Everything I ever learnt about success is that it comes to those who go after it, work harder than anyone else, are the most determined, have incredible grit & resilience, and dedicate themselves to a cause / mission / goal harder than anyone else until they, well… succeed.
But could it be that the secret to success is… just… hanging around?
Instead of using analogies from the business world, I’ll take you back to a past life of mine as an athlete.
When I was 15, I was thrown amongst the NSW Institute of Sport development squad, along with 9 other guys and girls – all tipped to be the future successful athletes of Australian triathlon. Everyone was talented (moreso than I was), hard-working, determined and focussed on success. We had team training camps, which went on for years and years, and over time this squad mixed with the Australian elite squad, with some members dropping off, and other new ones coming in.
Over the course of 10 years, between the core squad there were world championships won, national titles secured and defended, Olympic Games competed in, multiple career ending injuries, mental break downs, and many retirements between the ages of 18-25.
So what was the difference between those of us who started at 15 and went on to success, and those who didn’t? When I break it down to the data, it was… well…
The people who made the Olympics, won the world championships, and secured the best sponsors – were not the super talented 15 year olds. They weren’t even the most determined and focussed 15-year olds. They didn’t even have particularly good work ethic.
They were simply the most committed. They were the ones still going into their late 20’s. What they lacked in talent, skill and technique - they made up for in perseverance.
Looking back at my time, I was in the bottom 25% of that original squad. I stopped full time triathlon at 25. By this time, only 2 other of that original 10 were still competing. And those 2 went on to be Olympians and World Champions (ie. the most successful).
I tell this story because the recipe of the different ‘type A’ personalities that led to varying levels of success is something I now see reflected in business. For me, these people fall into the categories of learners, overachievers and over-thinkers.
Learners are quite content in who they are, they’re naively positive, and they likely don’t have a big ‘grand plan’ beyond learning and progressing in their career. They usually take direction from others (whether coaches or managers) to climb higher in their chosen career, they absorb knowledge and manage to retain it for when it matters.
Overachievers are the naturally talented ones, to who success comes early and relatively easily, but once they’ve reached a level of success they are in no way ready to settle for it. Once they’ve conquered one task / goal / industry they’re already onto the next. In business, these are generally the people with a start-up in the works and don’t sleep much.
Over-thinkers are dangerously intelligent with overactive minds, inspiring to be around, and offer interesting perspectives that others wouldn’t have ever thought of without them. In sport, they would be able to negotiate the best sponsors and pick the right races to earn the most money - they knew the system and how to get the most out of it. Same goes for business, although what comes with the territory is that they are often cynical (because they know the limitations of their company / industry) and impatient (because they know the short cuts).
So back to my triathlon story, who were the most successful in the end? Oddly and boringly enough - it was the learners. When your goals are to simply improve and progress, you have the staying power to not constantly look for the next best thing, to be distracted by quicker ways to success, or suffer the curse of ‘natural talent' that made your initial feats come so easily.
Is life in the advertising industry any different? Well, no.
I’ve met so many really smart overachievers, and they generally do go and make their start-up work. I’ve worked with many a over-thinker, and learnt a huge amount from them… but they generally move over to client side or consultancies as they’ve ‘thought’ their way out of advertising being the right career path.
Don’t get me wrong, these alternative paths still lead to genuine success, and I’m not saying that everyone should want to be a learner and nothing more. I look back at those 9 athletes I grew up racing against, and those that didn’t have the staying power still went on to achieve amazing things in other industries, and were arguably happier doing so (myself included… for the happiness bit at least, I’m not claiming to have achieved ‘amazing things’).
However, when I look at the truly inspiring people who have achieved the top of their game, the height of success, the peak of their industry, I don’t think every single one of them is an over-thinker or overachiever. But I do think every one of them has always had the ability to learn, and the trait of patience and perseverance.
They’ve hung around like no one else has.