Success is not sexy

I read a blog recently where someone answered that old chestnut: what does it take to be successful. (Jennifer Arrache: How to be an overnight success in 7 years.) More about that soon.

For the moment let’s assume the traditional definition of success is money, fame, power etc in some quantity.

The usual bromides about achieving success are:

  • Follow your dream.
  • Be passionate.
  • Persevere.
  • Make every moment count.
  • Become an expert.
  • Get a qualification.
  • Take a chance – be brave.

I could go on.

The one thing that all of this advice has in common is the fact that it makes the giver-of-the-advice look good.

They had a skill or a special ability that most of the population don’t share and they are special and they are different and that is why they are successful.

The real truth is a lot more mundane than that.

1.               It is a given that you must actually be doing something; be engaged in some sort of labour or activity that has the potential to make you successful.

In my own case I have pursued ‘people development’ in the retail supply chain. I love retail. I am life-long learner and a teacher. No real ‘strategy’ behind that decision; just following the age-old wisdom that we should do what we love and success will follow.

Of course we do get strategic in our business. We have been implementing neuroscience principles in the retail selling environment for 4 years – it is not a bandwagon for us. We have a heavy focus on technology and we apply the latest principles of informal and social learning to improve productivity.

It would be stupid to think you can run a ‘training’ business that relies on rolling contract lecturers into classrooms and workshops presenting out of dated manuals.

2.               For success to come your way you need a measure of luck. (I am leaving God out of this for the moment too.) Now, you can’t control your luck – obviously; except that unless you are engaged in something where the luck can be meaningful (see #1 above) then the lucky event may mean nothing of course.

In my own case, when I started out, I applied for and was appointed and an Adjunct Lecturer at MGSM (and later MGSM). I thought that  (a) it would be helpful to associate myself with a serious brand and (b) force myself to stay at the cutting edge and (c) expose me to people from the industry that were on the up and up, leading to potential future work, and also to (d) give something back. Of course being paid to do it was nice, it paid the expenses at least, but I thought I was very clever that I could be paid by someone else to market my business.

None of that happened. But I did win a major international blue chip media company as a client and they wanted to see me in action before engaging me. That would be awkward to arrange if I wanted to have a potential client sit in on a session with an existing client. But no such trouble to attend a lecture on campus.

I never thought about that benefit – and the fact that it happened was sheer luck and had nothing to do with smarts. Of course hanging on to them for the next 5 years took more than luck, but luck gave me the opportunity.

3.               The final, and most important, piece of the success puzzle is contained in the blog I read earlier: PATIENCE.

The latter is obviously related to discipline, focus and perseverance. But the core issue here is patience.

It is not sexy. It does not make for good PR and it especially does not make for good speeches at conferences.

Patience is a virtue – not a skill.

Having patience is somehow not ‘special’ or ‘different’ – anybody could practice patience. When was the last time you heard someone say their greatest strength was ‘patience’?

Patience isn’t mucho – it is more Mother Theresa. It somehow does not fit the cut-and-thrust of entrepreneurship; but I have learned personally that it takes years to get somewhere.

It took over 4 years before any of my social media connections offered up a potential opportunity. It was almost 5 years before it resulted in a speaking engagement.

I have been writing an almost monthly) newsletter for 6 years or more. Whilst it is not designed to be a sales tool – we don’t offer products for sale – it took 6 years before it resulted in the first enquiry that led to actual work. My open rates are significantly higher than industry averages, but it does get disheartening when fewer than 40% even open the email. I came close to quitting the newsletter many times.

It took many years before we did work that was initiated by a client and did not come as a direct result of me picking up the phone or physically meeting someone. Only in the last few years have we been able to ease off on the cold-calling because more work was finding us.

Are we successful?

I suppose it depends on your definition of success. An amazing wife. Super kids. Enough of everything else to allow for discretionary time to read, write and work on amazing projects. It is not Instagram or Facebook. It is not Seth Godin or Tom Peters – but I can live with it because I know that…

… true success does not come from any special talents. You only have to do your thing, and do your thing as well as you possibly can. If you have a little bit of luck, you will have prepared the soil for it to flourish.

You can’t make the flower of success grow any faster with impatience. Just keep doing your thing and everything else will work out the way it does.

Dennis Price

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