An Influential Thought Leader Live By These 3 Principles

I live my life by a few very basic principles:

  1. If you only focus on how much you can give, you never have to worry about who takes and doesn’t give back.
  2. There is no sense in debating the strategy of something unless the ship is already moving (“You can’t steer a stationary ship”).
  3. You are both what you say you are—and what you do on a daily basis.

In short: I care far more about the process than I do the destination. Because I’ve learned there is no destination to begin with unless a process is in motion.

When it comes to marketing and “messaging,” these basic principles don’t adjust much:

  1. If you only focus on how much you can give, the less you’ll have to sell.
  2. There is no sense in debating the strategy of something unless the ship is already moving (“You can’t steer a stationary ship”).
  3. You are both what you say you are — and what you do on a daily basis.

I’ve built a career for myself explaining these principles to other people.

When I first started writing on Quora when I was 22 years old, fresh out of college, my only intention was to write things people wanted to read.

My dream was to become a successful author.

In the process, I learned the art of “writing things people want to read” is actually an extremely valuable and versatile skill set. It’s the reason why, at 27 years old, I’ve found myself with “a seat at the table.” I am constantly the youngest person in the room. I am never (not by a large margin) the wealthiest person at the dinner. I spend more time talking to people whose net worths are north of $50 million than I do my own 20-something peers—that’s just the nature of working exclusively with C-suite executives and successful serial entrepreneurs.

Principle #1 for me is to give 100x more than I ask in return.

This has stabbed me in the back a number of times.

I’ve had people steal my work word-for-word and put their name on it. I’ve had people offer “mutually-beneficial partnerships” where they extracted as much value as possible without giving anything in return. I’ve had people ask for my help with a handshake and a promise that they’d return the favor—and then went MIA. I’ve had people sign contracts with me, only to pretend like they never existed.

But those wounds pale in comparison to the opportunities I’ve gained as a result. By giving, and giving, and giving, for every two of those unfortunate circumstances there are two hundred other positive results.

Someone stole my work. Sucks.

Lots and lots and lots of other people saw my work, loved it, and paid me handsomely to do the same for them.

Someone didn’t return the favor. Sucks.

This morning I woke up to 5 inbound consulting emails, 2 referral emails, and a new client.

If you want to become a thought leader in your industry, this is just part of the game. It’s the people who spend (waste) more time counting their losses and chasing down old promises that lose sight of the next they need to take. And it’s the people who are so afraid to give, that probably don’t have much worthwhile to give in the first place.

Principle #2, “You can’t steer a stationary ship.”

The worst mistake a writer can make is to sit there brainstorming, tapping his or her pen on the desk, refusing to put down the first word.

Because any good writer knows the moment that first word comes out, oh well then the second one goes there, and the third one comes next, and well what if we changed the second word so then we could use this forth word—and so on, and so forth.

That’s because nobody “brainstorms” a novel. Just like nobody “brainstorms” a great product or service or company. Building anything requires doing, and then reflecting. Doing, then reflecting.

As a mentor of mine used to say, “Brainstorming is like mental masturbation. It feels good, but does it really get you anywhere?”

The vast majority of advertising and public relations firms like to position themselves as “strategy experts.” Everybody loves being the strategist. It’s way more fun to sit at a table and “brainstorm” really great ideas, show up, wave your hands around and paint verbal pictures of a better future, and then close out the presentation with, “Now you just have to find someone to execute it.”

I find that entire charade to be an incredible waste of time.

You know at the end of The Big Short when Mark Baum asks, “How much bigger is the market for insuring mortgage bonds than actual mortgages?” That’s pretty much advertising in a nutshell. People would much rather direct traffic than drive themselves (lots of wordplay in that sentence).

Whenever a client asks me, “What’s our strategy?” my response is, “Start with a few broad topics, and go from there.”

Some people don’t trust this process. I honestly don’t know any other way.

Going back to 22-year-old Cole writing on Quora, I didn’t sit down that first day and said, “Here’s how this is all going to play out.”

Not even close.

I sat down. Wrote my first Answer. Scrunched my face because it wasn’t my favorite. Forced myself to hit Publish anyway. Went to sleep unsure of what I had written. And then woke up the next day and did it all over again.

900+ Quora Answers400+ Inc Magazine columnsa book, and hundreds of guest blogs later, and I’m the 27 year old they bring in when they want their company’s message not to get lost in the noise. And the reason people trust me when I say, “The strategy is to start and adjust from there,” is because I write every single day. My body of work online is a testament to my unique approach.

Which is why I tell people all the time, if they want to become an influential voice in their industry, you can’t just sit there and think you’re going to have it all figured out before you start. At best, pinpoint a 30,000 foot goal, work backwards to come up with some general concepts, and then begin.

Principle #3: You are both what you say you are — and what you do on a daily basis.

Over the past 5 years, I have turned well over 100 people into industry thought leaders.

These are people who came to me—everyone from peers and friends, up to C-level executives—and wanted to know, “How do I build a personal brand, similar to what you’ve built for yourself?”

Going back to Principle #1 here, I’m going to give you the same Answer I tell anyone and everyone.

It’s a pretty simple process:

  1. What do you know? What are you an expert in?
  2. How do you know what you know? What taught you? Who taught you? What was a moment in time where you learned that lesson?
  3. Say those two things, over and over again.

The people who really listen when I share this advice with them have gone on to see the exact same results.

  • They started writing regularly on Quora and/or Medium.
  • They changed their bio to say, This is who I am and this is exactly what I do.
  • They started writing from a place of experience, sharing both what they know and how they learned it.

I’ve watched and helped people take this advice, put it into practice, and rack up millions of views on their content. I’ve watched them get republished by major publications. I’ve watched them become advisors on massively successful projects. I’ve watched them make huge leaps in their careers, all because they claimed their land and trusted the process.

I have more emails than I can count from people who have read something I’ve written, applied it to their own messaging, and seen its impact.

Now, here’s what happened to the people who failed to listen:

For every one of these success stories is a whole handful of people that want the “shortcut.”

  • They want their first article to go viral (it won’t).
  • They want every article to include the phrase, “…and that’s why we created our amazing patent-pending product that is revolutionizing this billion dollar industry.” (nobody cares—that statement doesn’t add value to the reader)
  • They want to know how they can get more press (if you trust the process this happens on its own).
  • They don’t want to share anything personal but they want to stand out (that’s like saying you want people to see your light but don’t want it to be dark outside).
  • They want all the big, shiny results, but only want to put out a few pieces of content (even Richard Branson and Elon Musk have to stay active on social media to stay relevant).

This is precisely why I say: You are both what you say you are — and what you do on a daily basis.

Imitation thought leaders are really great at the first part of that sentence.

They pay a PR firm to make sure columnists are saying incredible things about them: (“Enter: CEO Name, who has been amazing for over 20 years.”)

Their website is covered in self-promotional copy devoid of any substance as to how they actually do what they do: “We build meaningful partnerships between likeminded consumers and synergistic partners.” (Whatever that means)

They pump out content rigorously sculpted by an internal communications team that does absolutely nothing for a reader except push the company’s agenda.

But real thought leaders know their priority should always be on the second part of Principle #3.

and what you do on a daily basis.

You can’t expect a press piece to move the needle very much if the columnist is talking about what a powerful voice you are in your industry, only for a reader to Google your name and find a bunch of empty social profiles—or worse, nothing at all.

You can’t expect people to be loyal to you and your words if you aren’t loyal to them and their desire to learn something from you on a regular basis.

You can’t expect an ad to make someone sit back in their chair and say to themselves, “Wow, I really agree with that. I need to reach out to them. I need to work with this person.”

I don’t run ads. I don’t have a PR firm.

And yet, the exact type of person I want to work with shows up in my inbox on a daily, or at least weekly basis. How they found themselves writing me an email wasn’t because I tricked them into a funnel, or I had someone else talk about how great I am. They reached out to me because of pieces like this, where I shared 1) what I know, and 2) how I learned it—and the message resonated with them.

I’ve been shouting these things from the rooftops since Day 1:

  1. If you only focus on how much you can give, you never have to worry about who takes and doesn’t give back.
  2. There is no sense in debating the strategy of something unless the ship is already moving (“You can’t steer a stationary ship”).
  3. You are both what you say you are — and what you do on a daily basis.

Becoming a thought leader, working with the people you truly want to work with, attracting an audience, attracting the right kind of attention, even building a business around yourself isn’t rocket science.

It’s just, in order to do it well, you have to be willing to do 3 things most human beings struggle to do in their everyday lives:

  1. Focus on giving more than worrying about who is going to take and not give back.
  2. Trust the process and get to work before you fully understand the destination.
  3. Do it on a regular (daily) basis.

That’s it.

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