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John T. Reed Comments on the book What You’re Really Meant To Do

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed 2014

My book Succeeding is about helping you find the right career for you as early as possible in your life. It’s first sentence is

You belong somewhere.

Robert Kaplan wrote a book titled What You’re Really Meant To Do, subtitled “A road map for reaching your unique potential.”

That sounded like what my book was about so I bought his and read it.

Harvard Business professor

Kaplan is a Harvard Business School professor. My wife and I are both Harvard MBAs. So is Kaplan. He was previously vice chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Briefly, in the panoply of Harvard Business grads, he would appear to far out rank me. But he still managed to write a surprisingly lame book compared to mine.

‘Plays well with others’

There is some good stuff in it, however. Mainly, Kaplan appears to be one of those people who “plays well with others.” To me, the “others” are often fools whom I do not suffer gladly.

So if you are like me, my book will be far more helpful than his. If you are like him, his may be more helpful. If you are like most people, you are not sure whether you are more like him or more like me. In that case, read mine first—it has a far broader focus; then read his.

External validation seeker

He is what I call an external validation seeker. That is, he has spent his adult life going hat in hand before boards and committees seeking promotions and positions and he is good at doing that. He got the promotions and positions. The other kind of person—like me—is a guided missile. We decide what we want then go get it with ferocious persistence. We do not give a damn what boards or committees think. Rather, we deal in more objective arenas like the marketplace. Generally, we are entrepreneurs. It does not appear than Kaplan was ever one of those.

‘I gotta be me’

The book starts with the famous Hamlet quote,

This above all: To thine own self be true.

This is annoying. He should know that quote is taken out of context. In Shakespeare’s day, that phrase meant,

Take care of number one, baby!

You can look it up. Its original meaning is irrelevant to both of our books. The meaning Kaplan apparently ascribes to it, I agree with and it is a focus in my book as well.

‘Thick skin?’

He says success may require you to develop a thick skin. That is sort of a cliche version of my chapter, “Little Old Youism,” which warns against be discouraged by those who have not succeeded in the way that you want to and may be trying to prevent you from doing so to protect their own self-esteem.

‘I believe’

Kaplan is a poor writer. One manifestation of that is he frequently prefaces sentences with phrases like “I believe” or “I think.”

Yo, Stephen. Your name is on the cover as author. Saying “I believe” after that is redundant and bespeaks more humility than a non-fiction book author should have in his book. It sounds like you should have done more homework to make sure. Also, it sounds like some aw-shucks affectation to avoid intimidating us with your resume. Just say what you have to say without any qualifiers.


The book is also rather repetitive making the same point multiple times. I have written 38 titles; over 100 books if you count editions. You are supposed to proof the book and have others do the same. I miss some typos, but not such repetition. Kaplan either had no editor, failed to proof his own book, or had an incompetent editor. This is not Harvard Business School level work, professor.

Find a match

He emphasizes knowing yourself, as do I, but he largely omits the other side—which I learned at Harvard. You have to match your unique competence with a market opportunity. So you need to not only know yourself but also the full menu of pertinent career opportunities so you can achieve a match. He seems to think self-knowledge alone is the goal. No. It is matching you to a career. He approaches it as if your goal were to create or survey a great jig-saw puzzle piece. No. It is to survey the jigsaw puzzle piece that is you, then also figure out where it fits in the puzzle that is all the career opportunities. Without both, you have nothing.

He urges you to answer a bunch of questions in a sort of flow chart. I find that a bit hokey and formulaic—Power Pointish. For example, he directs you to “identify the three most important tasks that are critical to your job.” Uh, why three?

My first civilian career was to be a real estate investor and analyst. I soon figured out that real estate was a “multi-disciplinary field—as my friend and fellow Harvard MBA Stephen Roulac likes to say. And “multi” in that context does not mean three. It means real estate law, tax law, landlord-tenant law, property management, finance, marketing, etc. etc.

Kaplan’s three is a totally arbitrary number which suggests a bureaucracy employee mentality rather than an entrepreneur mind. In his career, he always had “people” to do the things beyond three. Entrepreneurs do not “have people” for those things, at least not until after they have first done them themselves.

You gotta know what you gotta know. You can’t just know the three most imporant things. I found that to be true as a military officer, landlord, agent, coach, business manager.

As one of my HBS professors said, Mr. Kaplan is “managing the company from the 50th floor,” which leaves out all those managers who only have a two-story building.

Speak out—judiciously

He is big on telling you to speak out when you think things should be better or are wrong, but gingerly.

Yeah, well, I never needed that admonition and I got hammered for it when I was in bureaucracies. Kaplan has never been anywhere else. He is basically saying that if you play it too quiet to avoid offending anyone, you won’t hit the big time. But if you are too free-speaking, you will be driven out early. Sort of be judiciously outspoken so you stand out enough to be noticed by management, but not so much as to piss them off.

I say screw all that. You gotta be you and if the boss doesn’t like the real you, go somewhere else. Kaplan is spouting the “plays well with others” formula. I am spouting the “to thine own self be true” formula.

Public speaking

Kaplan apparently could not speak in public and dealt with it through some sort of agonizing self-psychologist trick. He should have just attended the Dale Carnegie course rather than reinvented that wheel. My wife, youngest son, and I all attended that super course. So did Warren Buffet and he says it was the best education he ever got.

Justice will prevail!?

To an extent, he reminds me of the lifers in the Army, whom I hold in utter contempt. For example, he says you are often treated unjustly, like they promote some guy who was not as good as you instead of you. His solution?

Believe that justice will prevail.

You gotta be kidding me! I went through that in the Army. Justice will prevail!? The highest ranking lifers were the biggest losers. I never saw justice prevail in the Army or any other large organization. My counterpart philosophy was,

You can’t keep a good man down—unless he’s dumb enough to remain in an unjust organization forever!

I got the hell out of the Army ASAP.

My Succeeding book says the only way to get justice to prevail in an organization is to maneuver yourself into a position where your performance is clear and objective—like sales on commission, being head of a profit center, being off by yourself “far from the flag.” Only if you can point to proof of your contribution to the bottom line can you survive and make sure justice is done to you in an organization.

If you believe justice will prevail when you are in a subjective, bureaucratic, middle-manager position in a large organization, you are an idiot. Cronyism will prevail. Ass-kissing will prevail. Office politics will prevail. Reading between the lines, I surmise Kaplan is good at becoming a crony, kissing ass, and playing office politics. One of my complaints about the how-to-succeed books of others is they are too embarrassed about the real way to get ahead so they leave it out. I do not leave it out. I say how it really is then tell you how to succeed in spite of refusing to do that bullshit. Look at the chapter titles in my table of contents.

Work on weaknesses!?

Kaplan seems to think you should “work on” all your weaknesses. That is an extremely common belief and it is DEAD WRONG!

Chapter six in my book is “What you can change and what you cannot change.” If something you can change is holding you back, fix it, like being fat. But if something you cannot change is holding you back, like your height or personality, change your situation. That is, get a new job where that unchangeable will be unimportant or irrelevant. Trying to fix your unfixables is a formula for lifelong misery and failure.

Kaplan uses psychobabble like “taking ownership” and calling screw-ups or weaknesses “challenges.” I would now like to ‘task” Stephen with something: Gag me with a spoon.

The higher you get, the narrower your competitive advantage

He makes a point I may need to be more clear about in my book. As you move up the success ladder, your strengths and weaknesses relative to your peers narrow. I was perhaps the top student in my Catholic elementary school class. Then we moved to another similar, but public, school where I seemed to be number two. Then we moved to another school where my class was six times as large. I was 33rd out of 373 at graduation. Then I went to West Point where I graduated 473 out of 706 (they had a lot of non-academic criteria so it’s a bit of an apples/oranges comparison, but you get the general idea). They did not have class rank at Harvard Business school that I know of but I was probably in the middle or bottom.

I knew a guy who was the top swimmer in his event in FL. He moved to CA to be coached by the best. He was not the top swimmer there and it hurt his confidence to the point where his marks (best times for each stroke and distance) were lower than they had been in FL!

My son and the other top player on his 11-year-old baseball team played on a team with 12-year-olds in the summer after the regular season. Their confidence was destroyed and they could not even field routine grounders they had handled superbly when playing with their own age group.

“Zen Master” Phil Jackson, the most successful NBA coach ever, observed the same thing when college basketball stars went up to the pros. They were Mr. Everything on their college team. But in the NBA, they were only the rebounder or the three-point shooter or the defensive guy. Welcome to the NBA, hotshot.

I had to make a speech about that and other things to the parents of my players when I coached freshman football. “In youth sports, your son may have been a star. That’s because there they emphasize participation. For example, a youth baseball team typically has 12 or 13 on the roster and 9 on the field. Here at the high school freshman level, we have 88 on the roster and only 11 on the field. So almost no matter how big of a star your son was in youth sports, here, he will be lucky just to make the starting lineup and he will likely have a narrower role on our team. It is crucial that you and your son understand the high school sports equivalent to Dorothy saying “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto” when she woke up in Oz.

I can tell you with certainty that Kaplan had an “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto” moment during his first week at Havard Business School. He graduated from the University of Kansas undergrad. I sure as heck had such a moment during my first week at Harvard only it was “I don’t think we’re at ‘you cadets are the cream of the crop’ West Point anymore.”

I don’t know how much going to U. of Kansas sobers you up with regard to how hot of a hotshot you are, but West Point and Harvard Business School certainly do. A whole lot of very impressive people go to West Point and the people who go to HBS are even more impressive as a group.

If you are reading my Succeeding book or Kaplan’s book, it’s because you hope to move up. Fine. Kaplan did. I did. You probably can too, but your strengths and weaknesses relative to your competitors, are not the same higher up the ladder as they were down below. That is why it is crucial to get an optimal match between your unique competences and the career you choose as early as possible to make sure you are on the right ladder. Only then will you still be competitive higher up.

Management is different

Similarly, as you go up in an organization, the nature of your job changes. Making widgets is different from managing people who make widgets. Managing people means spending all day every day recruiting, training, and retaining good people and evaluating, counseling, and firing bad people. Your love of widgets may have brought you into the widget business. But at the management level, you have little to do with widgets. You only deal in people problems. Running a temp or executive recruiting company is probably better preparation for managing widget makers than making widgets, although the widget maker managers are typically taken from the ranks of the makers. The fact that you love making widgets and are good at it, does not mean you will also love managing widget makers and be good at that.

Kaplan says you are often find yourself in the right company, but not the right job for you. He urges changing to the right job including changing companies or even industries if necessary. Agreed.

Page 140 of Kaplan’s book has a nice summary of how a low-level employee has to change his perspective in order to move up and after he moves up thinking more big-picture, setting the example, giving credit to others. I guess I did not emphasize that because after four years at West Point I had internalized those habits to the point that I was no longer aware of such thoughts.

He constantly says think and act as if you were the owner. And I kept writing in the margin. “Screw that! Become the owner of your own company.” He uses the phrase “act like” a lot—the workplace as theater. I prefer the word “be” as in “be the owner.”

Complement your strengths and weaknesses with strengths and weakness of partners/team members

Sometimes Kaplan says, you are good at A and B but not C and you are weak at D where all four are needed to get the job done. In that cases, he says to partner up with people whose strengths make up for your weaknesses in your team or company. I agree with that in theory, but I think it’s easier said than done, especially if you are not the CEO. My general solution to that problem is to stop doing the thing I am weak at. I outsource it or automate it or just eliminate it by getting rid of that product or service. Kaplan should add that to his book and I should add his approach to mine.

Coaching subordinates

Kaplan talks a lot about coaching your subordinates. I do, too, in my sports coaching books. But in business, I found employees far too aggravating and sources of the four “ations:” taxation, regulation, legislation, and litigation. I do not do subordinates in business. Been there. Done that. F’get about it. Life is too short. Fifty years ago, okay. But today, after a half century of politicians giving workers more and more rights, to hell with them.

He discusses ‘Little Old Meism,” although not by that name, as I do, but he does not hit it anywhere near as hard as I did and his coverage of the subject is inadequate considering the extremely important nature of that problem.

Not good enough for his father

He discusses his fear of not being good enough for his father. Ooookay. At my house, the fear was my father not being good enough for his son—me. And he was not. Not that my standards were high. He was an alcoholic, kept man who free loaded off my mother. Anyway, those are personal problems, not universal situation that belong in books like Kaplan’s or mine.

Kaplan makes too much of what I would characterize as normal, universal, insecurities everyone has growing up.

In general, Stephen “plays well with others” Kaplan is too passive and flaccid and willing to go along and be patient with injustice. Too much biding his time.

George Bernard Shaw said,

Reasonable men adapt themselves to the world.
Unreasonable men adapt the world to themselves.
Therefore all progress depends on unreasonable men.

Kaplan is a reasonable man. I am an unreasonable man. Therefore our two books are written for two very different types of people. To put it another way, much of his advice is bullshit telling you to put up with injustice and delay that you should not tolerate for a minute. Life is too short.


In my Succeeding book, I discuss values but as a hierarchy. Anyone can spout and claim all the good values like integrity, ambition, treating others well, and so on. But that is meaningless until you identify your values hierarchy. In other words, when a situation triggers conflicts between your values—like integrity versus ambition—to which to you give priority? Kaplan has not figured that out yet. He ruminates on values vaguely and, therefore, not very helpfully. I always suspect people who do that as not having a values hierarchy which I, in turn, suspect comes from resolving the inevitable conflicts inconsistently—a sort of ethical relativism or situational ethics, each of which is really a rationalization to put a fig leaf of cover over lack of ethics.

Ethics are rules. A values hierarchy is a necessary subset of your ethical rules. Not having a code of ethics and a values hierarchy that you adhere to consistently is waiving the rules, which is another way of saying unethical.

Kaplan’s big organization life more or less implicitly prohibits having and adhering to an explicit ethical code and hierarchy of values. See my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” Especially look at the breakdown of the “counseling” sessions I got again and again when I was an Army officer. It is relatively easy to find by scrolling down because it is in table format. They are a nice collection of the rationalizations big organization cynics use to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by the conflict between their espoused ethical beliefs and their actual conduct, in other words, the fact that they are hypocrites. On page 184, Kaplan alludes to what I am talking about here.

Kaplan apologizes for maybe being a bit too touchy feely at one point. He’s too touchy feely for me. I discuss relationships, too, but not like this. I think he is trying to get too deep into details of which he simply knows not.

Organization Man

Kaplan is an Organization Man telling you how to succeed at being an Organization Man. If that’s what you want, you should probably read his book. I cannot relate to such a desire.

Generally, I think Kaplan has the right idea. His book sounds like mine often and I have no reason to believe he read mine. But this is a guy who aspired to be a prominent, respected member of The Establishment in finance—Goldman Sachs and Harvard Business School. The trick for doing that, I say from afar, appears to be “playing well with others” and learning what behavior is thought to represent a “stud” in that realm and then mimicking that behavior. That kind of mindset is very big at West Point and in the Army. It turns my stomach. I prefer to take my cue from the great philosophers Francis Albert Sinatra and Samuel George Davis, Jr. who identified and elaborated on the principles they called “I did it my way”  and “I gotta be me.

Kaplan’s life and advice would require new songs titled “I did it the committee’s way” and “I gotta be what the board wants me to be.” I hope some readers will provide the parody lyrics for those two inspirational musical numbers.

Which begs the question of why his book starts with the quote

This above all: To thine own self be true.

Based on his life and advice, he apparently meant

To thine own board be true.

John T. Reed

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