Vail Valley Voices: Secret to success
Vail, CO Colorado
Years ago, as I was holding court in my office, which, because of its window and exhaust fan, was the de facto office smoking lounge in our little company (back when smoking was only bad for you and not illegal), someone on the staff at a company I had just sold asked me what the “secret to success” was.
I recall clearly that my answer came quickly and without a lot of reflection: “Know where you suck, and stay away from there.”
It really wasn’t bad advice. I was reminded of the line recently when a friend who’s into positive thinking and motivational stuff posted a line on Facebook by someone who said something a lot like it, though by using more words and less gutter language. I don’t know who he is; someone who’s achieved success by telling other people how to be successful, no doubt. It made me wonder about “success,” though. I guess the word means different things to everyone.
I dropped out of high school to go to work in radio, because I always understood electricity, loved the work and found high school painful. Since then, I have drifted through five different careers, all related in some way to electronics, a field that came to me intuitively and not as the result of formal education or math skills or even planning. I married a woman who complemented my inspired laziness with her own combination of drive and wits, and we were lucky enough to find a couple of people who believed in our ideas enough to fund them and then hire a group of motivated, talented local people who, working together doing things that nobody was trained to do, since we invented a lot of it as we went, all built a successful business.
Like everything else in life, it didn’t last, but nobody was the worse for the experience of doing it. Everyone moved on, moved up, or in my case, moved out of the way, but for a moment, we made a lot of memories and a little dent on communications and Internet history. So what is the secret to success?
I don’t believe in positive thinking, myself. This won’t surprise my friends. I don’t buy into imagining myself “successful,” since I really don’t think success exists separately from the present. Success is not money or power or a reward of some kind, to me anyway. It just is. Obviously, knowing what you suck at and then not doing that is a good start. Just showing up is 90 percent of the rest of it, according to Woody Allen, and I have lived long enough to see the value in persistence. Calvin and Hobbes, a couple of cartoon characters, pointed out years ago that since “the secret to success is being in the right place at the right time, and since nobody ever knows when the right time is, you may as well go to the right place and just hang around.” I framed that one and hung it on my office wall for years. My dad gave me a little blue pamphlet published by the Bordon Dairy years ago, back in the ’60s. I was about 13 and that little booklet claimed the most important trait needed to succeed in business was simply “the ability to get along well with a wide variety of people and personality types.” I’ve always thought that was sage advice. So did John D. Rockefeller, when he said basically the same thing back in 1913.
John Dvorak once wrote in PC Magazine that “perceived performance is more important than actual performance.” He was reviewing software back in the DOS 3.0 era, but it applies to everything. Probably the most profound line I remember from the popular media was the very last thing said in the 1980s movie “Being There.” This was Peter Sellers’ last film, in which Sellers, as Chance, a gardener, becomes Chauncey Gardiner, a trusted adviser to the president and captains of industry. As Sellers wanders away from a funeral during a presidential eulogy and walks calmly across the surface of a pond, the president quotes the departed industry leader’s “better known quotes” and the words “life … is a state of mind” are the last ones you hear before the credits roll.
In my case, I knew one area where I sucked – I never liked “working.” I’d much rather do what interests me, which is fun and never seems like work, even though it changes every few years. Everything changes. There have been years I made money doing what interested me, and a lot more during which I’ve barely made enough to survive on. My Social Security newsletter, that thing that comes in the mail every now and then, telling me what to expect if I live another decade or so and “retire,” looks like a case of identity theft.
The secret to success? I’ve no idea, since success is like life – it’s a state of mind.
I sure have met some interesting people at the right place, though; hanging out, smoking by the window fan, as we waited for the right time to arrive.