What Is Success Anyway, And How Do You Get There?

by John Dodge

I was in New York this month on behalf of WCRB to accept a couple of awards at an international radio programming conference/show called the New York Festival. There were radio people there from all over the planet -- 32 countries -- and the more I looked around, the more I realized that, despite differences in nationality and culture, these folks had much more in common than not. Let me try to share some thoughts on that commonality. Why? Because, frankly, it pays to imitate successful people.

Wait, you say. I'm an original. I copy no one. I agree -- to thine own self be true. At the same time, look around you and see what works for other people and why. There's a concept called modeling. You mirror someone's moves. It's phase one of a success strategy we could call copy, modify, adapt and improve.

If you have or know kids, you might have seen these books they have where you can create new and different animals by turning the top, the middle, or the bottom of the page. You take the head of a giraffe, the body of a gorilla, the feet of an ostrich, and boom. New animal. Ideas are like that, too. Take a little of this, a little of that, apply it to a different third thing, and bingo. Your idea doesn't have to be "brand new." They say there's nothing new under the sun, but that's only partially true. The wheel was new. The theory of relativity was new. Virtual reality is new. But most stuff is recombinant. So don't kill yourself trying to come up with something completely "new." Concentrate instead on finding a new application to the particular challenge you're working on. For example, when the military wanted a superior helicopter design, they studied dragonfly wings. And remember the famous origin of Velcro story where the inventor took his dog on a field trip and had the "light bulb" experience afterward while picking burrs off the dog's tail. The Japanese excel at copy, modify, adapt, and improve, and so can you if you keep your eyes and ears open all the time. And when you apply these steps in exact order to the creative end of your job, your work becomes fresher, and ideas flow more quickly out of your head.

Same strategy goes for the inter-relationships of people. Get out of the studio and watch your coworkers going about their daily business lives, particularly the ones at your station who are "successful." Observe which styles work and why. Then see how you can copy, modify, adapt, and improve what they successfully do and incorporate it into your own style. I know that sounds weird since "I gotta be me" seems to be the theme song around here, but remember that even somebody as left field as Jimi Hendrix had his guitar heroes, too. He sat down and copied someone else's licks, and once he had them down perfectly, he bent them impossibly beyond recognition.

Before continuing, let's define "success" in as general a way as possible by listing a bunch of characteristics that successful people usually have in common. Let's draw a personality profile. Money, which most of us use as the measuring stick of success, can be a part of the picture or not. Same goes with popularity. First of all, there's a definite lack of a career pattern. Few successful people get to the top by first getting a degree in their chosen field then going into one organization and climbing the ladder from mail room to boardroom. Instead, they jump around, do weird, unexpected things that straight-liners would consider strange. Consider Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Even though his company is immensely successful, Ben is currently trying to replace himself with a "real business" CEO so his company can grow even more. But this guy is, by his own definition, a multi-college dropout and a failed pottery teacher. And he's doing okay. People like Ben have rejected the notion that you have to take a straight line to a goal. In Ben's case, he even rejected the notion of a goal except in the most general terms. He has no idea where he's going, but he could tell you a helluva lot about where he's been!

Let's see, what else.... Successful people change directions as fast as Claudia Schiffer changes clothes -- new look, new direction, new me. But what about (fill in the blank)? Oh that? I was extremely passionate about that yesterday. They try lots of things and fail at lots of things. But because they go at each one with such tenacity, they succeed more often than not. It's a volume deal.

Whether or not you like Bill Clinton's politics, he has a personality trait that most successful people share. He's intensely interested in almost everything. He's a Renaissance Man. And it's that interested and inquisitive nature that makes a person interesting, I think. For someone in a creative job like yours, this is the best way to be because it guarantees you an endless source of new "material" to process in your mental Cuisinart.

Folks like this have high self-esteem. That doesn't mean they're egotistical (though they surely can be), nor does it mean they're perfect. They're just okay with themselves, and this self-acceptance generates a confidence and a sense of well-being that is a natural attractant to others.

A finely tuned sense of humor goes with this profile, too. Why? Because, as the saying goes, "the world is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think." Besides, a good laugh is better than almost anything. Think about it.

The biggest single characteristic that successful people share is a positive attitude. When your whole orientation is upbeat, it puts a positive spin on the things that happen around you.

Together with our WCRB announcers, I once developed a list of characteristics that made the best approach to being on the air. Then just to be sure we were clear about it, we stated the opposite. Let's add these "Adjectives and Badjectives" to our list of success traits:

Fun -- Boring
Enthusiastic -- Stuffy
Playful -- Serious
Whimsical -- Somber
Upbeat -- Slow
Relaxed -- Formal
Red Blooded -- Blue Blooded
Friendly -- Elitist
Dynamic -- Starchy
Involved -- Out of Touch
Spirited -- Languid
Intelligent -- Pedantic
Can Do -- No Way
Go For It -- Gopher It

In other words, there are really only two ways to look at stuff: Can't Do and Can Do. Or how about No Way and Way. Cliches like "tried and true," "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," "don't rock the boat," and "we've always done it this way" we're all penned by followers, by No Way people. Let's talk about leaders.

There's no such thing as a born leader. It's opportunity which brings out leadership qualities in people. But you have to be ready to turn the events that come your way to your advantage. You could say that success has much to do with luck, but I'd counter that luck is "where opportunity meets preparation." If you're not ready when your shot comes, you miss.

There are as many styles of leadership as there are people, but they tend to fall into rough groups. The authoritarian says "my way or the highway." He issues a lot of memos and directives. This person usually thinks little of him or herself and uses power over others in a vain attempt to replace self esteem. He rules through fear and likes to have stuff on people. J. Edgar Hoover might fit into this category. If you work for somebody like this, run screaming for the exit. If this isn't possible, make more measured plans to leave for a job that has better leadership. Tick tock -- life is short and the meter's running.

On the far other end of the spectrum is the invisible leader, the one who feels that a leader is best when people barely know he exists, the one whose people say "we did it ourselves." This is philosophically cool, but, practically speaking, it can sometimes degenerate into committee rule, even anarchy. And I'll save my worst insult for this style: It isn't very efficient.

In the middle is my personal favorite, the Jean Luc Picard model -- someone with a depth of experience and a keen sense of human nature, someone who attracts talented people and respects their judgments, someone with a strong center. But commanders don't take votes. I never heard Jean Luc say, "I don't know; what do you want to do?" It's the top job's responsibility to gather information and opinions and then provide direction by making decisions. Nothing is worse than people with no definitions, no set goals. "I'm not sure what the boss expects of me, what he/she wants me to do."

So we've talked about success traits. We've talked about the magic formula for success: Copy, modify, adapt, and improve. And we've talked about styles of leadership. On review, this article is like a Seinfeld episode. It's about a lot of things, but it's really about nothing. Nothing because this stuff should be so obvious that you're aware of it already. I guess that's my aim -- to remind you of what you already know. Hope you're in the middle of a cool summer.

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