When people ask how we’ve managed to stay together as partners in business and in life for so long without a homicide on our hands, we jokingly reply that martinis help. But a more serious answer is that we learned who we were early on, accepted who we are and made the most of it.
How did we discover important truths about ourselves? We started early—especially Bob. Bob’s early life was, at best, “dysfunctional.” Both of his parents were alcoholics; his mother died from the disorder at 39 years old when Bob was only 16. His parents divorced when he was 13. After his mom died, Bob and his two siblings moved in with his father and the second Mrs. Hayes, who was not too happy to see another three kids added to her own three children. It was the ’70s, but it certainly wasn’t the Brady Bunch.
Bob coped by retreating. It was the era of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”—you know, nature, expressing yourself, groovy, far out, find yourself. Bob’s impulse was to go into the woods and be alone. He had read a book about a man who had lived alone in the woods of the Yukon Territory, surrounded by the rawness and simplicity of nature. Bob corresponded with the author, who told him that the dream of living in the wilderness had been great while it lasted, but that Bob should see for himself if the dream was really right for him.
The dream wasn’t right. Bob spent a week in the woods by himself and he hated it. But he would come to understand in the weeks and months to follow how the experience profoundly changed him and allowed him to uncover important parts of his true self, traits that have helped Bob become successful in business and life. Bob discovered that he could go it alone, but he didn’t like to. He didn’t need to have people around him; he wanted them around. He was much more of a “people person” than he imagined. He also learned he was determined, that he could stick it out and finish what he started. He learned to deal with fear and not let it fester into failure. And he learned that he could live frugally and make very little go a long way.
When Jim was 25 and living in Los Angeles, he met Eric, an Air Canada flight attendant who shared his Midwestern values. Jim was smitten. On one of his visits to Los Angeles, Eric overheard Jim on the phone talking with some straight friends, making up a story about why he couldn’t do something with the group that night. He didn’t want to out himself to his friends. After the call, Eric sat Jim down for a long-overdue talk. The theme: being true to oneself and not hiding who you really are. The words of Alan Ashley-Pitt came up, which helped Jim stay focused on being himself and being OK with being different. “You have two choices in your life,” Pitt writes. “You can dissolve into the mainstream, or you can be distinct. To be distinct, you must be different. To be different, you must strive to be what no one else but you can be.” The words hang on Jim’s office wall to this day.
Knowing, understanding, accepting and liking yourself is the foundation of a successful partnership, not to mention a successful life. You can’t enter a partnership and then rely on your partner to figure out for you who you are. In effect, you have to form a strong “partnership” with yourself before someone else can. As we like to say, “we” always starts with “me.”
In business, owning your strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes will help you know what to look for in potential partners. Every business needs someone to perform certain core functions, like marketing, accounting, quality control, selling, etc. And every business needs certain skills on board—people skills, organizational skills and planning skills. As a business owner, you can’t hope to be equally strong in every area. A complimentary partner can help “fill in the blanks,” adding skills or experience that you lack. Someone who duplicates your every attribute while coming up short in areas where you also need help might not be the best partner for you. If you’re too similar, you might agree on everything, leaving both of you vulnerable to dangerous blind spots. On the other hand, if your partner is your exact opposite, arguments might arise when you don’t see eye to eye.
The goal of any partnership should be success; what partnership was ever created in order to fail, right? But this begs the question of how each of us defines success. A strange word: success. It has so many different meanings. If you know yourself, then you will know what success means to you. How do you think about it exactly? For you, is it about:
- Financial Power—does success to you mean lots of money? For many, money is the barometer by which success is measured.
- Persuasive Power—do you want to be able to control a market or capture a large enough share of your market to have influence and “power”?
- Market Power—does success mean your business or product is the best in the market, the one everyone else aspires to be?
- Social Acceptability—is success for you about ego? Do you want to be better than everyone else at what you do so that you will achieve greater social status?
- Spiritual Fulfillment—is success about a feeling of fulfillment, about being able to make a difference in your community, which is something money can’t buy?
- A Lasting Legacy—do you want to create something that will live on long after you are gone?
- Freedom—is success about having the ability to call all the shots in your life, to do exactly what you want to do?
Is success for you all of the above? None of the above? Whatever your answer, it’s important that your definition of success aligns with your partner’s; otherwise, you might find that you are running at cross-purposes. For example, a business run by someone who aims to make a lot of money is going to be very different from one run by someone who aspires to have spiritual fulfillment. Also keep in mind that your definition of success will change over time, and it’s best to check in periodically with your partner on this issue.
You don’t need to change who you are to be successful and achieve your dreams. You just need to accept who you are and find your uniqueness, so that you can live authentically… and be the fabulous partner you were meant to be.
This article was published in August 2016 and has been updated. Photo by @natashayummyphoto/Twenty20