Aug 10 • 28M

This Surprisingly Risky Behavior Actually Makes for a Sadly Mediocre Life (Issue #12)

Make one change to achieve things others never will

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Advice to help you live the life you deserve! I’m Dr. Larry Cornett, a psychologist who loves to study and understand what inspires and motivates people to live their best lives. I spent decades in the corporate world and thought climbing the career ladder to become an executive would make me happy. Spoiler alert: It did not. I found myself wanting more, so I’ve spent the past 12+ years creating the life I want. In this podcast, I share what I've learned with you. I hope my advice will help you pursue the life of your dreams so you can be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled.
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Photo by Kid Circus on Unsplash

Try this tip today

Identify one thing you’re not doing because you’re waiting for someone else’s permission.


“I can’t do that.”

“I don’t want to get into trouble.“

“I need to make sure it’s ok.“

“Let me ask for permission first.“

And there it is. The one behavior that rule followers, people pleasers, and all-around “good kids” can’t seem to stop doing.

* Asking for permission *

I should know. That used to be me.

As a first-born child and overachiever, I grew up being a rule follower. I wanted people to like me. I wanted to be praised by my parents, teachers, and coaches.

I was the good kid who did what he was supposed to do, for a really long time. I got good grades and never got into trouble until we moved away to a new town and a school where I had the opportunity to reinvent myself and start over.

I became more of a risk taker and a rule breaker. And it helped! I had more success in life and with my personal relationships.

However, old habits die hard. As I moved ahead in my academic life in graduate school and my professional career in Silicon Valley, I slowly but surely fell back into a habit of wanting to make my professors happy and my managers satisfied with my performance.

I became that people-pleasing “good kid” again. Yes, following rules and performing well can help you succeed to a certain extent. My career wasn’t bad. I did pretty well.

But, you do hit a ceiling. You’ll never reach the highest levels of success if you’re the person who waits for permission. Also, being a rule follower and people pleaser doesn’t make for the most exciting and enjoyable life.

The greatest triumphs await those who take the greatest risks. Life becomes a helluva lot more fun and rewarding when you stop waiting around for permission to live it the way you want.

“Audaces fortuna iuvat.
Fortune favors the bold.”
― Virgil

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What sets successful people apart

It’s easy to think that highly successful people have some hidden advantage that sets them apart from the rest of us. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (my affiliate link) provides several examples of wildly successful people who had non-obvious advantages. They weren’t just smart, talented, and driven, although that helped.

I’m going to ignore both the obvious and hidden advantages that people like Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, and Elon Musk had that propelled their career success. I’m not so crazy about most of the folks, anyway.

The number one behavior that the most successful people exhibit is easily accessible to you, me, and absolutely everyone:

➡️ They don’t ask for permission.

By “successful people” I don’t mean those who get featured on the front page of Time, Forbes, Rolling Stone, or Sports Illustrated. You know how I feel about that. I mean, the everyday people who are living well and living life on their own terms.

That is something we all should aspire to achieve.

Some of the successful people I know have had outstanding success in their careers working for a company. A few have founded their own companies. And some are entrepreneurs spending their days as they wish.

As I’ve watched all of their careers blossom over the past decades, I noticed they don’t ask for permission to pursue what they want out of their career and life.

I know dozens of these people. You’d think that I might know hundreds after spending over two decades in the tech industry in Silicon Valley. After all, isn’t that the birthplace of disruptive innovation?

But, I don’t. Most of us fall victim to following the rules and assuming that we must wait for permission to pursue bigger goals.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
— Henry David Thoreau


Rules, filters, barriers, and guards

Barriers are in place to make the status quo easier to maintain. People like routine. They like the familiar. They don’t like change, stress, and unnecessary work. A gatekeeper’s default answer is “No” because it makes their lives easier.

Therein lies the inherent weakness of the “ask for permission” model:
You will often hear “No.”

You will especially be told no if you are seeking a stretch goal, or if you don’t fit the perfect image of what an easy “Yes” is for them. That’s why most recruiters overlook exceptional talent that doesn’t match their simple checkbox list.

Success in your life and career requires that you sometimes bend or even break the rules. It wasn’t always easy for me to do this.

  • I was your typical first-born child.

  • I always felt older than my age, which made me believe I should be more responsible.

  • I wanted to please my parents, teachers, and coaches.

  • I was a straight-A student, took part in science fairs and spelling bees, put my head down and did what I was told in the military, and cranked on college and graduate school to get those degrees that I thought were so important.

However, I was in for a few surprise discoveries throughout my life, especially during my education. I also found out that playing by the rules may help you “meet expectations” in your job, but you must break a few rules to slip past the usual barricades if you want your career to skyrocket.


I broke a rule

I don’t know how to type. Let me clarify: I never took a formal typing class. I’m self-taught.

This may sound funny to you younger folks, but remember, we didn’t grow up with computers. Heck, most of us didn’t even have a typewriter at home. My first exposure to a QWERTY keyboard was an Apple IIe in a BASIC programming class in high school.

I wasn’t supposed to be there. The rule was that you took a typing class for a semester, and only later could you take the BASIC class. I jumped the queue.

I remember hiding it from the teacher when she occasionally walked around the computer room. But she mostly sat in her other classroom, getting caught up on her work.

However, one day she caught me “programming.” I would write my code by hand on paper with spaces between the numbered lines (in increments of 10) to insert code and make changes. I would “run” the code in my head, reading through it on paper to make sure the logic worked, erasing bugs, and rewriting.

She caught me and was furious.

“What are you doing?! You can’t type?!?!?!”

I explained why, and she almost kicked me out of the class. But, she let me stay if I could keep up with the homework and tests. In a short time, I actually ended up being the best programmer in class, and she never mentioned it again.

Unbeknownst to me, this planted the seeds for my foray into the world of tech much later in my life. If I had asked for permission to join the BASIC class, the gatekeeper would have denied me.


I slipped past a barrier

I never had formal design training, yet I became a designer with a career at IBM, Apple, eBay, Yahoo, and several startups. Not only did I not have design training, I only took a couple of art classes in high school, and an art history course in college.

So, I taught myself.

I’ve always been artistic, sketching and drawing from a very young age. But it was only in graduate school that I started designing software interfaces for my own needs. I was using HyperCard for my psychology research, and I even taught a course in HyperCard and HyperTalk to professors and other graduate students. I voraciously read Danny Goodman’s HyperCard book (my affiliate link) from cover to cover (thank you, Danny). I educated myself.

I’m sure it was my degree, prototyping skills, and network that got me in the doors at IBM and Apple. But, I had to devour every book I could on software design, read all the Apple Technical Library books, learn fast, and prove myself.

The one thing that I didn’t do was ask for permission to be a designer.


I dodged a gatekeeper

I have a Ph.D. in Psychology, but I don’t have an MBA. So, how did I become the VP of Consumer Products for Yahoo Search without any formal experience as a product manager?

I had dabbled in product management while I was working at eBay. I was working on a big project as the lead designer with a product manager (PM) running it. It was a complex product, but the project was going well.

Until the PM got called for jury duty.

Everyone was booked solid, so the PM’s manager asked if I could just run the project to get it launched. I said “Yes,” and finished writing the PRD, worked with engineering, and launched the product successfully.

It probably helped that I had hands-on product experience and I’m the kind of weird hybrid designer who gets product management, analytics, statistics, and dabbled in some engineering. I could talk the talk (and somewhat walk the walk).

But, I didn’t wait for someone to ask me to be the Head of Product for Yahoo! Search. I didn’t let my lack of an MBA or PM title hold me back. 

I saw an opportunity and went for it before I had someone’s permission. I basically said “Yes” and then figured out how I was going to do the job.


Achieving greater success

I look back on my life, and I see a pattern of why some of it worked out well.

  • I set my sights on a goal.

  • I identified the gaps in my knowledge and skills.

  • I worked hard to teach myself what I needed to know.

  • I quickly seized an opportunity when it presented itself.

  • I said “Yes” first, and then figured things out later.

  • I didn’t ask for permission to be who and what I wanted to become.

Did this strategy succeed 100% of the time? No, of course not. I’ve had my fair share of failures, overreaching, and setbacks. But, if you never even go for it, your odds of success are 0%.

I meet many people who are waiting before they can pursue a dream goal. They say that they need a specialized degree, a specific certification, or permission from their professor, parent, boss, or another authority figure.

No, you don’t.

Some of the best developers, designers, and product managers I’ve hired for my teams over the years have been self-taught. I didn’t care about their degrees or certifications. They showed they were smart, ambitious, and could do great work.

History is replete with autodidacts who didn’t need anyone’s approval or certification to pursue their calling. Note: I’m not sharing these famous people to tell you to emulate them and follow their paths. They are simply recognizable examples of successful people who didn’t let traditional barriers stand in their way.

  • The world-famous author Ray Bradbury never went to college.

  • Suzanne Valadon was a self-taught artist.

  • David Bowie taught himself to play many musical instruments.

  • Jane Jacobs wrote books about city planning, economics, and sociology with only a high school degree.

  • Frank Lloyd Wright did not have a degree in architecture.

  • Vera Wang took a huge risk leaving a great job and launched her business when she was 40 years old.

  • Buckminster Fuller was expelled from Harvard twice.

  • Toni Morrison didn’t wait for someone’s permission to tell her she could be a writer.

  • Richard Branson was dyslexic and dropped out of high school.

If you want something, find a way to get it.

  • Find a different path that isn’t blocked by their rules and regulations.

  • Come in through the side door or back door.

  • Walk past the locks and bolts and guards they’ve put on the front door.

  • Leverage all of your unfair advantages.

So, the one change you need to make to achieve things others never will?

Stop waiting for permission!

Share this with a friend who needs to break a few rules and stop asking for permission to pursue the life they want.

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Larry Cornett received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Rice University. He spent decades in the Silicon Valley tech industry as a designer, Design leader, Product executive, and startup founder. He eventually left the corporate world to start a coaching practice and now lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others create their own invincible lives. You can find him on Twitter @cornett.