Self-Consciousness and Achievement.

All of us know some people in our circles who seem to be high-achieving at whatever they do, and I’ve been trying to figure out what the common traits are. So last week, over an excellent dinner at Traif in Brooklyn, I asked my friend Joe Kessler what trait he thought is shared by the high achievers he knows.

“Balls”, Joe answered immediately.

I wasn’t expecting that response, but I assumed his answer had to do with the notion that high-achievers had courage. However as I listened to Joe explain further I realized he was actually saying something much more nuanced than that.

“Most of us are too afraid that others are judging us”, said Joe, “and that keeps most of us from making that sales call, from dealing with that problem client, from speaking up at an important meeting. Most of the high-achievers I know don’t waste time worrying about being judged by others; they just get stuff done”.

I think this is a really interesting point, and honestly it really hits home for me because I definitely feel as if I have wasted too much time in my own life worrying about what others think about me. It turns out that, for the most part, people don’t think that much about you at all. They are too busy focused on their own lives to waste much time thinking about yours (I wish I had realized this earlier in my life).

Tim Westergren, the co-founder of Pandora, says that the best piece of advice he received was from his wife when she said to him “You need to stop being so self conscious”. It was the early days of Pandora and he had become very self-conscious about the fact that he was always asking investors for money and being turned-down, always trying to get partnerships and having the door slammed in his face, always going back to the same investors and asking for more money. That can be pretty depressing (I happen to know, from my own personal experience). It was only after his wife told him to stop being so damn self-conscious that he got over it and things began to take off for Pandora. They finally raised a big round of capital (from a VC who he had already pitched 5 times previously, incidentally).

Of this experience (and his epiphany), Tim Westergren writes “Fully understanding the low probability of success, but embracing it nonetheless, can actually give you self-confidence instead of self-consciousness.” Those are pretty important words for any entrepreneur to read and internalize.

So, I think my friend Joe’s dinner observation is an excellent one. High-achievers don’t waste time worrying about what others think of them. It didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix from walking on stage with a right-handed guitar hung upside down, it didn’t stop Alex Rodriguez from swinging from his heels in front of 54,000 fans, and it didn’t stop Steve Jobs from launching products that ran counter to conventional wisdom.

Understanding other people is important. But worrying about what they think of you is usually not a good use of time.

Sources: Tim Westergren’s post and Pando Interview.