The Earned Life

Goldsmith, Marshall. (2022). The Earned Life. New York: Penguin

I have read many of Marshall’s books and learned something worthwhile in every one of them.  This latest book puts many of the strategies, professional and person guidance, and suggestions for a good life in one place. You will find important strategies for reframing thinking, clarifying what’s most important in life and work, and suggestions for contributing to yourself and others.  He gives us exercises to help and proactive actions to take.

As always, Italicized portions are direct quotes from the book. I recommend taking this journey with Marshall to create the life you want.

Our operative definition of an earned life: We are living an earned life when the choices, risks, and effort we make in each moment aligns with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcome.  

An earned life makes only a few demands of us:

  • Live your own life, not someone else’s version of it.
  • Commit yourself to “earning” every day. Make it a habit.
  • Attach your earning moments to something greater than mere personal ambition.

Being a Stakeholder Centered Coach (SCC) using Marshall and partner Frank Wagner’s process, I have heard about the ‘Great Western Disease’ of “I’II be happy when . . .”   Complete the sentence however you choose.  Unfortunately, most of us work to get ‘there’ and find there is ‘no there’ there. If you are fortunate to be working in a great team, organization, or calling, it is a pleasurable and satisfying experience.

Angeles Arrien, in one of her workshops I attended said, “stop the inner terrorism.”  How often do we let the voice in our head stop us or divert us from taking the steps we believe will help us accomplish our goals.  There is a newer book out the provides lots of research on the internal chatter in our minds.  Its title is ‘Chatter’ by Ethan Kross.

One of Marshall’s clients said, “my whole life is have to.” I’ve heard the following phrase, ‘you can’t give what you don’t have.’  The Earned Life will help getting what you want to be the authentic person for yourself and others.

Consider this: “The pace of change you are experiencing today is the slowest pace of change you will ever experience for the rest of your life.” Yikes. So, it really is not what happens, it is how you respond to what happens to you that determines the quality of the experience. In my view, this is why we want to expand our repertoire of response strategies.  We never know what we will need to deal with constant change.

The four cognitive and emotional qualities that people need in order to be successful.

  1. Motivation – Motivation may be the fuel that drives our goal achievement but cannot be divorced from the doing. Motivation is being confused with desire.

Question: Am I living my current life because it is how I choose to find fulfillment, or because I cannot imagine an alternative?

  1. Ability – It’s a portfolio of skills and personality traits that have to match up with the life we want to lead.
  2. Understanding – Part of Understanding is knowing the difference between good and not good enough.
  3. Confidence – You have earned the right to be confident.

The following are six factors Marshall believes helps us define fulfillment in life:

  • Achievement
  • Engagement
  • Happiness
  • Meaning
  • Purpose
  • Relationships

Question: How are you doing in each of the six factors?  Which one(s) might need more attention?


  1. Do for yourself that you have done for others.
  2. Begin with a basic question. “What do I want to do for the rest of my life

” What can I do that’s meaningful? What are you running towards? Where do you want to live? What will I do there every day?


Goldsmith uses an example of what he wants and what his partner Frank wanted.

Frank wanted a balanced life. Marshall was comfortable with extreme imbalance.

The answer lies in a trio of independent variable.

Action, in my operational definition, is what we’re doing now. Action for most of us is an aimless activity, subject to momentary whim or, worse, our stated objective

Ambition is what we want to achieve

Aspiration is who we want to become

Here are a few comments that help clarify the differences.

Ambition, when we achieve it, delivers a feeling of happiness that we cannot hold on to and protect.

Aspiration, because it is all about learning “to care about something new,” directs you to something more lasting than ambition,

My Aspiration is to “create a maximum benefit for as many people as I can in the time, I have left to do it.” My time-bound Ambition is to “publish a book called The Earned Life.” My Action is to “stay at my desk and write all day.”

Aspiration is an act of privileging your future over your present.

Another Exercise: “Why not be more like your heroes?  Do the following:

  • Write down the names of your heroes.
  • Write down one-word descriptors of the values and virtues that endear them to you.
  • Cross out their names.
  • Write your name in their place.

What is obvious in hindsight: When we over focus on Action at the expense of our Aspiration and Ambition, we tend to make very poor opportunity-versus-risk decisions on the fear of being judged

Here are some of the reasons we may not take a responsible risk:

  • Fear of looking stupid
  • Fear of being found out
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of failure

Chapter 7 focuses on finding your genius.

  • It takes time to develop to find your niche’ or competency.
  • The right talent cannot shine in the wrong role.

EXERCISE: Genius Roundtable.

DO THIS: Gather six people in your living room who know one another well. Starting with yourself, identify the one skill that you believe is your special talent, the hidden or self-evident. No one gets a pass. Your only response is “Thank you.” 

Often leaders try to develop other leaders (See Noel Tichy’s book, ‘The Leadership Engine.’  How does that happen?

Marshall says, “people get better, but only with follow-up.”

Human beings are very poor at any form of self-regulation.

He offers the building blocks of “discipline” and “willpower” are much more concrete and comprehensive:

  • Compliance
  • Accountability
  • Follow-up
  • Measurement
  1. COMPLIANCE – Compliance reflects your adherence to an external policy or ruler. An estimated 50 percent of all U.S. patients either forget, abandon, or never take the medication* That’s how tough compliance is. Even when our health, possibly our life, hangs in the balance, we don’t comply with a surefire remedy.

Compliance was up to me. Patient non- compliance remains a $100-billion-a year cost item in America.

  1. ACCOUNTABILITY – Unlike compliance, which is our productive response to the expectations imposed on us by other people, accountability is our response to expectations we impose on ourselves. Our sense of accountability comes in two models: private or public.

I prefer public disclosure. This is one reason I insist that my coaching clients fully advertise their plans to change their behavior to the people they work with: disclosure makes the effort to change visible; visibility elevates accountability.

  1. FOLLOW-UP – Compliance and accountability are two sides of the same coin. They’re both burdens that we bear alone as individuals, one I’m posed on us by others, the other self-imposed. Follow up introduces the coercive force of the outside world to the mix. Suddenly, other people are checking up on us, taking an interest in our opinions and valuing our feedback.

Follow-up appears in the Business Plan Review at Ford. It is a weekly group meeting created by a half dozen or so participants to monitor one another.

  1. MEASUREMENT – is the truest indicator of our priorities because what we measure drives out what we do. As I write this, I’m tracking daily steps, kind words to Lyda (his spouse), daily minutes of quiet reflection, face time with grandkids, how much sugar, pasta, potatoes I eat, and daily minutes spent on low-priority activities (e.g. watching TV).


I do not suffer from Not-Invented-Here syndrome. I’m a connoisseur of other people’s ideas, and when I hear a workable idea created by someone else, I internalize it as my own.

This process can be used in a multitude of ways in teams we lead. The Life Plan Review, or LPR for short, that we cover in chapter 10 is such a structure.

  1. REFERENT GROUP – Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., introduced me to his idea of referent groups. Roosevelt believed that an organization was richer and stronger when it included a wide range of differences. The referent group concept was the structure he created to help people understand that if an individual identified with a particular referent group, his or her desire for approval from this group shaped his or her behavior and performance.

If you know a person’s referent group to whom or what they feel deeply connected, whom they want to impress, whose respect they crave you can understand why they talk and think and behave the way they do.

  1. FEEDFORWARD – “Feedforward” is a word I started using after a conversation with John Katzenbach when I began coaching CEOs. It was my counterpoint to “feedback,” the more common term for an exchange of workplace opinion. Here feedback comprises people’s opinion of your past behavior, feedforward represents other people’s ideas that you should be using in the future.

The feedforward step was not complicated:

  • After you pick the one behavior you intend to change, make your intention known in a one-on-one conversation with someone you know.
  • Ask that person, it could be anyone, not necessarily a co-worker, for two suggestions that might help you achieve your goal.
  • Listen without judgment, then say “Thank you.”
  • Do not promise to act upon every idea. Just accept it and promise to do what you can.
  • Repeat these steps with your other stakeholders.

Feedforward is a very easy and welcome concept to grasp (because it’s an insight or tip, not a critique), even when it’s being exchanged between strangers.

Why: reciprocity with genuine goodwill and no judgment.

  1. STAKEHOLDER-CENTERED COACHING – Peter Drucker’s well-known interrogatory, “Who is your customer and what does your customer value? Drucker believed that everything in business begins with the customer.

It’s not necessarily who you think it is.  So, I tweaked Drucker’s “customer” into “stakeholder” to emphasize to clients that their employees had a personal investment, or stake, in their improvement.

The structure I provided was stakeholder-centric, not leader-centric.

  1. BPR – stands for Business Plan Review. Recall former Ford CEO Alan Mulally’s way of structuring a weekly meeting in an organization. See more on Alan Mulally (2012) in a book titled, ‘American Icon.’

When coaching leaders, I have used the idea of DAILY QUESTIONS with many people.  It helps focus on a few important goals, assessment is every day, and the results are grist for our follow up.  Goldsmith’s book ‘Triggers,’ shows a list of the twenty-two questions that Marshall used to test his. The key: Each question begins with “Did I do my best to . . .” followed by a specific goal such as “Set clear goals?” and “Exercise?” and “Not waste energy on what you cannot change.

Steph Curry’s Rule of 100 shooting drill: Curry practices jump shots from five spots on the court, not moving on to the next spot until he sinks twenty shots in a row. (One miss and he restarts at zero.)

These ideas have one thing in common: They are not meant to be pursued alone. They are most effective when two or more people are involved. There are a few more strategies in the book.

Here is a great start to implement the LPR for you and team members. In the LPR, you and each member of the weekly meeting take turns reporting your answers to a fixed set of six questions, “Did I do any best to . . .” 

  1. Set clear goals?
  2. Make progress toward achieving my goals?
  3. Find meaning?
  4. Be happy?
  5. Maintain and build positive relationships?
  6. Be fully engaged?

Here are a few more questions that could be included such as:

  • Did I do my best to express gratitude?
  • Did I do my best to forgive the previous me?
  • Did I do my best to add value to someone’s life?

Review your plan for relevance once a week. Getting through the early weeks without giving up increases your chance for success. Making steady gains will help sustain you through the tough times.

Peter Drucker’s uncanny management predictions is this: “The leader of the past knew how to tell; the leader of the future will know how to ask.”

An example Goldsmith reports is in 1979 IBM was the most admired company in the world, the gold standard in management. IBM had a problem: Its managers were not perceived internally as doing a good job coaching their direct reports.

I asked the direct reports:

Q: Does your manager do a good job providing coaching? A:  No

I asked the managers:

Q: Do your direct reports ever ask you for coaching? A: No, never.

Back to the direct reports.

Q: Do you ask your manager for coaching? A: No

Curious about IBM’s performance appraisal system, I heard. ‘Performs effectively with no need for coaching.’  IBM had created a vicious cycle whereby if the manager offered coaching, the employee was incentivized to respond, “No, thank you, boss. I perform effectively with no need for coaching.” (You can’t make this up!)

To ask for help was deemed a sign of weakness. You asked for help when (a) you didn’t know something, (b) you couldn’t ask for help because of your:

  • ignorance
  • incompetence
  • neediness

The paradox I noticed at IBM: The company’s leaders thought coaching was valuable for employees but not for themselves.

Consider the best athletes, musicians, performers have coaches.

He started using the Needs Exercise: What do your people need from you?

I believe our problem with approval, like our problem with asking for help, starts at the top. A leader’s internal sense of validation, self-approval should be enough, they tell themselves.

I have always said to assistants or people I am coaching that you have to deal with what is in front of you. After dealing the immediate concerns, spend some time reviewing policies and procedures that might reduce negative behaviors.

One suggestion offered in the book and that is a positive is do the activity that you least like to do first

When I have asked successful people to characterize the fulfillment, they get from pursuing an earned life, the number one answer by far is some variation of “helping people.”

Customers appreciate the empathic gesture; they will forgive almost any error if they see that you care enough about them to fix it. Most educators and leaders want to make positive contributions for themselves and others.

Marshall ends the book with the following five themes. It is a good list to start with:

The first is purpose. Anything we do is more elevated, more exciting, and more connected to who we want to become if we do it with a clearly expressed purpose. (The “expressed” part makes a huge difference.)

The second is presence with the people in our lives rather than missing inaction. Although we can never achieve the summit of being always present, it’s still the mountain we should never stop climbing.

The third is community. Accomplishing something with the help of a chosen community resonates more resoundingly, affects more people, and is often an improvement on the solo act because of the contributions of the many. Would you rather be the soloist or sing with a choir behind you?

The fourth is impermanence. In the grand scheme, we are here on earth for a brief moment. “We are born, we get sick, we die,” said Buddha, as a reminder that nothing lasts, neither our happiness nor a day nor anything else. It is all impermanent.

The fifth is results. This is a negative theme that reveals a post live concept because my aim here has not been to help you become better at achieving a result. It has been to help you try your best to reach a goal. If you try your best, you have not failed, regardless of the result.

In the end, an earned life doesn’t include a trophy ceremony or permit an extended victory lap. The reward of living an earned life is being engaged in the process of constantly earning such a life.

There is so much more in this book.  I highly, highly recommend it for your personal and professional growth.


Hoffman, Bryce. (2012). American Icon.  New York:  Crown

Kross, Ethan. (2021).  Chatter.  New York: Crown

Tichy. Noel.  (1997).  The leadership engine.  New York: HarperCollins.