The success most important to you may come not from comparing yourself to others but from doing what you want. Succeeding without competing is possible when we look inward.
Look at your life. What’s the sweetest success you have experienced?
Bring up the memory of that event or feat. Savor it. Think of what you did to achieve it; think of how you worked, struggled, and risked; think of how you felt when your goal was finally in your grasp. Re-experience your glory, pride, and joy. Let your heart swell and your face smile.
I had an experience like that a few weeks ago. It taught me a lesson about competing.
I’ve conducted a couple of webinars for Harvard Business School, where I earned my MBA. When my (mumble)-year reunion approached, HBS invited me to deliver a presentation on a subject of my choice. It’s a serious honor, and of course I said yes.
If you’ve read my essays on Competing.com and elsewhere, you know me as a competitive strategist who’s helped dozens of Fortune 500 companies around the world build their bottom lines. You might not know that I’ve also done work in self-awareness and that I wrote a book called Nice Start: Questions Only You Can Answer to Create the Life Only You Can Live.
The safe choice for my HBS reunion talk would have been competitive strategy. I’ve been working on another book on competitive strategy, so I had plenty of new, provocative material that I knew would deeply challenge conventional wisdom.
But, as excited as I am about that book, I also love Nice Start. That’s what I chose. I put together a mini-workshop called “Nice start! Now what?”
I’ve delivered a lot of speeches and workshops. I’ve spoken on six continents to everyone from MBA students to chief strategy officers. I’ve spoken in venues from the Ciragan Palace to the French Ministry of Health to a bunch of universities to a bunch of companies to a conference at sea aboard the Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve spoken with simultaneous translation, when the audience laughs (if I’m lucky) ten seconds after the joke. I’ve been around.
And I’ve never felt as anxious as when I prepared my HBS reunion talk. I didn’t care that my audience would be Fortune 500 executives, multi-multi-millionaires, and high-level politicians. I cared that these were people I went to school with (mumble) years ago. This was show and tell. This was my opportunity to share what, if anything, I’d learned about life over the years.
I poured my heart into that mini-workshop. I wrote, revised, rehearsed, revised, slept on it (not literally), revised again, rehearsed again. I practiced over and over so I could sound spontaneous.
The big day came. I think I gave my best talk / workshop ever. People rushed from their seats toward me when it was over (for once, without tar and feathers). You should have seen the beaming smiles and glowing eyes I saw.
Their response was more than I’d even hoped. It was a peak experience for me. Sweet success.
Did you notice what I didn’t say about my talk and success? That’s where the lesson about competing comes in.
Other people spoke at the reunion. HBS’ dean, for example. Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, Max Bazerman, Francesca Gino, other senior faculty. C-level executives from global companies. What I didn’t say about my talk and success was anything about measuring my performance relative to theirs. I didn’t say anything about it because I didn’t give it any thought. Of course I care what my ratings will be. (The school hasn’t finished tabulating them yet, and if they’re low you can bet this essay will vanish swiftly.) But I didn’t set as my goal or as my measure of success competing with the other presenters. My goal was to give 100%. Not 90%, not 99%, not 99.9%. One hundred percent. I’ll tell you, that last 0.1% is a lot of work.
Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, was famous for demanding that Apple’s products be “insanely great.” He didn’t say “insanely better,” which would measure Apple relative to its competition. He said insanely great.
I’m not saying “Nice start! Now what?” was insanely great. I’m also not saying that it wasn’t insanely great. I’m saying that it feels different — it feels fantastic — to go for great instead of going for better. I’m saying also that that feeling matters. It’s dreams and vision. It’s fire-in-the-belly motivation. It’s at the heart of why people start companies. It’s also why it’s difficult to maintain that spirit when the company grows beyond the founders.1
Go back to your own sweetest success, the one you brought to mind a few hundred words ago. What made it so sweet?
I suggest that doing what makes us successful is not what makes us proud. Doing what makes us proud is what makes us successful.
1 Here’s a way perhaps to keep that spirit going. HBS professor Francesca Gino, in her excellent book Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), describes a study she conducted along with Dan Cable (the London Business School) and Brad Staats (now at the Wharton School). They found that new-employee orientation at Wipro greatly reduced turnover when it emphasized the contributions that the newcomers could make to the company.