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The Secrets of Success

What’s your idea of success? How do you define it? Is it wealth? Fame? Power? Inner peace? Success is a vague notion, which means that becoming successful can be a frustrating, impossible journey; after all, you can’t hit a target you can’t see. So let’s examine what success really is, and how you might set out on the path toward reaching it.

As kids, we measured our success by our stuff – and how it stacked up against our friends’ stuff. When your best friend got the hottest toy on the market for Christmas, your own gifts paled in comparison. In high school, you wore what your friends thought was trendy – or dealt with the merciless teasing that came with being out of style. For adults, success might mean having a bigger house in the trendiest neighborhood, then inviting your friends over to show off the new living room set.

When did “success” come to mean “having stuff”? Is money really all it takes to make you feel successful? And if there’s more to success than wealth, what is it? How do you find it?

Money Doesn’t Solve Everything
Garrett Sutton is an attorney, author, and member of Robert Kiyosaki’s team of Rich Dad Advisors. He has written two books, Own Your Own Corporation and Real Estate Loopholes, a 2004 bestseller which he co-authored with former advisor Diane Kennedy. Sutton has encountered much professional success, but disagrees that money alone can make anyone successful.

“There have been studies regarding job satisfaction for lawyers, and it’s a lot lower than you’d expect,” says Sutton. “Even though they’re making money and have good professional standing, the job satisfaction index is low. I think part of that is that they dread going to work each day to bicker and fight, or to grind out paperwork that maybe after a while has no meaning to them. You can get caught in this path toward partnership, where they’re really expecting you to give up your life…At some point, the money doesn’t solve everything.”

In fact, it’s not just attorneys who wrestle with job satisfaction. A 2005 report by the Conference Board, which was based on a national survey, shows that an increasing number of employees are unhappy with their jobs – regardless of income or age. In fact, only a little more than half of all workers earning more than $50,000 a year are actually satisfied with their jobs. Only 14% are “very satisfied.”

And job satisfaction is no small thing. Researchers at University College in the U.K. studied 216 middle-aged men and women in London, and discovered a link between happiness and health. It turns out that the bodies of people whose daily lives make them happy actually produce healthier levels of important body chemicals than those who are unhappy. Happier people may have healthier hearts and a lower risk of certain diseases like diabetes.

As if your health weren’t enough of a reason to find inner satisfaction, here’s another: results of a 2005 Gallup survey found that employees who are disengaged in their work cost the American economy up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.

It’s hard to say what success really is, but unhealthy and unproductive people definitely aren’t it.

Don’t Succeed – Thrive
Anne Lazarus is a Reno, Nevada-based business coach who primarily works with principals of owner-operated companies, and some top-level executives, to help them thrive personally and professionally. She coaches people who are “stuck” and unable, for one reason or another, to get to the next level on their journey to success. She says the biggest problem she sees is that people generally define success too narrowly, for instance by how much money they make or how many hours they work. “Their definition of success is so narrow, it doesn’t enrich their lives to achieve that goal.”

She recalls the old Ed Sullivan Show routine that featured a man spinning plates on a pole. If that pole represents your life, says Lazarus, most people think of success as adding one more plate. And if you get too focused on that one plate, instead of the big picture, the whole thing collapses. Making $100,000 may seem like success, but if you have to work 100 hours a week to get it, you might break some plates. “You have to get enough of the right plates all spinning together, then check on the wobbly ones…it’s a balancing act,” she says.

This is why she suggests thinking not in terms of “success,” but in terms of being efficient while thriving. Success isn’t a perfect place, a destination to be reached. There’s always something more to do or learn. If you are good at what you do, make the amount of money you want, have the right clientele, and are effective, you can have fun. And when you’re having fun, you’re thriving. Instead of focusing on success, she advises making incremental improvements, or what she calls “the 10 Percent Solution.”

“Too often I find that people are going for all or nothing, black or white. This is why I don’t like the word success, like it’s some perfect place out there. I prefer to think of it as being pointed in the right direction, a compass heading,” she says. “All you have to know is where you are now, where you want to be, and how to get there. And everyday, just go 10% further, be 10% better, learn 10% more. It’s like compound interest that builds on itself. It’s not about perfection, it’s about progress.”

Now an avid hiker, Lazarus could once only walk a mile in a day. But by asking herself to walk just a little bit farther each day, she improved her abilities tremendously; not only was she eventually able to hike the entire 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, but she is now able to hike 25 miles a day. “It’s about doing a little better tomorrow than you did today,” she says. “That progress builds on itself, until you get there.”

The Keys to Success
Interestingly enough, the most successful people often don’t think of themselves as successful. Even Garrett Sutton, a bestselling author, hesitates to think of himself that way. “I got on the bestseller list and it felt great,” he says, “but the next day it didn’t matter. I thought maybe I wasn’t as deserving, or I could do better. So it’s really about cherishing those successes along the way.”

So be honest with yourself. What is it that you really want? What is your goal? Once you figure that out, take small steps each day along that path, celebrating your achievements along the way. It’s the journey, not the destination, that offers true success.

So start by breaking out of your comfort zone. We all like to do what we’re good at. But if we’re not improving ourselves, we’re certainly never going to grow or become successful. “When we learn to do the things we couldn’t before, the things we’re not comfortable doing, we become effective at them,” says Lazarus. “And chances are, you’ll end up liking those things after all.”

Enroll in a class. Enlist a mentor. Try something new. When you can acquire skills that you didn’t have before, you’ll feel improved, and therefore successful. Develop an appetite for learning, and you’ll thrive.

“Success is a process, not an end,” says Sutton. “If you define it as the end, I think, you’ll be disappointed. But during the process, you’ll gain experience, make friendships, gain knowledge…all of which you’ll enjoy. If it’s just about reaching the end, then once you get there, what is there to look forward to?”

Publish date: June 25, 2008