Lessons on Authenticity from Aziz Ansari, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Salespeople

Photo Credits: NBC Universal, Times Free Press

Photo Credits: NBC Universal, Times Free Press

I encountered a few things over the last week or two that made the value of being authentic click for me, which I’d like to share with you.

Thing #1
The first was while sitting in traffic in my car, as I do every day while I slowly go insane from my awful commute, and I came across an old Freakonomics podcast guest starring Aziz Ansari of Parks and Rec and standup comedy fame. He's a thoughtful guy, and he also said something about how he chooses his material that stuck with me. It's at the 26:00 mark in the episode if you want to listen to it in the player below.

"I've been very careful about what I choose to do, and I only do things that I really like...If I did some douche-y show that I didn't like, I would probably have some douche-y fans that I don't like. But since I've done stuff that I'm proud of and respect, the people that come up to me are usually cool people." Now, I imagine it’s really tough for a comic starting out, not making much money yet, to turn projects down because they don’t think they’re cool. It takes a lot of integrity (and guts) to do that, but when it works, you come out the other side with your authenticity intact and reap the benefits.

Thing #2
I was at a drinks-and-dinner-and-more-drinks thing with some salespeople I know and a few of their clients. It was a relaxed setting, and I was at that perfect buzz where you're not drunk yet but you see the world a little differently than you normally do. When it comes to sales, I've usually been in the role of subject matter expert rather than relationship owner, and for me it's cool to see the latter role done really well. Watching someone ask for a seven figure commitment from a client the way I’d ask for a stick of gum (casually, and with total confidence it will happen), is interesting. I got the sense that these guys were turning professional relationships into personal relationships for a living, having fun with it, and doing really well at it. Have you ever met someone and thought, “You’re in the right job”? That’s what this was.

Thing #3
One of my readers responded to an article I posted on Medium about the mistakes I’ve made in my first real entrepreneurial venture with a link to a talk that serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk gave at USC in Los Angeles. I recommend watching the entire thing when you can.

Amidst the good advice and surprising, enjoyable profanity is this gem near the 4:30 mark: "You need to bet on your strengths, and don't give a **** about what you suck at." Most people will spend their whole career wasting time shoring up their weaknesses instead of betting on their strengths, and they won't be great at anything as a result. (It's also interesting to hear Vaynerchuk describe why he was such a terrible student because school was a game he didn't get - sound familiar?)

So, what did I take away from all this? After listening to/watching these people in the span of a few days, I realized that all the most successful people I see have zero difference between their at-work personality and their everyday personality. They've all figured out how to monetize who are they are. No matter what role or industry you’re in, that’s where you want to be.

Be True to Your DNA

Monetizing who you are means finding a role in which your natural style, how you like to work, and what you enjoy doing are exactly what your role demands. People who figure out how to do this are happy and productive. How could they not be? If what they produce is really valuable and in-demand, they’re sometimes extremely successful. You can't out-compete somebody at something they love more than you do. At minimum, the odds are against you.

Find Your Strengths

Monetizing who you are, which by definition means betting on your strengths, means you have to actually know who you are. I like Gary Vaynerchuk's advice on doing a self-audit, or if self-awareness doesn't come easily to you, finding someone who knows you well and asking them to assess you.
Wait…will people who lack self-awareness know they lack it? Oh-no...infinite loop...

This isn't about taking a skills inventory - you can be good at lots of things you don't like, and anyway the fact that you know Javascript or Photoshop doesn’t say anything about your personality. The question to answer for yourself is, what is it that I'm good at, really enjoy, and can create value from? Do you put people at ease right away when you meet them? Are you happy working on technical tasks by yourself? Do people just have fun working with you? Get into these kinds of questions and you'll see how different auditing your personality is from say, writing a resume. 

By the way, I wish I could recommend some books or tools that can help you with this, but I haven't used any. For me, writing frequently has actually been the thing that's forced me to get more comfortable being myself and break down the wall between my work self and my real self. I think that's mainly because it's just too tiring trying to be the person I think I should be over hundreds and hundreds of pages. Regular self-expression is good for that. So whether you talk to a friend or do it yourself, you've got to learn who you are.

Double Down. Then Triple Down

In the course of plotting my newest venture, UserMuse, I came across a great piece of insight about marketing from Auren Hoffman, former CEO of LiveRamp and currently of SafeGraph. Read it, and you'll see why I'm quoting it here:

Marketing is one of the toughest things to do well because there are just too many options. 95% of marketing professionals employ too many marketing tactics and essentially become adequate at many things and great at no things. In marketing, spoils go to the company that is great in a particular marketing tactic…If you try a tactic and it starts to work, focus all your marketing energies on just that one tactic until you become one of the very best people in the world at employing that tactic. Then keep working on that tactic and hire more people around that tactic so you get better and better at it. Then, when the tactic is working great and you are known as one of the world leaders in that area of marketing … then do it EVEN MORE. Triple down on it…Even multi-billion dollar companies likely have under 5 marketing tactics that work.

Auren’s observation reminded me of something I read once. Bob Young, the billionaire former CEO of Red Hat and open source pioneer, was asked by Roger Martin what he was good at. As multitalented as he obviously is, he answered, “I’m a good salesman.” That’s all.

Auren’s concept applies just as well at the individual level as at the company level. Figure out what you’re really good at, and find ways to do as much of that as possible so that you can become amazing at it. Then do even more. Auren’s point about how even hugely successful companies rely on just a few strategies will likely be true of your success as well. If you want to be majorly successful, you need to be majorly good at something. If you spread yourself too thin to be well-rounded, you might find that you average out your strengths and end up in no-man’s land.

To borrow another line from GaryVee, if you want to be an anomaly, act like one.