The Secret To Your Success
April 19, 2007 10:34 AM   Subscribe

For the wildly successful, or friends of the wildly successful, what sets you/them apart from the rest of the herd?

I would like to think I am a fairly intelligent, positive, hard working, ambitous guy. I just don't seem to be finding any great success in my career, social love, or extra-curricular activities. I can't seem to break through my long-running bout of upper tier mediocrity. I want to know how real people, not people on tv, went from good to great.

I don't think it is a problem with the tools that I have, I just think I am not using them correctly. I am not looking for an analysis of where I may be going wrong. I am also not looking for a copy of a Tony Robbins book. I am looking for personal insight into the reasons for personal success. Has it been your point of view, your attitude, your knowledge, your charisma, your devastating good looks? No need to be humble, I want to know why you or your friends became successful regardless of your definition of success.
posted by jasondigitized to Human Relations (30 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not wildly successful, but it seems to me to be generally a combination of luck and good connections. A gigantic brain helps but obviously isn't always necessary.

You can make all the practical friendships in the world, but ultimately you've got to be in the right place at the right time, and that takes luck. I think people who take credit for that are deluding themselves.
posted by crinklebat at 10:38 AM on April 19, 2007

The successful people I have known all seemed to have this innate ability to know exactly what they needed to do and, most importantly, how to do it. They never seemed lost or unable to identify the direction they needed to go to achieve their goals.
They just seemed to have been born with all the answers and the determination (or self-confidence) to get what they want.

Simply put...they always knew what they wanted and how to get it.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:40 AM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Thomas Jefferson once said that the funny thing about luck was that the harder he worked the luckier he became. Just dont be afraid to fail and keep trying things, life is far to short to regret not doing something, and far too long to remember the stuff that you did wrong.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:41 AM on April 19, 2007

What do you mean by wildly successful?

I'm not sure I'm wildly successful, but I'm very proud of what I've been able to achieve in most areas of my life. I have a great job at an age that's young for it and have a lot of influence and involvement in my community. I'm not rich, but that wasn't part of my life goals.

You don't say how old you are. I found that a significant amount of dues-paying took place throughout my 20s. I worked very, very hard, always sought additional training and opportunities, took new things on, worked my way up, generally busted ass. A lot of times I felt nothing was paying off. All of a sudden, when I was ready to make a job change, I found I had the credibility to make a pretty signifant step up. With each level of new/added responsibility, my peer access changed too, and allowed social and personal-world opportunities to open up. Success definitely begets success in that way.

I'd say: keep plugging away. Ask for feedback. Seek mentorship and training. Let people know you're ambitious. Ask what your organizations most need and try to provide that. Keep track of your progress. Have some defined goals. Work very hard on your self-knowledge; you can only really succeed if you do something that uses skills you are actually good at, not those you wish you were good at. After every setback, ask yourself what you can learn or might need to change. If a few years go by and you're not making career, education, or personal progress, you're stagnating -- try something different to get out of the rut.

That's the best I can do.
posted by Miko at 10:59 AM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Three things, in my observation (though unfortunately not my experience):

- ability to build a large number mutually rewarding relationships with other people across a broad spectrum of intimacy (i.e. from professional acquaintance to close friend to significant other to family);

- persistence, "stick-to-it-iveness", hard work, the ability and will to continue trying when others would give up, and in fact by most rational measures you shoul give up; and, closely related, optimism , the belief that you will succeed, even when most rational judgement suggests that you wont, but someone has to win the lottery;

- competiveness. Just wanting to beat the other guy, get there first, reproduce with the smartest and best looking mate, get the biggest piece of the gazelle on the savanna. And knowing when to stop competing .

- knowing how to count.

Note that this is for success, not necessarily happiness, though there is clearly an overlap.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 11:03 AM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

The most important thing is to do something that you like. If you like what you do, then you'll work hard at it, and you'll become good at it. If you don't like it, you will not.
posted by Dec One at 11:04 AM on April 19, 2007

I liked something I read about nurturing a "immigrant mentality" in oneself. Why do immigrants to first world countries often do so much better than people born in the same countries? Because they're ready to work hard, live simply, and accept the need to make sacrifices, adapt themselves to circumstances, and pay their dues.
posted by orange swan at 11:05 AM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Figure out what you're really good at. Focus on doing those things.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:08 AM on April 19, 2007

Live beneath your means. Savings create success, and that's in more than just money -- savings open up the freedom to live as you choose to. Anybody can buy stuff, and almost anybody can "be rich", but being financially independent is what separates the moderately successful from the truly powerful. And no matter how people get there, it usually starts when they resolve to do more with less, and refuse to buy things that aren't important.

Also, figure out what you really want to do in your life, and then figure out how you can do it. Too many people get lost in the day-to-day details of working, or family, or whatever, and they forget that you can change the way you live. To a certain extent, you define what is most important to you; that means you define what "success" is. Don't let your job, family, or other responsibilities cloud your judgment on this -- if your hobby is the most important thing to you, or travel, or love, then concentrate your efforts on that. Don't cheat yourself out of it just to please others or to match societal expectation.
posted by vorfeed at 11:22 AM on April 19, 2007

Another vote for lots of hard work and persistence. First of all, you have pick a goal - you can't just "be wildly successful," you have to be wildly successful at something. Then once you've chosen your mission, pursue it with a superhuman doggedness. Simply refuse to be put off the path; if you experience a setback, regather yourself and keep on truckin'.

Also, you'll probably need to settle a bit on your ultimate goal; your current status of "upper tier mediocrity" is farther than many people get, and while everyone wants to advance, be realistic about it. You're probably not going to be a TV star or really insanely wealthy; just try to excel in one area (see previous paragraph) and make sure it's one that will make you happy.
posted by rkent at 11:34 AM on April 19, 2007

I love that Jefferson quote. Luck has nothing to do with it. Everyone is in the right place at the right time many times in their life. The problem is that most people have not prepared themselves to take advantage of it. Usually that means having tried and failed many times before, so that the next time you have an opportunity you know what to avoid.

Besides knowing how to identify these opportunities, the biggest catalyst of success is your attitude. You need to be an optimist. That doesn't mean you charge blindly ahead expecting nothing but the best - it means that you work around obstacles, not accept them as insurmountable, and maintain a strong belief that you will succeed in everything you do.

Almost as important is your ability to maintain relationships. You don't need to have good looks or even charisma to be a good friend, acquaintance or business partner. You do need to be genuine, honest, and a good listener. "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie has some great insights on this.

I was stuck in your exact situation two years ago, and I sucked terribly in the attitude and relationship department. It took a lot of work, and I'm still nowhere near where I need to be, but it has already made a huge difference. Change your attitude and make others the focus of your relationships rather than yourself and it will make a world of difference.

Qualification: I'm not wildly successful yet, but since focusing on these things, I was able to develop the courage and relationships necessary to start my own company, which I am selling for a ridiculous profit next month.
posted by chundo at 11:38 AM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Willingness to take risks. Not stupid risks, but calculated risks.
posted by elquien at 11:52 AM on April 19, 2007

Important: Having a plan, but also having a willingness to deviate from a plan. I am also ambitious, and I was positive I was going to do my undergrad work at MIT and then go build robots for NASA. I had the opportunity to do both, but I also had the opportunity to be a member of the first ever class at a brand new, unknown, really cool-looking college, and to work for a small just-out-of-startup robotics company. I took the latter opportunities. I'm incredibly happy, financially comfortable, I've met a ton of great people, and I'm in a better position now to move up in the industry, since I'm at a small company with high visibility to management rather than a massive government entity like NASA.

So make your plans, but don't stick to them at the expense of trying something you think might be fun.
posted by olinerd at 11:57 AM on April 19, 2007

What do you mean by wildly successful?

I had the privilege to get some direct mentorship from someone who has risen to the boardroom of a major public company. His advice to me can be distilled down to:
- deliver. Do your work better and faster than is expected and outperform your peers. None of the proceeding steps will give you much return unless you can do this
- work hard. Come to work earlier than your boss and leave later. Work life balance is for middle managers
- maintain a positive relationship with your boss. Suck up if you have to.
- try to solve your boss’s problems
- walk, talk and act like you are better at your job than everyone else
- don’t be afraid to confront someone who’s causing you problems and throwing up obstacles to your plans. Never do this by email or voicemail, but in person, say whatever you have to
- buy and wear the best clothes you can afford

Note that this only applies for career success in a large company setting in management, follow this advice too blindly and you’ll end up with nothing going on other than your career, and no one’s job keeps them warm at night or sustains them through a retirement or life crisis.
posted by sid at 12:18 PM on April 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is not an answer. If you stand any chance of being wildly successful you know there really isn't one.

So here's my opinion; I think there is a "knack" to it. The older you get, the more clearly you can see it. You can also see who has it and who does not -and- who will have it and who will not.

My advice; don't over think things, be intuitive, shrewd and love strategy games. Be sure to rely on the wits of those smarter than you and reward them for it. Read, read, read and read some more. Plus, understand as many aspects of the world as you possibly can. Don't be a bigot and never under estimate anything or anyone.

You should know you are intelligent, you can't be middle of the road, make sure you are an expert at something and by all means make damn sure you are in the station when that gravy train happens to roll on by.

After that sit back and enjoy the ride- wildly successful people know how to do this. You see, if you kill yourself trying to be successful you got on the right train but the wrong track.
posted by bkeene12 at 1:07 PM on April 19, 2007

Reading your post, I would say "commitment."

Rereading your post, I would say you have a youthful and possibly grandiose idea of "success." You might want to return to your definition.
posted by Phred182 at 1:43 PM on April 19, 2007

Find a niche. Be indispensable. Study philosophy.

(But don't just study philosophy. Great field, but not a lot of money in that.)
posted by ontic at 2:06 PM on April 19, 2007

Seconding what RandlePatrickMcMurphy and vorfeed said, and I'll add this: many highly successful people have the ability to face their mistakes, learn from them, and not make the same mistake twice.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 2:18 PM on April 19, 2007

sid: "- work hard. Come to work earlier than your boss and leave later. Work life balance is for middle managers
- maintain a positive relationship with your boss. Suck up if you have to.
- try to solve your boss’s problems
- walk, talk and act like you are better at your job than everyone else

Agh! Now I know why I'm of modest means. If this is how you have to live to get rich I don't want it! To me success will be having the ratio of work that I love to personal life that makes me happiest. AND - being able to pay all the bills.
posted by loiseau at 2:25 PM on April 19, 2007

I like bkeene12's post. Kind of sums it up.

I'm not wildly successful, though in my younger days I (rather arrogantly) expected to be! Now I've got a few years under my belt, I think I can appreciate both why I'm not, and what I would need to do to be wildly successful.

I know you say that you don't want to know where you're going wrong, but if you're "upper tier mediocrity" already, you've probably already got most of the positive factors going for you. For me, I've come to realise recently that it's my inability to shut up and be tactful when confronted with senior management egos that prevents my career from going from good to great. Might be worth looking at where you're going wrong as well as what you need to do right?

Back to the question - looking at people I know who are wildly successful - skills, ability to deliver, insight, charisma, attitude, self-promotion, networking, finding a mentor are all important. Being able to play the game is crucial. And not screwing up is also crucial (though you can get around this by changing companies and making sure you learn from your mistakes if the screwup is a big one).
posted by finding.perdita at 3:10 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lack of fear. They firmly believe they can do something, and they firmly believe that nothing can really hurt them. So they just do it.

Also, quickness. They make decisions quickly and move on.
posted by kika at 3:42 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Great question. I see my parents as very successful people, and from observation it has been a lot of hard work and tenacity.

My mother is a very strong person and when she has an idea, she does everything she can to make it work. Sometimes ideas take off, sometimes they don't but 90% of the time, the ones that work are very rewarding. I don't think luck has been there for them often, mostly working and a never give up (on the ultimate goal) attitude.
posted by teststrip at 4:14 PM on April 19, 2007

Act as if you believe you will succeed.
posted by escabeche at 5:42 PM on April 19, 2007

Agh! Now I know why I'm of modest means. If this is how you have to live to get rich I don't want it! To me success will be having the ratio of work that I love to personal life that makes me happiest. AND - being able to pay all the bills.

loiseau - I think I'm more in your camp than my mentor's. While I think financial success and status are important, I also believe that living a balanced life is really the only path to true happiness. According to this gentleman, if I care about work life balance, I could be making 'maybe 150k' as my max salary. That seems plenty enough to me? I probably don't have the mindset to be wildly successful ;).
posted by lemur at 5:54 PM on April 19, 2007

Best answer: In nearly every case I've seen it's a lack of "the voice". That is, the voice that stops you doing something because you'll look stupid, or the voice that criticizes what you're writing/working on/saying/singing/etc. If you don't have that voice, you will just do stuff and be successful.
posted by wackybrit at 6:28 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

The most successful people I know are terriffic at understanding and exploiting niches, in all aspects of life. In business, they see the best opportunities by finding aspects of markets where there are minimal competitive pressures. They exploit this, until they attract competition, and then they move on.

In personal relationships, they seek novelty and uniqueness, which is another way of describing niche circumstances. Their personal networks are full of people with unusual backgrounds, skills, experiences and stories. Their closest relationships are with people whose personalities and abilities do seem, even to casual acquaintances, uniquely complimentary to their own. And so they generally know why their relationships work, and can agree on this with the others with whom they have relationships. They are generally seen as predictable, even if their predictable qualities are being demanding, or difficult.

They are passionate about more than one thing in life, even if those passions are private ones. Thus, they have an ability to rebound from short term failures and set backs in any one area of life, by finding compensatory engagement in some other area of interest. For this reason, they are rarely risk averse, but do seek to understand and intelligently manage risk. Skill means a lot to them.
posted by paulsc at 8:02 PM on April 19, 2007 [5 favorites]

I liked something I read about nurturing a "immigrant mentality" in oneself. Why do immigrants to first world countries often do so much better than people born in the same countries? Because they're ready to work hard, live simply, and accept the need to make sacrifices, adapt themselves to circumstances, and pay their dues.

This is so true.
posted by jayder at 8:05 PM on April 19, 2007

My friend works for this pretty impressive guy. He had one of the biggest job agencies in Queensland (Australia). The business started out as just him, but when he sold it (for many millions of dollars), it had something like 4000 employees state-wide. Now he's into another business (selling boats), which is when I met him. Hearing this story, I was pretty impressed, and said as much. He just gave me a cynical smile and said 'yeah, it only took me 16 years to become an "overnight success"'.

So, from my experience, I would say it's a willingness to persevere.
posted by kisch mokusch at 8:42 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

If this is how you have to live to get rich I don't want it! To me success will be having the ratio of work that I love to personal life that makes me happiest. AND - being able to pay all the bills.

Absolutely. That's why it's important to know what success means to you. Success in a corporate for-profit environment isn't the only kind of success, as sid carefully noted. You can also have career success by creating and running your own business, too, in which much of that advice wouldn't be relevant. In my work in the non-profit world, hard work, solving institutional problems, delivery and follow-through have been incredibly important, sucking up, insane overtime, and dressing elaborately far less so. Networks and knowledge are important in my field, so cultivating both of those is well worthwhile.

Work/life balance is important to me, as well, but I achieve it in a different way -- I still spend a lot of intense time at work, but my work itself is the type of thing I'd enjoy even if it weren't my job. It doesn't feel like a terrible sacrifice, because I'm quite dedicated to and caught up in the work I do. It's well integrated into my life as a whole, not compartmenatlized. That's a big part of success for me, but it wouldn't be for everyone.
posted by Miko at 9:02 AM on April 20, 2007

Here's someone's list of success-linked traits. I do think success has a lot to do with picking the right goal, and pursuing it passionately.
posted by theora55 at 5:35 PM on April 20, 2007

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