Listen to Kendrick Lamar: This Is Why It Pays to Give Back
"Sit down ... be humble." Even the most successful business leaders needed help along the way.
The path to success for entrepreneurs is often long and arduous. Most of us have, at least in the early stages, worked around the clock to prove to ourselves and others that our ideas and methods are valid and will stand the test of time. When we finally do turn that corner and begin to see results, it can be hard to think beyond the extra zeros on our bank account balances.
But if we don’t do that, our success will ultimately be meaningless. The best thing I’ve learned as a successful entrepreneur is the importance of looking beyond my own interests and being of service to others. It was a hard-learned lesson, but it is perhaps the most valuable one that I can share with aspiring business people.
Starting from nothing
When you begin with nothing, there is only one direction you can go. It can be strangely liberating to start from a place where you have nothing to lose. I started my own law firm almost three decades ago with virtually nothing. I had finished law school saddled with a six-figure student debt. I had no financial backing, mentors or clients. All I had to my name was a love of the law and a commitment to using my skills to better the lives of those less fortunate.
Today, my boutique Los Angeles firm has nine lawyers and regularly achieves outlier eight-figure verdicts and settlements. Even though I have a very successful law practice, I’ve never forgotten the sense of freedom I enjoyed when I was first starting out.
To be clear, no magic transpired after I started my own practice. I simply worked as hard and smart as I could. I focused not only on being the best trial lawyer, but also on being the best human outside the courtroom. It took time, but through sheer perseverance and dedication, I got to where I am today. I spent considerable time on self-development focused on personal and professional growth.
In addition to my legal practice, I now have a thriving side career as a techno and house DJ and music producer. My record label, There Is a Light Records, is dedicated to releasing (and supporting) techno and house music.
Based on my own experience, I advise others starting out in business to adopt a mindset of both nothing and plenty. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have strong emotional and financial support as you begin your entrepreneurial journey, you will never reach your full potential until you’ve erased any sense of ease and entitlement. The hungrier you are, the harder you’ll work to achieve your goals. But the larger you think — both in terms of your abilities and your impact on the world — the greater your contribution will ultimately be. Don’t just think outside the box: Understand there is no box.
“Sit down … be humble”
These lyrics from rap icon Kendrick Lamar should be in our minds always. Yes, we worked our tails off to achieve success, but we did not do it by ourselves. We stand on the shoulders of parents, teachers, colleagues and mentors who believed in us and instilled in us the desire to realize our dreams.
As I look back over my career, I recall with gratitude the veterans in my profession who took me under their wings and helped me surmount obstacles while remaining true to myself. They forced me to question why I was doing things and examine other ways of achieving the same results. They inspired me to pay it forward by mentoring others.
I discovered that the more I helped others, the more successful I became in my own career. It’s no fluke. By removing myself from the equation and making my work about others, I attracted more clients, was able to better listen to their stories and became an expert at sharing those stories with juries. The verdicts I’ve achieved are a testament to the power of thinking beyond myself.
My mission now is to help others achieve success — not by following in my footsteps, but by helping them find their own passions and develop their unique voices. Every person’s path will be different, and my role is to help him or her find his or her own best way. I do this through teaching, mentorship and charitable giving.
As you grow your business, remember that you’ve gotten to where you are because of others. Your continued success depends on what you can do for your clients, customers, workers and community.
Humans are resilient. We can handle far more than we think we can. Unfortunately, most people lack the tools and motivation to do anything about the negative things that are bringing them down. Like magnets turned the wrong way, they deflect clients and lose attachments.
Successful people stay positive. They focus beyond themselves and work on making things better for others. Whether you’re an attorney who seeks justice for accident victims or a musician hoping to record a break-out hit, you will only be successful when you take yourself out of the picture and focus on the people whose lives you want to change.
I’ll be the first to admit that earning acclaim and having money is great. There is nothing wrong with tying your brand to success, but your financial success is directly tied to your own efforts. In my profession, I’ve observed that the most successful lawyers are not the ones who flaunt their success on social media, but the “zen lawyers” who can remove themselves from the story in the courtroom.
When your business is primarily a vehicle to make money, you cannot consider yourself truly successful. If you want to have the most lasting impact, you must love what you’re doing. Celebrate the success of others, even if they’re your business competitors. A high tide raises all ships.
Ask yourself every day: How many people can I help? Be kind, good-natured and positive. Before you reach out to connect with others, resolve any discrepancies within yourself so that you’re always occurring with joy.
Charity pays back in more ways than one
People can smell when there are strings attached, whether in business transactions or personal relationships. If you want to be successful in all areas of your life, you must learn to look for what you can do for others, not what they can give you in return. Those entrepreneurs who incorporate this approach into their business will stand out from the pack.
When you can be generous without expecting anything in return, others will trust you. Although I always expect to win verdicts for my clients, I take on cases that other attorneys will not. I regularly file lawsuits against some of the country’s largest companies, seeking justice for victims injured by unsafe products and other harmful activities.
Although nothing can compare to the personal satisfaction that comes from helping and teaching others, there are other, more tangible benefits to giving back through your business. When I established my music label, I also created a non-profit called There Is a Light Foundation. I set up this foundation to provide financial assistance and grants to individuals so that they can get to the next level in their lives. It will also educate young children who don’t know what they don’t know and teach them that they too can aim high, dream big and be whatever they declare themselves to be.
I know that the foundation will make a real difference in the lives of people trying to overcome challenges and reach their full potential, but I also know that it can provide me with a substantial tax benefit. For every dollar that I contribute to my foundation, the tax laws allow me to write off an equal amount from my business’s bottom line. If done correctly and for the right reasons, a charitable foundation can truly be a win-win for business people who want to be philanthropic.
I know that I’m fortunate to be able to create a foundation and that not everyone is in a position to do so. As you work toward your own foundation, I urge you to make a commitment to yourself — in writing — that you will give back every day in some way. Whether it’s tutoring students in underprivileged communities, volunteering time at the local food bank or mentoring recent graduates who are entering your profession, you will reap the rewards in myriad ways. And the additional zeros on your bottom line will be the least of them.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor