The Road(s) To Success

I attended an evening business event last week, primarily because one of the featured speakers was my friend and fellow consultant, Steve. (Not his real name. His real name is Nick Miller, but I’m calling him Steve to protect his anonymity.)

Anyway, I went to see “Steve,” and as always, he was impressive. I’ve seen him speak several times over the last few years, and every time I do, I walk out of the room newly energized and eager to jump back into my own work.

It wasn’t always like that, however. In fact, I remember the very first time I saw Steve speak. It was February of 2001, and as was the case last week, Steve was the featured speaker and I was sitting in the audience.

I hung on every word, and I drove home that night with two very clear thoughts bouncing around inside my head:

  1. I want to be that guy. A confident, successful, sole proprietor who had the audience laughing, learning and benefiting from his point of view. Watching Steve gave me my first clear vision of what I wanted to become as the owner of my own business.
  1. I’m in big trouble. The problem was that although I admired Steve, listening to him describe his systematic, targeted, “losing is not an option” approach to identifying and winning clients, gave me a distinctly sick feeling in my stomach. I wanted what he had, but the thought of doing what he did to get it, made me queasy:I’m not a good planner; I thrive on random. I don’t like calling people I don’t know; Steve’s approach seemed to involve a lot of this. I prefer working with small companies; Steve’s clients were the 50 largest banks in the country. And on and on and on. By the time I pulled into my driveway 30 minutes later, I was well beyond self doubt, and now simply hoping that “extreme naivete” would be considered a legitimate enough mental illness for my disability insurance to kick in.

Today, five years later, I’m happy to say that seeing Steve hardly ever makes me feel sick. And here’s why: I’ve realized that there are several ways for each of us to get to wherever it is we want to go. What works for Steve (or any other visibly successful person) is not necessarily (or probably) what’s going to work for you or for me.

The problem with listening to experts – whether a thriving sole proprietor or a world famous Fortune 500 CEO – is that the really good ones leave you with the distinct impression that they’ve “found the path.” They’re very clear about how they do what they do and why it works, and they have all kinds of real world experience with which to back it up.

And if you’re in the early stages of developing your own approach (as I was back then), with no evidence to the contrary, it’s natural – no, it’s intelligent – to learn from somebody who’s been there.

Or maybe not. Because what I’ve discovered as I’ve listened to Steve and many other successful people talk about “what works,” is that what they’re really talking about is what works for them in particular – given who they are, how they view the world and what they’re naturally good at. For me and Steve, the answers to those questions couldn’t be more different.

Bottom Line: As far as I can tell, “success” – however you define it – is much more a function of knowing what works for you than knowing what works in general. And so while I strongly recommend listening, reading, watching and learning from as many experts as possible, don’t let anybody else’s “proven method” for reaching the top divert you from whatever path you’re already on. If somebody else’s advice strikes you as off target, it probably is (for you).

Addendum: When I showed him a preview of this newsletter, Steve suggested an alternative ending, which, as I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, I decided not to use. Still, I have to admit, that man knows his stuff. Here’s what he said:

“Listen to those people… but it’s like picking clothes. People look at pictures of models and their outfits and say, ‘I want that outfit.’ What they’re really saying is, ‘I want to look like that.’ Doesn’t work like that. There’s not a ‘ready made’ off the rack outfit for running a business. You have to make your own ‘out fit.’ You can’t wear somebody else’s clothes and expect them to fit.

“Part of the fun and challenge is learning what fits and makes you look good (and successful) and what doesn’t. This idea fits me, this one doesn’t. I like this color, I don’t like that one. The basic principles of running a successful business are the same, just like the articles of clothing are the same – shoes, socks, shirts, dresses, etc. It’s finding which styles, colors, and shapes of them work for you.”

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