… and the secrets of 7 other famously successful people.
There would be few adults in the western world who have not heard of Steve Jobs. A pioneer of personal computing, an entrepreneur of unrivalled clout, one-time owner of the world’s most successful digital animation studio, the man who took the helm of an almost bankrupt computer company and transformed it into the most valuable business in the world.
But have you ever heard about Steve Jobs’ skateboarding skills? Did you know he was a world class skateboarder? No? Well there’s a reason you haven’t heard about that before. He wasn’t. In fact, I can’t find any record of Steve Jobs being any good at skateboarding at all. Which is surprising, because the guy was good at everything, wasn’t he?
Before you decide this article is just a total waste of time with a sneaky headline hack, I’m going to let you in on the dirty secrets of 7 other famously successful people: Tony Hawk doesn’t like people to know this, but, unlike Steve, he’s never built a hugely successful technology company. Usain Bolt has never succeeded in attaining a position as permanent representative at the United Nations; Ban Ki-moon hasn’t ever published a best-selling work of fiction; J. K. Rowling has never been sent on a diplomatic mission; there are no works by Bill Clinton hanging in MoMA; Cindy Sherman has never been at the top of the Billboard chart; and nobody can even recall Michael Bublé‘s foray into Olympic sprinting.
Why is that? Why are all these famous people so constrained in the things that they’re good at? I mean, they’re really good at that thing but, when you take the breadth of human experience into consideration, their achievements seem to be pretty limited.
Of course, you’re pretty smart, so you probably already know why famous people are typically only famous for being good at one thing, but let’s say it together…
They focus. They focus hard. It isn’t by chance that these people happened to find themselves successful at these enterprises. They focussed on being absolutely awesome at something, and they got there.
What do you think would have happened if Usain Bolt had taken half the time he’s spent training for sprints and instead used that time to write a novel? Do you think he’d be the world’s fastest sprinter and a best-selling author? No, you just never would have heard of him.
But what has all this got to do with you? Yes, you. You’re the reason you’re reading this. Not Steve Jobs. His name may have pulled you in, but only because he was successful and YOU admire him and YOU would like to learn from his success.
So, what do YOU want to be successful at? Do you want to be a successful entrepreneur? A pretty good skateboarder? A loving and intimate spouse? A celebrated author? An inspiring public speaker? A nurturing parent who’s always available? An effectual human rights campaigner? A championship-winning amateur basketball player? A creator of world-renowned software? A child who cares for their elderly parents and in-laws? A reform-leading politician? A thought-provoking street artist? A half-decent piano player? A producer of mind-blowing music videos?
Well, that’s my list. I’d love to be all those things. Maybe you wouldn’t, but you probably have your own list that’s just as long. I know I can’t be all of those things, though, and if you’re honest you’ll probably see you can’t be everything on your list.
Interestingly, if we took lots of the adjectives out of our lists, we could deceive ourselves into believing that by trying to do all these things we were somehow achieving something through each of them. For instance, being an entrepreneur that isn’t successful is probably quite easy! Being a parent wouldn’t require much investment if you’re not aiming to be nurturing and available. I can campaign for human rights on countless websites with the click of a button, but can I really expect to have much effect if that’s all I do?
To have a chance of being successful at our life-defining pursuits, we will need to focus. And what does that really mean? When we’re talking about the context of life achievement, focus is really just a gentle way of saying: stop trying to be successful at so many things. It doesn’t work!
The greatest companies focus on being great at a very small number of things. Successful people have often focussed on being absolutely brilliant at only one single thing. If we are to succeed as individuals, we must pick those few ideals where we want to absolutely excel and shoot for the stars on those while ignoring the rest.
“Ignoring the rest” brings us to the flip-side of focus which is just as synonymous with successful people as focus is, and that is: sacrifice. We’ve all heard stories of the Olympic swimmers who train for hours before and after work every day. You’ll no doubt have seen several retirement speeches from politicians where they’ve thanked their families for the sacrifices they made. Perhaps you know someone who has sacrificed career success so that they can focus on caring for their parents or their children? What we see here is that people who make a conscious choice to be successful at something also make conscious choices to not pursue lots of other things. They choose.
So, as we begin this new year, I encourage you to ponder this question:
Who will you choose to be?
Sure, make a list of everything you’d like to achieve, but then do the next bit, the hard bit, the bit that successful people have done: cross most of it out.
Figure out which of your goals are really important to you. Try this: picture yourself in 5, 10 or 20 years time and consider which achievements you will be most upset about not having strived for. Perhaps you’ll discover that you’d really prefer not to be an entrepreneur if it means you won’t have time to learn how to skateboard. Maybe you’ll have to put off learning the piano for five years so you can really focus on getting those first few books published.
Decide what you will focus on. Make those tough choices about the things you will sacrifice. Whatever you do, don’t deceive yourself that you can “have it all” and then find yourself coming up short on everything.