I’m a simple man. Grew up in a small town. Came from humble beginnings. Zero silver spoon.
I’ve had some wins. And been knocked down with defeats. Glimpsed views from the top of the mountain. And walked through the darkest of valleys. But through this entire ride called A Life—I’ve refused to give up.
So when I was invited to share the stage with the iconic entrepreneur Richard Branson at “The Ultimate Success Summit” in Romania–a giant dream came true (Richard had been on my “Top 5 People I’d Like to Have Dinner With Before I Die” list for years along with Nelson Mandela, Madonna, Bono and Oprah.
Branson was larger than life. The man I’d seen on a thousand magazine covers was friendly, passionate, charismatic and confident. And, of course, fun.
“I believe in goals. It’s never a bad thing to have a dream. If something is really what you want to do, just do it. Whatever your goal.”
In that hour before a few thousand human beings, we debated Leadership. We discussed success. We dissected innovation. And we dove deep into the thick of what it means to do our best work while we craft lives that make the world a better place. [Making money without creating meaning is an empty victory as far as I’m concerned]. Between us, my personal goal in preparing for the session was to know more about Branson than anyone who had ever interviewed him. To have the insight to push him to go where he hadn’t been. To not just be prepared but ridiculously OVER-prepared.
So I poured through obscure articles, reviewed past presentations and read everything I could discover about the rare-air life of this celebrated business titan.
“Fantasizing about the future is one of my favorite pastimes.”
…I learned of his childhood [when he was four, his mother left him in a field miles away from home with the instruction to find his way back alone–an exercise to develop the independence that has since served him so well] and of his struggles with Dyslexia (he was expelled from one school and never received a high school degree).
…I learned that he came up with the name “Virgin” in 1969 and launched Student, a youth culture magazine, when he was only 16. At twenty, Branson—always the disruptor–started a mail order business to sell records. The first Virgin record store appeared two years later.
…I learned of his fierce appetite for risk-taking and “betting the farm” in acute pursuit of any goal he wants to get done (his critics called him crazy as he entered the airline business with Virgin Atlantic. He clearly acknowledged it was a dangerous play with his now-famous words: “The quickest way to become a millionaire in the airline business is to start out as a billionaire.”
In my research, I came across other brilliant Branson one-liners that are rich in wisdom for those of us devoted to mastery in business and the building of a world-class life:
“All you have in life is your reputation: you may be very rich, but if you lose your good name, then you’ll never be happy. The thought will always lurk at the back of your mind that people don’t trust you”
“Branding is everything. A young girl once came up to me and told me I could be famous because I looked just like Richard Branson!”
“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.”
“My biggest motivation? Just to keep challenging myself. I see life almost like one long university education that I never had.”
“My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.”
“There are no rules. You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over, and it’s because you fall over that you learn to save yourself from falling over”
“I may be a businessman in that I set up and run companies for profit, but when I try to plan ahead and dream up new products and new companies, I’m an idealist.”
“I am the captain of my ship and master of my fate. I believe in myself. I believe in the hands that work, in the brains that think, and in the hearts that love.”
“I don’t think of work as work and play as play. It’s all living.”
“Ridiculous yachts and private planes and big limousines won’t make people enjoy life more, and it sends out terrible messages to the people who work for them. It would be so much better if that money was spent in Africa – and it’s about getting a balance.”
“I cannot remember a moment in my life when I have not felt the love of my family. We were a family that would have killed for each other – and we still are.”
“You only live once, and I just don’t want to waste a minute of my life.”
All amazing stuff. Truly. Inspiring, actually.
But perhaps what fascinated me most as I got to know Richard Branson was not his accomplishments or his uncommon productivity practices such as:
- writing important messages on the back of his hands (he reportedly doesn’t use computers and was saved by his wife Joan from being the only person to put up his hand at a conference where Bill Gates asked if there was anyone in the room who still didn’t use the Internet).
- getting up at 5:30 am every morning while he’s on Necker Island, his private retreat (“I get up in the morning and come into what must be the nicest office in the world. It’s a fantastic time for reflection and thinking about things. I come up with more ideas here than I do in the day-to-day running back home,” said Branson in a superb interview with FORTUNE magazine.
- working at home (executives from around the world show up at his grand townhouse in London for meetings). Branson believes that the reason he remains so close to his family is because he is so often around them.
No, what fascinated me most about the visionary in black denim jeans who sat in front of me was a powerful daily habit…
…one that was perhaps his simplest…
…a near-obsessive practice of writing down–and then tracking–his brightest ideas, insights and goals in a black notebook that he carried with him mostly everywhere.
In that black composition book he records:
- his creative ideas and individual commitments
- every key business conversation he has during his day
- drafts of letters to leaders like his friend Nelson Mandela
- private notes like “Michael Jackson wanted to come to Necker Island next week.”
- quotes such as this one from Joan: “Extremism in the pursuit of excellence is not a vice.”
- anecdotes such as why the British immigration agent who was clearly aware of who Sir Richard was asked to see his passport. Her reply: “We wanted to know your age.”
Our meeting was an unforgettable one. But the real purpose of this blog post is to share this with you:
Goal-getting matters. And writing down the brave acts and bold dreams you intend to accomplish will provide the spark to get them done. It works for Richard Branson. And my highest wish is that it works for you too.
All green lights,