How to Be Successful in Life, Part 2 

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 16, 2012

Our discussion continues about the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for real success in life. If you missed Part 1, start there. In that first part, we emphasized the importance of reading with care, writing well, developing your problem solving and critical thinking powers, together with learning about decision making techniques. That article concluded with recommending that you train your creative thinking ability, since that is so closely connected with the Big Two of problem solving and decision making.

Now we continue with another set of behaviors that are important (perhaps essential) to becoming a success.

7. Plan.

As the saying is, "Planning is such an obvious requirement for any successful effort that no one bothers to do it." It's a cultural thing that we have no patience and can't wait to get started on a project after the slimmest thought and what we call planning. "How are you going to hook that up?" "I have a plan. I just don't know what it is yet."

I once had a discussion with an academic dean about planning, asking why the college didn't do it very well. "We don't like plans," he told me, "because they get in the way of what we want to do." It seems that many people feel that they will be restrained and constrained by any plans they make. But plans can be used as guidelines, and they can be adjusted for the right reason. A plan can save time, money, and energy--three things in limited personal supply.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Assemble your tools before you begin a project. Whether you're going to overhaul an engine, install a door, write a research paper, bake a cake, or go on a trip, take the time and effort to gather all the tools you will need before you start.

B. Create checklists for recurring activities. How often I have regretted not making checklists. Driving from point A where my tools are to point B where I need to use them is repeatedly frustrating because I didn't plan well enough to pack everything I needed. And then forgetting to pick up item C to bring back to point A simply grates on one.

C. Take time to think about what you want to do. How does the small plan or activity fit into the large plan of your life? I was about to take off the water dispenser nozzle from my refrigerator when I realized that my plan for the evening was to read. I stopped puttering around and got refocused. Too often there is the temptation to do something that seems to be a need or a desirable job, yet it is the life activity equivalent of a red herring. It steals our focus. So resist it.

8. Arrive on time.

Yeah, we've all laughed at the saying, "Fifty percent of success comes from just showing up. The other fifty percent comes from being on time." And maybe you've been amused by the saying, "The only time we use late and great to refer to the same person is when that person is dead." Lateness disrupts meetings, delays plans and schedules, and offends those waiting. Prima donnas arrive late; if  you arrive late, guess how others label you?

Arrive at 7:55 for an 8:00 meeting and you will be labeled competent, dependable, reliable, and capable. Arrive at 8:05 for an 8:00 meeting and you'll be labeled undependable, unreliable, disruptive, incapable, and even weak or lazy. "Sorry I was late," you say. "There was a traffic jam on the freeway." "Well, all right then," your boss says. But his mental note that he writes about you is "Makes excuses." Oh, and "Arrives late. Not dependable."

Three things you can do to start.

A. Plan to arive early. For a drive that takes 20 minutes, leave 45 minutes early. Take a book or other reading material with you. That 20-minute drive can take a lot longer if there is a traffic accident.

B. When  you have an appointment at a place you've never been to, scout out the destination early. A few days before an examination I needed to take at a test facility, I got the map and drove down to the place, got out of the car and walked up the stairs to the very door where I would need to go. On test day I had no confusion over the address (was that Green Street North or Green Street South?), the exits, turns, the building (which was a bit of a challenge to locate, having no address number on it), and the offices. The last thing you want to worry about when you're going to see the doctor, take a test, meet an auditor or whatever, is where the building or the office is.

C. Double your alarm clocks. "My alarm clock didn't go off," is probably the most common excuse for tardiness, even more than "My car wouldn't start" or "There was an accident on the freeway." So set two clocks. Nice wake-to-music alarms are pretty inexpensive, and most cell phones have alarms built in.

9. Be passionate.

Engagement in and enthusiasm for your work not only help you do a better job, but they give you satisfaction about life itself. Doing what you love to do makes work seem almost like fun, gives you less stress, and increases self esteem because  you willingly work to do a better job on something you really care about. Not many people think, "I really love what I do, so I'm going to do a lousy job at it." So find some line of work you can naturally feel passionate about, something you can enthusiastically throw your whole heart and mind into.  What is it that you want to stay up until midnight working on?

Three things you can do to start.

A. The "duh" advice is to find out what you really like and want to do. Don't choose a job just for money. Find one that you can really throw yourself into, one that tests your skills and makes you feel alive. Looking forward to Mondays is a good sign that you are in a job you can be passionate about. On the other hand, if it's Tuesday and you're already thinking about Friday, start thinking about a job change.

B. Learn as much as you can about your job. Let's say you have an entry level job selling major appliances like washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, freezers, and so forth. Get hold of the owner's manuals, grab a book or google some articles about these items and learn about them. What constitues an "energy star" appliance? How do you replace the ice maker? Why is a 700-rpm spin cycle a good thing for a washer? Not only will customers love you, but you will become the "go to" person in the department, on the road to a raise or promotion. And you'll start to become enthusiastic about your job. That's becoming passionate. For, as Aristotle says, "Action leads to belief." What we do we come to believe in.

Motivation is everything.
--Lee Iacoca*

Former President, Chairman, and CEO of Chrysler

C. If you don't know what will produce the commitment and interest that defines passion for a particular job, take a job aptitude test, read up on several different jobs that might interest you, and even try a new job. The employment aptitude tests help you identify and think about such items as

Considerations like these will help guide your thinking about what you'd like to do--with passion.

10. Develop a hungry mind.

Successful people want to know stuff. They are curious about how things work, from mechanical things to politics to social structures and interactive styles. They always want to know more. Maybe as two-year olds they were the irritating kids who always asked, "Why?" to every answer Mommy gave. If you are not the hungry mind, curious type, you can develop an interest in many things by spending time with them--experiencing them, reading about them, talking about them with others. Remember Aristotle's dictum, "Behavior influences belief." So if you act curious and force yourself to inquire, you'll actually improve your curiosity quotient. Samuel Johnson, in Rambler 5 notes that anyone who "enlarges his curiosity . . . multiplies the inlets to happiness."

Three things you can do to start.

A. Get curious. Pick a topic that you have wondered about but never took the time to look up and--drum roll--take the time to look it up. You can start with simple questions such as, "What's the difference between calcium carbonate and calcium citrate? Is one better than the other as a dietary supplement? Why? Next, pick a book about a topic you know nothing about.

B. Ask questions. Find people who know stuff and ask them about their work. A couple of generations ago, a kid who saw a workman installing wiring, or nailing the frame of a house, or digging up a water pipe would stop and watch with intense curiosity. The kid would often ask, "Hey, Mister. What are you doing?" At work and in social gatherings, find someone whose job you don't know much about and ask all about it.

C. Discuss with others. Talking to friends about topics of substance has at least a twofold value. First, you learn things, and you learn alternate viewpoints and ideas. Other people know stuff you don't; they have already made the mistake you have been thinking was a good idea, and they have the reinforcing arguments and data that support your views as well as the counterarguments and data that argue against your views. But the second value discussion has is that you find out what you think and why. Seventeenth century writer Francis Bacon puts it this way in his essay on Friendship: "Whoever has his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another. He tosses his thoughts more easily; he marshals them more orderly; he sees how they look when they are turned into words." Seeing how your thoughts look when they are turned into words means that you discover what you think when  you have to speak (or write).

11. Be proactive.

There are several kinds of employees. One kind will do a job if the supervisor asks two or three times. Another will get right on the job as soon as he or she is asked. Still others will get to work on a job as soon as they see it. These are the "see a job, do a job" kind of people. They used to be competitive. But to be really successful, you have to go a step further, to "hunt down a job and do it." Employers are looking for employees who can find out what needs to be done and work on it proactively, energetically, and enthusiastically. They want people whose thoughts never include "That's not my job," when they see a need.

Three things you can do to start.

A. One of my own guiding principles is, "Leave every person and every place better than the way you found them." Pick up the hot dog wrapper lying under the tree in the park, offer to help that confused customer in the store when there are no employees nearby, put the fallen loaf of bread back on the shelf in the grocery store, inform management when the faucet in the restroom won't shut off. Small things, indeed, but they are not only good in themselves and incremental moves toward happiness, but they help you develop the habits that will make you the proactive person you should be. Passivity is the problem.

B. Think down the road. Ask yourself, "What would be a good thing to do that will _______." For the blank, fill in with "make Jane happier," "improve this business process," "make this thing work better," "save money," "improve the safety of this house [intersection, process]," or whatever you see before you. It's time to quit the tribe of Statusquoites and join the Futurists.

C. Get started. Learn the habit of proactivity by being proactive. Get out of your chair and get going.

12. Get over yourself.

Proud, self-centered, narcissistic egotism, complicated by the resulting feelings of entitlement, has created a culture, not merely of "Me first, " but "Me only." That old joke rings too true these days: "Well, I've talked about myself long enough. Why don't  you talk about me for awhile?" I once had a friend who managed to turn every statement in every conversation to herself. Say something like, "We went to Disneyland yesterday," and instead of, "Great! How was it?" you'd hear her say, "I was at Disneyland a couple of months ago. We rode all the big rides, but my favorite is the Matterhorn. And I like the fireworks, but I don't like--." You get the idea.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Serve others. It's too bad that more people don't realize how happy they can make themselves by serving others.

B. Focus on others in conversation. Instead of talking about yourself, ask questions of other people. If the topic has substance, you'll learn something, as mentioned in the tip above. Being a good listener is a powerful way to make and keep friends. And even with strangers or acquaintances, if you just listen to another person who needs to talk, you'll soon hear that person telling his or her friends what a "great conversationalist" you are. Now, focusing on others in conversation doesn't mean that you're obligated to suffer a motormouth. 

By listening to others, you'll have the opportunity to become an empathetic person, someone who understands the struggles and problems of others. It's commonly said that if you walk up to a stranger and say, "I heard about your problem," you'll get one of two responses, "Who told you?" or "Which one?" It's unlikely that you'll ever hear, "What problem?" because we all face real life.

C. Put up a sign at home and in your workspace that says, "It's Not About You." This is a good notice for those who visit you, but of course it's primarily a reminder for you. We are not the focus of the universe.

This article concludes with Part 3.

And here is Part 1 if you missed it.

See also, The Two Secrets to Success in College.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at