Not Listening to Others: The Wisdom of Standing Alone

Standing alone

Have the courage to stand alone, and do what you know is right.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

I’m telling this today.  Several times I went against the prevailing thoughts of others, and it made all the difference. Here’s what happened …

1. Stable employment is a virtue.

My first job out of college was with IBM. My father worked at another big company for 37 years. He was ecstatic when I joined IBM because that was a place where I could work for 40 years or more. His son was set up for life. Every parent’s dream. But there was one problem. I wasn’t happy or fulfilled there.

As a young man with grand aspirations, making $65K a year (in the 80s) was a pretty good salary, including great benefits and employment security. So what was the problem? I wanted more. I knew switching to a startup could mean a six-figure salary and stock options. I heard about co-workers going to Sun Microsystems and doing just that. The prevailing outlook (the assumption of lifetime security) held me back. It took incredible resolve to overcome this mindset, especially when it meant disappointing my father. I still remember sitting with the HR person at IBM in my exit interview as he asked me several times, “Are you sure about this?” Gulp. “Yes.”

I went to a small startup that had a revolutionary product in the lab called an Ethernet switch. If we had made it to the market first, we probably would have dominated the market for years. An IPO was planned along with stock options for everyone including a substantial amount for the lead systems engineer over the entire eastern US (me). Six months later I got the call I dreaded. The CEO gave me the news. “We’ve run out of cash, Jim. The company is going under. Close the office, let everyone know, and start looking for a job.”

Dad seemed to be right.

Going back to IBM or some other “safe” route never occurred to me. I’d met some folks at another young startup with a good reputation. I called them at Cisco Systems.

Cisco was life changing. I got to work under a genius like John Chambers, helped build a business that would change the world (customer’s and mine), and earned my first six-figure income.

Not listening to the conventional wisdom of lifetime job security worked. Are you choosing job security over the “risk” of something great?

2. Stereotypes that aren’t true.

Back then I was an engineer. Had a master’s from a prestigious school. Very technical. Technical people aren’t good salespeople. Everybody knows that. Right? Wrong. As a sales engineer for Cisco, I was good at explaining complex technical ideas to decision makers and translating them into business terms. I also had a passion for the deal. The sales guys loved to take me on calls because I closed deals for them. They were getting huge commissions because of me. That worked for a couple of years.

Then I got this radical idea: I should get into sales. I want those big commissions too. “But engineers can’t do sales,” I heard the voice say. “Watch me,” I said back. I made the request. Got it. Deep breath. Read every sales book out there. Apply it. Soon I began winning my own deals. Every day I had to face the nagging thought: what if they were right? Could I succeed where so many others had failed? Within five years, I answered it. I became #2 in the world in 1998 and grossed over $1.2M.  Not listening to that stereotype made all the difference.

What stereotypes are you unconsciously (or consciously) accepting?

3. Question everything.

Let’s generalize this idea. Question everything you think you know. Even those things you “know” for sure. Question teachers, parents, pastors, doctors. Question conventional wisdom. Who or what do you need to question?

Aristotle once said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Make it worth living. Examine your life, and see where you are relying on what you’ve always been told. Things you’ve never examined.

As Immanuel Kant said in his groundbreaking work, What is Enlightenment?, the key to enlightened thinking is for men (and women) to have the courage to think for themselves. To rely on their own reason, intellect, and wisdom. This means being a pain in the butt and asking far more often, “Why?” Why have we always done it that way? What evidence do you have that what you say is true? Have the courage to think for yourself. It takes courage to stand-alone when the crowd asserts “the truth.” But that is what changes lives and changes the world. It will change you too.

You can do it, I’ll help.


For some similar resources, check out Emerson’s great works American Scholar and Self Reliance. See also Nietzsche’s story about the Camel, Lion, and Babe from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Postscript: My Dad was a wonderful man who taught me many valuable things. Yes, he was wrong about job security, but right about so much else. I lost him almost exactly two years ago, and I wish I still had his wisdom. It only seems fair to tell you the good side too. If you can hear me, Dad, thanks for everything.

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