At some point, we all look in awe at a friend or work colleague whose life moves from success to success: a happy marriage, thriving children, a booming business. Of course, luck plays its part. The writer C. S. Lewis once observed that, ever since the Ancient Greeks, writers and philosophers had noted the way some have fate on their side while others appear cursed. In fact, observe successful people and you’ll find they have much in common.
To begin with, successful people know what they want. In other words, they know what they mean by the word “success”. To some, it means money and possessions; to others, adventure and creativity. Many define success as good, loving relationships. However you define it, know where you want to be. No marksman ever hit a target without first knowing where the target was.
Such purpose and direction isn’t always easy however. Human beings are suggestible creatures who absorb the views of those around them. Unfortunately, they also convince themselves they want things that really mean nothing to them – and will not make them happy.
For example, a man has little interest in climbing the career ladder. For him, a successful life is a happy life: good relationships, healthy children, etc. Then he meets an old school friend who has made a fortune through running his own business. The man is impressed by his friend’s home, swimming pool, etc, and worries he’s been playing it too safe.
A few months later, he quits his job and tries his own business. Unfortunately, deep down he lacks the same burning hunger. He sets up a business, but his heart isn’t really in it. At the same time, he sees less of his family and his relationships suffer.
Begin by seeking clarity. You need to know what you want and where you are going. Work out precisely what success means to you, and then focus on that.
Adapting to Change
First, there is the ability to cope with, and adapt to, change. Life is movement and change – much of it unwelcome. Many resent this and subconsciously resist; they don’t want to think about their parents dying, their marriage failing, their business faltering, and so on. And people are very good at shutting out anything that causes them pain. Unfortunately, when disaster and loss do occur, they are unprepared. And that means trouble.
Because they are unprepared, the shock causes stress, insomnia, depression, etc. This in turn slows their body, clouds their mind, and makes it harder to respond. And since they have been burying their heads in the sand, they have no plan B. During the Second World War, a British general once observed that when two armies clashed, their plans soon failed and that it was the side quickest to adapt that usually won.
For example, imagine a woman in her early 40s. For years she worked as a teacher and hated it. Fashion is her real love and so, after years of hesitation, she opens a small boutique. For a few years she enjoys success, but one day a designer outlet opens two blocks away. Profits fall and she panics. Whether she survives or not depends on speed and adaptation. If she sticks to her current methods and just hopes, the business will collapse.
A Healthy Attitude to Failure
Pick up any book on success, or any autobiography by a self-made billionaire, and it will probably include a discussion about failure and how to react to it. And rightly so. Failure is inescapable. Everyone fails. Indeed, the average person fails several times a day. Being a winner does not mean never failing. And this cannot be over-emphasized. Successful people still fail; the difference lies in how they think about, and react to, that failure.
The kindest advice anyone can give the young is “do not expect perfection. Things will go wrong, and you will be disappointed. You will also fail – over and over again. The key is to welcome, even embrace, these failures, and make a conscious decision to learn from them. And when you do, do so with minimal blame and bitterness.”
Realistic, Not Pessimistic
Successful people are also realists. As anyone who has studied psychology knows, human beings are masters at fantasy and self-deception. We see not what is there but what we wish was there. And we ignore the things we dislike.
For example, a woman decides she wants to have children. She meets a man who is rich, handsome, and charming. But, as the months pass, she realizes he is also vain, shallow, and selfish, with the emotional intelligence of a child. These concerns don’t fit the fairytale, however, so she ignores them. All she knows is that when they walk into a bar heads turn, that her friends are jealous, and that next week he is taking her to Paris.
They have a child together, and within six months her friend sees him in a bar kissing another woman. He also shows no interest in their daughter, and sulks when she receives more attention than he does.
The problem is not failing to grasp reality but refusing to. The successful look reality in the face. Their actions therefore tend to be effective. After all, if you are responding to a private fantasy, or to what psychologists call “projections” (seeing out there what is really in you), nothing you do will work.
But the successful are realists, not pessimists. Just as some go too far in one direction, escaping into fantasy and denial, some move too far in the other, imagining they are realists when they are in fact pessimists.
To continue with the hypothetical example, imagine the young woman divorces her immature husband and moves away. All her idealism has been shattered and she grows bitter. She assures her friends that men are immature and selfish, that they only want women for one thing, and that she wants nothing more to do with them.
If she were a realist, she would look at it like this, “well, I had a child with the wrong man. He was vain and immature, and I was naive. But not all men are like him. Next time I date a guy, I will be wiser and will know what to look for – an adult capable of real love and commitment.”
Know Yourself and Be Yourself
Consider your strongest and most stable friends and you’ll note how comfortable they are in their own skin. Almost certainly they will be self-reliant without being insular or aloof. This is because they know who they are. And, just as importantly, they accept and like who they are. Finally, that means they can be who they are.
This is especially important when building relationships. Research suggests that the happiest and healthiest families are composed of individuals who love and support one another but each lead their own lives. There is thus no clinging or dependence, no manipulation, and no hidden or ulterior motives.
Above all, successful people avoid self-pity. This eats up an extraordinary amount of time and energy. William Shakespeare nicely captures this in Richard II, a play about a medieval king who loses his throne. Richard is weak and consumed with self-pity. When he learns of the rebellion that threatens his life, he literally sits on the ground and weeps. Indeed, so paralyzed is he that a follower reminds him, “My Lord, wise men never sit and wail their woes,” advice that every businessman should have printed in huge letters above his desk.
Self-pity also leaves people feeling like victims of the world. If that is what you believe, then obviously that is what will happen. See yourself as an ill-used victim of fate and fate will treat you badly.
So be careful how you approach the world. First, know what you want. Once you have worked this out, be flexible and open to change, accept failure as an opportunity to learn, face reality and evaluate it honestly, be yourself, and never wallow in self-pity. None of this guarantees anything, of course, but it does increase your chances of success.