When you don't take responsibility for your life, you don't make active decisions. In other words, you tend to procrastinate, and often – when things go wrong – you blame other people or claim to have had “bad luck.” But the real blame, if you didn't make a decision and take action when you needed to, lies with you. I'm not talking here about things that are not within your control, I'm talking about the things that you could have done to avoid the bad situation.
Procrastination is something I try to be very disciplined about eliminating from my life.
I remember one incident that could have cost me my life.
When I was 18, I had saved up enough money (from weekend trolley pushing) to buy my first car. I had been working in ASDA for a couple of years and had passed my test a while before. Once I turned 17, I was straight out there, eager to learn to drive. I passed my test first time, only a few months after I turned 17.
I bought a three-door Ford Escort 1.1 litre. I think it was a “Y reg.” I used to drive my friends into Guildford so that we could go out. I never minded not drinking because the thrill of having control of a car was so great.
The first accident I ever had was when I was following a friend in his car. We were going to a party. He turned a corner and I misjudged my distance from it and clipped the rather high kerb, which shook the car (and my passengers!) up a little. But it wasn't serious. I had the car checked over and the small damage fixed; but even after it was supposedly fixed, something never felt quite right. I knew I needed to have the car checked again, but I kept putting it off.
One Saturday evening my friends and I made a plan to go out to a nightclub in Guildford and I offered to drive us. However, as we set off, I really started to think twice about whether I should be driving my car. Something felt really off with it. Something wasn't quite right, but I really, really wanted to drive. I kept telling myself nothing would happen – but I was still nervous.
We were driving along and suddenly, out of nowhere, someone stumbled into the road. I swerved to miss him, but I lost control of the car. It wasn't the problem (if there was one) with the car that caused me to lose control, it was me worrying about it and being aware that I'd delayed having it looked at. This had completely put me off and made me nervous. When faced with an emergency, I didn't control the car well. I went into oncoming traffic and there was a head-on collision.
We all got hurt and were taken to hospital, but luckily no one was seriously injured – although I do still have two scars on my chin from the incident.
In those days there were no mobile phones, so it was a while before I was able to call my mum to let her know what had happened, and I remember being so worried about how upset she would be.
The car was a write-off and one of my friends had temporary memory loss from the shock. He kept asking what had happened. We'd tell him and then he'd ask again as if he had just forgotten. We all recovered, but it was a big deal and I couldn't shake the uncomfortable thought that it was my procrastination over whether to have the car seen to again that had made me nervous and had caused the accident. A far bigger problem than the issue with the car could have ever been.
Basically, I had been irresponsible. I should not have driven that day, and I should have gone to have the car looked at immediately instead of getting stressed by worrying about it.
I often tell this story to my team, to show them that we always suffer more from the useless worrying over something than the suffering that the thing could cause us! Would I have suffered if I'd gone and taken the car to be looked at? Even if I'd found out that it was going to cost me more money to get it fixed? Not much! Not much compared to the suffering my worrying and procrastinating caused. I lost my car and caused my friends a lot of distress. So if one of my team is really worrying over a difficult call they have to make, I tell them the story and impress upon them that the outcome will probably not be half as bad as they have imagined in their heads.
A useful expression I teach my team is “eat the frog.” This is based on a quote often attributed to Mark Twain along the lines of: “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” The expression is used as a metaphor for why it's important to battle procrastination. None of us like doing the most difficult things, or the most painful things, that we are required to do, but we should get those things out of the way first. For example (I tell my team), if you have a difficult phone call to make, get it done first thing in the morning. Get it out of the way; don't leave it hanging over you all day. It could get worse if you put it off. It's like going to the dentist. Most people hate going to the dentist; but if you put it off, if you procrastinate, you might end up with tooth decay, which is going to be far more painful and expensive in the long run.
We so often spend more time and brain energy worrying about an issue than it requires in reality. Make a decision; don't sit on the fence. Once you've made your decision, be committed to it and follow it through.
Part of taking responsibility for your life is taking responsibility for the things in your past as well as the things in your future. You have to live with the choices you've made. There's no point in regretting things. You have to let go. Of course, there are things I could regret in life, it hasn't all been plain sailing, but I choose not to. In general, people tend to regret the things they didn't do rather than the things they did do.
To get a really good perspective check, you have to ask yourself: “If I died tomorrow, what would I be proud of and what would I wish I had done that I haven’t done.” In other words, imagine yourself on your deathbed and you ask yourself, very honestly, if you are happy with what you have done with your life. If you're not, thank your lucky stars that you are not on your deathbed and that you still have the chance to make some changes and achieve the things you'd like to achieve.
After watching the twin towers fall and all those people lose their lives on 11 September 2001, I had a huge perspective check. Yes, I was proud of what I had achieved, professionally; but I wanted to get married and have a family before I was 30. And I also wanted to start my own business. Ideally, I wanted to start my own business before the marriage and kids, so that I was only putting one livelihood on the line – my own. (Well, that was the plan at that time, anyway!) I had already been a bit more risk averse than many entrepreneurs (for example, the likes of Richard Branson and Alan Sugar who really just went for it off the bat with nothing to fall back on). I had ensured that I had a good insurance policy before taking too many risks. I'd got the qualifications and the work experience. I knew that, if it did all go wrong, I would be able to walk into any job in investment banking. And I had a decent financial cushion, having built up a portfolio of properties. I could afford to take a gamble. I wasn't going to end up homeless and penniless if it didn't work out.
Like many of us, when all those poor innocent people in New York City lost their lives, I just kept thinking, “That could have been me!” I was in New York only days before. That thought really motivated me. I know I would have regretted it if I hadn't chased my dream then and there. I was humbled to think how fortunate I was to have a chance to do that. All those people who died that day would never have the chance to go after their dreams.
In short, I was suddenly aware that the timing was exactly right for me to quit my job, do the travelling I'd always wanted to do, then come home and start my own business. Then I hoped I'd meet the right person to marry and have a big family. Okay, Samantha showed up a little earlier than planned – so I had to start the business while I had a wife and baby to look after – but at least she did! I wouldn't really have had it any other way. And it all worked out fine in the end.
Life is fragile. You never know when your number is going to be up. So you have to make the most of every day. There is no other way to live. You're going to be gone at some point – we all are. How do you want to be remembered?
As a child, whenever I had a bad time at football – when we got trashed by another team, for example – I would come home grumbling; usually covered in cuts and bruises. I would throw all these excuses around… that had nothing to do with me. I'd say that the pitch was too muddy, the manager had played me out of position, or it was just too cold and wet. My mother would listen and then tell me, “Don’t blame others for your misfortune.” She said you must always give your best, make the best efforts in life, but sometimes you will fall down, no matter how hard you try not to. When you fall down, you get up again and you keep going. Life will always be full of ups and downs. You have to keep going through all of them. Getting through the bad times will make you stronger.
It's so easy to blame others when things don't go your way. But what is the point of blaming anything or anyone? There's no point in living in the past. You have to stay positive and look ahead in life. As soon as you start having a negative attitude you will start creating a negative reality. I say this to my sales team when they are having a bad run of rejections. If they start focusing on the rejections, and looking at all the reasons they got rejected, they will bring in more rejections. Let go of the bad stuff and focus on whatever you can learn, and just move forward – positively. You can never change your yesterdays, but you can take the lessons and have another go.
Of course, my favourite quote on this subject is from Steven Gerrard, who was famous for saying (whenever Liverpool faced a set-back) “We go again!”
When I had that job, pushing trolleys at ASDA, it was the first and only time I ever had to physically clock on and clock off. We literally clocked in at 8.30 am and clocked off at 5.30 pm. These days, I don't know anyone who clocks on and off from their job. In fact, who clocks off from their job… ever? We are all glued to our phones and computer screens; we are “switched on” at all times of day and night.
I believe that we could all do with “clocking off” more. We should switch off our phones and be completely off work. I know how difficult that is, especially when you run your own business. I find it very hard myself, but I do make myself do it when I can. And I encourage my team to do it, even on a small scale. For example, when we have meetings, we schedule time to take breaks and “clock out” of the meeting. For a few minutes, we draw a mental line under the issue we are discussing and try to do something completely different for a while. When you're constantly juggling, it's essential to put your balls down and rest when you can.
Taking responsibility for your life means taking responsibility for you, and that means ensuring that you are in good health, you are eating well, you are exercising and you're getting enough rest.
It's good to clock off now and again.