Keys to Success

For the more than 7 billion people who currently inhabit our world, there is no level playing field when it comes to achieving success as it is commonly viewed. But what is true success, and how can we attain it?

You’ve seen the ads that promise the secret keys to success. Typically they include claims that the rich and famous have followed the advertised plan and that success is within everyone’s grasp. All we have to do is follow a few simple rules or steps and, of course, pay a modest fee. Too good to be true?

In many cases yes, although it would be wrong to suggest that sources of good advice do not exist. The difficulty lies in identifying worthwhile information—sifting the wheat from the chaff. In recent years some have sought to apply a more scholarly, evidence-based approach to the subject, offering up various insights.

What is true success, and what does it take to achieve it?

Dubious Definitions

The starting point in the quest must be to define what we are aiming for. At least one dictionary defines success as “the attainment of wealth, fame or position.” In a media-fueled, celebrity-fixated world, many would probably agree. By this definition, not attaining wealth, fame or position means we are not successful. Sadly, this dooms most of the world to failure.

Or does it? Michael Neill, described as “the finest success coach in the world today,” writes that after reading his book on the subject, “you’ll know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can have whatever you want in life: more money, better relationships, a new job, or anything else that makes your heart sing and your soul come alive.”

But what if, on finishing the book, you are diagnosed with heart disease or cancer? Or what if you are one of millions worldwide who each day eke out an existence in a refugee camp or who live in a corrugated tin hut without sanitation or fresh water? Wouldn’t your goals tend to focus on needs more than wants—on obtaining enough food to keep your family alive? Success, then, is relative.

Others, too, have little in the way of life opportunities. Think of the many millions of illiterate adults in the world; for them, wealth, fame and position are going to be significantly harder to achieve than for university graduates.

To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success . . . with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (2008) 

Matching ourselves against impossible ideals only leads to dissatisfaction and feelings of failure or resignation. It’s fruitless to compare ourselves to others, especially to the rich and famous and their perceived advantages, as an excuse for not trying to succeed.

More helpful would be to reject a distorted view of success. An alternate dictionary definition states that success is simply a favorable outcome, or achieving what we desire or attempt. We must each assess our starting point and set realistic goals, whether that’s learning to read or earning a doctorate. Success is not just for those trying to reach the top of the corporate ladder; it can be equally attained by a young mother raising children while managing a home and perhaps a job. We can all set our sights on something appropriate to our individual circumstances. Achieving our goal, whatever it is, constitutes success.

In the biblical Parable of the Talents, three servants were given various amounts of money—each according to his ability—to invest while their master was away. Upon the master’s return, two were regarded as successes as they had generated more income. The worker regarded as a failure was the one who did nothing with what he had been given (Matthew 25:14–30). This suggests that we do not all start out from the same point; it is what we do with what we have that counts. “Everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

When Opportunity Knocks

Malcolm Gladwell, who in 2005 was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, has researched just what it is that enables someone to succeed. Opportunity is one of the factors he identifies as he dispels the myth of the self-made man—someone who rose from nothing to achieve greatness.

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, for example, attended a private school that gave him access to a computer. Through a fellow student’s mother, he and his friends were given the opportunity to test a new company’s software in exchange for free programming time. They also negotiated free programming time in exchange for creating payroll software. He later persuaded his teachers to allow him to work away from school on a computer program for a power company, under the guise of an independent study project. Gates admitted to Gladwell, “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredible lucky series of events.”

The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work.”

Anonymous (earliest known citation, 1921) 

Gladwell acknowledges that other factors—where and when individuals were born, what their parents did for a living, the circumstances of their upbringing, etc.—also affect success. But he argues that it is not necessarily the brightest who succeed, and that success isn’t simply the sum of our decisions and efforts. Rather, it is “those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them”—who are poised to succeed. There is no level playing field.

The Hard Part

Achieving goals first requires setting goals. Management consultants often use the acronym SMART as a template. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound; without these elements, success can be elusive. An example might be to lose 14 pounds (Specific); to weigh yourself once a week (Measurable); to aim for 2 pounds per week—forget “drop a dress size in a week” ads (Achievable); to look good for your partner (Relevant); and to achieve your goal within seven weeks (Time-bound). When we set our sights on such a target and then achieve it, we will have a sense of satisfaction and completion—a sense of a job well done, with the added bonus of reinforcing our ability to tackle something else.

Of course, no strategy has any value unless it’s put into practice. Neill insists that this needn’t be difficult: “When you get really clear and honest about what you want, everything in the universe conspires to help you get it. I call this the principle of effortless success.” Countering Neill is journalist Daniel Coyle, who visited various talent hotspots including a vocal studio in Dallas, a Brazilian soccer pitch, and a tennis club in Moscow. He asked those he encountered for words describing their sensations during especially productive practice sessions. Among the terms they used were attention, alert, focus, mistake, repeat, tiring. He never heard the words natural, effortless, routine or automatic.

Coyle mentions Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist who performed into his 80s and is often quoted as having said, “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.” All that practice takes time and effort.

Executive coach M.J. Ryan refers to studies at the University of Pennsylvania showing that grit, the determination to succeed, may be as important as ability. Scientists have speculated that it enables people to endure inevitable setbacks, making success more likely. Ryan clarifies: “I don’t think grit is something you have or don’t. It’s a quality you create when you make the choice to show up for what you really want for yourself, no matter how difficult.”

Psychologist Carol Dweck explains that we tend to exhibit one of two mindsets: fixed (our qualities are fixed in stone; we are either good at something or not) or growth (we can cultivate basic qualities through effort; everyone can change and grow). Someone with a fixed mindset tries to arrange successes and avoid failures at all costs. Fixed-mindset children will, given the choice, stick with math problems at a level at which they know they can succeed. In contrast, children with a growth mindset seek out harder problems, pushing the boundaries of their ability in order to get better.

Dweck comments that “in one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you're not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.” She cites the example of legendary basketball star Michael Jordan, who “was cut from the high school varsity team. . . . He wasn’t recruited by the college he wanted to play for. . . . He wasn’t drafted by the first two NBA teams that could have chosen him.” Jordan himself at tests that he got to the top of his sport not through innate talent but by determination, effort, and practice, practice, practice.

People called the Pietà pure genius, but its creator begged to differ. ‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery,’ Michelangelo later said, ‘it would not seem so wonderful at all.’”

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code (2009)

Gladwell, too, identifies effort as a key factor leading to success. He cites an early-1990s study by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. At Berlin’s Academy of Music, Ericsson discovered that the best student violinists were those who had put in the most practice: those elite performers had accumulated around 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20. Gladwell observes that Ericsson did not find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. The research, he argues, suggests that when musicians have enough ability to get into the top music schools, it is effort that determines the level they reach. Bill Gates, Mozart and the Beatles, he says, all rose to the top through the amount of time invested in their chosen field.

Practice Makes Perfect

Coyle takes things even further, arguing that it is not just accumulating hours that counts but the quality of practice. This, too, is an age-old biblical principle. King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, advised his readers nearly 3,000 years ago, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

Coyle calls it deep practice: “Our intuition tells us that practice relates to talent in the same way that a whetstone relates to a knife: it’s vital but useless without a solid blade of so-called natural ability. Deep practice raises an intriguing possibility: that practice might be the way to forge the blade itself.”

It seems self-evident that focused practice makes us better at something, but why? Coyle suggests that targeted effort can greatly increase learning velocity. In his research he found reference to a substance in our bodies called myelin, which insulates sections of neurons, or nerve cells. Citing neurobiologist Douglas Fields of the US National Institutes of Health, he remarks that myelin plays a key role in the way our brains function. All of our thoughts and movements are the result of electrical signals traveling through a chain of neurons. It appears that the more myelin there is to act as insulation, the greater the signal strength, speed and accuracy of the electrical impulse. Also, the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin wraps around it, so the faster and more fluent our thoughts and movements become.

Coyle uses the notion of deep practice and myelin to explain the literary heights reached by the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Rather than innate inherited talent, he argues, it was their early experiences, opportunities and prodigious amounts of practice that enabled them to become great writers. Coyle further posits that “the unskilled quality of their early writing” does not contradict their later works, such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; it was a prerequisite to them. They became great writers because as children they were willing and able to spend vast amounts of time in collaborative deep practice, building myelin in the process.

The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (2008) 

So if there is something we want to succeed at, we have to keep working at it—firing circuits and building myelin. This applies as much to physical skills as to thought processes. It is what lies behind the notion that we overcome bad habits by replacing them with good ones. According to Coyle’s notion of deep practice, the most efficient way to do this is by making mistakes and then correcting them: “There is . . . no substitute for attentive repetition. Nothing you can do . . . is more effective in building skill than executing the action, firing the impulse down the nerve fiber, fixing errors, honing the circuit.” This is what helps us improve, develop, grow, get better—succeed.

Facing Failure

Like Gladwell, David Shenk, a writer for such publications as National Geographic, The New Yorker and, talks about the pervasive myth of innate talent, or giftedness, in his book The Genius in All of Us. He notes that while in previous centuries a person’s natural ability was usually seen as God-given, in the 20th century it was increasingly viewed as gene-given. Shenk argues that with this in mind, we can easily fall prey to the notion that others can do things because they were born with something we weren’t. But he says there are plenty of ways to be a success in our own personal circumstances, whether as a wonderful teacher; a creative, ethical entrepreneur; or a loyal, hard-working clerical assistant.

As Dweck notes, the ability to strive, work and practice depends on the growth mindset, where mistakes are seen as opportunities. Michael Jordan reflects on his own experience: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot—and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The growth mindset seeks and confronts challenges and makes progress; it doesn’t expect to be flawless and get things right the first time. Failure does not measure or define us; it is a necessary step on the path to success.

« Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. »

Albert Einstein, quoted by William Miller dans « Death of a Genius » Life Magazine (May 2, 1955)

The wrong approach to failure can also lead us to view others as condemnatory judges. Dweck asked a group of African-American students to write an essay, which would be evaluated by “a distinguished professor with an Ivy League pedigree. That is, a representative of the white establishment.” His feedback was critical yet helpful. Those with a fixed mindset saw his comments as threatening or insulting, and they rejected his advice. Those with a growth mindset, while describing the professor as arrogant, intimidating and condescending, were nevertheless able to react positively to his evaluation. Having a growth mindset allowed these students to recruit the professor for their own purposes. Their goal was to get an education, and even if they thought he was pompous, they were going to listen and learn.

It’s All About Character

Once we begin to incorporate the overall approach expressed by these writers and coaches, it can be truly liberating. We can accept the reality of certain constraints imposed by our environment, upbringing, opportunities, etc.; but with realistic and worthwhile goals in sight, we can throw off the self-imposed shackles of doubt and feelings of inadequacy and not accept that life is a set of predetermined outcomes.

In an ideal world, teachers, parents, coaches and employers would provide the spark of motivation and enthusiasm to help us grow, develop and reach our potential. They would help us see where we need to change and enable us to improve by incremental steps until we attain our goals.

Even so, succeeding requires character—taking personal responsibility for our thoughts and actions by exercising self-control. Other factors may aid or hinder success, but the ability to improve what we can in order to achieve our chosen goals is vital.

If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed.”

Ecclesiastes 10:10, English Standard Version 

Character development is not just a means to an end, something we work on to help us succeed. It is an end in its own right. The Parable of the Talents is not just an inspirational morality tale; it is a call to action to prepare, change and succeed on a whole new level.

This perspective prompted the apostle Paul to write, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27, New Living Translation).

Paul’s greatest goal was spiritual in nature: to live a life characterized by self-control and service, against all obstacles, in anticipation of an everlasting place in the kingdom God has promised to establish on the earth. But the value of building character—through hard work, repetition and self-control—applies to any goal we set ourselves.

Developing this kind of character not only gives us the means to succeed, it is the ultimate definition of success.