Your Competitive Advantage is Not Information, It’s Transformation

Of all the talks I’ve ever given, this is, in my judgment, the best.

At Jazz @ Lincoln Center, speaking to the students of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition:

[Below is the edited transcript. An audio version is available for download at the bottom]

If you are a thought leader, trainer, coach, or service provider of any kind who shares with an audience or works or with personal clients, you are in the midst of a storm right now.

There’s a very powerful competitor out there trying to put each and every one of you out of business. This is an extremely well-funded competitor. I just checked their market capitalization. It’s around $230 billion. Everyone has heard of them. Everyone uses them. People have access to it on their computer and in their pockets or phones. Pretty soon it’s going to be driving your cars. It’s even going to be on your eyeglasses. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Google.

We live in an age now where information is abundant, cheap, and free. If you are going to compete by providing information to your clients, you will lose. Competing with Google is a losing proposition. Often you’ll hear the distinction made between information and knowledge. There’s so much information out there, but what we really need is knowledge. Google has us beat here because they have videos. They own YouTube. Anyone can get the information distilled in any way they need. They can get all the concepts they need for free. Just flip on TED or go to YouTube. It’s all there.

This sounds a little depressing. How can you compete with this behemoth that is making all of the world’s information free and available to everyone? The answer is that your competitive advantage is not information. It is transformation.

We are in an age where we are told how important it is to have all this information. But as you have probably already experienced in your own lives or have seen in your clients’ lives, people can have all the information they need, but if it doesn’t get turned into transformation, it’s worth exactly diddly squat.

An obvious example is look at the case of smokers. There’s not a smoker on earth who doesn’t know that it’s bad for them. Is there anyone sitting there chain smoking cigarettes saying, “I think this is really good for me”? They all know it is going to kill them. Everyone knows that, but they still smoke.

It’s not an information gap, but a transformation gap. What studies have shown is that doctors can tell a patient that they are in danger of dying if they don’t cut down on their saturated fat or salt or whatever risk factor for that person’s situation, and they come back three months later still doing the same thing.

You’re competitive advantage in this market place is to guide your clients through transformation. Your clients all know what to do. You are not going to make a living by telling clients what they already know. The problem is not that they don’t know. It’s that they are not doing it.

This is a very strange thing. How could someone know that something is good for them but still not do it? This has to become your specialty. You need to become a specialist in the area of human transformation.

You are probably an expert in this already. Each one of you was on one life path, maybe a corporate path. You had a career planned out for yourself already. Or maybe you just didn’t know. You had no idea what you wanted to do with your life. Then a transformation occurred and you found your passion. So you may already know what it’s like to make a transformation. My guess is that you may have already made many transformations in your life around diet and eating.

You are already an expert. But your clients aren’t yet. They’re stuck in their old ways. They’re stuck in habits that aren’t working. They know they shouldn’t be smoking, metaphorically speaking. They know they shouldn’t be eating all that junk, but they still do it.

The competitive advantage is transformation. This brings us to a really interesting point. Many people are very concerned about this whole topic of credentials. There are many great credentials that are seen as valuable. And many people think, “Well, maybe if I get one more credential, I’ll be even more credible in the market place. I’ve got my IIN certification; maybe I need a Masters now. Maybe I need a Masters in Nutrition. Maybe I should get a PhD. Maybe I should get an MD. How can I compete if I’m in this field talking about health care? How can I possibly compete with someone who has an MD after their name?” You’ve probably seen people introduce themselves and they’ll say, “Jane Smith, MD, PhD, MA, LSCW, ABC, 123.”

The problem is, those people are plentiful. There are millions of those people. Just seeing the alphabet soup doesn’t convince anyone anymore. Ultimately, you are trying to convince people to transform their lives, and no one says, “Oh, that person is a doctor. I’m going to transform my life because they’re a doctor.” That’s not how it works. How do they get inspired to transform their lives?

Through stories. You are not an information provider. You are a story teller. You are in the business of storytelling.

I’m going to tell you all a story. Three years ago, I was literally thinking about ending my life. I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had moved there, not because it’s a beautiful romantic city, but because I was dead broke. I was an emigrant from my own country. I couldn’t afford to live in any American city. My dream was to be a writer, but it wasn’t working for me. I had been rejected 22 times. Most of them were quite polite. But one of the slips from my first book that I wrote came back to my agent. It said, “I’m going to pass on this project, Mr. Ellsberg’s writing is not strong enough to make up for the fact that he’s not a very likeable person.”

This was my life in my 20s. I was suffering from terrible mood swings. I had been diagnosed as bipolar II. I was either totally jacked up and coming up with a ton of business ideas. Or I couldn’t get out of bed. One or the other. Never anything normal or in between.

Finally, I had gotten to the point where I felt I had enough. I wasn’t making things work. I was single. I had ruined any chances of romance that had come my way. Nothing seemed to be working. I was thinking about my way out. Bipolar II is actually one of the most lethal mental conditions around. It has a suicide rate of about 20%, which is more than unipolar depression, even more than schizophrenia.

I was in very dangerous waters here. The diagnosis was bipolar II, suicidal ideation. This was not a safe situation for me to be in. Now, I had gone through the entire Western medical system at this time because it was clear for about ten years that something was wrong. I had gone to many doctors and psychiatrists. I had received all kinds of diagnoses including depression and OCD. I had been on Paxil, Prozac. None of them had worked for me. I started doing my own research on our friend Google, which all your clients are doing. They are not looking to you for the information. They are looking to Mr. Google or Mrs. Google.

I did searched and found this field called orthomolecular medicine, which deals not with pills but food as the medicine. There’s a field called orthomolecular psychiatry that I came across which talked about the nutritional components for mental health. I became very interested and read all about it. Much of what I read said that sugar was highly related to mood swings, and that if you had issues with mood swings you should look into your sugar consumption. So I went to my psychiatrist who was giving me lithium at the time. And I said, “I’ve been reading that sugar is related to mood swings. You think maybe I should cut back on my sugar?”

He said empathically, “There is no evidence! Absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is any tie between mental health and diet!” End of conversation.

Here’s a little trick that doctors use. There’s a difference between “absence of evidence” and “evidence of absence.” You will see this play out in debates on alternative medicine and nutrition.  There’s a difference between evidence of absence and absence of evidence.

My psychiatrist may very well have been correct. There may be not that much evidence of a link between diet and mental health, at least not by their standards of placebo-controled, double-blind studies. Why is that? Why is there no evidence?

Because no one gets rich selling kale!

No one gets rich selling green smoothies. You can’t patent those things. No one funds those studies. There’s an absence of evidence. Right now that’s changing. Many researches and scientists are filling in that absence of evidence. But relatively speaking let’s say there is an absence of evidence. Traditional doctors then take that to say that there is an evidence of absence, and it’s all a bunch of baloney. That’s what they’re going to say.

Fortunately I didn’t listen. I kept going. I found a doctor who ran some tests on me. He did a glucose tolerance test and found that I had a very sensitive response to blood sugar. If I ate even just a bit of sugar my blood sugar went up and then it crashed. And that made sense because my whole life was up and crash, up and crash.

Here I was, suicidally depressed. I had this information. This is what is going to change you if you, he told me, “Cut down on sugar. Stop eating refined sugar. Stop drinking alcohol, which affects blood sugar. Stop drinking coffee which affects blood sugar.”

I was at a crucial phase, and this is maybe where you or your clients are. You have the information but are not acting. I was like a smoker. I’ve never been a smoker, but I was like a smoker who knew that smoking was going to kill me but couldn’t quit.

So the doctor told me to stop eating all refined sugar, stop drinking alcohol and coffee. Well, I was a red-blooded American male. If someone tells me to stop drinking alcohol and stop eating my cherished junk food, I told him, “Get lost! I’d rather be dead than give up all those things. What else do you have for me? Do you have any pills? The ones I’m taking now aren’t working so I hope you have some better ones.”

And I went off to Argentina to live there on a lot less money. They have fantastic wine, which I became quite acquainted with. Malbec is very inexpensive and very good. They have the most fantastic deserts there called alfajores and fantastic Italian gelato. There are a lot of Italian immigrants there.

I was living like a king. I was drinking a bottle of wine a night. That sounds like a lot. If someone was drinking a bottle of wine a night in America, we’d call them an alcoholic. But in Argentina they do it over a dinner maybe three, four, or five hours long. It’s kind of the way they live down there, and I started living that way. I was also drinking two or three lattes a day. They’re cheap and good.

Lo and behold, my moods were getting worse and worse and worse. I was living in a four story building and found myself spending enormous amounts of time just standing at the window thinking, “If I just pushed over a little bit, it could all be over. All this suffering.” I thought about it a lot.

Fortunately a spark in me said, “Alright, this is very serious. This is red alert. You have got to do something.” At the time I was making my living writing books proposals. I couldn’t get my own book published, but I seemed to be good at helping other people get books published.

I happened to be writing a proposal for a gentleman called Martin Strel who is the world’s greatest marathon swimmer in America. He’s a big whale of a guy, Slovenian, in his 50s. He doesn’t look like what you’d typically think of as an athlete. But he’s one of the world’s greatest athletes.

He’s made a name for himself swimming all the great rivers of the world. He swam the Ganges, the Mississippi, and had just become the first human to swim the entire Amazon from the headwaters in Peru all the way to Belem. It’s longer than the entire width of the United States.

He swam with risk of piranhas the whole way. He had a boat following him. It was a support boat that he slept in each night after 18 hours of swimming each day. They also had a smaller boat following him that had one job only that was to carry pig blood. They had to carry pig blood around because if a piranha attack happened on one side of the boat where he was swimming, they would throw the pig blood on the other side so the piranhas would go there, and he could escape.

He said something in his book proposal that changed my life. He said, “I’m going to be the first person to swim the Amazon or the first person to die trying.”

When I read that I thought, “I’m here about to take my own life without having tried to swim the Amazon, without having tried to do anything. I can do better for my life. I’m not going to go swim the Amazon, but I can do something. I’m going to keep going until I get a book published.”

I decided I was going to make a change. I remembered what Dr. Hoffman told me about cutting down alcohol and sugar and coffee. I decided to do a one-year challenge—to go cold turkey on all three, and go one year without coffee, sugar or alcohol. I stopped just about a week shy of my 30th birthday.

The first two weeks were hell. I’d never been that much of a problem drinker so alcohol actually wasn’t a problem for me. But all I could think about were the coffee and the sugar. Coffee, sugar, coffee, sugar. It was like being extremely horny and instead of thinking about sex I was thinking about coffee and sugar. Coffee, sugar, coffee, sugar.

I thought of giving up, but I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go back to that hell I was in. I had to do this. I kept going. About two weeks in, my mind cleared. I woke up. It was a sunny day in my mind. I thought maybe I was in a mania because it felt so good. But the next day, it felt great too. And the next day and the next. . .  it felt different than the manias. In the manias I was really jacked up. It was a very hyper caffeinated speedy feeling. This time it felt so clean, energized, and clear. The problem symptoms went away in two weeks from this one simple change.

Here’s my point. The information was abundant. I found this information from our competitor Google. I even paid a doctor a lot of money to tell me what to do, but I didn’t do it. So what made the change? It was that one gentleman, Martin Strel and his courage.

This is your competitive advantage. You are professional Encouragers. What word is in “encourage?” Courage! Courage is really interesting because you can’t learn it in a book. You can’t read a book and say, “I know a lot about courage right now. I’m going to take a test. I’m going to ace the courage test.” It doesn’t work that way.

Courage has to be lived.

Your competitive advantage is to become experts in courage. You do this not by knowing a lot about courage, but by demonstrating it. Think of all the changes and transformations in your life. There is more you can learn, more you can change or transform. Maybe your courage now has to do with building a business. It’s scary to go out on your own and depend on your own wits to get your paycheck. You demonstrate courage by building your businesses and by starting. You can now go be the person who encourages your clients.

Sometimes we think of this as they do in motivational speaking. . .  “Everybody get on your chairs! Ra, ra!” That stuff is like the cotton candy of personal change. It lasts for a minute or two, but really what causes changes are the stories, your stories and the stories of you clients. That is your credibility.

I wrote this book called The Education of Millionaires. I spent two years interviewing the people who are the most successful with the least credentials. They were all college dropouts who built businesses for themselves without a credential.

And why is that? It’s because they had credibility. The distinction is between a credential and credibility. Your credibility comes from your stories. It doesn’t matter what credential you have. It doesn’t matter if you have that alphabet soup after your name. Martin Strel saved my life with his story. I don’t even know if he finished college. He certainly doesn’t have MD, LSMCW, 123, ABC after his name. That’s not why I listened to him. I listened to him because he was courageous.

You are courageous.

Your clients are courageous. As you move on this path, you’re going to find a virtuous cycle where the more you transform your life, the more stories you have to tell like the one I just shared. The stories your clients have about their transformations are where your credibility comes from. It’s from courage. It’s from stories.