A lot of people believe opportunity knocks only once and you better succeed. But what do you do with failure in that context? Leadership communication expert John Bates experienced one of his biggest failures with a company called BIGWORDS.com of which he was a co-founder. Being essentially the evangelist for the company, he was on TV and press all the time, talking at conferences, and going around visiting the employees, only to have the rug pulled from under him during the dotcom downturn. The company going under because of his ego was a big wakeup call for John where he learned the hardest lesson of his life, which is to let go of his super tight focus on money and shift it on providing value.
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Providing Value Beyond Ego with John Bates
Our guest is John Bates. John is the Founder of Executive Speaking Success and he’s traveling the world, bringing a positive message to executive offices out there about public speaking and business success. He’s one of the most powerful speaker coaches I know of out there and I’m super glad to have him. John, how are you feeling? Are you ready to go beyond with me?
I am very ready to go beyond with you.
Tell our audience what your passions are.
I’m particularly thrilled to be on an interview with Elizabeth Barry because what I do now is something that when I met Elizabeth Barry, I was not doing yet. Along with TEDx AFC, Elizabeth believed in me very early on and completely changed my life by seeing my greatest even before I did. What I do now is I do leadership communications training. That involves a lot of speaker coaching. I’m probably the most prolific TED format trainer in the world right now or at least one of them. I also do a lot of executive coaching and executive whispering. I help people bring the lessons of the TEDx format, along with the lessons of the neurobiology of human communication to everything they do. People come away from our engagements far more effective, far more influential, much greater executive presence, all those things that leaders want. They understand not only what to do but why they should do it based on science. I get to bring that to the whole world, Elizabeth, because you believed in the early, so I will never be able to thank you enough but thank you.
It’s interesting what you said about executive coaching and executive whispering. I have a few questions for you now about listening and active listening. You’re an executive speaker coach. You’re out there and you’re the one that’s speaking all the time. One of my biggest questions for you because you’re always speaking, is what is your best advice on listening? Most of us don’t listen.
One of the things that I think is maybe counterintuitive at first, but once you think about it becomes obvious is that probably the most important skill that you can develop if you want to be a really powerful speaker is to listen powerfully. You said that is something that’s very tough for us as human beings. I know that until I got extremely coached and extremely trained in this, when I would be in a conversation, half the time I was thinking about what I was going to say next when they stop talking, which makes it really tough to hear what they’re actually saying. As a leader and as a speaker, I firmly believe that listening is your key skill, which is funny because it’s like, “I’m a speaker.”
Most of us can’t shut ourselves up.The most important skill that you can develop if you want to be a powerful speaker is to listen powerfully. Click To Tweet
That’s for sure. It’s funny you say that, Elizabeth, because I had an experience a long time ago when I stepped into getting myself coached and stepped into getting trained to become who I wanted to be versus who I had been by default and just by accident. What I realized a long time ago when I first stepped into that training are two things. One, I thought that when I would meet someone and they would tell me a story, say they would tell me a story about where they had gone surfing recently, I would want to connect with them. What I would do is then immediately tell them the story about where I went surfing. What I didn’t realize is that that actually is not connecting me with them. That actually comes across like I’m trying to one up them.
I would even go as far as John is saying that the ego was present, which is where we’re going. We’re going beyond ego. Your ego was like, “Let me tell you about me too.”
That was absolutely where that comes from. My mom studied with Yogi Bhajan and taught Kundalini Yoga since the mid-‘70s. What she talks about a lot in that training and that teaching is your negative ego and your positive ego. There’s an element of ego that’s positive. You’ve got to take care of yourself. If you don’t remember to breathe and go to the bathroom, no one’s going to do it for you. There’s this other side of it that very quickly becomes a negative ego. That’s the thing that was driving when I would just talk and talk.
It’s probably one of the biggest lessons that most of us at the top or at the helm or in the C-suite have to learn the hard way. It’s a lesson that a lot of us learn in our 40s and in our 50s, just this active listening role because we weren’t taught this, John. We, as adults, we’re not taught this way of being kind. My book, The Kind Communicator, it’s all about being kind to each other and being kind to self, like what you had said. It’s not talking to someone about what you did after they tell you what they just did. We weren’t taught these ways of being, which is why active listening and speaking in turn and just learning about going beyond the ego and centering ourselves and breathing, like your mom learned, the positive and negative egos. It’s really about centering ourselves before we have something to say.
The thing that I realized out of all of that interaction around me and my freaking big mouth was that when somebody told me about a surfing trip they just went on, instead of telling them immediately about my surfing trip, I would ask them a few questions, “How big were the waves? Did you have any scary moments? Did you meet anybody that was super cool? What are you going to do?” I would ask some questions. At a certain point, they would ask me about something and I’d be able to share maybe one of my surf trips with them. It would be after I had asked them a lot of questions and after I had probed into what was up with them. It just made for much better conversation.
It’s about tapping into our vulnerability as leaders and executives out there to become a better listener. I think that when we become better listeners and “go beyond the ego,” we find that there’s less of a need for more and more of a need for quiet and peace. We learn not only more about other people, but we learn more about ourselves in that quiet. In my new book, there’s a chapter called The Listening Garden and In the Rose Garden and I put everyone in this state of nature because I feel like we can all learn the nature of who we are by the nature that we’re surrounded by. I know that you believe that because you’ve worked with a nature organization. I remember one of the days where I met you, you were in New York City for this big launch at the NASDAQ with putting whales on the video screen there.
You understand the power of nature. It’s also about the power of vulnerability. I know that a lot of men out there who are listening, John is one of the greatest men who owns his vulnerability. He knows that I wasn’t able to own my vulnerability in the past either and we go a long way back. I think there was one time when I was in Hawaii and John schooled me over the phone. He was like, “Elizabeth, slow down.” It was one of the best moments of my life where I was completely humbled. It’s just a lesson to us all that no matter how far we think we are or evolved as we think we are, we’re continuous learners of life. We’re continuously developing our skills to listen and to speak with elegance and owning our vulnerability. John, let’s get vulnerable here. Tell us what is something that you failed at and that you can laugh at now. I say the word laugh because I think that’s a tactical piece of advice when we are at our fear, our fear points and our breaking points. We would either self-depreciate and talk to ourselves in the wrong way or we can laugh at our mistakes. You’re such a successful mentor for all of us right now. Tell us a moment where you failed at something and you can laugh at it now.
One of the biggest failures that I had that have the most lesson, I can laugh at it now. I’m complete with it. I do have to laugh at certain aspects of it and at the same time, it still remains a very deep, very powerful set of lessons for me. I have a company called BigWords.com and there were four of us that were cofounders, but I was the really visible cofounder. I was the one who was on TV all the time, on the radio, talking to the press, talking at conferences, going around and visiting the employees. For my whole life, I was always at very early stage companies, a founder or an early stage employee. I was always essentially the evangelist for the company. That’s what I was doing.
We raised over $80 million and then in the dotcom downturn on October 20th, 2007, seven days before my birthday, our investors who had put over $80 million into us pulled the plug and said, “We don’t think you’re going to be profitable fast enough. We think you’ve got a good thing going here, but you’re not going to be profitable fast enough, so we’re going to pull the plug on you.” I had put very purposefully and out loud, “My soul is on the line for this company and I had been working way too much.” I’ve been winning that game that’s so stupid to win called, “I got less sleep than you did last night.” If you’re winning that game, that is a dumb game to win, let me just say that.
That is not going beyond.
That is so intensely about ego. It’s not even funny thinking that the world will stop turning if you don’t get eight hours of sleep. That’s an ego fallacy. When that company went under because of my ego, I was so ashamed, angry, embarrassed, hurt, sad and all of that whole constellation of emotions that I just went into a corner and cried about it. I had a sudden onset some variation of Stevens Johnson Syndrome. I think you might have known this, Elizabeth, but it almost killed me. I ended up in the hospital thinking that I was very likely not going to walk out the door and I would be going out of the hospital in a body bag. That will focus your mind. It’s certainly focused mine. What I realized, Elizabeth, is that it had been very much about me. Everything was about me. I was going to succeed. I want to take everybody with me, but it was about me. My context for my life was that opportunity only knocks once and you better succeed. What do you do with failure in that context? There was just no room for me in that context. Once it was clear that we had failed, it was over. There were a couple of big lessons for me.
Number one, I sat there and looked at my life and realized how small it was. As I thought that I was potentially not going to walk out of the hospital, it made me super sad. I just realized that if I got out of that hospital, I don’t know about God, but I talked to The Big Is because there’s something about being that’s magical. I said, “Big Is, if I get out of here, I want the context for my life to be, I’m here to make a difference. Forget all the rest of them. I just want to do whatever I do well and whatever I do, I want to somehow make a difference doing it.” When I walked out of the hospital, that was my new context. It was very powerfully set because I had to look death in the face and consider that I might not walk out of there. That was one big thing. I think the other big thing is I realized that it was so much about me and that was so unsatisfying as I sat there thinking I was looking at the end. I really wanted it to be about making a difference, having it be about other people, my interaction with other people. I gave up a lot of that self-focus because what I found in the end is tremendously unsatisfying.
It’s unsatisfying and it’s lonely. I think they say the loneliest places is when you’re half in with something and you’re all in with yourself. John, you’re such an inspiration. Raise your fist in the air, throw your hands up, shake your booty, laugh it off, but also understand that when you come to a crossroads like that, you come to a vulnerable moment. When you were at the hospital, if you are just sick and tired of listening to yourself, you’re sick and tired of being solely focused on you. I know that there’s a lot of you out there. That’s what Beyond Ego is about. It’s about bringing ego healthily into our conversations where we can break free from patterns, break free from the norm, break free of what’s keeping us so comfortable in life because life begins where the ego ends. I want to give rights to you right now, John. For all my audience out there, John and I were taking a visit when he came in with his wife, Sharon, his toddler, Johnny, and Flash, his dog.
We were having a sushi lunch outside and I was telling John about my executive coaching business and how I wanted to bring it to the forefront, but my focus is on vulnerability. My focus is on helping people discover what’s beyond their ego. I didn’t know how to prepare that conversation for the masses, for bringing it to office professionals and for business people because it was a really tough subject. John just said, “Elizabeth, why don’t you think about the book, On Beyond Zebra! by Dr. Seuss. I was like, “Of course. He has a toddler. He brings Dr. Seuss to the table.” Me, being a cat mom and not a real mom, I didn’t have the book. I went out immediately that same night and I got the book on Amazon. As I read through the book, Dr. Seuss said things like, “Everyone stops at Z, but not me.”People don't connect with your successes. They connect with your message. Click To Tweet
There’s so much to learn beyond going by the letter Z. It’s the uncomfortable place that we’re all so afraid of. Here’s Dr. Seuss coming up with names like Zela Come Blue and Ziggity Bobbity and all of the people happily around. The thing that I uncovered, John, was that we don’t always have to be the Cindy Lou Who, the happily ever after character in the Beyond mindset. We can have our struggles, we can have our missteps, our muck and our mayhem, but it only comes to us from a happy place, from a place where we could smile at it and laugh at it when we do go beyond the letter Z. John, thank you so much for introducing me to that book because it actually launched this interview and the Beyond mindset and the Beyond Ego brand.
I’m super happy that I could be a little part of it. I’m happy that you did all the work that it took to actually make it happen.
It’s about sharing our truths with the world. It’s a great way for people like you and me to bring forth the opportunity that leadership and success is not just the actual achievement of it. It’s the journey. It’s getting to that space. You and I met back at TED Active and we met when he was hanging out with his dog and we have so many years. He was my first TEDx speaker coach for my Infinite Horizons event. Everywhere I go, every speaker that I speak with has always mentioned John Bates. John, you’re a great mentor to so many people in your life. You gave us an opportunity where you were vulnerable and you were able to break free. What’s been your favorite moment in life in general so far?
I think it’s a series of moments. I don’t know if you even fully notice, Elizabeth, but you probably do. I think it’s a good story for everybody and it certainly is a favorite big moment in my life. I’ll say it like this. As I said, I was always an evangelist for different technology companies and I was always a very early stage employee. Some of those companies got really big, but I was always an early stage employee, so I was always working for too little money and I had millions of dollars’ worth of useless thoughts.
I have that too. I think a lot of us out there.
For my whole adult life, essentially I was about $50,000 in debt and I’m not kidding at all. It was grinding and it was scary and it was it was tough. When I started this business, when I first did TEDx Hoboken with you and people started asking me to do this for their companies, right before that, everything in my world dried up. It was 2012 and I’d just gotten married to Sharon. I wanted to give her a good life. All of a sudden, there was nothing for me. I spent about six months crying about it, freaking out thinking what am I going to do? I have no skills and I have nothing to offer. I looked back over my life and it took me a while to figure it out, but I said, “I have always been a public speaker. I’m pretty good at that. Maybe what I’ll do is be a speaker coach.” I talked to everybody that would hire speaker coaches that I knew, PR people and HR people and they all said, “You don’t want to be a speaker coach. Speaker coaches are a dime a dozen. That’s a terrible idea. You’ll never make any money. That’s horrible.”
I cried about it for another month, but then I was like, “I know I make a difference because I’ve seen what happens for TEDx AFC and I’ve seen what had happened and TEDx Hoboken with you and the difference that I could make when I worked with speakers.” I said, “Forget it. Who cares if I even make money? I know I provide value with this, so I’m going to do it anyway.” I threw down. For the first year and a half, I just went further in debt. By the end of year two, I was starting to breakeven. Year three, I made more than I ever made in my whole life, ever. Year four, I doubled that plus. Year five, I tripled that plus and since then, six and seven, I’ve been bouncing around up in that area. The interesting thing to me is that when I was so focused on money, what I had was debt. The minute that I truly shifted the focus to providing value, which I had heard so many times, it didn’t happen overnight but pretty soon it turned round. All of a sudden, by focusing on providing value, I was making more money than I’d ever made in my life before.
That is probably my favorite moment, even though it’s a long moment. The fact that I’ve just finally had the guts to throw down and do something that I knew would make a difference for people. That’s what I said. I said I want to make a difference. Let go of solely being worried about the money. I’m all for making money and I don’t want anybody to misunderstand me here. The funny thing about sustainability is you have to sustain it. You’ve got to make money. Making money is important. Make lots of money, that’s good. I love market solutions that make lots of money and make the world a better place. That’s my favorite thing. To focus on providing value and to let go of the super tight focus on money was just a big insight for me and a big deal. I think that’s why this whole thing has worked so well. It’s definitely what I feel like I was put on Earth for. All those previous failures, just the massive amount of time I failed has made me much better at doing this. I think that it was all for a reason on some level.
It’s an amazing story, John. I find that so many clients that I service and so many of my clients are looking for their passions and their purpose. A lot of them use the word, “I’m stuck.” One of the things that I say in my marketing pieces that I help you get unstuck. I think that there are so many people that can relate to your story as to being in debt and not knowing what you want to do and knowing that you’re really good at something, but having people say you’re not going to be good at it, there’s a dime a dozen out there or that’s not supposed to be what you’re supposed to be doing. I was coaching on a client call and they were talking about the fact that they weren’t sure. It’s that question that’s ingrained to us from the beginning of time, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think that whoever came up with that question should go to a timeout. You know how Johnny doesn’t like timeout and when he does go, he deserves it. Go and do a time out because it messed this all up.
I’ve got a short little video, Elizabeth. You’ve seen it already. You’ve heard me talk about it, but it’s about your superhero origin story. I’m happy to give you a bit.ly link if you want.
We’ll share it on the BeyondEgo Facebook page so that our readers can really just get a glimpse into your superhero story of just knowing that you can go beyond and you can fly high and you don’t have to be what you think you ought to be.
That superhero origin story concept, it came to me from a couple of different places. One place that it came from is that experience I had of looking back over my life when I was sitting there in debt. I was just freshly married, wanting to give my wife a good life, wanting to be able to contribute to the world. I’m telling you, being in debt is bondage. I was not making my highest contribution at that point. I sat there, like ego, I was like, “I shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t be this way. I should be somewhere else. I should have the money. I should have a house. I should already be successful.” That’s ego. Anything should, that’s your ego. It has nothing to do with reality. How it is, is how it is. As I sat there and I looked back over my life and I was from such an angry, upset place, I started looking at the different places where I could have made different choices. Maybe I could have gotten that job at Google or maybe we should have sold our company to Amazon instead of trying to go public ourselves.
There were lots of places where I could have done something different that would have went to maybe a more predictable, more successful outcome. I didn’t do those things. As I looked back over those different choices, I realized I wouldn’t even change those choices today. What I ended up doing is I took responsibility for the fact that I was the one that made every single choice that got me here. The good news is that meant I could make choices that would take me somewhere else, but I stopped resisting where I was. I just got where I was. That made it much easier to start thinking about where am I going to go next and what do I actually have as the value. If this really is the way it is, instead of spending all that energy on it should be some other way, I spend energy on this is where it is. Where do I want to take it?
This is where your magic comes from when you’re sitting in a room with a bunch of people in corporate or at boutique offices across the globe. I know you’re traveling everywhere where they have their moments of John Bates. I just had a John Bates moment. I don’t want to do this anymore. I just had a John Bates moment where I don’t want to be in debt and I can get out. All of those stories that you have had have led you to your best life, which is what I call in my books and in the Beyond Ego living the life fulfilled. This is the song that you’re singing.The funny thing about sustainability is you have to sustain it. Click To Tweet
That’s the key word. You hear all the time about these people who are so successful financially and so successful with the title they have and so successful in all these external ways, but are they fulfilled? A lot of times, what people have to have up to accomplish that level of success, we have to be outwardly successful but inwardly unfulfilled. For me, one of the keywords that has to be there for me to consider a truly successful is being fulfilled.
It’s the fulfillment. It’s that message that you’re sharing that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy happiness. You just have to go where your value is. When you search for that value, when you proactively speak and consciously become aware of what value you bring to this world, it is then that out there does its magic.
I got something for you. It goes right along the lines of your focus and the focus on leadership. What I realized is that people do think of me as a TED format speaker coach. That’s cool. That’s how I get my foot in the door. What ends up happening is I ended up getting asked to come back to do coaching for the executive team and coaching for the C-level executives and things because they like my executive whispering so much. What I realized is that it’s very hard for me to get in the door with that being the lead. What happens is when I go in with the TED format thought, people are vulnerable. They know they’re going to have to be personal and talk about something personal in this talk because that’s just how it works. We get underneath a whole bunch of stuff. I think the secret is that I came in a back door with this TED format stuff, then we build a level of trust and a relationship and they want me to come back and coach them on other stuff. That’s interesting because I was trying to figure out why don’t people just call me for coaching? It’s because that’s a little scarier.
That’s ironic because for me to try to get in the door, I’m the one going out there and talking executive coaching, but maybe I should use my TED experience and get in the back door.
It’s not a bad idea.
It’s about where we’re providing that value, John.
People don’t know what they don’t know. People don’t know what it’s like to work with me until they worked with me. One of the key things that come out of all of that work, both the TED work and also the executive whispering, if you will, is that it’s something that you talk about. My quote is from Les Brown. He said, “People don’t connect with your successes. They connect with your message. Your message is in your best.” What I like to point out at my leadership trainings is that that is a very big leadership skill to have, but it is also a very difficult thing to do. What I point out is that it’s easy to be a leader when it’s easy to be a leader. An example of that would be at the buffet table, “I’ll go first. I’m a leader, let me go first.” That doesn’t make any kind of a difference. In fact, that makes you look like a jerk.
I’m going to get all the mashed potatoes.
That is not when being a leader makes a difference. That is an example of leadership, but it’s not the kind of leadership that makes a difference. However, when it comes to being the first person to talk about where you failed and very importantly, what you learned from that failure, nobody wants to go first in that. Once you go first, everybody loves to go second or third or fourth or fifth. We’ll close the bar down with that conversation and no one will forget it for the rest of their life because it’s such valuable, interesting, great information. No one wants to go first.
No one wants to fail first, which is the beauty of Beyond Ego because it’s the value of hearing about leadership in its rises and its falls, in its shiny moments and its dirtiest. There’s that awesome quote out there. I think it’s from Teddy Roosevelt, the guy in the ring who’s the dirtiest and the man who has gotten all the scars on him that really lives and leads in in the most valiant way.
Brené Brown talks about all the time. She talks about that a lot and it’s one of my favorite quotes too. The quarterback just doesn’t count. If you’re not down there on the field, if you’re not getting muddy and bloody and actually fighting the good fight, it doesn’t matter what you think.
John, if you’re not in the game, you’re not living life. You’re not having this thrill. You’re living in boredom. You’re living in a traditional place. You’re living in comfort and you’re relying on the 24/7 daily ho-hum mumbo jumbo. I feel that in what we’re talking about in the value, in the purpose, in the going beyond, in the discussion of ego, in the living in vulnerability, in getting dirty, getting our hands wet. In fact, I talked about this so much in my new book, The Kind Communicator. About when life is sucking, when you’re on your knees, that’s life reaching out to you to reach back in its hand with harmony and to reach out. Clasp it and just say, “I surrender. I’m ready. Let’s go,” instead of looking down and saying, “Woe is me.”
This is such a great way to close up this interview because I know that everyone reading out there has had a, “Woe is me,” moment and has had a moment where they were in the ring and they gave up. I think that between us both being coaches and being TEDx mavens, gurus, masters and also being consistent learners in life and sharing our vulnerable moments and sharing our vulnerability with everyone out there, I know that this very first interview of Beyond Ego is truly an epic moment for all of us. I want to say thank you so much for not only being my first interview, but for also bringing up the idea of the Dr. Seuss book, On Beyond Zebra! If you don’t have that book, get it and then you’ll understand maybe this interview a little bit more when I talk about going beyond the letter Z.
Go beyond your ego. Transcend yourself. It’s what life is all about.
Thank you so much for the inspiration and motivation. My name is Elizabeth Barry. You’ve met John Bates as we went Beyond Ego. Take the time to love yourself, to practice active listening and what John calls whispering and to become aware of the infinite horizons that are just beyond your ego and right in front of your eyes when you choose to be vulnerable, kind, aware and search for your value. If you’re looking beyond and you want a professional or a personal development coach or consultant, you can visit me at ElizabethBarryConsulting.com. You can also visit John Bates at ExecutiveSpeakingSuccess.com. I’m on LinkedIn for tips on living the life fulfilled. Don’t forget to join our BeyondEgo Facebook Group. John, thank you for being my very first guest. To my OnBeyonders, thank you. Until next time, let’s go beyond.
- Executive Speaking Success
- The Kind Communicator
- On Beyond Zebra!
- BeyondEgo Facebook page