What Competitive Beach Volleyball Taught Me About Leadership

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Article originally appeared on FastCompany.com

“Damn,” I thought, after another humiliating loss. “You’re better than 90% of the players here, but you’re finishing on the bottom rung every time. What’s going on?”

I’ve played competitive beach volleyball for five years, and until recently I’d consistently placed within the top three in most tournaments. But I couldn’t seem to master the “King of the Beach” (KOB)-style tournament, where players rotate partners after each game. I rarely placed better than 16th out of a pool of 20, yet I could spring higher, block better, and out-hit most of the competition.

After consoling myself with “I’m better than them” so many times, I realized I wasn’t better. There was some skill missing that I didn’t have or wasn’t using. It was only at my last tournament—where I placed first in my division—where I discovered the missing ingredient. Here’s what I learned.

In regular doubles, players practice with each other dozens of times before partnering up. You have the time to establish chemistry and get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But there’s no such luxury in KOB games. Sometimes you’ve met the people that you’re partnered up with before, but a lot of the time they’re perfect strangers. In either case, you’re suddenly thrown together as teammates—and you either make on-the-spot corrections and motivate your partner immediately, or you flunk out of the pool. That’s exactly what happened in my first five tournaments.

Once I got the confidence to critique my partners, I knew I had to execute at my highest level or I’d look like a fraud.

My reaction to unskilled partners was, “What’s wrong with him? Why is he sucking?” So a couple weeks ago I finally tried to switch up my approach, and basically just psych myself up with a new mantra: “I know he can do better. How can I bring out his best?” In other words, I adopted a leadership perspective. And I won.

These are the three main lessons I learned about developing powerful teamwork pretty much instantaneously.

I routinely placed in the bottom 20 at my first few KOB tournaments because of false positivity. My partner would shank a pass and I’d just beam, tell him he’d do better next time, and clap him on the back. But better never came.

I focused so much on staying positive that I forgot about my own game. Then I’d shank passes and miss easy kills. I’d swear under my breath and slink from the court after another loss. But boy did I have a big smile!

Then I learned that good leaders need to give good criticism. If you recognize a habit that’s killing your team’s performance, it needs to be addressed and handled—and fast. In my first-ever, first-place KOB volleyball tournament the weekend before last, I learned how to assemble what some call a criticism sandwich. That method has itself been criticized by some experts, but it worked like a charm for me. When my partners weren’t passing correctly, I’d follow this three-step process:

I thanked them sincerely and praised their efforts. “That last dig was ridiculous—such a good dig. I love playing with you.”
Then I’d call out the problem and suggest a solution: “But we’re bleeding points right now, and it’s because of our passing. So get your platform out early and pass it low like you know how. Get it right to my hands.”
Then I’d finish with another positive in the form of a compliment: “You’re playing lights out, so let’s have fun and put the next one straight down. You’ve got this.”
Sticking with that simple sandwich recipe, I improved the most out of every other player in the tournament, finishing first in my pool. All I had to do was ditch my aversion to criticism and address the issues with good humor. Best of all, this approach worked right off the bat, including with teammates I’d never even met before.

Good leaders do more than set examples. They practice what they preach over and over and over. I flopped in my earlier tournaments because I wasn’t consistent. I dropped my own performance to match my partner’s level of play.

Worse, I didn’t feel confident enough to address the problem. So I just slid to the backseat and watched another loss unfold. I didn’t take responsibility or practice leading from the front.

But once I got the confidence to critique my partners, I knew I had to execute at my highest level or else I’d look like a fraud. I made sure to set the ball two feet off the net and 16 feet high before I demanded a better set from my partner. I squared up my own platform and showed the kind of pass I needed before I asked for it.

That communicated more than I could have with just words—or rather, my words already matched my actions, and both stayed consistent. And it seems in retrospect that each of my partners could tell; each of them subtly but distinctly raised their own performance level. It’s amazing what people will do for you when you show them how to do it.

Most of us bash ourselves when we fail, and we forget to applaud ourselves when we get it right. But we all need positive reinforcement for a job well done if we expect continued results. Good leaders remind us of that need by constantly encouraging good behavior.

I said thank you after each play, and I didn’t care if it sounded repetitive, because my thanks came from the heart.
In my successful tournament, I said thank you after each play, and I didn’t care if it sounded repetitive, because my thanks came from the heart. “What a beautiful pass. Just where I needed it. Keep it up!” Or, “That was three spikes in a row! You’re doing awesome man, thanks.”

My gratitude boosted my partners’ confidence so that they performed at their peak. And the final scorecard proved it: I won each game by an average of 10 points or more.

Looking back, it isn’t all that surprising that the secret to building great teamwork right away is just a dose of leadership. But when it’s just you and a partner, it sometimes feels wrong to take the reins. But that didn’t mean being domineering or bossy. All I had to do was confront issues head on, play as hard as I wanted my partners to play, and thank them consistently for doing good work. That’s something anybody can do—not just leaders.

What Happened When I Replaced My To-Do Lists With “Love-to-do” Lists



To-do lists are for robots, which I’ve discovered I am not. In my experience, the more “grownup” you become, the more you’re forced to mechanically check things off a list just to get paid. That’s life—welcome to adulthood, kid. But life wasn’t working out the way I’d wanted it to; I got stuff done, I just hated doing it.

So when I finally quit my job to strike out on my own, I decided to inject a little humanity back in my work. To do that, I had to give my to-do lists the boot. I stopped writing those and began writing “love-to-do” lists instead.

I figured that since humans thrive on positive emotions, my career might take an upswing if I committed to doing more of the things I love. That was the theory, anyhow. Here’s how it went for me.


I first considered making this switch when I recognized that no amount of professional accomplishment would make me truly happy. I’d done a lot for my last company, and I’d done well there as an employee. But by the end, I still found that I had to wrench my brain for even a so-so idea. My creativity was suffering, and I just didn’t have enough of those “hell yes!” moments over the course of an average workday to love what I was doing. I was feeling autopilot set in.

I figured that since humans thrive on positive emotions, my career might take an upswing if I committed to doing more of the things I love.
The impulses to defenestrate my laptop and scratch up some adventure became more frequent. But I wasn’t able to rationalize fun for the sake of fun. The articles wouldn’t write themselves, I knew.

I still know that, and yet working for myself has turned out to be quite different—thanks in large part to the love-to-do lists I began writing shortly after going solo. Adopting them while I was still finding my footing as my own boss was liberating. Since I was charging what I wanted, I often had the freedom to write one really good article a day—or even one a week—which freed up a lot more time to do the things I loved.

Which ended up being terrifying.
Our culture has an enormous amount of lazy shame. We can hardly live with ourselves if we aren’t producing something. It’s actually pretty common for first-time freelancers to experience acute anxiety that even though they’re making ends meet, they just aren’t working enough.

I got over this fear when I realized that living my life and doing the things I loved made me better at my craft—and subsequently just as productive and creative as I needed to be in order to earn a living and feel good about doing it.

In my long hikes in the mountains, I’d find inspiring ideas hiding behind every bend like little forest sprites. Breaking away from the desk to play beach volleyball filled me with competitiveness and the hunger to constantly improve. That helped me go after bigger clients and work harder at my writing game. And lying down in the afternoons to do absolutely nothing—except gaze at the clouds—trained me to accept silence, and to listen for inspiration.

The more love-to-do’s I checked off, the more satisfied I became with my life and my work.

But here’s the thing: I’m as disciplined and productive as ever. I’m as focused playing guitar for 30 minutes as I am researching an article. So yes, I still have to do the standard to-do’s—meet with client X, take phone call Y, edit Z draft. But I don’t approach those work tasks with the same sense of dread that I used to.

Now that there’s something energizing and actually enjoyable waiting for me just past every task, my motivation feels pretty much bottomless. Writing this article, for instance, wasn’t the apex of my professional desires when I woke up this morning. But it turned out to be fun because I’m channeling the positivity I generated from this morning’s rock-climbing session into something productive.

Our culture has an enormous amount of lazy shame. We can hardly live with ourselves if we aren’t producing something.
And when the weekends come, I’m guilt-free. I don’t feel the need to be busy for the sake of busyness, so I can relax, and recharge, and do what I love. You know, like a human. When I settle down to my keyboard the following Monday, I don’t have the back-to-reality blues that most people have—because I know that I can do a little of what I love during the workday, too. That keeps me present at work, and relaxed. And that’s when I do my best. That’s also when I get paid the most.

If this sounds like a paean to self-employment more so than an endorsement of love-to-do lists, it isn’t entirely. You don’t actually need to quit your job in order to gain more time to do what fulfills you. No, your boss probably won’t like it if you duck out every Wednesday afternoon to go for a bike ride. And it’s true that work is still work—it can’t all be fun, which is why your employer pays you to do it.

But building more “love” into your to-do lists isn’t about trying to change all that. It’s just a strategy to consciously and regularly do more of the enjoyable things you already do (haphazardly) over the course of a workweek. That way you have more energy and inspiration to excel at what you do. And like anything else, it takes discipline.

You don’t actually need to quit your job in order to gain more time to do what fulfills you . . . [but] it takes discipline.
To get started, take an hour tonight after work to do some journaling, and reflect on the activities that energize you most. Start your list first with the things you actually love to do in an average week. (If you don’t normally go squirrel-suit skydiving on an average week—or have never even tried it—don’t add that right away.) Then work out from there. If you’re coming up short, think about what you used to do on an average week—when you were a kid, back when having fun was okay. Write those down.

Once you have a few past or current pleasures accounted for, you can think a little more wishfully. Write down some things that appeal to you even if you’ve never tried them—like salsa dancing.

Now you need to commit. Pick two or three items that you can realistically accomplish next week. Then schedule those love-to-dos right alongside your other work-related imperatives. Those are now appointments on your calendar like any other, so you need to keep just as much as you need to not miss that conference call or meet that project deadline.

My daily love-to-dos look something like this:

Do some sprints
Break away from the computer every 30 minutes for a round of pushups
Read some fiction
Play some guitar
Play with the dog
Reflect on the things I’m grateful for
Look at the clouds
I don’t always check off every single thing on this list every single day, but I can always hit most of them—whereas before writing love-to-do lists, these activities were just periodic pastimes.

And for my week, I’ll schedule some bigger activities that I can’t do every day:

Take a long hike in the arroyo (I live in Albuquerque)
Practice volleyball at least twice a week
Go rock climbing at least twice a week
Play a doubles beach volleyball tournament on Saturday
Go to choir practice
Spend time with my nieces and nephews
Climb the biggest tree by the river

Other than professional singers, not many people have “sing” on their to-do lists. But then again, not many people have committed to actually scheduling out the things they love to do. Will you?

Article originally published on FastCompany.com

5 Decisions That Can Change Your Life Today

Decisions are the difference between the life you have and the life you want; they’re also the reason why most people are stuck in lives they wouldn’t plan for.

That was my case.

Three years ago I was your average millennial male. I mooched off my parents. I had zero direction, and I was no closer to a career than my 10 year-old, Sponge Bob-watching, Cheeto-fingered self. I knew I needed change. But I always hoped for a change of circumstance—like a new girlfriend.

After burning through so many girlfriends I found myself a quarter of a century old and with absolutely nothing to show for it. I couldn’t ignore the truth: my unhappiness and lack of success was my decision. So I radically altered my decision making process.

Three year later I’m (finally) independent in the career I love. I’m a millennial mentor and writing coach. I’m published on the best websites in the world. And by sticking to 5 key decisions, I’ve shed my failure identity.

If you have a feeling that you’re meant for something more, here are the 5 decisions that will help you achieve more:

1-Control your morning thoughts

Eternally sunny dispositions are the exceptions. For the rest of us, we have to work hard to choose useful thoughts. The most important time to do it is first thing in the morning.

You can regret the shit storm that is your life, or you can be grateful for all the opportunities you have to improve. You can feel oppressed by the things you know you have to do, or you can get stoked to do things that will make you rich and happy.

For every negative thought there is a positive spin waiting for your effort. So treat every morning as a challenge to shape your best thoughts; to weed out the negativity; to prepare for a sensational life. No one else will do it for you.

Don’t get out of bed until you’ve meditated on what you’re grateful for, on the cool shit you get to do, on the people you get to help, on the people who’ve helped you, on the towering goals you’re building towards, on your challenges, and on your accomplishments.

Think useful thoughts.

2-Encourage yourself

Think of the great coaches throughout history, like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley with the Bulls and Heat. These guys motivated their team’s championship efforts with kindness and encouragement, not whips and lashes. The best coaches look for and find the best in their players.

You are your own coach. Will you encourage yourself to succeed? Or will you bash yourself into defeat?

I made a habit of bashing myself: for the money I should’ve made, for the independence I hadn’t earned. But the bashing never got me anywhere. I just felt more and more ashamed. And as I saw others rising higher and higher, I felt more and more defeated.

When I made the effort to encourage myself no matter what, I finally found the support I needed to succeed. (It took me 27 years to figure this out. But, better late than never.)

So support yourself.

Do it by heading to the nearest mirror as soon as you spring out of bed. Describe all of the good things you see. Comment on the man or woman you know you can be, the accomplishments you know you’ll achieve, and the encouragement you promise to give yourself along the way.

Then anytime you start thinking negative thoughts during the day, fall back on your morning affirmations. If you don’t have your back, who will?

3-Do real work

Nothing happened in my writing career until I got disciplined with my time. But after a solid year of blocking out my morning for writing—and strictly limiting email and social media for 10 minutes in the afternoon—I built a body of work that my clients pay out the proverbial ass for.

From 8-12, dedicate your mornings to proaction. Ban all incoming information. Direct yourself—otherwise, you risk being directed by people who don’t care about your dreams. No email is going to kick ass for you, and neither will any number of facebook or twitter notifications. So do—real—work.

4-Set daily goals

If you don’t plan out action steps, you’ll be battling against the world to accomplish anything.

Think of it like this: you have a billion different people all over the world vying for your attention over social media, TV, advertisements, and the interwebs. How will you compete with them for the life you want to live?

If you don’t have big-ass, juicy, self-directed goals that get you off your butt, you simply can’t compete.

So set goals for learning. Set goals for work accomplishments. Set goals for relaxing. Set goals for fitness and fun. Set goals for your hobbies. Set goals for anything that will benefit your life as a balanced human being, no matter how big or small.

When you get into the habit of checking off the things you want and need to do, you’ll be living the life of your design. Success is only a matter of time.

5-Journal at the end of every day

Your life is built on your thoughts. If you change your thoughts, you change your life. Journaling is the best way to do it.

Every thought you have influences your behavior, even the ones you don’t know you have. Those niggling subconscious thoughts are the reasons why most people don’t live the lives they want. But when you reflect and write down your thoughts at the end of each day, you make the subconscious conscious. Then you’re in full control of what thoughts you reproduce the next day.

If you can’t accept a certain limiting thought, you’re free to choose a better thought to take its place—but only after you become aware of it.

So, every night, take 15-30 minutes to look back on the thoughts and actions that made your day. Jot them down. You’ll end up seeing all the invisible things that held you back. Making your thoughts concrete will give you confidence in your ability to change them; you’ll automatically come up with solutions for a better tomorrow*.

(That’s been my experience at least. It’s like having a spider in your house: if you see the spider, you’ll squash it. If not…it’ll have thousands of babies that come to feast on your flesh in the middle of the night. Well, maybe not that dramatic. But still bad.)


Your life is the sum of your decisions. So take control of them. Take charge of your day from the start with positive thinking and affirmations. Take ownership of your direction by setting daily goals and sticking with them. Limit your distractions. And reclaim your subconscious by changing your thoughts with a journal.

It’s hard, but who said life was easy? If the no-job, no-hope millennial who lived on his parents couch could do it, so can you.

This article originally appeared on Elite Daily

3 Steps to Become More Resilient

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           (Originally posted on Entrepreneur.com)

Success of any kind takes time, consistent effort, failure and resilience. Take the late Louis L’Amour, for example. He’s regarded as America’s greatest storyteller, with over 60 published novels — most of them bestsellers.

In his autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man, L’Amour shares his failures like a badge of honor. It was a big badge, too. A picture of his submissions log reveals countless rejections. Had L’Amour identified with his failures, he would’ve quit long before greatness. Instead, he viewed failure as a step to success. And he kept stepping.

“I knew there was going to be failure, I just didn’t know how much,” L’Amour said.

If you’ve dealt with some colossal failures in your business, you’re on the right path. Keep going. But if you want to convert those failures to success, you need more resilience.

How I grew resilience

For my first 24 years, I had about as much resilience as a kale chip. I refused to try anything I wasn’t automatically good at, and I rarely, if ever, put myself on the line. I was so brittle that if I failed, that meant I was a failure. Because of my fear of failure, I was completely dependent on my parents, which only fed the fear.

But in my mid-twenties, I realized that I could only be happy if I provided for myself. So I confronted my demons. I saw just how brittle I had become, and I planned to become more resilient.

In studying experts like Brené Brown and Josh Waitzkin, I learned that resilience comes through celebrating effort, not results. That concept conflicted with my perfectionist attitude. I wasn’t used to coaching myself, and the idea of positive thinking seemed laughable, considering my lack of success.

But what choice did I have? I couldn’t surf couches forever. So I began my own three-step resilience routine.

1. Affirmations and encouragement

Each morning I looked at myself in the mirror and said out loud all the good things I saw or wanted to be. (I know, this conjures up images of Chris Farley’s motivational speaker character from SNL. But funny as it may be, it worked for me.)

I listed all the things I knew I’d accomplish. I congratulated myself on the effort I gave the day before, regardless of the outcome. And I gave myself permission to fail.

2. I started a daily planner

I wrote down all the goals I wanted to achieve in a week and gave myself daily directives to reach them. When I checked off an accomplishment, no matter how small, I would flood myself with encouragement for the effort, for the consistency and for the persistence I showed.

Instead of depending on results for motivation, I relied on my own encouragement and the checklist of accomplishments that told me I was succeeding. I chose to depend on the things I could control.

3. I adopted a nightly journal

I used a journal to reflect on and dissect my daily effort. I praised the energy that I put into succeeding, noting the important thoughts and actions that pulled me through. I reflected on how my attitude affected my efforts and what I could do to change my attitude.

I also wrote about where I didn’t give my best effort. But instead of focusing on the negative, I appreciated myself just the same, told myself how much better I would do the next day and made specific plans to do so. Every directive I came up with through journaling was fed back into my daily planner so that I could improve the next day.

Resilience gave me independence

My resilience routine obliterated the brittle mindset that had held me back. I took a leaf from L’Amour and started my own rejection list. Each “thanks, but you suck” letter I received meant that I was one step closer to results. So, like L’Amour, I kept stepping. (Unlike L’Amour, I am still waiting on my 60th bestseller.)

Related: 5 Daily Habits to Optimize Your 2017

The more I praised my effort, the more courage I had to step into the arena and face failure. And I failed with style. I got rejection after rejection from all the big websites, including this one. Query letters to new clients went unanswered or rejected. There were even people who got offended at my attempts to succeed. But, unlike my brittle former self, I kept going. I celebrated the failure. Every time I chose to applaud my effort rather than dwell on mistakes, I became more resilient.

Within one year of adopting a resilience practice, I went from a couch-surfing boy adrift to an independent man, a writer — published on the world’s best sites — and a contributor to my local business community.

My resilience practice gave me an inner strength that helped me succeed not only as an entrepreneur, but as an athlete, friend, brother, uncle, role model and son too.


Are you where you want to be professionally? Are you able to take risks? If not, start your resilience routine today.

Come up with the affirmations that you need. Encourage yourself from dawn to dusk. Plan out your day, celebrating your efforts as you achieve. And reflect on your day each night with a journal, assessing what you did right and where you can do better.

Encourage yourself. Take risks. Accept failure. And embrace success.