Four Ways To Get Unstuck: Avoiding the How-to Trap

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Yesterday I was speaking to someone who is a top performer in her industry. I mean not just “successful” but the top 1% of the industry. It has been very gratifying to watch her success over the years. You see she actually started her career with me some 15 years ago. I have been incredibly fortunate to mentor and surround myself with amazingly talented people in my career. As a guy that is always looking to learn and grow I tend to be very curious and ask a lot of questions of these folks. 

The HOW-TO Trap

I know we’ve all heard the adage of “If you want to be successful at something, find someone who is already there and do what they do.” 

This is a trap. This is well intentioned, bad advice. 

It is an easy trap to fall into and I catch myself repeatedly there as well. 

It was no surprise when I was chatting with this individual I asked her the question “What is it that you do that has contributed to your success?” I was seeking the “How-to”. Also not surprisingly she couldn’t really answer the question. She thought for a minute and said “You know, I am not really sure. I don’t think I do anything magical.” She went on to say that she always gets asked this question and has never really had a decent answer for it. 

We unpacked it a little bit and I reflected on a story from early in my career where I was keen to take the above noted, well intended, bad advice. Larry, who we’d both worked with in the past, was consistently the top sales pro in the company year after year after year. I was fortunate because he lived in the same city as me and was also a very generous man. I was excited by the prospect of learning from a peak performer. I asked Larry if I could shadow him for a day, intent to learn all the mystical secrets that he possessed that allowed him to do what he did so well. Larry agreed and said that he would be thrilled to have me accompany him for a day. 

When the day came, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I was so jacked to be able to spend a whole day with him. I was honestly a little surprised when I went and sat with him at his office.  There really wasn’t anything super discernable about how he did business. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he was efficient and focused on getting through task after task but the whole thing was rather mundane. 

Eventually we took a break for lunch and I asked him the big question. “What is it that you do that sets you apart? What is it that has you consistently at the top of the leaderboard no matter the economic environment?”

This conversation happened over 20 years ago but I still recall it vividly. I can assure you that his answer will stay with me for the rest of my life. He didn’t hum and haw,  suggesting he wasn’t sure what it was. Instead he said with confidence and certainty 

“You know Mike, I just do what I tell people I am going to do. That’s it” 

Boom! For me that was definitely a Mic drop moment. So simple yet so profound. Here I was expecting to find some magic marketing formula or secret scripts or sales techniques yet there it was. So perfect in its simplicity. 

What Larry did that set him apart was to consistently (and this is a keyword) deliver on what he told people he was going to do. We continued to discuss this over lunch and he elaborated. “If I tell someone that I am going to call them at 3pm tomorrow with an update, I call them at 3pm with an update. I don’t call them at 5pm with an apology and excuse for being late.”

This also hit home with me as I reflected on how many times I had missed the mark on my promises with some form of excuse. “I know I told you I’d call yesterday but the market has been crazy busy.” or maybe playing on empathy “Sorry I didn’t call yesterday but it was my daughters birthday and I just got a little behind.”

These may well be “justifiable” reasons (ahem excuses) for not delivering, however that is not what mattered. This was a massive “ah-hah!” moment for me. 

As human beings we tend to want the quick fix. The magic formula. The secret pill that will give us all the riches and wealth that our heart desires. The secret celebrity diet that helped Gwenneth Paltrow lose all her belly fat. 

Yet the reality is that it is consistent application of little habits that are what will become the magic formula. I’m sure it took Larry some time to get into the upper echelon of sales professionals, but once he did he stayed there because he had developed the habit of delivering on his promises. Every. Single. Time. 

There is a reason list based articles are so popular. There is a reason marketers implore us writers to use click bait style headlines with the list of “x Number of Things That Will Change Your Life!” We are always looking for those 5 simple things to make us a better leader, salesperson, human being, fill-in-the-blank. We want the articles, videos or programs that will give us that quick fix. We love titles like…

  • 5 Proven Ways to Lose Belly Fat
  • 8 Strategies to be a Better Leader
  • 7 Steps to a Brand New You
  • 4 Tips to Grow Your Business in 2022
  • 4 Ways to Get Unstuck

As you can see I even used the list format in hopes of getting you to click in and read this piece. While I really dislike playing the How-to game it is what people search for. My hope is that we can start to change that. 

We are addicted to the “How to” and as a result we often fail as we miss the forest for the trees. What really needs to happen is we need to focus more on the “Who to” rather than the “How to” if we want to make lasting change in our life. Rather than focusing on the list of things that need to be done to achieve what we want to achieve, shift your focus to figuring out what kind of person we need to become to achieve those things. 

For Larry it was clear. He was the type of person who always delivered on his promises. That is “who” he is more so than “what he did”. Unfortunately while the answer is simple, like many simple things it is not easy to execute on. It takes time and discipline. There is no substitute for that. There is no “X number of steps” list that will shortcut the need to become the person you need to be in order to do the things you want to do.

How To Get Unstuck

Being vs. Doing

In my book “Becoming a Better Man: When Something’s Gotta Change, Maybe It’s You!” I talk about the shift from doing to being. This is one of my favorite quotes from the book.

Life can take away what you have but it can never take away who you are. So focus on becoming more rather than having more.”

Mike Cameron

So often we feel stuck because we are busy trying to DO what others DO. When we try and emulate someone else we are almost guaranteed to fall short. Each and everyone of us is unique. Embrace your uniqueness and look to amplify WHO you are rather than WHAT you do. 

Create Powerful Questions

In conversations with my friend and leadership expert Drew Dudley, he ended up sharing his the one question he most often asks himself. It is one that I employ almost daily. The question is simple yet super powerful. 

“What would the man I want to be do in this situation”

If I want to be the kind of man that keeps his promises then I am going to find a way to phone that client back at 3pm like I promised regardless of the situation.   

Stop Searching, Start Experimenting

When I was in my 20’s I devoured every little bit of self help advice out there. While it is often said that knowledge is power, the truth is that oftentimes knowledge can be a crutch. It can be a distraction, an excuse in and of itself. It’s not knowledge that is power, but rather the application of that knowledge that is power. It is also true that what works for one may or may not work for others. 

Start experimenting with different ways of being and see how that works for you. Start with the mental shift to stop searching for how and start searching for who. Don’t do what the experts would do, instead do what you would do if you were the kind of person who… insert objective here. 

Far too often we chase the “How-to” round and round and round. We get frustrated because no matter what solutions we find, no matter how many tactical tips we learn we still don’t seem to get the results we are looking for. It is usually more about getting in our own way than a lack of information. Until we start looking at who we are, no additional information will move the needle in the slightest.  

Focus on the Feeling

How-to is about behavior. The primary focus of my work is examining how our emotions influence our decisions. Emotion is the foundation upon which reason is built. In other words, we make decisions based on emotion. Our decisions drive our behavior and our behavior drives our results. 

If we try to implement any sort of “How-to” without first addressing the underlying feelings that may be preventing us from consistently executing what we need to do then we are destined to fail. Most of us already know the “How” but rarely have the courage to take the time to examine the “Who”.

There was a skit on MadTV that talked about weight loss. The magic formula. Eat Less, Move More. Most of us know how to lose weight, get in shape, make those sales calls, yet there is something about who we are that is preventing us from consistently executing on these steps.


When I circle back to that top performer I discussed in the opening sentence, I am reminded of the crux of this message. It really has very little to do with what she does that makes her a top performer. In fact it has everything to do with who she is that makes her a top performer. 

My hope is that I gave you some food for thought. My hope is that as you continue to search for the how-to you will season it with a whole lot of “who to” along the way. As always I love to hear from you so drop me a note in the comments. I reply to all comments. 

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