There’s a principle in psychology called illusory superiority, also sometimes called the Lake Wobegon effect, from Garrison Keillor’s fictional midwestern town where “all the children are above average.” Illusory superiority is the weird psychological wrinkle that allows the majority of people to have the sense that they are in some way better than average. Smarter than most, luckier than most, more ethical than most, more deserving than most. Mathematically it makes no sense. How can the majority be better than average? (I think it’s related to the idea that violence could never happen in one’s neighborhood also known as denial.)
I pay attention to the opposite principle, which I think of as the Law of Most. The Law of Most says that by definition most businesses are not exceptional. (If they were, the word “exceptional” would be meaningless.) Most marketers, most consultants, most realtors, most lawyers, most writers, most designers, are not at the top of their field. It’s just how things are. “Top” only means top when it stands in distinction to everything else.
This is why you should not believe everything you read. Because the Law of Most applies to experts, too. By definition, most experts are mediocre.
Learn from the Best
There are experts, and then there are experts. Just because someone wrote a book and sold a bunch of copies doesn’t mean he is right or that he knows what he’s talking about. Among all those books I’ve read on marketing, I’m sure there isn’t one in which I didn’t find something valuable I could take away from the reading. But I’ll go through 50 books before I find one that makes me go, “Okay — this guy really has figured it out.”
How many books have I read on marketing? Two hundred, maybe three hundred; maybe more. How many do I rely on daily, consider my North Star, my 100 percent trusted go-to guides? I can count them on one hand.
This is the reason I eventually formed an advisory board for my business: to surround myself with people who can help me read the world. Experts whose experience, knowledge, and judgment I can trust absolutely. But in that first year, I didn’t have an advisory board. I barely had advisers.
A few months before launching SOFREP, I took out a VA loan and bought a little place in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, so I could get out of the insanely high tax burden of Southern California and start my new business in a no-tax state. It was a good move, but for much of that first year in business, I lived like a monk. I worked with my small team and stayed connected to friends I respected and could ask for advice when and if I really needed it. Mostly, though, I was on my own.
Except that I stayed in constant touch with my lawyer, Michael Zinn. This is a guy I knew well and could trust without reservation. Not only was he a decorated Vietnam vet, but he was also the father of my SEAL Team Three teammate John. When I say I would not hesitate to put my life in his hands, that’s not a figure of speech. Mike was like an advisory group of one, a mentor and resource I turned to more than once to help me out of a tight spot or make a difficult decision.
In the course of that year, I learned something invaluable: When you find even one person whose expertise and judgment you can absolutely rely upon, you’ve found something more valuable than all the start-up capital in the world. Because that one trusted adviser’s perspective contributes significantly to your total situational awareness.
Don’t Trust Conventional Wisdom
When my SEAL memoir, The Red Circle, was in production, our publisher sent my writing partner and me some sample files it had recorded for the audiobook version with a voice actor reading the text.
Hang on a sec, I thought. Were audiobook rights part of the contract I’d signed? I didn’t think so. I asked our literary agent; she checked; nope. Just an oversight, we were assured. We could do a quick addendum to the contract to sign over the audio rights. No problem.
Wait. Were we sure we wanted to do that? We hadn’t actually sold those rights yet. What if we held on to them and produced the audiobook version ourselves?
No, no, no, I was told. You don’t want to do that. You don’t want that headache! These guys are professionals. They know how to get it done and out into all the retail channels, and besides, they’ve already recorded the whole thing.
I thought about that. This is how it’s done, I get that. But does that mean it’s how it should be done?
I did some quick research to see roughly what it would cost to pay an audio producer to hire the voice talent, do the studio work, and edit the thing into a final product. I ran some numbers. We’d have to spend a few thousand bucks out of pocket up front, but we would make a hell of a lot more money doing it this way than taking the meager audiobook percentage that is standard in New York publishing contracts.
I talked it over with my writing partner. At first, he thought I was crazy to take on the added burden of production, but when I explained the numbers and logistics, he was in. (He’s an entrepreneur, too.)
“Tell them sorry but no thanks,” I told our agent. “We’ll do it ourselves.”
I hired an audio producer. As a bonus, I wrote and recorded a special introduction to each chapter, a feature not in any other version of the book. We produced the audio version and marketed it ourselves through Amazon’s Audible.com. We made out like bandits. Even today, years later, that self-produced audiobook is a steady stream of decent monthly income for us.
When you hear “This is the way things are done,” or “This is the way things are,” don’t believe it. Conventional wisdom is not always wrong — but it’s always suspect. The assumptions and certainties most businesspeople operate on are reflections of that telltale adjective, “most.” “Most” means average, and average means mediocre, and mediocre is the opposite of what we’re talking about here. What we’re looking for is outstanding.
What do you do at work when a hundred crises seem to be happening at the same time? Do you pick just one priority or try to put out every fire? How can you stay composed, figure out what really matters, and act decisively? Total Focus…
If you enjoyed this excerpt, considering reading the rest of, Total Focus, by former Navy SEAL, Brandon Webb, here.