Some things I was able to learn through advice or watching others succeed (or fail), but many of the most important lessons I’ve learned came the hard way — from failing at something and being forced to dig deep to find a way through a difficult experience.
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned that may help keep you from learning them through the school of hard knocks.
It takes nothing to become a CEO. You literally just have to say you’re starting a company and that you’re the CEO. So don’t get hung up on the title. The only way being a CEO will ever bring respect, authority, or clout will be as a result of your actions and decisions. If you worry more about your choices and your integrity than your authority, you’ll be off to a great start to becoming a respected CEO.
Once you choose to tell others about your new idea for a startup, you will be inundated with advice. Not all of it will be good, and some of it won’t apply specifically to you even if it is conventional wisdom. Some of it will be poor advice and possibly even dangerous. Learning how to listen while trusting your gut will be vital. Feelings of inadequacy and inexperience can make you want to abdicate your role of leadership to someone else, but the only way to lead a company is by leading. Don’t lose your own compass in the cacophony of feedback, but also stay humble enough to be told you’re wrong, even after you’ve had some success and are feeling like you could now conquer the world.
The best way to keep a balanced perspective is to be aware that while this is your baby and your idea, it is not your identity. Make space for the other parts of your life. You can be committed, passionate, and hard working without becoming so myopic that you lose out on the rest of your life.
Let others underestimate you if they choose, but don’t underestimate yourself. There is a difference between imposter syndrome and self doubt. You can feel like you don’t belong but stick with it and show up anyway.
Celebrate your wins. They are not a check box in a long list of things to achieve. They are something that went right despite the odds … honor that. Don’t get puffed up in them – but don’t overlook them, either.
Don’t ignore signals because you’re not ready to deal with a problem, accept a reality or stretch into new growth. Things don’t compound into a lesser problem, nor do they improve without discomfort. Just deal with it. Whatever it is.
Ask for help. Don’t be vague – no one knows how to help you if you don’t know what you need. Be specific. People can say yes or no, but don’t decide for them by not asking.
Be generous with praise and gratitude, and treat your team like they’re grownups. If someone isn’t behaving like a decent human being, hold them accountable. Choose integrity over talent. Never hold onto abusive talent while the rest of your team finds fulfillment working somewhere else. No one, not even you, are important enough to get to treat others horribly.
Missing a deadline or milestone happens. Those projections are mostly about what could be possible in the best of conditions, so don’t be afraid to share bad news. Investors would rather hear about what is going wrong so they can help you than to hear about what went wrong and is now not fixable.
You may have things fall through, but whenever and however possible, keep your promises. Others will give you a lot more leeway when things do fall apart if they know you’ve done everything you can to keep a promise you made. Also, don’t make promises that hinge on someone else keeping their promise to you. If they lied to you, they will also made a liar out of you – and you don’t always get to come back from that.
You are the sum of your choices – how you choose to treat others, how you choose to win, why you quit, what you tell yourself, what you choose to value. These choices – as much as anything else – will determine whether you succeed or not and whether you like yourself on the other side of your journey.
Don’t let someone else define you, and don’t let rejection derail you. There are thousands of reasons why someone decides their answer is no. You can learn from rejection how to improve and get better at how you ask – whether it’s for funding, a contract or a chance to prove yourself. But don’t let anyone else’s no define you.
Don’t win by harming others. Competition and friction are great motivators, but playing dirty to get what you want … you never know when or how that decision will come back to bite you, but it will. If you make playing dirty a habit, it will become your culture.
Forgive yourself for the things you get wrong. Learn from mistakes, but don’t let your failures become so large in your view of yourself that you lose sight of your gifts and what you’ve done well. It will prevent you from recovering and continuing to lead with confidence.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.