Stay Updated! COVID-19 pandemic business resources hub »

The Secret to Success in Business and in Everything Else

We’re all chasing it: Success. But what does it mean to be a success? The word means different things to different people. For some, success is loads of money, a cherry sports car and a bevy of bikini models in the hot tub. For others, it’s a good family with happy kids and a contented spouse while others, such as athletes, define it in terms of personal accomplishment. Also, if you actually can define it, how do you reach success? Is there a formula you can use or is there something else that can put you on the right path to your dreams?

Success: A Definition
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, has this to say about success:
suc·cess  (sk-ss)

1. The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted: attributed their success in business to hard work.
2. The gaining of fame or prosperity and the extent of such gain: an artist spoiled by success.
3. One that is successful: The plan was a success.
4. Obsolete A result or an outcome.

[Latin successus, from past participle of succdere, to succeed; see succeed.]

Seems fairly straightforward, success is the achievement of something. The important question is this: The achievement of what? Margaret Mead said that she measures success “in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.” Journalist David Brinkley held that success can be measured by the ability to “lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her.”

These are general enough but together they build up an interesting picture. Success is a product of two things: your ability to turn adversity to your advantage and then, what you do with that advantage. This adds another layer of meaning to the bare-bones dictionary definition, making it something along the lines of this:

Success: The achievement of something meaningful through the effective removal of obstacles, or the conversion of those obstacles into tools, and the presentation of that achievement to society at large for its general benefit.

In other words, the measure of success has as much to do with what you do with your accomplishment as it does with the accomplishment itself. For example, what good is the achievement of a cure for cancer if it never reaches those who need it? Is it really a success if no one benefits? No, it isn’t. This is because achievements are goal-based. To cure cancer implies that your goal (or at least a large part of your goal) is to help cancer patients. If the new cancer drug never reaches those people, it has violated the basis of the achievement, the goal of helping people. It is, therefore, in spite of its ability to end the scourge of cancer, a failure.

Setting a Goal and Believing It

There is no such thing as a free lunch. We have heard these words so often that they have become cliché, but that has done little to blunt the power of their meaning: If you want to eat, you have to work. Success, in this case, can be measured by how much you get to eat. Your goal is the lunch, and you have to pay on some level to reach that goal. Consider the words of J.C.Penny, “Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I'll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I'll give you a stock clerk.”

This implies that success is actually based on going out and doing something, which follows nicely on the idea of removing or converting obstacles to your achievement, or goal. The question is, where do you start? 

Pablo Picasso once said: 'My mother said to me, "If you become a soldier, you'll be a general; if you become a monk, you'll end up as the Pope." Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.’ How did Mrs. Picasso know these things about her son? The truth is that she didn’t know them, she believed them. As important as it is to set a goal and to work hard, it is perhaps more important to believe that you can reach that goal. Henry Ford summed it up quite nicely when he said, "If you think you can, you can. And if you think you can't, you're right.”

A self-confident belief that you can reach your goal is a powerful thing. Usually it is based on a keen awareness that you have the tools and the know-how to achieve something, other times, belief that you can do something is based on the fact that you don’t know you can’t. Either way, this belief is made practical by adding the motive power that comes from resolution. Lincoln said that resolution is more important than any other one thing when it comes to achieving something. Once you have resolved to achieve something, you have brought your belief in the goal and your ability to reach it into a place where the hard work and risk involved are manageable.

The Necessity of Risk and Hard Work
All things worthy of the word success entail risk and hard work. In a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt said:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

The “doer of deeds” is the one who counts, whose face is marred and whose life is spent striving through small failures and mistakes to either achievement or glorious failure. The comparison is drawn between this “doer of deeds”—a reflection of Roosevelt himself—and those “cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” The “doer of deeds” takes risks, goes it alone if necessary and achieves or fails on his own efforts. The “cold and timid souls” take no such risks and so, while they may not fail they will certainly not succeed.

So what does it take get through the risks and obstacles to achieve a goal? Here, at least, there is consensus. It takes a great deal of hard work and perseverance to reach your goal, no matter what it is. The fact that the face of Roosevelt’s “doer of deeds” is covered by “dust and sweat and blood” is a pretty good indicator of the work required. This is an echo of the words of Benjamin Franklin, who taught us that “there are no gains without pains.”

So success is won by goal-setting, resolution, self-confidence and hard work. We’re not talking about run-of-the-mill hard work, either, but exemplary hard work. The poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, put it this way:

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night. 

The Happiness Factor and the Need for Discretion

Long nights working while others slept, turning away from comfort and idleness in the pursuit of something great has long been seen as the path to success. We live in a society where burn-out is almost a badge of honor, but is that all there is on the way to success? No, it isn’t. There has to be balance in one’s life.

One can argue that the samurai of medieval Japan were successful. In fact, one can make the case—and it has been made—that they were the most successful warriors of all time. Like his European counterpart, the knight, the samurai was a mounted warrior who lived according to a strict martial code, called Bushido. Unlike his Western counterpart, the samurai accepted that his life belonged to his master and that it could end, in combat or at the order of his master at any time. His training was intense, his service difficult and brutal and his death—more often than not—violent. More than that, he had the right to kill anyone who gave him a reason. The samurai was, more than anyone else, a true companion of death.

Given this hard life, you would think that they would have hard games to go with it, brutal pastimes that would toughen them for combat (much like jousting did in medieval Europe). You might think so, and if you did then you would be wrong.

Top samurai pastimes included ikebana, a stylized form of flower arrangement; calligraphy and poetry writing. For example, this is a haiku from the 17th Century samurai Basho Matsuo (1644-1694):

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!

I never said it was epic poetry, but it does demonstrate the point: All that striving and hard work has to be balanced with what Einstein described as play: "If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y plus Z. X is work. Y is play. Z is keep your mouth shut."

That brings us to discretion or, as Einstein said, “keep your mouth shut.” One of the hardest things to learn is when to close your mouth, but success often depends on knowing when to do just that. During World War II, one famous saying was “Loose lips sink ships.” In other words, speaking when you shouldn’t, to people you shouldn’t speak to, can have disastrous consequences. That was war, but the same ideas apply on smaller issues as well.

You need to know who you are talking to and the ramifications of what you are saying. Are you speaking with someone who can help you or hurt you? Will your words make your work easier or more difficult? These are important questions to ask before you open your mouth. You also need to know how to respond to critics and as a “doer of deeds,” since you cannot please everyone, you are going to have plenty of them. Regarding this, Elbert Hubbard wrote, "The man who is anybody and who does anything is surely going to be criticized, vilified, and misunderstood. This is part of the penalty for greatness, and every man understands, too, that it is no proof of greatness.” This also goes back to self-confidence since you need to have a thick skin to stand up to the criticism that may come your way.

The Formula for Success

This brings us back to the beginning: How do you find success? Taking Einstein’s equation as a starting point, and adding in all the elements discussed, here is what we have:

Success = (A Realistic Goal + Hard Work (Resolve + Confidence + Work + Discretion))

Success, especially in business, should never depend on blind luck. Real luck is the meeting or preparation and opportunity and if you work at success, you will be well on your way to luck. Success is the result of a well-executed plan of action; the result of stubborn resolve and self-confidence, of hard work and discretion. Look at your business plan. Does it reflect the steps to hard-won success? If not, then perhaps it is time to revisit that plan, to bring it in line with the formula for success.