Becoming a Classic

Back in 1985, the Coca-Cola drinks company introduced a new twist on their popular soft drink, the much ballyhooed “new taste of Coca-Cola.” But when the coke-drinking public wasn’t buying it, the new formula was soon dumped and the old one re-introduced, re-branded as Coca-Cola “Classic.” The marketing executives learned very quickly that when Coke tried to be something it was not, it failed miserably.

I was reminded of this last month when I was in Berlin conducting a coaching workshop with my friend and fellow coach, Jerry Colonna. The audience was an energetic group of European entrepreneurs, all launching new businesses in the face of a shaky world economy. One of the questions that kept coming up was this: How do we create companies that reflect who we are and what we want to achieve?

The answer we gave was this: Be Berlin. Don’t try to copycat what has already worked in Silicon Valley or China or Brazil. You must divine whatever it is that makes your offering totally unique, and then find clever ways to share it. Certainly, there are businesses that are successful simply by imitating other operations. But typically they are unmemorable, don’t last long and make little real contribution beyond the bottom line. The term used in advertising is Unique Selling Proposition (USP). It is also your brand. (Yes, even as individuals, we are a brand.) As I said at the WIE Symposium last week, whether you’re an artist, a business person or a startup tech company, it’s worth considering what makes yours unique. Think of the books, art, movies, teachers, people who have had the greatest impact on your life – chances are they were all originals. Somehow a Picasso always “looks like” a Picasso. Salinger just sounds like Salinger. A Quentin Tarantino movie always “feels like” a Tarantino movie. There is no mistaking their fingerprints for another. A big part of success in any endeavor is learning to sing in uniquely your own voice. You can have the snazziest brochures and the best sales team in the world, but it all means nothing if you don’t know what it is that makes you different. For myself, it was figuring out that I was naturally good at helping people to navigate the corporate world. I had been in their shoes, I had worked at their desks, and I knew what the challenges and points of pain were. And people responded well to that. If you’re having trouble finding your own voice, it’s likely that others are too. What are some of the things you can do to help you find it?

Know Thyself

Knowing your strengths – and weaknesses – is the first step to carving out an identity that is authentically your own. Call a friend if you’re having difficulty naming it. Most of us have a simple “knack” for doing something well, but all too often we discount it just because it comes easily to us. We don’t trust it. What smart people do is figure out the parts that they’re good at, focus on that, and then find other people who are equally good at all the other parts. Most of the really successful partnerships in the last hundred years are all founded upon this simple premise: Bernie Taupin and Elton John; Woodward and Bernstein; Jagger and Richards. All greater than the sum of their of their individual parts. Swim in Your Own Lane
It’s hard to swim in a straight line when you’re busy watching over your shoulder at what the other guy is doing. You know the one that’s swimming faster, more easily and more gracefully than you are? Self-comparison is a no-win game, and one of the shortest roads to hell. To wake up from this nightmare, recognize that everyone has their own set of skills, their own set of challenges. And no two paths are alike. Notice when your mind wanders over into the other lane, and then gently bring the focus back to your own stroke. The goal is to embrace your own journey. Your potential. Know Your Why
What is your purpose? Why are you doing this? Are you doing it out of duty, out of fear, out of desperation? Hopefully not. Work at its very best is “love made visible” as Kahil Gibran once said. Of course, not everybody has the luxury of choosing a job for the love of it, but we must all learn to find the deeper meaning in the work we do, no matter how humble or mundane it may seem at times. You don’t need to be building orphanages or saving the rainforests, but you do need to look for (and find) the nobler purpose in your work. This is the answer to all ennui and burnout. It’s also the single most powerful motivator known to mankind. In an increasingly homogenized world, it’s easy to forget that we are each something truly special. Each of us is a totally unique and miraculous creation – a genuine spark of divine inspiration. Just like Coca-Cola, you have your own “classic” formula. So use it. Sing it out loud and you might just find your own voice. Hold back and it’s unlikely you ever will.