By Barry Maher
It happened again the other day. After a keynote I’d done at an association’s awards dinner, a reporter for their magazine had showed up at my hotel room door to interview me. The interview was supposed to have been done that afternoon, and it was now 11:47 PM. And he’d obviously had a few drinks at the dinner. I had a 4:00 AM wake-up call for an early cross-country flight, so I was less than thrilled to see him. Still, the interview needed to be done, and I invited him in.
Which is when it happened. He started the interview with THE question.
It’s a question that I usually get only from reporters; almost never from anyone else. But I assume they’re asking it because they think their readers will be interested in the answer. Or maybe they’re just asking it because they think that any possible answer would demonstrate a level of self-absorbed pomposity astonishing even in a self-appointed guru like myself.
“What’s the secret to success?” That’s what he asked me.
Really? I thought. And I almost said, “A good night’s sleep.” But I didn’t.
“The secret to success?” I repeated. “I have no idea. I guess it depends on your definition of success. I imagine J.P. Morgan and Mother Theresa would have defined it a little differently. Hitler probably would have had another definition altogether.”
He sighed, obviously annoyed. “Ok, so let’s talk about business. What’s the secret to success there?”
“Got it. That one I know.”
“I’m thrilled,” he said, clicking on his recorder and pointing it unnecessarily close to my face. “The world awaits.”
“The secret to success . . .” I said, “is that there’s no secret to success.”
“Helpful,” he said, clicking off his recorder scornfully. “But not really very clever. I need specific tips. You know like in that 29 Immutable Laws of Management Wonderfulness breakout that redhead did this afternoon.”
“I missed it.”
“And I missed my chance to interview her.”
“I’m sure she’s devastated. And asleep.” Still, I was about to elaborate on my point. Because of course when it comes to business, there is no secret to success. We all know what it takes to be successful. Hard work, determination, persistence, that kind of thing. But there is one other element, one we all know about but one we ignore so frequently that it might as well be a secret.
“Okay,” he said, trying another tack while I was still gathering my thoughts. “So you’ve had some success, right?”
“So what do you attribute that success to?”
I nodded. Let’s get this over with. Four AM was not getting any farther away. “Three things,” I said
He clicked on the recorder again as if he was doing me a favor. If there’s anything magazine writers like almost as much as secrets, it’s numbered lists.
“First of all,” I began, “I’m cheap, frugal. Before I buy anything, I think of just how long and how hard I had to work to earn whatever amount it costs. Suddenly, that $75,000 car doesn’t seem nearly as necessary. So even when I first started my speaking business 20 years ago, I had more than adequate seed capital and things have gotten better since then.”
“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do simply because I need the money. To me, that’s rich.”
“Less than Bill Gates, more than . . .” I trailed off, trying to think of someone famous and poor.
“Maybe.” Come to think of it, there aren’t a lot of famous poor people.
“Second,” I continued, glancing at the clock, “in a business where it’s easy to spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year on marketing, I spend almost nothing. I generate business the stodgy, old-fashion way: I simply do the best possible job I can for my each one of my clients. And I price my services to position myself as the most affordable speaker of my caliber and credentials available. So word of mouth generates more business than anything else I do.”
“That’s the element to success that’s so often ignored. Third, I’ve been very lucky. Though at one point in my 30s I was absolutely broke, my parents and the country I grew up in had provided me with the background, the education, the infrastructure and the climate which made whatever success I’ve achieved possible. No question I’ve worked very hard. But I’ve also gotten more than a few breaks along the way and a lot of help.”
“So you’re not a self-made man. You didn’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
“I’ve never met a self-made man, though I’ve met a few who thought they were. Trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is like trying to pull yourself up by your nose. It ain’t gonna happen. Archimedes supposedly said ‘Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.’ If nobody gives us a lever and the country we live in doesn’t give us a place to stand, none of us are likely to move much of anything.”
“Damn,” he said.
He was looking down at his recorder. “I must have turned it off instead of on. Let’s start from scratch . . . So what’s the secret to success?”
I looked longingly over at my bed for a moment, then replied. “A hearty breakfast. Oatmeal, brown sugar, molasses if you’ve got ‘em.”
“That’s the secret. Molasses. Next question.”
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