Five life lessons from 40 years in the marketing world

life lessons

I was reminded by family, friends, and fans that I am crossing several milestones this year.

  • My first big book with a New York publisher, Return On Influence, was published 10 years ago.
  • In June, I will enter the 10th season of The Marketing Companion podcast.
  • My best-selling book, KNOWN was published five years ago.
  • My first corporate job out of college was 40 years ago.

I am not a fan of anniversaries and milestones. Nobody really cares. Not even me. I’m much more interested in what’s coming next. So I’m not celebrating anything : )

But I thought about the amount of time I’ve been in the business world and wondered if I could distill this into a few teachable moments. As I look back, is there anything useful that I could pass along to you? Well, there’s a lot … but let me limit this to five lessons today …

1. Fire

As I think back on my career, it’s surprising how much I focus on the negative. When I consider career highlights, the things that percolate to the top are the things that went wrong. The worst bosses. Betrayals. The biggest disappointments and failures.

I have so much to be proud of. Why am I preoccupied with the hardships? I think it’s because, in the long run, the hardships matter more than the successes. I think I have done a good job of accepting the fire and using it for good, rather than dwelling on it in a destructive way.

Success is fleeting. Something good happens, you celebrate … and the next day it’s on to the next thing.

But the fire … changes you. Forges you into something new. In my case, not always for the better. But it changed me more than the success. Much more.

We are all equal in our humanity, and that means we will suffer. A key to success is learning to transcend the pain and leverage the experience in a way that helps you move forward with new strength.

Pain is an opportunity to gain a new superpower.

2. Experiments

A recent epiphany for me is that my career has been defined by a continuous set of experiments. I regularly start new projects to see where they will go, which pushes me into new areas of personal growth. And more often than not, the experiments worked. A few bold moves:

  • Self-publishing a book in 2010 when almost nobody was doing that (Tao of Twitter became a beloved best-seller)
  • Launching a marketing event solely through Twitter posts (450 people showed up to Social Slam)
  • Creating a one-of-a-kind marketing retreat (perhaps my proudest achievement)
  • Re-launching a podcast with rotating co-hosts (downloads increased 45%)
  • Establishing a creator crypto coin (now at the top of the charts on Rally)

… to name just a few. In each of these cases, I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Every business activity that is now fun and profitable began by throwing myself into an unfamiliar situation.

This is probably abnormal behavior. Most people tend to play it safe, following a linear path forward. I don’t know why I have the courage to experiment. I’ve thought about it a lot. It doesn’t come naturally because I grew up in a family that was definitely oriented toward the safe and linear path.

Part of it might come from changing schools when I was a kid. I hated it but gained confidence that I could be OK in strange new situations. Part of it might be from my early corporate experience. I was almost always the youngest person in the room as my company pushed me into new challenges. I learned that I could thrive in that discomfort.

There is a constant thumping on the web reminding us that growth comes from moving out of our comfort zone. That is one meme that’s correct, I suppose. But it takes courage to do that. If you examine the leaders you admire most, you’ll see a similar path of courage and experimentation in their backstory.

I never take a risk that will kill my business if it fails. But I try something new every week. You should, too.

3. The Center

Many years ago when SEO was first becoming a thing, I listened to a presentation by one of the leading authorities of the day. He openly described his unethical “black hat” practices that included hiring home-bound people to create fake social media accounts to bolster customer site authority. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What an awful thing.

He explained that he knew it was wrong, but the biggest companies on earth were paying him millions to do this work. In fact, almost everybody was doing it. Many of my friends were doing it.

When you work in marketing, it’s easy to get pulled in the wrong direction because you don’t want to be left behind. It’s easier to justify shady practices when it seems to be a current “best practice.”

A few years ago I remember telling my wife I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be in marketing any more. It seemed so dirty at times.

A key to my success has been clarity about my values and staying true to them at all costs. I will never, ever follow the crowd if the crowd is moving away from my values.

Know what you stand for and stay centered, at all costs.

4. Focus

A significant part of my success is having the discipline to say “no.”

I have a trifecta of primary business activities that support each other:

  1. Teaching and speaking at a high level forces me to stay current and clarify my thinking.
  2. Creating content puts those new ideas into a public view, promoting awareness of my work.
  3. Consulting activates those ideas and creates revenue. It also creates new experiences that go back into teaching and speaking.

In short, if I am presented with a task or opportunity that does not support classes, content, or consulting, I either find somebody else to do it, or I say no.

You define your career by having the wisdom to know which doors to open and which doors to close.

Having the discipline to say “no” is a critical life skill, especially when it would be more fun to say yes!

What are your three core activities? If you’re engaged in activities drawing you away from the core, it’s time for a housecleaning.

5. Grit

When I create content, host The Uprising, teach a class, or consult with a client, my mission statement is simple: I will never let you down.

This means transcending every problem, illness, and setback to be great. It might even mean setting aside self-interest. In my business, I do the right thing, even if it hurts.

Building a personal brand (or a corporate one) requires tenacity and there is a huge payoff for grit.

This year, I signed the biggest consulting contract of my career. I didn’t bid on it. I didn’t compete for it. One of the biggest companies in the world sent me an email and just made me a six-figure offer.

Could that have occurred 10 years ago when I was just starting to build my personal brand? No. Five years ago? Probably not. But I have gutted it out and built a portfolio of work that has established a strong presence, reputation, and authority.

Being smart and capable doesn’t mean much in the digital world if nobody can see it over time. Consistency is more important than genius.

Life lessons … so there you have it.

I probably have a million other life lessons I could share. But these five loom large as I look back at my career (so far!).

Notable things I left out:

Education — I think formal education only matters in my profession if it results in insight. Nobody hires me because I have a certain degree that I earned in 1998. Do I have more insight than others? Probably not, but I do have the courage to put my ideas out there.

Network — I am a lousy networker. The worst. Probably my biggest flaw.

Openness — I am a sponge for new ideas and am willing to change my mind about things. Maybe that would be my sixth point if I made this life lessons post longer.

Inherent advantage — I am a straight, able-bodied, white male living in America. I had two parents in my safe suburban childhood home. I never went hungry, never felt threatened. The random chance of birth means a lot in this world. It allowed me to burst out of the starting block. Let’s not overlook that. It’s not a “lesson,” but it helped my success, especially growing up in the corporate world of the 1980s (still a “Mad Men” culture).

Anything in this post surprise you? What is missing?

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of some of the world’s bestselling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram. Discover his $RISE create community.

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