Going The Distance: How Successful Entrepreneurs Embrace Grit

Photo: courtesy of Michael Sonnenfeldt

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Today on the show I talk to a mega-entrepreneur and for those of you who have been following me for a while, you're gonna laugh, because he talks about why we need to take more vacations, and this year I haven't taken a single vacation yet, and we are in the second week of December. And his advice, his challenge of the day, to my horror, is to create a to-do list. Now, of course, in my book, Fifteen Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, that's like a big theme of my book, is that extremely productive people actually don't have to-do lists. They just put everything on their calendar and live from their calendar. I tell everyone, “Tear up your to-do list!” So you might wonder, in the interview, why I don't challenge him on this point, or at least, I don't know, educate him with my brilliant wisdom.

And there were two reasons. First, this show is a vehicle for my guests' opinions. Even if I don't share them. It's not, I don't want to trample on their message. This is an opportunity for them to share their message. And two, this was the 14th episode I recorded in less than 36 hours, and frankly, I was just too exhausted. I couldn't make the interview go any longer than it had. But I say, accept his challenge of the day. Write that to-do list. Prioritize it. But maybe next week, take all those things that are still on your list, and I'll bet a lot of those things are gonna still be on your list, and transfer them onto your calendar. When you have to pick a day, a time, a duration for every single thing, it forces you to make those hard decisions. It's not foolproof, but you'll find you're gonna get a lot more done with a lot less stress.

Our quote of the day: “Don't take too much credit for your children or too much blame.” From Debora Spar, the former president of Barnard College.

Now, our guest today began his entrepreneurial career by undertaking what was then the world's largest commercial renovation project. He transformed 2.4 million square feet of space at the Harborside Financial Center in Jersey City, New Jersey. Not far from where I live, actually. And he sold that project for 120 million dollars. He was 30 years old at the time, by the way. He's also the founder of Tiger 21, which is a pure learning company for high net worth individuals. He's the chairman of the publicly traded company, Carmanah Technologies, which is a solar energy company, and his new book is Think Bigger And 39 Other Winning Strategies From Successful Entrepreneurs. Our guest is Michael Sonnenfeldt. Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael Sonnenfeldt: Thanks for having me.

Kruse: So I'm looking forward to hearing about your book in just a minute, but I have a tradition, all of our first guests, all of our guests, I should say, get the same first question, which is, I'm hoping you're gonna tell me a time when you failed and what did you learn from it? Because I think failures can be stepping stones to greater things. We might not know where they're going, they might be painful at the time, but often we learn something that makes us a little bit better down the road. Do you have something you want to share with us?

Sonnenfeldt: I do. I was very fortunate to have my first entrepreneurial success developing a very large project in New Jersey, which my partner and I sold when I was 30 years old. One of the things that happens with young success is you really don't know what your limits are. So I assumed whatever I would do next would be as successful as I was the first time. So I started a business that turned out to be a terrible failure.

The lesson that I take from that is, first of all, when you're successful you're doing the things that you do well, but by definition you're not doing the things you don't do well, and you may never know what things you don't do well. Now, when you do something else, if it turns out to be something you don't do well, it's a painful but very important lesson. My point is that when I look for people who I would like to hire or join, an enterprise, I want people who have failed, not people who have just succeeded, because until people have failed, they don't begin to know what their limits and, actually, what their unique strengths are, so the part that I would say is failure is a key part of success.

Kruse: Well, I love that story. Partly because I also sold my business, the first time I sold a business when I was age 30, but I had failed twice before in my early 20s. The CEO of, Rudy Carson, when he was evaluating the company, says, “Kevin, part of why I want you is because you've already failed a couple of time.”

Sonnenfeldt: Exactly. Exactly.

Kruse: There's a lot to that. Now, Michael, your new book is Think Bigger And 39 Other Winning Strategies From Successful Entrepreneurs. So let's start with the obvious. Why should we think bigger and how do we go about it?

Sonnenfeldt: Sure. So it's a great question because we have a member, a man who is one of our facilitators in Washington named Cal Simmons, and he's kinda ‘Mr. Venture Capital' in Washington DC and he leads our two Washington groups for Tiger 21. He's telling us, you know, when he started out he wanted to have a travel agency and he built this first travel agency. He was so proud of it. That was like his aspiration. A friend of his came in and said, “Cal, this is great, where are you gonna open your second travel agency?” He said, “I was never thinking about a second travel agency,” and when that person started asking him that, he started thinking, “Well, maybe I can open a second,” and so he did and it was successful enough that he could open a third, and before too long, he had ten, and then sold the business.

And what Cal was saying is, the difference between great entrepreneurs and good entrepreneurs is great entrepreneurs are always just reaching a little further than they're grasping. They're always framing things in a little bigger perspective, and that is really motivational. It's not that they're so foolish that they want to be unrealistic and do things that can't be done, but think of the great entrepreneurs today. Facebook, two billion people connected by an idea. Or Microsoft with putting a computer on every desk. Amazon putting a shopping center on every desk. What you find is that the great entrepreneurs just keep pushing themselves to think bigger within the limits of the possible. It may be reaching beyond their grasp, but we're not talking about fools and saying, “I can climb to the moon,” but most people just don't have that natural ability and what's great about entrepreneurs is you can learn to be a better entrepreneur by following certain steps. That's what I'm doing in the book is trying to capture what are those things. And almost anybody who has any level of entrepreneurial success, if they are disciplined enough and creative enough can push themselves to think bigger.

Kruse: Love that. Love that. Another one of your lessons in the book, it's actually lesson five, you say ‘Grit beats IQ most of the time.' Let's start with what do you mean by ‘grit’? How are you defining grit, and why does that beat IQ most of the time?

Sonnenfeldt: So, first of all, I have to admit I'm a graduate of MIT, undergraduate and graduate. This is the most painful lesson in the book, because I'd like to think that intelligence beats grit all the time, but it just ain't so. There's so many people who have amazing intelligence, but they don't have the disciplines, the fortitude and the focus and the need for success or ambition that defines the great entrepreneurs. It doesn't mean that you can be a great entrepreneur and be stupid or foolish, it means that there are many people who have high levels of intelligence, but it's the ones who mix good intelligence and even great intelligence with grit. So what's grit? Grit means you have the single-minded focus to continue to work an issue through good times and bad. You pick yourself up every time you fall down, when you hit a wall you go to the left to get around it and the right to get around it, and you don't let the inevitable failures and rejections in life stop you.

Most people who start out, they work on a project and when they hit a wall or they hit a rejection slip or they encounter a failure, they wrap it up and go back to a job. It's the few who have the grit to just keep going, pick themselves up, jump from ladder to ladder that really go the distance in the entrepreneurial world.

Kruse: Makes a lot of sense to me. Now the one I fear, you talk about you didn't like that lesson yourself, your lesson 29 says, ‘take a lot of vacations,' and I'm embarrassed to admit, I haven't gone on vacation yet this year.

Sonnenfeldt: Okay, well, you're not ranking high in my entrepreneurial scale, but you may be an amazing, amazing success, so here's what I mean: There's some entrepreneurs that we think of like Steve Jobs who created amazing things. Most entrepreneurs are not inventors, per se. They see a product or a service or a need and they say, “I can do it better. I want to make the world a better place.” But no matter whether you're sort of an inventor or you're just trying to make the world a better place, you can only do it at high levels when you're connecting dots together. You're being creative. You're looking at things through a unique lens that gives you a competitive edge to accomplish things that others won't. The question is, ‘how do you get somebody's mind into a place where it can connect the dots?' This isn't just a logical thing of A to B and then C; it's how do I jump from A all the way to M and then to Z? How do I make those nonlinear ideas work and scale?

And so some people do it by prayer, some people do it by meditation, some people do it by analysis or psychoanalysis, but how many people have had these great ideas in the shower. You hear about this all the time. “I was taking a shower and I had this amazing idea.” Or how many people wake up in the middle of the night and say, “I had an incredible idea” and if they have the discipline, they actually write a note down, because when they wake up in the morning they see at three in the morning they had this idea.

All of these are variations of what I would call ‘vacation.' What it means is you need to put yourself in a place that gets out of the daily grind, that lets your mind relax and free associate so that you can create great ideas. So this notion of re-charging and getting a little distance is particularly critical for entrepreneurs on whose shoulders rests the need to generate creative ideas that can allow their company to leapfrog over the competition, or to create products that nobody else can figure out, or services that do better. You need to get away, and that's what this notion of taking a lot of vacations, it's anyway you can to free up your mind to be really creative is something that entrepreneurs really need to think about.

Kruse: I think that's great advice, Michael, and actually prior to this year, I've taken a lot of vacations. Big believer in real vacations for recharging. To your point though, I even think, LEADx, I don't know what number startup it is, and it's only a year old, all of the creative ideas have come either while I'm on the treadmill or on an airplane when I'm flying somewhere, whether it's a business meeting, and I purposely don't pay for the wifi or the connection, because I don't want the email, I don't want the instant messages. There is something about getting out of your environment, away from the hustle and bustle, and then the idea just start flowing in. Or, at least, for entrepreneurs I guess they do.

Sonnenfeldt: Yeah, for the successful ones.

Kruse: Right, right. Okay, so Michael, I always like to challenge the LeadX audience, I say, let's get better, a little bit, every single day. Let's try something new every single day. So what's something really practical, one of your ideas, or from your experience, that you could ask us to try out, like in the next 24 hours?

Sonnenfeldt: So there's a story, which I love, and I'm not even sure it's true, but it's true in essence, which is that a young man came to JP Morgan in the late 1800s and said, “Mr. Morgan, I have a system, a fool-proof system that will help you be more successful than you could ever otherwise be.” He said, “Well, tell it to me.” He said, “No, no. It'll cost you $25,000” which was an ungodly sum in those years. He said, “Young man, why don't you tell me the system, and I'll try it, and if it works I'll pay you.” The young man said, “Every morning get up, make a list of the ten most important things you have to do today, and do them.”

And it sounds so simple, but the act of keeping lists of what's important and keeping priorities, nobody who's busy and harried and has things pulling from them has the ability to juggle so many balls that at any moment they can take a snapshot and say, “What do I need to work on that's most important today?” I find that when I get into periods of stress, if I'm keeping a list, what it means is when it's late at night and I can't remember what's next, I might be working on the least important thing, but if I go back to that list and look at what the ten items are, I can quickly see what's the most important thing, I only have half an hour left in the day, this is what I have to spend the time on. I don't think there's anything more valuable than keeping lists and accomplishing the items on it.

Kruse: Fantastic. Michael, how can our listeners find out more about you and your new book?

Sonnenfeldt: The book, Think Bigger And 39 Other Winning Strategies From Successful Entrepreneurs is out, it's been out for a few weeks now, and it's available on amazon.com and the website is www.sonnenfeldt.com; SONNENFELDT where we have lots of information about the book and the stories in the book and some of the speeches that I've been giving around.

It's been an amazing experience to meet all of these people who are entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, and the most exciting is how many people who are parents of millennials read the book and say, “I have a 25 year old kid, or a 30 year old kid who's thinking about leaving their job. I've gotta get them this book because they have to read it before they jump and make the next move.”

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.