The Earned Life, by Marshall Goldsmith

The Earned Life, by Marshall Goldsmith
The Earned Life, by Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Goldsmith has been recognized as one of the Top Ten Business Thinkers in the World and the top-rated executive coach at the Thinkers50 ceremony.

The Earned Life is a book that offers a simple approach that accommodates both our persistent need for achievement and the inescapable “stuff happens” unfairness of life. We are living an earned life when the choices, risks, and efforts we make in each moment align with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcome.

There are three simple requirements for something to be truly earned:

  • We make our best choice supported by the facts and the clarity of our goals. In other words, we know what we want and how far we need to go.
  • We accept the risk involved.
  • We put out maximum effort.

Accordingly, the earned life makes a few demands on us:

  • Live your own life, not someone else’s version of it.
  • Commit yourself to “earning” every day. Make it a habit.
  • Attach your earning moments to something greater than mere personal ambition.

The most resolute and determinative opponent of change is inertia. “Our default response in life is not to experiment meaning of happiness. Our default response is to experience inertia.”

The most reliable predictor of what you’ll be doing five minutes from now is what you’re doing now. (…) The most reliable predictor of who you’ll be five years from now is who you are now. If you don’t know a foreign language now or how to make bread from scratch, you probably won’t know in five years either. If you’re not talking to your estranged father now, chances are you won’t be talking to him five years from now. And so on for most of the details that describe your life today.

Cognitive and Emotional Qualities

There are cognitive and emotional qualities that people need in order to be successful:

  • Motivation is a strategy and not a tactic. It defines the reason we act in a certain way.
  • Ability is having the aptitude and skills required to achieve a goal.
  • Understanding is the knowledge of what to do and how to do it.
  • Confidence is the belief that you can actually accomplish what you set out to do, whether you’ve done it before or you are attempting it for the first time. “As a general rule, if you have motivation, ability, and understanding, lacking confidence is unfortunate, almost inexcusable. You have earned the right to be confident.”
  • Support is the external help you need to succeed. It can come from three sources. It can come from organizations, from individual people, or from a defined group.
  • Marketplace. “Is there a market for my product or service if I start up the business, or get my advanced degree, or move to a new town, o no longer work at a big company? (…) If there is no market for what you’re offering (and you don’t happen to be the rare visionary who creates a new industry out of thin air), all your skill, confidence, and support will not overcome that hurdle.”

Options and Choices

Both excess of optionallity and lack of imagination are obstacles to the earned life. “Creating an earned life begins with a choice—sifting through all the ideas you harbor for your future (assuming you have ideas) and choosing to commit to one idea above all the others. Easy to say, not so easy to do.”

The Earned Life It’s not only about motivation, ability, understanding or confidence. It’s about establishing priorities and confronting the trade-offs you are willing to accept. You need to be ruthless in deciding what are you going to maximize (very few things) and what not (everything else).

This is the secret of living an earned life: It is lived at the extremes. You are maximizing what you need to do, minimizing what you deem unnecessary.

Goldsmith proposes a three “A’s” framework to make better choices. It starts from this simple realization:

“Deciding what you do each day is not the same as who you want to be right now is not the same as who you want to become.

  • Action is what we are doing right now. Sometimes Action is performed in the service of our Ambition or Aspiration.

  • Ambition is what we want to achieve. It’s time-bound. It’s measurable. Our Ambition is not singular; we can contain a number of goals simultaneously.

  • Aspiration is who we want to become. It’s “an act of privileging your future over your present.”

Ambition is the pursuit of a specific goal. When you achieve the goal, that specific ambition ends and you come up with your next ambitious goal. Aspiration, on the other hand, is “a continuing act of self-creation and self-validation. It is not X turning into Y. It is X evolving into Y, then Y plus, then possibly Y squared.”

Ambition is time-bound. Aspiration is infinite. Action is immediate. Ambition and Aspiration need Action to achieve something, for you to become unstoppable. Most successful business people have clear ambitions. They sometimes forget about aspiration.

Opportunity is about the benefit derived from your choice. Risk is about the cost incurred by your choice.

Overfocus on Action at the expense of Aspiration and Ambition, and you’ll make poor opportunity-versus-risk decisions. Other times, the fear of the short-term cost—the risk— is the obstacle for us to size the opportunity to achieve a long-term goal.

How we earn. The Five Building Blocks of Discipline

We are living an earned life when the choices, risks, and effort we make in each moment align with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcome.

The building blocks of ‘discipline’ and ‘willpower’ are more concrete and comprehensible:

  • Compliance is the adherence to an external policy or rule.
  • Accountability is our response to expectations we impose on ourselves. It can be either private or public. Public is usually the most effective.
  • Follow-up heightens our self-awareness and forces us to assess our progress honestly.
  • Measurement is the truest indicator of our priorities. What we measure drives out what we don’t.
  • The earned life cannot be accomplished in isolation. Not only do your choices and aspirations affect other people, but also, a community is not all one-way streets. Reciprocity is a defining feature of community.


Structure is how we tame the unruly impulses that lure us away from achieving our goals. Structure is the most effective tool we have to repair and renew our lives, and unlike deciding what life path to take, structure can easily be adopted or inspired thanks to others.

Marshall proposes the Life Plan Review (LPR), which is intended to be used with a community. The idea is to review, each week, a fixed set of six questions:

Did I do my best to:

  1. Set clear goals?
  2. Make progress towards achieving my goals?
  3. Find meaning?
  4. Be happy?
  5. Maintain and build positive relationships?
  6. Be fully engaged?

You answer each question by reporting a number on a 1 to 10 scale (10 being the best) that measures your level of effort, not your results. You cannot always control your results, but you have no excuse for not trying.

The LPR has many other benefits and can be applied to any goal. It’s a safe space that also keeps us safe from our self-indicting judgment. Also, measuring effort pushes you to define what matters.

Paying the Price and Eating Marshmallows

“To pursue any kind of fulfilling life, especially an earned life, you have to pay the price.” But sometimes we don’t pay the price. Our impulse to avoid a loss is greater than our desire to acquire an equivalent gain. We lack vision. Also, “our sacrifice today doesn’t yield to a reward we can enjoy today. The benefit from our self-control is far down the road, bequeathed to a future version of us whom we don’t know.”

When we choose to pay the price—that is, do something challenging and risky rather than an easy sure thing—it doesn’t follow that we have sacrificed the sure thing. Most times, when you choose the difficult path, you’ve automatically eliminated all other options, including the sure thing. After all, you can’t be in two places at the same time; something’s got to give. The sooner you accept that, the more comfortable you’ll be about paying the price.

Credibility Must be Earned Twice

According to Peter Drucker, “our mission in life is to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart or right we are.”

Credibility is a reputational quality earned over time when people trust you and believe what you say. Establishing credibility is a two-step process:

  • Establishing your competence in something other people value–and doing it well on a consistent basis.
  • Gaining other people’s recognition and approval for your particular competence.

Competence and recognition are independent variables. You won’t get recognition by just “doing the work.” Your work is no longer going to speak for itself:

In a so-called Attention Economy where being noticed is a full-contact sport, it’s an incomplete strategy. You’re declaring victory with the job half done. You not only have to tell a good story that speaks for itself, you have to sell your ability at storytelling. The awkwardness often associated with self-marketing—whether you’re seeking attention for an achievement at work or you want to get your new start-up noticed—is the new additional price you have to pay for success in a rapidly changing environment.

Five rules from Peter Drucker that are applicable for earning credibility. “If you want to elevate your credibility, start by committing these Druckerisms to memory:”

  1. Every decision in the world is made by the person who has the power to make the decision. Make peace with that.
  2. If we need to influence someone in order to make a positive difference, that person is our customer and we are a salesperson.
  3. Our customer does not need to buy; we need to sell.
  4. When we are trying to sell, our personal definition of value is far less important than our customer’s definition of value.
  5. We should focus on the areas where we can actually make a positive difference. Sell what we can sell and change what we can change. Let go of what we cannot sell or change.

“The implication is that we must sell our achievements and competence in order to have them recognized and appreciated by others. These Druckerisms not only endorse our need for approval, they emphasize that we can’t afford to be passive about it–not when our credibility is at stake.”

Singular Empathy

The last chapter of the book is about Empathy. “Empathy is the second deeply personal quality that shapes our ability to make a positive impact.” Empathy is one of the most important variables in building relationships.

Marshall Goldsmith distinguishes several types of empathy:

  • The empathy of understanding or cognitive empathy. We understand why and how other people think and feel the way they do. Also called cognitive empathy, “suggesting that we are capable of occupying the same head space as another person.”

  • The empathy of feeling. “It’s the empathy we display when we replicate within ourselves the feeling of another person, usually to communicate to that person some variation of either ‘I feel your pain’ or ‘I am happy for you.’”

    The risk that comes with the empathy of feeling is feeling too much, getting lost in another’s pain and hurting, rather than helping ourselves as well as the other person. “Come-and-go” strategy.

  • The empathy of caring, when we feel concern for the other person’s reaction to an event. (Not by the event itself.)

  • The empathy of doing, “when you go beyond understanding, feeling, and caring and actually take action to make a difference. It’s the extra step, always exacting a cost in some way, that few of us are willing to take.”

  • Authentic empathy, or singular empathy, is doing your best to be the person you need to be for the people who are with you now.

I prefer the term singular empathy not only because it focuses our concern on a single person or situation, but also because it reminds us that each discrete opportunity to display our empathy is unique to the moment; it changes with each situation. Sometimes it resembles the empathy of understanding, other times the empathy of feeling, caring, or doing. The only constant with singular empathy is how it concentrates our attention on a single moment and therefore makes it singular for all involved. When you demonstrate singular empathy, you cannot be inauthentic. You are not disrespecting other people from other previous moments in your life, immediate or long ago. You are demonstrating empathy to the only people who can appreciate it: the people who are with you now.

Beware: our positive actions, even when well-intended, can be excessive rather than a positive difference maker. Empathy also has its cons. Empathy is biased. We tend to be more empathic to those who are ‘more like us’.

[Paul] Bloom eagerly points out that he is not against compassion, concern, kindness, love, and morality. He’s all in if that’s how empathy is defined. Bloom is against empathy when it is not supported by reason and disciplined thinking, when it reflects our shortsighted and emotionally coerced responses.

* * *

Marshall Goldsmith finishes the book with this consideration:

If I could have only one index card to carry with me for the rest of my life, so I could look at it any time of day as a reminder of how I should behave to achieve an earned life, this would be the message I would write on it:

Am I being the person I want to be right now?

Marshall Goldsmith earned life purpose

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