Maintaining Relevance Over Decades

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It’s too raw to talk much about yet, but I nearly lost my business in 2013. The entire year was largely an epic fail and only now--with the situation in the rearview mirror--can I see it with any sort of perspective. I’ll write a blog post about it shortly (or maybe a book), but one of the threads weaving through those events is this notion of remaining relevant, and for a long time. On the drive to the cabin yesterday, where I am now, thoughts began to flow about just that. I wanted to formulate a perspective about being relevant over several decades, and I was thinking of myself and of you as this began to take shape.

  1. Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it presumes that you are relevant in the first place. A certain relevance accompanies anyone making a living and helping employees make a living. That’s noble and rewarding, and it’s how developed economies thrive. But I’m talking here about rising from your peers as a leader, and that requires that you see all the same things they do but that you observe different things than they merely see. You develop a perspective that other people--not just you--believe to be unique and they pay you money to help them observe, too.
  2. Maintaining relevance doesn’t necessarily mean that you are consistently relevant to the same people. As your strengths deepen and creep, you may need a different audience if you want to remain relevant to anybody. Your audience will change organically, in good ways, and you will even lose part of your audience in that process. Just be sure it’s because they can’t keep up and not because they quit learning from you. This is one of the larger tensions I have struggled to navigate.
  3. It is solidly a privilege to remain relevant for decades and most definitely not a right. Doing great work once means that you have just one more chance to do great work again, and so the cycle repeats itself. But the cycle can be broken for any reason at any point in time.
  4. While I think that luck plays an outsized role in being relevant in the first place, I don’t think luck has much of any role in being relevant for decades. That result comes from disciplined work on the right things all the time. If I could point to one thing that drags people away from long-term relevance it is that they spend their best efforts on a client instead of spending their best efforts on developing perspectives and processes for all of their clients as a whole. Here it is, more succinctly: if you aren’t consistently helping your clients see things in new, helpful ways, you are not consistently relevant. Permanence meets temporary.
  5. Remaining relevant for decades springs from playing the long game. You keep at it, and you smile at the notion of dropping hook after hook, patiently doing the right things, shoving momentary bouts of panic away because that’s not who you are. When you get desperate you turn stupid, and stupid people are irrelevant.
  6. A more than fleeting relevance speaks to the fact that you have good advisors yourself. These are people who don’t buy your shit, who are fair, and who see the harmonious tone beneath the noise. They believe in you and their are solid reasons for that belief.
  7. You won’t be relevant for decades unless you are morbidly curious. In that pursuit, there are times when the urgency to write down a string of thoughts is as painful as waiting far too long to pee and you’d better find a solution in a few minutes or someone’s going to be wet and warm.
  8. Being relevant for decades means that you must genuinely enjoy being a giver, or you won’t have people around that you can take from. Do people think of you as a giver? Do you create opportunities for the people around you? Are others drawn to hear from you because they are richer for it and want to give back? Both giving and taking are great things, by the way.
  9. Be on the lookout for surprising applications of your relevance. It’s quite possible that your entire career might benefit from a significant shift that may even terrify you. Be restless and eager and reaching.
  10. Be the kind of person that people half your age like being around. Test your theories on them and see if they find relevance in what you are saying. If your perspectives on marketing or communication or whatever don’t play to the younger market, there might be some deeper thinking required.
  11. Don’t forget your health. Poor health can stop an otherwise relevant person dead in their tracks. Literally. Relevance is constrained by your physical limitations and don’t ever take that for granted.
  12. Do this very carefully, but do burn bridges that need to be burned. Never with disrespect or harm, but to force you to move forward apart from the easy way of momentum. I have burned the right bridges, but I have struggled to do it well. The thing is that sometimes your own success is your biggest enemy because it makes you fat and happy, takes away the hunger, and you turn into something arrogant. There is confidence in remaining relevant for decades but there is no arrogance.
  13. Cultivate a vibrant personal life so interesting to you that it’s frustrating when your commercial life keeps you away from it too much. Making money is a small part of your life. It should be essential but not consuming, or you will become so imbalanced that your perspective is slowly warped all out of shape.
  14. See a good therapist. I’ve worn out two of them so far and need to hunt for a third.

Are you relevant now? How will you be relevant in a different way, maybe even to different people, over a few decades? Like I told one client recently, be unignorable. But be unignorable for the right reasons.

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