Congratulations, after running on fumes for years—pulling all nighters, consuming Adderall and cramming for your exams—you’ve finally made it. You’ve finished school and earned your degree. But before you’ve even had a chance to catch your breath everyone’s asking, “So, what’s next?”
To arm you in the coming struggle to pursue your post-graduate goals it may help to take a look at some proven practices from real life. These core practices come from over three-dozen superachievers who we interviewed for “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It Well,” including actor Alec Baldwin, Zappos’s CEO Tony Hsieh, sports icon Yogi Berra, Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan, and Laura Linney.
No matter what field these extraordinary people mastered, whether it was business, the arts, entertainment, sports, science or technology, we found that these practices have been key to their success. You, too, can apply them to your own work and career.
LEARN FROM FAILURE: You may not realize it but you will fail. And fail frequently. You’ll fail more than you’ll succeed. And the higher you set your sights the more you’ll fail. But failure is the best teacher. Ask Bill Gross a serial entrepreneur who has made a science of learning from failure. Gross is founder of Idealab, a business incubator that has started nearly a hundred companies with earnings of over a billion dollars. Gross told us the story of how he created eToys, an online toy store, in 1997. Within a couple of years, eToys was experiencing explosive growth. By 1999, sales were projected to increase by 800 percent to $300 million. Except that they didn’t. The tech bubble burst. Although eToys sales were phenomenal, they were only half of what had been projected. And since the company had overspent so wildly in anticipation of the holiday season, the business went bust. But Gross learned a valuable lesson. Markets can change on a dime, so no matter how rosy the future may look, don’t overextend yourself financially or you may not make it though the next business cycle. Of course, since then, Gross has gone on to see his fair share of start-up failures mixed in with the successes. But with each failure he learns about what didn’t work and makes sure that he does not repeat the same mistake. Whether you go into business, law, sports or the arts, one of the greatest courses you will ever take will be taught to you by the failures of your life. And if you pay attention, these lessons will stick with you forever.
BUILD A COMMUNITY: In order to achieve success, you’ll need to reach out to others and rely on them. So, get over your pride. Whether you’re starting a business, a rock band or going for an entry-level job, tap anybody and everybody to find contacts in your field. Build your connections. Cultivate relationships that could lead to mentoring. Each superachiever we spoke to described a community of people that they had built up, that was unique to their particular endeavor. These communities might include friends, mentors, investors, colleagues, customers, fans, sometimes even, competitors. You can think of a community as a group of people who will have a stake in your success. Jessica Watson was only 11-years old when she first got the idea to sail around the world—alone. She told us that she had no connections, no experience, no family funding and even described herself a “fraidy cat.” But at an age when most tweens are concerned with getting the latest smart phone or planning the next slumber party, Watson understood that in order to make her dream come true, she’d need help. A lot of it. She wrote to newspaper reporters to spread her story. Each mentor she found connected her to others. She went to boatyards and marinas to find sailors and boat owners, willing to teach her and take her on board to work for free to learn about sailing, rigging, navigation and meteorology. As her journey became more of a reality she needed to find sponsors to buy her a boat and equipment. Because of this young girl’s ability to bring together friends, family and strangers to donate time, expertise, and emotional support, she was able to make her 7-month solo journey around the world at 16. No man (or 16 year old girl) is an island. And there’s no better time than now to start building a community to help you get to where you want to go.
TELL YOUR STORY: Unless you’re already a YouTube sensation not many people know who you are. So what will make you stand out among the bazillions of other people vying for the same job or grant or whatever you’re pursuing? Numerous studies have shown that a well-crafted and compelling story engages the reader (or viewer or listener) far more than a set of facts. To tell your story, you first need to clarify who you are, what it is you want and what you have to offer. Once you know this, you can shape that information into a compelling story that can help you get the attention of whoever you’re approaching, whether it’s a potential mentor, employer or group of Kickstarter contributors. Take the power pop band OK Go. Their dream was to make it big. But after some early success, their record sales were floundering. Rather than to continue to communicate with their fans through their record company’s outdated mode of publicity, they decided to tell their story their own way. They created a DIY, one-take music video of themselves, dancing on treadmills for their song, “Here We Go Again.” It was the first intentionally viral YouTube video. It got millions of hits, won them a best video Grammy award and captured the public’s attention. And OK Go keeps upping the ante. They have gone on to create many multi-media collaborative art projects and mind-bending videos that tell the story of the band and their music to the public. The takeaway? Find creative and compelling ways to shape your story to communicate to people who can help you along your path.
MANAGE YOUR EMOTIONS: Early on in your professional life, you can be derailed by the emotional ups and downs. You might be freaked out by financial insecurity or harbor resentment for being the office coffee fetcher with an Ivy League education. You may feel anger, frustration or despair on a daily basis. But overcoming emotional struggles, we found, was key to the success of the high achievers we spoke with. Whatever they felt— anxiety, hubris, insecurity, shame, disappointment or pride—they didn’t allow their emotions to trigger actions that would compromise their goals. Instead they had the commitment to examine those emotions and figure out effective ways to cope with them. Gary Noesner, a former FBI chief negotiator, told us about the vocational life of a hostage negotiator. Imagine facing off with a cold-blooded killer or a murderous cult leader. Suppose the only thing standing between these violent crazies and innocent lives were you. Noesner told us that under those condition the most important trait of a negotiator is not to be a militaristic die-hard but to exercise emotional self-control. In fact Neosner’s job involved building empathy and rapport with irrational hostage takers in order to help them figure out what they were feeling. Why? Because that was the surest path to Noesner’s goal of a non-violent resolution. Although you may sometimes feel like the people you are dealing with are as crazy as Noesner’s criminal counterparts, learning to observe your emotions objectively and monitor them effectively even when faced with a maddening boss, malicious co-worker or bumpy career path can put you at a tremendous advantage.
PURSUE YOUR PASSION: Studies have shown that being happy in a job can make you more productive. And so it was for the extraordinary people that we interviewed, who explained that happiness itself wasn’t their goal, it was the pursuit of happiness that actually made them happy and productive. One of the greatest examples of this was Ken Jennings, the winningest game show contestant in history, who won millions of dollars on Jeopardy!. Jennings, a self-described trivia nerd, had a lifelong dream of being on the show. But he told us that when he first graduated from college with an English Lit degree and a dream of writing, he believed that no matter how much you loved something, it wasn’t worth pursuing if it wasn’t going to pay the bills. So he got a job as a computer programmer. He didn’t audition for Jeopardy! until he was nearly 30. Once on the show, Jennings had an epiphany. Being a contestant on Jeopardy!, made him feel for the first time like someone who actually loved his “job.” And the passion that came from that not only contributed to his winning game after game but helped him see that “doing something you love really can change your life.” After his winning streak (the longest in Jeopardy! history), Jennings pursued his dream job of becoming a writer. “Now,” he told us, “I love what I do every day.” Anything you pursue in life will involve struggle, hardship and sacrifice. But if that thing you are chasing is what you love, you will have the motivation to get through the tough times. And of course like Jennings and all of the other superachievers we spoke to, you will have the deep satisfaction of loving what you do every day.
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