On My Mind / Essays On Success

To excel, be fearless and flexible

During this past commencement season, anxious graduates received lots of advice urging them to hang tough or "buck up" until things recover and they can begin climbing the career ladder of their choice. 

What many commencement speakers miss is that no matter what the economic climate, waiting for your career path to reveal itself is as misguided as waiting for the Titanic to pop back up to the surface. 

Forget false optimism. Working with my former business partner in the polling and research firm Penn Schoen Berland, of which I am now president, I did a thorough analysis of how extremely successful people found success in their chosen field, even during the most difficult times. We interviewed and tried to find commonalities and distinctions among 45 of the most successful people in business, sports, fashion and entertainment.  Here are the take-aways.

Your first job will not be your last job.  And it shouldn't be; the people who are at the top of their game in their chosen fields now are living proof.

NBC anchor Brian Williams told us he started out as a firefighter. Chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay described how, very early on, he was a clerk on the floor of the American Stock Exchange. Barry Sternlicht, founder of the W Hotels and Starwood Resorts, sold knives door to door and cut onions in a restaurant.

Be ready to take a chance on the unlikely or unfamiliar.  Experiment.  Be fearless.  It's been said many times in other ways before, but Ambassador Richard Holbrooke put it to us like this: "Failure is a great teacher.  People who are trying to learn how to succeed should try failure more often." 

Be inventive.  As tempting as it is in tough economic times, don't automatically take the first "safe" or "stable" thing that comes your way.  Go for something that fits with or strengthens who you are. or the kind of person you want to become. 

Today, the opportunities are there for people who are smart, have learned lots of different kinds of things, and are still flexible and curious.  Even in a seemingly dead-end job or a corporate job, be entrepreneurial -- it helps you grow. 

Other examples? Jake Burton of Burton snowboards was a landscaper in Vermont.  Jeff Zucker of NBC Universal was a journalist; he's now a businessman running a major multimedia empire.  Mark Burnett served in the British army before he went on to create TV shows like "Eco-Challenge" and "Survivor" in America. Craig Newmark, who founded Craigslist, thought about going into paleontology.

The starting point may just not look like what you expect.  Heidi Klum (the super-model who broke the model by becoming a mega-successful TV host and producer, and leader of a best-selling European fashion and beauty line) told us that having diverse pursuits is what has worked for her: "I love that I have so many different things going on in my life, and that's what I thrive on."

The most important common factor in our study of successful people was that they were all -- often but not always straight out of adolescence -- very deliberately introspective about what they were good at, what they were passionate about and what they thought they would find fulfilling. 

Still, there are many differences among the success stories we analyzed.

Some of the successful people are natural born leaders -- they are all about inspiring others and navigating complex hierarchies on their rise to the top. Some are visionaries, who build their careers on making their big idea happen.Some are do-gooders, who build their lives around helping others.

And finally, others, like me, are independence seekers, who like to cherry-pick projects that pose challenges and then be able to move on to something new and reinvent our "expertise" with each new project.

In my case, that means I am fulfilled by pursuing varied interests and working with lots of different people, clients and projects over time.  As an expert in how people think about the things that matter to them, I've worked with some of the world's top political leaders and corporate brands, never tiring of bringing my expertise from one world to the other. Nor do I tire of the satisfaction of solving my clients' problems with quantifiable solutions and evidence-based advice.  I'm never bored.

No matter what your success archetype is, the key to success is leveraging your own personality skills and motivational factors.

So once that cap and gown is put away (or even if your diploma was framed long ago), you might find you need to sit down and make some lists.  What have you found that motivates you in school and outside of it?  What doesn't?  Ask around -- what do teachers, peers and parents say or admire about you? And most importantly, what are your passions, where time simply flies when you are pursuing them?

Then as you seek opportunities -- even if they feel few-and-far-between while the economy rights itself -- evaluate them against what you know about yourself.  You can and should hone your list at every stage of your professional life, but the core values of who you are, even now, will likely stay largely the same.

Who will the most successful and fulfilled people always be, no matter what the economic circumstances, no matter what the field?  They will be those who are smart and relentless and ready to look at everything with fresh eyes.  They will be constantly asking the most fundamental questions no matter what field they choose: What's important to hold on to?  What's missing, and how do we get to it?  What's broken and how do we fix it?  What haven't we even imagined yet?



Michael J. Berland

 |  August 18, 2010; 4:54 PM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Next: Saying no can save your career


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Tell that to parents! By the time one is an adult, we have internalized so many of those fears and self-doubts that for many, only small changes are possible.

We teach our children to shut up, sit down, behave, don't do this, don't do that, don't go there or ignore them.

I would rather you give this message to the schools and parents.

Posted by: cmecyclist | August 23, 2010 5:56 AM
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