How to ‘Declare the Unreasonable’ & Achieve Extraordinary Success.
Imagine arriving your freshman year at Princeton and declaring that you will be the No. 1 crew rower in the country by the time you graduate, despite having no interest from a coach who has already filled his elite team with recruited athletes and despite having no prior experience in rowing. Can you imagine declaring, much less actually accomplishing, that feat?
Imagine that you fall in love with an island in 1978 and you get the insane idea in your head that you want to buy it. An entire island. Except you are told that it costs $6 million, and the most you could possibly pay is $160,000. You find a way to actually(!) buy it for $180,000 and it later becomes worth over $200 million.
How would you react if you were one of 24 people who applied as an hourly worker at Kentucky Fried Chicken and everyone but you gets a job offer? And you are told that you have “no potential” by KFC? And then you start two companies that also fail. Would you be able to push on and today be worth $40 billion?
The vast majority of people cannot imagine such scenarios because they believe that only the truly gifted or lucky among us have the motivation, the capability, and the resources (talent, financial and otherwise) to accomplish such achievements. Indeed, there are a complex set of attributes that the top 1% – 2% of business leaders, athletes, and performers possess that contribute to their success.
And in today’s winner take all economy, small margins of excellence add up to outsized rewards. For example, the average Major League baseball player makes $4 million a year. But if you can get one-half a hit more every 10 times at bat or get on base one more time for every 20 times you go to the plate, your average salary jumps to $8 million, or double the average. At the top of every field, these exceptional performers are able to produce outsized returns. The top 3% of computer programmers can code 1,200% more lines of code than average. And as you often see in the news, the top 1% of income earners control 38% of the wealth in our country, or more than the bottom 90% combined. To most people, it’s difficult to imagine being in select groups like these.
The fact is that not everyone wants to do what it takes to become exceptional; most are content to be average. There is a reason that the average American watches 4.5 hours of television per day and spends 2 hours per day on social media, while only managing to read 3 books per year. There is a reason that fast food restaurants serve 50 million Americans each day. Simply stated: It is easier.
Undoubtedly, the ingredients that lead to exceptionalism in an individual or organization are numerous, complex, and vary widely from case to case. However, if you are among the minority who yearn for something greater, there is a simple three-step process to follow. By “simple”, we don’t mean easy. However, we do mean these 3 steps can be applied successfully in almost any situation by anyone to achieve exceptional results.
THE THREE STEPS: Making the Mission Possible
1) Declare the unreasonable
In 1962, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to 35,000 people at Rice University in which he famously said, “We choose to go the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” Switch out “hard” for “unreasonable” and you have the first pillar.
When goal setting, many individuals and organizations are content to simply declare the reasonable or, perhaps, the reasonable plus a little more. But, when was the last time anyone got excited about the typical stretch goal? Cries of “We are going to do 10% better than last year” never seem to inspire the troops.
Declaring the unreasonable and shooting for the Moon, on the other hand, has an inherent power — a power that is unleashed in your own mind, as well as activated in the minds of the people around you. When you declare an unreasonable goal, immediate or longer term, whether it’s personal or for an organization, you and then others will rally behind it and put forth extraordinary effort to achieve it.
2) Launch the heat-seeking missile
In order to achieve the unreasonable, you have to get started towards the goal, even if your initial efforts prove to be off target. By definition, an unreasonable goal is one you don’t yet know how to reach. Hence, the analogy of the heat-seeking missile. You launch the missile in the rough direction of the target and the missile constantly adjusts its trajectory until it gets close enough to zero in on a heat source and then hit the intended target.
The main idea of launching the missile is that your first shot – or initial step – does not have to be big or aimed precisely. You often don’t even know where the target is. It is most important to simply get forward momentum in the general direction of the target. Take a step and then another. Be prepared for failure. This stage is all about trial and error, course-correcting, and moving closer and closer to that goal.
One bold example of launching a missile happened when Todd Davis announced on national TV that his social security number is 457-55-5462. And then told hackers to give it their best shot. Why would he do such a thing? He was the CEO of Lifelock, an identity protection company and he wanted to demonstrate confidence in his own product. That bold, unconventional action was a turning point in the company’s trajectory. Not only did his action captivate a national audience of millions, the subsequent publicity was a media bonanza of free press, leading to scores of new customers.
Ultimately, it does not matter what the first step is, as long as you take it and launch that missile. And, then take another step, then another, and then more…
3) Be a rhino
For those unfamiliar with the impressive stats of the rhinoceros: on average it weighs 5,000 pounds, can run shockingly fast — up to 25 miles per hour, has two-inch thick skin, and if cornered, it will simply run through the obstacle and refuse to back up. In other words, nothing can stop them.
Once the unreasonable goal has been declared, only “the spirit of the rhino” will carry you past the naysayers, the many failures, and all of the other obstacles that stand between you and your target. This is the stage where most people fail. They are told that their goal is impossible, so they give up. They are told they are crazy and to be more realistic. They run out of funding, or some other roadblock materializes and everything fizzles. This is really where the exceptional separate themselves from the average. They are relentless and resourceful. All those arrows being fired off by the doubters just bounce off their two-inch thick metaphorical skin, and they keep moving forward.
One of our Green Peak mantras to remind us of the spirit of the rhino is to “Risk a 3 to get a 9.” On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is an absolute “I’ll buy 100 of whatever you’re selling” and a 1 is “Never speak to me again,” most people try to be polite and standard and average when selling and maybe try to land at a 7 by being a 7. The problem is that a 7 doesn’t stand out and most often will lead to zero sales or success. But by being bold, unconventional, and most importantly, persistent and risking a strike out at a 3, you dramatically increase the chances of a deal-closing 9.
THE THREE PILLARS IN ACTION
An example of this formula at work can be seen in Graham Weaver, the founder of Alpine Investors, a San Francisco private-equity firm that consistently generates top percentile returns on every round of funding. While each of his ventures, including the three companies he bought with credit cards when he was still in business school, is representative of the three-step formula in action, we want to go back a little further.
Upon arriving his freshman year at Princeton, Weaver decided that he wanted to be the No. 1 crew rower in the country by the time he graduated. Here’s the problem: Weaver had not rowed a single stroke in his life. Reasonable goals might have included joining an intramural rowing club or practicing until maybe he was good enough to at least join the team by senior year. But, Weaver declared the unreasonable.
Weaver launched the missile by going to the coach, who was understandably nonplused by his request to join the team. Of course, he could not simply walk onto one of the top crew teams in the country, especially with zero experience. All of the slots were filled months ago with top recruited athletes.
Undeterred, Weaver ascertained that he could use the boathouse to train, which he did every morning, six days a week, at 5:00am. Most people would have walked away from this endeavor upon being told they could not join the team. Others probably would have abandoned it after a couple of weeks of training, an injury, or a late night of partying, which does, in fact, happen at Princeton, despite what you may have heard.
Not Weaver. He persisted at this for months, as any rhino would. Finally, a visiting alum, who happened to be one of the school’s top alumni rowers and an Olympic gold medal winner, noticed Weaver on the rowing machine in the boathouse. He asked the still bemused coach about Weaver, who muttered something about “crackpot…here every day…no chance in hell…”
The former rowing star asked Weaver what he was up to. Instead of saying something reasonable like, “I am training so I can maybe make the team,” he said, “I am training to become the top college rower in the country.”
It is impossible to say how history might have played out had Weaver simply said he was trying to get better so he could make the team. It is likely the alumnus would have walked away, and it would be the end of the story. Instead, Weaver’s unreasonable and bold statement immediately captured the attention of the alum, who walked over and checked out Weaver’s rowing times. The shocked rowing star quickly informed the coach that this “crackpot” kid was rowing times that were on par with, if not better than, half of the current varsity team.
The coach didn’t need much more convincing. At the end of the season, the team allowed Weaver to try out. He made the team, walking on his sophomore year. He continued to improve under the training of professional coaches. By junior year, he was named the captain, an honor usually reserved for seniors. And, in his senior year, not only did Princeton win the NCAA Division I rowing championship, but Weaver held the country’s top times in his weight class for several consecutive weeks. He was, in fact, the No. 1 rower in the nation!
Declare the unreasonable. Launch the missile. Be a rhino.
The formula works. It worked for Weaver. It worked for Richard Branson, who declared in 1978 that he would buy Necker Island in the Virgin Islands, which at the time cost $6 million. Branson only had $100,000! Through persistence and creativity, he was able to buy the island for $180,000 and now it’s worth well over $200 million. It worked for Jack Ma, who was rejected from KFC, told he had “no potential,” who’s first startup companies failed before he finally achieved success as the founder and CEO of Alibaba, the Amazon of China. It worked for the creators of Angry Birds, who people misperceive as an “overnight success.” In fact, they spent 5 years creating 51 games that didn’t take off and the company nearly went bankrupt before they hit the jackpot on game No. 52 with Angry Birds. It now has 2.5 billion downloads and nearly every human on the planet with a smart phone has played it. It worked for golfer Phil Mickelson, who spent thousands of hours mirroring his dad’s golf swing, which is why the right-handed Mickelson is a left-handed golfer. Mickelson hit thousands of balls day-after-day, in rain or shine, from every conceivable lie on the golf course, playing in tournaments every weekend while his friends were off enjoying normal teenage lives.
Do not make the mistake of believing that only exceptional people can achieve these results. It’s not exceptionalism that makes it possible for them to achieve the three steps. Rather, it is following the three steps that makes them exceptional. Being unreasonable, relentless, resourceful, and motivated to keep moving forward — all of this is free currency that anyone can access.
It is easy to look at someone at the peak of their journey, when they are at the top of their game, and conclude that this person achieved these heights because he or she is exceptional, as if the person was born with this trait. It is also easy to mistakenly assume that these individuals and teams achieved overnight success. What most people don’t see is all the hard work behind the scenes that involved declaring the unreasonable, launching the missiles, and charging through obstacles like a rhino.
The surprising thing about this formula is that it can be applied in all situations, from multi-year goals to something that has a much shorter timeline. It can also be applied to one person, a team, or an entire organization.
This formula can be applied to day-to-day activities, whether it’s completing a week-long project in two days, being the best spouse or parent you can be, or presenting a very bold idea in a business meeting.
Maybe you are leading your weekly team meeting. Instead of checking on progress or outlining the reasonable targets, ask each person what are three or four radical things they could do to make a big impact this quarter. Then ask them to pick one, declare it, launch the missile, and be a rhino. If they think you are crazy then send them this article from a firm, who – because of being unreasonable for the last 20 years — has now worked with over half of the top 25 US private equity firms, numerous Fortune 500 CEOs and their top executives, several self-made billionaires, and hundreds of other exceptional people including world class athletes and nonprofit leaders.
Yes, there is always going to be average. It is a statistical reality, as any bell curve demonstrates. But, imagine what can be accomplished if we move that curve to the right, so that the new average is what was once considered exceptional.
You can be a part of that shift. You now have the secret formula that has been honed on hundreds of executives that our firm has coached. What exceptional and unreasonable goals are you going to set? What missiles will you launch to get closer and closer to your target? And, what is your rhino plan to break through any obstacles that stand between you and your target?