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Part One: How the Slight Edge Works1. The Beach Bum and the MillionaireI’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.
— attributed to Sophie Tucker (and many others)
I want to tell you about two friends I’ve known since I was a kid, guys from my old neighborhood in New Mexico. These two characters grew up together, went to school together, graduated together, and roomed in college together. They were both pretty personable guys, and I got along with both of them. They had tough childhoods, though, and by high school they had both earned the reputation of “troublemaker.” Still, they both had more than enough drive and ambition to make up for whatever strikes they had against them. When you add it all up, in terms of their skills and potential, I would say they were evenly matched. In fact, they were almost identical in every way.
Every way except one—which was the different paths they took, and where they led.
The first friend dropped out of college, moved from New Mexico to Daytona Beach, Florida, the spring break capital of the world, where he became a beach bum, lifted weights, chased girls, and let his blond hair grow long and curly. People started calling him Gorgeous George, after the flamboyant WWE wrestler who brought pro wrestling into America’s living rooms. My friend was pretty popular, in a big-fish-in-a-small-pond way. But he was a beach bum, caddying to make ends meet, sweating in the sun while he lugged around bags of golf clubs for the wealthy. Frustrated and unhappy, he eventually left Daytona Beach and went back to New Mexico, where he went into business for himself. And what happened? The business failed and Gorgeous George lost everything.
Then there was my other friend, Gorgeous George’s buddy. As an adult, this guy led a charmed life. A straight-A student at college, he went on to business school and graduated at the top of his class, then got recruited by a gigantic tech firm, built a stellar résumé, and went on to create a string of entrepreneurial ventures, each one more successful than the last. Today his life is rich in every way. He has a beautiful, amazing daughter, thousands of friends around the world, runs a record-breakingly successful company, and is happy beyond measure. Yet he still stays in touch with his childhood friend the beach bum.
In fact, they stay in very close touch.
I often think about these two guys, because I know that I could have been either one of them. Matter of fact, I was. Because here’s the one piece of the story I left out: the reason those two guys were roommates all those years, and the reason they are still in constant contact today, is that they are one and the same person.
They’re both me.
That college dropout who became a frustrated beach bum, who eventually took his shot at business but bottomed out there too? That was yours truly.
That straight-A college graduate who went on to create one business success after another, who became a millionaire with a fabulous family, friends all over the world and a richly happy, fulfilled life? Guilty as charged.
I’ve been blessed with a lot of success in my life. But I sure didn’t start out that way. I started out as Gorgeous George the college-dropout caddy. And I’ll tell you a secret: I’m the same person today that I was then. Not that I haven’t changed a lot through my experiences; we all do that. What I mean is, deep down inside, I’m really no different than I was then. It’s not as if I had any sort of lightning-strike overnight transformation. I did not go to a mountaintop, did not experience enlightenment, did not have a near-death experience that showed me the truth of universal brotherhood. (Although I did go through some pretty terrible failures that at the time sure felt like near-death experiences.)
I didn’t change who I am as much as I changed what I did.
I didn’t change who I am, because no matter what the gurus and therapists might tell you, I don’t believe any of us can really do that. I mean, we are who we are. The kid who became a frustrated beach bum was never anything but average: average at schoolwork, average at sports, average in social skills. The incredibly fortunate and deeply happy man I am today is still that average kid, no more, no less, and I say that without an ounce of false modesty. The only reason I’ve made the transformation from there to here is that somewhere along the way, I’ve had the good fortune of being exposed to the slight edge.
How I got from there to here—and how you can get from wherever you are to wherever you want to be—is what this book is about.
My Day of Disgust
The transition from beach bum to millionaire did not happen overnight. It was a long, slow, at times painful roller-coaster process, because frankly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t yet have the key you’re getting in this book: I didn’t know about the slight edge.
I was working it out by trial and error. Lots of error.
I was born and raised in Albuquerque. My dad died when my brother, sister, and I were just kids, and somehow my mom held everything together. She was a terrific mother, a loving and constant presence in our lives. But it was still a rough way to grow up, as a fatherless, blond-headed kid in a Hispanic neighborhood where he didn’t fit in. I didn’t know what to do with it all, so I channeled my energy into mischief and misbehavior. A few years before my dad died, when I was in the third grade, my teachers had informed my mom that I had a low IQ. Now I started proving the point, and pretty quickly had gained that “troublemaker” reputation. While my mom worked her way through the years, I struggled my way through school.
By age eighteen, it was clear to anyone who knew me that I didn’t have much of a future.
I begged my way into the University of New Mexico. At college, I built upon my previous academic career and succeeded in taking my C average down to a D average. I did learn one thing, though: I learned that when spring break came, all the students went out east to Daytona Beach for a week to party hard. I thought I could do them one better—I quit school altogether and moved there.
In Daytona Beach I pursued my first calling, as the beach bum with the long curly locks. To make ends meet, if you can call it that, I took a job at the Orlando Country Club cutting the golf course grass.
One day, as I was cutting the greens under the scorching Florida sun, I paused to watch the wealthy club members playing golf all over the porcelain-smooth grass I had just cut for them. Watching them hum to and fro in their zippy golf carts, in their dapper golf outfits, with their classy golf bags filled with expensive golf clubs, I felt a burning question simmer up inside:
Why is it that they’re over there riding in carts, and I’m over here working? I don’t get it!
How come they were over there putting, while I was over here cutting? Hey, I was as good as these people were. Why did they get to have it ten times, twenty times better than me? Were they twenty times better than me? Were they twenty times smarter, or did they work twenty times harder? I didn’t think so. I felt like there was something going on here that I should get, something that ought to be crystal clear, but that for me was as clear as mud.
It all just seemed so … unfair.
For whatever reason, as happens in so many people’s lives, I found myself staring squarely at a fork in the road, a point I now refer to as my day of disgust: that moment of impact we sometimes hit in our lives when we come smack face to face with our circumstances and, without having a clue to the what or how of it, make a decision to change.
In that instant, standing there sweltering in the brutal Florida heat, I came to just such a moment of decision. I suddenly knew that I’d had it up to here with where I was and what I was. Something clicked; the tumblers in the lock fell into place; and I knew that I could never go back to where I’d been only moments earlier. I knew that for things to be different, I had to do something different.
I had found one piece of the puzzle. Only a piece, and not nearly enough to find my way to genuine lasting success. But enough to get started on the path of pursuit.
On the heels of that day-of-disgust epiphany, I walked away from the golf course, loaded my stereo and clothes into my 1964 Dodge Dart slant-six (all my possessions fit easily into the back seat with room left over for a passenger), and took off for Albuquerque. The car kept overheating so bad that it took me six days just to get to Texas. It was the longest trip of my life—and not just because of the crappy car, but because of the distance I traveled in my heart and soul. When I arrived in New Mexico, I had resolved that I was going to forever leave behind the land of mediocrity and start inhabiting the world of high achievement. I was going to pour it on, go on all eight cylinders (okay, for the moment that would be all six cylinders), and do whatever it took to move my life ahead.
As I said, all my life I had been no better than average at anything I’d done: average grades, average in athletics, average social skills. I knew that the only way I could ever become anybody was by working harder and being more persistent. If I wanted to have a prayer of a chance of getting on the team, I had to work harder in the practices. If I wanted to impress somebody in the social world, I had to work harder at it. If I was going to get good grades, I would have to study harder. So I did. That semester, for the first time in my life, I got straight A’s. I went on to business school and graduated at the very top of my class—and the rest, you could say, was history.
Except that it wasn’t. I didn’t know it yet, but just working harder doesn’t do it. If it did, then everyone who works hard would have made it. All you have to do is look around you and you can see that this isn’t the case. The world is chock full of people who are working their butts off—and still getting their butts kicked by circumstances.
I was about to find this out.
Fresh out of college, I went to work at the Albuquerque International Airport, where I continued to pour it on and work my tail off. In what seemed like no time at all, I had become one of the youngest international airport managers in the country. I was such hot management material that I was recruited away from the airport by the Dallas-based tech giant Texas Instruments, where I worked for the next five years and went to the company’s top management levels. But corporate America wasn’t for me. There was a lot of politics, which I hated, and it didn’t feel like I’d yet found the place where I belonged. And I was clearly on a superachieving roll, right? Honestly, it felt like I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. Like I’d learned the magic words, found the secret formula.
So I struck out on my own and set my foot on the entrepreneurial path.
Moving back to Albuquerque again, I started a solar energy company. I knew nothing about solar energy; I barely knew whether the sun came up in the east or in the west. (East, it turns out.) But with four hundred solar companies in the state, New Mexico was the capital of the budding new industry, so ignorance or not, the smart course of action seemed clear.
And at first it looked like I had indeed made a very smart decision. Within two years, my company was in the top twenty in the nation, and before long we became the fifth-largest solar energy company in America.
I was thrilled. On top of the world.
What I didn’t yet know was that nothing ever stays the same. Everything is in motion, always. Everything changes. And that was what happened next. Times changed. Tax laws changed. Our industry was hit hard. Before I knew what was happening, my company had collapsed and I had lost everything, gone back to zero and below—owing more money than I could ever even hope to make again.
I couldn’t believe it. My superachievements had turned to dust right before my eyes. My millionaire life had evaporated, leaving me right back in beach bum land: the guy with nothing.
They even took my car.
My Night of Despair
The night my car was towed away I sat there despondent, in disbelief. Years earlier as a failed college student I’d had my day of disgust. Now the other shoe had dropped, and as a failed entrepreneur I’d just arrived at my night of despair.
I could not comprehend what had just happened to me. After living as a failure all my life, I had waked up one day and come to my senses, gone back to college, applied myself like crazy, entered at the bottom and graduated at the top, worked for a major corporation for five years and went to the very top there, built my own company in less than five years and gone to the top there. I had built myself from a failure into a success. And now, after twelve long years of upward travel, I’d somehow arrived back at the bottom?
Sitting there in that lonely, empty apartment, I was more broke than I’d been when I was Gorgeous George strutting on the beach in his cut-offs.
Twelve years of blood and guts, and for what? I just could not wrap my head around it. I couldn’t see the justice or even the logic of it, of any of it. I felt like that teenager again, confused and angry at a world where nothing made sense. Was life just inherently unfair, with no rhyme or reason to it? Was there no point in even trying?
That was when I began to examine more carefully what had happened in my life.
This time, it was no epiphany. This time, it wasn’t like that moment on the Orlando golf course. There was no switch I could throw in my life, no sudden resolution to make things better. I’d already done that, and look at where it had gotten me.
No, this time I needed to sit down and start carefully, methodically, systematically sorting through the mixed up pieces of my shattered life. There had to be some logic here, and I had to find it.
So, let’s see…
I had been a college dropout, a beach bum and complete financial failure. And I had also been a straight-A student, top corporate manager, superachieving entrepreneur in a cutting-edge industry and complete financial success. And all of those had been the same person. So what was the difference? It made no sense.
Or did it?
The more I looked at it, the more it seemed to me that this roller coaster was not a matter of bad luck or a fluke of circumstance. It couldn’t be. There was something about what I was doing that wasn’t working. But on the other hand, there had obviously been times when what I was doing had totally worked.
So what was the difference?
For the first time, I began to see that over the years of my career I had gone through a sequence of experiences that held the secrets to success as well as to failure. I began to see that the seeds of both beach bum and millionaire lay in the simple actions I took every day.
Escaping the Curse of the Roller Coaster
Up to that point, I knew I was average. If I had continued accepting that as simply the way things were, then nothing much in my life would have turned out for me. The shift in my life began happening when I stopped taking it for granted that just because I was an average guy, that meant I was doomed to no more than average results.
I now started questioning whether this was true. I began doing a systematic review of my life and taking a very close look at my actions and my results.
Here is what I saw:
When people are looking down the barrel of failure in their lives, they will do whatever it takes to get themselves moving, Something, anything, to start climbing upward toward the point of survival. And then, once they get to the point where they’re keeping their heads above water, they start heading back down again. As they start getting close enough to the failure line that they can see it coming, they go, “Whoops, I’m headed towards failure!” and then they do whatever it takes to turn their trajectory around and start heading back up … and the cycle repeats.
That’s what I’d been doing. And that’s what so many people do, living their entire lives like this, oscillating between failure and survival, striving toward success and maybe even reaching the level of success, but then invariably turning back and heading downward again. We do this in our finances, in our health, in our relationships, and in our lives as a whole.
Well, you could say it’s because we sabotage ourselves, for all kinds of reasons. Our daddy was mean to us, so now we’re mean to ourselves. We’re conflicted, because society sends us mixed messages. We have bad karma because in a past life we were an Egyptian princess who was unfairly put to death by our cruel uncle the magician. And you know, maybe some of those things are true for you. Heck, maybe they’re all true. I have no idea, and truthfully, I don’t really care. Because none of that matters. The truth is, whatever other factors may or may not be there, the only reason we keep following this roller coaster of almost-success and nearly-failure, this sine wave of mediocrity, this curse of the average, is that we’re missing one simple point.
That was the point I stumbled on.
As I began examining my successes and failures, what I gradually realized was that the very same activities that had rescued me from failure, that had carried me from the failure line up to the survival line, would also rescue me from average and carry me from the survival line to the success line—if I would just keep doing them.
And that was exactly the point: that was exactly what I wasn’t doing.
Once I got a little way above survival and was starting to head up into the warmer waters of success, without realizing it or thinking about it, I would stop doing the things that had gotten me there. Naturally, I would then start sinking back down again, back down toward survival and beyond, back down toward the failure line. And I did that every time.
That’s the only reason our lives follow that roller coaster. It’s that simple. As soon as we get away from failure and up past the line of survival, we quit doing the things that got us there.
You know what that means? It means you already know how to do everything it takes to make you an outrageous success. That’s how you’ve survived up to this point. And if you can survive, then you can succeed. You don’t need to do some brilliant, impossible thing. You don’t need to learn some insanely difficult skills, or have some genius-level brainstorm of an innovative idea. All you have to do is keep doing the things that got you this far.
Which is exactly what 99.9 percent of people don’t do.
What those things are, why most people don’t do them, and how you can live an outrageously happy and successful life by doing them, is what this book is all about.
Beach Bum or Millionaire?
The reason I’m telling you the story of the beach bum and the millionaire is that it’s not only the story of my life.
It’s the story of your life, too.
You have both a beach bum and a millionaire inside you, a potential failure and a potential success. We all do. What makes the difference in how things turn out? Actually, you do. The truth is, you have complete control over the direction that the rest of your life takes.
Since that night of despair I have built some very successful businesses and earned more money than I ever dreamed of back when I was a corporate manager or solar-energy entrepreneur. I’ve also experienced more joy and fulfillment in my relationships than I knew was possible. I am about to turn sixty, and I am healthier, more energized, and more alive today than I was ten years ago. I am happier today, have better relationships, and a more satisfying professional life, than I did ten years ago. (And ten years ago, things were already going pretty well!) In fact, my life today is better in every way than it was ten years ago. And I expect to be saying the same thing ten years from now.
Of course, I could lose it all tomorrow. It’s happened before; I’d survive. But there is something I cannot lose, and with that one thing I could start from scratch and build it all back up again, and do it in record time. That one thing is the slight edge.
One more thing: when I say “millionaire” I’m not talking purely about money or financial success. I’m using the term here as a label for success, but it’s only a label, a metaphor, just as “beach bum” is only a metaphor. When I say millionaire I mean someone with a million-dollar smile, with a million friends, with a million dollars’ worth—heck, a billion, a trillion dollars’ worth—of joy, love, contentment, fulfillment, great relationships, curiosity and fascination, passion and enthusiasm, excitement and accomplishment … a fortune’s worth of life in their life.
I want that life for you.
Essential Points from Chapter 1• The same activities that take us from failure to survival would also take us from survival to success—if we would just keep doing them.
• You already know how to do everything it would take to make you an outrageous success. All you have to do is keep doing the things that have gotten you this far.
• You have complete control over the direction that the rest of your life takes.
• There is a beach bum and a millionaire inside each one of us. What makes the difference in how things turn out? You do.