They say that, with age, comes wisdom. Where that may be more true for some than for others (I’m referring to myself here), in the end we’re all bound to pick up a few success secrets over time that would have served us well to begin with.
When I started out in business, I thought careers were like hockey stick curves – you spent a long time doing grunt work in the beginning, followed by a more or less meteoric rise to the top.
My own career has more in common with a colourful patchwork than a carefully designed strategy. And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
With that in mind, here are a few “success secrets” I’d love to be able to share with my 25-year old self.
#1. “Think before you act. Sleep on it. (Only) Then act.”
I’m trigger happy when it comes to ideas. A few years ago, I reached out to handful of people and asked them what they considered to be my key strengths and development areas.
The answer that came back most often ? Think things through to the end before taking action.
I’m a big believer in action, but had to find out the hard way that not all action is created equal.
Whilst doing my MBA, I developed the idea of a mobile commerce startup. We won an award for best business plan, entered a prestigious Swiss startup competition, got some seed funding … and then I discovered I really didn’t want to be a startup CEO.
A few years later, I launched the world’s first online platform where business and executives coaches could showcase their talent to potential clients. Everyone loved the idea, and I soon had well over 300 coaches on the platform … only to find out none would consider paying even $20/month for it.
Looking back, I could have saved myself months of time, hard graft and frustration by looking forward in time and asking a few hard questions. Now, I remind myself to “think before you act. Not after”.
#2. “Success is where preparation meets opportunity.”
For a long time, I thought hard work was what you needed to be successful. But then, I had to acknowledge that luck also entered into the equation. Success is what comes as a result of being prepared, and then seizing opportunities as they come along.
Hard work + Luck = Hard Luck.
#3. “Good things will come to those who wait.”
Early on in my career, I was blessed to be on somewhat of a fast track. Due to what was no doubt a combination of hard work with being at the right place at the right time, I found myself advancing through the ranks faster than most.
Yet, I still was impatient. My star wasn’t rising fast enough, so I made a disastrous move. I left an organisation where I was happy, had great colleagues, a bright future and interesting work, for an organisation that was pretty much – well, exactly the opposite.
It lasted six months before things blew up.
After that, I learned a valuable lesson. The fastest road doesn’t always turn out to be fastest.
#4. “A wrong turn can sometimes be the right thing.”
After the experience of joining a team of what was later described to me as “preppy cowboys” and leaving shortly after, I found myself afloat for a while. No new job landed yet, kind of “in between” things. (Not the last time that would happen, either.)
Soon after, I was offered a position with another prestigious firm, where I spent many years happy, well-motivated and engaged in an exciting work environment. Compared to my previous employers, it wasn’t quite as fast-paced and exciting, but offered many other benefits in exchange.
As I was discussing my previous “wrong turn” with someone, they said “maybe you had to go through that experience in order to be able to have this one”.
The instant she said it, I knew she was right. It was only after disaster had struck that I was able to fully appreciate the nice, quiet and comfortable work environment that I’d landed myself into.
#5. “Your career should read like a story. A good one.”
I had the good fortune to be mentored by a few individuals with a wealth of experience – but one in particular stood out to me. A former head hunter with one of the big names, he’d taken me under his wing, and provided me with some much-needed straight talk whenever I found myself faced with a major career decision.
At one point, over lunch, as we were discussing another of my hare brained schemes, he told me: “Ago, your CV should read like a story. A good one. It should be a logical succession of building blocks that show you progressing towards a final destination.“
From then on, I took that advice to heart. In spite of taking the occasional wrong turn, my career and CV now pretty much read like a series of building blocks that converge into a logical narrative of progression. (Even though it doesn’t always feel that way when I’m in the eye of the storm.)
#6. “You’ll need mentors, supporters, and some good help.”
When it comes down to it, to be successful in your career, you’ll need three kinds of people.
First, mentors. People who have seen it all, walked the walk and can live to tell the tale. And who are willing to share their hard-won, hard-earned advice with you in an act of genuine selflessness.
Second, you’ll need supporters. Folks who appreciate what you’re trying to do, encourage you from the sidelines and every once in a while step in to lend a helping hand. The world is full of critics, and you’re going to need a few good people on your side – trust me on this.
Finally, you’ll need some good help. As I found out the hard way as I tried to bootstrap myself into three successive ventures (two failures and one success), no one is good at everything, and you time isn’t best spent designing your own logo.
Time and focus are your most precious commodities. These days, I’m always looking for what I can outsource, eliminate or reduce so I can focus on what I do best: selling.
#7. “If you can think it and believe in it, you can probably make it happen.”
When I remember what I dreamt about when I was 25 years old, it was pretty much this: a loving family. To live in an amazing place. Run my own business. Have a comfortable lifestyle. Love the work I do, and make a contribution to others’ lives.
When I look at my life today, I’ve pretty much accomplished all those things. Does that mean life is perfect ? No. Does it mean I’ve accomplished everything ? Also no. (I’ve got plenty of dreams left, and the bar keeps on moving).
But it does mean that, overall, I’m pretty satisfied with where I’m at, and looking back I can see that I had a clear hand in creating the life I wanted. Every choice I made, every success, and every failure I’ve ever experienced have led to where I am today. (Including my love for good food and wine, leaving a permanent imprint around my waistline).
Master of my destiny, captain of my faith. That kind of thing.
#8. “Every success story is built on a foundation of failure.”
I’m no Elon Musk or Richard Branson. But ask Elon or Richard, and they’ll probably tell you they went through their share of hardship, failure and struggle before finding ultimate success (or working on putting billionaires on Mars).
I’ve certainly had moments where I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, found myself sitting in the living room couch at 3:00 AM and saw my life savings melt away faster than an ice cream cone on an August afternoon.
But, inevitable, things always turned out for the best afterwards. Because, as they say, the night is always darkest right before the dawn.
#9. “Money likes to flow out more than it likes to flow in.”
Spending a buck has always come much easier to me than making a buck. From back in the day when I was a 17-year old bussing tables, I always found a way to make some cash. But, boy, did I also have a way of spending it.
With time, I learned that in the end, it’s not about how much you make, it’s about how much you keep. Which is why, in running my own business, I religiously stick to the bootstrapper’s adage: “thou shalt keep thy overhead low”.
#10. “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour.”
OK. So I stole this one from Henry-David Thoreau. And, in fact, I did know about this one when I was 25 years old.
But, as success secrets go, this is probably the pick of the litter. As men (and women), we owe it to ourselves to believe in the power of dedicated, focused effort in order to improve, enhance and elevate our lives.
When we believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish, and we act upon that belief with persistent, focused effort, virtually everything becomes possible.
Just ask Oprah.