When I was a college coach, there was one phrase that you could say to me that would make me crazy. “Just a,” as in, you’re just a coach. I battled that label day and night. The university faculty didn’t take me seriously because I was “just a coach.” (As if all coaches do is roll out a ball and blow a whistle and watch people run).
What I’ve learned since then is that when others label us, we start to label ourselves. Now in my career as an executive coach and author, I hear a lot of entrepreneurs self-identify using the “just a” disclaimer. When you do this, you minimize yourself and your value by saying “I’m just a small business owner,” or “My company is just a startup.”
Do yourself the ultimate favor by eliminating this phrase from your vocabulary immediately. It diminishes you and your contribution to the world around you, which I promise is way bigger than you may realize.
Equally dangerous as “just a” is another phrase that I hear a lot of new entrepreneurs say: “used to,” As in, "I used to be a coach," "I used to be a teacher" or "I used to be a scientist." They hang on to their former career and hang on to memories of success from that former role.
Instead, embrace your new role and new self, “You version 2.0,” if you will. A lot of people lack the courage to blaze their own trail as entrepreneurs and can’t even say they're "just a." You on the other hand are one of the brave souls, a trailblazer.
Reframe your "just a" or "used to be" by focusing on the word "now" when talking about yourself.
"I’m an author now." "I’m a realtor now." "I’m a financial advisor now."
There are lots of folks throwing around the phrase “used to be” who are perfectly capable and successful as the new and improved version of themselves -- they just haven’t figured it out yet. I don’t think “Amazon.com is just a bookseller” was something you ever heard CEO Jeff Bezos say in the company’s early days.
For better or worse, the stories we tell ourselves shape our world. Is your story putting an artificial ceiling on your potential?
You might be just one person in the world but you might be the whole world to one person. -- Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss
When I “used to be just a college lacrosse coach,” (sorry, I couldn’t resist) I was fortunate to coach at a college that championed accommodations well before the American Disabilities Act. As a result of its forward thinking, the university had a significant population of physically disabled students. One of whom, Andrew, became my team's manager for three years. Andrew had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. I thought he would be a good manager because he had a passion for sports and was an incredibly talented writer and statistician.
The other reason was because he also made our players better people and gave them perspective. I wasn't the easiest coach to play for -- ask any of my former players and they'll tell you I pushed them pretty hard. Sometimes the best reminder for them that sprinting up and down the field in 90 degree heat was a privilege, not a chore, wasn't me pushing them. It was seeing Andrew on the sidelines cheering them on, keeping stats, offering words of encouragement and no doubt wishing he could do what they were doing.
Andrew had a magnetic personality and people just seemed to gravitate to him, yet at the same time he was a very private person and could be painfully shy.
In 2004, I got a phone call that I will never forget. Andrew’s father called to thank me. At Andrew’s graduation dinner when his parents asked him what the highlight of his college experience was, he told them it was traveling with the lacrosse team on our spring trip. He felt like he was a player on the team. He was welcome in the locker room, people sat with him at dinner and he was included in the post-game parties. For three years, I had no idea he felt this way. He was hard to read, so consequently I had no idea just how much he valued the experience and how much of an impact we made on him.
His phone call changed me that day. I didn’t feel like just a coach.
Ironically, in the bottom-line business that is college sports, I was fired a couple of weeks later on my birthday. The reason was for not winning a national championship.
When I think about that very timely phone call it helped me realize what the really important wins in life are and that I wasn’t “just a coach” all those years. It also helped me move on to a new chapter and not remain stuck lamenting what I used to be.
I share this with you because I bet you're a lot like me and you've got employees or customers who are a lot like Andrew. We often don’t realize the impact we make until well after we’ve made it. You're not "just a small business owner" or "just a startup entrepreneur." Your influence touches lives and creates memorable experiences for your employees and customers.
I bet that influence is far greater than you realize.