Be Flexible. Having a vision does not mean being inflexible. Jeff Bezos has a great line that he’s “Firm on vision and flexible on details.” Know where you’re trying to go, but be flexible on the paths that take you there.
Have you ever noticed how often we equate success with more? Whether that’s more products, more profits, more activities or more accomplishments, we buy into the belief that we have to do more to have more to be more. And that will sum up to success. And then along comes The Great Resignation. Where employees are signaling that the “more” that’s being offered — even more pay, more perks, and more PTO — isn’t summing up to success for them. We visited with leaders who are redefining what success means now. Their answers might surprise you.
As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Quimby Melton.
Quimby Melton is Confection’s co-founder and CEO. He’s spent the past fifteen years building a diverse range of businesses and products. These include a marketing consulting agency, a logistics application for the offshore energy market, two business marketing apps, a modular housing company, and a handful of content sites and short films.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
After graduating from UGA in December of 2000, I moved to Las Vegas for graduate school. Moving to Las Vegas was, in retrospect, probably the defining event of my life. It changed my trajectory considerably.
UNLV’s English Department was an especially exciting place to be at that time. The CFO of the Mandalay Bay Corporation — which is now part of MGM Mirage — was a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. (Like Wallace Stevens, here’s an example of a humanities student turned successful, C-level business executive.) Along with several faculty members and university admins, this gentleman — a sort of philosopher king who’d break his back for the arts — set up endowed chairs, new institutions, and other incentives that brought an extraordinary amount of literary talent from around the world to UNLV. This social network basically used money to create a literary gravity well in the middle of the Mojave desert. And it worked brilliantly.
As a result of this, I was fortunate to learn from so many great people, both in the classroom and during events and just wandering around on campus, honestly. Once, I remember seeing a Nobel Prize-winning playwright who’d survived a civil war and political imprisonment buying a Diet Pepsi from a vending machine in the student union. That both challenged a lot of my illusions about literary fame and made me think, What a journey!
I learned cultural criticism from a MacArthur grant recipient. My graduate advisor Beth Rosenberg selflessly helped us all write better and encouraged us to close read mercilessly. We had monthly events featuring essentially every living writer who’d won a major literary prize past 30–40 years.
These things were enriching in a way I’m still digesting 10–15 years later. I’m humbled by the memory of the opportunity.
We all have myths and misconceptions about success. What are some myths or misconceptions that you used to believe?
I used to be very focused on the “life of the mind,” which I narrowly defined as an academic career.
Whatever you may think, there’s really no daylight between the business world and the world of the humanities. Wallace Stevens and the Mandalay Bay CFO are testaments to this. These days, we tend to think of higher ed in narrow professional tracks, that is, one enters college and immediately begins preparing to become a doctor or an accountant or a teacher. Historically, it was all liberal arts (at least, at the undergraduate level), and studying history and art and literature produced capable professionals in all these professional disciplines.
I worry we lost something along the way. I want more liberal arts students in the world and fewer highly-specialized, narrow-knowledge workers.
So what do the humanities and effective business pros have in common:
A taste for mischief and an appetite for risk; an eye for detail; cosmopolitan wit and some irreverent wile; broad cultural knowledge; critical thinking skills; the ability to communicate; a little applied mathematics in the form of finance and accounting; knowledge of human nature — these are all that matter in the business world, really. And humanities students have this knowledge in spades.
Thinking back on my time in Las Vegas — and considering all the wonderful opportunities that endless stream of liquidity created — I worry that many of my fellow humanities students are wary about the interaction of money and art. This is a mistake, and I think it keeps more historians, artists, and writers on the sidelines than should be there. From the Medici to the relationship between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo to Harriet Shaw Weaver and James Joyce; money and art, vocation and avocation, industry and creativity — these have always intersected. Far better than suspicion or judgement is learning how to leverage that intersection for the greater good, for the things you want for yourself and your family and the change you want to see in the world.
I’m humbled by how much I benefited from those who knew how to pull the levers effectively.
How has your definition of success changed?
Returning to Wallace Stevens for a moment, he was an insurance executive. In fact, he turned down the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard — something any English major in his or her right mind would gladly accept — so he could keep working as a vice-president at The Hartford.
Making a living and writing poetry — these were his priorities.
In fact, there’s a great Wallace quote that “money is a kind of poetry.” And he was right. They both communicate a maximum amount of meaning in a minimum amount of space. Treasury yields increase half an inch on a graph, and the world trembles. That small movement communicates so much.
And the most perfect poems are single words: “Hope,” “Dream,” “Believe.”
Wallace got that very right. And we need more people in the workforce who see the world as Wallace did: soberly and professionally but via the lens of the humanities.
Nassim Taleb wrote a great book called Skin in the Game. There are a lot of really great ideas in it, but one I like the most involves a distinction between what he calls “wolf” employees and “dog” employees.
Wolves are trained to survive. They aren’t dependent on any particular institution or company. They have a certain amount of vocational flexibility and can move around as they see fit. Whether it’s the commissioned salesperson closing a deal that benefits the whole company or a founder who builds something that creates outsized value for customers and other stakeholders — we all live thanks to the risks that wolves take and the gains they create.
“Dogs,” on the other hand, are domesticated animals. They require someone else to feed them and can only exist in a particular role within a particular institution. If that institution goes away or their service is no longer needed, that person has a hard time surviving.
I worry that most of my fellow humanities students forget they’re wolves. Never underestimate the flexibility you have. Your skills are abstract and valuable and can be applied in any number of different ways. Whether you want to work somewhere for someone or start your own shop, you have more options and value than you may realize.
The pandemic, in many ways, was a time of collective self-reflection. What changes do you believe we need to make as a society to access success post pandemic?
With a short, six-week exception in 2008, I’ve always worked remotely. The teams I’ve built have always been remote. With respect to 80% of my professional relationships, I’ve never been in the same room with the other person, and I’ve worked with some of those people for more than a decade.
Obviously, this only applies to a particular sort of professional, but I firmly believe remote teams are more productive than in-house ones. There’s less noise, more focus on the things that matter, less focus on things that don’t. If we can successfully embrace all we’ve learned about remote teams during the pandemic, we’ll be on the right track.
What do you see as the unexpected positives in the pandemic? We would love to hear a few of your stories or examples.
The pandemic has given people a lot of time to reflect, and this is always a good thing. The rate at which people are leaving unfulfilling jobs and starting their own businesses are both are record highs. And while this is uncomfortable in the short term, I think it will be beneficial in the long run.
When we think about the kind of economy and society we want to build, we have a pretty stark choice:
We can embrace a rent-seeking, red-ocean track driven by zero-sum competition, protectionism, and monolithic walls. Or we can choose a value-creating, blue-ocean one focused on positive-sum collaborations, problem solving, and modular connections.
Entrepreneurs embody the latter set of values.
At every level and in every role — from small business owners to VC-backed startups to agile teams inside large corporations — entrepreneurs help weave a more dynamic social fabric. The outcomes aren’t always what we expect, and there are many notable examples of business and products that we wish would “do better.” But, ultimately, entrepreneurial dynamism is entirely necessary and valuable. Even if it’s periodically problematic, the alternative track — characterized by social stasis and driven by gladiatorial instincts — is much, much worse.
On a personal level, it can be very, very challenging to manage the volatility of the experience. But the people you meet and the mission you’re involved in make it truly worthwhile and endlessly rewarding. This is why I love it and, ultimately, why I come back to the experience again and again.
We’re all looking for answers about how to be successful now. Could you please share “5 Ways To Redefine Success Now?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Work Within the Circle
I heard this second hand, in graduate school, from a well-known business figure: “This is how you lead in the modern world: Move to the edge of the circle, and tell everyone it’s the new center. In time, the circle time will reorganize itself around you.” Even leadership is about working within the circle and bringing people along with you.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Sell
“Sell,” “sales” — these words carry a lot of connotative baggage. But ignore all that. Socrates and Nietzsche sold ideas. FDR and Regan sold policy. Even human courtship — “You should marry me instead of that person” — is a sales process.
3. Read and Write Constantly
Read, write; read, write — do that all the time, and never stop. Warren Buffet has an amazing line that “knowledge builds up like compound interest.” To build that knowledge base and to scale it, he suggests reading non-stop. It seems like a luxury. “Of course, Warren Buffet can do that.” But it’s easier to do than you might think. And the outcomes are far more rewarding than you might imagine.
4. Be Flexible
Having a vision does not mean being inflexible. Jeff Bezos has a great line that he’s “Firm on vision and flexible on details.” Know where you’re trying to go, but be flexible on the paths that take you there.
5. Only Do Hard Things
Scott Galloway — the colorful NYU marketing professor — has a great line among his many memorable lines. He suggests that when shaping strategy, we must ourselves, “What can we do that’s really hard?” Only by answering this question will we have a chance to build something valuable and defensible.
If you’re doing easy things and/or feeling complacent, it’s time to move on to something else. Emerson argued that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This is correct.
How would our lives improve if we changed our definition of success?
I feel strongly that “success” and “authenticity” are synonymous. Far too many people focus on stock versions of success and forget that if you chase authenticity — if you try to build the most authentic, meaningful life you can — you will find success.
It hardly ever works the other way around.
What’s the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of our redefined success? And what advice would you offer about overcoming those obstacles?
We tend to talk about #entrepreneurship in terms of downside risk management. That is, we essentialize the experience with questions like, “Are you willing to go to zero (or less) for the sake of x?” and “What’s the probability that x will succeed or fail?”
I’m starting to think entrepreneurship is actually about volatility management, specifically, the high-impact ups and downs that happen between your ears, in your chest and gut, and among the people closest to you. Downside risk, bank balances, and asset valuations are expressions of volatility, but they aren’t the central challenges.
“To what degree can I accept, manage, and control the (often highly-personal) ups and downs of the lifestyle?” — I think this may be the most critical question. In this reality, stoic virtues become more than nice-to-haves. They become mission-critical assets.
Where do you go to look for information about how to redefine success?
Ryan Holiday’s work — which focused on Stoic thinkers from the ancient world — is very grounding. Redefining success through a Stoic lens has been enormously helpful to me.
Isolate the things you can control from the things you cannot. Realize all things are defined by your response to them.
Achieving this mindset — which takes daily, sometimes hourly practice — virtually guarantees success as I’ve defined it above. That is, it leads to an inner stillness and a greater sense of presence and authenticity.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she or they might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to chat with Michael Bloomberg. Every business I’ve ever built involved inheriting enormous amounts of infrastructure. Cloud computing, email, even vanilla ISPs — none of this existed in the 80s. When they started, Bloomberg and his team had to build the infrastructure, the hardware, and the software all at once. This took an enormous amount of vision, coordination, and faith. This is a pretty engaging (and rare) case study.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.