The Secret to True Success

Steven Gaffney

Imagine a world in which Martin Luther King, Jr., was nothing more than a preacher with a sizeable congregation, Bill Gates nothing more than an effective manager at an IT firm, and Oprah Winfrey just a newscaster at a Baltimore television station. Suppose Warren Buffet was nothing more than a man who managed his money well in order to provide a nice life for his family. We probably wouldn’t know their names, yet by most standards they would still be deemed successful.

Yet I believe that true success is the degree to which we reach our full potential. By that standard, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffet could not be called successful if they did not achieve what we all know they are capable of.  Where would our society be without the contributions they have made? What would the landscape of twenty-first century America look like without them?

If we were really honest with ourselves, we would admit that we tend to compare ourselves with others to gauge our own success. I believe those comparisons leave the important questions unasked and set us up for mediocrity. Warren Buffet could have taken a look at his neighbor and decided it was enough to build a bigger house than his neighbor’s, purchase a nicer car, and send his children to better schools. Oprah Winfrey could have landed her job as a
Baltimore newscaster, compared herself to friends and colleagues, and decided she was doing quite well just where she was. 

It’s human nature to make comparisons. Perhaps you don’t measure yourself in these ways, but most people I know do. Most organizations I know do it as well. Benchmarking against other organizations can produce benefits, but it can also be a slippery slope.

Comparing ourselves to the competition begs the question — so what? So what if you are the highest in retention? So what if you are the leader in a certain technology? So what if you can move widgets faster than Widget Movers Express? Are those reasons to be content? So what? 

Maybe your organization has untold “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” potential. Maybe there is a life-changing discovery or invention lurking within your organization — within the minds of your employees. Maybe it is within you! If so, then the comparisons fall short. They don’t tell the whole truth and they don’t push you toward true success – the fulfillment of your potential.

That is why I believe we need to drop the judgments and comparisons with others and strive to continue to excel regardless of the people (or organizations) around us. We need to stop looking behind us to see who is chasing us, and we need to stop looking ahead at what the other guy is doing. Instead we need to look at ourselves and at the future and ask this question: What could be ahead? It is time to run faster regardless of the others in the race and push ourselves to see what is possible — for us. It is time to excel and push our organizations and ourselves as if there is no competition.

This is the key to success…

I once heard an interview with John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach who won seven straight NCAA titles and nine titles in eleven years. The interviewer asked Wooden for his keys to success, and he said that after each game – regardless of the score — he asked his players, did you play your best?  Think about this. In professional sports, team dynasties result from an effective coach and a few outstanding players who are with the team year after year. But the make-up of teams in college basketball is constantly changing as new students join the team and others move on to graduate. But the changing roster didn’t hinder Coach Wooden. He built a dynasty in part by asking the ever-changing faces on his team, did you play your best?

Imagine if we were asked that on a daily basis. What would your answer be? Is it time to step it up, push ourselves, regardless of what others say? Not because we have to, not because there is something wrong, but because we can. After all, isn’t that what true success is all about?

The interesting twist is that successful people often don’t think of themselves as particularly successful. If fact, I would venture to say that the more successful we are, the more we realize the gap between what we are and what we can become. A while back, I saw a documentary about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and one observation has stuck with me. Martin Luther King, Jr., was plagued by the thought that he had not yet done enough. Imagine that. As successful and accomplished as he was, he was not satisfied.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was chasing down a dream. He knew that there was always more to do. There was always more that he could expect of himself. He had a vision for the future, and that vision was not limited by comparisons or others’ expectations. True success is not about how we compare with others, but how we compare with what we truly can become.

Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffet aren’t playing small either. They each have their own vision for the future, a vision that I would argue continues to expand as they achieve more and more. Who can they become? With their vast fortunes and philanthropic spirits, how many people can they help? How about you? What dreams can you chase for yourself and for your organization? What do you believe about true success?

Are you playing small? Are you reaching for your full potential? The first step is to throw away the comparisons. They limit your potential. Next, spend some time reflecting on what you believe you can become. Don’t be hampered by low expectations – your own or anyone else’s. In other words, get a vision for your life or the life of your organization. Then, each day, take a few minutes for reflection and assessment. Ask yourself: Did I play my best? What can I do better tomorrow? This attitude is the key to long-term success. Someone will always overtake you if you’re looking over your shoulder and comparing yourself. But you can never be overtaken if you’re chasing down a dream, always looking forward to what you can become.

Steven Gaffney is President of the Steven Gaffney Co.
Copyright 2008


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