Published by Warner Faith
© 2004 by John C. Maxwell
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A few weeks ago I was going through a box of old books in the basement looking for something to read to my grandchildren, and I came across a book my wife, Margaret, and I used to read to my daughter, Elizabeth, when she was little. It’s called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dayby Judith Viorst. It’s the story of a little boy whose day falls to pieces. It begins,
I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard . . . and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.1
From there, Alexander’s day just keeps getting worse as he goes to school, finds himself at the dentist’s office, and has to go shopping for clothes with his mother. He has a miserable day. Even the family cat seems to be against him.
What Is the Missing Piece?
Our kids always liked Viorst’s book. And I think we adults had as much fun reading little Alexander’s grumpy complaints as they did listening. But it’s no fun when your own day feels like Alexander’s. Who looks forward to a day filled with obstacles, trials, and setbacks, where each bend in the road seems to hold something worse?
When it comes to approaching the day, we often are more like Alexander than we would care to admit. We may not wake up with gum in our hair or feel that our family and friends are out to get us, but our days often fall to pieces. And, as a result, they seem like very bad days.
How often do you have a great day? Is it the norm or the rare exception for you? Take today, for example. How would you rate it? So far, has today been a great day? Or has it been less than wonderful? Perhaps you haven’t even thought about it until now. If I asked you to rate today on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being perfect), would you even know how to score it? Upon what would you base your rating? Would it depend on how you feel? Would it be determined by how many items you’ve checked off your to-do list? Would you score your day according to how much time you’ve spent with someone you love? How do you define success for today?
How Does Today Impact Tomorrow’s Success?
Everyone wants to have a good day, but not many people know what a good day looks like—much less how to create one. And even fewer people understand how the way you live today impacts your tomorrow. Why is that? The root of the problem is that most people misunderstand success. If we have a faulty view of success, we take a faulty approach to our day. As a result, today falls to pieces.
Look at these common misconceptions concerning success and the responses that often go with them:
WE BELIEVE SUCCESS IS IMPOSSIBLE—
SO WE CRITICIZE IT
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck opened his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled with the words “Life is difficult.” He went on to say, “Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly . . . about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy.”2 Because we want to believe life should be easy, we sometimes assume anything that’s difficult must be impossible. When success eludes us, we are tempted to throw in the towel and assume it’s unattainable.
That’s when we begin to criticize it. We say, “Who wants success anyway?!” And if success is achieved by anyone whom we consider less worthy than ourselves, then we really get steamed. Like journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce, we see success as “the one unpardonable sin against one’s fellows.”3
WE BELIEVE SUCCESS IS MYSTICAL—
SO WE SEARCH FOR IT
If success has escaped us, yet we haven’t entirely given up on it, then we often see it as a big mystery. We believe that all we have to do to succeed is find the magic formula, silver bullet, or golden key that will solve all our problems. That’s why there are so many diet books on the best-seller lists and so many management fads employed in corporate offices each year.
The problem is that we want the rewards of success without paying the price. Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, recently wrote about this problem in the business world. He believes that business leaders frequently look for quick fixes for their companies. But he admonishes that “we need to stop shopping for lightning bolts.”
“You don’t win an Olympic gold medal with a few weeks of intensive training,” says Godin. “There’s no such thing as an overnight opera sensation. Great law firms or design companies don’t spring up overnight. . . . Every great company, every great brand, and every great career has been built in exactly the same way: bit by bit, step by step, little by little.”4 There is no magic solution to success.
WE BELIEVE SUCCESS COMES FROM LUCK—
SO WE HOPE FOR IT
How many times have you heard people say something like “He was just in the right place at the right time” to explain away someone else’s success? It’s a myth, just like the idea of the overnight success. The chances of becoming a success due to luck are about as good as of winning the lottery—50 million to 1.
Every now and then, we hear about a Hollywood star who was discovered while working as a drugstore clerk or an athlete drafted by a pro team even though he didn’t begin playing the sport until late in high school and we get excited. What luck, we think. That could happen to me! But those are rare occurrences. For every person who makes it under such circumstances, there are thousands and thousands of people who have spent a dozen years toiling at a craft to get their chance. And there are tens of thousands more who have put in the years of work but who still aren’t good enough to make it. When it comes to success, you’re better off hopping to it than hoping for it.
WE BELIEVE SUCCESS IS PRODUCTIVITY—
SO WE WORK FOR IT
I once saw a sign posted in a small business that said,
The 57 Rules of Success
#1 Deliver the goods.
#2 The other 56 don’t matter.
There’s something about working hard and producing results that feels very rewarding. And many people regard that feeling so highly that they define it as success. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt observed, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
But seeing hard work as success is one-dimensional. (Is a day that contains no work unsuccessful? Is someone who retires unsuccessful?) Besides, it’s not always true. A strong work ethic is an admirable trait, but hard work alone doesn’t bring success. There are plenty of people who work hard and never see success. Some people give their energy to dead-end jobs. Others work so hard that they neglect important relationships, ruin their health, or burn out. Success may not come to those who don’t work hard, but hard work and success are not one and the same.
WE BELIEVE SUCCESS COMES FROM AN OPPORTUNITY—
SO WE WAIT FOR IT
Many of the people who work very hard yet don’t seem to get anywhere believe that the only thing they need is a break. Their motto begins with the words “if only.” If only my boss would cut me some slack... If only I could get a promotion... If only I had some start-up capital... If only my kids would behave... then life would be perfect.
The truth is that people who do nothing more than wait for an opportunity won’t be ready to capitalize on one if it does appear. As basketball legend John Wooden says, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” And for those who receive their wish—of a promotion, start-up money, or anything else—it rarely changes anything in the long term if they haven’t already done all the groundwork to be successful.
Besides, we’re all fickle. The thing we believe will solve our problems or make us happy isn’t lasting. It’s like when I was eight years old and I said, “If only I had a new bike.” When Christmas rolled around, I got my new Schwinn with all the bells and whistles. And I loved it—for about a month. Then I had a new “if only” that I thought would make me happy. An opportunity may help you, but it won’t guarantee your success.
WE BELIEVE SUCCESS COMES FROM LEVERAGE—
SO WE POWER UP FOR IT
Some people associate success with power. Their viewpoint is reinforced by the words of powerful people like industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who asserted, “Success is the power with which to acquire whatever one demands of life without violating the rights of others.” Many people take their view of success and power one step further, assuming that successful people have taken advantage of others to get where they are. So to get what they want, they look for an angle to exploit or for leverage over someone else. They believe they can force their way to success.
Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s longtime dictator, took that approach by using power, manipulation, and brute force. He got his start politically as an enforcer. He committed murder for the Ba’ath Party in order to rise through its ranks, eventually becoming vice president of Iraq following a coup by the Ba’aths. When Hussein grew unsatisfied with serving as vice president, he simply seized power and made himself president.
For decades he used torture, oppression, and murder to retain power. His vision was to become the hero of the Middle East, its unifying ruler, a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar. But like all people who use and abuse power to get ahead—whether an arrogant corporate CEO or a bloody dictator—he failed in the end. No amount of power, no matter how ruthlessly wielded, can guarantee success.
WE BELIEVE SUCCESS COMES FROM CONNECTIONS—
SO WE NETWORK FOR IT
Which do you think is more important for getting what you want in life: what you know or who you know? If you believe the answer is who, then you probably believe that success comes from connections.
People who believe in connections think they would have it made if only they had been born into the right family. Or they think their fortunes would suddenly improve if they met the right person. But those beliefs are misplaced. Relationships are certainly satisfying. And knowing good people has its rewards. But connections alone will neither improve the life of someone who is off track nor guarantee success. If they did, the children of every successful businessperson would have it made. And the siblings of every U.S. president would be highly successful. But you know that’s not true. Remember Billy Carter? Ultimately, no one can network himself to success unless he has something to offer in the first place.
© 2004 by John C. Maxwell.
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