I was inspired by my friend Chris Penn’s “11 Little Secrets” post this morning to come up with my own list here and encourage you all to do the same on your own blogs. It’s always interesting to see what makes people tick, especially if their little secrets can be helpful to someone else.

The model is simple. To quote Chris:

We strive desperately to look for the next big thing, the next big secret, the magic wand that will make everything better. What we tend to overlook – or most of us, anyway – are the little secrets, the little hacks and tweaks you can make to your day, your year, your life to help things operate better.

Bingo. So you know what? I gave it some thought, made a list of little things I do that seem to work for me, picked 11 that weren’t too business-specific, and created my very own “11 Little secrets.” Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Cut back on the meat and eat more fish. I know, I know… What the hell am I talking about? This is a Brand management blog, not a nutrition blog. But bear with me here. This actually impacts my work in a big way, and it is one of my little secrets. And as an aside, before the beef lobby jumps on my case like they did Oprah, let me just say I love steak as much as the next guy. In fact, I’m French, dammit: I love lamb chops, rotisserie chicken, smoked ham and foie gras, just for starters. But at the same time, meat has taken a serious back seat from my diet in the last few years, and I have seen some pretty amazing positive health results come out of it. Among them: lower cholesterol, a lot less body fat, less aggression, better sleep and more energy all day long. I still need animal protein to support a pretty active lifestyle, so I eat a lot of fish and seafood. Whenever I can, I go raw, but fish is fish. Cutting back on meat or cutting it out altogether might not work for everyone, but it’s worked VERY well for me. Bonus: Omega 3 fatty acids.

Why does this matter? Go back a few sentences: “less aggression, better sleep and more energy all day long.” Aside from having more energy and sleeping better, I don’t know if it’s because my system isn’t flooded with growth hormone anymore or what, but rarely being angry about anything does wonders for a guy who loves to argue as much as I do. Has being less aggressive made me less argumentative? Nope. But has it helped me keep a cool head in the middle of heated debates? You bet. And there’s a lot to be said for the advantage of a calm and controlled mind when trying to argue a point.

Negatives: No more bacon, and the prospect of dying of mercury poisoning.

2. Spend at least 30 minutes every day reading something that doesn’t touch on your line of work. It doesn’t matter if it’s the latest editorial in GQ or a work of historical fiction. Just do it. A) Your mind needs a break from Twitter, blogs and business white papers. B) Your brain needs cross-training. Me, I call it active recovery. It’s nice to completely unplug (even thematically) and I can definitely tell the difference between weeks when I read and weeks when I don’t in my ability to think critically and find quick, creative solutions to complex problems.

Personally, I’ve recently gotten into Conn Iggulden’s novels about Genghis Kahn and Julius Caesar, and that isn’t bad brain candy as far as I’m concerned. On one hand, it’s nice to unplug without necessarily surrendering your brain to American Idol or Tool Academy, but on the other, reading about military campaigns and political strife helps me visualize business problems from a completely different perspective, without even realizing that my brain is making those types of connections.

Reading engages different parts of the brain that, in turn, contribute to the processing of information. Cross training for the brain is absolutely one of the most valuable benefits of reading about things that have nothing to do with work. So read your business books, but also remember to read other things, just for fun. Bonus: It doesn’t suck to have things to talk about that don’t involve Marketing and Social Media. For extra credit: Read in more than one language.

Negative: Missing out on really great infomercials, I’m sure.

3. Be an athlete (even if you don’t necessarily think of yourself as one). The human body wasn’t meant to spend all day at a desk, in front of a computer, eating packaged food products. Spend an hour walking, running, cycling, swimming, pushing weights, throwing truck tires, punching bags, getting thrown on a tatami, riding bulls… something. Put it in the schedule. It isn’t something you do “when you find the time.” Sound body, sound mind. It relieves stress, oxygenates the brain, gives you a break from the grind, lets you work out your frustrations, makes you feel empowered, and it’s good for you. Tell your boss this is important to you, and they’ll make sure they don’t call you during that extra special hour of “active meditation.” That time belongs to you. It’s yours and yours alone. Plant your flag in your daily schedule and protect that hour with your life. (It may return the favor someday. Literally.)

I’m a triathlete with a propensity for martial arts and boxing, so you can imagine that hardly a day goes by without some kind of activity. The way it works for me is, my gym workouts help me stay strong and limber, while the racing helps keep me swift and lean. If you aren’t into intense or prolonged athletic activity, find one that requires a good deal of learning and skill that will help you keep your mind engaged without tearing you a new lung.

Some examples: Aikido and Judo are relatively “soft” but rewarding martial arts. No kicking, punching or breaking boards required, but full bodymind workouts you’ll learn to enjoy. Scuba diving is also a pretty fun activity you can tie into most vacations that doesn’t require you to run ten miles every day. There are sports out there for every personality type and budget, so do some research and try a bunch until you find something that works for you. And don’t be afraid to mix it up. variety is good for the mind and the body. Bonus: The extra confidence you will gain from your athletic practice. Extra bonus: You get to wear designer clothes right off the rack.

Negatives: Often being surrounded by old naked dudes hanging out naked in locker rooms, naked.

4. Cook. I don’t just cook because I’m French. I cook because it’s easier to play with my food in the kitchen than at the dinner table. Remember that kid who used to blow up the chemistry lab every other week because of his “experiments?” Yeah, that was me. Now, I get my kicks mixing yellow peppers with raisins with sour cream to make a sauce for my mahi-mahi.

  • A) It’s fun.
  • B) It brings you closer to your food, which is important.  When you actually touch it, prepare it, cook it, you respect it more. You understand the relationship between the food you eat and the way it affects your body a lot better.
  • C) You’ll ingest a lot less hydrogenated oils, corn starch, sodium and high fructose corn syrup, which will make your doctor very happy.
  • D) You’ll find yourself buying and eating a lot more fresh vegetables.
  • E) The amount of packaging you won’t be throwing away every year will be impressive. No need to recycle a whole lot when most of what you’re throwing away is biodegradable.

Who has time to cook, you ask? I’ve never made a meal that took more than 15 minutes from start to finish. Make time. PS: By cooking, I don’t mean boiling noodles and heating up a jar of pasta sauce. I mean wash produce, cut stuff, mix ingredients together, blow off the cookbook, and try new combinations of foods just to see what happens.

Aside from the above benefits, why is this important to you as a professional? First, if cooking become a relaxing activity (a fun one, even) it ceases to be “work.” Un-chore yourself. Second, it gives you a lab in which you can conduct experiments and be creative every day. That kind of stress-free experimentation is a healthy exercise for professionals with lots of tight deadlines and high stakes jobs.

Negatives: More dishes, and the occasional really horrible meal.

5. Write. Yes, with a writing instrument like a pen or pencil. Keep a journal, write short stories, take notes… whatever. It doesn’t matter. I dig typing up blogs as much as the next guy, but I also walk around with a Moleskine everywhere I go. When I’m on a plane, in a waiting room, on the subway or in a coffee shop, I pop that puppy open and write stuff down. If writing letters is a lost art, then journal. Put pen to paper, literally. It’s good to practice the lost art of writing (Post-it notes don’t count), and you’ll be glad you did a few years from now when your personal archive is volumes-thick. More importantly, your kids will thank you someday for having left behind so much of yourself for them to discover.

Writing is important. As old-school as it may seem, it matters. Bonus: Writing helps you think. Don’t just consume information and opinions, create your own. And man, write an actual letter to someone by hand, and see how much they’ll instantly like you more.

By the way, for some clever Moleskine hacks, check this out.

Negatives: Always losing your favorite pens in airports, cabs, restaurants, hotels and conference rooms (unless you have a clever hack).

6. Sleep. Going on 4 hours of sleep per night isn’t enough. It isn’t healthy. Sleep and rest are as important, if not more, than anything else you can do for yourself. Treat your body with respect: Sleep. Sure, sometimes I get caught grabbing the red-eye from hell after three weeks of bouncing from time zone to time zone (a GMT watch helps, by the way), but as soon as you can, get that A-type sleep deprivation thing under control and give your body (and your brain) time to adequately recover. Your body can go without food or water longer than it can go withouts sleep. That’s pretty telling.

I look at my own immune system, and I can tell almost within 48 hours whether lack of sleep is affecting my health. I know there aren’t enough hours in the day. Believe me. I’m there. Guess what: You can’t cheat biology. Get your sleep on. Consider it part of your job. (Just don’t do it… on the job.)

Negatives: Looking younger than your actual age may slow down your advancement. (The C-suite tends to take you less seriously when you look young.)

7. Eat breakfast every day. Scientists and nutritionists aren’t wrong about this. Make yourself a bowl of cereal, bite into an apple, eat a tub of yogurt… whatever. Some people dig a croissant and latte. Others prefer a fruit salad and a shot of kefir. It’s all good. Don’t skip it. My usual when I am not traveling is a 1/2 cup of dry oatmeal with a cup of milk (nuked for 2 minutes) with a small handful of raisins thrown in. I follow that with a banana, a protein shake, a few scrambled egg whites and a huge glass of water. When I travel, I go with the croissant and coffee/tea thing. It doesn’t matter what you have for breakfast as long as you eat (and drink) something.

Negatives: The food dispensing machine down the hall will sell you less potato chips and candy bars.

8. Allow yourself at least one guilty pleasure. Being 100% efficient and serious doesn’t cut it. You can’t take yourself too seriously all the time. Learn to unwind and allow yourself some guilty pleasures. How guilty the pleasure is entirely up to you, but here’s a list of mine recently:

TV: Spartacus: Blood & Sand, Real Time with Bill Maher, LOST, Bully Beatdown, Funny Or Die Presents, Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares (UK edition), Top Gear.

Reading: GQ, Esquire, Conn Iggulden novels, the B&H catalog.

Foodstuffs: Nutella, Apple slices with peanut butter, Cadbury eggs, Starbucks lattes.

Digital: Call of Duty- Modern Warfare (X-Box Live), Left 4 Dead II.

See, it isn’t all R.O.I., is it.

Negatives: Having to defend the awesomeness of shows like Spartacus: Blood & Sand.

9.  Collaborate on projects with people you admire. If you’re lucky, you get to do this all day long. If not, jump on any opportunity that affords you the privilege of working with someone whose work you really respect. Someone you’ve been dreaming of working with for weeks or months or years. When I still worked for the man, this was difficult to do. I was pulling 60 hour weeks with project teams that were more assigned than chosen, so I rarely got to enjoy the pleasure of working with a true soul-brother/soul-sister on projects I could really get excited about. Now that I have a little more power over who I get to work with, I get to be a little picky about who gets my time and who doesn’t. I can pick and choose my projects and collaborators, and let me tell you: It makes a HUGE difference on the quality of my work and the quality of my life.

A few examples, right off the bat: Keith Burtis and I collaborate on our weekly “More Ideas Than Time” podcast. It takes up about two hours of my time every week, and let me tell you: Well worth it. I also work regularly with folks like Scott Gould, Trey Pennington, Kristi Colvin, Kim Brater and Alicia Kan, and again: It’s nice to be surrounded by such talented professionals who help you raise your own bar on a regular basis.

Negatives: Often being the dumbest guy in the room.

Positives: Often being the dumbest guy in the room.

10. Take risks every day. Playing it safe doesn’t help you grow. It doesn’t teach you about yourself. And frankly, it’s boring. Look, I am not advocating that you base jump from the roof of your office building or gamble the family fortune away on internet poker sites. Not at all. But do push the envelope just a little with something every day. Be wise, be responsible, be smart about it, but don’t shy away from a little risk on a regular basis. Sometimes, I push a corner a little hard when I come down Paris Mountain on a bike ride (cycling, not vroom-vroom). Other times, I gamble on a client whose credit isn’t stellar. I occasionally take on a project that is a bit outside of my comfort zone. I try hotels and restaurants off the beaten path. I’ve gambled my bonus on double-or-nothing odds if I could hit a target my boss thought was a longshot. I’ve lost some, but I’ve won some too.

The equation is simple: It’s all about risk vs. reward. Every risk has to be worth the reward. Every risk has to be calculated. And if you lose, it has to hurt, but not necessarily too much. Another rule: Never gamble with someone else’s well-being. You can put your own neck on the line, but that’s it. (Unless you ask permission first.) Push, learn, adjust. Push, learn, adjust. Repeat. You never win without risking something. Whether it’s embarrassment, a bloody lip, your monthly bonus, it doesn’t matter. Victory and success won’t find you waiting patiently at your cubicle. If you want to win, you have to put some skin in the game.

Negatives: Frequent run-ins with either the law, pavement, ambulances, knuckles, or the boss’ office. The occasional foot-in-ass. Mouthfuls of dirt or crow.

Positives: Winning often, in spite of the occasional negative.

11. Find your own voice and let it out at least a little every day. You aren’t the next Chris Brogan, Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. You can’t be, because those jobs are already taken. And frankly, we don’t need another Chris Brogan, Jack Welch or Steve Jobs. They’re doing fine all on their own. These folks are unique because their contributions to the world are unique. President Obama, Clint Eastwood, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, Anne Frank, Gandhi, all  people with individual contributions to the world. Where pioneers go, no one has gone before. That’s the trick. That’s the ticket. You want to be an icon, you have to make your own way, and that starts with finding your own voice.

If what matters to you is that next promotion to VP Marketing, then don’t worry about any of this. Do your job, hit your targets, kiss the right rings, and you’ll make it. But if you truly want to be a force in the world, an influencer, a star in some way shape or form, you have to listen to Robert Frost and chose the path less taken. Heck, you have to take it a step further and take the path not taken yet: The path that still hasn’t been carved out by anyone. Go where no one has gone yet, and once you’ve made some headway, call out “hey, this way!” If people follow, you’ll know you’re on the right track. That path starts with finding your own voice.

Negatives: None. Life’s too short.