Muhammad Ali’s famous quote is truly iconic. Ali was notorious for his mouth as much as his fists, and in “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he perfectly and poetically captured his style in the ring: impossibly light on his feet, yet able to knock out an opponent in an instant.
Ali’s quote focused on his craft of boxing, but its message is nevertheless applicable to anyone working to make themselves and their companies better, and it inspires me every day at YCharts. We’re a small company, so we have to stay nimble and light on our feet to compete. At the same time, we have to be able to provide a service that packs a punch for our clients — we strive to deliver big impact despite our small size.
In that sense, Ali’s quote works perfectly for us, and I use it as a reminder to keep myself and the company on the right track, hitting hard where it matters most: making our clients successful.
This is just one of the many quotes that motivate me as leader of YCharts. I believe that the wisdom of Ali and many others can help guide anyone to success, regardless of their field. With that said, here are ten more quotes that I regularly use to inspire, and focus, myself and my team.
1.“No battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower
Make the time to create and align goals around a plan, but be prepared to knowingly diverge from, and then revector the plan. Although the plan is probably going to change, you need to have something in place as a baseline. If you never had a plan in the first place, you won’t have the structure needed to get a team aligned on goals and execution, nor properly prepare them to subsequently adapt quickly.
2. “The basic difference between the ordinary man and the warrior is that the ordinary man views everything as a blessing or a curse, but the warrior views everything as a challenge.” - Carlos Castaneda (anthropologist)
I want employees who are warriors — those who find challenges motivating and energizing rather than stressful or scary. I like working with people who have a chip on their shoulder or strong competitive instincts. I want winners — those who relish challenges. Some people take all the credit for the good things that come their way and feel cursed or place blame on external factors for any adversity they face. Other people own their challenges, and don’t blame externalities. These are warriors. They are worth their weight in gold.
3. “In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” - Warren Buffett
Understand that analyses of the past can only take you so far — the future is inherently unclear. Do your homework, make prudent bets, and aspire to learn from the past, but don’t think that guarantees future success. Don’t miss a great market opportunity because you are stuck in analysis paralysis.
4. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” - Habit #5 from Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
This one is particularly relevant in sales. Listen first. We all have something to say, but do you know what the customer needs? Did you really listen, or were you preparing your rebuttal and only partially listening?
I try to use the same technique in the office — before I assume I know where a person is coming from, I sit back and hear them out, processing their thoughts. As a leader, that is a crucial skill.
5. “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” - Zig Ziglar
Your success is more dependent on how you approach your job than on any genetic grey matter gifts you may have inherited.
There are a lot of smart people out there. I’ve had the privilege to work with many. But having a can-do, don’t-give-up attitude really differentiates a person.
We apply that principle here at YCharts every single day. The bar to get in the door as an employee is to be really smart, but to succeed, you have to be smart and personify the right attitude and work ethic, plus have a strong process orientation. Having “smarts” is simply not enough.
6. “First, get the cow out of the ditch. Second, find out how the cow got into the ditch. Third, make sure you do whatever it takes to ensure that the cow doesn't get into the ditch again.” - Paraphrased from advice Anne Mulcahy of Xerox received from a farmer on what to do when you find a cow in the ditch.
When you hit a crisis, focus your attention on the right things. Don’t focus on blame and full diagnoses of the issue until you have resolved the “red alert” components of the emergency. For example, if your website is down, focus on getting it back up and then figure out what precipitated the outage.
Another takeaway from this quote is the importance of attacking problems methodically and strategically. Place an emphasis on the key priority.
7. “Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass...It's about learning to dance in the rain.” - Vivian Greene
Everyone is fun to be around when times are good and things are going their way; true character is revealed when adversity hits.
In your career, you will inevitably run into constraints and challenges. There will always be opportunities you can’t easily take advantage of. But here’s the fun part: figuring out how to overcome those obstacles.
I don’t hold in awe companies that rode an amazing industry wave where all participants succeeded. However, I have an immense amount of respect for companies that have travailed through the hard times and have come out on top. That’s what makes the difference to me: the learning that comes from tough times.
8. “Wilton Warriors? They should call you guys the ‘Wilton Pigs’.” - Lunchroom janitor at my high school in Connecticut.
In business, you aren’t who you say you are — you are what you do and who your clients say you are. You can market yourself however you’d like, but the “market” determines your value. It’s important to spend time listening to your customers and making sure your messaging parallels your value. Be who you say you are.
9. “Imitation is the finest form of flattery.” - Charles Caleb Colton
We all know this one. Don’t reinvent the wheel unless you need to. Instead of going through all the hard work to completely rethink something (e.g. sales compensation models, software development methodologies), leverage best practices developed by others you admire. The time and effort you’ll save can be better spent elsewhere.
10. “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” - Mark Twain
It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually often more difficult to be brief when communicating. However, brevity and sound bites are vital in keeping your audience’s attention.
Take the time to make your messages crisp and easily digestible. If you take a few extra minutes to think about a more concise way to communicate a message or present an idea, it’s often much more effective.
I collect quotes like these. Why? To refer back to quote #9, “Imitation is the finest form of flattery.” If someone has already expressed the concept perfectly, I don’t need to figure out how to uniquely express the same idea. Also, quoting someone else adds color and broader perspective to the challenge at hand.
Do any of these quotes resonate with you? Do you have a quote you draw inspiration from? Feel free to drop them in the comments section here — I’d love to see what comes to mind for you. I likely will start leveraging them myself, so I can help ensure that YCharts continues to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”