On reading accounts of how people became successful, it is clear that there are many different routes. Amongst all the variations though there are some consistent themes, which I will share here.
Before we get into strategies, it is important to consider what we mean by success. We often speak as if we all have a shared understanding of what ‘success’ is, but are we all describing the same thing?
Some people who we may perceive as successful such as movie stars, millionaires or even US Presidents, may seem on the surface to have hit the jackpot, but give off signs of not being particularly fulfilled or happy with their success. On the other hand, I have met many people who would not be considered conventionally successful but who have achieved a balance in their life between their career and personal life and who consider themselves to be very fulfilled and successful. Have you ever taken time to work out what you mean by success?
When we don’t pause to consider what success means to us, we risk heading down a path without considering fully where it will lead. Stephen Covey, in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, described his experience of this as, “Climbing the ladder of success to find it is leaning against the wrong wall.”
To help you be clearer about what success is for you, consider the following questions:
- Will you be successful when you achieve a level of skill, recognition or financial reward? If so, what level of skill, how much recognition and how much money will be enough?
- How will you know when you have it? What evidence will you use?
- How will your friends and family fit in to your ideal view of success?
- What other areas of your life are important to you that need to be taken into consideration too?
- Is your definition of success actually yours, or is it something you are working towards because family, friends or a teacher told you it would be good for you?
Take time to really think about these questions and when you have answered them you will hopefully have a clearer idea of what you want, so you can work towards it with more enthusiasm, secure in the knowledge that your ladder is leaning against the right wall for you.
So, what are the strategies that can help you get there?
- Do something you care about
Being successful often involves a big commitment of time, energy and focus. It is much easier to commit and prioritise these resources when you really care about what you are doing. It may be possible to progress well doing something you don’t really like, but, if your definition of success includes enjoyment, liking what you are doing is essential.
While for some people this will involve working towards the same goal in the same industry for their entire career, this is not compulsory. It doesn’t have to be your life-long dream, it can be something you are passionate about right now. I read many accounts of successful people, which included instances where they followed a specific interest while it lasted, then used all they had learned from that, to pursue the next area that attracted them.
- Think long term
Successful people don’t assume it’s all going to work out next week. Instead they think in decades. Which is why point one is so important: if you are going to be doing this for years, you’ll not want to be counting the days till it’s over.
The big advantage to thinking long term means that all your successes and failures are viewed as learning opportunities on a larger project. This takes off the pressure, as it lets you remove the expectation of instant success, which means you can take the time necessary to hone your craft, develop your skills and to make mistakes and learn from them.
Remember that nearly all of the so called ‘overnight successes’ have been working hard for years, learning their craft, networking with the right people and just turning up again and again until the right door opened for them at the right time. Not just a chance event, a result of being in that right place on numerous occasions when it wasn’t the right time and then going back again and again until it was.
- Take action
Another important theme is to take action. Do something, especially when you feel stuck and can’t see the point. On a number of occasions when I have felt things are not going well for me, I have sent out half a dozen email enquiries or applications. Most fell on stony ground but usually one or two led to some work. The greatest benefit of taking this action was that it got me back in a better frame of mind.
Autobiographies by people you admire can be a great source of inspiration when you realise that very few people have a smooth rise to the top. Most people have major setbacks and often stumble on the way up. It can be encouraging to read about how they overcame obstacles and what it was that made a difference for them.
I guarantee that you will never read an account that says, “I experienced a setback, crawled under my duvet where the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra leader/Editor of The Times/Casting Director for James Bond found me six months later to offer me my dream job.” Going into hiding physically or mentally is nevera useful strategy.
So, don’t get hung up about only doing the ‘right’ thing, just stay engaged, keep yourself out there and take some action. Then review what worked for you and do it again or if it didn’t work, do something else!
- Keep getting back up
Life is full of setbacks and so are most people’s careers. The trick is to see what you can learn from them and get back up. Columnist Arianna Huffington once said that people see success and failure as opposites, but failure is an integral part of success.
People who have experienced few setbacks or who have been protected from them have been deprived of opportunities to learn how to find solutions for themselves. More importantly they have likely not been able to develop robust personal resilience. Learning to deal with setbacks is an essential personal development tool. I’m only partly joking when I say that really, we should be grateful for the opportunity when things go wrong.
So, when plans go awry, as they inevitably will, instead of asking, “Why me?” or “Why am I so unlucky?” Ask yourself, “What else can I try here?” or “What can I learn from this, so I don’t find myself back here again in future.”
The important point is to get straight back up and focus on what you can doabout it.
- Taking care of yourself
Finally, and very importantly there was a clear theme about taking care of yourself. Not just in the usual ways by eating a good diet, getting enough sleep and exercising, but by taking care of who you are.
It can be easy to be diverted down paths that are important to other people, and as long as these paths are aligned with where you eventually want to go, this can be fine. When you find yourself doing work that doesn’t match your values and you feel uncomfortable with it, then looking after yourself in this context would involve finding a way to extract yourself, to find work that is more appropriate for who you are and what you want to be doing.
I realise that as creative freelances we can’t always get our ideal work, but we all have our boundaries and limits and when these are clashing for us, self-care involves paying attention to this and doing something about it.
So those are our five strategies for success, we hope you find them useful.