Know thyself, it is a universal pursuit. In a noisy world that moves faster than ever with the promise of only picking up speed, the practices of meditation, breathing, yoga, reflection, introspection, and relaxation have become an industry. That’s not even mentioning therapy, a complimentary industry for professionals to know you, or to teach you to know you. The message is simple— success requires a mirror.
I’ve been attempting to know thyself since I started college in 2005, a conscious attempt that is, surely it was happening long before on a subconscious level because that’s just the way we humans are wired. The following observations of success include my mirror, and the mirrors I have viewed alongside my clients and colleagues.
As a financial advisor, I won’t say the mirrors my clients show me are clearer than a therapist’s, rather they are different. Together we look at the emotional developments that come into focus, but also the financial realities that empower or restrict people each day. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but identifiably repetitive among high performers.
- Distinguish talent from ambition. People who are naturally ambitious are perceived to have a leg up on society, bound to be successful. That may be true, but they are bound to be at least good, not necessarily great. Tom Brady’s mental and physical gifts combined with natural ambition probably could have made him a good business executive, or maybe a really good minor league pitcher. A recruiter in business or baseball could have been attracted to his skills, and those skills may have been enough to do enough to be enough. That would have been a trap. The world would have then never known the best football player to ever live. A non-ambitious person trudging through life until their God-given talent caught a spark might have been luckier than the alternative version of Tom Brady stuck somewhere just being good enough. Leaders ought to find employees motivated by their role, not their genes. If they can find both, then they can build a superhero.
- Get Excited. Arguably the most important part of achieving success is being in the right place. Unfortunately, that is also one of the hardest parts to find, particularly for the ambitious person who can achieve mediocrity in any field. There is so much to this huge world and only one lifetime to find the right path, all the while the detours seemingly get closed off as money, family, work, health, and life take control. The easiest way to determine if you are on the right path is to chase that which excites you and run from that which bores you. If you go on where others in your field would get bored, you are on to something. I notice this when people come to my finance seminars and I find myself talking past the allotted time, exceeding their point of boredom. When a doctor goes on about the latest studies, trials, therapies, and technologies that can help me as a patient until I finally say I must get going, then I know I’ve found the right doctor.
- Detect Distractions. If everything distracts you, focus on that and not what you are doing. Would you marry the man or woman you can’t keep your eyes on? A comical realization of this arose while excitedly writing this essay, my wife asked me what I’d like from the grocery store and I replied, “love you too.” When my kids were younger, I was often amazed at how hard it was to concentrate throughout my day, yet when I got home from work, they would be glued to the TV and no effort was enough to distract them from their cartoon. Find your cartoon.
- Be Curious. The scariest part of dying is unsatisfied curiosities. If we did it all, what’s left to do? For people struggling to find excitement, they should start by pursuing their curiosities. It is rare you ask questions about things you don’t care about, just as it is rare to not have questions about what you do care about.
- Focus on Questions, Not Answers. An exemplification of the prior tip. Paul Graham wrote in his essay, “How To Do Great Work”, that curiosity, delight, and the desire to do something impressive are primary sources of motivation. I’d classify delight as a symptom of success and impressing others as a temporary satisfaction not unlike posting on social media all day. That leaves curiosity to be the ultimate motivator, proving questions outweigh answers. AI has commoditized answers, they are easy and available. But try asking Chat GPT what the right question is. This is the same shortcoming of robo-advisors in finance.
- Mind The MICE. In my book, “What Should I Do with My Money”, I examine economics through the lens of MICE, an acronym for Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego. I have found these to be four innate considerations present in every meaningful decision (see “4 Motives Every Individual is Guided By”).
- Own All That You Do. How often in history was someone told to do something that then became great? Titans of business, or any endeavor for that matter, lead the way. Followers are hard to remember because they didn’t own it. Treating it like it’s your own is easy when it is.
- Do Something. Infinite media channels have empowered everyone to claim their own expertise. There may be more keynote speakers branded as keynote speakers than there are stages. People would generally be more agreeable to learning about a person’s list of trials and tribulations than to hear them profess about professing.
- Read. Whether you believe history repeats itself, or prefer to say it rhymes, it did happen and the only way to know about it is to know about it. I mentioned the fear of unfulfilled curiosities and the apparent luck required to choose the right path of life, much of the former can be nullified and the latter satisfied through reading. As George R.R. Martin famously said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
- Know Others. Knowing thyself may be key, but we are here on earth with 8 billion other humans just like us. When the therapist (Robin Williams) in Good Will Hunting pressed his genius patient (Matt Damon) about who his soul mate was, someone that can challenge him and open the world to him, Damon’s character replies with Shakespeare and a list of other legendary writers. Robin Williams simply replies, “They’re all dead”. Reading does have its limits. It may offer the certainty of studying a proven success whereas it may take years to know a living intellectual equal, but studying can never compare to knowing.
- Don’t Be Loyal to The Idea. If everything mentioned thus far requires attempts, usually many attempts before even coming close to getting it right, that means moving on from what’s not right is right. The only way to know what you don’t know is to let go. This is where beliefs and relationships complicate matters. If the idea has been tagged as a belief, then disassociating with it can be near impossible. Sometimes people do change religion in their lifetime, but it usually doesn’t happen more than once. Don’t limit your goals, inventions, or discoveries to so few opportunities. Similarly, people cannot be the idea. Have you ever seen a man leave his job where he met his wife, it can be sad. The idea and the relationships must be viewed separately.
- Prioritize Yourself. I was taught early on in business to put your client/customer first, yourself second, and the company/team third. Putting the team last might sound backwards in a “there is no ‘i’ in team” world, but creating a happy customer and a happy you in an ethical manner creates a lasting team. Any other order, harming the customer or degrading your own self-worth, is a barrier to success. Good teachers and mentors work for their protégé, and likely reached the upper echelon of teambuilding by focusing on their customers and themselves earlier in their career.
- Be Able to Work/Relax Anywhere. Stoicism is often interpreted as maintaining peace or calm regardless of the situation, in other words being in control of your thoughts. It is to close your eyes on a cold, rainy day and be lying on a beach in paradise, or to be working at peak performance from a laptop at your kitchen table. Whether it’s changing your shirt or moving to another room of the house, being able to switch modes while working remotely is a blessing that can accelerate the work/relax cycle and free up exponential time, which is life’s greatest asset.
- Stay in Shape. Mental health has become one of the greatest emphases by society in the 21st century, but its ties to physical health are unquestionable. Scientists have designed pills for countless ailments with as many side effects, many of which could have been addressed by a workout. Successful people usually don’t’ get in shape, they stay in shape.
- Harness Momentum. Momentum is the great multiplier in life. It can make us stronger than we ever knew we could be, or it can tear us down quicker than we thought possible. Perhaps this tip deserves to come last because if all the prior bullets can build a more confident and optimistic you, then all that is left is to repeat the process. It is important to keep going when you’re hot, and equally important that when the going gets tough, the tough get going… somewhere else to decompress.
These are behaviors and routines I’ve noticed from some of the most successful people I’ve ever associated with, and ones that have improved my own well-being once adopted. Life has often been defined as– you are all that you used to be. I hope these observations of success empower all that you will someday used to be. Until then, give them a shot, and remember that this is an incomplete list always looking to be expanded.
Written by Bryan Kuderna.
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