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Live Your Own Life, Not Someone Else’s Essay

If you watched the Seattle Seahawks play the New York Jets on Sunday, you couldn’t help but notice the glaring difference between the two teams’ head coaches. It was a study in contrast: The Seahawks’ Pete Carroll was as excitable and animated as the Jets’ Todd Bowles was stoic and expressionless.

Do you think their outward demeanor means either coach is less emotionally invested in the game or the outcome? Of course not. Trust me when I tell you — if you’re a coach in the NFL, you love the game of football, you love your team and nothing matters more to you than winning.

That said, everyone reacts differently to emotional stimulus. No two people process events or information exactly the same way. Everyone has his own way of doing things. And that’s especially true of leaders in any field, whether they’re coaches on the field, CEOs in corner offices or entrepreneurs working out of a garage.

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And yet, we consume massive amounts of generic, one-size-fits-all, self-help advice. You know what I’m talking about: personal routines, habits and hacks. How to be productive. What to eat. How to behave. When to wake up and when to go to bed. How to become rich and famous. Why you should quit your day job and start an online business.  

If any of those NFL coaches had wasted their precious time on that sort of nonsense, they never would have made it to the top of their profession in the first place. That goes for executives and business leaders, too. The reason is simple. They don’t let anyone else tell them how to think or act.

Real leaders follow their own path. They trust their own instincts. They have the courage and conviction to do things their own way. Of course they have mentors and teachers, but that’s different. That’s personal and specific, not the sort of useless, prescriptive nonsense folks are obsessed with these days.

The worst thing about all that generic content is that its publishers have but one goal: clicks, ad dollars and subscriptions. They don’t have skin in your game. They don’t have your best interests at heart. Rather, they post whatever popular dogma is prevalent at the time. Their job is to feed millions of readers whatever it is they want to hear. Period.

Now, contrast that with what Steve Jobs had to say during his famous :

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Jobs was absolutely right about popular dogma or beliefs being a trap. If he only knew how many of you have fallen for that trap through the breakthrough technology Apple created, he’d probably turn in his grave.  

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Perhaps the greatest irony of the modern era is that the overwhelming majority of successful executives and business leaders — the kind of people we all admire — don’t waste a minute of their precious time reading or regurgitating that sort of popular garbage. They’re too busy working. They’re too busy doing what matters.

According to the latest report from , 61 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence whatsoever, and of the rest, nearly three quarters, use only LinkedIn and few are active. It’s not just that they have better things to do; they don’t see the value in it. Neither do I.

As for books, CEOs I’ve known read everything from classic literature and popular fiction to historical biographies. I’ve seen the occasional business book — but usually by an expert like Drucker or Levitt or dramatic stories about how real executives overcame adversity to achieve extraordinary results.

In a 2014 "Wall Street Journal" op-ed, : a decades-old, out of print edition he borrowed from his mentor, Warren Buffet, "Business Adventures" by John Brooks.

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Gates explains that Brooks, a writer for the "New Yorker," was an exceptional storyteller whose deep knowledge of what happened behind the scenes at exceptional companies like Xerox, General Electric and Ford provided powerful insights into what it takes to succeed in the real business world:

"Unlike a lot of today’s business writers, Brooks didn’t boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success. You won’t find any listicles in his work. Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters and show how things went for them."

Gates goes on to say that the book has stood the test of time because it’s as much about human nature — how leaders react to challenging circumstances — as it is about specific businesses. It’s that human factor, the drama, that inspires readers to think for themselves and draw conclusions that are relevant to their own circumstances.

For more on what it takes to be successful in today's highly competitive business world, get Steve’s new book, , and check out his blog at .

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