What we can all learn from super-achievers.
As I have an audience for this blog in many countries around the world I worry sometimes that my subject matter might not travel too well. No worries today though, as I’m writing about one of the biggest global sporting franchises, or rather the man who could make a strong claim to having built it, Sir Alex Ferguson, and a global music phenomenon, William Adams, better known perhaps as will.i.am. To my mind at least they have a lot in common, above and beyond their status these days as national treasures in the UK – they are both super-achievers.
Ten years after he first made noises of retiring, Sir Alex Ferguson has finally decided to hand over the coaching of the Manchester United football team to someone else. Today, the papers are full of people competing to praise him more strongly than the next, to raise the bar on his considerable achievements as a soccer manager. The winner so far in this rhetorical joust is a retired politician who said Sir Alex had been the most successful “professional person” of his generation, in any field. Whatever you think of the inevitable hyperbole that the media demand these days to get a voice heard, there is no doubt that Sir Alex is very good at what he does. Although I’m no football fanatic, I have always loved to see how he was able to turn a game by substituting the right player, at exactly the right time, and how he inspired so many players to perform and to be as good as they could be: so, clearly, I’m a fan.
Another colossus of British popular culture at the moment is will.i.am, a creative genius in the guise of musician and music producer, who is quite literally the personification of branding. Will seems to like it in London and I’m a great fan of his too and not just because of his name. Here is a man so completely in tune (again, literally) with the zeitgeist that he is able to use his considerable “smarts” and musical talent to produce an endless stream of popular music success. The wider performance art involved in the very best popular music these days is a greatly underestimated art form (like all good advertising in fact) and Will, along with such greats as Lady Gaga, is a master of it. Both of these artists have captured the pulse of the moment in their music and how they present it to the world. They are both good musicians but, perhaps more significantly, they are the most wonderful marketers, in a market driven by fashion, so to maintain their position in the “pop” business, over any length of time (without relying on nostalgia) is no mean feat at all.
Sir Alex’s announcement got me thinking about what I could learn from people like him and Will, or Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or any number of people who have achieved more than most. Well, my first observation on people like Alex and Will is that, in their own way, they are extremely smart. This doesn’t necessarily mean classical notions of intelligence, or academic success: even though some of the names mentioned above have had notoriously difficult relationships with others at times, and that includes Sir Alex, other aspects of their emotional intelligence are extremely well developed and they have used them to great effect. They also work hard and I guess there must be some deeper psychological motivation for them to aspire to achieve something with their lives too: perhaps it’s the same “something” that gave them the self-assurance and confidence in their own abilities, which allowed them to try in the first place. They have also had success fairly early on in life, based on a core skill, which has opened other doors to them and then, one step at a time, they have worked hard to build cumulative advantage over others.
All super-achievers leverage this notion of cumulative advantage, of building, one step at a time, on some strength, or previous success, and the starting point is normally talent. All very successful people start with some sort of talent, and that talent can vary greatly, but what they do next, to become super-achievers, is much the same for will.i.am, Sir Alex, or any of the others for that matter, and it can be summarised as follows: start early and then stick at what you are good at; work hard, be true to yourself and never compromise; be proud of what makes you different and use it to develop your “brand”; don’t give up when times are tough; and keep believing in yourself.
Belief, or the lack of it, is the limiting factor in many people’s lives and careers and yet, paradoxically, it is the one thing we have most control over. Whatever your starting point there is much to learn from super-achievers, but the most important thing, because it is completely within your own control, is belief.
As Frank Lloyd Wright once said “The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.”
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