t be disregarded.

3. Cash poor, asset rich.

Mike was broke but he wasn’t poor.  His business had a great brand and sales were strong.  He also owned 100% of his company.

If you’re in Mike’s shoes and you need cash, there’s two options:  Borrow money or sell equity in your business.

Because Mike’s financial problems are fixable he shouldn’t have a hard time getting capital.  Even if a bank isn’t willing to lend him money, I bet he could find an investor in his community.  Best of all he doesn’t need to sell a huge stake of equity to solve his financial problems.  In other words, he could still be the majority owner.

4. Do you want to keep going?

When things are tough, you have to make a simple decision:  Keep going or go home.

Mike didn’t want to give up.  He loved running his deli.  But he didn’t want to make his situation worse.  Once he understood how to overcome his challenges he was excited to get to work.

That was a few months ago.  Today things are getting better.  In a few years I’m sure he will be doing great.

 

Have you closed a business? Are you struggling to keep on going? Send me an email with you experiences.

 

 

80% Busy: Part 2

How to tame your schedule and go from stupid busy to stupid happy

I’m not going lie.  It took awhile to go from miserable burnt out fuck to happily functioning at 80% busy.  Here’s how I did it.

Delegate

My recovery from burn out, required learning to let go.  During the early years of running my business I felt like I needed to control everything.  But control is an illusion.  It breeds mistrust and its exhausting.

A better place to put your energy is helping others succeed.

When I hire someone today, I want them to do their job better than I could.  This is not about ego.  If they are successful, the business succeeds and I have more time.

The old, burnt out Ian would try to do everything himself.  The 80% busy Ian now focuses on teaching and empowering.  This was a major shift for me.  And it was extremely liberating.

I used to directly manage 30 people.  Today its one.  And she works part time.

Time is more important than money

I like making money.  Always have.

But what’s the point of making a bunch of money if you’re always stressed out and don’t have time to spend it?

The structure of both of my businesses today is designed to maximize my freedom while still allowing me to earn a nice living.

Its not complicated.

In short, I have a lot of working partners throughout my two businesses.  In every single case these partners started as entry-level employees who worked their way up the ranks.

Business partnership can be tricky.  Despite the pitfalls I still believe in them.  The dozen or so employee owners in Ian’s Pizza bust their ass to make the business successful.  Because our interests are aligned it means I spend less time checking their work and wondering if they are motivated.

More free time.  Less stress. Cha-Ching.

Chasing buffalos

Being 80% busy means thinking about my return on time (ROT).  Yeah, it’s a lousy acronym, but you get the point.

A few years ago, I calculated how much my time is worth.  It was a great exercise. Having a number in my head has made a big difference in what activities I choose to pursue.  I used to spend a ton of time killing myself to make a few bucks or save a few bucks.  Today, I’m much more focused on the cost of my sanity and time.  If there isn’t a clear upside to the activity I’m considering, I don’t do it.

Of course, I don’t just pursue activities based on financial return.  There’s a lot of stuff I choose to do, simply because it brings me joy.  These activities reduce my stress and actually give me more energy.

 

That’s it.

I know.

Easier said than done.

 

Need help figuring out your own 80% busy strategy? Send me an email.

80% Busy

How to avoid burn out, make more money and be a better spouse

Today, I’m going to share with you one of the secrets of my success.  Its deceptively simple.

My goal is to be 80% busy.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t a slacker manifesto.

In later posts I’ll explain the nitty gritty of how this works.   First, let me explain how I got here.

For many years I worked all the time. When I first started my business this was necessary.  But once things settled down, I continued to do it anyways.  Who works hardest, wins.  Right?

Maybe.

After three years of going at – let’s call it 110% – I burnt out.

Initially, I refused to accept it.  I kept pushing.

Until I couldn’t.

There’s a cost to being stupid busy.  Relationships suffer.  And so does your health.   For some crazy reason this didn’t bother me.

But then I noticed my work began to suffer too. I was making more mistakes and also missing opportunities.

After one especially bad week –  I lost a great customer, had a star employee quit and my girlfriend dumped me – I knew I had to make a change.

The good news about burn out is that recovery is easy.   Two weeks on a beach somewhere can make you feel almost new again.  The hard part is breaking the cycle that got you there in the first place.

This took me awhile to figure out.

The answer was to structure my life so I always had spare capacity.  By spare capacity I mean extra time and energy to be with my family.  To take on new opportunities.  To put out fires.  To think!

“80% busy” became my new mantra.

Some people will hear this and think “80% lazy”.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Since 80% busy became my goal, I’ve invested in four new businesses, purchased half a dozen real estate investments and continued to grow both of my core businesses.  I’ve also gotten married, had two kids and travelled around the world.

I’m getting shit done.  And I’m still sane.

Of course, no week is exactly the same.  Sometimes I’m operating at 100% busy.  Sometimes I’m at 60%.  But my goal is to always bring it back to 80%.  Its what works for me.  Its my Optimal Functioning Capability (OFC).  Less and I start to get bored.  A lot more and I can feel burn out creeping in.

In my next post I’ll detail the specific things I did to get here.

For now I’m curious to find out how busy you are.  What is your OFC?

Send me an email.  Lets talk.

Youth of America: Don’t know what to do with your life? Read this.

[Author’s note: Its graduation week here in Madison, WI.  This post is for all of the thousands of students getting their diplomas.  Congrats!] 

One of the benefits of working with college students is listening to the banter.

You know what I’m talking about.

“Where are we partying tonight?”

“Your team sucks.”

“Did you see last night’s episode of ___________?”

Some people consider these conversations juvenile.  Now that I’m 40, I find they keep me young.

Of course not all of the conversations are happy.  As spring arrives and graduation approaches I always hear the dreaded topic of:

“WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?” [insert Chewbacca moan]

After spending the last 17 years listening to people agonize over their future, I’ve reached a few conclusions.

For all of you who are totally lost, this post is for you.

The Problem is in Your Head

Most of the graduating students I’ve worked with fall into one of two categories:

Those who panic.

“Holy crap, I can do anything and that freaks me out.  What if I make the wrong choice? What if I fail? What if I end up sleeping in a car board box under a bridge?”

And those who see opportunity.

“Hell yeah, I can do anything I want.  I can dive with sharks. I can be an actor.  I can herd sheep in New Zealand. I can make tortillas all day.  Wow, freedom is awesome. I can’t wait to start doing something cool.”

If you’re in the opportunity camp, congrats, you can skip this section.

But, if you’re in the panic camp (most people) the solution is in your head.

In other words, you need to change your mindset.

Before I tell you what an opportunity mindset looks like, let’s take a step back.

Your reasons for panic are normal.  Many of us grew up spending our energy fighting for independence but not thinking about what we would do with it.  When I was 16 all I wanted was a car. I never thought about where I would go with my car. I just dreamed about having a car and being able to go… somewhere.

When adulthood arrives, if you don’t switch gears from fighting for freedom (adolescent thinking), to making the most of your freedom (adult thinking) things are going to suck.  And it not like you can go back. Being an adult who depends on her parents isn’t cool or desirable.

So if you’re freaking out about entering the world, first take a deep breath.

Second, start paying close attention to your thoughts.  If you’re still thinking like you’re fifteen years old there’s most of your problem.

Third, develop a new relationship with what’s freaking you out.

Most likely this means:

Embracing uncertainty instead of fearing it.

Accepting responsibility instead of fighting it.

Seeking challenges instead of avoiding them.

Build a mindset on these principles and you will feel less scared and see more opportunity.

Does this mean money will start raining down from the sky and things will be easy? Fuck, no.  All it means is that you are open to pursing an extraordinary existence.

Ok, I know what some of you may be thinking.

“This sounds great BUT……”

“I have a ton of student debt.”

“My parents want me to be a lawyer.”

“I’m really not interested in anything.”

I get it.  Some people have more obstacles than others.  But here’s the rub. Regardless of your particular circumstances the opportunity is the same.  The opportunity is time. If you are in your 20’s – that magical decade in between graduation and starting a family – time is on your side.  You have time to make money. Time to make mistakes. Time to explore. Time to take risks.

One of the best decisions I’ve made in my life was to start a business at 23 years old.

What I lacked in money and experience I made up for with youth, energy and enthusiasm.  I also had little to lose.

You have those same things too.

Still with me?  Great.

Let’s continue to the next step.

Figure out what success looks like for you

If you don’t want to go through life flailing around hoping something good will happen you need to have a vision.

What is a vision?

It’s a picture of what your life looks like in the future.

Some of you are going to immediately judge this as hokey shit.

That’s fine.  When I was first introduced to this I thought it was hokey too.

Here is why having a vision is important.

If you’re clear on what success looks like for you, you can focus your energy towards achieving it.

I’m a big advocate of visioning work because most of us do it anyway.  We just don’t realize it. It happens when you’re daydreaming about where you’d like to live, or whom you’d like to date.  Or what kind of wardrobe you have. Some of these daydreams are totally unrealistic (I have a cape and I can fly). Others may seem unattainable, but with some work, are actually possible.  Visioning work is capturing the later and making it an actionable plan.

The first step to creating a great personal vision is to do a brainstorm.  There are two rules to follow. What you end up with has to be 1) inspiring 2) strategically sound

Let’s look at both of these points before continuing.

Figuring out what inspires you can be hard.  Sometimes it can be buried in so much emotional stuff it can be painful to admit.  Sometimes you just don’t have enough life experience to know what it is that excites you.  If you’re really struggling, start by thinking about an experience that was incredibly fun or exhilarating.  What were you doing? Who were you doing it with? Why did you like it so much? The answers to these questions can be the basis of your vision.

As you are writing pay close attention to how you are feeling.  The goal is for you to feel excited. A little nervous is okay too.  But mostly you want to feel pumped up.

If you don’t feel anything, you’re on the wrong track.

You’ll tank this exercise and end up frustrated.

My local plumbing supply store, for example, had a boring two-sentence long vision statement. It said something about providing awesome customer service and being a great company but I don’t exactly remember.  Their employees clearly didn’t remember either. No one cared because the vision was shit. Appropriately, it was framed and displayed next to the bathroom.

If you end up with a boring, forgettable vision you’ll end up lost.  Make sure you don’t do this.

The second guideline of vision work is that it must be strategically sound.  This means your vision has to make sense.

– Being the first person to climb Everest (already done)

– Starting a business that takes people to space for .99 cents (not economically viable)

– Swimming across the English Channel with no training or escort (suicidal/illegal)

These things are called indulging in fantasy.

If your vision is easily attainable you are going to get bored – quickly.

If your vision is strategically unattainable life will turn into a Sisyphean sufferfest.

The “sweet spot” is having a goal that is challenging enough so its pursuit is worthwhile regardless of the outcome.

Think about JFK’s vision to put a man on the moon by the end of the 60’s.  At the time it was a bold vision with no guarantees of success. NASA had no clue how they were going to do it.  But they got to work, made a bunch of mistakes, learnt a ton and ultimately developed technologies that paid big dividends.  Oh, and they got us to the moon.

Figuring out what is and what is not “strategically sound” may take some research and soul searching.  One person’s challenge is another person’s walk in the park. My personal experience is that if you’re sizing up your vision and feeling, “Wow this is going to be fucking hard, but I think I can do it” you are on the right track.  On the other hand, if you’re feeling dread or lack of motivation you may need to start over.

The Brainstorm

First, pick a date in the future, maybe it’s two years from now.  Or five. Or ten. If you’re having a hard time thinking very far our, pick a shorter time frame.

Now start writing bullet points of what you want your life to look like.

Many people start with a job.

“race car driver”

“advertising executive”

“artist”

Some will gravitate towards relationships

“Married with three kids and a dog”

“Hot brunette wife”

“Husband – Tall, blonde, funny”

Others will include material objects

“Big white house by the beach”

“Sporty black convertible”

“Fat tire bike”

As you go through this brainstorm keep two things in mind.

The more you write the better.

Focus on lifestyle rather than material possessions.

Yes, a Ferrari can definitely bring happiness.  But it’s short lived. Hanging out with your best friends, learning new skills, taking awesome trips, spending lots of time doing your favorite activities.  These are the things that make for a rich, rewarding life.

Some people will have no problem imagining their future and writing it down on paper.    Many of you will really struggle.  You will stare at a blank page for too long, start having bad thoughts and wish me ill.

Here’s why most people get stuck:

Writing a vision requires choosing what our life looks like but most of us will immediately focus on how we will get there.

This is natural.  But also debilitating.

Let’s say you are broke, overweight and living with your parents.  You do this exercise and the first draft is a vision of biking across Europe.  As you’re writing you start to feel excited.

This is going to be awesome!

Then you review what you’ve written and panic.

How am I going to get in shape? How am I going to get the money? How will my friends react?

The more obstacles you list off, the more your vision seems impossible.  Even embarrassing. Frustrated, you delete what you’ve written. You may think you’ve wasted your time, but you’re on the right path.  An exciting, inspiring vision, something that is worth busting your ass to achieve, requires both honesty and courage.

There will be time for figuring out the “how”.  For now just focus on the “what”!

“Today is January 1st  2025.  I’m a movie producer.”

“Every morning I wake up to three beautiful children and a loving spouse.”

“I pilot a 777 across the Pacific.”

Once again, whatever you do don’t continue to the next step until you have a list that gets you excited.   Even if this takes awhile to figure out that’s okay.  It’s important to nail this.

Writing your Vision

Now that you’ve got a bullet point version of your vision you could call it and be done. To make this really effective though, I say take it one step further.  This means translating your vision from bullet points to prose. The reason is simple. Your vision will be richer, more powerful and easier to share. Lists are functional and utilitarian.  Stories keep people up at night.

Taking a list and writing it into prose can be challenging.

I know there are some of you who hate to write.  Relax. We are not writing a prize-winning novel.  If you can write basic sentences you can do this. If basic sentences are a problem, get help.  Just don’t give up or beat yourself up over shitty first drafts.

And don’t sweat the length.

Somewhere between 3-4 paragraphs to a few pages is all you need.

Let’s look at a fictional example starting with a brainstorm.

Vision Brainstorm

I’m 27 years old

1. Live in Miami

2. Awesome partner

3. Freelance, web design business

4. Work with clients across the US and world.

5. Make my own schedule – work 30-40 hours per week

6. Earn 80-100K year

7. Work remotely two months per year in a different city across the globe

8. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

9. Get together with my “crew” every other week and chill.

Now let’s translate into prose.

Today is January 1st 2020.  I am 27 years old and I live in Miami in a sweet one bedroom in the design district. Every morning I enjoy waking up early and running along the water.  I am currently dating an awesome person.  We connect on a number of levels. Whether we are clubbing, discussing current events, or hosting a dinner party for our friends we find ways to enjoy each other’s company.

I am a successful web designer who works with clients around the world and the US.  I do all of my work remotely from the comfort of my home office. I love having the freedom to work when I want.  I have a stable roster of clients who supply me with rewarding work. Last year I made over $100K.

Several times per year I pack my bags and do my work overseas.  Living in a foreign country for a few weeks keeps me fresh and gives me a new perspective on life.  It also leads to some amazing adventures. Last year, for example, I did a five day trek through the Sahara dessert.

When I’m at home I’m an avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve got a great teacher and I’m currently training for a tournament later this year.

Another aspect of my life in Miami I love are my friends. They rock!  We get together regularly every other week but spontaneous dinners or meet ups are common.   Just yesterday we met up at a block party in South Beach. It feels amazing to have a community of people I can count on for a good laugh or a serious conversation.

That’s it.  5 paragraphs.  300 words.

Maybe the content of this particular vision does nothing for you, but hopefully you get the point of the exercise.  For the fictional owner of this vision, this is what success looks like for them and now they can start working to get there.

Going from paper to reality

Congrats you’ve got a vision! Now comes the hard part: Turning it into reality.

First, share your vision with the important people in your life.  This includes family, significant others, friends, mentors and religious/spiritual leaders.

This may feel a little weird in the beginning.  Don’t wimp out.

Your inner circle of people are the ones who will support you through your journey.  If they know your goals, they can help you better.

As you start to work your vision, share it with more people you think can help.  This doesn’t mean emailing everyone a copy. Sometimes a casual 10 second synopsis is all you need.

“I’ve got a 5 (number) year vision to do be an independent web designer (profession) in Miami (location).  I’d love to connect with you to explore how we could help each other.”

Next step is to strategically pick the items you are going to work on first to accomplish your vision.

If I’m working on accomplishing the fictional vision in the previous section, I might choose to enroll in some web design classes.  Or move right away to Miami. Or look for internships with web design firms I admire.

What I’m not doing is spending all my time looking for cool loft apartments I can’t afford.  Or figuring out where I’m going to decamp overseas. Those things will come.

I’m also not enrolling in an auto body class or exploring other career possibilities.  The benefit of having a vision is that it helps you focus. Use it as a filter to decide how you spend your time.

Once you’ve started to work on your vision, it’s good practice to re-read it every few months.  This will help you stay on track.

After you’ve completed the initial steps, move on to the secondary ones.

This means embracing uncertainty (remember that one?) Sometimes what you should do next isn’t always clear. Just like there are different routes to go from home to work, there are different ways how you can accomplish your vision.   When you hit inevitable roadblocks, change your tactics, not your vision. Again, this is supposed to be challenging. Adjusting your strategy requires ingenuity and resourcefulness. It’s part of the fun.

When things get crappy

One of my mentors, Paul Saginaw, likes to say that after completing a vision  you can encounter the “zone of doubt and blame”.  This is a period of time when nothing seems to be going right. You doubt whether you can accomplish your vision and blame the things working against you.

Like the zombies in the “Walking Dead”, the zone of doubt and blame can strike at any time.  It can even get you more than once.

I’ve gone through the zone of doubt and blame a few times.

One time was during a scouting trip for locations to start my pizza business.  Most of my friends had jobs and were settled. I was nearly broke, had no place to live and chasing a dream.   Passion and enthusiasm had kept me going. But then, out of the blue, an unpleasant dose of doubt rained on my parade.

“Am I delusional?”

“This out of my league, I should do something else.”

“I don’t have the money to do this.  I don’t even have enough experience.”

“I should quit and get a job.”

After spending a good 45 minutes indulging in some negative, messed-up thinking, a different thought entered my mind.

“This may be screwed up, but I shouldn’t quit.  If there is even the slightest chance I can pull this off, it’s worth pursuing.”

The next day I got back to work.  I plotted out the rest of my scouting trip and then figured out where I was going once it was done.

Looking back at that particular moment, I was lucky.   I got into a dark hole, but didn’t stay there very long.  I also got out on my own. That hasn’t always been the case.  Throughout my personal journey I’ve relied on the support of friends and family countless times.  Don’t try to go it alone. When you get in a jam, reach out.

Parting words

Ok, that’s it. Go conquer the world.

If you still don’t know what to do with your life after reading this, then I guess you’re hopeless.

Just kidding.

Send me an email.  I’ve been listening to people complain about this topic for the past seventeen years.  I can listen to you too.

Good luck,

ian

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash