“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero
Do you know what success is? It of course depends on your perspective — where you sit, who you are, and what matters to you.
More importantly, do you know what it takes to be successful? That is, what you need to do to achieve success as you define it?
There’s a variety of leadership traits that we can identify in successful people. Things like wisdom, good communication, humanity, and all of the other topics we cover on the Timeless Leadership podcast. (Episode Archive | Follow on your favorite podcast platform)
Those virtues are admirable and worthy of pursuit. But they’re lofty and may take years to master, particularly as you’re awaiting that first opportunity to lead people. Without the requisite position, some of them are difficult to practice.
But the common denominator success — one trait that’s practical and practicable — the secret of every successful person is forming the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.
What did Thomas Edison do? He achieved fame and greatness for his many patents as the electrical age came into focus. But for every invention or refinement he made, he had an exponential number of attempts.
“I have not failed. I have just found 9,999 ways that do not work.” — Thomas Edison
Success Boiled Down in One Speech
In 1940, Albert E.N. Gray, an executive at Prudential Insurance gave a speech to the National Association of Life Underwriters. While it was delivered to insurance professionals, it applies equally to anyone seeking success in any aspect of their life.
Gray’s “The Common Denominator of Success” speech has some points worth repeating here. I have updated some of the language to be more inclusive.
Of course, like most of us, I had been brought up on the popular belief that the secret of success is hard work, but I had seen so many people work hard without succeeding and so many people succeed without working hard that I had become convinced that hard work was not the real secret even though in most cases it might be one of the requirements.
And so I set out on a voyage of discovery which carried me through biographies and autobiographies and all sorts of dissertations on success and the lives of successful people until I finally reached a point at which I realized that the secret I was trying to discover lay not only in what they did, but also in what made them do it.
I realized further that the secret for which I was searching must not only apply to every definition of success, but since it must apply to everyone to whom it was offered, it must also apply to everyone who had ever been successful. In short, I was looking for the common denominator of success.
And because that is exactly what I was looking for, that is exactly what I found.
It’s worth pausing here to reflect on the intentionality behind Gray’s pursuit. It’s akin to what we saw Sherlock Holmes say when he found something no one else had:
“It was invisible, buried in the mud. I only saw it because I was looking for it.”
Successful People Don’t Mind Not Liking Things
The common denominator of success — the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful — lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don't like to do.
The things that failures don’t like to do are the very things that you and I and other human beings, including successful people, naturally don’t like to do. In other words, we’ve got to realize right from the start that success is something which is achieved by the minority of people, and is therefore unnatural and not to be achieved by following our natural likes and dislikes nor by being guided by our natural preferences and prejudices.
We don’t like to call on people who don’t want to see us and talk to them about something they don’t want to talk about. Any reluctance to follow a definite prospecting program, to use prepared sales talks, to organize time and to organize effort are all caused by this one basic dislike.
Perhaps you have wondered why it is that our biggest producers seem to like to do the things that you don't like to do. They don’t!
But if they don’t like to do these things, then why do they do them? Because by doing the things they don’t like to do, they can accomplish the things they want to accomplish. Successful people are influenced by the desire for pleasing results. Failures are influenced by the desire for pleasing methods and are inclined to be satisfied with such results as can be obtained by doing things they like to do.
Why Successful People Do What Failures Don’t
Why are successful people able to do things they don't like to do while failures are not? Because successful people have a purpose strong enough to make them form the habit of doing things they don’t like to do in order to accomplish the purpose they want to accomplish.
Every single qualification for success is acquired through habit. People form habits and habits form futures. If you do not deliberately form good habits, then unconsciously you will form bad ones. You are the kind of person you are because you have formed the habit of being that kind of person, and the only way you can change is through habit.
This is reminiscent from that scene at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia when Lawrence puts out a match with his bare fingers, and William Potter, a junior officer, attempts the same thing, burning his fingers in the process:
“Ooh! It damn well ’urts!”
“Certainly it hurts.”
“What’s the trick then?”
“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
Success Comes From Continued Habits
But before you decide to adopt these success habits, let me warn you of the importance of habit to your decision. I have attended many sales meetings and sales congresses during the past ten years and have often wondered why, in spite of the fact that there is so much good in them, so many people seem to get so little lasting good out of them. Perhaps you have attended sales meetings in the past and have left determined to do the things that would make you successful or more successful only to find your decision or determination waning at just the time when it should be put into effect or practice.
Here’s the answer. Any resolution or decision you make is simply a promise to yourself, which isn’t worth a tinker’s dam unless you have formed the habit of making it and keeping it.
Habits Are Formed Through Purpose
And you won’t form the habit of making it and keeping it unless right at the start you link it with a definite purpose that can be accomplished by keeping it. In other words, any resolution or decision you make today has to be made again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and the next, and so on. If you continue the process of making it each morning and keeping it each day, you will finally wake up some morning a different person in a different world, and you will wonder what has happened to you and the world you used to live in.
Here’s what has happened. Your resolution or decision has become a habit and you don’t
have to make it on this particular morning. For the first time in your life, you have become master of yourself and master of your likes and dislikes by surrendering to your purpose in life.
That is why behind every success there must be a purpose and that is what makes purpose so important to your future. Your future is not going to depend on economic conditions or outside influences of circumstances over which you have no control. Your future is going to depend on your purpose in life. So let’s talk about purpose.
First of all, your purpose must be practical and not visionary. But in making your purpose practical, be careful not to make it logical. Make it a purpose of the sentimental or emotional type. Remember needs are logical while wants and desires are sentimental and emotional.
Your needs will push you just so far, but when your needs are satisfied, they will stop pushing you. If, however, your purpose is in terms of wants and desires, then your wants and desires will keep pushing you long after your needs are satisfied and until your wants and desires are fulfilled.
And if it’s an honest purpose, you will be honest and honorable in the accomplishment of it. But as long as you live, don’t ever forget that while you may succeed beyond your fondest hopes and your greatest expectations, you will never succeed beyond the purpose to which you are willing to surrender.
Furthermore, your surrender will not be complete until you have formed the habit of doing the things that failures don't like to do.
There are finer points, more details, and other directions in the full speech. But it identifies the core of what we need to commit ourselves to if we want to achieve success.
Gray’s work is as timely and inspirational as when it was first delivered, and is available in a booklet if you’d like to read the entire thing. (The Common Denominator of Success | Amazon)
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Two more things:
And on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. ET, Dorie Clark, author of The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinking in a Short-Term World, joins me on Timeless Leadership on Fireside Chat. Join us. If not, catch the show on replay on the podcast.