The biggest mistake I ever made

Updated to Business on December 18, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

It’s hard to write an article about avoiding mistakes in business when you’ve made thousands of them. It’s like sitting down to write “Everything I know about love” when everyday you are painfully reminded you really don’t know much.

All my businesses have been pretty different. But, when I think back to scrounging up money to pay for another flight into the frozen barrens of Antarctica, suffering through an all-nighter dry walling someone’s basement (a short-lived renovation company I would rather forget about), or presenting to the three people that showed up for my first seminar, there was one reoccurring mistake.

I didn’t get enough advice.

Michael Gerber does a brilliant job describing the challenges of growing an entrepreneurial business in his best-seller The E-Myth Revisited.

And one universal challenge (Gerber doesn’t put it this way, but I know he would agree) is that entrepreneurs have a big ego.

Listen to interviews of successful entrepreneurs, or read their autobiographies, and one pattern emerges. They have a big ego. Of course, everyone has an ego – you can’t function without believing in yourself. But we entrepreneurs have it in spades.

And what goes along with ego is saying ‘no-go’ to advice. We don’t admit we need advice and, even if we did, we don’t seek it enough.


It could be a simple question, like: should I add a widget on the side of my web page. Or a higher stakes one, like: what should I charge? Or should I create an app for my business?

Why would we not ask for advice? After all, there is always someone who has done exactly what you want to do and has insights you can learn from. But something happens when you contemplate asking others. Maybe you wonder if you even know anyone that can help, or maybe you worry that if you do find someone, they might refuse your request.

Either way, advice is like gold. It might take some work to get it, but once you do, it’s invaluable.


If you follow the theory of six degrees of separation then you understand that the person you need to ask is within reach. This theory states that everyone you want to connect with is just six steps away, by introduction, from someone you already know. Here are two recent examples:

Last week I needed an employment contract for my employee, Sarah. Two emails later I had two versions to work from. In fact, I actually found Sarah by asking friends.

Guy KawasakiI wanted to interview Guy Kawasaki for my podcast. I asked Jaime Tardy how to reach him and two emails later he was booked (BTW you can enjoy that interview here).  


Of course, you will feel a little hesitation before you ask someone for help. That’s human. That is just your six-ounce buddy the Amygdala watching out for you. My advice is: listen, say “Thank You”, and do it anyways.

When I wanted to create a mastermind group I just bit the bullet, phoned three people and asked. Of course, I felt a little hesitation before each call (I’d be worried if I didn’t), but you learn a lot by pushing through and making the call.

When I wanted to launch my year-long coaching program I just picked up the phone and started dialing. I started with people I knew and asked three simple questions: what content would serve you the most? Who do you know that would benefit from this? And are you interested in joining? Within three weeks the program was full.

What about for you?

What are you working on right now that could do with a little outside perspective (or maybe even a little dose of “What the hell were you thinking!??”)


  • If you have a book draft, call six people (Yes call – don’t email) and ask if they will read and review it.
  • If you need help with marketing get on a forum, LinkedIn or Facebook group and start asking for advice.
  • If you have a list, you can send a simple survey (Survey Monkey lets you ask up to 10 questions of 100 people for free).
  • If you have people in your community you want advice from, call or email and ask if they would meet for 30 minutes to share their journey. The approach that usually works for me is a request something like:

Dear Hugh,

I was just talking with  ########### and they spoke highly of the work you are doing. I’m new to the business and have lots of ideas. And I know I could learn a lot from you and your successes.

Can I buy you coffee either this Tuesday at 1:30 or Wednesday at 10:30 (I promise to keep the meeting to 30 minutes)?

Thanks and please let me know if either of those times work for you.

You will be surprised by how many people are willing to help. All you have to do is ask.