Everyone is obsessed with success these days. The demand for any kind of insight into how entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk got to where they are – or were, in the case of Jobs – is insatiable.
Unfortunately, it’s all a complete waste of time. Neither the desire to be successful nor knowing how anyone else did it is likely to make the slightest difference in how things turn out for you. There are three reasons why:
First, success is amorphous. Not only does it mean different things to different people, it will mean different things at different times in your life. More important, it usually takes years, sometimes decades of experience just to figure out what you want and how you define success.
Second, success is a result, and typically a long-term one at that. It’s rare and elusive. If you chase it, you’re not likely to achieve it. Ironically, had Branson, Jobs and Musk been obsessed with success, they never would have achieved what they achieved. It’s far more important to focus on what’s right in front of you, the here and now, as they did.
Third, whatever success means to you, how you get there is also specific to you. You’re far better off figuring out what your own interests and gifts are than trying to emulate someone else’s. You simply can’t copy and paste what makes you, you. Everyone is unique. Everyone is different.
Some of us know what we love and are best suited to do from the get-go, but the vast majority figure that out over time and through experience.
The best way to start is to forget all about success. Instead, just take one step at a time. If you want to run, first you must learn to walk. Get out in the world and work. Meet people. Experience. Try things. See what you like to do. What sparks your curiosity. What resonates with you. What gets you excited.
Those are all signs. Pay attention. Go where opportunity leads you. Listen to your intuition. Keep in mind, it’s not going to be glamourous. It’s not going to be your dream job, at least not at first. That almost never happens, for any of us. But if you have faith and follow your instincts, you will eventually find work you love and your unique gifts will materialize.
Here are three stories that highlight how well that works:
Steve Jobs had one hell of a time trying to figure out what to do with his life. He was lost at first. He spent months in India and learned about Buddhism. He took a calligraphy class and found the artistry beautiful and fascinating. He worked the night shift at Atari. That’s where he met Steve Wozniak and became interested in computing. Apple was born.
By following his intuition and curiosity, Jobs discovered his own unique gifts, divined iconic products that changed our lives, and became one of the greatest business leaders in American history.
Richard Branson dropped out at 16 and started a youth culture magazine that interviewed some rock stars and advertised records. He loved the music scene but not how expensive albums were, so he started a discount mail-order record business, followed by a record store, then a recording studio. The first release was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which was used in the theme for The Exorcist and became a smash hit. Branson signed other recording artists and, well, you know the rest.
By using the success of each business to bootstrap the next -- one step at a time -- Branson grew the Virgin Group into an enormous conglomerate and one of the world’s most recognized brands. Had it been anyone else or had he done it differently, I doubt if things would have worked out as they did.
Growing up in a no-frills working class family, I had no concept of what success meant. But my folks wanted me to have a chance for a better life, so they fed my curiosity -- my insatiable thirst for knowledge -- and instilled in me a strong work ethic. After college, I found my way to the high-tech industry, where I applied my love of science and math and a powerful drive to be the best at what I do to make my parents proud.
That unique path that utilized my unique gifts took me to the top of the corporate ladder. And while it worked for me, I’m pretty sure it would not have worked for the likes of Jobs and Branson. The same is true of every successful entrepreneur and executive I’ve ever known. The only thing we all have in common is that each of us is unique.
The lesson is simple. Forget about success and how anyone else did it. Just get out and work. Experience. Take one step at a time, follow your intuition and interests, and stay true to yourself. Someday you’ll look back and realize that you were successful because you followed your own unique path, not someone else’s.