I’m talking with Julien Smith who has, almost literally, walked through the incarnation of his challenge to us all to face our fears: The Flinch (you can read Pt1 of the interview here).
I ask the question that I’ve had burning away in my mind from the outset, “How have your own words impacted on your career path?”
“I don’t know but I’ll tell you the way I felt about it – it’s been seven years. Going back to that place, I had written another book. It was with a publishing house and I’d received an advance for that. So, at the time I was thinking of writing a book every year then going out and doing talks, which was my life at the time. But I also had this idea for a company, though I had no idea how to do it. I’d also just written The Flinch, which was saying ‘what kind of person are you and what kind of person do you want to be?’”
Julien was faced by the type of dilemma that he could flinch from or face up to.
“I could have just kept doing what I was doing for the rest of my life if I wanted. Or I could take the extreme risk and try this completely insane thing. In deciding to do it I didn’t really have a choice because I’d just written this book which dares people to do the thing that makes them uncomfortable. I would be the biggest hypocrite if I didn’t do it. To a degree The Flinch forced my hand – though it didn’t force me to succeed. I don’t think I would have gotten to this point of actually doing it if I hadn’t written that book”.
The risk he’s talking about is Breather, the flexible workspace provider he founded with long-time friend Caterina Rizzi. Six years later, the ‘Uber for private workspaces’ is flourishing across Canada, North America and now Europe. Julien Smith is the CEO. It’s hard to imagine anything further from the anguished author, wrestling with his doubts whilst dragging himself across the Pyrenees. This won’t be lost on any of his several hundred employees, so I ask, “How does The Flinch philosophy go down in Breather?”.
“Actually, many of the people in the company have read the book, but that happens when they are thinking of joining the company and it makes them want to work here. When people read it, they know what kind of person I am. It does a degree of self-selection”.
I can’t help but interject with my own ‘self-select’ story. In one instance I persuaded one of my higher performing team members to read the book, despite her initial reluctance. Finally, she agreed, and the following week handed in her notice saying that The Flinch had given her the courage she needed to make a career change.
Julien has the sensitivity to hedge his reaction to this story until I assure him that, not only do I find it funny but that it was also the best thing for the team member in question. He picks up the theme,
“Another interesting thing is, I used to believe that you just had to push yourself beyond your own risk tolerance but actually I realise now, as any good coach will, that people have their own self-selecting methods. You can push them 10 to 20 percent out of that limit but you can’t push them 100%. Some people I work with now, it’s their first job and they are on the phones – so they just want to pick up the phone!
People have their own self-selecting methods. You can push them 10 to 20 percent out of that limit but you can’t push them 100%
You go from there to someone who has their first major level up and you’re giving them a pay raise and you think they’re going to make a difference. It’s pretty interesting. I realised that in order to push those boundaries you need this realm of safety. You can’t just keep pushing and pushing. You have to decide yourself – your risk tolerance is appropriate to where you are. You can push 30% past that, but you can’t push 100% past that. It’s to do with how safe you feel and how supported you feel in light of all those negative things. The Flinch is not a negative book but it’s very provoking. It says things like, ‘you’re actually much safer than you think you are’ but it doesn’t say, ‘find a safe place where you can try these things’”.
It seems I was on the right track highlighting the difference between the pilgrim author and CEO. They’re both Julien Smith but they’re faced with very different challenges. I ask how he deals with the level of feedback he gets in the role of CEO versus the isolation of writing?
“Well, I think for me what happens is you get confronted. A friend once said that you are constantly grappling with your own inability to do things. If you do something by yourself there is a lot of room for denial but when you are surrounded by a lot of people, they will tell you if you’re doing something wrong. If you’re surrounded by confident people, as I am, everyone will challenge you”.
I’ve worked with many CEOs and, sadly, those I’d want to work for are in a small minority. Usually it’s because of their own lack of self-awareness. I ask Julien if, coming from the starting point of an author, self-awareness is key to his success?
“In my view you get a lot of highly ambitious people who are arrogant and believe that they can take on the world but they have very low self-awareness. In my case I have a high level of self-awareness whilst at the same time keeping a sort of arrogance. So, I have this combination of self-awareness but at the same time I know ‘I’m going to figure this out’, which is an unusual combination”.
What we’re touching on is the failing of many, despite driving their businesses, to fulfil their personal potential.
What we’re touching on is the failing of many, despite driving their businesses, to fulfil their personal potential. I ask the question, “How do you continue to be the best you can be?”.
“As long as you’re in a place of discomfort I think that you will learn something. You might not learn things that you’ll like but you definitely learn things. The outer world is challenging and very well understood – you understand how gravity works and things like that but a lot of us haven’t learnt to look in the internal space”.
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Julien recounts the story of a Zen master he met at the Zen Mountain Monastery based in the Catskills outside of New York,
“This guy was 70 and headed things up. He was a paediatrician in Poland from the ages of 20 to 40. Then he had something that happened and changed his life to a completely different direction. The raw exposure that they have to their own psyche is amazing. They’ve grappled with so much uncertainty that they are aware of themselves. Going from not knowing much about yourself to knowing about yourself is riddled with high amounts of suffering. But they come out the other side with an understanding that gives them this warmth”.
“And to keep improving? To keep pushing?”
As long as you’re in a place of discomfort I think that you will learn something
“I would argue that it’s so simple. There’re so many simple things that you can work on. A friend of mine runs a company in Silicon Valley, he ran it for five years and then he became an extreme athlete and I thought ‘of course you are’. If you run a company it requires an endurance and a tolerance for ambiguity. At any given time, there are people at your company who don’t believe in you but you continue. You are constantly dealing with very challenging things – so these people kind of self-select into this industry. Then there’s the CEO who is hugely fat. That’s who they are and that’s ok. There’s actually plenty of challenge that they attack but there’s also plenty of challenge they didn’t attack. At some point it just becomes a choice, which is based on what kind of person you want to be. Where am I going to go after something and where am I not? And that’s my choice. It’s about being able to accept that”.
For now, there’s one last thing I want to know about The Flinch. The book immediately grabbed me because it starts with one of the of the most visceral, stripped back sporting environments possible, “The Flinch starts in a boxing gym – is that a metaphor or is it real and something you observed?”.
Julien seems delighted that his answer won’t disappoint me,
“That’s a real gym – it’s called ‘Hard Knocks’ in Montreal. It really had a sign above the door that said ‘VIP entrance’. My girlfriend is a powerlifter and we were both lifting at this gym and it became this metaphor of: you can walk in the door or, you could not walk in the door and your mindset will dictate what you do inside”.
There you have it. You are invited to walk in the door. Read The Flinch. Face your own flinches. Become your own champion. And let Julien and me know how it goes.
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*Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith
**The Dip by Seth Godin. This is the blurb you’ll find on Amazon about the book: Every new project (or career or relationship) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point – really hard, really not fun. At this point you might be in a Dip, which will get better if you keep pushing, or a Cul-de-Sac, which will never get better no matter how hard you try. The hard part is knowing the difference and acting on it. According to marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin, what sets successful entrepreneurs (and pop stars and weight lifters and car salesmen) apart from everyone else is their ability to give up on Cul-de-Sacs while staying motivated in Dips. Winners quit fast, quit often and quit without guilt – until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons. You’ll never be number one at anything without picking your shots very carefully. The Dip is a short, entertaining book that helps you do just that. It will forever alter the way you think about success.