Staying power

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

In my late teens my Mum gave me a book titled The World at Their Feet edited by Australian writer Claire Halliday. It has some great insights from young actors, doctors, specialists and writers that have built and enjoyed success early in their careers. One contribution is from the fashion designer Kit Willow, then aged just 28, on creating her own fashion label. Here she is worth quoting at length:

I worked on it for a year – just me in my spare bedroom. It was really very lonely because I was working on a concept and an idea all on my own and there was no one there to support me. Every day I’d wake up and walk into the office and I’d be the one who was instigating every little thing that was going to happen that day. That can be really confronting and really exhausting. It doesn’t give you chance to sit back and rest, or to reflect on what you’ve been doing, or even the way you’ve been doing it. The phone’s not going to ring without you making it. You just have to keep plugging away every day.

Through hard work and passion Willow created a global brand – great success for someone in her late twenties and in such a competitive industry. But, in 2012, after spending time at international prominence, she was dumped from her own label.

Willow’s story is typical of the temporary nature of success. She may not have lost any of her passion or desire for hard work but, as any young professional will learn, what gets you to the top may not necessarily keep you there. Circumstances change and new challenges arise but it’s important that you stay ahead or on top of them.

This is observable not just with people but also in business. The first printing press, produced by German Johannes Gutenberg in 1455, was historically pivotal in starting the printing industry but was immediately edged out by competition. By 1469, twelve printing companies had been established and the industry had moved from Germany to Venice. What happened to the companies? ‘Nine of them were gone in just three years,’ writes the economist Tim Harford, ‘as the industry fumbled for a profitable business model.’

Like today, things were highly competitive. ‘The higher the atmosphere,’ writes the late academic Herbert Aptheker, ‘the more difficult it becomes breathing.’ Although ‘eighty per cent of success is showing up’, you obviously must do more than ‘show up’ to do well. Young people will quickly learn that landing a dream job, winning a championship or scoring well on a test simply opens up more doors and challenges.

Since leaving school I’ve found that there are five broad points that are worth considering on how to stay at the top of your game.

First, keep on learning. This may mean a new course, upgrading a certificate, self-education through reading or any experience that expands your horizons. When working in the Pacific Islands I enrolled myself in a Postgraduate Certificate in Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism. Many thought it was odd at the time but, a few years later when working for the National Security Adviser, this qualification was more than useful. A trait of the successful is a commitment to life-long learning.

Second, re-invent but stay true to your core skills. ‘The best way of attaining enduring success,’ writes five-time Olympic rower Steve Redgrave, ‘is to find a role for yourself where your skills fit the opportunity.’

An instructive example of this from the business world is from Intel founder Andy Grove who, under intense pressure, turned the business toward producing microprocessors. In his book Only the Paranoid Survive Grove describes this process as a ‘strategic inflection point’ where rules of the game suddenly change and leaders have to make critical and often wrenching decisions. Rather than lead Intel into an area that it simply had no transferable expertise – they suddenly didn’t start making aeroplanes for example – Grove clearly saw merit in changing direction but staying in the high-end technology sector.

Suddenly wanting to be an engineer, even though you’re terrible at maths or hate numbers, probably requires some reflection. As is wanting to be an NBA star but only being five and a half feet tall.

Third, staying power requires positive reinforcement. As you get better your confidence may improve but even the best still get jitters and need constant reinforcement. You must reflect on success but use it to build new mental strengths and as a continuous source of inspiration.

Four, don’t let standards slip. A telling insight from Australian cricketing legend Steve Waugh reveals how even letting small things slip is enough to cause a dip in elite level performance. ‘It all boils down to attitude,’ reflects Waugh on a particular rough patch facing the team. ‘In our case, attention to the little details had ceased to be a priority. Punctuality had slipped; the intensity of our training had diminished; the banter and encouragement in and around the group had waned. Not by a lot, just enough. We needed to get back to basics and do the things that had made us successful in the first place.’

Five, continue to work hard. The late publishing legend John Johnson said that he celebrated his success in the old fashioned way – he worked. The political scientist Charles Murray, in laying out his tips for the next generation of young and ambitious says; ‘Here’s the secret to remember whenever you hear someone lamenting how tough it is to get ahead: Hardly anyone works as hard as he or she could. The few who do have it made.’