Movies and novels tell us that the story of success goes something like this: Person has an innate talent. Person has a business idea. Person faces some obstacle. Person’s talent and the strength of the idea overcome said obstacle. End credits. That’s great for Hollywood, but here in this world, it’s a little different. Real success is a longer story, one that involves the purposeful cultivation of certain qualities, and the discouragement of certain others. Knowing which is which can mean the difference between black and red, no matter the talent or product.
A more realistic story of success goes something like this: Person has a big-picture view of what success means to them personally. Person calculates the long-term goals needed to live that notion. Person commits themselves to the presence of mind required to develop the right qualities and shed the wrong ones. Slowly, steadily, success comes—not in a dramatic moment of triumph, but as the accumulation of a million little decisions informed by good habits.
Obstacles come and go, but the hero of our story has already overcome the biggest of them all: the qualities and habits of mind that breed failure. Here are a few of them.
The inability to move is the inability to take your business where it needs to go. The inability to change is the inability to grow as an entrepreneur. The inability to switch direction is the best way to find yourself and your business lost. The entrepreneurs who succeed are the ones who respond to problems with flexibility. They don’t double down on what doesn’t work, and they don’t let their ego extend their sense of commitment to going down with the ship of a bad idea.
There’s a fine line between sticking to your guns when you know you’re right, and going full Captain Ahab. It’s important to remember that you’re serving customers; you have to cater to them, not bring them around to your way of thinking. It doesn’t mean abandoning your own values or opinions, but being a good realist. It means considering all the possibilities, even the possibility that you need to change. It means bowing to the evidence, and going where the hard truths take you.
For a great example of flexibility, look at Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, formerly best known for their record “megastores.” You won’t see those anymore, but you will see Virgin, having branched off and diversified enough to survive the collapse of the CD industry. For the opposite example, see Blockbuster, and their too-little-too-late attempt to move from storefront rentals to DVD by mail—while Netflix was moving from DVD by mail to online streaming.
2. Short-Term Thinking
Looking for quick success? Want to be an overnight millionaire? I can’t say that it’s impossible, but it’s really, really, really unlikely. So unlikely in fact that it’s not worth trying. Immediate success in business is like winning the lottery; it happens to some people, but it’s not going to happen to you. You wouldn’t consider the daily purchase of a Powerball ticket to be a serious business plan. You shouldn’t consider building just one product and “cashing in” to be one, either. Realistic success takes time and patience. It’s a long game, one that requires years of development and minor adjustments. It requires the willingness to do a million things wrong in order to get a few things right, and build on those few things until they become a lot of things.
Great writers, for example, know that they’re not going to just sit down and write a classic; they write thousands and thousands of pages that they throw in the trash, refining their game bit by bit until they produce something great. Yes, occasionally a bad fan-fic writer taps out a bestseller on her Blackberry, but 50 Shades is the exception that proves the rule, not a business model.
3. Lacking Focus
This quality is the flip side of the “inflexibility” coin. While refusing to budge when it’s time to budge is bad, refusing to give each idea and task the focus it deserves is just as deadly. Constantly flitting from thing to thing, idea to idea, product to product is how entrepreneurs fail by being too flexible. Or more accurately, too flighty.
Whatever you’re doing, do it fully, with 100% of your attention and effort, before moving to the next thing. Be disciplined with your scheduling, and give yourself the time to do each task completely. I’ve written a lot about the scourge of multi-tasking, a supposed skill that really boils down to doing several things badly at once. Don’t multi-task, and don’t do anything halfway. Every endeavor (even those that ultimately fail) deserves your all.
4. Poor Problem-Solving Skills
Business is never a straight road. It’s a maze full of puzzles and obstacles and—above all—the unexpected. Being able to work out solutions, think creatively, and innovate your way out of tight spots is a must. Solving unexpected problems with calm, clarity and a commitment to your overall vision is just as necessary a skill as any industry-specific one.
You probably already know that there’s always bumps in the road. Rather than seeing them as storms you have to endure, try to see them as opportunities to refine your problem-solving skills. See them as useful reflections of what needs improvement, and as launching pads to further success. The alternative is frustration, and too much of that will burn anyone out.
Being stingy with your time and resources may seem like a safe way to stay in the black, but it’s a long-term business killer. There’s a difference between being careful with your resources and being a miser. That doesn’t just apply to money; it applies to content, advice, and support for your peers.
Again, content marketing is the art of giving. It’s not the art of trading, at least not in the short term. You don’t expect a specific return for every blog, video, or webinar you produce. You simply trust that months and years of offering value will add up to a huge amount of trust and credibility, and it’s that you can use to sell your product. It all starts with being generous.
To succeed in business, you have to work on yourself. Employ good habits to make yourself more competent, more present, more mindful, and more realistic. The qualities you develop are what you’re investing into your business, as much as any amount of time or money.