What does it take to succeed in life?
How high is the skills stack you need to make it big?
One thing is for sure. Success is not found by wearing the same outfit, taking cold showers, or reading five hundred pages every day. These habits are correlated with some measures of success, but they don’t cause it.
Your definition of success is bound to vary from mine in the details, but deep down we hold the same desires. Once we satisfy the basic human needs for safety, shelter, and food, as described by Maslow, we look for higher level satisfactions.
The search for companionship in its widest sense, a sense of purpose, and above all autonomy, hide beneath many of our rational and less rational activities. We can dress up our motivations in fancy language if we want to, but it comes down to this.
We want to be safe. We want to belong. We want to matter.
Everything else is froth on the top.
So if everything we do can be stripped down to very simple drivers, what do successful people do that allows them to survive and then thrive in the modern world? I don’t know for sure. But developing as a whole human being, not a lopsided one with all the success in one corner, requires four keystone skills. Work on these, and see how far you grow.
Curiosity Won’t Kill The Cat
I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.
If you’ve ever shared living space with a kitten or a toddler, you know their principal quality is endless curiosity. They explore, get into tight spaces and sometimes even escape without help, over and over. They’re not very much afraid, until they learn to be.
Adulthood squashes your curiosity. If as a child you enjoy nature, books, or music, adults try to kill your enthusiasm with boring study and assessment. Forced to dissect books and poetry, learn the Linnaeus binomial classification, or study the life of Mozart, younger you learns a hard lesson.
You learn that study is pain, teachers are the judges, and parents aren’t interested in your interests unless they bring in top grades. Then your interests become another kind of work.
You learn to mind your business and show no joy in anything, lest it be sucked from you as you’re forced to do anything but enjoy yourself. Play isn’t serious and it certainly isn’t preparing you for adult life.
Look again at the quote above. Every one of us comes into the world with that gift of curiosity. We ask questions that have no answers and some that do. But somewhere along the road to adulthood we lose our precious gift.
Curiosity is an open mind and a sincere smile. The world is as amazing as ever, but you need to open your eyes to see it. Be amazed. Look up at the stars in wonderment, and down at a flower in awe.
People share the most incredible stories if you ask questions and wait to hear the answer. If you can be open enough to reveal a little of yourself, others are empowered to do the same.
Once, I made a flippant remark about how I’d rather be gardening to the woman sitting next to me in a boring meeting. We got talking and I discovered she was also a passionate gardener. Finally I had someone who understood my struggle, was sympathetic when my Meconopsis died before flowering, and was delighted to visit the Chelsea Flower Show.
Curiosity will also help you adapt to changes. Technology has disrupted industries and lives, often for the better. Sometimes it’s difficult to sift out the things that will help you from the mass of options.
Ask yourself simple, child-like questions about new things. What does this do? How do I do X with Y? What if I wanted to do something new, who could show me how?
Whether it’s a new food or a new country, if you attend to the basic need for security, try something different regularly. If you don’t like it, no worries. You have an opinion based on experience and since you’re an adult, you don’t have to do it again.
Curiosity and open-mindedness leads to the next keystone skill.
Feel My Pain, Feel My Joy
Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.
H Jackson Browne
We’re faced daily with the evidence of inhumanity both large and small. Opinions and positions are increasingly polarised, fed by echo chambers that spring up around algorithms showing us more of the same views we already hold. We are more connected but more divided than ever.
Cynicism and numbing of emotions are inevitable when we’re fed a daily diet of sensational news stories and disasters far from home that we have no influence over. Some even advocate a news diet to avoid the distress it causes.
And yet it remains true that humans want the same things. We may name our needs differently, we may take different routes to satisfy them. But mothers want happy secure children, adults want meaning in their lives, and no matter how twisted the expression of these desires they are at heart the same.
Most of us will never hold public office. But in the equally messy politics of our own lives, within our own circle of influence, we can choose to see the other side through a more empathetic lens. We can negotiate for win-win outcomes rather than seek destruction of the opposing side just because it’s the opposing side. After all, the last time someone wronged you the pain didn’t go away, did it? It went underground, festered and grew, until it found another way out.
An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
Instead of raging, take a breath. Consider the possible reasons behind people’s behaviour that may have little to do with you as a person. None of this excuses or forgives wrongdoing, but it gives you the chance not to add to it.
You don’t have to practise random acts of generosity. Being kinder to the people in your life already is a big enough task for most of us, but one which is worthwhile. Hold the door, let someone into traffic, make a drink without being asked. If you’d love it, chances are someone else will.
On the flip side, empathy allows us to share in the joy of others too. There’s no truer friend than the one who can be honestly happy for and with you. Why not be that person for somebody else?
Empathy lets us feel the ties that bind us. We have more in common than we think. We must not give up on ourselves, which leads to the next keystone skill.
Until The End Of The Line
The difference between winning and losing is, most often, not quitting.
There’s a saying that A students end up working for C students. Consider person A, one of the hardest workers in her class. She was never in the top ten percent, and that kept her hungry. She learned at an early age that hard grind would be the key to success.
Compare with person B. Gifted with intelligence, athleticism and charm, he excelled in sports and school almost without trying. But in those last three words were the seeds of his downfall. He struggled in higher education because for the first time it required effort. He never learned how to study and college seemed too much like hard work.
You can guess which person became director at a major brand, successful by their own and society’s standards, and which one has a great future behind them. They are separated not so much by IQ as by perseverance.
Call it grit, perseverance, persistence, bloody-mindedness, or whatever you like. Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win. If you give up before the tipping point, you soon find yourself back at the starting line, while others plod on with their eyes fixed on the finish.
If you have grit, the means to keep going, to stick it out, to tolerate not winning until you do, the road to success is open to you. It isn’t easy though it sounds simple; turn up, day after day. Write, train, sell, paint. Put it out there and go again.
Find your own ways to keep going even when you think you’re failing. Try a different approach if your current one isn’t working. If you have a habit of bolting when things get tough, try sitting with the discomfort. Journal it, dissect it, find the fear that sits under the surface.
If you think you’re not good enough, you’re afraid to fail, scared of success, worried about the future, panicking that you can’t do this — then welcome. Everyone feels the same and success doesn’t make that go away. Digest this fact, and get back to work. There are no medals for sitting on the sidelines.
Perseverance is a vital component for the last keystone skill.
The More You Know
Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton
You’re curious, open-minded, able to empathise and relate to others, and have sticking power. That’s great, because you’ll need all these to supercharge the final key skill for survival in the modern world.
Ageing is inevitable, but have you noticed how some people get old really quickly? Their world shrinks, they stop asking questions, and they’re not interested in anything except the pain in their hip and how terrible the kids are these days.
I met many people like this in family practice. Often they were men who had retired without planning their next life stage. Without the structure of work they drifted, annoying their wives and suffering low mood.
When I asked what their hobbies were, or what they did with their days, they were blank. They shook their heads. “Nothing.”
Or they were older women without family ties for various reasons. They had a hundred reasons why they couldn’t join local groups, go to tea dances, try pottery, attend church lunches or knit blankets for charity.
These were people without curiosity and who refused to learn. They had time, but their mindset was fixed. They believed those activities were not for people like them. And so they remained stuck and unhappy, unwilling to leave their very small comfort zones.
To survive and thrive you need teachability — the ability and willingness to learn.
Embrace a growth mindset that welcomes the chance to develop. You’ll need curiosity to find out what might suit you and try it. You’ll need empathy to understand that teaching isn’t easy, and other people are just as worried as you are under their social smile.
You’ll definitely need grit, because everyone sucks in the beginning. And we hate to suck, but it’s unavoidable until we get better. We only get better with practice.
Leaving your comfort zone can feel like being dropped in a distant forest with no map or compass. Think of learning as going to the edge of your map and looking out at unknown but interesting forest nearby.
You still have your home base, which holds all the skills you have already. Now you’re ready to explore, bit by bit, with your teacher or mentor or YouTube video showing the way. Still a bit scary, but not so bad, right?
Learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone.
Don’t overload your brain by going too fast, too soon. Go at your own pace, but keep going. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. That’s humbling, but also inspiring because there’s always more to learn, whether in your own patch or somewhere else.
Rule of Four
Now it’s time for you to apply these rules in your own life.
- Ask more questions and listen to the answer.
- Be kinder and cut people some slack occasionally.
- Stick with things until they bear fruit and don’t give up too easily.
- Learn something new and enlarge your world.
It’s a crazy world but also full of good things, should you choose to notice them.
Sometimes, like jewels, magic lies under the surface waiting for someone to dig it out, hold it to the light and make our lives a bit brighter.