Steve Olsher Says DON’T Follow Your Bliss, Discover Your “What”
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Do what you love and the money will follow.” That advice can be ambiguous, a bit wifty-wafty. Well, my next guest is on a mission to help people focus on “what puts fire in their soul” — love that phrase — and get clarity on their unique gifts. Steve Olsher is the author of New York Times bestseller What Is Your What? Discover the One Amazing Thing You Were Born to Do. Steve says that by focusing on our “what,” we can create a solid foundation to pursue the work that fuels us and provides meaning.
So join me as Steve and I dig into:
- Whether doing what you love can be monetized.
- How to escape the status quo and pursue what has impact.
- The “Vitality Curve” and other life-altering principles.
- How to say no more quickly and without regret.
Or bookmark it here to listen to later.
Michael: I know many of you know the work I do through one of my earlier books called Do More Great Work, and actually the mission of my company, Box of Crayons, is to help people and organizations do less good work and more great work. Great work, what is it? Well, the fastest, quickest definition of it these days is it’s the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning. And of course, this is actually a personal, subjective definition. What’s great work for you may not be great work for somebody else.
And the starting point quote, it starts with the ancients. You know, “Know thyself.” And my next guest, Steve Olsher, is all about that process of going, “Who am I and what is the gift I bring to this world?” He’s the author of the New York Times bestseller called What is Your What? and the subtitle for that is Discover the One Amazing Thing You Were Born To Do, so you can guess this is a juicy topic. I was actually a guest on Steve’s radio show called “Reinvention Radio” and had a great time, so I wanted to bring him onto my show so we got to share some of his wisdom.
So, we’re going to get into this. I think you’ll find it really practical. I certainly like, towards the end of the interview, we get into that conversation about one of my favourite challenges, which is how do you say no to stuff? Just looking at my very crowded calendar right now, I’m going, “I still have to learn this lesson myself.” So, hopefully I’ll take what Steve’s taught me and apply it, and I hope you find something useful, too, in this interview with Steve Olsher, author of What is Your What?
Steve, I’m excited to have you on this show. You were kind enough to have me on your great “Reinvention Radio,” so it’s nice to return the favour. And I’m going to ask you the question I ask all of my guests when we kick off, and it’s this: what are you taking a stand against? I mean, what irritated you enough that you want to talk to people about it; that you wrote a New York Times bestseller about? What are you frustrated about? What are you taking a stand against?
Steve: Yeah, you know, really what I’m taking a stand against is just the whole thought process behind, you know, if I just do what I love, the money will follow, right? Because reality is we all—well, not all of us, but a whole good chunk of us know that it’s just not quite that simple. And it just pisses me off when people try to make it out to be much easier than it actually is. And so, there is a process to getting paid extraordinarily well for what comes naturally to you, but at the end of the day it still takes a lot of work, and you’ve got to have clarity around what I call the “What is your what?” framework. And ultimately, that’s why I wrote the book, because I wanted people to have that clarity so that if they wanted to pursue what really puts fire in their soul, they had the means and the ability and the platform with which to create that foundation that would support the new, more fabulous them that they would become!
Michael: Yeah. So, I love that phrase, “the fire in their soul.” What do you even mean by that? Because it’s certainly a vivid metaphor.
Steve: Yeah. I mean, what I mean by that is when you are involved with something that just feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get it done; when you’re involved with something that you just can’t wait to jump out of bed to be a part of; and when you’re involved with something that really just kind of pushes all that small stuff, if you will, by the wayside and it carries a lot less weight, then the odds are pretty good you’re involved with something that puts fire in your soul.
Michael: Cool. And just so I’m clear, is this—because it sounds like this is absolutely what people like in, let’s say, Silicon Valley go, “Oh, yeah, I’m totally all over that.” But is this for just kind of hard-charging entrepreneurs or can it resonate more broadly than that?
Steve: Well, I mean, look, I think that ultimately when you have a business or you’re doing something that you really enjoy doing and you get paid for that, there is a fine line between, “Am I doing it simply for the money?” Like when you’re talking about Silicon Valley, the first thing that comes to mind is exit. I don’t think anybody builds a business in Silicon Valley unless they’re thinking about an exit.
Michael: That’s true.
Steve: And then that’s fine. I mean, don’t get me wrong: money is great. Money is just a commodity. It’s a currency that allows you to create various things in your life, which is awesome. I don’t have any problem with that. But ultimately, I don’t think that anyone who truly has clarity around what their “what is” goes into that conversation thinking about it from a business standpoint, so much as they’re thinking about it from, “I have a gift to share that can help people in X, Y, or Z fashion, and that’s what I want to create.”
Michael: I love that, and it’s a nice distinction between, you know, one way that shows up in the world is people going, “Just follow your bliss.” And that, I’m guessing, for you is a bit kind of pastel-coloured, wafty to you. But you’re going, “What’s the precious gift you’ve got and how can you use it in service of others?” That feels a little more kind of practical, and also serving at a higher level as well.
Steve: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And I do think that there is, you know, a serious dose of practicality that has to be put into the equation here, because you know, just because you love planting tomatoes in the backyard, doesn’t mean you should open up a tomato farm. So, you know, I mean, I don’t want to say there’s a fine line between the two. I mean, there’s an equator between the two and some people make the leap without really thinking about whether or not they can actually monetize what it is that they love doing.
Michael: Yeah. Alright, so let’s get into this. When you say, “What’s the what?” where do I even start with that? I mean, it feels like it’s an intriguing challenge. I mean, the subtitle of the book is Discover the One Amazing Thing You Were Born To Do, and I know people will prick up their ears when they hear that, but where do I even begin on this quest?
Steve: I mean, the first place to start is really just acknowledging the fact that there is, in fact, something that puts that fire in your soul. In other words, kind of think of it like a light switch. I mean, most people are kind of walking around right now and that light switch is off, and it’s largely because, you know, we don’t have conversations of this nature, where we really help people hone in on what they’re naturally wired to excel at, and once they realize that it’s possible to both—you know, I guess let’s put it this way, which is to create meaningful impact and generate meaningful income. You know, once people realize that that’s even possible, then that light switch goes on. And once that light switch is on, it’s really, really hard to turn it off. And once it’s on, the only thing that really satisfies you is making sure you bring to fruition whatever it is that you came here to do.
Michael: So, let’s almost start before the light switch goes on, which is why would I even want to turn the light switch on? Because one of the biggest challenges you face with change and making permanent change is the fact that people get really comfortable in the status quo. Even if it’s not exactly fulfilling them, lighting them up, they’re like, “It’s too hard to change.” I mean, I’m sure you know the medical study. I read about it in Fast Company years ago, going, what is it, I think out of eight people diagnosed with significant health issues, heart issues, if they don’t change their lifestyle, they’re going to die, one in eight actually pulls it off. So, how do you help people go, “I need to make the change”?
Steve: I mean, look, and I think your point is really, really well-taken, because what ends up happening is most people are so caught up in the I and it’s all about me, that they forget to recognize that they’re not here for any reason other than to really serve other people. And I think if you take the I, the me, out of the sentence and you really start thinking about how can I impact those that not only share this lifetime with me but also those of lifetimes to come, then you really begin feeling like, “Jesus, I don’t have enough time left, and whatever I have to do to extend the amount of hours and days and weeks and months and years I have during this life, I’m going to do it because there are people who are literally waiting for me to show up in their life. And if I don’t do what I need to do, I’m not only doing a hue disservice to myself, but I’m really doing a huge disservice to those who, like I said, are literally waiting for you to show up.”
Michael: So, okay, I’ve got that sense of urgency around, “There are people waiting for me. It’s time for me to step up and get out there and help them.” But I need to figure out what it is, how I could serve, what my gift is. Where do I begin to kind of hone in on that?
Steve: Yeah, and I wish it was just, you know, a very, very simple answer, Michael, where you could just go …
Michael: Like a stud-finder in a wall. You just move the thing around and go, “Oh, it’s here!”
Steve: Right, exactly. “Yeah, just give me that machine,” you know? And it’s just like, I mean, you look at the Myers-Briggs, right? And StrengthsFinder and What Color Is Your Parachute? and all those types of modalities, you know, which are really good, and it’s just like, “Okay, so I get it. Okay, these are my traits. This is how I am. Okay, okay, I get it, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But it’s like, “Okay, now what?” You know, they really leave you with more questions than answers.
And so, what I have created in that What is Your What? Framework, is really a way for folks to not only figure out what their core gift is, you know, it’s really what’s in your DNA. As I like to say, your what is that which has chosen you; it’s not that which you have chosen. And then, the core vehicle you’ll use to share that gift, and then the people that you’re most compelled to serve. I mean, those are the three parts of the What is Your What? framework, and the fastest way to get started, really in terms of step one, is again to recognize that those modalities are all well and good, but you need a practical plan of action for moving yourself forward in a way that not only provides impact and income but ultimately gives you a sense of direction so that you know what to do first, so that you can begin down this path of doing what it is that you know you were meant and made to do.
Michael: Perfect. Okay, so can you give me an example of a process or a tool that would help me get that momentum going? Because I’m standing here, I can feel the urgency. You know, I know my StrengthsFinder, I know my Myers-Briggs profile, but I haven’t taken a step on the path yet. What’s one way of making a step forward?
Steve: Well, first of all, just look at those for what they are, which are just—they are just entertainment, right? I mean, really, it’s no different than getting your palm read or reading a horoscope. I mean, it just tells you a little bit about what’s going on in your life. But everything starts with a first step, and that’s what you’ve got to be committed to doing, is once you understand what your what is, the next most important thing is to literally take that first step along the path of reaching what I call your ultimate objective. And in order to get to wherever that finish line is—and of course, that line always moves; it’s just human nature—but whatever that initial finish line is, there’s always a first step along that path. That’s what you need to take.
Michael: So, how do you frame your what? I mean, I’m curious to know, you’ve created this process and this framework. You know, how do you articulate what your what is to serve the world?
Steve: Yeah. Yeah, my what, and I don’t want this to sound like a cop-out, but you know, really, my what is to help people discover, share, and monetize theirs. And so, you know, that’s what puts fire in my soul, and I give people an opportunity to meet me wherever they are. I mean, if people have no clue what their what is, that’s where the book really comes in handy. You know, What is Your What? And so, they can start there. If they know what it is and they need to share it on a greater scale, then we can move in that direction. Of course, then if they want to monetize it, because I’ve been an entrepreneur for almost three decades, you know, then that gives me an opportunity to really help them along that path as well. So, my what is truly helping people discover, share, and monetize theirs.
Michael: And has that always been your what or does your what kind of shift and emerge and evolve over time? Or is it kind of once you land on it, you’re like, “That’s kind of it,” and that’s going to play out for the rest of this lifetime?
Steve: Well, I’ll put it to you this way. So, in the What is Your What? equation, there are three elements. You have your gift—and again, I believe you have one gift, a singular gift. You have the vehicle that you use to share that gift, and you have the people that you’re most compelled to serve. So, what I know is that your gift, what’s in your DNA, that remains constant throughout your whole life. But the vehicle that you use and the people that you will serve, that can shift over time. Those are more organic. Those certainly do evolve as life happens. And so, no, from a physical manifestation of how you share your gift, that doesn’t have to stay the same.
Michael: Got it.
Steve: That can certainly change over the years. And you know, Michael, for example, my core gift is communication. And so, the vehicle that I’ve used in the past has been writing. It’s been speaking. I’ve been a DJ. You know, I’ve done a number of different things.
Michael: Right. The radio show, yeah.
Steve: Right. And so, it doesn’t mean that my gift has changed. It just simply means that the vehicle I’m using or the people that I’m serving have evolved in a more organic fashion.
Michael: Alright, Steve, we’re taking the three-question break in the middle of the interview. One of my favourite, little sections. Three question I ask all our guests. And the opening one is this, and I think this will be perfect because it speaks exactly to the topic we’re talking about in the interview: what was the crossroads moment, that moment where you came and you went, “Do I go left? Do I go right? This way or that way?” that turned out to make all the difference once you’d made that decision?
Steve: Yeah. I mean, for me, that was really when my step-father died. And in his final days, I was sitting bed-side with him and I was holding his hand. And I had a vision, not actually of his funeral but of mine, and so I literally was in the coffin, if you will, being lowered into the earth and you know, dirt was being thrown on top of it and the whole nine yards, and it was very vivid. And I can remember the words being spoken graveside, which were basically, “Here lies Steve Olsher. He dedicated his life to chasing the almighty dollar.” And that’s all that was said. And at that time, I really …
Michael: That’s a depressing moment.
Steve: Depressing moment, right? And at that time, I had really been involved with just commodity-oriented opportunities as opposed to doing the type of work in the world I knew I was meant and made to do. And so, it was that point of decision where I could either keep going down that commodity-oriented path or I could do something that generates both impact and income.
Michael: Lovely. The second question is this one: whose work has influenced your work? It could be an author. It could be a role model. It could be somebody in your family. But whose work has influenced your work?
Steve: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I definitely would say that that would be my grandfather. I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with him over his life, over mine; of course, he died before I did. But the reality is, you know, he was the first entrepreneur I ever knew, and just being able to watch him work and grow his business was super inspiring. And so, yeah, definitely my grandfather.
Michael: Cool. Third and final question, and again, perfectly aligned with our broader conversation. You know, at Box of Crayons, we say we help people and organizations do less good work and more great work, so a really nice alignment to “What is your what?” But how do you think about your great work, the work that has more impact, the work that has more meaning, right now?
Steve: Well, I think the great work that I can do is continually, really just continually have people open to the conversation around the fact that reinvention is something that doesn’t require you to change anything about who you are necessarily, so much as just getting back to the essence or the core of who you were really meant and made to be. And so, if I can just continue that conversation, have people go through the book, bring great guests on “Reinvention Radio,” etc., then I think I’m doing the great work I can at the moment.
Michael: That’s perfect. Thanks, Steve. Let’s get back to the main interview now. So, one thing I’ve been curious about is that third element of the mix, the people you serve. Because when I see people wrestling with this, how do I put this? It’s almost that I see people reaching out to serve the people they think they should serve rather than the people that at a kind of deeper level they’re really best-placed to serve.
It’s a bit like when people identify their values and they say things like, you know, integrity or people first, or just sort of stuff where they’re, like, well, it’s not like you’re anti-that, but it’s just not being the kind of deepest expression of what you’re really here to do. So, how do you figure out which people are the—might benefit most from your service, and which ones just feel like you should tick the box somehow? Does that make sense as a question?
Steve: Yeah. Yeah, it totally makes sense, and so the answer is you don’t. I don’t think you ever figure it out because ultimately what you need to do is to move into action and move into service. And so, ultimately, you’re never going to come up with the answer until you’re actually in motion. And so, that’s the key, is the way to figure it out is to go on parallel paths. I mean, you may take ten different parallel paths with ten different subsets of the population until you realize, like, “These two tracks over here, these are the people that I really enjoy serving. These are the people who need me the most. These are the people who I’m most qualified to help.” But you wouldn’t know that unless you put yourself in a situation to be able to help ten different tracks of people.
Michael: So, it’s more a kind of iterative process, to go, “Look, I’ll try a bunch of stuff and we’ll see who emerges as best fit for me”?
Steve: And I think it also requires you to go in with the understanding that, “I don’t know the answer.” And to go in without the expectation of, “Okay, these are the people I really want to serve. These are the people I really want to help. These are the people, blah blah blah blah blah,” right? I mean, if you go into it with that mindset, you’re going to skew the results. It’s like any sort of—I mean, really what you’re doing, if you think about it, it’s an experiment. I mean, you’re collecting data, right? And so, if you go in with biased data, you’re going to have the output of that data. It’s going to reflect that bias.
Michael: The challenge you’ve got is that you’re asking people to step into a place of ambiguity for quite a long time. And I certainly see the benefit of that, which is, you know, a friend once said to me, “The longer you can hold your breath underwater, the more interesting place you’re going to pop up.”
Michael: And that’s kind of a nice metaphor for how you’re framing it.
Steve: Yeah. Well, let’s define a long time, though. I mean, because what are we talking about? I mean, really, are we talking about six months? Are we talking about a week? Are we talking about 20 years? You know? And in the scheme of things, even if it takes you 20 years to really figure out what that is and you’re 30 years old, you’ve got the next 50 years of your life to make that impact.
Michael: Right, that’s true. One of the things that you talk about in the book, just to shift focus a little bit, is you know, you actually talk about, in kind of the second part of the book, about the seven life-altering principles, the SLAPs, as you put them, as a way of understanding these to drive reliable, permanent, positive change. And I thought we’d unpack a couple of those as kind of interesting ways, because that outcome of the what, I love that search, but understanding ways of embedding permanent change, that’s kind of the meta-skill in all of this. So, if we can get into this. And the one that really caught my fancy was actually Number Five. It’s called the Altar of Jack’s Cathedral. So, that’s an intriguing title. What’s that about?
Steve: So, the Altar of Jack’s Cathedral is based on the business teachings and the business tactics and strategies of General Electric’s former CEO, Jack Welch. And so, you know, what he did on a business level, believe it or not, is actually incredibly applicable on a personal level. And so, what I’ve done in that particular chapter is extrapolated a number of his business exercises, if you will, to identify the very best of people, really, in terms of building a stellar organization.
And there’s a couple of different ways that I skin a bear in that chapter, but one in particular is something called the Vitality Curve, which is a really interesting exercise of taking a look at the people in your life and breaking those people down into categories of those that basically bring you the most joy and those that bring you the most, shall we say, sorrow, and really identifying who those people are in your life and put those people into groups. And there’s more groups than just those two, but ultimately one of the things that made GE so successful was they consistently eliminated the bottom group regardless. I mean, sometimes they’d make mistakes, but most of the time it made the organization better, and the same can be said for your personal life.
Michael: You know, and the other thing that that reminds of is that GE, very famous under Jack Welch, around, “Either we’re number one or we’re number two in the market, or we exit the market.”
Michael: So, there’s that piece around you play in the places where you’re going to win and have the most difference, or you choose not to play there at all. Both of that, both that piece around focus on where you play and that piece you’ve talked about around who’s in your life, all of those require a capacity and an ability and a willingness to say no, and that’s pretty hard. But you know, when I talk about great work, which I think is analogous to finding your what, great work, the work that has more impact, the work that has more meaning, I will often say that at the heart of that is getting clear on what you say no to so you can truly say yes to the stuff that matters.
Michael: How do you help people say no? Because it is easy in theory; really hard in practice.
Steve: Yeah, you know, and interestingly enough, of the seven life-altering principles, principle Number One is the concept of YaNo, and that’s what I—it’s kind of my fancy term for yes/no, which is that moment of truth where you have to make a decision about literally anything in your life from the standpoint of, I mean, we make YaNo decisions on major things like, you know, when somebody goes down on one knee and says, “Will you marry me?” I mean, that’s an obvious YaNo moment. Yes leads you in one direction and no, of course, leads you in a very different direction. And then there are some, you know, more subtle YaNo moments that take place, like how you sit in your chair or whether or not you answer the phone when someone calls or whether or not you volunteer to help at your child’s school.
All of those moments where you say yes or you say no really define, shall we say, the satisfaction, if you will, that you have in your life because your goal, your objective, is to really line up as many of those YaNo moments in the direction that they need to be lined up so that you can reach your ultimate objective as quickly as you possibly can, and one wrong decision could step you back one place on the path or ten. You never know.
Michael: Well, so let me ask you two questions here. The first is what guidance can you give us around helping make the right decision in those YaNo moments, those crossroads moments? How do you tip towards the right decision more often than not? Because you won’t always get it right. The second is this, and I want to come back to it because I just am trying to get answers for myself. You know, if the answer is no, do you have any strategies for being able to say no more quickly, more easily, in a more grounded way?
Steve: So, I’m the world’s worst. I’m like a—whatever the elephant is, I’m like the opposite. So, I’m going to have to start with the second question because that one I remember.
Michael: Got it, yeah.
Steve: So, in my way of thinking, it’s like if you liken it to the world of dating, if you don’t have a chance with someone, wouldn’t you rather know as early in that process as possible?
Michael: Sure, yeah.
Steve: Than spending your time and your energy and your resources on trying to make something happen that never will. And so, ultimately, if you think about saying no from the standpoint of, “I’m not saying no for me, I’m saying no to help you,” that will allow you to make quicker, more decisive decisions without regret and without, honestly, concern for how that decision impacts those who you’re having to say no to. Because when you say no quickly and decisively, it cuts the rope, and there is power in having the rope cut. And so, from my perspective, if you take yourself out of the equation and you really think about why you need to say no and how saying no can have beneficial impact on the person’s life who you’re saying no to, or the business opportunity or whatever it might be, then you’re ultimately doing them a favour. And if you go at it from that perspective, I think you’ll find that the odds of having, shall we say, an amicable separation is much greater.
Michael: You know, it reminds me a bit of the strategy you’re proposing is the insight around women negotiating for a salary increase, and it turns out that men are much better at negotiating on their own behalf for a salary increase. Something(?) to do with privilege and power and whatever it might be. But women are outstanding at negotiating on behalf of other people. And one of the ways, the tactics people are showing to increase their capacity to negotiate is go—mention, “you’re not negotiating this for you, you’re negotiating it for your family, your children, the people you support, the neighbourhood, the community that you invest in and engage in.” And in some ways, you’re doing the same here. You’re saying it’s like this is not a no for your sake, it’s a no for the impact you’re having in the world’s sake.
And somehow, depersonalizing it makes it an easier thing to say.
Steve: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
Michael: The first question, which you’ve been answering second, is okay, so I know how to say no now, but now I’m at the crossroads moment. Yeah, you know this way or that way, and trying to figure out which way to go. Is there anything you can suggest in terms of helping me tip left or tip right in terms of making that call?
Steve: Yeah, for sure. It’s a matter of understanding the ultimate objective. So, if your—whatever that ultimate objective is for you, if your goal, if your ultimate objective is to find someone who you can love and spend the rest of your life with, and you know almost from the get-go that this person who you’ve come into contact with is not going to be that person, then it’s an easy no, right? So if you keep things in perspective of why you’re looking to say either yes or no, it will make it much, much easier in so far as making that choice about whether to say yes or to say no. And so, you kind of have to play the long tail on it in so far as it’s not a matter of what decision, you know, what is the impact of this decision necessarily in terms of this moment, it’s the impact of that decision in terms of what happens six months from now, a year from now, etc.
Michael: I love that.
Steve: And so, that’s hard for a lot of people to do, you know? That’s really hard for a lot of people to do. And so, if you can take yourself out of the present moment, which Eckhart Tolle would probably smack me for, but if you take yourself out of the present moment and you really think about the impact of that decision a year from now, it may help provide some perspective, that it will make you feel a lot more comfortable and it’ll be a lot easier to make either that yes or no choice.
Michael: Right, and it comes back to where we started, which is why would you want to find the what? You know, in terms of what’s your what. And if you don’t have that bigger picture, if you don’t have that grounded sense of what your gift is, making that call is that much harder because you’re unable to hold that bigger perspective.
Steve: Well, and not just that, but you play a much smaller game, right? Because ultimately, you know, what was it, General Patton, I think? Didn’t he say, you know, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” right? Or whatever it might be. If you don’t—you know, it’s kind of like a wind sock. You know, you’ve seen those at the airport, you know? It’s just like basically you’re going to be living based on the winds and the agendas of others, and whichever way that wind blows is the way you’re going to be taken. So, are you going to be taken in a direction you don’t want to go? Well, the answer is if you don’t have your own foundation in place, then absolutely.
Michael: So, you’re making me pause to go, “When was the last time I saw a wind sock at an airport?” Like, I can remember one from 30 years ago, but I haven’t seen them for a while.
Steve: Great. Thanks, Michael.
Michael: Yeah, I’m not saying you’re old, Steve, but what we know, everybody listening in is, “We don’t know how much longer Steve’s got left on this planet because he still thinks wind socks are a current thing.” So, Steve, for people …
Steve: Yeah, I’ve got to change my analogy there, my metaphor. Yeah.
Michael: So, for people who want to find out more about you, why you’re still around, where can they find out more about What is Your What? and the work that you do on the Web?
Steve: Yeah. I mean, I really do think the best place to start is to grab a free copy of the book, the New York Times bestselling book, What is Your What? Discover the One Amazing Thing You Were Born To Do, that you can get at Whatisyourwhat.com/free. So, Whatisyourwhat.com/free. And if you survive that, and you still want to get to know me better, then Steveolsher, o-l-s-h-e-r, dotcom would be the next best place to go.
Michael: That’s perfect. Steve, it’s been a pleasure.
Steve: Thanks for having me.