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Marshall Goldsmith: How to earn your life

Famed CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith offers lessons on how to live the long game of the earned life.

4 min read


Image of a person in a field, arms raised, to illustrate the earned life


Try this.

Step one: “Do for yourself what you have done for others.” You have shared advice with others when they could not see it for themselves. Therefore, “you are capable of imagining a new path. You’ve done it for others. Do it for yourself.”

Step two. Ask yourself: “What do you want to do for the rest of your life?”

This exercise, called “Flip the Script,” comes from “The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment,” by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter. Goldsmith is a legend in human development because he is one of the seminal figures who pioneered the potential of executive coaching. Coaching over 300 CEOs gave him an unmatched cache.

His impact, however, emanates not from his credentials. Instead, it is his plain-spoken “street cred.” In-person, as in print, Marshall is a generous soul. He makes the complex simple, not by giving you the answers. Rather he does it by challenging you to think for yourself. After nearly 50 years of exploring human behavior, “The Earned Life” is an insight into what makes us tick and how we can tick even better.

Getting started

One of the central issues that forms the book’s backbone is what he calls “The Great Western Disease” — that is, “I’ll be happy when …” Nothing wrong with aspirations, but to let them define you, and worse, deprive you of joy on the way up is heartbreaking. So, Marshall urges a different path. Stop beating yourself up. Live in the present.

Marshall offers the Earning Checklist, which is anchored in four attributes he wrote about in his doctoral thesis when he was 27. These attributes are motivation, ability, understanding and confidence.

Delving more deeply, Marshall dissects each in ways that challenge the reader to think about why they are motivated, what abilities they possess and how our understandings have shaped up. Confidence is critical.

As Marshall writes, confidence “is the product of all your other positive virtues and choices, and then it returns the favor by making you even stronger in those areas.”

Nothing happens overnight

“Earning your life is the long game. Check that: It’s the long game.” Playing that game, which is your life, requires two things: “self and situation awareness.” Work these disciplines until you feel that your earned life becomes a habit, something you do as part of your routine. In short, such a habit enables you to become a more fulfilled version of yourself.

A note of caution: Credibility is not a “do it once” endeavor. “It’s one thing to be competent, it’s another thing to gain credibility with one but not the other,” as Marshal writes. “You have to earn it twice.” Failure to reinforce your credibility diminishes your ability to “make a positive difference – and lessening the impact of your life.”

Practical and tactical

Filled with stories and exercises, “The Earned Life” also contains some of Marshall’s best practices that he developed and shared globally, sometimes for decades. Chief among them is the idea of “Feedforward.”

As Marshall writes, “Feedback comprises people’s opinions of your past behavior, feedforward represents other people’s ideas that you should be using in the future.”

This approach forms the basis of stakeholder-centered coaching, which is a process that enables leaders to learn from their stakeholders who have a vested interest in the leader’s success. The process requires vulnerability, but the payoff is twofold.

As Marshall writes, “Leaders earned their employee’s respect. Employees earned their CEO’s gratitude.”

“The Earned Life” explores what life can offer us if we are willing to shirk self-imposed constraints. If we are ready to invest ourselves in becoming our better selves – however we define it — then, and only then, can we say that we have deserved our place. We have earned it.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator, executive coach and the author of many books, including “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us,” “MOXIE,” “Lead With Purpose,” “Lead Your Boss” and “The Leader’s Pocket Guide.” In 2018, Trust Across America awarded Baldoni its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust. In 2019, Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of global leadership experts. Check out Baldoni’s leadership resource website

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