PERFECTION IS OVERRATED

How to win at this brilliant thing called life.

We’re in the midst of graduation season — that wonderful time of year when I hear excerpts from inspiring commencement speeches; when I reflect back and remember myself with flawlessly wrinkle-free skin (but grossly sub-optimal fashion choices); when I recall that scary moment of stepping out into the unknown. Usually in interviews, people are most interested to hear about my experiences as President of Equinox and Global President of Gatorade, but when I think about how I got to be where I am today, it’s those earlier experiences that really shaped me most.

I graduated in the early 90s, a time when the world’s economy was struggling to recover after the heights of the 80s stock market boom — and a time when bad bangs were the hottest trend. 

My bad bangs…just in case you wanted proof.

My bad bangs…just in case you wanted proof.

Not unlike today, the early 90s saw thousands of graduates pouring into the workforce with very few jobs to choose from. Most companies were laying off employees, holding on to those with training and know-how, instead of hiring new graduates with no practical experience. Similarly, the growth market of the last few years appears to be slowing, companies are tightening their hiring budgets, and easy capital is harder to find if you are unproven, leading to an extremely competitive market place.

I think back to when I was graduating — coming of age in that tiny little country at the bottom of the world called New Zealand (that most of you now know as “Middle Earth”!). Then, it was a huge part of our culture to take a year or two before knuckling down into a post-college career, to travel the world and get an “overseas experience.” For most college grads, the years were spent working in bars in London was just as important to long-term growth as their future “career” roles, because they were learning critical social and life skills.

I compare this to the environment and pressures I hear from young college students today: make sure you hold onto that perfect grade point average, make sure your first job maintains your perfect resume, make sure you’re getting yourself on some 30 under 30 list somewhere, oh, and, while you’re at it, make sure you’ve made the world a better place.

Did we ever stop and realize that this crazy culture of perceived perfection — of accolades before experience, of fear mongering around failure because everyone else is apparently “crushing it” — is totally taking away the greatest opportunity that this brilliant thing called life has to offer? 

The amazing, wonderful, fulfilling feeling of ACTUALLY winning that comes after years of hard work, of exploration in both the right and wrong directions, the fuck ups and confusions, breakthroughs and (finally) victories, that feel SO powerful because of the long journey that led to earning them.

Today — the pressure is so high for graduates that many are staying at home with their parents longer after they graduate, in pursuit of the right entry level job, rather than jumping in and going after life’s experiences. It’s not failing to work in a bar, or a retail store, or to do manual labor. 

No matter what you do, you are learning from it, and those experiences always come back to help you later in life. 

I never realized that my years waitressing in restaurants and stocking mini bars in hotels would be so incredibly helpful as I tried to understand the operational realities of the gym business when I came in as the boss.

It breaks my heart when I read the statistics that show our country is becoming significantly more afraid of failure. Nearly half of all adults confess that “fear of failure” is the biggest roadblock in the way of pursuing or achieving their goals. Just the other week, I had a very inspiring lunch with two young women who legitimately ARE crushing it, with great jobs at the start of their careers. But they both mentioned to me that they worry about what they might do next career-wise, because of the pressure “not to fall backwards” after such an amazing start. I so badly want them to know that there IS no bad decision. In every enormously successful life, there are just as many failures and tough experiences as there are big wins. You simply have to have the epic fails if you are going to build the resilience and grit to get to the top of your game. And here’s the really great news — it’s always the tough experiences that make the great wins EVEN more fulfilling when they finally happen.

An era of marginally better bangs, during my time at Gatorade

An era of marginally better bangs, during my time at Gatorade

So this graduation season, find the time to think about the downside of chasing perfection. If you get to the top of your chosen profession someday — and it’s been a perfect journey the whole way up — chances are you won’t have the necessary resilience that it takes to guide teams through challenging times. You also might not have the breadth of perspective that it takes to be able to lead in a fast changing world. Most of the best candidates I have ever interviewed for jobs over the years are the ones whose paths went in a different direction from where they started. 

Take a breath, enjoy the graduation celebration, and then get in the game — no matter where you begin. Any bad decision can always be overcome. Even bad hair choices.

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