Beware of borrowing others’ dreams
There’s one kind of advice post I really can’t stand. I won’t say I never read them or even that they never contain anything useful or interesting, but when I see one my heart sinks. They’re the ones entitled: “The top ten habits of really successful people” or something similar. The assumption is that if we’d only copy these few habits we’d be “really successful” too. As if it were that simple.
My view is that this approach can ever work, however good some of the individual tips may be. Firstly, what, or who, is a successful person? Is it someone who makes a lot of money? Someone who’s famous? Someone who’s respected by her fellow professionals? Someone who’s loved by his family? Depending on your answer to that crucial question, some of the advice given may make no sense at all, and could even be counterproductive. Your definition of success, of course, will depend on the kind of person you are and the “Just do this and you’ll be a really successful person” approach takes no account of what you’re like at all. Just to give one example, although I fully buy into the idea that freelance translators are running businesses, I don’t think that most of us would define success in the same way as the CEO of a multinational company. And yet here some of us are trying to follow their tips for achieving it. It just doesn’t make sense.
Because what happens when you follow advice that doesn’t suit the type of person you are? I might use the example of my blog last week, in which I explained that I dislike using the telephone. I’ve read plenty of advice saying I should use it more: to make a difference when it comes to marketing myself to potential clients, to follow up e-mails or contacts, and so on. If I stuck to the principle that it’s what a “really successful person” would do, I might force myself to do it despite feeling uncomfortable and stressed, with results that are unlikely to be good. Or I might be made to feel that by following my own instincts I could never be that “really successful person”. Either way, the overall result would be a negative one. Perhaps by now you’re beginning to see my objections to this whole way of looking at advice blogging.
The contents of the “Ten habits” usually break down more or less like this: there’s one that’s actually quite useful, one put in to be deliberately wacky and provocative, a couple that are so utterly vacuous they are not worth considering, and six that are more or less common sense. Common sense, in fact, is a sadly underrated virtue in business. It’s when they lose sight of common sense that many enterprises flirt with embarrassing disaster. The common sense tips relate to things we either do anyway or know we ought to do because any sensible person would do them. I’m talking about things like keeping a tidy desk or being polite to customers. So we might need reminding of their importance from time to time, but we hardly need “really successful people” to tell us to do them.
You might by now be wondering what I would advocate instead of listening to these so-called recipes for success? Well, first of all, instead of accepting other people’s versions, we need to define our own success criteria. If you know what success means for you – where you’re going in your professional and personal life – then you’re much more likely to recognise and be able to use the advice that’s going to help you get there than if you’re chasing somebody else’s dream. Secondly, we need to look for the advice that suits us, that chimes in with our personality, that’s going in the same direction as we want to go. There’s so much advice out there, we can’t possibly take it all, and some of it is even conflicting. The trick is to identify the tips that are going to be useful and practical for you. If it’s something you can’t ever see yourself doing, forget it. Because the final step is to actually put the advice into practice, whether it’s studying for a qualification, taking a different approach to work or using a new computer tool. A tip on a list is not going to get you anywhere unless you have the courage and determination to make a change and see it through.
If you think most of the previous paragraph is common sense, I’m inclined to agree with you. But it’s amazing how many people seem to forget it, including one or two “really successful” ones!