The advantages of being a listener, instead of a leader

“There are three types of people,” astronaut Chris Hadfield once told me, “-1, 0, and +1.″

Being a “-1” person
When a business fails it feels like a -1. When a relationship fails, often it’s because I’ve been a -1. Certainly stalking and begging and crying has made me a -1 many times. When I clam up in my shell, refusing to take responsibility, afraid to return calls, afraid to admit responsibility, that’s -1 behavior. When I think I’m a +1, often I’m a -1.

Even worse, even much worse, is when other people think you are a -1.

There’s a saying, “It’s none of my business what people think of me.” But sayings are fun to say and hard to live.

When people think I’m a -1, I have a tendency to add all of those people up. Sometimes that makes me a -1000.

Being a “+1” person
Being a +1 is usually too difficult for me. I never know what I’m doing.

For instance, one time I was CEO of a company that was my idea. I was very good at raising money. We raised $30 million. I had no idea how much money we made, or what our costs were. I didn’t even know what our product did. I had bought it with the money we raised.

I was so afraid to talk to people, I would get in early and lock the door behind me—and not answer the door when people knocked. Eventually they fired me as CEO. Then they fired me from the board. Then they took my shares away. I went from a “+1″ to a “-1″ very quickly.

Being a “Zero”
It’s good to be a Zero sometimes. To learn and listen and help.

When I do a podcast I feel like a Zero. I ask people to come on my podcast because I want to learn something from them. How to be a better person. They are +1 people. I’d like to be like them. So I ask them questions.

Here’s how to be a Zero:

Listen to what people tell you

Maybe they experienced something you have never experienced.

Our brain can curate the experiences of others so maybe it can help us live our own lives better.

Observe what people do

Humans have what are called “mirror neurons.” If I think I’m a +1 in “firing a gun” I might shoot and kill myself—but if I watch someone over and over firing a gun, then my mirror neurons kick in and I might be able to do it myself if asked.

Although I hope nobody asks me.

Practice humility

Some people are great people. They are kind. They are humble. They are productive. They are competent. They get things done. Then they get AMAZING things done.

When you compare, you despair. When you are humble, you learn. When you get curious, you get better.

How did they get this way? Oh! They read some books. They wrote some books. They had some ideas. They worked hard every day for years. They saved some lives. Now I learned from them. Maybe I can do some of that also. A tenth of that, if I’m lucky.

Grow curiosity

A Zero starts with:

  • What are they doing?
  • How are they doing it?
  • How can I help?
  • How can I get better?
  • How can I be competent. Then build trust? Then build excellence?

Set themes instead of goals

Chris Hadfield wanted to be an astronaut for 21 years before he became the commander of the International Space Station for 166 days. Sometimes he had disappointments along the way.

“If I had only focused on big successes,” he said, “then I would be disappointed most of the time. You have to focus on the small successes and make sure to celebrate them.” He had a theme of being competent. Of helping the astronaut program. Of being an astronaut. Of working towards the common goals of a program he believed in. He achieved many many small successes that way. And then he sang “Space Oddity” while circling the Earth 2600 times in a row on a 92 million mile trip he took.

People tend to think they are meant for something BIG in their lives. I understand that. But to get to BIG, you have to focus on today. I have to keep quoting Chris: “Continually investing in the success of others is what will eventually lead to success for yourself.”

Learn from respect

One person can lead a company. But it takes thousands of employees, customers, investors, fans, etc. to really create a success.

A good follower observes the leader, trusts his suggestions, and then ties his own success to the success of the company. When I worked at HBO, I only started to feel like I was accomplishing something when my language changed from “they” (referring to HBO) to “we.”

I was a Zero there. But I watched all of their shows, learned enough of their vision, learned their history, and followed the lead of their executives until I could make my own contribution.

My contribution was big enough that other companies started to approach me and ask me if I could help them also.

So I started my first company. I haven’t had a job since.

Forget entitlement

I admit, sometimes I get angry about feeling like a Zero. I want to be a +1 all the time, at everything I do.

I get competitive. I want to be the best at this, or the best at that. RIGHT NOW.
 But one thing I always know: feeling entitled to anything will automatically put a ceiling on what you get out of life.

Do you know someone who is feeling entitled? Is he angry most of the time?
 Entitled people are the ones who later say, “I should’ve been X”—and they are bitter, and then life is over.

Entitlement. Ceiling. Entitlement. Ceiling. I have to remind myself of that all the time. 
A +1 combined with entitlement can easily make you a -1 within seconds.

It’s important to realize that what’s most important is paying attention to the things that are not important.

Don’t be disappointed

One time, Chris Hadfield had a serious setback—France gave away his slot for their test pilot program to another person, for political reasons.

He was disappointed. He heard Air Canada was hiring pilots. He considered taking a job there. His wife, Helene, said, “You don’t really want to be a pilot. You wouldn’t be happy, and then I wouldn’t be happy. Don’t give up on being an astronaut—I can’t let you do that to yourself, or to us.”

She said that, and he didn’t go for the job—and he ended up in outer space. 
Sometimes 0 + 0 = +1.

This isn’t a story about math. Or being a success. Or being an astronaut. Or achieving all your dreams.

This is a love story.

An unedited version of this post originally appeared at James Altucher’s website. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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