This week’s guest on the 21st Century Creative podcast is Rich Litvin, a coach who specialises in taking high achievers to the greatest levels of success.
Rich’s coaching clients include Olympic athletes, Presidential candidates, Hollywood film directors, Special Forces operatives and serial entrepreneurs. He is also the founder of 4PC—a community of leaders, entrepreneurs and coaches who encourage and support each other to reach their fullest potential and make their greatest contribution.
Rich is a valued thought leader within the coaching community, building on the success of his first book, The Prosperous Coach. If you’re a coach who wants to build a successful coaching business by making a big impact for your clients, you will find The Prosperous Coach essential reading.
I’ve personally benefitted from Rich’s wisdom and guidance, by attending his Coaching Intensive events on both sides of the Atlantic, first as a delegate and later as a speaker. (See the photo at the top of this post for a fun moment at one of Rich’s Intensives.)
One big thing I learned from Rich was to embrace the fact I do my best work as a coach when I follow my own inclinations and work with high performing creatives, and that by working with them, I can have an outsized impact on the world.
And this is typical of Rich – whoever he works with, he encourages and challenges them to be more themselves, to take their unique gift and hone it in pursuit of their unconventional ambitions.
But high performance comes at a big price – it can lead to loneliness, to pressure, to disillusionment, and if we’re not careful, to burnout.
In this interview I ask Rich about what separates the highest performers from the rest, and how to avoid the pitfalls of success. As always, Rich was generous with his wisdom and open about his own struggles and challenges.
If you’re a high performer yourself – or if you aspire to reach the top of your creative profession – you’ll find plenty to inspire you in this interview, as well as a gentle reminder to take better care of yourself along the way.
Rich has kindly put together a set of resources for 21st Century Creative listeners, to help you make the most of your talents, including his ‘Exponential Success Scorecard’ and a preview draft of his new book, The Success Paradox — you can pick these up here.
Rich Litvin interview transcript
MARK: Rich, what made you want to be a coach?
RICH: You take me back about 12 or 13 years, Mark, because I was a high school teacher at the time on a fast track. I’ve always been driven. I’ve always been ambitious. And I was on a fast track to be a head teacher and I went to do what was called back then, maybe it still is, the national professional qualification of the headship and we were trained in coaching skills. It was just becoming in vogue really for leaders to understand the power of coaching and we were trained in coaching. And within a year, I’d lost my job.
I went to work at a new school with a very inspiring boss. We were going to change the nature of education. And within a few weeks of me arriving, he got pushed out by someone at even a higher level than him, government level. And the new boss arrived and she wanted her own team and very unceremoniously, I was told there was not a place for me in that organization. But I had coaching in my toolkit and I ran away, if I’m really honest, I was pretty humiliated by being fired. Ran away to Thailand to sit on a beach, do a bit of yoga. And I can make it sound like a cool story, but I was pretty humbled by what happened.
But I was sitting on a beach with a pack of playing cards with coaching questions on and people would say, ‘What are they?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s called coaching.’ And they would say, ‘Can I play?’ And I began coaching people on a beach. And I had this insight a few weeks of being on that beach that I want this to be my career. I love this. And that was the start of this career that I’ve been in for 12 years now.
MARK: I love that question, ‘Can I play?’ I mean that suggests quite a lot about coaching, doesn’t it? And change.
RICH: Well, having those playing cards made coaching really easy for me at the beginning because I didn’t have to think about what questions to ask. I mean, it’s great to have powerful questions to ask. I wrote an article once about 121 powerful coaching questions. And then a friend of mine who you may know, Michael Bungay Stanier, wrote a book that came out last year.
MARK: Oh yes, Michael has been on the show.
RICH: Awesome. The Coaching Habit is a great book which has seven questions and they’re great questions. But I didn’t have to think of what questions to ask because the playing cards would ask the questions and then the people would begin to open up. And I remember somebody said to me and it really touched me deeply, it really moved me. She said, ‘Wow, Rich, spending this hour in conversation with you has changed my life.’ And it took a while for that to sink in because I had this thought of I’m a nobody. I was proud of my title as a vice principal, deputy head teacher and I felt like a nobody. I had no job anymore. I was just on this beach playing this game called coaching and she said, ‘You changed my life.’ That felt really good, and I just said I want to do more of this.
Now I came to the United States in 2006 because I thought I need a qualification. I’ve got to be a ‘professional.’ The course I signed up for had a money-back guarantee after two days and it was so terrible that I quit. It was a training course about coaching, but it was just so poor that I quit it and I started doing other things.
I did a course about relationships and I did a course about man-woman dynamics and I met a woman called Monique who I ended up proposing to 10 days later. I think sometimes, Mark, being a tourist or being an immigrant is a really powerful metaphor because you don’t have any baggage with you. And I left all my baggage at home. I was willing to do everything differently literally. I mean, I did propose to Monique. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, if you said I just met someone and you proposed to them 10 days later. But sometimes you just know.
And I said, ‘Will you marry me?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And then she said, ‘Well, actually, I’m a singer. I’m off to India in a couple of weeks to perform.’ And I said, ‘Well, I got nothing else going on, I’ll come.’ And we lived in India for a few months and then I said to her, ‘You know, I’ve always dreamed of traveling the world with a beautiful woman.’ And she said, ‘I’m in.’ And so we then spent the next year traveling the world together. And I began my coaching career that way and I began coaching people as I traveled. My first ever coaching client paid me $10 a month and that was for four calls. I made $2.50 a call. But it was what I needed to do, and I was proud of that, by the way. I was excited being paid to do something I loved. It was amazing. And so that was how I started my career.
MARK: And it’s interesting because when we’re high achievers, we can be focused on the wrong things like the job title, like the status, like the big office, all the status symbols. And you had all of that torn away from you, which must have been very difficult for you to go from there to being, in your words, a nobody.
And yet even as a nobody, you were able to invite people into this space where their life changed.
RICH: Well, looking back, I can tell you it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I’m an Enneagram 3. I know you’re familiar with the Enneagram. The Enneagram is simply a way of understanding how you show up in the world, how you operate when you’re unconscious. And in Enneagram 3, your default way of being is to try and look good. And that was me my whole life. I’ve been trying to prove myself to my dad for most of my life, Mark, and it’s only the last few years I’ve began to see it.
And so I’d want you to like me. I’d do whatever it could to please you. And when I lost my job, it felt like everything was stripped away from me. And I was really proud of this title that I had, and then I was a nobody and I had to come back from that and recreate myself. And it was very humbling and had a really powerful impact on me and it helped me to reinvent myself and to let go of all the stories about who I should be or who I needed to be. And I am so grateful for it in this moment. There’s a wonderful book called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert and he points out that most of the things that we aspire to and crave and wish for that we think will make us happy turn out usually not to.
And the classic is winning the lottery because people can track that. And almost everyone who wins the lottery counter-intuitively not only turns out to be less happy afterwards but ends up having less money after winning the lottery than before. And the things that we would never think to wish on anybody like getting a life-threatening illness, losing a loved one, getting a divorce, losing a job, people tend to look back on those things and say, ‘Oh my God. I look back on it now and see it as I’m so grateful for that experience because I learned so much from it.’ And that was me.
MARK: And did this factor into your decision to focus on working with high achievers in your coaching practice, the fact that you’d been through that whole roller coaster?
RICH: It’s part of it. It’s in there. I think just doing a lot of deep work on myself, realizing that I’ve been a high performer for a long time for most of my life. I’ve always aimed high. I’ve always been really ambitious. Still to this moment, to this day, when I have a success in something or rather, I give myself, see if you recognize this one. I give myself about 25 seconds to acknowledge myself before I look at how could I have done it better, bigger, different, improved it or I’m looking into the future like what am I doing next.
And this is the blessing and the curse of being a visionary, of being a creative, is that you’re future-focused. You’re always looking out there into the future. And it can really serve us as visionaries, as leaders, as creatives to pause and slow down and turn around and say, ‘What have I accomplished? What have I done in the last 90 days?’ We’re always surprised at what we have achieved. As I did this deep work and deep reflection of myself, I began to see what had driven me to be a high performer. And like I say, a lot of it for high performers can come from our pain, from our struggles. And for me, much of it was trying to prove myself to my father. And seeing that, doing work on myself, and noticing that I was drawing people to me who were like me.
This is the biggest secret behind being a coach, is that your clients are you. Your dream clients are you. And with all your pain and struggles and insights that you have into your life, you help them to see into theirs. And so I just began. Initially, it was a lot of very powerful women I worked with. I think, if I’m honest, maybe I was a little bit afraid of working with more powerful men. And then I began to work with powerful men too and now there’s no distinction for me. And I know that world of being a high performer. I know what it feels like to be very lonely. I know what it feels like as a leader, to be taking care of everybody else and leaving yourself last, so you’re worn out, crying on the floor because no one’s there taking care of you because you wouldn’t even let them if they tried.
MARK: Yeah. And what are the consequences of that?
RICH: Loneliness. It can be very lonely being a leader. You could feel a lot of guilt. I feel guilty if I’m working. I feel guilty I’m not at home with my wife and my little boys. If I’m at home with my wife and my little boys, I feel guilty that I’m not at work doing more to grow the business. And God forbid I should be lying on a massage table somewhere, I feel guilty that I’m not home with the kids or at work in the office! So this is a sense of constant sense of guilt. I’ve been playing with the title of the book that I’m writing. So The Success Paradox is one of the titles that we’ve played with, the loneliness of leadership.
I’ve been also playing with this idea of the price of leadership. There are many books on how to become a leader, but there are not many books on the price that you pay. And the moment I say that to people, there’s this kind of not a gasp but it’s this sense of ‘ah’. Like they get it and the only question I have to ask is ‘Well, what’s the price you’re paying right now?’ And that starts a really interesting conversation because there is a different price that each of us is paying and it can change over time but there’s always a price to pay to be a high performer, to be a leader and it’s a start of a very interesting conversation.
MARK: And you talk about the top 4% of performers in any given field. What would you say separates them from the others?
RICH: Not a lot. Sometimes luck. Let’s be honest. Sometimes luck, being in the right place, the right time, the right connection. I like the number 4% because it’s the top 20% of the top 20%. And if you’ve read the 80/20 rule if you’re familiar with that premise, 20% of your team will be creating 80% of your results. Twenty percent of the activities you do will generate 80% of the results. So I’m always interested in the idea of looking for what’s in the top 20% and what’s in the top 20% of the top 20% is the top 4%. So I like this concept of working with the top 4%.
I run a mastermind group for high performers. I call it 4PC and it stands for The Four Percent Club. But there is another reason I picked on that number. Steven Kotler wrote a book called The Rise of Superman. And in that book, he has this premise that he calls the 4% rule. So he studied high-performing athletes, the kind of people who jump off a mountain in a wingsuit or ski the highest mountains. You’re an entrepreneur like me, a creative too. When you’re doing creative work, when you’re an entrepreneur, it can sometimes feel like life or death.
RICH: Put your book out in the world, create a piece of art that people look at, speak on a stage, it can feel like life or death. And these people he studied, it really is life or death. You watch the Olympics right now, some of these people make a mistake and their life is on the line. What he discovered is the only way to perform at that level, and we know this as creatives too, the only way to perform at high level is to be in flow. That you’re in flow when time just seemed to disappear. ‘Oh my God, I’ve been doing this for seven hours. I didn’t even know. I haven’t even had lunch.’
To perform as an elite athlete, you have to be in flow and the only way to grow when it’s a life-or-death situation is to push yourself just 4% beyond where you are in this moment. The problem for most people in life is that 4% is actually too big. The challenge for high performers is that 4% is too low. We’re always looking at how can I make this exponential leap, this massive difference, this big change. And actually, it’s in those tiny steps that exponential growth can occur. That’s why I’m interested in this number of 4%. It’s really fun for me to look at what that looks like.
MARK: As you say that it strikes me, I’ve always been keen on learning languages and quite proud of my ability to do it. This is something I’ve really discovered with Japanese because when I started learning it I was really gung ho and I thought I was going to nail this in six months and then I discovered it’s a lot harder than doing French or German or a European language. So that whole trying to really make impressive gains quickly was the biggest barrier I had and it was only the last couple of years where I really slowed down and I’ve just deliberately limiting myself to doing a little bit each day, half an hour each day that actually I’m starting to make genuine progress with the language.
RICH: Yeah. Beautiful, Mark. For me as a coach working with high performers, I break my job into two elements. I say I do two things. I help you dream bigger than you’ve ever dreamed and then I help you take tinier steps than you’ve ever taken. And because I’m working with high performers, they are already people who dream really big. And you know Jen Gresham, right?
MARK: Yes. I met her at the Intensive.
RICH: So Jen, she’s a former assistant chief scientist to the high performance wing of the Air Force. Incredibly high performer, works in the arena of high performance, she’s also a mom and she’s a creative. She wrote a book of poetry that was published and did extremely well and she’s a blogger too. And when Jen came to me, she was transitioning into coaching. She was just getting her first few clients and I helped her really step into creating really high-performing clients. But then beyond that, we looked at what’s the difference you really want to make in the world.
So I’ll fast forward a year. Right now, what Jen is doing, she’s raising a $100 million to fund an XPrize. An XPrize is where you get a bunch of companies and individuals who compete to win a prize and the prize is when you solve a massive problem, it’s going to make a huge difference to humanity. And so what Jen, the prize that she’s created is to solve this challenge that we know that in 10 years or less, there are numerous fields that will be obsolete. If you’re a truck driver, if you’re a miner, I think if you’re even a financial advisor, your career will be obsolete in less than a decade. How can we retrain people really fast with the skills they need for the future? And that’s what Jen’s working on with some amazing people she’s partnering with to create a solution to this prize, to this problem.
So that’s what I do, help people dream bigger than they’ve ever dreamed and I help them do it by taking tinier steps than they’ve ever taken. And so I’ll give you a little heads-up. I know you love to have a challenge when we do this but this will relate to it. One of my favorite quotes in life is from Tim Ferriss. Tim says, ‘A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.’ I’ll say it one more time because it just really lands well when you hear it the second time. ‘A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.’
Now that’s the other thing that I’m doing when I’m working with a client. I’m helping them to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s conversation, sometimes it’s something else but your willingness to feel uncomfortable is going to transform your world.
MARK: That makes me think of when I started working with creatives, I thought my focus would be mostly on helping them get their work done, whether it’s writing or acting or playing or whatever it is. And that’s still quite a big part of what I do. But that issue of getting people to have the uncomfortable conversation and guiding them through that is, what I would say, is at least as big in the work that I do with clients. Because whatever you’re doing in a career, you’ve gotta have these conversations to make things happen.
There’s no point writing the best book or being the best on paper. Actually, you’ve got to go out there and convince people that they should pay attention to you and that there’s all kinds of relationships that need to be navigated and decisions that need to be made and deals to be struck. And it’s really hard to do that from just sitting behind a keyboard.
RICH: Yes. Yeah. You can’t. You can’t. You might be one of those undiscovered artists who gets discovered after your death and becomes famous. There are many of those who are super successful now they have their pictures in the Louvre, but you’ll be long gone. This day and age, the way I distinguish it is between a mission and a message. You can have your mission. You can be really clear. I’m creating this kind of art, this kind of writing, this is the way that my creativity comes out in the world. But then there’s your message. You have to get that out there to other people. And look, I speak as an introvert.
And my distinction of an introvert and extrovert is it has nothing to do with being shy. I’m not shy. But I get drained being around a lot of people. If I go to a party with my wife who’s an extrovert, I come home and I want to stay in my house for the next one week and watch Netflix. We come home and she wants to go to a party the next day. If not, the next night, the same night. I get drained being around other people. So I have to find ways to recharge my energy.
Here’s a fun one for you. How many introverts does it take to change a lightbulb? None. If you’re an introvert, you don’t change the freaking lightbulbs! It means more people would see you’re at home and they’d come and knock at the door and want to hang out with you.
So I get it if you find it hard being out in the world. And at the same time, you have to find your way of being out in the world. And it doesn’t matter this day and age whether that’s in rooms, hanging out meeting people, whether it’s creating a presence online because you write or you draw or you create videos. But there is no point being at home, being a best-kept secret. You could be the most creative person on the planet but if nobody knows that, it doesn’t serve you, it doesn’t serve your art, and it doesn’t serve the world. You’ve got to find a way to be out there and that’s going to mean you’ve got to stretch your ability to feel uncomfortable. The magic happens outside of your comfort zone.
MARK: Right. And let’s season the bad news with the good news. This is where the magic happens. There’s nothing like creating something and then seeing it really connect with an audience, whether that’s one person or it’s a stadium full of people.
RICH: It feels amazing, right? It feels so good. And you have to be willing to get the nose along the way. What’s her name? Who wrote ‘Harry Potter?’ I’ve forgotten the name.
MARK: J. K. Rowling.
RICH: J. K. Rowling. Look how many rejections she had before that book was out in the world. And you see it with almost any overnight success is at least a decade in the making. That’s the way I see it. We get swayed when we see this stuff like, what do you call it? American Idol and all this stuff on TV. Like, ‘Oh, I could just go show up and sing one song and I’ll be famous.’ Maybe there’s a few people that happens to. Well, but most of them I’d say have been training their whole life for it. For most of us, I wrote an article a few years ago with a title ‘Mastery’ and the subtitle was ‘How to Become an Overnight Success as a Coach in 46 years.’
I mean my entire life was going towards… In 1992, I went as a youngster to teach science in Africa. I spent two years in Botswana teaching science to kids in their third language. I had to learn to listen really carefully to them. I had to learn to be really careful in my language as I spoke to them so they would understand me. And I had to learn not to make any assumptions. I lived in London my whole life where we had double-decker buses. These kids that I taught in their little village had never seen a building with two stories, let alone a vehicle with two stories. Those skills 20 years later were of use in my career as a coach.
MARK: Yeah. This is one of the great things, I think. You’ve touched on some highs and lows and setbacks and ‘failures’ and I’m sure anybody listening to this can relate to all of that. But the great thing is if you’re a creator of any kind, it’s all grist to the mill. I’ll sometimes say when I’m coaching a coach and they’re dealing with challenges in their life and I’ll say, ‘Just look on the bright side. This is going to be a great coaching story in five years’ time!’
RICH: My wife always says, if we have a big argument, she gets mad and she says, ‘I know if we ever end up splitting up and getting divorced, you’ll just turn this into a great story and enroll clients from it.’ And I have to laugh, Mark, because it’s probably true!
MARK: But it also is true, if you’re any kind of artist, and I do think there is artistry in coaching, you can recycle your pain. It’s experience. It’s material on one level.
RICH: Absolutely. I’m talking about my wife. She is a creative. She’s a singer-songwriter. She’s a jazz singer, won awards for her singing. She is getting ready right now for her first ever one-woman show. It’s about her story growing up mixed race here in the United States growing up in LA and she’s putting all of the pain and the challenges, what it was like to be a mixed girl, having a white mother who comes from Upstate New York and a black father who comes from North Carolina who grew up during segregation. What it was like to have a white mom who didn’t know how to deal with curly hair. She puts all this pain out and anguish out into this show and it moves people to tears.
So your grist to the mill, oh my God, your pain is what people are craving because so few people are willing to share this. And the moment you share your pain, people don’t hear your story. They hear your story through their story and it lets them in.
MARK: And I think there’s another distinction, which I know is important for you, between we’re not talking about showing up as a victim and just telling it as out of self-pity. We’re showing up as a creator and saying, ‘Well, here’s what happened and here’s what I’m making of it.’
RICH: Yeah. I love the distinction between creator and creative. Anyone can be creative. We’re all creative. A creator takes something new, he brings something new into the world. I mean there’s really nothing new in the world, but when you filter it through your story, your pain, your challenges, your way of seeing the world, something new is birthed for the very first time. And that distinction of being a creator, it means you have to be willing to get your hands dirty, feel uncomfortable, collect nos, fail again and again and again. And on the other side of that, something interesting is coming.
MARK: Right. And let’s pile on a little bit more bad news which is all the things we’ve talked about, the hard work, the recycling of the pain, the difficult conversations, the bouncing back from setbacks, that gets you to a certain level.
And yet one of the things you’re saying is that what got you here to your current level of achievement won’t get you there. It actually starts to hold you back. Could you say a bit more about that?
RICH: I heard a line the other day which really struck me. What will get you to a high level of success in the first part of your career is saying ‘yes’ to almost every opportunity. What will take you to the next level of your career is saying ‘no’ to almost every opportunity. And for where I am in my life and my business right now, that hit home really viscerally. And so whether or not that statement is true for you wherever you are in your world right now as you listen, there’s something that you’re doing that has led to the success you’re at right now. And often the very same thing can hold you back from what’s really possible for you down the road.
MARK: And you have this great list of the eight guilty secrets of extraordinary top performers in the book. Could you maybe share one or two of those and as a kind of specific example of this?
RICH: Yeah. So let me let me talk about some of this. This is one of the things I see as I work with really high performers is that we can be admired by everyone around us but on the inside, we’ve got a lot of stuff that we’re carrying that we’ve got no one we can share it with. So one of the first guilty secrets I hear and see a lot in high performers is that you get all this admiration and acknowledgement from people around you but on the inside, you feel lazy. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing very much. So I often get that aha sense of acknowledgement when someone is in that world.
Because, now see, here’s the way I look at it. What feels like laziness is a sign you’re actually working in what I call your zone or genius. You’re doing that thing that feels so natural and so effortless and so fun for you that every time you do it, you’re in flow that you can’t see like, wouldn’t anybody be doing this? That this isn’t hard. I love to do this. I’m more energized at the end of the day than I was at the start of the day. So you have this sense that you’re being lazy. No, you’re not being lazy. You’re actually working on that thing that only you can do and it has this massive impact in the world. That’s why you get all this acknowledgement and success and admiration.
And so one of the things I do when I’m working with the high performers, not only help them let go of that sense of guilt about feeling lazy but I break to them the bad news that their job is to feel more and more lazy as life goes on. Because it will actually be a sign they’re stepping more and more into their zone of genius. That thing that only they can do. And they’ll feel lazy because it all feels so fun.
MARK: Well you see, we’ve had 200 odd years of the Protestant work ethic and the Industrial Revolution telling us that value comes from working really hard and being really productive. And yet particularly if you’re doing something creative, the value you create is the value you create. It doesn’t really matter so much how much time or effort went into it.
If you can do something amazingly well, then that will entertain or delight or provoke or get people to see the world in a new way.
RICH: Beautiful. Beautiful. Yeah, I have a distinction between effortless and easy. I’m not looking at easy here. I’m not afraid to do hard work. I’ll do hard work when it’s called for, when it’s needed but I’m looking for the effortless path. Where’s the path that lights me up? That has it feel like fun when I’ve done a 10-hour day and I didn’t even stop to eat because I was so excited. That’s what I call effortless rather than easy.
MARK: And it’s so easy to dismiss an ability we have. Quite often I might go and see a client perform on stage or I’ll watch their film or they’ll read their book and they will tell me how terrible it was. I’m saying, ‘Well, does it make any difference if I tell you I thought it was amazing?’ And they say, ‘No.’
RICH: Monique used to come home from a performance and I’d say, ‘How was it?’ And she said, ‘It was terrible.’ And I learned I was asking her the wrong question. What I needed to ask her was, ‘What did they think of your performance?’ And she’d go, ‘Oh, they loved it.’ Because when you’re a high performer, you set the bar really high. If she got one note wrong, one word wrong, she felt terrible. The fact that nobody noticed didn’t count in her mind because she couldn’t see what they were looking at. And so this is the challenge of being a high performer.
It’s not just a challenge. It’s also the thing that makes us a high performer, that we set the bar that high. But having someone like you on your team as a coach who can remind you that actually the audience loved you, it can really help. And this probably goes to the second guilty secret. You’re not lonely but you feel very alone. You’re not lonely. You’re not necessarily missing friends. You might have a great community and a great number of friends and family around you, but it can feel very lonely being a creative, being a creator, being a leader, being an entrepreneur, being a high performer. Because there aren’t many people you can talk to about what’s going on.
When you’re a leader, it’s not appropriate to tell your board of directors, your employees, even your husband, wife, or kids, some of the challenges that you’re facing. You keep a lot inside. When you are a creative, as you said earlier, something you have to pour out your anguish to get to the other side of this and you don’t always want to share that. So you can feel very alone. But having a coach, someone who’s with you, someone who you know is on your side, who you can open up to and hide nothing and hold nothing back and they’ll do the same, that can be life-changing.
MARK: And also, I think having a peer network, people who do the same as you or as close to the same as you as you can get when you’re following a unique path.
I know this is one of the things you’re great at, Rich, is you assemble groups of people who can support and encourage each other.
RICH: Thank you. So 4PC is the mastermind group that I run for really high performers. And we have artists in there, we have entrepreneurs in there, leaders in there. The way I describe 4PC is the entrance requirement is that you should feel a little bit in awe of us and we should feel a little bit in awe of you. We had a little retreat and I asked everybody, ‘Who thinks that you’re the one who pulled the wool over my eyes or my team and that somehow you snuck in here? Everyone else is up to something amazing but somehow, you’re the one who fooled us and got in anyway.’
Everyone’s hand went up. And the way I describe 4PC is it’s a community of high performers in all sorts of fields. And when you think that thing that you’re up to looks impossible, looks challenging, you’re surrounded by people who are doing things that look more impossible than what you’re doing so certainly the bar is raised on what’s possible for you. And it works exactly the same in the other direction for everybody else.
MARK: I love the phrase you use in the book where you say, ‘If you are the most interesting person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.’
RICH: Yeah. I love that one because it can feed our egos being the person in the room who’s the creative, who other people want to hang out with and speak to because we’re really interesting. But if you’re the most interesting person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. So I curate rooms of really interesting people. I do something five, six, seven times a year that I call Interesting People Dinners. We never got past the working title. But what I decided is that I’m an introvert. Parties are not my thing. At a party, I’m the guy in the corner talking to one person all night. But I love meeting people. And so I said, ‘What if I created a way to put really interesting people in a room with me? What if we had Interesting People Dinners?’
So a few times a year, we go to somewhere interesting. We’ve been to the Getty Museum and they have a restaurant that’s only open on one day a week and they have a round table there. And I want a round table so there’s no private conversations going on and I bring in myself and seven other people, people that are up to really interesting things, and we have a couple of ground rules. One, you’re not allowed to tell anybody who you are or what you do before the night begins or at the beginning of the evening. We’ve had artists, we’ve had magicians, we had Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting coach, we had the State Controller for California. She runs the sixth biggest economy on the planet.
And we put these interesting people in the room and tell them they’re not allowed to tell anyone else who they are. And then I say, ‘We’re going to play a game and the game is I’m going to ask an interesting or challenging or provocative question and then my invitation to you is to answer it. And there are three ways to answer: you can refuse to answer, you can tell a lie, or you can tell the truth.’ And we find the most juice is when you tell the truth. And I’ve been stunned. People open up and share the most deep intimate stories in this setting with one another and it’s been a really fun way to get together with a group of fascinating people.
MARK: So I think this is so important is find people who have got similar aspirations and ambitions to you. I mean, as you were speaking, I was put in mind of Mimi Khalvati, my poetry mentor who’s been on the show. When I used to go to writing classes in my 20s, I was nearly always top of the class or near the top and that reassured me and my sense of ‘Oh, I must be talented.’ But I never really stayed and I never really learned much. And then I walked into Mimi’s class and within half an hour, I realized, ‘Okay, you’re not in the top half of this class.’
And at first it was a bit of a shock to the system, but it was actually really exciting because I realized how much I had to learn, which was – I can have conversations with the friends I made in that class over the years that I can’t have with anyone else. Because the people who are your peers in whatever your field is, it’s really amazing how often you’ll discover they’ve got very similar hopes and fears and doubts to you.
And so anybody listening to this, if you don’t have that environment, maybe start going to look for it.
RICH: And I also say, particularly for us as creative people, I think creativity lies at the intersections of different fields. And so if you only stay in your field, if you’re a coach who only reads and learns about coaching, if you’re a poet who only reads poetry, there’s a limit to where you’re going to be able to go in your creativity. But if you’re a poet who goes to hang out in a room full of designers or a designer who goes to hang out in a room full of musicians, interesting stuff is going to happen at those intersections of those fields: new relationships, new ways of thinking, new insights. That’s worth bearing in mind.
MARK: Yeah. So if you’re the kind of person who says, ‘Well, I’m really into this thing but it doesn’t seem to relate to that thing which feels a bit odd,’ I would say go for both of them. Because you never know what interesting intersections you’re going to have from different peers and also different mentors.
I’ve had mentors like Mimi in poetry. In coaching, there’s you and there’s Peleg. There’s Brian Clark who I worked with who’s a really successful online entrepreneur, internet marketer. There’s not many people – and Kristin Linklater speaking Shakespearean verse. Now, there’s people who worked with a lot of those people individually, but I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s worked with all of them and has got that same kind of blend of interests.
For a while, I just thought, ‘Well, why am I interested in this and that?’ And now, I’ve learned to trust that and trust that the mix will somehow have some creative benefit down the line.
RICH: Well, and it makes you, you. And the most creative thing you can do is be more you than you’ve ever been. There’s magic in diving back into… actually, here’s a fun one for you. What were you doing at six years old? What made you come alive at six years old? So at six years old for me, I was an avid reader. Oh my God, I love to lose myself in stories and adventures. And that’s been part of my life, my entire life. Reading, learning, and adventure.
And a great example of this, Peter Diamandis, who’s an amazing entrepreneur, created the XPrize, first ever privately funded spaceship to go into space and return, founded I think 19 companies now. Peter at six years old wanted to be an astronaut and spent his entire life working on that career. He was a physician, a doctor in medical school when his professor called him in and said, ‘Peter, what do you do? Why are you here studying to be a doctor? I just don’t get that you want to be a doctor.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no. I don’t. I don’t want to be a doctor. I want to be an astronaut.’ But one of the only ways, if you don’t go into being a pilot and go that route is to be a doctor. And the professor was very sharp and said, ‘Look, here’s what I’ll do. I will pass you in all your exams if you promise never to practice as a doctor.’ He says, ‘Done. You’re in.’
But Peter at six years old wanted to be an astronaut and made his entire career around that. One of his companies right now is called Planetary Resources. It’s about mining asteroids. This is a man who’s doing now what made him feel alive at six years old. Me too. Great way to look at what do you want to do next, go back to what made you feel alive when you were a youngster.
MARK: And so for you, Rich, I mean we’ve covered quite a lot of your journey from six years old through teaching and beginning to be a coach and achieving success and losing it and then finding it again. You’ve worked with a lot of successful people doing amazing things and one of the big distinctions in your book, which I love, is between achievement and fulfillment.
Where do you find your fulfillment these days? You’ve been involved in a lot of achievements yourself and your client, but what drives and fulfills you?
RICH: Three things come to mind immediately. Number one, I’m really proud that we’ve raised the money to build five different schools in Africa over the last few years through my business. I’m really proud of that. I have a passion for education, a passion for Africa too, having spent a lot of time living there and traveling there so that we’ve helped to build five different schools that will change people’s lives. I went to Liberia four years ago, led a group of teachers to run an empowerment event. So I led a group of coaches to run an empowerment event for 400 teachers and to clean water filtration systems to villages that had never had clean water. Their children died without access to clean water. I’m proud of that, where we can make a real visceral difference in the world.
I get fulfillment there. I get fulfillment with my kids. I get fulfillment hanging out with my little boys. Tonight, we are going to do indoor skydiving! Their cousin has, they’re four and six, but I’m not sure if they’ll be up for it when it actually comes to it, but their cousin has organized this for her birthday party. She’s a bit older. But I’m excited. I’ll be hanging out with my boys and having fun with them.
And then the third one is so my journey from being six years old, I’m going to be 50 in May this year and I have taken on a challenge for myself. I made a mistake of telling one of my coaches who’s an ex-Navy SEAL that maybe I should do a challenge this year when I’m 50. And I mentioned the Spartan race, which is one of those obstacle races. And every time I get back to a coaching session, he would bring it up. And I was like quietly hoping he’d forget about it. Why did I mention that? I’m not an athlete!
MARK: You told that to a Navy SEAL!
RICH: Exactly. I’m not an athlete. I never have been. I’m not that physical. And then one day out of the blue, he said, ‘I’ve got it, Rich. I know what you need to do. You need to do three Spartan races this year.’ And as soon as he said it, Mark, I knew he’d nailed it because if I did one, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d come last. I would have turned into a great story about overcoming adversity and failing, but three, it doesn’t matter where I come in the first one. I’m going to have to improve for the second and I have to really go for it in the third and I’m in.
I’m in training right now. I just did a three-mile run this morning. I’ve been running every day this week and I’m in. I’m training. And so fulfillment there from seeing myself improving, my body changing, I’m taking care of what I eat. That’s another way right now that I’m getting fulfillment.
MARK: And I should point out, we started recording at 9:00 Rich’s time, so if he’s run three miles already, then he’s serious about it.
RICH: Yeah. I did it at 5:30 this morning. So here’s something interesting. I’ve done a little bit of boxing the last year. A year and a half ago, I said to a member of my team, ‘I want you to have this new job. Your job is to help me do the things that I’m afraid of and the things I’m procrastinating on.’ And so he said, ‘Well, what are you afraid of?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve always secretly wanted to do boxing, but I’ve never been brave enough to do it.’ I got a text from her the next day that said, ‘You’re signed up to a boxing class round the corner to you.’ And I went along to this boxing class and I started boxing.
And the other day, I went to my barber 7:00 a.m., I got an early haircut before taking the boys to school and by chance, the guy who created that boxing school was there. And he used to be, he wasn’t a heavyweight champion himself but he was a sparring partner of some world heavyweight champions. So a really high-level boxer. He was the captain of his football team at university, so he’s an athlete. He’s also a very successful entrepreneur and also an actor. And he mentioned that he’d been training at 4:00 a.m. that morning with his trainer. He does that every day. And two days later, I’m out shopping with my boys. I come out of the store and somebody calls my name and it’s him. And he’s running down the street. It’s now 4:00 in the afternoon and he’s jogging.
And I had this realization that we think that mastery and success is this place to get to and then finally, we can relax. We can put our feet up and it’s Easy Street and it’s fun. And if you want to be a master, the game doesn’t change. The nature of the game might change but the game doesn’t change. You’re always playing. You’re always stretching yourself. You’re always pushing yourself. He gets up every day at 4:00 a.m. to work out and he doesn’t have to. And I loved that. I got this real insight from seeing him there. That’s willingness to keep pushing yourself, to have fun too. You want to take care of yourself too but to keep pushing yourself and have fun with it.
MARK: So, Rich, you’re clearly a man who likes a challenge. So this is the point of the show where I ask my guests to select the listener a Creative Challenge. So something that they can go and do within seven days of listening to this interview that will stretch you creatively, personally, ideally both.
RICH: Great. Got it. Love it. So this comes back to the quote from Tim Ferriss, ‘A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.’ My challenge is for you to get uncomfortable in the next seven days and then let us know about it. So I’ll give you some ways that you can get uncomfortable.
One way to get uncomfortable and be able to measure it is to collect no’s. There’s a line we use in our book, the first book I wrote, called The Prosperous Coach, ‘Yes lives in the land of no’. You want to have more yes’s, you want to get some, whether you’re selling a piece of artwork, whether you want to get an agent or a publisher for your book, whatever you want to do to get your creativity out into the world, go and collect some no’s in the week ahead. That’s one way of doing this challenge. Come back and let us know how many nos did you collect in the week ahead.
Now what I love about this one, it reframes a ‘no’. Because they get to email you, Mark, and say, ‘Oh my God, Mark. I got three nos. I got seven nos.’ Whereas a week earlier, it would have been, ‘Oh my God, I got one no.’ And we get devastated. And it’s very real. I can get 57 likes on a Facebook post, 27 people respond to the same post, and one person writes a negative comment and I feel devastated. Very real. Very visceral. So let’s reframe the no’s. One way is to collect no’s in the week ahead.
Another way is to have some uncomfortable conversations. Come back and let us know how many uncomfortable conversations did you have. And here, if you really want to play, I’ll up the level for any of the high performers who are listening. So about six years ago, seven years ago, a friend of mine and myself had this game that we played and we called it Outrageous October. We said for the month of October, our job is to make outrageous requests, things that sound just completely shocking, like you can’t ask that. And then we did. And for that month, I was building my business and he was dating. At the end of that month, I’d made more money than I ever made and he’d had more sex than he’d ever had.
So you can play this outrageous game however you like. Do it with respect. This isn’t to be disrespectful in making an outrageous request, but it’s to ask the thing that you’d feel uncomfortable to ask or you might hold yourself back because you think they would be uncomfortable if I ask them. And you’ll be surprised at what happens at the very edge of your comfort zone.
So this is my challenge. Get uncomfortable for a week, collect nos, make bold requests, make outrageous requests, do the things that you wouldn’t normally do and then come back and let us know what you’ve done.
MARK: Brilliant. Brilliant. And if you go to 21stcenturycreative.fm, there’s a contact form on that page. So we would love to hear how you get on with Rich’s challenge. So, Rich, thank you very much. As always, it’s inspiring and mind-expanding to spend time talking to you.
Where can people go to find out more about you and your work?
RICH: Cool. Thank you. Well, you can always google my name, Rich Litvin, L-I-T-V-I-N. There’s a lot of videos out there that I’ve created and a lot of stuff about me, a lot of interviews I’ve done. But if you go to my website, richlitvin.com/creative, we put together a page for you guys in particular. So I’m working on my second book right now. The working title is The Success Paradox but it’s in flux, but I’ve put together a very first draft to the first half of the book. And so a lot of the concepts that we just touched on today are there and you’ve got access to this. Austin Kleon wrote the book Show Your Work. You get to see my work before it’s even finished. So richlitvin.com/creative and you can see more there.
MARK: Brilliant. Thank you, Rich.
RICH: Love you, Mark. Thank you so much for inviting me on.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
Make sure you receive every episode of The 21st Century Creative by subscribing to the show in iTunes.