What you can and can’t learn from successful people

November 21, 2013


Doing what successful people do can help you find your own success, but it can also sometimes lead you astray. Unfortunately for Victoria, a friend of mine, the latter was the case. And unless she learned what she should and shouldn’t adopt from successful people she was probably going to keep struggling.

Voice of pain

I used to know Victoria when she worked as an event planner at a banking client I had many years ago. Then, a couple of years ago, she called me up, desperate for help. She’d been laid off two years earlier and since then had been struggling to get her own event planning business off the ground. The pain in her voice was obvious. It was sad to hear, especially from someone I remembered as always being full of positive energy.

Ingredients for success

When we got together she filled me in on some details, including the fact that earlier in the year she had met a wonderful woman named Anya, who ran a highly successful event planning business. Anya was kind enough to answer all of Victoria’s questions about how she had managed to build her business. In fact, she walked Victoria through all her marketing strategies and tactics, which included networking at conferences as well as advertising in trade magazines and sending brochures to mailing lists.

Following the recipe

Victoria was excited to get Anya’s recipe for success. It gave her a clear track to run on, which was different than the haphazard way she had at first been trying to find business. Unfortunately, Victoria would end up spending months and months and lots of money trying to replicate Anya’s formula with virtually no return.

Looking too low

I felt awful for Victoria. Early in my career I did the same thing—I studied what successful people had done and tried my best to do what they did. It never worked. Maybe I just didn’t execute as well as they did. But over the years I began to believe that something else was the problem—instead of trying to copy what worked for a successful person, I should have tried to behave like a successful person. I believed this was Victoria’s mistake too.

As I explained to Victoria, Anya’s strategies and tactics weren’t really her recipe for success. What made Anya successful were things like perseverance, originality, problem solving, creativity, resourcefulness and so on. In a sense, Victoria was looking too low—she was just looking at the things Anya did instead of how Anya acted.

The differences

“Let me put it this way,” I said to Victoria. “If Anya were to step into your head and look at the challenges facing your business, she would use her creativity and resourcefulness—all her successful traits—to develop a unique set of strategies and tactics. I’m sure some things would be the same, but there would be differences and new ideas. And even if some of the tactics were the same, she would execute them differently. That’s because Anya would see growing your business as a distinct challenge from growing her business.

“Anya would see that you have different strengths, experiences, connections, location, and on and on. Plus, times change. Last year’s—or even yesterday’s—winning strategy or tactic might be less effective today, or even obsolete.”

Victoria agreed. She saw that some of the tactics she had tried were things that played into Anya’s strengths and experience, rather than hers. And that when Anya got started with some of those tactics there was less clutter than there is now. Victoria would need to find ideas that were effective and innovative for today—and things that drew on what she did well. Still, Victoria wanted to believe that she could take something from Anya’s success to help her.

Fingerprints

“Inspiration,” I said. “I think that’s one of the most important things we can take from successful people. Perhaps more specifically it’s the inspiration to dig deep, to tap into those qualities that most successful people share—the ability to bounce back from failure, the courage to try something no one’s tried before, to pave your own path. That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned over the years—everyone’s road to success is unique—as distinct as a fingerprint. You find that road not by following in someone else’s footsteps, but by paving your own path.”

Anya would spend the next few weeks thinking deeply about what we talked about—and about how to find her own path. She pushed herself to think creatively, to tap into her network and resources. As she did so, she felt she was acting more like a successful person than ever before. And from this new effort, she began to develop her own set of strategies and tactics, including a monthly breakfast club. She came up with the idea because she was a big believer in breakfast and happened to know one of the city’s best breakfast caterers. It was an idea that was uniquely Victoria. It played to her strengths and beliefs and she knew she could make it work.

The breakfast club

To her breakfast club meetings, she invited various people connected to the event planning industry—caterers, photographers, hospitality personnel, corporate trainers. For the first few months, nothing came of her efforts, but then some of the participants started referring business to her. Over the next couple of years the breakfast club blossomed into the biggest engine of new business for her—and for all the other club members as well.

The big takeaway

Copying the things a successful person has done usually leads down a bad road. Instead of trying to mimic someone else’s recipe, try, as Victoria did, to adopt their behaviors—like developing  solutions that are innovative and that play to their unique strengths. Doing that might just help you create the kind of winning marketing strategy that Victoria eventually came up with—the breakfast club series that took her business to new heights.

If you want to share your own story about what you’ve learned from successful people, please let us know in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.

Author’s note: this post is based on a business owner I have coached. I’ve changed her name and some telling details.

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about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.