The Secret Revealed: Success Is Not Easy

Dr. Davis is a Professor of Education and Chairman of the Administration and Supervision Department at Southern Connecticut State College.

Some years ago, a researcher decided that he would try to find the secret of success. After months of study and countless interviews, he gave up. He said there was no clear answer, but many people seemed to believe success required hard work. He had found out more than he realized! Without question, work accomplishes more than wishful thinking. One must climb the ladder of success, it is not an escalator! Thomas Edison astonished those who thought his success was due to luck by stating "I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident." Success often begins at the point where most people would quit. We must believe, then achieve!

T.F. Buxton said "I hold a doctrine . . . that with ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable." This idea of setting a goal and then relentlessly pursuing it is a formula that has worked for centuries. Even the great dramatist and poet Shakespeare delineated essentially the same rules for success. He said "see first that the design is wise and just: that ascertained pursue it resolutely; do not for one repulse forego the purpose that you resolved to effect." The wit, Ambrose Bierce, called perseverance "A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success." Two thousand years ago, Virgil solemnly intoned "Labor conquers everything."

Bill, a friend of mine, whom I had seen work his way up from stock-boy to general manager in a mid-western firm, abandoned everything to accept a vice-presidency of a large company in New York City. The job was a real challenge because the firm’s deficits had been growing annually. In less than three years, he helped to turn the financial picture from red to black only to face another crisis. The Board of Directors appointed a new President who brought in his own "management team." Bill resigned and began to reassess his career.

The past few years had provided a large measure of success and increased income. On the other hand, he had neglected family, friends, and personal investments. He had been so busy making business decisions for others that he had let his own financial affairs fall into disarray. He was even uncertain about how to obtain proper financial advice and came to the realization that many other executives were in the same boat. Bill found his search for information about investments so fascinating that he turned down a lucrative offer in the field of management in order to launch a new career. He had decided to enter the fields of financial planning and insurance.

After a family conference, Bill’s wife and children agreed on a number of belt-tightening moves. A change of living style and the sale of their large home provided capital while Bill studied the fundamentals of his new profession and gained on-the-job experience. He followed this up quickly by opening his own agency. After his first year of independent operation, Bill became a member of the "Million Dollar Round Table" for insurance sales. Six consecutive years of outstanding sales gave him permanent membership in that prestigious organization and it wasn’t a matter of luck. First he believed, then he achieved!

When misfortune first struck, Bill could have sat around wringing his hands. Instead of needlessly worrying about the future, he chose to shape it. As the poet Robert Frost once said "The reason why worry kills more people than work is that more people worry than work." Rudyard Kipling phrased the same thoughts in allegorical terms: "Gardens are not made by singing `Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade."

The Power of Planning

Most successful people have found that luck seems to be a byproduct of hard work. Genius is never discovered unless it is applied. Even the great Michelangelo pointed out "If people knew how hard I work to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem too wonderful after all." The internationally famous pianist Paderewski said "Before I was a genius I was a drudge." We all know that hard work does not insure success, but we can’t expect success unless we work at it!

Every administrator recognizes "planning" as a fundamental of good management. Yet, it is amazing how few have put this principle to use in developing their own careers. Many drift from job to job with little thought about their own strengths, weaknesses, and desires. Executive placement firms do a thriving business in helping such persons pull themselves together. George Bernard Shaw claimed "Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week." Facetious? Yes, but with a large grain of truth. When is the last time you sat down and asked: Where am I going? Why? What are my goals? Such questions must be answered if we are to be successful in personal relations.

Through self-understanding we learn more about others. As we understand more about others, we learn more about ourselves. Knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses helps us establish realistic goals. In the words of William James: "In the dim background of our mind, we know what we ought to be doing . . . but somehow we cannot start . . . every moment we expect the spell to break . . . but it continues, pulse after pulse, and we float with it." Procrastination is one of the greatest inhibitors of success. People set up their own roadblocks: "I don’t have time," "It’s too late to change," "I’m too old," "Maybe some day." Some people have found that the greatest labor-saving device available today is tomorrow! In the words of Socrates: "Let him that would move the world, first move himself."

The Principle of Momentum

We have all heard the statement that "Success breeds success." But, have we ever thought of that statement as a principle of momentum? There is a law of physics that states: It takes more energy to overcome inertia in getting started from a standstill than to continue the momentum of a moving body when it is once in motion. Applying this principle to achieving success, it becomes evident that it is easier to find a new job when you have one than to find one when you are unemployed. Similarly, it is easier to move up the ladder of success when you have a reputation for being a "go-getter" than when you have to overcome years of standing still! In other words, we can’t afford to rest on our laurels. As Elbert Hubbard stated "Folks who never do any more than they get paid for, never get paid for any more than they do." While the successful few focus on objectives, the unsuccessful majority see nothing but obstacles. The passage of time records the accomplishments of the former, while oblivion is the penalty for the latter.

It isn’t sufficient just to be busy. Insects are busy! The real question is: What are you busy about? Effort should be concentrated on reaching the goals you have set. Charles Kettering said "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."

A Case in Point

Henry, a long time acquaintance, was a manufacturer’s agent selling steel tubing. Large firms were the primary clients. Henry discovered that orders from smaller firms were being turned down because they were short-term, small-quantity, or specialized nonstock items. He reasoned that a small plant with a flexible operation could handle such requests. He visualized the type of operation needed and figured that he could make a fair commission on referrals. Spending his spare time in looking for such a plant, he discovered that this highly specialized operation did not exist. Rethinking his original plan, he set a new goal. He would find a small vacant factory building, acquire the necessary machine tools, and equip it on a minimal scale.

After an intensive search, Henry found a suitable facility and then the work began. He spent his weekends cleaning and rebuilding second-hand machine tools with the help of a small crew in his rented factory. Once tooled up, word spread that his company could reliably fill small orders that larger manufacturers declined. Work flowed in and Henry expanded operations to meet the growing, need. With an investment of time, money and energy, he made his dream come true. As Justice Brandeis once quipped "The way the inevitable comes to pass is through effort."

Years ago, Calvin Coolidge stated: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

The Secret Revealed

Certainly we can’t do everything at once, but we can do something. And as the Chinese proverb states "Even a trip of 1000 miles begins with a single step." One of the greatest minds of all time, Sir Francis Bacon, said: "There is no comparison between what we may lose by not trying and by not succeeding; since by not trying we throw away the chance of an immense good; by not succeeding we only incur the loss of a little human labor."

Is there really a secret of success, or has the secret been revealed? I believe studies of those who succeed vs. those who don’t have unlocked the secret for all to behold. First, we must believe in ourselves. A positive self-image is a prerequisite to success. Next, we must set goals and plan how we will reach them. Finally, we must implement our plans! This takes persistent effort—what some call work! In my studies of leadership, I have found that there are three kinds of people in this world. Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder—what happened. To be a success, you must be the first type. In the words of Goethe:

Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;

What you can, or dream you can, begin it;

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it;

Only engage and then the mind grows heated;

Begin and then the work will be completed. 

Further Reading

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