Rule 2: Discover Your Talents Early, and Discard Your Fantasies Immediately

Rule 2: Discover Your Talents Early, and Discard Your Fantasies Immediately


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Do you believe in the oft-stated paradigm that "you can be anything you want to be if you just put your mind to it"?

Yes: 5 percent

No: 95 percent

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Recently, I conducted an important study from my living room couch—with a couple of cold beers serving as my survey assistants. I counted the number of times someone being interviewed on TV said words to the effect that "you can be anything you want if you just put your mind to it." Equivalent statements included:

"Hold on to your dreams and you can achieve anything."

"Don't ever give up and eventually you will get where you want to go."

"All you need is perseverance. You will get there."

By the end of one week, watching an average of two hours a day of television, I heard statements of this kind from seven athletes, four actors/actresses, three talk-show hosts, two authors, two singers, and one business tycoon. I heard it nineteen times in one week of prime-time couch-potato television. As I was writing this chapter, I read a newspaper article in which several young entertainment stars—from rappers to television idols—promised kids that they could be anything that they wanted to be. "There is never an obstacle too big that you can't overcome if you put your mind and resources to it," according to rapper Big Tigger.

In my opinion, few—if any—of these people believe what they are saying. The media trainers tell them to say it: if an interviewer starts pandering to you, tell the audience that you are nothing special; tell them that they could just as easily be where you are. Statements of encouragement to fans and wanna-bes make the superstars seem modest, and they give those aspiring to success the opportunity to fantasize that they too could become dizzyingly famous in any field of their fantasy. But, based on my interviews, I do not believe that the people who spew out this baloney really think that you can be anything you want.

Singer Celine Dion made one of these "you can be anything" statements at a concert. But Celine has perfect pitch; they don't. Less than one in a million will get where she got in the recording world. And Kevin Garnet said in an interview words to the effect that all young basketball players can get to the NBA if they just work toward their dreams. Well sorry, Kevin, if you are 58 and can't jump, there is no way you are going to be a $100 million basketball star no matter how much time and energy you may devote to the cause.

More often than not, the reality is that hard work and a dream will not get you where you want to be. So what will?

Test Your Talents in Many Areas

We have already learned that rigid focus is not the path to professional success. The lesson here is: neither is the other extreme—unrealistic dreaming. "Temper your optimism with realism about what you can achieve," says Admiral Prueher, whom we met previously. Indeed, the invincible executive is starkly realistic. When confronted with the issue head-on, almost all invincible executives acknowledge that you cannot be anything you want to be. In order to succeed you need two things: talent and luck. We'll cover luck in a later section. We'll cover talent in this one.

The invincible executive discards his or her fantasies, but also knows his or her talents. "There are so many things out there that you can be good at; your job is to find the areas where you excel," says William Lindsley, the owner of a top college career counseling and standardized testing preparation company. "So many new college graduates, as well as young and even mid-level executives, pick their careers haphazardly. They do not know themselves well enough to choose the right career field."

Invincible executives are adept at the process of "skill determination." They use their family background, education, and other life experiences to test their abilities in many areas—often, but not always, starting when they are very young. Most invincible executives have played instruments as children, taken a crack at writing plays or poetry, studied foreign languages, and/or tried multiple sports. As they test their skills, they rely heavily on mentors—teachers, relatives, and friends who have experienced a lot of life and who help them find the areas in which they truly excel. They use people of great experience and wisdom as foils against whom they bounce off their ideas for improving themselves, and they seek advice on possible professional directions.

Invincible executives also have a tendency to be well-traveled—either literally or figuratively. Adam Clymer, Washington correspondent for the New York Times, believes that seeing a lot of the United States, and, if possible, foreign countries, early in one's life or career is an important ingredient to long-term success. Indeed, many invincible executives with whom I spoke have had the good fortune to live in another country and see an entirely different cultural perspective on the world. Some had relatives in other countries and spent the summers living with them.

Ron Gafford, CEO of construction giant Austin Industries, has observed that many invincible executives are ex-military or were military brats. The military brats were exposed to a variety of cultures at an early age because their parents were stationed in different parts of the world, and that exposure gave them a broad-based perspective and good people skills. "They tend to be extroverts, more worldly, and good at making new friends" as a result of their travels, according to Gafford. And, as the daughter of a very successful diplomat once pointed out to me, "you have to see a lot of things that you could be good at in order to figure out what you are good at." Exposure to a broad base of culture gives people valuable perspective and an outgoing personality to go along with it.

Norma Clayton, a protégé of Jack Welch at General Electric who went on to become a senior executive at Boeing, is an African-American woman who grew up in a rural area of New Jersey. Life in her hometown was simple, mundane, and not without prejudice. "Your world could become very introverted," she noted. However, Ms. Clayton's mother worked for a French bank and frequently traveled to New York City. She made a point of taking Ms. Clayton with her to Wall Street on many occasions. "I was always excited about what she did—the big city, the machines. So I had an opportunity to really learn from her what it's like to be in business.... And when I began to go to New York City, in the business district, I saw all different types of people so that I knew the world was different from where I was growing up." The combination of seeing so many people of differing cultural backgrounds mixing together and admiring the awe-inspiring engineering feats around her inspired her to find her true talent. She became an engineer, thereby starting her path to the top.

In the case of those invincible executives who lacked the resources to travel, many of them immersed themselves in books about different countries and history. A couple of them told me that they developed fantasy worlds when they were children—pretending to be from China or France, or in one case, from ancient Rome! In fact, Norma Clayton said that she often fantasized about being "Madeline the French orphan roaming around Paris." It is a common thread among invincible executives that they get diverse perspectives on life and use those perspectives to find and develop their talents.

There can be no doubt that, if you have had broad cultural perspective early in life, you are more likely to learn your talents and enter a field where you will excel. If you have not had these experiences during youth, you will be more likely to take the path of least resistance, even if it means never discovering your true talents.