This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
Here’s the optimal setting for you and every individual you lead: hungry, but not starving.
Too much success or too much desperation are recipes for mediocrity and/or failure. The former makes it hard to maintain focus and work ethic, the latter makes it hard to prioritize anything over money. The former serves to reduce motivation, the latter is too motivated. Both are to be avoided when striving to lead or building a team. As the famous 49ers coach Bill Walsh said, always strive to be a one-point underdog.
I grew up in what you might describe as a rough suburb of Philadelphia. It was (and still is) the type of place where if you found yourself on the east side of the train tracks, it was a good idea to watch your back and refrain from walking the streets after dusk. On the west side, things were much easier for the most part. It was the type of place where you could go trick-or-treating at night, people said hi to you as they walked by, and stores could operate without bars on their windows.
As you might guess, I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks—the east side of town. But like a fish in a fishbowl, I never knew how bad it was until I saw how good other places were. I had friends on both sides of the tracks, and luckily, I went to school on the west side. There were always two kinds of people in the town: “book-smart” and “street-smart.” I was always known to be “book-smart,” but on the east side I had to learn to be “street-smart”. I had no choice. But as I learned fairly quickly: the books were for the hungry and the streets were for the starving. If you were hungry, you were motivated to succeed, brought up to do the right thing, and always worked for what you had. You always had enough to get by, but never enough to stay by. There were no silver spoons.
If you were starving, you grew up in 24/7 survival mode. Desperation was the norm. I knew too many starving people growing up. As kids, they would cause trouble, steal lunch money, bully kids on the playground, and fight each other on the school bus. By high school, these behaviors translated into drugs, lunchroom brawls, and getting caught with guns at school, and in some unfortunately extreme cases, murder. In my town, there was no entrepreneurial spirit, no great hope for the future. None of that. The only thing that existed to the starving was getting that money, by any means necessary.
I was lucky to have grown up in a time of video games and successful Philly sports teams. (In Philadelphia, when our teams win, everyone is happier the next day.) Along with the strict nature of my grandfather, these things kept me off the streets. Who knows where I’d be today if they hadn’t? In my 18 years there, I learned what it meant to be hungry. And unfortunately, I also had seen what it meant to be starving.
When I went off to the lush greenery of a private university, I saw the exact opposite. Culture shock would be an understatement. It was thousands of spoiled trust fund kids with no drive whatsoever. Many were just there for the party as long as mommy and daddy paid the tuition bill. Those poor rich kids were cursed by their parents’ success, and never knew what it meant to face adversity or put in a hard day of work.
Over time, I calibrated my understanding of hunger. I realized the pitfalls of leaning too much in one direction or the other. I learned, crystal-clear, that the only way you make it out of a town like mine in-tact is to always be slightly hungry—hungry enough to study the books and print your own golden ticket out of there, but not so hungry that you’d commit a crime. I also learned that a lack of hunger, was equally as damaging to one’s drive to succeed (maybe more so). When it came time for me step up into leadership positions, I knew exactly the kind of person I wanted to be, hire, and lead.
What I love most about that part of my life is that it gave me the ability to understand the mindsets of abundance and scarcity up close. Train yourself to always be slightly hungry. Always hold that carrot in front of your nose close enough to taste. That will be your driving force in your life, and it is the mark of someone with the drive and commitment to do honest, hard work. When building a team to lead, gauge their level of hunger. Create an environment of urgency and intensity, not desperation. And when in doubt, remember the words of Bill Walsh: always strive to be a one-point underdog.
Become a Better Leader
The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.
This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.
Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership
Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.