Until relatively recently, I believe that most of us were comfortable in the notion that if we worked hard and focused on our job, we would be successful. I believe that our parents actually conflated a lengthy list of attributes together into the aphorism: Working hard is the key to being successful— an idea that became more of a world view and we were very successfully indoctrinated. We bought into the idea and it worked.
Given recent questioning by all segments of our society and my feeling that the equation has both changed and remained the same, I would like to take a shot at a more granular examination of the question: What does it take to be successful? While my focus is the business world, one can see that these attributes apply equally well to the whole of one’s life.
I have expanded the list that our parents drilled into us into seven main elements:
- Hard Work—while I believe that there are some people (they would be those that are 3 standard deviations from the mean in terms of intelligence—that is 0.1% of the population) who don’t have to work hard to achieve outstanding results, most of us do. There is just no getting around it:
- Thomas Edison is quoted as saying genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration; and
- Gary Player (the golfer) is often credited with the quote: “the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Both quotes suggest that even if you are smart (and talented), it takes a lot of hard work to get results. That even really smart people tend to work really hard, I would suggest, results from their desire to be challenged and they will tend to gravitate to more difficult problems.
- Persistence—I was once (by a colleague at the University of Chicago) given a backhanded compliment: “you definitely aren’t the smartest guy in the room, but you make up for it with your tenacity.” Persistence is a key element in being successful because as any salesman will tell you, you get turned down 99 times for every customer who says yes. The odds are not often stacked that heavily against you, but you get the idea. Success doesn’t often fall in one’s lap. You have to work hard, expect to fail and be willing to get back up and try again until you succeed.
These previous two elements of success are the ones our parents usually touted as we (especially those of a certain age range) were growing up. They are still important, but ones that I think our parents took for granted include:
- A Good Moral Compass—this results in ethical behavior and contributes to good decision-making which (as much as I would like it to) is not only based on facts and logic. My experience is that most of my colleagues have been ethical in their business dealings and in cases where I have seen them deviate, it is either (and for me this is most common) bad leadership or that they don’t take the time to think through the implications of what they are doing and little by little (inch by inch) move from the ethical part of the playing field into the less principled (and sometime downright unethical) portion of the arena.
- EQ—Emotional Intelligence which is a bundle of attributes that generally describe how you are likely to react to stress and interact with people both under and in the absence of pressure. EQ is usually defined by 4 (sometimes 5 attributes):
- Empathy—your ability to be able to understand the world from other people’s points of view, to be non-judgmental, to understand other people’s feelings, and to be able to let those people know that you understand how they are feeling a why. That’s a mouthful, but it supports your ability to work with other people and (as a team member and/or leader) get their best performance. And, being able to do that is essential to success.
- Self-Awareness and managing your emotions i.e. self-regulation—the person who is able to “keep their cool”, keep others cool and contribute positively as the pressure rises is a real asset to any situation, difficult or not. The best of these folks manage to keep the stress from interfering with the process of assessing the situation, making the decisions and taking actions. They keep the stress level low and limit the wear and tear on all the players involved.
- Good social skills—these are folks who know how to get along. And, that doesn’t always mean saying yes. It means being able to agree when it makes sense and disagree in a way that isn’t threatening when it doesn’t.
- Motivation—this should really be, you need to be well I have found that the folks who are most successful are motivated by doing a really good job at whatever they put their mind to. They (and this is important) are not competing against anyone else, they are shooting for their idea of perfection. There are people who are motivated by money or fame, or benchmarks but it isn’t clear to me that those motivations (except in rare instances) have the staying power of a continually moving target that gets more extreme as you pass previous incarnations of said target. Some people call this continuous improvement. But, the bottom line is that successful people are never satisfied. There is always some way to improve.
- And finally, an ability to intelligently leverage your experiences and change to reflect what you have learned from those experiences. And, this process of reflecting on your experience must involve critical thought, and not just using the evidence to reinforce some preconceived notion as that isn’t constructive, nor will it extract the value that is available from our life experiences.
This one is vitally important in a world that is continually changing and changing at an increasing rate. Those who are unwilling to change (habits, ideas, conceptions of success, etc.) are likely to be left behind, and that is no one’s idea of succeeding.
- Communication Skills—one can’t’ be successful without being able to express a point of view and convince people that their ideas and plans to implement them are worth something. Sometimes that something is buying into an idea and joining a company or movement, sometimes it is (literally) buying the idea or its incarnation as a product of some sort. Most often communication is thought of as speaking and writing, but it can include all sorts of visual and three-dimensional representation. Indeed, some of the most successful people are artists who don’t need to speak or write a single word to communicate volumes.
- Reasoning—while there are people who claim to be able to succeed on their gut, i.e. they make no quantitative evaluation in making decisions that will either make them successful or not, I would argue that these folks (especially in the business world) are the exception. They are less common than the playground basketball player who ends up leading the top professional basketball team to a world championship.
Reasoning, i.e. forming conclusions, judgements or inferences from fact or premises, as I have argued in previous posts (The Importance of Critical Thinking), is essential to being able to consistently make good decisions and good decisions are those that result in good outcomes.
- IQ (Intelligence)—Two points on this:
- We can’t all be 3 standard deviations from the mean; and
- Study after study suggests that the 95% of people who are in the middle of the distribution of intelligence pretty much all have the same capability in terms of being able to perform on the basic tasks that are necessary to succeed in business and in life.
This tells me that while intelligence is required (and the more of it you have the better), for most of us, it isn’t going to be the differentiating factor that makes or breaks our ability to succeed.
As I noted at the outset of this post, I don’t think that the rules have changed that much. I think that attributes that were either assumed or just plain less important (like an ability to be flexible and change with the times) now need to be explicitly recognized and accounted for.
That said, I am not saying that the bar is not now higher. It is. And, for a large portion of our population focusing on a list of seven rather than two items is going to seem like a sea change. So, I am not suggesting that this is going to be easy. What I am saying is that those that don’t pay attention to the whole list do so at their own peril.
Copyright 2017 Howard Niden
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