January 19, 2009

How to Be Awesome

fort-awesome

The other day I was talking with my friend Phil, a doctoral student in philosophy. Phil is much smarter than me – of that there is no doubt – but he’s struggling with the process of working through a draining series of requirements to receive his terminal degree.

A Ph.D. in a field like philosophy usually requires at least 5 years of study beyond the 4-year bachelor’s degree. Some students do it in less time, but many others require six, seven, or even eight years. Even after you get the degree, the training process continues with an average of six more years working as an Assistant Professor.

In other words, it’s a hard struggle for a long time. I had the chance to head out for Ph.D. kindergarten last year myself, but I decided it wasn’t the best decision for me.

Phil, on the other hand, is good at what he does and enjoys the academic environment much more than me. The problem is the 5-10 year stretch where no one pays attention to you and you spend weeks on end writing papers that one or two people will read.

“Why not find another way?” I asked. “If you write a great book about philosophy, for example, or publish a major article, no one will care which program you went to or how you performed during your oral exams.”

“That’s what everyone says,” Phil told me. “It’s as if the answer is, ‘Go be awesome’ – but that’s too vague.”

Go and be awesome. Hmmm.

The thing is, the answer Phil is getting is completely true. If you can be awesome, a lot of other things don’t matter. College degrees, life experience, the long slow climb up the ladder (corporate or otherwise) – no one cares about that stuff.

However, I also understand the challenge. Telling someone to “go and be awesome” is frustrating, even to people who are completely capable of being awesome. They just don’t know how.

Therefore, I thought, someone should take the time and write this out. How can you really “be awesome”? This list is a good start, and I’m sure you guys will add to it at the end.

THE FIRST THING

Think about this every day:

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” ~ Ayn Rand

If you aren’t comfortable with this attitude, it’s hard to be awesome. Sorry. You can be good enough without being assertive, but to a large extent, being awesome requires that you initiate, take action, and chart your own course through the norms of mediocrity.

HARD WORK

Working your ass off, at least during specific seasons in life, is also a prerequisite for being awesome. This goes at the top, because if you don’t like hard work, good luck.

I hung out with J.D. Roth in Portland a few weeks ago, and we talked about the big success of his personal finance site. Guess how many hours a week he has worked on the site since going full-time last year?

60 HOURS EVERY WEEK.

That’s right, aspiring bloggers – you too can have 70,000+ readers and write your own ticket to internet fame – but it won’t happen by playing World of Warcraft every night.

If you aren’t blogging, the same principle holds true with most other work that is worth doing. Yes, I know about things like life / work balance, taking time off to rest, and so on. Those are things you do after you’ve created your world of awesomeness. Jason Calacanis put it best, “If you want to work 9-5, get a job at the Post Office.”

Still reading? As mentioned, those first two are prerequisites. They also serve as filters, because lots of people give up on self-determination and hard work. Assuming you can stick with it, it gets easier from here on out.

THE GENERAL WORKPLACE

In any given work environment, almost everyone is focused on one goal: to make themselves look good. If you can change things around and focus on making other people look good, you’re well on the way to being awesome. In some environments (certainly academia), this is exceedingly rare behavior.

Showing up to work is expected. Showing up early, prepared, and with a good attitude is remarkable (sadly).

Present solutions, not problems. If you can present solutions to other people’s problems, you’ll go far. Contribute big ideas, including some that you know are likely to fail.

You’ve probably heard this before: “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.” To be awesome, be the busy person who gets things done.

MEETINGS & EMAIL

From time to time you’ll arrive at a meeting where it’s not clear who is in charge. Examples: a collaborative school project, a work project among colleagues of equal rank, etc. Here is how to handle this:

Step 1: Assess the situation to determine the leadership skills of the other attendees. Remember that your goal is to get things done and make other people look good.

Step 2: Take initiative without taking control. Be helpful, ask questions, and offer to accept tasks on behalf of the group.

Step 3. At the end of the meeting, provide a quick wrap-up based on the actions the group agreed to. “OK, so Jon will do this task and report back, I’ll do the other research…” and so on.

Step 4. If no one else is openly taking notes, do it yourself. Type them up and send them out to the participants within 24 hours of the meeting.

A Note on Notes: being the recorder accomplishes two things. 1) You are viewed as awesome for taking the initiative and capturing information for everyone else, and 2) You get to put your own bias on how the notes are written.

A wise person once told me, you don’t have to be the first person replying to every convoluted email thread. That just shows everyone that you live on your email. Instead, show up at the end and contribute something of value. Your comments will come to be viewed as the deciding word instead of the kneejerk reaction. The next time, people will look forward to your response and wonder what’s wrong when you haven’t written in.

Don’t use rude autoresponders. A rude autoresponder looks like this:

What were you thinking in writing to me? I am too important to be bothered by inane requests like yours. I may or may not get back to you, and if I do, it will probably be a while. Have a nice day.

Those are not the exact words (usually), but that’s the implied message. If you must use an autoresponder, like when you are traveling or otherwise not checking email very often, be polite and gracious.

RELATIONSHIPS

Overdeliver in your personal relationships. Give more than you get. Never find yourself in relationship debt.

Never make excuses about being too busy, not having enough time, etc. People who are awesome make time for what’s important to them.

From time to time, you’ll screw up. This is how you apologize:

“I’m really sorry. It was completely my fault. I hope you’ll forgive me, and here is how I am addressing this in the future.”

If you forget to do something you’ve committed to do but remember it later, do it right when you remember.

Buy thank-you cards and write 2-3 every day. Use your calendar to keep up with the birthdays of as many people as possible. Write real birthday notes or cards instead of Facebook posts.

Whenever a casual relationship is coming to a close (the class ends, colleagues move to another project, etc.) write the person a quick email. “I enjoyed working with you… thanks for doing a good job.”

When bad things happen, you can forgive the following: mistakes, weaknesses, shortcomings. (No one is exempt from these things, even awesome people.)

When bad things happen, you should worry about the following: dishonesty, passive aggressive behavior, chronic tardiness, whininess. (These patterns do not usually get better with time.)

Practice the art of radical exclusion with people who waste your time. This is NOT being impolite – it is showing respect for the people you have committed to serve.

Remember that people will basically act the same no matter who they are around. If the people you hang out with are always complaining about other people, chances are they probably complain about you too. The point is: don’t put others down when they’re not around, or at least make sure you’re comfortable with whatever you say being repeated.

GOOD VERSUS EVIL

Reward the behavior of other awesome people, and stop rewarding mediocrity. Tip 20-25% for good service at a restaurant. For the rare occasion when service is awful, don’t tip at all.

When you find yourself in a conversation with someone who likes to argue all the time, you may be tempted to respond, but you’ll regret it in the end. Just walk away.

Always focus on core motivations. When presented with a request, analyze the situation by thinking about exactly what the person wants from you. (Hint: it is not always what they are explicitly asking for.)

Keep up the positive momentum. Look to the future, not the past. The U.S. election last fall was framed as a choice between the past and the future. Guess who wins a contest between old and new?

Never be a critic without presenting an alternative. Remember that no statues are erected to critics, and no one is remembered for shooting down other people’s ideas.

***

Of course, there are some variations on this list depending on which kind of awesomeness you wish to pursue. But if you can do at least some of these things, you’ll be off to a great start. Are you up for it?

###

Related Articles:

A Short Collection of Unconventional Ideas
How to Be Unremarkably Average
The Decision to Be Remarkable

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“Fort Awesome” (Harvard Yard) Image by DrGamby

Comment on this article

73 Responses to “How to Be Awesome”

  1. Awesome! I feel quite inspired to become awesome, if I wasn’t already! Hard work here I come. xoxo

  2. What a powerful post, I agree with Jen above, I feel inspired to become awesome! Thanks for the boot!

  3. January 19, 2009

    Kate Frishman

    This article was serendipitous – I had been pondering a question similar to this during a long and boring car trip this weekend. As usual, your comments hit home! This article is an action plan for greatness.
    Thank you for all you do.

  4. This was a timely article for me. Thanks. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to be moderately good or awesome. The workload is going to be killer, but it should be worth it.

  5. It’s posts like this that keep me reading your blog Chris. I really enjoyed this one, and it’s going into my shared items on Google reader/facebook.

  6. I agree with most everything your wrote, Chris, but I have speak out against the one quote from Mr. Calacanis. He said, “If you want to work 9-5, get a job at the Post Office.” My partner is a letter carrier in Ann Arbor. She takes pride in her job, and has created quite a “fan-base” among her postal patrons. She works a minimum of 50 hours a week, and she tries to have a kind word to everyone she meets.

    Yes, she may be an exception, but there are people in the Postal Uniform who truly love what they do – that goes a long way to being “awesome”.

    Denise (@DeniseTwin)

  7. This post, sir, is entirely made of awesome. Love the Rand quote.

    The people who expect to be rewarded as if they were awesome and reap the benefits of their being awesome without actually putting in the effort required are really just signing up for a lifetime of distress and frustration.

    Life really gets easier and more pleasant when pared down and streamlined for a flight towards larger goals. I personally choose not to be frustrated, but to be awesome. :)

  8. Chris,
    Great post. I love the tips, especially your thoughts about meetings and emails. I look forward to putting them into action.

  9. Thanks for a great post. My resolution LAST year was “live awesome,” and I have to say I was pretty successful. This year’s resolution was “outdo last year.”

  10. You provided some keen and astute observations. Perhaps a synonym of “awsome”, in this case, is “remarkable” (as coined by Seth Godin). It is in this mass-produced world that mediocrity and habitual repetition becomes acceptable and doing things differently – with passion – becomes unusually remarkable. Whether it be a corporate, hierarchal job or a self-created, self-employed lifestyle, it takes intrinsic confidence, courage, and direction to become labelled as awesome.

  11. Whether or not in job, one needs to put in hard work. In fact entrepreneurs end up working more than one who is in job because they tend to seek constant growth.

    Everything said and done, there are people and there are other people.

    Money is not a topmost priority for most of people. All they want is bit extra to relax the things. I have met so many 9-5 people who are admirable and awesome as well.

    People run administration, make things happen within the system and initiate long lasting effects.

    I admire entrepreneurs but there are good people on the other side too.

  12. Chris, you quoted Ayn Rand, so you automatically get put into my category of awesomeness.

    Aside from that, I love your style and I can see your writing improving over the course of your blog’s growth. Game changers – that’s what we gotta be. Watch where everyone else is going and walk the other way. It may be a silent journey, but it is a good one nonetheless.

  13. Hi all, I’m reporting live from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I don’t have good internet access over here, so I can’t participate in comments much – but feel free to say whatever you’d like and I’ll check in again in the next day or two.

    All the best,

    Chris

  14. A great book with a similar theme is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He talks about how success is often the result of being in the right place at the right time, along with a lot of hard work.

    There is a chapter on the 10,000 hour rule. To obtain world class skills in fields ranging from concert violinists, to technolgy titans like Bill Gates and to bands like the Beatles, massive amounts of purposeful practice are key. Ten thousand hours seems to be the quantity of hours necessary for greatness.

    The lesson I took away is that people are not born natural geniuses, it is earned through hard work and discipline.

    The book was a very good read. I wrote a short article on it.

  15. a couple of decent ideas but a lot of average stuff too

    will being notetaker and using better email ettiquite REALLY help your friend, or me or anyone else to be “awesome”? I think not.

    travelling the world (like you’re doing) is being awesome, being a non-conformist and doing things totally different and totally more effective than most people is being awesome, finding something to be passionate about is being awesome, creating and living an awesome life is being awesome etc..

    everything else is just a distraction…

  16. Um…define awesome!

    I have just set in motion a plan to cut back my working week to four days a week (from 5) because I can afford to and because there’s plenty of other stuff I’d rather be doing that is good for my physical and mental wellbeing and good for my community, so I guess I’m about to let awesomeness slip through my fingers.

    Being awesome might be, well, awesome, but the path you describe to achieving awesomeness doesn’t sound like the way to happiness for me. I’d rather be happy than awesome (although I already think I’m pretty awesome!).

  17. Hi Chris – ‘Fess up, you were channeling my mom and dad when you wrote this advice. :) This is all stuff that they drilled into us day in and day out when we were growing up in the late 50′s and early 60′s. Alas, what was common sense back then is not so common nowadays, making it, to use one of Seth Godin’s favorite words, remarkable.

    Example: the taking notes/committee strategy. This can be likened to the Great Who-Is-Going-To-Make-Coffee-For-the Meeting?-I’m-Not-Because-it’s-Demeaning Wars, that started up in the 70′s and continue in some work environments today. Uhhh, making coffee for others doesn’t relegate you to a sub-human standard. What does it take you, two minutes to make a gesture that others will appreciate? If you really feel demeaned by the simple act of making coffee or taking notes, then you have not asserted your personal strength in other areas.

    I could go on and on (and I generally do, so will spare you, heh) on each item that you’ve cited. Instead, as a person of a certain age, I’ll just say I’m thankful that there are those who still “get it.” This is a post about seizing the equal opportunity to be the cream that rises to the top. Fabulous job.

  18. January 20, 2009

    AnnieinRussia

    Re: the idea that taking notes (etc) leads to awesomeness

    I agree. It’s the person who is willing to take things seriously, put in their time wherever they need to be, commit themselves, and deliver who are successful for all the right reasons.

    A seemingly trivial example is that every few weeks I bring in breakfast for my 7 am Business English class. It seems unimportant, but it shows my students that I am willing to go above and beyond the work necessary even to teach a good class; I want not only good information, but also a good atmosphere. I care about them as people, and want to show my appreciation for the time (and sleep!) they sacrifice to come to my class. On my quarterly review sheets the students consistently mention that I’m a great teacher and they love that I bring them breakfast. It’s a little thing that shows a big difference in attitude and approach.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ll bet this is what Chris was referring to.

  19. @Frisky Librarian:
    I guess it all depends on what you want to be awesome *at*. Most of this post is written from the point of view of being awesome at your work. But not everyone wants to be awesome at their job — some might prefer being awesome at the charity they support, for example.

    You say you’re cutting down on your “work” time to devote time to something else. That’s a step toward being awesome at the things you truly love — and if you’re not awesome at those, what’s the point of being awesome at all?

  20. There is one lesson that has had a huge impact on my life, both personally and professionally … “focus on making other people look good”. It’s amazing how many people have described me as “awesome” over the last two years since I have made a decision to make things happen instead of waiting for it to happen to me. Taking action and working hard are the foundation … the next level can’t happen without making others look good.

  21. Thanks for the kick up the pants Chris! I’ve been a bit slack on the awesome side recently and this was just the motivation I’ve been needing to pick my game up again! Time to get those good old fashioned values back out of the closet again I think.

  22. This is simply the essence of becoming awesome. Thanks for the heads up on the important points. It’s the simple things that make someone remarkable.

  23. First time checking out your blog and was linked to this post – happy I found it.

    Not only does this post show how to be awesome but it shows what positive attitudes and behaviors will do for your karma, which affects the rest of your life. I live my life as an optimist but also one of reactions. How you react to other people’s actions ultimately determines your own life and karma, not the other persons. Holding true to this has helped make me a better person inside – and on the outside as people (at least I hope) feed off of it.

    Looking forward to reading more often here.

    Cheers.

  24. This post was “Awesful” (I hope you watch “How I Met Your Mother”)

  25. Valeria Maltoni of Conversation Agent tweeted this article on your site. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and thank Valeria for sharing it.

    cheers,
    Chris

  26. I hear a thread in the posting and the comments.
    To be awesome:
    Be passionate
    Be focused
    Be kind to others and yourself

  27. Excellent post. And the post just made you AWESOME ;)

  28. Just the thing that I wanted. Thanks!

  29. I liked this a lot! Thanks for posting it.

  30. Hi Chris,

    Love the Ayn Rand quote (so much I was inspired to comment!) Hey, it might even inspire my own blog post!

    singingly,
    sg

  31. Everybody said it already, but awesome post! You brilliantly laid out the basics for whoever people are and whatever they do.

    Inspiring, thanks!

    One of the main pitfalls of any of the items is when you start doing one actively. Concentrate, start seeing noticeable results from it and then decide you got there – you’re awesome. Rest of your laurels for a bit. Fast forward to a few days/weeks/months later and you’re well on your way to being a sad smug a-hole… I know I’ve done that.

    Awesomeness never sleeps, nor does mediocrity. If you’re not pushing for the first, you’re falling into the latter. And nothing wrong about it either, we’re all human, it’s simply something to watch out for! ;)

    Thanks!

  32. Awesome, yes! But on what, and whose, terms? Awesome how? Financial success? Fulfilling relationships? Happiness?

    I consider myself awesome in many ways, and I work hard and long on the things that really matter to me, but finanical success is not one of them. I almost always have a smile for others, especially children (after all, they are powerless over most of their lives), and I work to make others appear good while trying to remain in the background myself.

    I am currently unemployed and have only obtained part-time or temp work over the past 6 years since I was “downsized” from a 20-year career at a publishing company. I am hearing impaired…and yet, I’m still an awesome mother of 3 college educated sons, a faithful and caring wife, and a loyal friend. I’m awesome on my own terms. Is that what you mean by Awesome?

  33. Great post until ‘relationship’ section. You can’t start off with a Rand quote and end with a knee bend.

  34. Kinda an eye opener. Lately I’d been wondering how to work with the people if they won’t work with me. ha, one of the reaons I’m truly madly in love with stumble :]

  35. Wow, this is an amazing post. There is so much good advice, I think I’ll be coming back to this in the future to better assimilate this knowledge.

    I think much of it can be reduced to going above and beyond what’s expected or the norm.

    I also really like the advice about making other people look good. I will have to be more aware of that.

  36. BREAK THE MOLD! (and store the pieces just in case)

    This post is truly awesome….

  37. You are awesome for writing this (of course)! I’m going to start my clothing company now!

  38. This is my favorite post thus far, Chris. In fact, I just printed it out to add to my “ass-kickery” folder.

    Well done.

    Martin

  39. Your right Chris on this subject, mediocrity in life, love, relationships is not the way I want to live and have passed on the passion of doing your best and never sucking more out of life than you give to my two sons. Blaming anyone or circumstances on other individuals makes you a victim, and believe me ,I was raised in a town full of them.
    Keep up the good work, I enjoy your articles.

  40. Hi Chris
    This is a remarkable post!
    I would two points on how to be awesome:
    First the ability to really listen vs just hearing people out
    And second, the ability to have a conversation where you are genuinely interested in understanding and sharing.
    Both are skills in rapid decline.
    Creating an opportunity to be awesome!
    With best wishes for your journeys [both real and metaphorical!]
    Anita

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  42. I just found out about this site and this was the first article I read… I am now officially hooked. Some great advice and I look forward to reading the other posts!

    Good job,

    Anneke

  43. It seems to me that the aspiration “I want to become remarkable” is flawed.

    If you’re truly remarkable, you’ll be the last to know! It’s like a fish swimming in water. Ask it what water is and it’ll just stare at you in confusion, mouth agape.

    Gunning for ‘remarkable’ means aspiring to look good in the eyes of others. I think that’s a mingy way of taking on this vast adventure, called life.

    I say: forget about being ‘remarkable’!

    Instead:

    Taste each moment.
    Kindle a passion for learning.
    Be kind to others.

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  45. thanks chris. this is particularly relevant for me, because right now i’m torn between going for a graduate degree in poetry/literature, or launching a business with my own writings. like phil, i hate the idea that all these pointless (not completely “pointless,” but sometimes approaching pointlessness!) requirements could stand in my way. right now i feel the answer is more-so to tear them down! the revolution is here! yes?

  46. I worked for 40 years at a variety of jobs, from jewelry mfg. to cab driver to corrections officer.(I even went into business for myself a few times) And, yes, I was an awesome employee. But, then I’ld get bored and need to try something else. It all caught up with me about 3 years ago when I suffered a “burnout” and the panic attacks and anxiety kept me from being able to work at all.
    Things are getting better now. All those years of being awesome for others didn’t stop the rebellion of my soul.
    I’m working now on building a website dealing with inspiring and validating creativity and imagination.
    I have always been a philosopher and poet, it’s time to let that part of me be awesome.
    I enjoyed your awesome post. Thank you.

  47. Before you decide not to tip at all or to leave a lousy tip, practice Chris’s related advice: assess the situation. If you really think the problem is the attitude of your server, that might be a valid reason not to tip. Bad service or bad meals often result from something beyond the control of the server, in my experience.

    Next, reconsider whether 25% is awesome. 25% is very nice. Generous, even. Even an extra dollar could really make a difference to your server, depending on circumstances. It’s an awesome tip when the money really matters to you, not just when it really matters to your server.

  48. This was a very interesting read. I liked how you said about not rewarding mediocrity, I tend to treat people the same even if some are particularly awesome ( :) ) and some aren’t.

    When it comes down to it i do agree that hard work and treating people well is the only way to be awesome!

  49. Thank you for the uber inspiring articles to give me that sparkling push before exams! Ever since a child I’ve wanted to have an extraordinary life – and here’s some ideas! Awesome!

  50. Thanks for this, I especially liked the part about making time to see people and never making excuses about being busy. This truely rings home with me as a friend of mine keeps saying shes ‘too busy to catch up’, sure she might be busy but am I important enough that shes wants to make time? No, no shes not, because obviously she is not awesome :P

    Thank you very much for this post, it made my day, and I’ll be bookmarking this page to come back and re-read over and over again :)

  51. “You’ve probably heard this before: ‘If you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it.’ To be awesome, be the busy person who gets things done.”

    this is soooo true. i am always the “busy” person but i still get everything done. being awesome and living a full and meaningful life are my top goals. the problem is, i am currently surrounded with people who couldn’t care less about being awesome, they don’t take responsibility for mistakes, they put blame on external factors, they lack the initiative to do things and they just wait for things to happen. there are times when i get tired in having to do everything that i just want to succumb to mediocrity. but this article has really made me come to my senses. why be like everyone else? just because they are mediocre does not mean i should be too. great article, so inspiring!!

  52. I love that quote from Ayn Rand, it’s going in my quote collection.

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  54. October 1, 2009

    Paul Sabaj

    What a great article. I think every high school kid should have to read it so that they can have a clue on how to get ahead. I see it in my son’s school that they spoon feed every thing and the creativity is lost to them. It’s the special person who works had to be the non conformist and often go on to own companies like Microsoft. The old saying to be true to yourself is the big one. I love the great posts and admire your spirit. Never let the flame of your inspiration die. Thanks for the inspiration. I’m looking forward to the book!

  55. Chris,

    This post is simply fabulous :) Thank you for the great insights, smiles and overall good warm feelings. YOU rock and your writing is outstanding. Keep up the AWESOME work.

    All the best,
    Kris

  56. Brilliant post and excellent suggestions. This should be part of some of the corporate behavioral trainings!

  57. I agree with it being a good article/ interesting read over all, but there is a point where think there is too much serving others. Yeah it will make people think you’re awesome, sorta like you thought someone was awesome for letting you to copy some of their work back in junior high. People begin to think they can walk all over you, so I personally suggest taking this article in moderation.

    Unless you do things for yourself, you may never reach your full potential (which equates to awesomeness in my own opinion), so of course really put forth your all in relationships and such, but dont forget yourself.

  58. Thanks Chris. I thought this article was … well … awesome. :)

  59. Great post, thank you! So true about hard work – In life, nothing good ever comes easily.

  60. Awesome post. Reminds me of all the things you can do, that while subtle and small, can add up to something big and important. It also reminds me all of the things I do naturally now (like always take notes and wait to give a good response) that are core parts of being “awesome” and building credibility.

    Here’s to the Awesome out there making it happen.

    -Jason

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