It has always intrigued me what makes some people succeed in life while others drift never realising their full potential. As I drove recently and found myself stuck in traffic, I thought of the people in my life who were achieving something useful. Across many of these people, several of their key personal attributes began to emerge as common ground between them. So, from that stream of consciousness, here are my observations below:
Choose Your Heroes Carefully
It’s one thing to look up to and admire the neighbourhood tough guy when you’re 12. As you get older, you have to look much further afield. Identify who in the world is achieving the successes you want for yourself, then mimic their behaviours and personal characteristics. Read about them to find out what their routines are. How did they make the many initial small steps that led to progressively bigger leaps that put them in the upper echelons of success in their field. If you want to be a rock star, you follow Lennon and McCartney, not Joe Cool playing at the local bar.
Do Not Catastrophize
Keep things in perspective. Winners do not waste their time building great big mountains out of very small molehills. Find a way to brush over small blemishes in your track record toward success. Do not get dragged into the minutiae of nitpicking hair-splitting drama-seekers who want to enflame emotions and bog you down with small issues. I have a colleague who aptly reminds me in difficult situations that we “just want to get from point A to point B”. This is his way of reminding everyone to not get bogged down by a small situation that would otherwise fester if you let it.
Do Not Dwell On The Past
It’s water under the bridge. Let it go. Get over it. One of the most futile things is to voluntarily wear that ball and chain of past failures hampering all future progress. Look forward with the understanding that your glory days are ahead of you and that the future still looks brighter than the past.
See the Cup as Half Full
Winners tend to be optimistic people. In every circumstance, there are reasons to be down and out. Or you can instead focus on what good can come out of a situation.
Do Not Hold Grudges
A grudge is like a poison that you mix up and take every day by your own choice. It serves no purpose except to keep you in an agitated state and to give you someone else to blame for whatever unhappiness you feel. Successful people move on. They re-align with new people and they distance themselves from those who have caused them trouble in the past. I have an uncle who essentially robbed a great wealth from my family under very despicable circumstances that would have been costly and difficult to prove in court. My initial response was to be filled with spite since I felt powerless to do much else. Then, one day, a cousin pointed out that my internalisation of the wrongdoing was making me an angry and victimised (i.e. unpleasant) man. She said the spite was like a poison that I should just stop taking in. Wise words.
Work on Something That Builds Over Time
If you go to work every day and do the same sequence of events over and over, that is not a career – that is a job. When you find that you can and are functioning on auto-pilot in your work, that is tell-tale sign that your mind is not engaged and that you are not building on the previous successes. Choose work that gets you doing something to advance what you did yesterday. Even if your advancements are small, they add up. And, as in the world of finance, small advances begin to compound. Just ask Warren Buffett.
Establish a Winning Routine
The successful people I know are highly predictable in their daily or weekly routine. Let’s face it, there is a lot of what we do that is mundane and repetitive on a daily basis. Why not consider optimal ways to get things done, then file it to a routine or a calendar that dictates their completion so that your mind can be freed up to think about more interesting and productive things. Every week there is a place I go to where I see the same people. These people are some of the successful people I know and I get reminded when I see them, that they are fulfilling this basic requirement of success: routinize the mundane to free your mind for all the important stuff.
Take Personal Responsibility
This is a biggie. Simply, if you are waiting for that knock on the door or for your phone to ring, or if you are blaming bad luck or other people for your failure to launch, you are not on a success path. No matter what negative things happen, successful people tend to find a way to accept personal responsibility for the outcome, even to a degree where no personal responsibility can possibly be assigned to them. Yes, they are that determined to assume the “locus of control” in their lives. I liken this to sitting in the driver’s seat (as opposed to riding as a passenger, or hiding in the trunk, or recklessly clinging to the hood!)
Focus on Important Stuff
If you break down your dreams into projects and your projects into tasks, you will find that you have about 300 things to do. So where to begin? Successful people focus on the tasks that can’t be delegated to others or that will give them the highest return on their invested time.
Respect Your Mind
Successful people take ahold of their thoughts and direct their thoughts consciously. They don’t indulge frivolous daydreaming. They don’t waste brain cells on stuff that is trivial. And, of course, successful people tend not to drink to excess, smoke, or take drugs. Your mind is a tool. Challenge it with a new language. If you are not good at math, take math courses to exercise that part of your brain more. Sleep lots to keep your mind alert. And, give your mind necessary downtime if you have been working at a stretch.
Be On Time
I wish I could claim this to be one of my personal nuggets, but I struggle lots with punctuality. Of course, it’s all a choice. Are you cramming to get more done before you move on the next appointment where people are waiting for you? Are you underestimating the road conditions that will allow you to travel unimpeded? Are you being considerate of the schedules of others? Successful people are on time and they demand others to be on time.
Do Not Procrastinate
If you are too lazy or unfocussed or too poor with your time-management to take something on, then either fix your failings or don’t make promises to yourself and others. Putting off what needs to be done will make you feel badly about yourself and it will lose you the respect that others would otherwise have for you. Be careful what you decide you’re going to do. If you can’t involve others to help you and if you can’t outsource the parts you find unpleasant and if you can’t just soldier through those unpleasant parts, then drop the goal immediately. Some people will talk endlessly about what they are going to do. The talking makes them feel like they actually have done something, yet there is no progress. Successful people get on with things and get ‘er done.
Do Not Make Promises You Can’t Keep
Your credibility will be shot if you keep making promises that you never keep. They will be waiting for you to do your piece in order for them to do theirs or for someone else to take the next steps. Some people will be making expensive investments that require orderly fulfillment of tasks by the people they source to help them. It doesn’t matter how competent you are – if you can’t get the job done because you lack focus or organization or motivation, simply do not make the promise in the first place. For some, like me, being a people-pleaser compels me to make promises all the time that I can’t possibly keep. This subtracts from me being able to reach my full potential. Successful people usually eliminate this character flaw. I am working on it.
Don’t Dwell On World News
Seriously, the successful people I know generally do not follow the latest news. If you think about it, the news is a HUGE distraction and also a big emotional twister. What better way to rob yourself of focus by reading the daily news and to have images of war and barbarism filling your brain. People I know who are getting somewhere catch the headlines only when they pass by a newspaper stand or hear brief chatter in the elevator. That’s it. They know that the world events can’t be controlled by them anyway unless they devote their life to some cause. So, ignore the news. Let’s face it – CNN is just there to tell you “what is the worst thing happening in the world right now” – not exactly inspiring.
Expand Your Mind
Never settle for what you already know. If you are not growing you are withering. The countless book and video and conversational resources at your beckon call are staggering. Be choosy about what you will stimulate your brain with then go for it. Surprisingly, you will see a skill in one area that you never thought could be generalised to some other area of your career pursuit. Successful people I know always have some new interest, usually intellectual, that they are indulging.
Choose Audacious Goals
Our time here is short. Why pick something that is of small consequence in the world? ”One’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp”. When you push yourself to reach big hairy audacious goals (read the book: Good to Great), you’ll see that the biggest advancements of success don’t come from minute improvements on some existing service or product, they come from re-inventing the paradigm. Imagine the self-driving car and how that will revolutionise and disrupt everything. Taxis will be a thing of the past. Roadside hotels will become unnecessary. Pizza delivery guys will have to find new work. Drunk driving and even accidents will become a thing of the past. The morning commute will be a breeze and if not, you’ll be working at a table in your car as you face backwards enjoying a comfortable internet-enabled ride. Even parking lots in downtown cores will be eliminated. Why would you have to use expensive real estate to park your car while you work in an office tower somewhere? Send that car back home or to a remote lot… or, don’t even own the car in the first place. This is coming. It’s coming because some people have been thinking very audaciously about a better future for all of us.
If you can keep your judgement when all around you are losing their cool, you will have a competitive edge and a more likely outcome of success for yourself. Freaking out will only get you emotionally distracted and unable to think clearly through a difficult situation.
Always Do Good
A successful life comes from doing good and bringing value to the world. In just about every situation, there is a way to cut corners, lie a little bit, take an advantage which is not rightfully yours, take credit for something you didn’t do, indulge some useless thought or action. Do good. As the Google guys said in their IPO prospectus: Don’t be evil.
Look For Awe Inspirations
There is something about a beautiful lake or river or forest that inspires the spirit in you, whatever you conceive that spirit to be. Position yourself so that you have this external inspiration in your life daily. Or, seek it out on a regular basis. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “In the mountains, there you feel free”.
Devote Substantial Time
Let’s face it. Anything audacious and difficult to achieve will take time. It will take time to work through all the necessary steps to get you from point A to point B. Invest your time. Be efficient with your time, but know that successful people have spent their 10,000 hours (per Malcolm Gladwell) to acquire their expertise. The Beatles paid their dues with close to 200 gigs at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and several trips to the continent to play in Germany for multiple shows per day 7 days a week. People barely paid attention to these future stars sometimes. They didn’t care. They were investing time to hone their sound and congeal their creative processes.
Have An Amazing Romantic Partner
Every successful person I know has a counterpart romantic partner. These people provide an anchor and an inspiration. They also give you calm and companionship for the times when you are not in hot pursuit of your successes.
Do Not Allow Others To Treat You Badly
If you have high self-esteem, you are rich. Do not let anyone rob you of that richness by letting them attack you in small or big ways. If you find that someone repeatedly undermines you or accuses you of things you can’t possibly be blameworthy of and… If you let other people indulge a resentment toward you, for whatever reason, you empower them and disempower yourself. You deserve better. Successful people know that no one takes advantage of them without their own permission. It is the successful person’s right (and responsibility) to choose their friends and associates wisely.
Disassociate From Toxic People
This is a difficult one, because sometimes relationships that started off healthy, disintegrate slowly over time into a toxic muddle. There may come a time when you have to draw a line between where you end and they begin. You do not owe anyone endless loyalty that includes letting them beat you up emotionally whenever they feel like it. All relationships are conditional. A friendship is not a license for limitless “loyalty”. And, the ultimate friendship, a marriage, is not a license for abuse to begin (contrary to the traditional marriages I saw as a kid which were mostly dysfunctional). Marriage doesn’t give a husband the right to start demanding to be waited on hand and foot and it doesn’t permit the wife to be verbally abusive just because they are now “married til death do us part”. No way. For any friendship, or marriage, or even a sibling relationship to have continuity it is completely dependent on both parties being mutually respectful. If that respect ends, so should the relationship.
Step Up To The Plate And Help Others
We all need guidance or a helping hand in life at different times. If you see an opportunity to help someone who is an up and comer, do not feel challenged or threatened by that person, give them your advice. Let them soar. Refer them to someone who can be pivotal. And, be benevolent to others without looking for recognition. Some very successful people I know regularly donate anonymously to help others. This goes a long way to making the world a better place, and since we all live in this world, do your part.
Lady luck favors the bold. Don’t be shy. Smile first to show people you are a warm and receptive person, then engage them in conversation. Successful people know how to make (and keep) friends. They know how to break the ice. My mother gave me the most effective advice in this regard. She was a master friend maker. I asked her what her secret was. She said: “Easy – I smile first”.
Exercise, Eat Right, Sleep Right
Successful people don’t expect to be able to function effectively if they are tired, overweight, lethargic, ill. They find a routine and a diet that works for them and they keep it going. The body is not a machine. It is a body. It needs resources to keep itself going effectively. Do not deprive your body of its needs.
Automate Wherever Possible
We all have the same amount of time, however, some people use their time more wisely than others. Take advantage of modern conveniences. I know a lady who recently upgraded her kitchen but didn’t include a dishwasher. She is a traditionalist. But, she is also very creative and has hobbies that she wishes she had more time for. By hand-washing her dishes every day, she is wasting at least 180 hours a year, that could otherwise be spent on her hobbies.
Turn The TV Off – LIVE More!
This is self-explanatory. Are you a spectator or a participant in this world? Sure a bit of TV can be a good wind-down and of course, it can also be educational if you are looking to expand your skill sets, but so many people fall into a pattern of just biding their time in front of the television watching mindless sitcoms or watching sport games endlessly. Don’t fall into that trap. Successful people are too busy making their own lives worthy of a movie drama to be watching someone else’s. I knew a girl once who aspired to be a writer. She said: ”I need to read more”. And, in a moment of unexpected wisdom, I observed back: ”no, you need to read LESS, and LIVE more.”
Getting away refreshes one’s soul and spirit. Also, it gives a new perspective, sometimes literally speaking, on what might be troubling you. In my own life, my most successful big decisions came right after traveling somewhere. I stepped away from the morass of a heavy situation and felt light on my feet. On holiday, I sleep more and rejuvenate and re-energise. This empowers me to see a clear path to success. This empowers me to make pivotal life changes. Successful people I know and have read about do the same thing.
It’s Mostly Choice
All of the above can be chosen. Nothing I have described above requires you to be born of a certain height or with a certain strength of muscle. Nothing I have written above requires you to be super-human in any way. Successful people know their limitations and they make smart choices. They develop character traits and practises that can really only lead to success if they want it.
Enjoy your life. Be happy. Choose to be happy.
Disclaimer: I could only wish to possess the above character traits consistently enough to call myself a total success, but I will say this: in the ways I have achieved success in life, it has happened more so when I practised the above and less so when I didn’t.