What's your word worth? (and how do you know?)
A process to gain clarity on the value of your word, and a way to invest in building its value over time
Welcome Entrepreneurs. I’m so glad you’re here.
After a year or so in flow of writing and coaching and enjoying a slower paced life, my work life has begun to quicken. At first I questioned my motives—was I falling back into old hustle-habits?—but I don’t think so. After careful examination, it feels very much like I’m still living my own Surrender experiment, only the Universe is asking more of me now.
My coach is a Taoist (which I am not, but of all the traditions is one I particularly appreciate. Get this book by the way), and helped me orient to this shift via the wisdom behind the yin yang.
According to Brittanica: Yin is a symbol of earth, femaleness, darkness, passivity, and absorption. Yang is conceived of as heaven, maleness, light, activity, and penetration.
In other words, there are two sides to life, and they flow with one another. After a couple years in graceful, easeful Yin, I now find myself in active, expressive Yang. Rather than resisting the shift, trying to cling to one way of life being more right than the other, I’ve been able to use the ancient symbol to hold both sides of the paradox at once. Both are right, in their own ways and in their own times.
Pretty cool stuff, Taoism.
Onto this week’s essay.
What is your word worth?
What does it mean when you give your word?
Not only when you say “I [insert your name] do solemnly swear to get this task done by this date,” but also when you simply say, “Sure.” Do those two commitments mean different things to you?
Is it contextual? Does it mean one thing when you give your word to a client or a customer and another when you give it to an employee? What about a family member?
Or the many small instances in which you give your word to yourself? What does it mean when you say “I’ll wake up early to exercise tomorrow,” or “I won’t check email during vacation”?
If you’re the leader of an organization, what are your expectations of your employees with regard to their commitments? Do you expect them to keep their promises? All the time, or just when they solemnly swear?
This isn’t rhetorical. Grab a pen and take an inventory. On the left side of a vertical line, all the varied words you give. On the right, the legitimate reasons you might not keep each one. The reasons that you’d feel ok about getting in your way.
After you’ve taken account of the current state of your word, explore something new:
What would happen if you, and everyone around you, did what they said they would do, even when keeping a commitment was patently unreasonable?
What would be possible for you, and your organization, if you had only to say that something would be done, and you knew from long experience that it would be, circumstances be damned? If you needed only to say “We’ll get that done,” and from that point forward it was only a matter of when. What if you, and your organization, had that kind of power?
You can. But you have to choose between that and your reasons.
In my work with founders, we work hard to capture this power—the earned ability to speak the future into existence. No matter what you want, your word can create it for you, if you’ve done the work to strengthen it. If you’ve trained yourself over and over again that your word is more important than any circumstance.
Want to exit your company? Say that you will. Tell those close to you. If you’re like most people, you’ll feel a bit sheepish, a bit self-helpy, and when you go back to the office you’ll fight the latest fire, just like always, crossing your fingers that something will come along. On the other hand, if you’ve done the work, if you’ve learned from hard experience that when you say you’ll do something reasons cease to matter, saying that you’ll exit your company will change your life. Your statement locks in a specific version of the future which calls your present to become its past.
Want to build a decacorn? If you’ve developed a relationship of pure integrity with your word, say that you will, and by when. With your last word, the steps to that future become clear. They’ll call to you, creating a disquiet that only ebbs when you’re on the path, taking actions consistent with that future.
For those who have done the work, their word is an incantation.
Some founders resist this binary approach. They bring up good reasons why they need flexibility. Why the world is grey. They remind me that sometimes things come up. They’re right. Their reasons are all very reasonable. Most people will accept them, will give the founder a pass, if only because holding them to account would mean they’d also have to look in the mirror. Some founders hold onto their reasons as tightly as I propose they hold onto their word.
But understand: that is the choice. Which will you cling to, your word or your reasons?
For an individual the calculus stops there. But for a leader that’s only the beginning. Everything you do as a leader, everything you say and every way you conduct yourself, all of it sets an example for your team. Your decision, then, between your word or your reasons, that choice will be reflected back to you from across your organization.
Even if you say the right things when you’re in front of a room, or write the right things in your company values—especially then, with the importance of accountability written on the wall— when you skip a meeting because something important comes up, your team will get the message. Accountability, that bold word on the wall, means always—except when there are reasons.
Sometimes founders can’t see it, or aren’t ready to confront themselves directly. But you can see it indirectly as well.
Look at your team’s behavior. When they say they’ll do something, how do you interpret that? In the vast spectrum of all the ways human beings relate to their word, if, when your employees agree to do something you interpret that commitment as anything short of absolute, where do you think your team learned that very specific way of relating to theirs?
The good news is that the fix to this—the method to create a team with the power to speak the future into existence—is simple.
No need for fancy off-sites or culture consultants. Just do the work yourself. Treat your word as gold, and don’t let yourself off the hook because “reasons.”
Your team will learn. And quickly.
So what’s “the work” I keep talking about? And how can one get started?
Here’s a simple, two-step process to imbue your word with the power of Creation:
Step 1: Pay attention to every time you give your word.
Keep a journal. One column for each time you give your word to someone else, and one column for each time you commit to yourself. Catch yourself every time you do it.
What you notice first is just how often you give your word to things, big and small. What you notice second, if you’re honest, is how often you give your word with less than full intention to keep it. How often you’re already thinking of reasons, even as you commit to someone or yourself.
Seeing this is usually enough to get a founder to stop giving their word so much. Sometimes they give their word way less.
That’s the first change. That’s progress.
Step 2: Do what you said you would do, even when you have reasons not to, even when others will accept those reasons as justifiable.
Do what you said you would do anyway, as an investment in the power of your word. Because it’s in the times when it’s unreasonable to keep your word, that doing so strengthens your word the most.
(Beginner’s note: To help you get in the habit, keep score in your journal. Every commitment, and for each, whether you chose your word or your reasons. Chart how strong your word is becoming by this ratio.)
Before you ask, no. Step two is not normal. But nobody ever changed the world by behaving normally.
Step two is harder. Step two never ends. But step two lets you create your life.
Footnote: For my personal journey in developing the power of my word, see here. TL/DR: I started doing the work in 2007, my life transformed, and I haven’t looked back.
(HT: Julie Mosow, Jillian Anthony and Foster for editing)
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Who is Ryan Vaughn?
I’m an executive coach for startup founders, a role in which I get to help high-performing founders design a more conscious life and expand into extraordinary leaders. I’m a 3x Founder/CEO who’s raised $20m+ in VC and built a market-changing company, as well as two other companies that taught me things. I’m an avid writer, meditator (decade+ practice), reader, athlete, father, husband, amateur physicist, student of leadership, and adventurer. I’m also none of those things. But I am glad that you’re here. If that’s not enough, here’s a more detailed bio.
THINGS I READ THIS WEEK
One: How This Founder Hit It Big After Hitting Rock Bottom--and Why Low Points Matter (The Inc. Magazine)
A friend of mine made #300 on the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing private companies, and used that platform to talk about his journey. Not how much he’s (clearly) crushing it now, but just how hard it’s been along the way. As entrepreneurs we all have our WFIO moments, but we so rarely talk about them. They’re definitely not the type of thing that often ends up in Inc. Kudos to Mike for telling his story, and helping others (raises hand) not feel so alone during the inevitable low points in the journey.
Two: Culture Change and Conflict at Twitter (The New York Times)
Twitter thought their culture was too nice, so they hired an exec to help them toughen up. The body rejected the organ, and after a minor mutiny the exec has now committed to change his ways. This reads a lot like Twitter is trying to choose between psychological safety and direct feedback, but that’s a false choice. Psychological safety is the foundation which allows for direct feedback to be internalized. Without it, feedback is interpreted as a personal threat and, as we see here, resisted.
Three: Open Space, Deep Work, and Self-Care (Ed Batista)
One of the most impactful changes I’ve made to my workflow in the past year is scheduling space in my calendar for deep work. I no longer do meetings before 11am, and the space between 8:30-11 has been transformative, not only to my creative output during those hours but to my overall effectiveness each day (childcare issues forced me to sacrifice that space for a couple weeks, and while I loved the dad time my brain felt like it was on 50% capacity during the rest of the day). But to get here I had to get over a belief that space like this was an indulgence, and instead recognize that it’s an investment. And, further, that it was ok to invest in myself. I didn’t have to be superman. It’s worth my writing an entire article on self-care, but in the meantime this one by Ed Batista is excellent.
Four: How The Best Companies Tell You To Stop Infringing On Their Copyrights
For all you fans of Stranger Things, or just fans of billion dollar companies that do things the right way, I give you example 17,483 that Netflix's "Use Good Judgement" policy for their employees works wonders.
Five: In 1 Tweet, CEO Dan Price Reveals the Problem With Your Take-Home Pay - Inc.
To my mind, income inequality is at the root of a lot of the issues in the US. If you're interested in the issue, you need to know Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, who is endeavoring to set an example by cutting his salary to ensure his employees make a minimum of $70k. His Twitter account is a non-stop series of stats on income inequality (link below included), and worth paying attention to. Agree or disagree with his methods, change has to start somewhere.
WANT TO DIVE DEEPER?
If you liked this, check out this list of my top posts, read and shared by thousands of entrepreneurs.
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