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Build Your Reputation, But Don’t be Afraid to Destroy It

This is the story of a guy who didn’t let his reputation stop him from being successful…

This is an episode of The Story podcast. You can listen to an audio version of the following story on iTunes or Google Play.

And now… onto The Story

A young man was brought into a company by its CEO to consult with its executives.

The executives were in the process of making one mistake after another, and the young man knew what was going to happen. They were going to kill the business, and then he told them so.

Each time he brought up a new solution to their problems, the executives found something wrong with it.

He told them his credentials. He’d done this before — and not to brag — he’d done it in a way that was at a far larger scale than any of them. So why weren’t they listening and taking his advice?!

The execs provided no argument at all except making scoffing noises, then looking at each other and laughing.

It was maddening.

The young man didn’t let disrespect like this go…

Now the conversation devolves into shouting — it was the young man against the older execs. None of the older businessmen could believe it. Nobody told them what to do, but this young guy, with a beard, who was not even a part of their company, was sitting at the head of their conference table and yelling at them!

Before the young man could continue, he felt a huge hand fall on his shoulder.

It was the CEO who invited him to consult with his team of executives.

Now everyone in the room was silent. The CEO told the young man to either calm himself or leave.

Crestfallen, the young man left. He walked out of the conference room and into the foggy California morning. In the parking lot, he sank into the seat of his Mercedes and started to cry.

A few minutes later, he heard a knock on the window.

It was the CEO. The CEO was shocked. He had been watching the young man sob. Did he really care that much about getting his point across?!

The CEO had never seen an outsider, employee, exec, consultant, advisor, investor or vendor — nobody — who cared this much about business.

The young man got out of the car and the CEO patted him on the back.

“‘It’s okay,” said the CEO. “I get that you’re trying to help, and you think that we’re making a mistake.”

“You are,” said the young man. “I was trying to warn your team so you don’t lose the business. If you don’t do what I recommended, the business will collapse.”

The CEO chuckled and shook his head. “You don’t let it drop, do you?”

“No,” said the young man. “Not when it’s a life or death thing for the business.”

“I think it’s just a different style of communicating,” said the CEO. “My executives aren’t used to it.”

‘I’m sorry. I’m too wound up,” he said. “I live in two worlds.”

“It’s okay. You should come back in,” said the old man.

“I’m going to leave. I know I was out of order. I just wanted them to listen.”

“It’s okay. Come back in.”

“I’m going to go in and apologize. And then I’m going to leave,” said the young man.

To the CEO’s disbelief, the young man, with streaks of tears still on his face, walked into the room filled with older executives, apologized, then left without saying another word.

The CEO and execs would never see the young man in person again. But they soon saw him everywhere else. As the years went by, they remembered his advice. It had been spot on… almost prophetic. They didn’t follow it, and because of that, almost lost the business.

An outsider or casual observer might look at this situation and think something like:

What a highly emotional person, he must have ruined his reputation.

What a wimp.

Crying in front of business associates? You’re done.

Nobody will respect you if you get angry in public.

That young guy sounds unbalanced.

OMG, can you imagine having somebody like that working here?

The young man had big ideas and he cared.

The problem was, at the time he gave his advice to the execs, his current situation didn’t suggest that they should listen.

He had been ousted from his first company, and now that company was in serious debt.

The young man had a reputation for having a never-ending stream of ideas. What was worse, he seemed to think that most of them were good. On top of that, the young man was trying to start two new companies at once.

These were all red flags to the execs.

Besides, the young guy couldn’t make it through a business meeting without yelling or crying!

You might think that the young man in the story would go on to a life of obscurity, or fail to have a successful business career.

For a while, it looked like this would be the case.

After being kicked out of his first company, the young man spent a decade in the wilderness. He had “destroyed” his reputation.

But what if destroying our reputation is exactly what we need?

What if not being afraid to destroy our reputation — in pursuit of truth — is a superpower?

The young man in the story is Steve Jobs.

Steve’s story forces us to ask some serious questions.

Is a full range of emotions, and extreme sincerity really so bad?

What if caring about something so much that you break down crying when you defend it… isn’t a bad thing?

So, what brings you to tears?

What things do you care so much about that you’d yell and fight for them?

We’re constantly told that reputation is something that takes decades to build, and can be destroyed in minutes. That’s only partially true.

One of Steve Jobs favorite poets, Rumi, has a great line:

“Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.”

What most people think of as their “reputation” is really just a narrow bounds of permissible behavior that the people around them will tolerate. They will not threaten their “reputation” for much of anything, especially the pursuit of truth. But what they don’t realize is that most of this is just a hallucination. Other people are watching and judging, but they have short memories and are mostly worried about themselves.

In order to pursue truth, serve others, and create a business that is a force for good, we might have to destroy our “reputations.” We might have to build a new reputation. One that rubs some people the wrong way. One that inspires other people… the right people.

If you have interesting ideas you care about, don’t be afraid to look like an emotional fool when you try to articulate or sell them to others.

Some people will think you’re stupid, weak, or unstable. They’ll report you, laugh, make fun of you… they’ll have a very narrow view of what your reputation should be, and they won’t be afraid to tell you.

But like the philosopher Epictetus says,

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

Sometimes they’ll be right — you might look, talk, or do something idiotic. So what? Go into the parking lot, cry if you have to… then come back in and apologize.

The great achievements in this world are reserved for those willing to look like a fool in the eyes of society. Reputation can be helpful to get things done. But sometimes what some people consider “reputation” is just a cult of politeness, nihilism, or an excuse for inaction.

To have a full life, we must find things that we care about so much that we’re willing to argue, fight, and persevere for. The only way we can do this is by exploring the full spectrum of human emotions. The only way to do that? By being willing to destroy our reputation if need be.

In today’s world and culture, it’s become cool to always be polite, and not show any strong emotions except offense for anything deemed “not polite” or “offensive.”

In the modern business world, it’s become cool to criticize people like Steve Jobs. There are many who have achieved nothing of note, yet feel compelled to critique Jobs as simply “mean.” Then, they spend their days protecting their reputation of being “nice” and polite.

Meanwhile, the lessons of Jobs and Apple go unexamined. If Jobs was really so “mean,” then why did so many people voluntarily seek him out and work for him? Why did so many of them show up at his funeral? And why is Apple the most valuable company in the world today?

As the writer David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech reminds us:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

We are fish in water. We’re swimming in a cultural ocean and the water is politeness. People don’t dare show anger unless it’s directed at one or two socially and culturally approved lightning rods. There is no longer any room for nuances, overreactions, smart critiques, or righteous anger! If someone dare shows anger (for anything) there are thousands of other fish who will immediately isolate them, or try to force them to admit that they have a physiological problem.

So if your friend is getting ready to ruin their business, and you can’t seem to get them to change their mind, but they’re headed for a cliff they don’t see… and they’re refusing to listen to you…

Get emotional about it, and get angry if you have to! Don’t let them or their business fall off a cliff.

To get started, you’ll have to build your reputation.

But to take things to the next level, you might have to destroy your reputation and become notorious.

That’s his story. What’s yours going to be?

This is episode 6 of season 3 of The Story podcast. Season 3 of The Story features twelve technology trailblazers who started a business that changed the world. The Story is brought to you exclusively by Salesforce, the world’s #1 CRM platform that helps businesses blaze their own trails to success.

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