When you meet a successful executive or business leader – I mean the real deal, not a shyster CEO of a one-person company playing make-believe – there’s a real tendency to assume he’s led a charmed life and everything just sort of fell into place. For the vast majority, nothing could be further from the truth.
Many grew up with nothing and overcame significant adversity just to get to adulthood in one piece. Most started at the bottom and worked their way up one day at a time to make it to the upper echelons of the business world. Even then, the challenges never stop … and there’s so much more on the line.
I’m not saying that success is never easy or that it’s way harder than it looks. Both are true, but what I’m saying is that success is also a never-ending process. Success it not a goal; it’s a way of life.
The funny thing about real executives and business leaders is that they don’t just wake up one day and say, “Wow, I made it,” and then kick back and live a life of luxury. They usually never stop working their tails off and tackling the next big challenge because that’s who they are. That’s simply what they do.
I’m not just telling you this to inspire you. I’m telling you this because I know it to be true. I can tell you from personal experience – through my own career and those of hundreds of senior executives I’ve known and worked with over the years – that it’s true.
I’ve written quite a bit about what life was like growing up with adversity and beating the odds to make it big for great entrepreneurs like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, Softbank founder Masayoshi Son, Alibaba chairman Jack Ma, former Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, and the late Steve Jobs.
Trust me when I tell you, it’s not what you think.
It’s not the way most who write about entrepreneurship and leadership make it out to be. Those who make it sound easy and flaunt their self-proclaimed successes are all BS artists. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t write the sort of nonsensical fluff we see plastered all over social media and popular websites these days.
Becoming successful is not about popular notions like personal productivity, habits, inspiration, emotional intelligence or positive thinking. It’s not about thinking like an entrepreneur or being a leader. And it’s certainly not about faking it ‘til you make it. For those who spend their lives doing what everyone else dreams or writes about, this is what being successful is really all about:
The reason why those who grow up under difficult circumstances often turn out to be successful executives and business leaders is because they develop the sort of competitive spirit and tenacity needed to overcome the constant challenges of their jobs. There’s no better training for being a CEO than growing up with adversity.
Having something to prove.
Most top executives I’ve known seemed to have a chip on their shoulder, as if they had something to prove, although I’ve never been able to figure out to whom they had to prove it. I’m not even sure if they knew. But that’s usually why they’re never satisfied with their own performance and accomplishments. That’s why they never stop growing, innovating, and achieving.
Being obsessed with your work.
I think everyone sort of knows by now that true entrepreneurs are passionate about solving some sort of problem in a way that's never been done before. But the big success stories – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page – aren’t just passionate about their work; they’re obsessed with it. That’s why they’re so disciplined and focused.
Believing you’re special.
One thing I’ve noticed all the greats have in common is they really think they’re special. I don’t mean that in an “I’m better than you” sort of way; they just play by their own rules. And they really couldn’t care less about how things are done or should be done. That’s why they often accomplish what others say can’t be done. Thinking you're special can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Being smart and trusting your instincts.
You can think what you want, but all the successful business leaders I’ve known are smart and savvy. More important, they always trust their instincts when making big decisions. Sure, they hire the best talent and listen to what they have to say, but in the end, they go with their gut. And that usually works.
If you see success as a single goal, I doubt if you’ll ever achieve it. But if doing great work is simply what you love to do, then I’m sure you’ll be successful.