I've spent almost my entire business life paranoid. It's not the most relaxing way to live -- I envy friends who walk around with a Zen-like smile and a picture-perfect Type-B personality. I'm just not that guy.
My last year in college, I read Only the Paranoid Survive by Intel's Andrew S. Grove. The premise is simple -- get complacent and you lose. This theory, along with the stark reality that I am NEVER the smartest person in the room, keeps me on my toes. You can call it a healthy insecurity or something more negative, but the reality is that it has served me well.
By never taking what I have for granted, I constantly work to improve. Make no mistake, I'm not so caught up that I don't appreciate what I have -- there's no denying that I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world. But there's a HUGE difference between being thankful and appreciative and taking success for granted or as an entitlement.
Jim Collins' latest book, How the Mighty Fall, did a number on my confidence. The book is great -- it describes in simple terms how once-great companies managed to screw it all up and go into the ranks of obscurity or cease to exist entirely. He also explains why the critics of Good to Great and Built to Last are knuckleheads who don't understand the premise of the books. The books never promised that these companies would always be great, just that they were once great.
Collins' five simple stages of collapse are clear enough to understand, and scary enough to occupy your thoughts and ask those annoying questions you hear in the back of your mind. Some good news for the ever-paranoid, however, is that constant paranoia is one of Collins' keys to success. Believing in your skills (when they're really luck) or your brilliance (when the market was simply in your favor) is the fastest way to start down the path of collapse.
Three other books that were recently released have also promoted healthy questioning of the status quo. Jeff Jarvis' What Would Google Do does a great job of describing how Google has changed business as we know it, by making almost everything free. Speaking of free, Chris Anderson's Free does a good job of reminding you why you should shy away from the scarcity mindset of trying to charge your customers. Scott McKain's Collapse of Distinction teaches that with competition comes sameness, and that to win in a sea of similarity, you have to do things that others will not. Competition almost always leads to comparisons on price -- a game all but one company loses.
I'm not suggesting that you should always be afraid -- there are times in business when you need to ignore the signs and trust your gut. Instead, my simple advice is to be aware of everything, including your own weaknesses, to be truly successful over the long haul.