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From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

As every entrepreneur knows, sometimes the greatest advice can come from the most unexpected sources.
From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself
Image credit: Illustrated by Mark Smith
Magazine Contributor
17 min read

This story appears in the January 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

As every entrepreneur knows, sometimes the greatest advice can come from the most unexpected sources. So we rounded up a Little League champ, a Ritz-Carlton concierge, comedian Gilbert Gottfried and 10 other unconventional thinkers who offer brilliant tips and tricks on everything from conflict resolution to people skills -- all to help you make 2018 your best year yet. 

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to motivate a team

How to motivate a team
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

"Young kids are looking for direction. Adults may think they know everything. But both groups have at least this in common: When they see that a leader is being serious with them and is looking out for their best interests, and that following what the leader says brings about success, they’re going to follow. I make sure players understand that success starts with them taking care of their own obligations. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Take care of yours, and when everyone’s doing that, the team is taken care of, too. Then everyone sees how it pays off. They’ll see that the hard workers are successful. They’ll be ready to work and eager to put the time in. And for those who don’t? On my field, there are consequences -- running, push-ups, sit-ups. Eventually, some will quit. That’s fine. If they’re not hard workers, you don’t want them on your team.” -- Bud Maddux, coach of the Thundering 13 of Lufkin, Tex.

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to remember names

How to remember names
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

"I meet a lot of new people each day, sometimes for only a minute or two, and my job is to be consistently helpful to them throughout their stay. To do this, I always start by greeting them very personably and engaging them in nice, uninterrupted conversation. I ask their name early and then use it at least three times during the conversation, including always at the end. I also try to learn some interesting fact about them -- maybe that they like Italian restaurants, or are here for their birthday. The pairing of the name and the fact helps me remember both. I think it’s because they stay in my memory as a real person, not just a name on a list. And I always follow up, either in the lobby or sometimes by calling their room. That’s another opportunity to use their name, which helps me remember it longer.” -- Victoria Edmond, lead concierge at the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to have tough conversations

How to have tough conversations
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

Caleb Wilde knows a thing or two about uncomfortable conversations. For the sixth-generation funeral director and author of Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life, his livelihood depends on them. “If you go into these things and you’re not prepared, it’s going to end poorly,” he says. But the real keys to success, he says, are all about what you don’t do. 

1. Don’t fill the air with chatter. 

It may seem like a way to move the conversation forward, but folks need time to process what they’re hearing. “You have to be comfortable in silence,” Wilde says. “People need time to collect themselves when they’re confronted with something highly emotional.”  

2. Be real, not clichéd. 

Telling someone, “You’ll get through this!” provides you with way more comfort than it does them. “It’s a way to make ourselves feel comfortable in a hard situation and avoid having to do the awkward work of listening,” Wilde says. 

3. Don’t front-load the conversation. 

Relaying tough information shouldn’t be like ripping off a Band-Aid, so ease your audience into it. Wilde says it’s important to give people warnings of what’s to come, to help them feel a sense of control at a time of chaos. 

4. Don’t rely on humor. 

“I do have a couple one-liners, but it depends on the circumstances,” Wilde says. (Case in point: His Twitter bio reads, “I’m the last person to let you down.”) Read the room, he says, and use jokes with extreme caution.

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to handle bad reviews

How to handle bad reviews
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

When Gilbert Gottfried bombs, he bombs. “If I’ve lost the audience, I try to lose them even more,” says the star of the recent documentary Gilbert. “I feel like, Eh, what the hell. They’re gone; why not just go for broke?” After nearly five decades on stage and screen, he’s had his fair share of jeers -- and figured out how to learn a thing or two from them. 

1. Don’t get discouraged. 

“You just have to march on,” he says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten booed or gotten silence or people talking amongst themselves. You just have to, like the song says, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.”

2. Mine criticism for truth. 

“If you’re a restaurant owner and you get that one person who doesn’t like your food, you
can write it off as maybe they’re just grouchy,” he says. “But if loads of people don’t like your food, maybe it’s time to change the recipe.”

3. Don’t blame your audience. 

Gottfried has noticed a pattern among comics who fail to hit it big: They’ll walk offstage after a rough set and immediately start talking about “how stupid the audience is and how he’s funny and he’s intellectual and he’s just more advanced than them,” he says. “That way he never has to change what he’s doing. Never get to that point.”

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to pull an all-nighter

How to pull an all-nighter
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

When Len Forkas participates in the Race Across America -- a bike ride from the Santa Monica Pier to Annapolis, Md. -- he bikes more than 260 miles a day on as little as three hours of sleep. “I knew I had to pull over and sleep for 15 minutes when I saw translucent flamingos running in front of me,” says Forkas, who owns a company that builds and manages cellphone towers. “There are times when you can dig really deep, but you have to respect your boundaries.” When it’s crunch time, here’s how he survives those late-night hours. 

1. No processed sugar. 

“It’s like cocaine. It may give you a jolt, but you have to keep jolting to stay awake. And it’s not sustainable.”

2. Take mental breaks. 

“If I am really exhausted, I pull over and sleep in my support van for five minutes, listening to white noise on my earphones. It’s like a vitamin B shot.”

3. Pump that blood. 

“If you’re sleepy, do 20 push-ups at a time in one-minute intervals. That’ll elevate your heart rate.”

4. Attract positivity. 

“Everyone’s going to become sleep-deprived, and if you don’t have positive people on your team who are unselfish and believe in a mission, they’re gonna crack. And if they crack and they’re negative people, then your team is doomed.”

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to overcome fear

How to overcome fear
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

In the moments before Ashley Caldwell landed the jump that established her as the world champion of freestyle skiing aerials in 2017, she was scared. No woman in history had ever landed the trick she was about to attempt. Dubbed “the Daddy,” it entails three backflips with 1,440 degrees of rotation -- pretty much a gold-or-bust risk. She was shaking in her ski boots but managed to backflip her way to history. 

As a two-time Olympian and 2018 front-runner, Caldwell isn’t exactly a novice. But she credits much of her success to her practiced ability to recast fear in a positive light. “Fear is exciting,” she says. “It means I have an opportunity to become a stronger athlete or person.” 

Caldwell starts by acknowledging her fear, something she encourages other athletes -- or, in this case, business folks -- to mimic. If it’s an upcoming presentation you’re nervous about, prepare in advance by imagining what it will look like to overcome the fear. Think beyond the words you’ll say and the PowerPoint you’ll deliver, and instead visualize yourself actively managing your emotions. Before competition, Caldwell asks herself, How excited or nervous will I be? What will I do to calm myself down? 

Your visualization might include meditating or reviewing notes moments before the presentation. Or you can steal Caldwell’s strategy: To control her body’s physiological response, she pictures herself dancing with her fear. “I get the head nod going, and my breathing pattern begins to slow down,” she says. “I’ll sing and dance until my nerves are calm, and then I feel good.” 

As Caldwell closes in on the big moment, she switches from visualization to positive self-talk, repeating to herself, I’m going to be successful. Or, she admits, when she’s speeding down the ramp at 40-plus mph, her internal mantra is closer to Fuck, yeah! Fuck, yeah! Fuck, yeah!…

The lesson? Fake the confidence until it becomes real. That’s when fun takes over, and that’s the ultimate goal of success, Caldwell says. “If I’m not having fun, it’s going to be a bad day, and it’s going to leave me, my career and my mental state worse off.” 

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to get creative

How to get creative
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

Nail polish brand Essie is known for its collection of more than 1,000 shades -- each just slightly different from the next -- and the cheeky names that go along with them. To turn a sea of same into names like Jelly Apple, Be Cherry and Wrapped in Rubies, general manager Carolyn Holba and her team figured out how to capture their own creativity. 

1. Build a backstory. 

Each collection is designed around a theme (the ’90s, New Year’s in New York) and from there Holba’s team creates a fully fleshed-out narrative. “From that story, we sit around and ideate around names,” she says, which results in monikers like Saved by the Belle and Ring in the Bling. 

2. Diversify your perspectives. 

The marketing team includes people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, offering multiple viewpoints on a single theme. “We all experienced the ’90s in a very different way, but we all had things we remember that were extremely iconic.” 

3. Keep it human. 

Essie avoids both copywriters and help from Google during brainstorms. “I think that’s why the consumer relates so strongly to our names,” says Holba. “Because it actually is us -- not a machine, not an algorithm. It’s very personal.”

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to manage your staff

How to manage your staff
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

"Every lesson I learned in military training is applicable to daily business life. A team leader is at the bottom of an upside-down pyramid. You serve many people above you -- clients, staff, a board of directors -- and all that weight is why the burden of responsibility is so heavy. Leaders are responsible for what happens to their team. If it doesn’t achieve its objectives, either the team wasn’t given the right training or it didn’t receive the proper clarity to solve problems. It is your fault, not theirs. People don’t wake up and try to make a mistake -- you must assume positive intent. People will fail, but leaders of character own their mistakes, or those made by their team. I can coach mistakes, but I can’t coach a flawed character. The military teaches that disciplined people will win. To succeed, everyone must be aligned to a clear purpose that is bigger than themselves. The ultimate mission.”  -- Cullen Barbato, former field artillery officer for the U.S. Army and current COO of online watch purveyor Crown & Caliber

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to prepare for the worst

How to prepare for the worst
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

In the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control, we do approximately 6,000 operations per day. We can’t move such a large volume of air traffic without detailed procedures. There’s an easy way to do things, but that might not be the best way to prepare for unforeseen circumstances. We control traffic as if we are going to have a complete electrical failure, I’m going to lose my radar and I’m not going to be able to talk to my pilots. Say two planes want to cross each other’s path. One’s going from the southeast to the northwest, and the other one is going from the southwest to the northeast. It’s hard to tell if they’re going to be in the same place at the same time or if they’re going to miss each other by three miles -- which is the required lateral separation in our airspace. So you keep minimal vertical separation, which is 1,000 feet, between those planes at all times. That ensures that if your screen goes blank and your radios cut out, those planes will never ever hit. We call it positive control. Always have a fail-safe.”  -- Toby Bucsescu, air-traffic-control specialist

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to recover from a boozy lunch meeting

How to recover from a boozy lunch meeting
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

Whether you’re celebrating a colleague’s retirement or bonding with a potential client, work is waiting for you back at the office. Kevin Denton, U.S. mixologist for the international spirit and wine company Pernod Ricard, has survived more than his fair share of liquored-up lunches. Here’s how to keep your head on straight.

 

1. Order defensively. 

Limit yourself to long cocktails -- meaning those heavy on mixers and served in tall glasses. Denton suggests a gin and tonic, a Tom Collins or a Presbyterian (whiskey with ginger ale and club soda).

2. Walk it off. 

Don’t try to sober up with coffee. “That’s like drinking a Red Bull and vodka,” says Denton. “You’re still tipsy, but now you’re more animated, too.” Instead, take a stroll through the park. It won’t burn off your buzz, but 15 minutes to yourself will provide much-needed distance from a rowdy lunch crew. 

3. Aim for the mundane. 

Set aside complex tasks and important emails in favor of the boring (but necessary) work you’ve been neglecting. Denton uses the time to log expenses. “I just put on some music,” he says. “Now the thing I usually loathe seems totally fine.”

4. Know when to call it. 

“If you think you’re too drunk, go home,” he says. “The worst possible thing you could do is be out of control at the office.”

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to make a sale

How to make a sale
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

Los Angeles real estate titan Tami Halton Pardee and 8-year-old Oklahoma Girl Scout Blake Cavner share their best sales tips.  

 

Let’s start with your bona fides. Tami, what does a good year of real estate sales look like?

Tami Halton Pardee: This year we’ll do about $750 million.

Wow! Blake, how many boxes of cookies do you sell each year?

Blake Cavner: At least 1,600 or 1,700.

You both must rely heavily on word-of-mouth advertising.

Halton Pardee: That is number one for us. Fifty-seven percent of our clients are return or referral. The average is 11 percent in real estate. It’s all about trust. People want to buy a home from someone who is looking out for their best interest.

Cavner: I sell to some of my mom’s friends, and I set up booths outside restaurants and stores.

Are there particular stores where you sell the most?

Cavner: I sell more at Walmart.

How do you persuade people to buy more cookies than they planned to? 

Cavner: People always say, “I’ll come back after I buy stuff from the store.” So I say, “OK,” and then I just start dancing and being happy, and they’re like, “OK, actually, I’ll buy more now.”

Tami, do you dance in your properties?

Halton Pardee: I will if they want me to! It’s similar, though -- you just want to relate to clients. We want to see what excites these people, and a lot of times we’re not upselling them, we’re moving them to a property that will excite them. If they walk into a condo and I see that they’re pregnant, I’ll say, “I think a house with a yard might be better.”

Blake, what’s your go-to pitch?

Cavner: “We take cash, credit cards and checks.”

Credit cards! That’s high-tech!

Cavner: We do it on people’s phones. Like, my mom’s phone [through the Girl Scout app].

Tami, you must leverage tech a lot.

Halton pardee: Web is how 99 percent of people are looking. We partner with Zillow and a lot of online real estate sites. We have 4,000 Instagram followers, and 20,000 people subscribe to our newsletter. Our house average is 67,000 views per month. We’re in Silicon Beach, where Snapchat and Google are, so I use my personal Snapchat account for business. A lot of my clients are Snapchat employees, so they only Snap you. 

Last question: What’s your best sales tip?

Cavner: If someone is mean, just say, “OK” and never care about it, instead of saying, “That’s not nice, you should never say that.”

Halton Pardee: My mom taught me to have the best manners. Say “please” and “thank you” with a big smile. It’s amazing how far you can get. 

From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself

How to harness your work ethic

How to harness your work ethic
Image credit: Illustrated by Raymond Biesinger

Gary Brackett was great at football in high school. Two-way star player. Second team All-State. But schools aren’t exactly clamoring for a 5-foot-10, 205-pound linebacker, so when he went to college, he did it under humbling circumstances: as a walk-on. 

He made the team at Rutgers, but it didn’t go well. “It was kind of a lowlight,” he says of his early college career. “I’m not thinking about the NFL. I’m just thinking, Let me get a scholarship to pay for my tuition.” 

To hit his scaled-back goal, he worked -- hard. He was the first to the weight room and the last to leave. He studied game film compulsively. In time, he won the respect of his teammates. He volunteered for special teams, the gigs that no one else wanted. “People used to go to the bathroom when special teams were on,” he says, laughing. “It wasn’t sexy.” But Brackett didn’t care. He had to take every opportunity he could.

Still, two years passed without a scholarship. Brackett recalls almost packing up and going home. But then something shifted: A new coach joined the team and said that whoever worked the hardest would be the leader. That was Brackett. He got his scholarship his junior year, became team captain and MVP. “I never looked back,” he says.

He got a pretty good job afterward: star linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts for nine years, six as a captain. He even won a Super Bowl. He retired in 2011, earned his MBA and now runs a successful chain of sports bars, The Stacked Pickle, in Indianapolis. He attributes much of his success to lessons learned during those years toiling in obscurity. “Be realistic about your potential,” he says. “Have the mindset that you’re going to continue chopping wood. Good things will happen.”

Add to Queue
  • From an Olympic Skier to a Nail-Polish Namer, 12 Unconventional Thinkers Share Their Brilliant Tips on Improving Yourself
  • 1. How to motivate a team
  • 2. How to remember names
  • 3. How to have tough conversations
  • 4. How to handle bad reviews
  • 5. How to pull an all-nighter
  • 6. How to overcome fear
  • 7. How to get creative
  • 8. How to manage your staff
  • 9. How to prepare for the worst
  • 10. How to recover from a boozy lunch meeting
  • 11. How to make a sale
  • 12. How to harness your work ethic
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