Advice From Successful People

Successful person climbing ladder
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While advice from successful people is often cited and frequently helpful, you nonetheless should use it with a great deal of caution and skepticism. In particular, those who are far more successful than their peers in the same company or same profession often have been able to take advantage of unique and unusual circumstances that are not easily replicable, if at all.

These outliers are bound to have profited from:

  • Unique skills, aptitudes and insights that are not easily imparted to others or reduced to formulas
  • Unique circumstances and good fortune that cannot be duplicated on demand

Case Study: 

A particularly illustrative case is that of a producer of this writer's acquaintance whose annual production is, roughly speaking, a staggering 100 times the average for his colleagues, and has been so for a number of years. While this producer is apt to attribute his outsize success entirely to length of service combined with the time and effort spent in building his book of business, he actually enjoyed a rapid "hockey stick" acceleration of production after just a few years of experience, an acceleration that no one else (among several thousand eager and energetic hopefuls who have come and gone during his tenure) has been able to replicate in the remotest sense.

The Role of Luck: 

It should be no surprise that successful people inevitably will attribute all their achievements to hard work, intelligence and skill.

They often will downplay the roles of mentors and workplace sponsors who contributed to their success, acquaintances who typically are made through pure chance. Indeed, producers who enjoy truly spectacular success like the person described above may have been beneficiaries of factors entirely outside their control, such as the sales territory, client segment or client list to which they have been assigned by their management, or a key endorsement offered by an influential outside source who took a liking to them.

In this vein, please see our article on the importance of luck in career success.

Spouting the Company Line:

Beware that successful people tend to be politically very astute, and thus will not bite the hands that feed them. As a result, those who have been treated very well by their employers are bound to spout the company line, out of loyalty or gratitude, or perhaps to further ingratiate themselves with management. A rather egregious example comes from a sales conference that this writer attended some time ago. During events of this sort, top producers often are invited to give presentations to their peers about the tactics and strategies that they use to enhance their books of business and the production that flows therefrom.

The sales conference in question featured, in a panel discussion, the top producer whom we profiled above. He gave a strong endorsement to a scheme for prospecting new clients that the firm was pushing heavily. He encouraged his peers to invest significant (unpaid) time and effort in implementing the scheme, testifying to its effectiveness in his own practice. Privately, however, he sang a very different tune, admitting to a few trusted friends in the organization that this prospecting scheme actually had yielded no discernible results for him, and thus was largely a waste of his time.

Denigrating the Unsuccessful: 

Just as top producers are bound to ascribe their achievements entirely to their own effort and smarts, they also have an unfortunate tendency to dismiss a lack of success in others as the inevitable result of either laziness or stupidity. This is very much the case with the top producer in our case study.

He rejects out of hand any evidence that most of his less successful colleagues might have put in every bit as much effort as he has, and in some cases more, but still with disappointing results. This includes colleagues whom he has mentored, and who have followed his suggestions to the letter, without results. His stock response is that they should have devoted yet more time and effort to following his recommendations. In an unguarded moment, however, he once let it slip that, in his early years with his firm, he actually devoted considerably fewer hours to the development of his practice than has been the norm for most of his "failed" former colleagues.

Ironically, this top producer is politically very liberal and otherwise would blanch at the suggestion that poor or unsuccessful people are generally lazy or unambitious, and thus have only themselves to blame. He also is a strong advocate for more egalitarian wage structures except, of course, in the context of his own firm.

Lessons: 

While highly successful people often are pointed to as exemplars from whom the rest of us can derive key tips for ourselves, there are numerous caveats. Among these are, to summarize:

  • Their success may not be easily replicable, if at all.
  • Pure luck may have played an outsize role in their success.
  • The more that their measures of success deviate from the norm, the less instructive or relevant their stories are likely to be for the average person.
  • They may offer self-serving and thus misleading advice.

In short, if success could easily be reduced to a formula or blueprint, many more people would be enjoying much higher levels of career achievement than they are today. This word of caution is not meant to discourage, but to help you in managing realistic expectations for yourself.

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