I arrived at work that day in my blue jeans, motorcycle boots, and a t-shirt – standard motorcycle gear for my quick commute to work. Dressing however you wish to dress was the norm at Hyperglot Software. It was a classic small startup. They created cool software for learning new languages. I was an intern there while in graduate school – employee 32!
I might have been comfortable that day in my jeans and t-shirt, but months earlier when I showed up for my interview, things were a bit different. I arrived for the interview in a crisp clean Brooks Brothers suit, a hard white starchy shirt, and a simple red tie. I proudly reeked of “business student.” I didn’t know what to expect, though I had read about software startups and was excited to gain first-hand knowledge.
The door opened and before me stood a young man with a long goatee, tank top, cammo shorts, and no shoes. I thought I was in the wrong place.
“Can I help you?” He inquired as he looked at me, worried.
“I’m here for an interview,” I said. I asked if I was in the right place and explained that I was there to interview with Phil, the president of the company.
A look of clear understanding washed over his face. “Oh!” He grimaced. “You’re the MBA.” It wasn’t a question. It was just a somewhat condescending acknowledgment.
I got the job that day but not before I met a host of Cammo Short’s wonderfully eccentric colleagues. I met the COO, Scott, who politely suggested that I should remove my tie and never be seen wearing one onsite again, lest I harm all things creative. I met the firm’s lead programmer, Sam – a delightful young man who loved wearing his multi-colored beanie cap with the propeller on the top. I met a fascinating language expert named Carine from Belgium, a Stanford Ph.D. who spoke seven languages and also served as the team’s social coordinator. She made me go dancing with the team whether I wanted to or not.
The two main owners of the company were Phil and Martin. The former was the business suit who focused mostly on finance, accounting, and sales and marketing. He was literally the only person who ever dressed up at work. The latter was a Ph.D. in languages, a university professor, and the company’s chief language and technical officer.
So, there I am, at my desk working one morning when in walks Martin, aka Dr. Rice. I’d been an employee for about one month and at work that day for maybe three hours. I was focused on work, but Dr. Rice had other plans.
“Let’s go.” He said. “We’re going to get a tattoo.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “Are you in?”
He didn’t actually ask if I was interested. He didn’t inquire if I had a plan for another tattoo. He only knew that I had a couple already, likely wanted more, and most importantly, that he was in the mood to get his next piece.
Normally, I try to be thoughtful and plan things out. This amount of spontaneity would usually frazzle me. I’m not sure why, but I said yes without much hesitation. It was hard to say no to this congenial, odd, fellow. His intelligence and wealth were a complete mismatch with his worn jeans and t-shirt, which I loved.
Moments later, Martin hopped on his Harley. I jumped on my Honda, and off we went, ready to play hooky. We arrived at our destination some thirty minutes later. A small, old tattoo shop in the hills outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Two grizzled looking old biker types were manning the shop. Martin spoke to one. I worked with the other.
On the fly, I just decided to share a fragment of an idea I had with the artist. I told him I had a motto of sorts floating around my head. It was the phrase, “Live Hard.” I told him it was a reminder to live fully, now, be bold, etc. It was half-formed, to say the least, but somehow, I didn’t care.
“Nice.” My artist responded. “What kind of images are you thinking about?”
“Maybe a shield and a banner or something?” I suggested.
I wasn’t quite sure, so I looked at Martin. He sensed my hesitation, then spoke up. “Look man, sometimes you have to think deeply, and sometimes you just need to let go and roll with it.”
“How about I put a dragon on the shield?” my grizzled artist asked.
“Do it,” I replied – and then I let go. Two hours later the motto was seared onto my left upper arm, complete with shield and dragon.
That day changed me a little.
A New Motto
I was already in a growth state of mind. My graduate program at the University of Tennessee was fun and challenging, my interest in business was ever-widening. Working in such a progressive fun environment at Hyperglot pushed me to open up even more.
I thought about my new motto often. It sounded too silly to share with others, but I thought about it. I wondered if others had used that phrase. I wondered if it meshed well with any teachings from religion, philosophy, the world of self-help, or elsewhere – so I started to read.
It became something of a hobby. The more I read, and the more I thought about it, the more I started to believe I’d stumbled upon a really useful phrase. I’ve always tried to be a person who lives by some set of principles, and though I sampled various religions and philosophies, I’d never really found what I was looking for.
Unsatisfied, I turned to one of my favorite sources of wisdom – my mother. I showed her the tattoo. She was unimpressed, but was interested in the motto and my quest. Her advice: read the Bible.
So, I did. It was my second reading. There is a great deal of wisdom in those pages. Thoughts about family, hard work, justice, kindness – you name it. There’s a lot to like: the gospels are interesting, the trippy sci-fi writing is interesting, the poetic beauty of Pslams is interesting too. Of course, there is also a lot of difficult violence and mayhem, and endless amounts of begatting. Interesting, but I still wasn’t satisfied.
I dove into a little philosophy and psychology as well, both of which I had enjoyed as an undergraduate student. I felt energized and emboldened to learn that Vogel said discovery is the primary driver in life. Of course, I was also moved by Freud who suggested the real driver was pleasure. I was heartened to realize that Confucius, Jesus, and many others, suggested that helping people was among the highest of callings.
A few of the legends in the self-help world made an impact on me too. The great Zig Ziglar reminded me that your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude. Sounds silly, but the more you think about, the more you realize it’s true! Thankfully, Wayne Dyer told me (paraphrasing) that you can be miserable, or you can motivate yourself. Either way, it’s your choice.
I was very interested in the idea of improving myself, maxing out my potential – call it what you’d like. I had no idea I would eventually turn this interest into a career.
As I began to look for patterns or themes among all of these ideas, something obvious stood out. There was plenty of talk about things to think, say, or do in order to be good. There were rules and suggestions about things to avoid and how to stay out of trouble. Okay, that’s useful, but it still felt really incomplete to me.
In my reading, I noticed that the idea of becoming more, taking risks as a principled choice, chasing goals, and being successful were all missing. Almost completely. Face your fears. Dream. Imagine. Be creative. Embrace change. It seemed like such an obvious omission.
So, for at least a little while I felt like I had said something useful when I coined the phrase Live Hard. Of course, as the years rolled on, I realize a couple things. First, the world of psychology and the social sciences, and a lot of the self-help world, did indeed address these topics – at length.
There was everything from studies of entrepreneurial personalities, a vibrant stream of research around goal theory, not to mention one of my all-time favorites – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the motivation literature. Sure, it turned out his theory wasn’t exactly correct, but boy was it useful and popular. Almost everyone remembers the pyramid, and, what sat at the top: self-actualization!
Grow, Learn, and Achieve
By now, it was the 2000s and ideas about failure being great and necessary, a true catalyst for learning, a beautiful requirement for success, were common. Scholars were studying these issues. Business leaders espoused many related platitudes. Self-help gurus all had their own version of these ideas. Let’s go! Try. Grow. Learn. Achieve.
However, nobody had crystalized this group of related ideas in a manner that was easy to remember and share. I caught a glimpse of my arm in a mirror one day and realized that I already had the answer. Live Hard. By now, the tattoo was a decade old, but the idea seemed fresher than ever.
It became a part of me the day I skipped work and got tattooed with Martin Rice. Way back then it just seemed like a fun indulgence. A light-hearted idea. Years later, I realized it’s so much more. It’s a motto, a calling. It’s a profoundly important reminder that life is short, a reminder that life is to be lived!
Eventually, I realized there are a few lessons here for anyone. My reflections on that day, and about what that phrase really means, became very clear.
First, question everything! This will serve you in life and in your career. Question, search, and listen. Don’t be like so many alphas who sometimes talk too much – think! I don’t care about which specific paradigm, religion, or system works for you. The point is that they’re only worth it if there is legitimate room to question, disagree, and apply your own perspective. Any philosophy centered on ideas like try, fail, learn, and growth isn’t possible without room to make it your own. The more you question the wisdom that is presented to you, the more you’ll eventually find wisdom that works for you.
Second, take action! Sure, thinking and questioning are sacred, but there is something even more sacred: action. Nothing stimulates thought like trying something. When you try things you know how they feel, for real, based on experience. On an individual level, this should remind you to get off of the sideline and get into the game. Life is not a spectator sport. Try! Win or lose, succeed or fail, so what. Learn something, try again, and improve. Over time, this is always the best strategy for gaining knowledge and success.
Finally, realize that success is a journey, not a destination. The dream is to enjoy the time you spend working because you love yourself, you enjoy those with whom you work, and you see some amount of purpose in your work. If you live hard, you’ll end up winning more than losing, but just trying and learning and seeing progress is the real thrill. Taking your thoughts, abilities, and accomplishments forward to new levels – that’s the real joy.
I felt emboldened by my time with Dr. Martin Rice. He showed me that you can be professional and still be you without a ton of compromise. We’re still connected online all these years later. He’s now in his 80s. Recently, he saw one of my posts on LinkedIn, a draft of what became a chapter in Live Hard about how businesses today have to get serious about embracing young talent (i.e., Thank You, Ferris). He dropped a comment and suggested to me that we better also pay attention to how older people add value. He was right again.
Isn’t it interesting how change begins in your life? It’s just about taking one small risk, one small action… Remembering to think, but then, occasionally, knowing you just have to let go. That starts the ball rolling. In my case, it then lead to a new tattoo, and eventually to a phrase on the license plate of my first Harley, then a book and the story you’re reading. I honestly try to live by this idea, and now I’m reminding you of the same opportunity.
It all started with a scratchy tattoo that I likely need to have redone or covered. However, the truth is that no tattoo is ever as strong as the idea for which it stands.
Life is short – Live Hard.