By Andrew Neitlich
Editor’s Note: One of the best and most succinct articles I have ever read on success is reprinted here with permission from the author and guest columnist this month, Andrew Neitlich, pictured to the side. A Harvard MBA and long-time consultant to major corporations, Andrew is the author of six books and the Director and co-Founder of the Center for Executive Coaching, https://centerforexecutivecoaching.com which provides internationally accredited executive coach training and certification. The article exemplifies Andrew’s capacity to cut through the fog surrounding leadership topics and focus on the core issues with tremendous candor and clarity. (Full disclosure: I hold the Certified Executive Coach designation from Andrew’s organization.)–Tony Mulkern
I’m confused about why how-to-succeed books and articles are so popular. It is not hard to state what it takes to succeed, especially compared to others. Following are five reasons why you can be more successful than most other people:
ONE: You are willing to work hard and without entitlement. One of the best projects I ever completed was co-writing a book called Success in a Challenging World. A colleague and I interviewed 25 successful people — entrepreneurs, physicians, attorneys, executives, and even a physics professor — who all came from challenging backgrounds. Every single one noted that a key to their success was their work ethic. They knew that, no matter the challenge that they faced, if they worked twice as hard as others, even if those others seemed to be served with a silver spoon, they would succeed.
This seemingly obvious principle — work hard and increase your chances of success — is especially interesting to me while I watch my kids progress through school, sports, and avocations like piano. When they put in the work, they do better, When they slack off, their performance drops. Meanwhile, they have started to notice other kids that are slacking off more and more, and seeing that these kids are falling behind them and others. They stop preparing for tests and their grades fall. They walk during running drills at sports practice and lose their starting position. They stop practicing their musical instrument and mess up during recitals.
If you are willing to do the work, without expecting anyone to hand things to you, results are more likely follow.
TWO: You can think critically. As with hard work, you would think that everyone now knows how important it is to know how to think. Otherwise, how can we make smart choices, learn how to improve, and discover opportunities?
Once again, as obvious as this second principle seems, fewer and fewer people seem to know how to think critically. If you doubt what I am saying, take a look at the quality of comments posted after articles on any news site. Look at the quality of comments on your Facebook feed. Notice that many people no longer study the facts and draw conclusions based on the evidence, but fit facts and evidence into whatever narrative they have chosen to believe — a concept called confirmation bias that few people recognize anymore, especially in themselves.
It seems to be a lost art to know how to review all sides of an issue, develop a comprehensive point of view, and communicate it cogently. A recent book on the topic is Scott Adams’ LoserThink. In it, Adams lists multiple types of poor critical thinking along with examples of more constructive ways to think. If you prefer movies, watch the first few minutes of “Idiocracy” for a sense of where we might be heading. A favorite quote about this subject comes from Herman Hesse’s title character Siddhartha, who explains what sets him apart by saying, “I can think, I can wait, I can fast.” Those are three valuable skills that are in shorter and shorter supply.
Because you can think — in a world where fewer and fewer people demonstrate that capacity — you can figure out where to invest your hard work for maximum return, while avoiding time and money wasters. You will be more successful than most.
THREE: You keep your word. True integrity is like gold, and rarer. We call contractors who promise to show up and do work, and they instead go to a bigger or more profitable job. A company promises a certain level of quality, and fails to deliver it. Your boss or colleague shows up late for meetings. Your doctor prescribes unnecessary tests to enrich his wallet, even though you don’t need them.
As with hard work, we can see habits of integrity early on in our children. When a group of kids gets together for another team project that is so popular nowadays in schools, have you noticed that one kid ends up doing all the work because the other kids say they will do their share, and don’t? Have you noticed that some kids become branded as reliable, while others develop a reputation as unreliable? Some kids are known for having character, and others are untrustworthy.
Simply by keeping your word, you will set yourself apart from the many who don’t — because opportunities come to people who do what they say they will, and those who don’t keep their word or lack character won’t last long.
FOUR: You see possibility. When so many others have doubts, complain, or give up, you are a source of possibility, vision, and opportunity. You are not cynical. You are not apathetic. You do not wallow in complaints, drama, judgment, blame, or being a victim. You know you can have impact and make a difference. You look for ways to keep moving forward, even when the odds are against you. You also build relationships with other successful people, because they are attracted to your ability to see new opportunities — while being willing to work hard to achieve them and think critically about them.
People who get excited by possibility keep going. They also tend to attract others to their causes, because we are attracted to those who see light instead of nothing.
FIVE: You don’t make stupid choices. This week one of my kids told my wife and me that he is sad because he has to stop hanging out with a friend. The friend, a fellow ninth grader, has started smoking pot. His grades have fallen. He lacks motivation and mostly sits around playing on his smart phone. According to my son, this kid is just one of many who are starting to do drugs and prefer the feeling of being high to continuing on a path to success.
My kids are starting to see their friends make all sorts of bad choices, and they note the long-term impact these choices will have on them. Depending on the age of my kids and their friends, these choices include getting married too young or to the wrong person, having a baby when not financially ready, driving dangerously, deciding not to continue their education after high school, and quitting valuable extra-curricular activities just to hang out and play video games.
As we get older, there are even more dumb choices people tend to make, and the consequences are even more severe. Because you won’t make choices like this, you will be more successful than most.
Conclusion: Success to the successful. In Peter Senge’s amazing book The Fifth Discipline, he describes an upwards spiral he calls “Success to the Successful.” Simply put, those who start to succeed tend to get more opportunities, which improves their skills, gets them more opportunities, and so on — until they are hard to beat. Athletes that are singled out as having talent get to start in games, which gets them more experience, which leads to more starts, until they are tops in their fields. The same happens in work: a promising young professional is highlighted as having high potential, given challenging assignments that build their skills and confidence, and keeps progressing upwards.
You want to be part of the “success to the successful” cycle, not watch others spiral upwards in it while you are on the outside.
You can do it, because most others won’t do what is needed. They fall by the wayside, the same way the characters in “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” find their demise as they tour through the factory. They don’t work hard like you do. They don’t think critically. They don’t have character. They don’t see possibility. They don’t avoid dumb decisions.
You are different. And for all of these reasons, you will be more successful than most others. It really isn’t that complicated.
Copyright, Andrew Neitlich, 2020, all rights reserved.