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Can you succeed in your business and not be cutthroat?


When I was seven years old, I sucker-punched a bully. 

He wanted something I had and he demanded it from me. I said no. Then he did that thing where he puffed himself up and got in my face to intimidate me.

I was looking at the ground the whole time, but then, without thinking, I reared back and hit him in the stomach as hard as I could. He went down like a bag of hammers.

I had never done anything like that. And I felt absolutely great about it. 

I received the spoils of my victory. I got left alone. So did a few other people, but I didn’t care about them and they didn’t give me any credit. Life is not a Disney movie. 

I also got into a world of trouble for it. Teachers, parents and other figures of authority immediately stepped in and started screaming at me and grounding me. There were no winks and no nudges. 

Life is not a Disney movie.

But I’m glad it happened that way, because I soon felt horrible about it. And that would go on to shape who I became. 

Unfortunately, the person I became isn’t as successful as the person I might have become.

Because I’m not OK with screwing people over. 

That is to my detriment. And I’ve accepted it.

Look, I’m no saint. I’m not trying to tell you which side of the ethical fence you should live on. I’m just trying to remind you that you will eventually and frequently come face to face with having to make an ethical sacrifice in order to succeed.

And if you’re not prepared to make the right decision – sometimes on the spot – you’ll be inclined to make the wrong one for you.

This cuts both ways. For every two decisions I’ve made to keep myself on the clean side of the ethical fence, I’ve made another that kept me from rightfully getting ahead for no good reason. In other words, I’ve definitely thrown hurdles in my own way based on my own stupid prudence. 

In a discussion with a mentor just last week, we were talking about a specific business model and how far up to the edge we should walk. 

Two things:

One: In no uncertain terms, he drew that line far more conservatively than I would have imagined. He is far more successful than me, but just as unwilling to make ethical sacrifices.

So maybe my problem with success isn’t always my ethical compass. Maybe I’m just an idiot sometimes.

Two: Having that kind of conversation about where to draw the ethical line seems like it’s a shady conversation to have, but it’s necessary. 

Because if you don’t have that conversation before the fact, either with someone you trust or within your own conscience, you’ll be far more likely to fall on the wrong side of your own ethical fence after the fact. Then you’ll end up either living with the regret of a missed opportunity or the regret of getting ahead the wrong way. 

There’s a difference between success and success. And there’s a certain level of success that I will never, ever achieve, because I won’t pull the trigger on being cutthroat in order to get to it.

I’m good with that, and because I know where my line is, I know there’s hope that I can get where I want to be my own way.

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