Success boils down to how you react to challenges, adversity and obstacles.
Nearly twenty years ago in 2002, while at AskMen, I published Course to Success: Everything You Need To Succeed Beyond School. Having graduated from business school in 1999, the book urged business students – the leaders of tomorrow – to look beyond the tip of their nose in every sense of the world. The book’s first page referenced Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher stakeholder mindset, prioritizing employees and clients above shareholders.
From 2000-2005, I would go on to write hundreds of columns on management, leadership, entertainment, relationships, sports and interview hundreds of successful newsmakers. Dating back to my teens, I’d researched (and subsequently profiled) thousands of successful people. I was always fascinated by how people throughout history had channeled their insecurities, walked the fine line between sins and virtues, managed their emotions, processed their thoughts and made decisions. I was always drawn to how people reacted to adversity, overcame challenges and obstacles. The book encapsulated my interests, starting with history. Growing up, I was drawn to history, in particular Ancient Times (not surprising for an Iranian to be drawn to the Persian empire, and subsequently the Greek empire with which it clashed with, thus learning about Socrates, Aristotle and Plato). In fact, I was presumed I’d become a history teacher, until I went to CEGEP (the two-year program between high school and university in Quebec) where like many others I found answers in psychology.
The book was a stream of consciousness journey throughout history, chronicling military figures, politicians, entertainers and businesspeople. To avoid it being nothing but business stories, I had framed the journey into four themes:
- the principle of Yin-Yang: Balance and harmony (I’ve referred to Balance as a journey to a destination you never arrive to).
- Gestalt psychology: Pattern recognition and the sum of the parts being greater than each individual component (in other words i) how I assembled a team with a bunch of “no-names” – including yours truly – who built one of the iconic brands in media this century, or ii) tactically our four big bets).
- Plato’s principle of specialization and the premise of comparative advantage (again, ensuring the right person is positioned in the right role).
- Freud’s division of mind theory, which balance ego with essence, effectively.
It wasn’t a typical book for a 24-year old to write, but it was the amalgamation of a decade’s worth of research. In hindsight, if continuing to lecture undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate students at both McGill and Concordia was my “graduate” studies, I suppose Course to Success was my “doctorate.” For the record, I “only” have a bachelor’s degree in commerce with a specialization in finance, but while completing my business degree, I was taking philosophy classes which further led me down into Plato’s philosophy.
Repped by ICM since 2018 (and previously WME from 2016-18), I didn’t have an agent in 2002 but in typical entrepreneurial fashion I reached out to an executive at McGraw-Hill who showed interest in the book (partly due to the “platform” I had at AskMen to reach young professionals) but balked because “students don’t buy books.”
Undeterred, I proceeded to self-publish it, envisioning I’d likely publish many more books throughout my life. Using my search engine marketing know-how and promoting it off of my Young Professional column at AskMen, the book sold some 5,000+ copies. Nothing earth-shattering, but not too shabby.
By 2005, IGN Entertainment had bought AskMen; IGN itself was gobbled up by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in a $650M acquisition. Murdoch – one of the iconic builders in media – had mandated Ross Levinsohn to build Fox Interactive Media into a colossus after he’s paid $580M for MySpace parent Intermix.
Unbeknownst to me then, the typical reluctant entrepreneur and intrapreneur, the book’s worldview would go on to serve as the foundation to my subsequent business philosophy when I founded WatchMojo.
Today, when I see billionaires like Ray Dalio, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Jamie Dimon et al. join the growing chorus calling for “conscious / inclusive / progressive” capitalism to do better, I can’t help but feel a tad vindicated when hearing them talk about things like:
- Having a purpose (your essence) – ours is Here to Serve.
- Caring about stakeholders (vs shareholders alone).
- a caring and compassionate leadership style.
- Focus on culture.
- I would add a fifth key one, which is sustainability and independence, since counting on handouts and others is a recipe for failure.
Inasmuch as fifteen years ago this philosophy gave me a competitive advantage that allowed us to build a nice business in such an efficient and effective manner, I believe that the course to success for many managers and leaders is in recognizing the importance of social sciences and humanities – psychology, in particular – to manage and lead individuals. Of course, organizational excellence requires a good understanding of anthropology and sociology as well, but the one skill set that will be most differentiate the best leaders will be psychology, especially coming out of a pandemic.
As WatchMojo enters its fifteenth year of operations, we enter a new decade, come out of a pandemic and I am in my forties, I sometimes wonder if we are creating leaders that will be tough enough in the future, given the importance of persistence and resilience in success
While hitherto we refrain from asking new team members about the trauma and experiences that explain their current predicament, strength and weaknesses, in the future, companies will have counsellors and advisors as part of the team to help individuals communicate better, channel their emotions better, and more effectively process their thoughts into constructive and positive words and actions.
When I look at why and how I was able to recruit young talent, coach them for fifteen years (and the core team at WatchMojo remains intact: same 5 co-founders, same nucleus of 10 individuals) it’s largely because I was willing to look beyond OKRs and KPIs and understand people’s insecurities, drive and emotional cues needed to get the most of out each person.
Back then, people would roll their eyes when I’d refer to culture as a competitive advantage; today it’s become commonplace to talk like that. As I now turn the page and move from entrepreneur to advisor, investor and director, I urge the leaders of tomorrow to recognize that their course to success lies in understanding what’s happening in people’s minds. Here’s a recent conversation on competition, culture and change.