Nine Ideas & Nine Questions

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 12, Issue No. 9
December, 2014

By Dan Coughlin



Every few years I like to review the books I’ve read to extract ideas people can use to improve results in a sustainable way. Here are nine ideas that stood out for me from the last two years of reading.


Confirmation Bias happens when a person consciously or subconsciously searches for statistics and stories that support a belief he or she already has. I learned this term in the book, How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. He was talking about beliefs people have about high school education and what increases the students’ chances for success later in life.

In the business world, executives and managers can consciously or subconsciously search for data and examples that support what they already believe to be true. The problem happens when what they already believe to be true is exactly what is getting in the way of achieving better sustainable results. Then they keep reinforcing these limiting beliefs.

Confirmation Bias is a good thing because without it a person could change his or her values and beliefs every time he or she read a new article or came across a new piece of research. The problem is when the person never pauses to question any of his or her existing beliefs. This can lead to the same mistakes over and over again.

What ideas are you biased toward sticking to no matter how much they might be getting in the way of your desired results, and how can you effectively challenge those biases?


As defined by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed, grit means a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission. After I read that definition, grit became my new favorite word. I absolutely love that. One word that summarizes what I consider to be the single most important factor in generating sustainable success. I suppose you could argue that this is Confirmation Bias. I admit it. I am biased toward the belief that sustaining a mission, a sense of purpose that really matters to you, is the single most important factor in riding out the dual storms of great results and poor results that allows you to keep succeeding over the long term.

What purpose has your unswerving dedication as an individual and what is it for your organization?


In her book, Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck says the growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts and the fixed mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are carved in stone and cannot be improved. Quite literally, the mindset you have about yourself determines whether you will continually learn from every situation and constantly improve and become a better and more effective performer or you will remain in a constant state of status quo for the rest of your life. The former is about living a life of excellence at work and at home, and the latter is about continually getting passed by other people and never fulfilling your ultimate potential. If you truly want to fulfill your purpose, I suggest you adopt the attitude of always looking for ways to improve.

As you think about your efforts at work, would you say you operate more with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset and why do you feel that way?


A good friend of mine, Annelise Feder, suggested I read a book called The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything. This book reminded me again and again of the enormous value of stepping back from work in order to really think about what has happened, why it has happened, what I’ve learned, and what I will do the same and what I will do differently in the future. In other words, discernment and reflection are business drivers.

This week when will you take 20-30 minutes to step away from your work and go for a long walk without your cell phone in order to really think through an important situation at work?


In the book, Churchill: The Power of Words, Winston Churchill is quoted as saying to the citizens of England on the third day of World War II, “We may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond our compass and our strength.” I think every person in every organization should adopt this attitude. Whatever you are up against, the key is to believe you have the compass, which represents your values and beliefs, and the strength, which is the capacity to do the work, necessary to do what needs to be done to generate sustainable profitable growth.

How can you enhance the compass and the strengths in yourself and your organization?


Johnny Carson was one of my all-time favorite entertainers. I used to love to watch The Tonight Show when he was on. I can’t remember ever not enjoying him and his funny, charming style of interacting with people. The book, Johnny Carson, by his long-time lawyer, Henry Bushkin, tells many stories that make Johnny out to be mean-spirited, selfish, and self-centered. I assume most of those stories are true, but I still consider Carson to be one of my favorite entertainers. I admire his talent, even though I don’t admire everything about him. It’s okay to learn from particular aspects of other people while not agreeing with everything about the person. If we write off every person whom we find something to criticize about, we won’t have anybody left to learn from.

Who are three people you admire and which of their talents do you admire the most and what can you learn from each of these individuals to improve your own work?


Gutzon Borglum. What a name. Have you ever heard of him? Perhaps not, but I’m sure you’ve seen his life’s work. He led the team that carved the four presidents on Mount Rushmore. The book, The Carving of Mount Rushmore, explains the extraordinary degree of perseverance that Borglum sustained over a 14-year period in order to guide the making of America’s largest monument to the spirit of democracy. In the end, isn’t that what we all want to do, to carve a lasting impact in our organizations or in our industry or in our society or in our community that has a lasting impact on other people?

What Mount Rushmore are you working to carve in your organization that will leave a lasting impact on other people in a positive way?


Over the past two years I’ve read four books by Pat Conroy: The Prince of Tides, South of Broadway, My Losing Season, and Beach Music. They all deal with intensely emotional situations inside of families. These emotions are real and raw. They cut to the bone. As you read the books, it’s impossible to not feel deeply what Conroy is writing about. This ultimately is what both your life and your business are all about. Emotions matter. Business is emotional. No matter how logical and organized and well-planned out you may be, you still have to feel the emotions deep in your gut in order to produce your finest work.

What are you deeply passionate about in your work that drives you every day?


Not every great story is a story about success. Two books, Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People by Candy Moulton and The Journey of Crazy Horse: a Lakota history by Joseph Marshall reminded me that sometimes failure to achieve a desired outcome is based on a lack of luck. Chief Joseph and Crazy Horse, two truly remarkable leaders, fought to preserve the personal freedom of the Native American Indians, but they were simply completely outnumbered by the U.S. Military. The primary reason they lost was not a lack of cunning, effort, or courage. It was that the citizens of the U.S. wanted the land that the Indians lived on and they had virtually an endless supply of people and weapons to achieve their desired outcome.

Sometimes you will achieve an outcome because you have worked hard for a long time and then there was a fortunate turn of events. Sometimes you will work hard and have a terrible year because of an unfortunate turn of events. Luck and the lack of it will continue to pop up throughout your career. The key is how you respond to those moments.

In what ways is your organization being lucky or unlucky right now and how can you help your business respond effectively to these turn of events?


I encourage you to live your life at work and at home with grit, the growth mindset, and a remarkably high degree of perseverance in order to carve out a lasting and positive impact on the life of other people.

I encourage you to challenge your biases and make sure you have the values and beliefs you want guiding your behaviors.

I encourage you to learn from the talents of others, but never try to be anybody other than yourself.

I encourage you to spend time discerning and reflecting on your compass and your strengths so that you can passionately pursue your purpose even in the face of both good and bad luck.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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