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Is your attitude problem creating an altitude problem?

Peter Switzer
14 October 2016

From the Weekend Switzer archives

Next week I go overseas to Thailand for three days! Fly over, do a speech and fly back! It’s hardly worth the jet lag ahead and I won’t have time to do my usual money-making trick I do on a longer holiday, though I have to admit, to offset these negatives, it is a paid talk. I must confess that I do live by a ‘philosophy’ that if anything is worth doing it’s worth doing for money.

When I get a chance to go overseas for a longer holiday or business – it often ends up being both – I do get a chance to read stuff that helps me do what I know I have to do to compete in business and that’s thinking outside the square.

I also reflect upon my attitude because one of the big take-outs of hanging out with highly successful people in business, sport, politics and even the media has been that your attitude determines your altitude or how high you go up the ladder of success.

Four years ago in Greece, Walter Isaacson taught me about Steve Jobs and Apple and how that success story was a function of the founders fanatical opposition to second-rateness. In New York six years ago, Malcolm Gladwell explained how high achievers put in 10,000 hours of hard work to get ahead of the pack in his book Outliers.

And in 2008, ahead of the GFC market crash, laying on a beach in Sifnos in Greece, a great piece of analysis in the now non-existent BRW magazine showed me that most of the country’s richest people/families made their money from starting businesses and investing in property! Interestingly, the writer did not conclude that but I did when I did analysed all the info provided.

On my last, long European holiday, the book I sunk my teeth into was Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best seller – David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.

Clearly, we all know the famous battle between the shepherd boy David, who ends up ruling Israel, and the giant Goliath but Gladwell analyses it to emphasise how the swift, the nimble and the outside the square thinker can come up with huge solutions to giant-size problems.

Like what problems? Well, try dyslexia and business success, Dr. Martin Luther King’s battles with racial discrimination, a broken-hearted father’s attempt to convert the state of California to a three strikes and you’re in jail solution to a crime wave and another father’s coaching of his daughter’s basketball team to a national championships by doing the opposite of all other coaches. The latter’s advantage was that he had never played basketball and learnt it on the job but he did bring thinking from other fields including his own work in Silicon Valley!

There were many thought-provoking aspects of this great read but I enjoyed the chapter on famous dyslexics who are some of the big names of business. They include Richard Branson, Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers, Paul Orfalea who founded Kinko’s, Charles Schwab – the huge US stock broker – and many more. Our own Kerry Packer suffered from the same problem and it’s said that his listening skills were legendary as a consequence.

Mark Bouris says when he met with Packer, who was a shareholder in Wizard Home Loans, it was a grueling experience explaining how the business was doing as nothing was missed and the related grilling on progress of the operation appeared to be akin to the Inquisition!

Gladwell looked at a trial lawyer, David Boies, who does some of the most famous court cases in the US, including the Microsoft one where it was accused on anti-trust violations.

How does someone become a lawyer and be dyslexic? Well, listening and developing a great memory and other strategies to acquaint himself with case law, such as having others read to him, for example, underlines the fact that having a disadvantage can actually bring out the best in people who want to win, succeed and make dreams come true.

Reading Gladwell’s book I often thought about how “attitude determines altitude” as the old saying goes but I also thought about something I picked up from an expert on innovation who explained to me that with great business ideas people often ask the question: “What if the opposite is true?”

Normal people might believe someone with dyslexia could not become a lawyer or an owner of an airline company or the creator of a worldwide business such as Kinko’s but that’s the point – the opposite can be true!

How many people thought like John Symond that they could get cheap money from overseas, get the support of the likes of Macquarie Bank in the early days, take on the Big Four banks at home loans and eventually be bought out by his old adversary – the CBA?

Most thought it was too hard, even impossible, but the opposite was true.

Who would have thought that a huge US-listed company such as Kodak would be shrunk into near oblivion by technological change and the arrival of something like an iPhone? But the opposite was true!

The lesson from Gladwell’s book is not that just if you have disadvantages you can use them to get stronger in other aspects of your life and this can give you a competitive advantage. No, I think it also says, and this is my important take-out from the book, if you want to stand out from the crowd, look at the assumptions that your rivals might hold as true and ask: “What if the opposite is true?”

People like Steve Jobs were always asking that question and that’s why something that Sony thought was irreplaceable such as the Walkman lost out to the iPod.

Gladwell tells a great story about Gary Cohn who wanted to switch from selling aluminum siding to become a commodity broker or trader. Some years earlier he had done an internship at a brokerage and he had enjoyed it.

He waited outside a Wall Street office block where they did commodity and options trading and overheard someone from the business who was talking about catching a plane and was in a rush to get to the airport.

Cohn said he was going there too and asked if he could share a cab and the guy said yes. They talked on the way to the airport and the executive said he was head of options but didn’t really understand them. So Cohn said he did and was promptly asked if he wanted to do an interview for a job on Monday.

He studied all weekend and by Monday was an options expert and he got the job and later became the president of none other than Goldman Sachs!

And even more mind-boggling is that Gary Cohn is dyslexic too!

Maybe in so many situations it is madness for anyone who wants to create a great business or covets being a CEO or who wants to be rich not to ask: “Is the opposite true?” when they think there are unassailable obstacles to them achieving their goal.

I am a great believer that it’s your attitude that determines your altitude and how high you fly, so if you have an attitude problem, it’s time to change that ASAP.

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