Bill Nussey is an author and businessman. He is the CEO and Co-Founder of Solar Inventions, a company which mission is to accelerate the pace of innovation in solar and other clean energy solutions. Nussey is a career tech CEO whose companies have created thousands of jobs and billions in market value.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
My middle school years were tough. I didn’t have a lot of friends and a bunch of the kids in my class seemed to delight in breaking my drumsticks, pushing my lunch food onto the floor, and even roughing me up. I don’t think my parents had any idea how bad it was, and in hindsight, I’m not sure I did either. But when it came to high school, my parents decided I should go to the county magnet school with its program for “gifted and talented” kids. This meant leaving the only kids I knew, taking a 90-minute bus ride each way, and being surround by kids that would most certainly leave me in the dust academically.
I will never forget the first day. I literally had no idea there were other kids like me and suddenly I was surrounded by them. I never came close to their academic achievements, but I learned that this wasn’t what mattered to us. It wasn’t a person’s IQ (or their ability to throw a ball), it was their shared passions. Science was interesting. Chess was cool. Nothing was more discussion worthy than articles on the latest new computer technology. For the first time in my life, I had found my tribe. Within a few months, I was an entirely different person. My life changed forever.
As a parent, my highest priority was helping my kids find their own tribes. My boys are grown up now, but I’d like to think they both found their way to a group of friends that love them for who they truly are and see their highest potential, no matter how far off the beaten path that may be.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I love this question. My father passed away before my boys were born so I devoted myself to reflecting on the lessons that life taught me and writing it down for them. In 2016, I was between chapters in my career, so I took a few months off to go through everything I had written down. I also reached out to my wisest and most accomplished friends to get their advice. I organized it all, ranked the insights, and wrote it all into a book that I gave them that Christmas called Your Mountain Is Waiting.
My take-away from those months of reflection is that there is one principle in life that rises above the rest for me. It gives meaning to both my successes and failures. It helps me find deeper fulfillment from my day-to-day efforts. It constantly reminds me to seek goals larger than myself. I’ve raised my kids with this principle: our mission in life is to make the world a better place; to leave the world better than we found it.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Burn the ships.”
I hear this a lot in the business world as a metaphor for commitment. Like the new world explorer, Cortez, burning the ships ensures that no one chickens out and runs from the challenge. It implies that people will lose their resolve unless they are left with no choices.
This seems like bad advice to me. There are simply too many things out of our control. Unforeseen hiccups, mistaken assumptions, changes in the landscape—these are just examples of why a plan can be rendered useless or worse. My motto is the exact opposite of this. For me, the truer advice is this: you should always have a plan B.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
When I was seven years old, my father called me into his room. As we sat on his bed, he explained to me that he was very ill, and he was about to have an operation that would try to save his life. He said the surgery was long and risky and there was a chance he might not come back. I don’t remember what he said after that, but I do remember that he survived it. Our family was blessed with a few additional years of normalcy before the disease set in again.
As painful as that was for him, my mother, my sister, and me, it was those tough times that defined who I became. My father’s journey taught me to live my life intentionally–whether I relax, work, love, or learn, I do it purposefully knowing that every 24 hours can never be replaced or repeated. Carpe Diem. He taught me that the measure of my life was not what I could get from the world but, instead, what I could give back.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
When I was in college, I started a software company with three other guys. Chris was the sales guru, Paul was the programming ninja, and Matt was the genius with a fantastic network. I had no superpower to offer these three amazing people except that I was the collaboration guy. And it was that skill that got me my first job as CEO.
Successful teams are more than assembling a group of people with world-class skills. I have found that the highest functioning teams are incredibly well-aligned. Too many teams waste their collective energy wrestling among themselves and fighting internal battles. In contrast, when the team includes someone who can weave all the individuals and their goals together, the team will easily outperform even more talented groups that are less well aligned.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
For me, the surest path to happiness and fulfillment is to grow personally and constantly improve who I am. So many of the very best and very worst things in my life and career are due to circumstances beyond my control—bad luck. I realized early on that the one thing I can invest in that will always produce a positive return is building my skills, knowledge, and judgment. Successes need to be analyzed objectively. Failures require reviews and reflection. People who challenge my thinking should be sought out, not avoided. I read constantly.
If I am a better husband, friend, or executive, then I can meet life’s challenges armed with more skills and perspective and, hopefully, move past them with more speed and grace. And, when I’m facing a frustrating or boring situation, I try to amp up my curiosity—I turn the situation into a learning lesson that can hopefully help me in the future.
Every major career decision I made put learning ahead of money and title. This has resulted in a lot of critical feedback from people that don’t know me well but the strategy has worked out so far, and I believe I am much happier for it.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Computer searches are a super-power. Digitize everything, drop it into folders, and become a power-user of tools like Apple’s Spotlight, Gmail search, or specialized applications like DevonThink. I add tags like #bigidea to documents I know I’ll need to seek out later.
Schedule people meetings in clumps. I find it hard to switch between different mental modes—like writing, brainstorming, data analysis, one-on-one personal discussions. My performance on each declines the more I switch between them. So, I minimize switching by dedicating a contiguous block of time to each mode. Mondays are all about people’s conversations, outreaches, and group decision making. Wednesdays are focused on reading, data analysis, and organization. Thursdays are for private brainstorming, writing, and investing time in building new skills. So on, and so forth.
The most important technique I’ve learned is to step away. At least once a quarter, and once a month when I can swing it, I step away from the job. I go someplace entirely outside of work, turn off my phone, and dedicate my thinking to strategic challenges and opportunities. A surprising number of the most important decisions my companies have made were born as I stared up at a night sky on a beautiful spring evening with nothing to interrupt me but my own thoughts.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
When I was in school, history classes never clicked with me. It took a few years, but I finally figured out that there was a lot more to history than memorizing dates and names. I fell in love with the stories of people whose journeys forged so much of the world we know today. I devour books from authors like Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, and Stephen Ambrose. I particularly enjoyed Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World and Chernow’s Washington, A Life. So much of what we see in the media today is just a thin slice of the final chapter of much deeper stories. We could be forgiven if we thought success was somehow preordained or that the heroes and villains were hard-wired facades instead of real people making gut-wrenching decisions. Well-written biographies and histories make these people real and relatable. They help me remember that it is our journeys that define us, far more than the destinations we may or may not reach.
On my professional side, one book above all the others has evoked my passion and defined my career, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. I am a pattern seeker and this book brilliantly lays out the patterns that underly all of the most exciting shifts in technology and society of the last few decades. It explains the incredible role that businesses and business leaders play in how technologies come to market and eventually change the way we live.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
One of the many things my mother taught me was a love of quotes and parables. I still have piles of hand-written pages as far back as middle school filled with short axioms and adages that expressed simple truths that resonated with me.
If there is one quote that has stuck with me and guided my life more than others it is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Whether you are a person of faith or not, thriving in life requires an understanding of when to fight the good fight and when to move on to new challenges. Wisdom is the difference between spiraling into a sense of failure or winning against odds that should have stopped me. For me, this wisdom is built by taking some time after each victory and each defeat to reflect on how I ended up there.