Isn’t it easy to point at someone really successful, listing the reasons why he’s so successful, but also the reasons he made it but you can’t?
We do this all the time. We see a famous CEO and point how “he took 5 companies public and got a Harvard MBA.” We see a successful children’s book author and point out how she already knew 4 publishers, so her book got published immediately. We point to Donald Trump and talk about how he had billions, so of course he could buy half of Manhattan, and we note that we’re already older than Michael Dell was when he was running Dell out of his dorm room.
And then we shrug. “What can we do?” “She has a Harvard MBA.” “They made it big, but they’re different than me.”
What a bunch of horseshit.
I want to talk about this today and try to challenge some of the assumptions we make.
When we list off the skills/resources that the successful person has–and we don’t–we do 2 things: First, we distance ourselves from that person, making them into something other than an ordinary, regular person. Second, we create an excuse for why we won’t achieve the same level of accomplishment. And then, in a textbook case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, we don’t.
But guess what?
CEOs don’t just magically flip a switch and start wearing a fancy suit one day, directing their staff to do this and that. Getting to the top isn’t about knowing how to execute a leveraged buyout, or negotiating anti-dilution provisions, or whatever. (This is true for both CEOs and other successful people in other domains!)
It starts earlier. For that CEO, it probably started when he took a paper route in junior high, or started a Web site in high school, or designed an interesting product in college. It started by knowing how to get in touch with the right people and learning–through lots of experience and failure–that senior executives are just people. They’re regular people who started their path to being extraordinary by taking small steps.
Once you’re at the top, your big successes are highlighted. But try getting into a candid discussion with anybody successful (I have) and they’ll tell you about the number of bumbling, small steps they took from an early age.
And that means you can start today.
Not surprisingly, not everybody agrees with me.
Two Very Different Responses
Recently, there was a post about business on Signals vs. Noise, one of the blogs I read. The topic was interesting, but what really stunned me was one of the comments:
…Americans are feed the same “two guys in a garage” story from a very young age, neglecting to mention the founders “true” background. We know that a Stanford grad is or will be successful no matter what type of business they are in.
I saw this and almost fell off my chair. I absolutely, completely disagree, as do some of the commenters below that guy.
But let’s go deeper.
I predict that if you showed that comment to any Stanford student, she would scoff at it almost immediately because it answers the wrong question. Succeeding in life isn’t about graduating from Stanford–very few people do that. And lots of grads are not “successful” in business, either.
The real question is this: “What did those people do to get into Stanford?”
Was it innate intelligence? Was it a photographic memory? Probably not.
Instead, it was most likely taking small steps like starting a club in high school, getting good grades, and being active in the community. Sometimes, superstar intelligence plays a part; there’s no doubt about that. But that’s rare. Most of the time, my friends at Stanford were just very accomplished because they had started a while ago and had followed through.
So that’s one perspective: Pointing at someone successful, attributing it to external factors, and shrugging because you don’t have identical qualities. I call this The Shrug Effect.
As you can imagine, there’s another way.
I want to tell you a story about a guy named Jim English. Many of you know that I co-founded a wiki product called PBwiki. Well, when I started my series on personal entrepreneurship a few weeks ago, I used one of the posts to ask for interns to help make PBwiki bigger and better.
Jim English responded and, among the other applicants, he was the most passionate by far. So we brought him on board and gave him some small tasks. In just a couple of weeks, it’s become clear that Jim is a superstar. He’s taken high-level goals like “Make this site better” and he’s achieved real, measurable goals by going step-by-step. Now he gets much bigger projects and increasing responsibility. Actually, he’s such an asset that I plan to continue having him work with PBwiki and, eventually, I want to recruit him to other companies I’m involved with in the future.
So if you see Jim as a senior executive in the future, I suppose there are two reasons you can attribute to his success: Maybe it was his connections, pedigree, luck, superlative intelligence, blah blah blah that got him so far.
Or maybe it was him seeing something that interested him, stepping up, and taking a chance on an unknown project. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was the small step of sending just one email.
It’s easy to do The Shrug Effect and attribute others’ success to qualities you don’t have, shrugging because you can’t equal them. But that’s simplistic, and it’s an excuse to stay in your current state and do nothing differently.
Be patient. Do things with uncertain outcomes. Analyze why you haven’t taken advantage of opportunities in the past (for example, why didn’t you apply for the PBwiki opportunity? Was it a fear of rejection/qualification? Was it simply a lack of interest?). And start today.
When you do, soon people will wonder about you and your success.