How to Be a Success

My Advice to a Guy at Crossroads

The guy seems to be having trouble figuring out what he wants to do with his life. I think it was maybe thirty years ago my niece explicitly asked my opinion, and the advice I gave her seemed so good, I made it my own goal. But that was for a Christian perspective; I don't know that this guy has that advantage. So here is what I would tell him if I thought I could.

Success is setting a goal and then achieving it. If you set no goal for yourself, then you will surely succeed at what you set (which is nothing), and you will be considered a failure. An important part of success is choosing socially approved goals. The guy who sets out to kill his parents may succeed at that goal, but most people will consider him to be a failure. More on this later.

Success has four essential requirements, near as I can tell, and they complement each other:

1. Motivation

The most important requirement for achieving any goal is that you want to. You can mostly overcome a lack of skill or luck by strong motivation, but skill or luck will not overcome lack of motivation.

I'm in technology with a college degree in math. To do this kind of thing well -- basically, anything in what is called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) -- requires a narrow focus on linear, logical thinking (that's skill, the second requirement). Anybody can learn how to do it, but some people come by it naturally, and everybody else hates it. It helps your motivation if you like doing what you want to succeed at, and if you have a natural ability to do it. You can still succeed, but you really have to want to.

Maybe "motivation" is not the best word here, some people seem to think it's a form of manipulation to make somebody do something they don't want to, which is the exact opposite of what I mean. I was never very persuasive: if you don't got the wanna, nothing I say or do will change that. This is about having the wanna. To be a success you must set a goal you personally want to achieve. Nobody else can make that decision for you.

2. Skill

It helps if you have a natural -- I would say God-given -- ability to do the kind of thing you set out to do. If you don't come by it naturally, you can still succeed, but you must work harder. With the same effort, a tall guy will make a better basketball player than a short guy, but the short guy can still succeed: he just must work harder to get there.

A large part of skill is focus. If you focus on peripheral issues -- in particular, if you spend a lot of your time thinking about just trying to survive, or thinking about how other people are luckier than yourself, or if you want to enjoy life instead of working at your goal, then you will not achieve that goal. This is where motivation helps you: if you want badly enough to do it, you will spend your effort on developing the skills needed to do it. If it consumes your whole life, you will get good at it. That's success.

If you do not want to put the investment into honing your skills, don't complain about a "glass ceiling" or "racism" or some other thing you might suppose happened to you, but over which you have no control. The people who made it to the top worked very hard to get there. Not everybody wants to work that hard. It's your choice. I read that a certain famous concert pianist spent six hours every day playing scales. It's not fun, but you will not become a great pianist unless you do. The hard work that develops your skills in your chosen specialty is not fun, but it is necessary for success. Do it, it's worth it.

3. Luck

I and most of the people I know are exceedingly lucky: We were born and raised in the richest, most powerful country in the world, and probably in all time. Even the most unlucky, disadvantaged people in the USA are far better off than most of the rest of the world. If you want to succeed in life, this is the place you can do it. There are people here who want to help you do it.

An important part of luck is having the opportunity to observe and maybe experience the various kinds of things you might choose to make your goal, so that you can see if it's what you want to do with your life. In the USA we place a high priority on making these kinds of opportunities available to everybody, but most of the people trying to do that don't really know how. We're still working on it. You do not need to depend on other people to discover what you want to do, but it takes more effort on your part.

Some people are born into socially disadvantaged positions. My family was not wealthy when I was growing up, so I had fewer advantages than some of my peers. I had to work harder than they did to overcome the difficulties. Other people are raised in a racially charged atmosphere, and they learn to cope with those problems, but that distraction interferes with being successful. You can overcome most forms of bad luck, especially in the USA. We want you to succeed! But you need to do it, we cannot do it for you.

If you are born in Haiti or (now, after the regime change) Zimbabwe, these are the poorest countries in the world. The resources to grow most skills just are not there. That's bad luck. You can still be a success there where you are, because the poverty grinds most people down, and if you work to overcome it, you will be more successful than all of them. If you do that, maybe you can create your own good luck. It happens. But if you are reading this, you don't have that problem. Use what you have.

4. Doing Good

"No man is an island," the poet said, and he was right. A very important part of achieving success is the help you get from other people. They will not help you unless they perceive that helping you helps themselves, or (in cultures with a true Christian moral heritage, like the USA) if they believe you are helping other people in general. If you are incredibly lucky and start out with a pile of cash, maybe you can buy other people's help, but you must be nice or anything they do for you will be grudging and not nearly as useful toward propelling your own success. Most of us don't start out with that kind of luck, but if you do things that help other people, or if you do things that other people perceive as "good" (or both, which is even better), then they will be motivated to help you do them.

I once worked with a fellow who was the founder of a successful startup. Part of his success was my software (and he knew it), but his personal attitude did a lot more than I contributed. One of the factory floor workers got mad over something (it happens, even in well-run companies) and complained to the NLRB (Federal labor people), who came in to give the employees a chance to join the union. The founders of this company worked hard to treat their workers fairly, so there was a lot of grumbling among the workers about how the union would send all their jobs to India. I guess they were thinking that the union would cut corporate profits to the point that overseas labor would become attractive. I happened to be there when one of them explained, "The purpose of a business is to make money." The tech guy (founder) I was working with immediately responded: "No, the purpose of a business is to help people. If you make money, that is evidence that you succeeded." I thought that incredibly insightful.

We in the USA grew up in a culture of the Golden Rule, that we do for other people what we want them to do for us. Some people phrase it "Making the world a better place," but it's the same idea. Some of that is going away, but we have a long way to go before it gets as bad as third-world countries like China and Russia and Africa and South America. Doing good for other people doesn't necessarily help yourself, but when everybody does it, everybody benefits. It's a rising tide that lifts all boats, and (more than anything else) it made the USA the richest country in the world. Doing Good makes success happen.

If people see that you are doing Good for other people, they will want you to succeed. Some of them will want to help you succeed -- often the most helpful of them will do it for altruistic reasons, but you must do your part to make them feel like their help is making the world a better place. They will not do this so you can get high on drugs, or rape and murder and rob other people. They need to perceive that you are doing Good. Do not focus on the perception, so to fabricate a false impression, you will be found out, and the effort you put into it will detract from your success. Instead, choose a goal that truly helps people, then other people will see that and want to help you succeed.

There is another way in which doing Good contributes to success. I mentioned at the beginning that you need to choose a socially approved goal. When you do that, then people will use the word "good" to describe you. Not only will they want to help (which contributes to their own self-esteem) but also they will call you "good" to other people, who might then rise out of their lethargy to help you succeed. Thirdly, when they call you "good" in your hearing, it makes you feel good about yourself -- even if you don't succeed. Feeling good about yourself is not a worthy goal in itself, it's a byproduct of setting (and achieving) worthy ("Good") goals that help people and make the world a better place. Hitler probably thought himself "good" but the rest of the world disagreed, and he failed at what he set out to do. Don't go there.

So my advice is, find something you like doing, which makes the world a better place for other people, and if you are lucky, they will want to pay you to do it. Then work hard at it, and you will be a success, and everybody will know it.

Tom Pittman
Rev. 2019 May 17


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