Exploring the Secrets of Successful PeoplePublished: January 30, 2002 in Knowledge@Emory
"I think you have to love it, whatever it is you do, all the little parts of it." – Alice Waters, founder/owner, Chez Panisse restaurant
"Failure is just not an option. You don’t consider it. You visualize success and do what is necessary to achieve that vision." – Howard Lester, CEO, Williams Sonoma
"Be the most passionate person in the room. Not the smartest, not the cleverest, but the most passionate. Care more than anybody and you’ll be the one that wins." – Ted Bell, former Vice Chairman and Worldwide Creative Director, Young & Rubicam
What is it that makes some people capable of reaching the pinnacle of success, while others, just as (or more) intelligent, remain middle managers throughout their careers? Why do some people take risks, while many are content to maintain safe, if not entirely satisfying, careers? This is the question former University of California-Berkeley professor Lucinda Watson sets out to explore in How They Achieved: Stories of Personal Achievement and Business Success (John Wiley & Sons). While her findings are not necessarily a blueprint for success, they do provide a glimpse into characteristics that successful people share.
The definition of success, according to Watson, is achievement in a field as defined by peers in that field. In her book, Watson interviews 21 leaders from a broad spectrum of fields. Most are CEOs or the equivalent. Some founded their own businesses, others were hired to turn around a failing business. Some did both. Each story is different, but there are common traits that emerge as the stories unwind. Passion is the glue that binds this group together. Some came from privileged backgrounds; others worked their way to the top. Not all sought riches or glory, but each one felt that his or her goal was a defining part of their self-image and they had the self-confidence to make it happen. In short, giving up was never an option for these people. They were less concerned with the outcome, and more concerned with the process.
Watson has better access to leaders than most researchers. Her father, Thomas J. Watson Jr., led IBM in its golden era, at the dawn of the computer age. Thus, by default, her grandfather is Thomas J. Watson Sr., founder of IBM Corporation and a pioneer in the world of business machines and employee benefits. Both men were philanthropists and community leaders who exposed their children to some of the 20th century’s greatest minds. Therefore, her social circle is more exciting than that of an average college professor, as she indicates when she reveals how and where she met each subject. This familiarity produces candid, refreshingly straightforward narratives, delivered in the first person. Their direct quality makes her conclusions, which wrap up each interview, redundant and somewhat patronizing to the reader.
Watson taught communications and job interviewing skills for 10 years at the Haas School of Business at Berkley. She begins by relating some of the questions she extended: How did you discover your passion? Who are your heroes, your mentors? How did you achieve all that you have? What role does fear play in your life? What were your toughest decisions? How are today’s ambitious young people different from those of other generations?
The answers run the gamut from defining childhood experiences to chance encounters. Susie Tompkins Buell originally wanted to be a nun. Instead, her interest in European style led her to found Plain Jane Dress Company, later Esprit Clothing Company, specializing in junior sportswear. Jane Cahill Pfeiffer actually was a nun, before working her way up to vice president of IBM and now CEO of the television network NBC. Bob Cohn learned to write computer code in the 1960s to avoid time-consuming tasks at his family’s fur processing factory; he didn’t turn to technology as a career until the 1980s, when he revolutionized voicemail by founding Octel Communications, which was later acquired by Lucent Technologies. Ten years later he retired.
Watson divides her subjects into three categories: CEOs, Entrepreneurs, and Visionaries. While everyone interviewed seems to share common characteristics like passion, self-confidence and an immunity to hard work, their motivations spring from different sources. Watson’s CEOs are driven to succeed, but most are not dedicated to a particular cause. They learn to take advantage of the situations presented to them, often accidentally "falling" into their careers. Dan Case, CEO of Hambrecht and Quist, an investment banking company, (and AOL-founder Steve Case’s brother) joined the San Francisco company because he had (he thought) a girlfriend at Stanford. Donald M. Kendall, former CEO of PepsiCo, the beverage and food company, had his college career interrupted by World War II. He started working in a Pepsi bottling plant because he needed a job, period. On the whole, these CEOs are diplomatic types who work hard to fit into the culture of their workplace. They are not radical thinkers and change agents, but leaders who seek the collective best for their company and team.
Entrepreneurs are more an introspective group, often spending their childhood as loners, inventing their own world. They tend to be involved with their own thoughts and creativity; while they seek success, their motivation is not about money or even power. Entrepreneurs tend to live for the challenge. Howard Lester, CEO of Williams-Sonoma, a high-end cookware shop, left a promising career at IBM to run a banking software company; in his early 40s he felt bored with computers, took a breather, and bought Williams-Sonoma because he felt it had potential and would be a fun company to run. Ted Bell, the scion of a wealthy banking family, displayed the skills to sprint up the corporate ladder, yet he bargained with his grandmother for the right to live in Europe and write. Once he discovered his flair for advertising, he used his inner creativity to become the vice chairman and worldwide creative director for the advertising agency Young & Rubicam.
Then there are the visionaries. Often dreamers, like the entrepreneurs, they are more interested in helping others than fulfilling their own needs. Or perhaps those two concepts go hand in hand — most visionaries fulfill their own needs by helping others. Money is far from the goal, although the visionary’s strong passion and commitment to cause ends up attracting it anyway. Buddhist Monk Jack Kornfield, a founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, attracts followers because of his intense spirituality. Their donations fund the Center’s activities. Restauranteur Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, single-handedly ushered in a new era of American dining. It wasn’t planned; she simply fell in love with French cuisine while a student. When she tired early of her teaching career, she decided to open "a little café." The French government has now invited her to open a café in the Eiffel Tower.
Hard work is another common theme throughout the book, although not all those interviewed would call it hard work. It is a devotion, a drive. None of these folks are the kind of people that go home at 5 p.m. and actually spend weekends with their family. Most have merged their careers and their lives; many retire early to enjoy life after working nonstop for a period of years.
One of Watson’s interests, as she relates it, is whether self confidence and self esteem can be learned. There is no hard answer to the question, although it is clear that each person interviewed did gain confidence with each risk taken. Success breeds success, and many of these individuals started life (okay, at least adulthood) with no specific goal. While the book does provide some keen insight, it fails to address the bigger question "Where does one find the passion?" Without this, you’re left to find your own pathway to success.