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The Underpinnings of Success: 7 Decisions in Career and Life Planning

“Go figure! If the formula for success were as simple as the many gurus such as Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people, 1989) or Tony Robbins (Unleash the Power Within, 1999) would have us believe, we could all click our heels three times, follow a seven or twelve step plan and -poof!- be rich successful winners – if we truly wanted to be” (Lexpert, Top 40 Under 40, Taylor, 2002). If only it were so easy. But then, there is the other side of the coin – failure. I have worked with, studied and written about high achievers and leaders for all of my professional life, enough to know that if one is not prepared to fail, it is highly likely that one will never realize the full potential of what they might achieve in life. In the groundbreaking book The Hidden Habits of Genius (2020), Craig Wright warns that reading his book will not turn someone into a genius but by understanding the habits and characteristics that lie behind people who achieve great things, we can come to a different understanding of how to change our own life for the best. His 256-page book has as many stories of failure as success, which underscores a fundamental point about success. Most often there is a very fine line between success and failure in life. The decisions we make along the way and in the ever important “moments of truth” determine which side of that line we come down on.

Thomas Edison was not the first to comment on his path to success saying, “I failed my way to success” or to comment on the ways in which failure often is the prerequisite to success. The late actor Mickey Rooney famously said “You always pass failure on the way to success”, Winston Churchill, the determined bulldog who took on Adolph Hitler after returning from defeat in parliament, once said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal”, and the American Author, Napoleon Hill who penned “Think and Grow Rich” observed that “Many successful people achieve their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure”.

About twenty years ago, I spent hundreds of hours interviewing and assessing successful executives and then lawyers with the purpose of identifying the definitive list of qualities that would predict and guarantee success. I failed. Perhaps more accurately, the qualities were more of a moving target and my list grew larger and larger with the size of my group. In such articles as Canada’s Top 25 Litigators, Top Dealmakers, Top Women, Top 40 Under 40, etc. for a then leading legal magazine, Lexpert, my subjects did share some qualities in common, but there were other factors that were equally determinative of their present success. Without exception, all had overcome some form of adversity or failure. Almost 30% had a parent pass away before they were 25, another 30% came from families who immigrated to Canada and overcame many social, language and financial obstacles as a result.

Lessons in Success

After more than 30 years of having hundreds of high potential people complete all kinds of psychometric tests of their IQ, Critical thinking, motivation, EQ, personality etc and completing even more 360 degree interviews with up to 20 of their peers, clients, employees and families, I can say there are only a very few things of which I am fairly certain today:

  1. Winston Churchill was right, success is not final and failure is not fatal.
  2. Carl Jung was also right. There is a continuum or scale between every factor we consider a strength which when carried too far turns into a weakness or what Jung called the “Shadow”. Determination and perseverance can turn to rigidity, pride to arrogance.
  3. There is NO definitive list of success factors that guarantee one will arrive at the place of success.
  4. One can achieve incredible success in one sphere of life (such as one’s career) and abject failure in another (eg. marriage, parenting etc.). Success is multi-faceted and complex.
  5. Failure is a valuable component of success as it is an inevitable part of taking risks to try new things and to learning how to problem-solve our way forward. It is the lessons we learn from our mistakes that provides the basis for success.

What I have learned most is that success is all about one’s journey that follows the peaks and valleys of life. At the end of the day it is very much about what we want people to say about us when we are no longer here and the contributions we leave behind. It is the decisions we make along the way that ultimately judge the quality of our career and life success.

“Many successful people achieve their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure.”

– Napoleon Hill

Those of us who devote our career to helping others be more successful in theirs usually begin our new client relationships with a few stock questions: “What would you do if you learned you had 6 months to live?”, “What if you got fired tomorrow?”, “What would you do if you won a mega lottery?” and so forth. What we want clients to begin to think about is making decisions. Most of us refer to the process as Career-Life Planning because we know that it is pretty much impossible to separate one’s life from one’s career. For example, the super smart, type-A personality Investment Banker, who practically lived at the office and now is being carried out on a stretcher after suffering a heart attack, cut short his career success by making some poor health and life decisions. Same thing goes for the “riding-high” executives who, drunk on their own power and success, blow up their families and marriages in a whole variety of ways. No surprise, one of the success factors found by Jeffrey Garten in his best-selling book The Mind of the CEO (2008) was that the most successful people have had long-standing (as in decades long) positive relationships with their spouses, families and personal assistants.

Success comes in all shapes and sizes as is so brilliantly laid out in Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking theory and book Multiple Intelligences (1993) and further researched with live examples by Wright in The Hidden Habits of Genius. As Wright points out through the his book, “Today, genius is all around us”, but what one learns from his research is that the terms genius and success are loosely defined in our society as well. Most of us, would never dream to classify ourselves as geniuses and too many of us, sadly, believe deep inside that we have fallen short of success according to the standards we have set for ourselves. The recent best-selling book and Ted Talk by Angela Duckworth, author of Grit (2016), clearly concludes that talent and aptitude do not guarantee success.

So what does Career-Life Success really mean in the eye of the beholder?

While there is no definitive list, what I have learned from the many people I have had the good fortune to work with and who for the most part are what you or I or the person on the Yonge subway would perceive as “successful” is that they have made more good decisions than bad over the course of their lives so far. While the following 7 areas of decision making are by no means the definitive or even most significant, they are a good starting point to discuss what success means to each of us.

Here too is a living example of someone who Thinks of himself as a pretty regular guy just trying to do the best he can but is someone who lives by these 7 types of decisions and who you or I would think of as a pretty successful person. First, 7 decisions around areas that can help build a life and career of success.

  1. Decency
  2. Resilience and grit
  3. Desire to make a difference
  4. Empathy for others
  5. Critical thinking to creatively problem-solve
  6. Optimism
  7. Purpose and goal focus

Pavle Masic: Toronto Lawyer, Loving Dad and Husband, Movie Buff

Over the past 25 years, many of the highest achieving people we have worked with at Praxis Partners have not come from wealth or affluence. As mentioned above, almost 30% come from families who immigrated to Canada. In the summer of 1988, Pavle was one of these children. His parents, both university graduates and working professionals saw no future for their children in the former Yugoslavia, a country whose economy was in free fall in the 1980’s with roving blackouts and hyperinflation. They packed up 3 children and personal belongings and arrived in Hamilton, Ontario in a July heat wave, speaking little English but excited about their future. Similar to many immigrants, Pavle’s parents paid dearly for their own decision, his father, a veterinarian in Yugoslavia held down two jobs in Canada, one as a delivery driver, and his mother who was educated in the Classics and Comparative literature became a hardworking personal support worker. Pavle’s elder sister took on the part-time job of being mom to him and his brother, even as she finished school herself. They were simply decent, hardworking people who wanted their children to have a better future.

Chapter one of The Hidden Habits of Genius is entitled Gift or Hard Work. By the end of the chapter, the reader is unsure of which is most important and Wright makes a compelling argument that talent without hard work often doesn’t go far but that hard work often leads to surprising breakthroughs. In Pavle’s family it was all about hard work. Once when he was in grade 2 or 3, his father discovered that he had not completed a simple homework assignment. His father called the school to say that Pavle would be late and sat over him until he completed the exercise. At school, his father ensured Pavle apologized, and produced the completed assignment promising he would never miss an assignment again. He didn’t.

One of Angela Duckworth’s breakthrough research findings that underpins Grit is that there is no correlation between how high/strong one’s aptitude or talent is and how much grit and perseverance one has. In studying West Point Cadets and Green Berets who are acknowledged as among the most intelligent, athletic future leaders, the dropout and failure rate was not related at all to how smart or strong the individuals were. It had everything to do with their “Grit Scale”.

Similar to Geoff Belsher, a “Top 40 Under 40 Lawyer” who once explained his success to me as “Basically you work like hell to get the grades to get into a good law school”, Pavle learned to excel in undergrad and when he took a night course in law during 3rd year, he found his calling. Although he scored high grades to gain entrance to U. Of T one of the leading law schools in North America, he struggled with the on-campus interviews without a mentor to prepare the Hamilton “boy” for Bay Street, he did not get taken up by one of the leading firms. Undeterred, he went to a small boutique and worked “like hell” again to learn how to solve the most pressing survival issues of his clients- he became adept at helping struggling companies deal with Insolvency and Bankrupcy threats. When asked what his top skill and strength is today, Pavle doesn’t talk about his legal prowess but quickly and quietly says he believes it is his empathy; his ability to walk in his clients shoes. It is not surprising from someone who grew up in a family who constantly had to struggle to overcome barriers of language and finances with their own family thousands of miles away. Pavle instinctively knows what its like to have everything at stake. “I don’t want them to lose and I don’t want to let them down” he says of his clients. It is his strong desire to make a positive difference (something we call achievement drive) fueled by his grit and perseverance that defines him.

Success is multi-faceted and complex

As hard as he works, Pavle makes the decision each day to shut down between 5:30 pm and 8:00 pm to have dinner and spend time with his wife Katherine, who is a teacher and his almost 3 year old daughter Daisy. He may think it is a unique practice but I recall one of Canada’s top female litigators, Sheila Block, doing the exactly the same thing for many years. Once in the middle of a difficult, stress filled negotiation with multiple lawyers on both sides she interrupted her almost all male colleagues: “Guys, do you know what day this is? Halloween and its 4:00PM! I’ve got to get home to trick or treat; we need to reconvene later tonight.” And so they did. Sheepishly, some of her colleagues acknowledged relief that she had raised the obvious as they too wanted to get home. Sheila Block has never been one to shirk from the right decisions, not only for her career but for her family as well. Nor does Pavle.

Pavle recently joined the firm of Ricketts Harris in Toronto where the Managing Partner Gary Luftspring, a leading Canadian litigator branded the logo “Hard Working Law” at his former firm Goodman and Carr.

Pavle made sure he arrived with his own files and was in court (on Zoom) in his very first week. Ricketts Harris represents one of his most significant career-life decisions; his desire to work with a diverse team of the best of the best in their respective areas of practice. Pavle took the time to make a carefully considered decision. He was driven to make this career move by a strong sense of a larger and more meaningful purpose for his future. He enjoyed his previous firm and was not moving to seek more money, but felt he had hit the limits of his learning and professional development where he was. He needed to move out of the shadow and Ricketts Harris presented a “go-to-grow” opportunity to move into a stronger platform for the Toronto market. He plans to continue a strong positive and reciprocal relationship with his former partners and firm.

What is Your Decision Making Process?

In her best selling book 10-10-10: Ten Minutes, Ten Months, Ten Years (2009), Suzy Welch outlines a simple but very logical process for making the best possible decisions by simply considering all of the possible outcomes or consequences of each decision in the short, medium and long term. For many years, my own personal favorite decision-making process has been Force Field Analysis developed by Kurt Lewin in 1940. My version sets up my “Current Situation” on anything from my job, my weight, love life etc. I have converted Lewin’s “Desired State” to my own “Better Tomorrow”. I then brainstorm all of the factors and forces (negative and positive) until I can figure out how to get to my “Better Tomorrow”. It really doesn’t matter what process or tools one uses. The point is to become a better decision-maker. This really is what achieving success and happiness comes down to at the end of the day.

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