How to Be Successful in Life, Part 3 

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 13, 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. Part 2 covered planning, arriving on time, following your passion for a job, developing a  hungry mind that wants to know everything, becoming a proactive person instead of someone who sits around waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. And then that ego check--get over yourself--as the path to both success and happiness.

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

13. Learn to Adapt.

As the saying is, "Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken." Life is unpredictable and it involves constant change. You've heard the cliche, "Change is the only constant." And you might  have heard the proverb, "To live is to change, and to change is to live." And here's a final aphorism from The Book of Sayings, implying that change is in the future, whatever your rank and role: "This too shall pass." So life is all about flexibility and being adaptable to new circumstances and situations.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Expect the unexpected. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but life is unpredictable. That's right. Well, now that you have all slapped your foreheads and dropped you jaws in astonishment, we can continue. All right, I apologize for the sarcasm. We all receive curve balls when we expect fast balls. So then, why are we so surprised every time something unexpected occurs? And why do so many of us say things like, "I can't believe this is happening," or "Why me?" The point is that we often waste too much time marveling over some unexpected event when we should be going on with our lives. You've probably seen this. You and the car in front of you are driving down the street normally when another car zooms around both of you, cuts in front of the guy ahead and then turns into a driveway.  Yeah, it was stupid and dangerous and the  crazy driver could have better just gotten in behind you  to turn in to that driveway. You blow it off. But the guy in front of you has to stop, shake his head in disbelive, stare at the direction the other car went, raise his hands in that "what's wrong with him" gesture. It requires maybe fifteen or twenty seconds of this before the guy drives on. If he had taken this advice, on the other hand, he wouldn't gawk in surprise or disbelief; he would simply think, "Another reckless driver," and continue on his way.

B. Read up on change management. Yes, other people and organizations face constant change, and to help them change with the least difficulty, a whole cottage industry of books, articles, seminars, Webcasts, videos and consultants has grown up to help people learn the change process, from stragtegy to tactics, from emotional cycles to psychic pressure. Change is often felt as a threat and resisted because it's results are always a bit uncertain. Learning the way change works in the world and on yourself will  help you become more easily adaptable to life.

Our environment is changing
and we have to change even faster.
--Didier Lombard*

Chairman and former CEO of French Telecom

C. Perform thought experiments. To get your brain in the habit of easy adaptation, engage in thought experiments that require you to behave in creative ways as  you flex your thinking. For example, what would you do if a natural disaster left you with a wrecked house, no car, and no cell phone? How would you survive if you were left alone on an island with only a pocket knife, a comb, and a wallet full of credit cards? You might want to read Robinson Crusoe just for stimulation.

14. Become a Lifelong Learner.

Think you're going to be doing the same job for your entire working career? LOL an ROFL, my friend. And even if your job sticks around, do you think it will be the same, requiring the same knowledge and skills, in five years? Think how much new technology has arrived in the past five years and how much of the old has been updated. If a teacher today used the same approaches and teaching methods as he or she did five years ago, that person would likely be disciplined for using such outdated techniques. Changes in learning theory and new neuroscience-based information about how the brain works have occurred in the last five years and must be incorporated for the best student memory retention.

Every week, there is a different set of issues, a different challenge,
something new to think about.
--Meg Whitman*

Meg has served as an executive at Disney, DreamWorks, Hasbro,
Procter and Gamble, eBay, and Hewlett-Packard

Three things you can do to start.

A. Read the journal, books, articles, and even blogs in your subject matter area. If you are still in high school, find the popular magazine devoted to the field. For example, if you want to study economics in college, read The Economist. Note that nearly every subject area has an online periodical or two, often with free access to at least part of the site.

B. Start your library today. Choose books of interest to you, buy them and read them, annotating them fully with underlinings, marginal notes, highlighter, diagrams, symbols and so forth. Book stores and Web sites have bargain books areas where you can find works of interest to you for  a reasonable amount of money.

C. Buy and listen to audio books while you drive. Drive time to and from work or school need not be wasted listening to the same songs over and over on the pop station. Use that time to "read" important books. Many books are available in audio format, some in bargain books. And there are free audio books available for download. Simply google "free audio books" and see what you get.

15. Get Some Credentials.

 We are a society obsessed with credentials--degrees, diplomas, certifications, continuing education units, etc. And while these credentials mean less than we assume (a college degree does not guarantee that its holder has any knowledge or skill), they are needed for opening the first and sometimes next door in the employment world.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Get a BA or BS from an accredited, real college or university. Graduate degrees are good (MA, MS, MBA, MFA and so on). Just remember that in a few years, you most likely won't be working in the area of your degree, so it's better to get a degree that teaches you how to think and analyze than one in a super specific subject area.

B. Intern. To discover what a job in a particular area is really like and to gain experience in an area so you can put it on your resume, find an internship. Some are even paid now. Everyone wants experienced employees, even brand new employees just out of school. So, for example, if you can demonstrate you worked in a convalescent hospital--even as a volunteer--you're more likely to get hired as a nurse's aide than the graduate who never volunteered.

C. Take the relevant certification examination to get certified in the area of your interest. A real estate salesman's license, a pharmacy technician certification, commercial driver's license, a teaching credential--get the necessary certifications and add any "nice to have" credentials too. Even if there are no official certifications,join the trade association and subscribe to the trade journal in the area of your interest. And if there are third party magazines in the area, choose what you can afford (some are free) and subscribe. Oh, and read them.

16. Expect Adversity.

Apparently, some people believe they live in Utopia where nothing bad ever happens. And then when it does, these folks are just shocked--shocked--that something bad can happen to them. Those who do not expect adversity are often disoriented when it arrives, losing time and focus trying to process the events with their "no adversity" expectations. Those who have learned that disasters and challenges are part of life quickly understand the situation and immediately focus on adjusting, remedying, and even finding the silver lining. To put this in fancy terms, if you have pre-conceptualized the possibility of adverse events, you will be ready to begin the remediation process right away.

Three things you can do to start.

A. As with learning to adapt (above), performing some thought experiments will help your mental and emotional preparation. Imagine some adverse events (house burning down, auto wreck, getting sick) and determine how you think you would handle them. You can't really know, of course, but think of it as an exercise for your heart that strengthens you. Remember to include the F's--friends, family, and faith--in your processing.

B. Talk with someone or several people who have faced personal loss. How did they handle it and how and when did they recover?

C. Read a few adversity-overcome stories. Bethany Hamilton's Soul Surfer comes to mind. She's the girl who lost an arm to a shark while she was surfing in Hawaii. Thee are many others. It turns out that people who have actually faced horrible events usually endure and recover much better than those who have never experienced such a tragedy can imagine. So we can learn from them.

17. Persevere.

There is a saying, "Most people fail because they are willing to spend only nine minutes before they give up on a problem that requies ten minutes to solve." The more we become a society of instant gratification, the less time we are willing to spend on a problem before we give up. Imagine if Thomas Edison had said, "Well, I've tried ten different things and I just can't make this lightbulb idea work, so I'm going to quit and play with my record player." Instead, Edison persevered, testing (according to the Smithsonian) more than 1600 materials before carbonized bamboo lasted through the endurance test.

Perseverance involves both a habit of persistence and an attitude of determination. It means not giving up easily and in some cases, not giving up at all. During  the darkest days of World War II, when it appeared that England would soon be invaded by the Nazis, Churchill regularly went on the radio to address the people of England, to state the determination of the government and to encourage the citizens to persevere.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight inthe hills; we shall never surrender.
--Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940

From Churchill Speaks, Ed. R. R. James, Chelsea House, 714

Three things you can do to start.

A. Find some good historical examples of people who didn't give up and were rewarded by success after a long trial. Seems as if there are examples from those treasure hunters looking for old shipwrecks, searching for the Titanic, solving the Enigma coding machine, the challenge to break the sound barrier or put a man on the moon. 

B. Challenge yourself with a project that requires perseverance to complete (stop smoking, stop using four-letter words, lose 10 pounds, go to the gym three times a week for a month, read for thirty minutes a day--yes that's hard with today's lifestyle--learn three new vocabulary words each day for three months). There are many things to choose from. But whatever you choose, developing the self discipline to keep at it will help you persist in other areas later on.

C. Remember the little kid. When he falls down, he gets right back up again. Remember the puppy. Put some peanut butter inside a toy and he will try for hours to get to it.

18. Be Positive.

The title of this one is less important than the behavior. It could have been called, Be cheerful and optimistic. The point is not that you should be Pollyanna, but that you shouldn't be Scrooge. There are plenty of people already who are willing--even eager--to tell you why an idea is bad or won't work or will be opposed. They sometimes like to think of themselves as realists. But their coworkers call them obstacles, negative attitude, drama queens or drama kings. Immediate criticism and resistance to ideas, especially when it's predictable, simply adds stress to the situation.

Now, I can hear the, um, "realists" saying, "Oh, so when the boss says he wants to buy Amalgated Slide Rule Manufacturing, you're saying we should clap our hands and say, 'Great idea, boss. You're brilliant.'" I hope the rest of you understand that I'm talking about a general habit of personality, sort of like a "can do" attitude. Maybe attititude is the better word. Others appreciate (and promote) those with a positive, confident attitude, even in the face of adversity. I have often recommended the short story Youth by Joseph Conrad as a good example of meeting adversity with a positive attitude. The narrator is on a coal freighter (this in the nineteenth century), which experiences a string of worsening problems, culminating in the cargo blowing up the ship. While the captain is driven crazy by the disasters, the narrator views each one as a new, wonderful experience that tests his strength and courage. And since I'm "untroubled by modesty," let me recommend one of my own stories, The Strange Adventure.

Do not fear mistakes.
Wisdom is often born of mistakes.
--Paul V. Galvin*

Co-founder and former CEO of Motorola

Three things you can do to start.

A. Offer to help. When people come to you with a problem, ask how you can help them.  The saying is, "Two together can do the work of three by themselves." Even if all you do is give advice or make cookies, the moral support is priceless. When I used to work on my car (because it was both possible before computerized complexity and necessary before quality improved), my mom would come down to the garage carrying a tray with a cup of coffee and some cookies or other goodie. That was her way of helping. "They also serve who only stand and wait, " John Milton says in one of his sonnets.

B. Encourage others. A few words of encouragement can give the confidence someone needs to accomplish great feats. I replaced the plumbing in an entire house after a neighbor friend said he was sure I could do it. Of course, don't encourage people to do things they really can't or that would involve an unacceptable risk ("Sure, I feel confident that you can rewire that high voltage circuit without turning off the power--just wear rubber shoes and be careful").

C. Look for ways obstacles can be overcome, not for as many obstacles as you can think of. To quote yet again my favorite author, Samuel Johnson, "Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome." It's good to look for tradeoffs, downsides, and unintended consequences, but if you are labeled "the can't-do person," you and your ideas will be discounted.

19. Act with Integrity.

 Be honest and of good character. Let your word be  your bond. Don't cheat on tests or spouses. According to a study, the number one characteristic employees want in a boss or executive is integrity. (Competence was second.) If you become known as a slime ball, it will be very difficult to regain a good reputation. Remember that the Internet is worldwide, 24 hours a day. You can't erase it. It used to be said that a secret is something you tell one person at a time. Now a secret is something that isn't posted to the Internet until a week or two later. The Chinese have a great proverb here: "The only way to keep something secret is not to do it."

It's about trust. Live in a way that shows you can be trusted--with a personal confidence, with money, with doing what you promise, with an assignment. When you work with others, be sure each team member receives due recognition for his or her part.

Talent, skills, and training aren't enough. They must be teamed
together wiwtih the inner qualities of integrity and trustworthiness.
--Hans Helmerich*

President and CEO of Helmerich and Payne, oil and gas drilling company

Three things you can do to start.

A. Tell the truth. Liars seem not to be aware that everyone sees through them in about 14 minutes. And that's how long it takes to lose completely any respect you were about to bestow or had already granted.  If you can't tell the truth,  don't say anything.

B. Be fair, unbiased, a straight shooter, open, honest, and communicative. Have a value system with good ethical principles. Don't get into short cuts to success. Short cuts eventually turn into dead ends.

C. Keep the Ten Commandments. I was thinking about this entry and was going to write something like, "Don't cheat, don't steal, don't lie," when it occurred to me that I was walking down the Ten Commandments checklist. So, in case you have forgotten them, here is a brief statement of the list:

  • Make God your only god.
  • Avoid worshipping idols.
  • Don't use God's name as a swear word.
  • Keep the day of rest holy.
  • Honor your father and mother.
  • Don't murder.
  • Don't commit adultery,
  • Don't steal.
  • Don't lie.
  • Don't desire your neighbor's stuff.
  • 20. Make Friends

    Having friends brings joy and satisfaction and even meaning to life. Friends provide encouragement, advice, and help--all of which will contribute to your success in life. And they also know other people. So when you make friends, you gain social networks. And who you know is often a larger factor in rising up the ladder to success than what you know. This doesn't mean that friends are to be used for your personal gain. It means that friends can let you know when a job or project that might interest you is available.

    Three things you can do to start.

    A. To have a friend, be a friend. Take an interest in other people. Invest time in them. And don't keep score. Friendship is not transactional ("Let's see, last time he paid but we used my car, so that means. . . ").

    B. Read Aristotle's discussion of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8 and Book 9. Pay attention to the three kinds of friendship he describes: friendship based on the pleasure the friends give each other, friendship based on how useful each friend is to the other, and friendship based on shared ethical values--what Aristotle calls the frienship of  the good. Only this last kind of friendship will endure, says Aristotle, for with the cessation of pleasure that type of friendship ends, and with the end of usefulness, that type of friendship ends.

    C. Work on the qualities of character that other people admire and want to be friends with those who have them. Many of them are in this essay, including integrity, a positive outlook,  and dependability. Be kind to others and be supportive of their goals. Show respect. You'll soon have several friends--including a few fakes, perhaps, but mostly genuine folks like yourself.


    These characteristics and behaviors are not an exhaustive list of things to help you succeed in life, but if you implement them, you will have an enormous advantage over others and you will have a much happier, more rewarding life. What you should do now is get started. There are more than seven dozen "things you can do to start" described here. Pick three to work on today. And then (as number 17 says), Persevere.

    Finally, remember that success is not a destination. It's a journey. Success is making reasonable progress toward worthy goals. Therefore, you can be successful in life starting right now.

    Read Part 1 of this essay.

    Read Part 2 of this essay.

    See also, The Two Secrets to Success in College.

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