Facing the unknown in war taught this veteran entrepreneur about the power of accepting your own vulnerabilities.
March 14, 2019 5 min read
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Jeff was with me when I was deployed to Iraq. When the first shots were fired, Jeff was one of the first to fire back. When the bombs started falling and we took off into the desert approaching certain death, we knew it was us versus the fear. Would we make it out alive?
We never asked ourselves that. When you’re in a situation where there are no easy answers, you have to be careful what questions you ask — they can open the door to letting fear get the best of you. We never spoke of “what ifs.” We played the soldier role. We joked and laughed because laughing was our only defense against the fear. A slap on the shoulder meant, “I love you, brother.” And that was enough.
Related: How to Take the Right Risks
What I discovered on that battlefield with Jeff is the same visceral truth I am now paid to bring to boardrooms as a speaker and motivator. Emotional support and connection is the key to overcoming fear and doubt. That grounding is crucial to not just surviving, but also to thriving.
From conquering fear in a battle to conquering fear in the boardroom.
That mindset is exactly how 25 years after that battle with Jeff, I ended up working for Andrea Bocelli with zero experience and no industry contacts. For anyone who’s reading who doesn’t know who Andrea Bocelli is, he is the most acclaimed opera singer in the world. He is our generation’s version of Pavarotti.
So how did a former soldier end up working with this living legend? It started with a haircut — the most profitable haircut I’ve ever had. I was in a barbershop in Dusseldorf, Germany, run by an Italian guy who just happened to know a guitarist for Andrea Bocelli, who happened to be getting a haircut right next to me. We got to talking and from that conversation, I managed to score a meeting with Andrea and his wife in London the next week.
When I showed up for the meeting, Andrea wasn’t there. His wife Veronica Berti, who is also his manager, was there and, I mean this as a compliment, she is a tiger. I immediately felt the familiar fear creep in — the doubt and that feeling of being in over my head.
Luckily, I had practiced using fear, doubt and vulnerability as a way to deeply connect with clients. It’s the art of being fully present in the moment and having zero expectations of myself or those before me. Even though I didn’t know the music industry, I knew I understood business. And because I wasn’t wasting energy fueling the fear and doubt, I was able to make connections between my existing knowledge and the gaps in their business. I had done my homework, so I was able quickly to point out opportunities and show them how I could grow their business in a matter of weeks.
At first, she was shocked that I even had this information. Then I told her that I wanted a percentage of their take from the business I brought in — plus a retainer. She laughed in my face. No one in the music business gets a retainer. But twenty minutes later, I walked out of there with a retainer agreement that I kept for the whole 1.5 years that I worked with them.
Use fear to fuel your meetings.
Within two weeks, I was meetings with CEOs of the top record labels. And once again I showed up wholly and fully present with no expectations and used my vulnerability as my absolute strength. I did not talk about my education, my skills — did not go in guns blazing and chest out. When you’re exposed the way I was, a frontal attack will get your dreams killed. Instead, the people you are pitching must see in you the answer, a chance, a solution, or they must feel the connection to something intangible that makes them really want to work with you.
You don’t create this connection by fighting fear, you make it by befriending fear. Classic business training tells you to go in with a checklist, power points or some sort of cookie-cutter solution and then start mirroring and matching and using personality types to “close” the client. That might work for smaller, less experienced clients, but if that’s the toolkit you use in the big league, you’ll out yourself as a novice who is pretending to be an expert. You will not gain anybody’s trust that way.
I’ve won huge deals where I didn’t have half the credentials of my competitors because I chose not to compete on that level. I build trust by staying open and vulnerable. Like in that battle I fought in alongside Jeff, I don’t ask myself questions that give fear a chance to win — I’ve used my ability to crush fear and doubt as my superpower.