You Need This Critical Ingredient for Success in Any Field

[Author’s note: This post is a chapter of my forthcoming book 
RESET: Building Purpose in the Age of Digital Distraction]

Photo by Ambreen Hasan on Unsplash

Chapter Nine: Structuring Success

What separates the successful from everyone else?

“The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.”
Mike Murdock, American Singer and Songwriter

A friend of mine, Jon, runs a program that promotes entrepreneurship in cities around the world for an international non-profit organization. Jon meets a lot of amazing people. They are accomplished, wealthy, and respected. In a word, successful.

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Jon spends a lot of time with these people. He works closely with them, building communities to foster entrepreneurship as a way to develop the local economy. Jon gets to know these each person intimately, and he recently shared a brilliant insight with me.

I’ve struggled for years to identify the thread that runs through the lives of successful folks. Each time I see a pattern, I get excited and start researching. Then everything falls apart as I dig into the research and data. Finally, I had to concede that I was — once again — wrong.

Jon was the one who finally connected the dots.

The secret is obvious and mind-blowing at the same time. All the successful people in the world are basically normal!

In fact, they are deceptively normal. The phrase Jon uses is “the deceptive banality of greatness.” That’s a fancy way of saying that they are pretty much like you and me.

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Their greatness does not manifest in crazy, over-the-top ways. Instead they are people who are abnormally effective when they take action. They are able to get a lot done. Day after day after day.

Jon will tell you that these people are successful for reasons you and I probably haven’t considered. Success — however we choose to define it — requires the careful cultivation of daily habits. It’s not the glorious life that we conjure up when we hear the word. Success could never live up to the expectations that we heap on it. It’s not about private jets, fancy clothes, or large estates.

Study Of Success

Let’s consider the journey to “success” with the timeline of a person who earns that label. We’ll call her Jessica.

Jessica works hard on things that really matter to her. Problems that she wants to solve. She can see easily herself working on this problem the rest of her life.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Jessica pays attention to which activities lead to the desired outcome, and which ones waste her time. She invests more of her energy every day into the activities that matter. As a result, her skills slowly expand and deepen, increasing in value.

Propelled by enthusiasm and hard work, her abilities reach a level of mastery that is uncommon among her peers. She starts to stand out in terms of her ability to be useful to others in her chosen field.

Other people start to pay attention to Jessica now that her daily efforts are yielding impressive results. They label her “successful” and tell others to “keep an eye” on her. She is “the real deal”, “a rising star”, and “a natural leader.”

The legend starts to grow.

Meanwhile, Jessica keeps doing her thing, getting better and better at this narrow set of activities. Oddly enough, it gets easier for her to have an impact in other fields as she cultivates her expertise. More people listen to her opinions. Resources flow more easily toward the things that she decides to do.

Jessica’s behavior isn’t changing throughout this whole process. Her days look pretty much the same as they did a few years before. Same core activities, same slight corrections, and same steady improvements. Day in, day out. She maintains the same approach that got her the results in the first place.

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The only change is the label that we now attach to her. Now we pronounce her “successful”.

Long Shot

This type of steady and relentless growth is what my friend Jon sees when he travels around the world to work with leaders. Successful people are actually normal people who are abnormally effective.

The label of success is based on their ability to maintain these habits for years. Their carefully cultivated habits help them get things done. Things you will remember months or even years later. The important things. The things that can give birth to a legacy.

Successful people will never stop because these behaviors are so deeply ingrained. It’s habitual. They structured their lives to accomplish their goals, the things that matter to them. They didn’t waver for a long time, even when they had temporary setbacks or unexpected problems.

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This insight — success is habitualizing the daily work that matters to you — is easy to read (and to write, unfortunately) but incredibly hard to put into practice. Successful people are unusual in their patience, not their behavior. It takes a long time to build personal momentum and confidence. Like, a long time.

We should be thinking in terms of decades, not weeks.

Easy Lies

We want to believe that achieving success is not that simple — or that hard. We want to believe that success can’t come from diligent effort applied over time.

Instead, success must be about luck, like winning the lottery. Some of us point to a few overnight successes — friends who struck it rich through incredible circumstances — and use that to justify our own laziness or lack of progress.

Another ridiculous idea related to success is that people who achieve it are always happy. It must be an incredible experience, an unending high. We imagine ourselves looking like the happy, smiling people that we see in the endless advertisements that parade across our screens.

Because money solves everything, right?

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These distorted images of success are a part of the problem. We build this ridiculous wall between a successful life and where we are right now. We alienate ourselves from success by imagining it to be something complex and magical. We can’t conceive of it as simple and . . . kind of boring, honestly.

We want to believe in an easy answer. Money must be the difference between where we are now and where we want to be. That’s because we’re looking for answers on the outside, not from within.

Change The Game

To become successful you have to change yourself. But not in some pop psychology way: you don’t need to go to therapy. If you get nothing else from this book, pay attention to the next three sentences: they will change your life.

You need to start behaving differently, and that starts by changing your mindset.

Take actions every day to accomplish your mission.

Structure will help by maximizing the impact of those actions over time.

Unexpected Gift

I first learned the importance of structure as it related to supporting physical — not personal or professional — health. I am one of the 3% of formerly obese people who managed to keep off the weight for more than three years. As of this writing, I have been a healthy weight — around 210 pounds on a 6’4” body — for 17 years.

Boot camp graduation (Aug 2011) vs a BBQ at my grandpa’s house (circa 1996)

The first time I tried to enlist in the Marine Corps, though, the recruiter laughed me out of his office because I weighed 300 pounds!

Although I was very upset at the time, I don’t really blame the guy anymore. I was at least 75 pounds over the weight limit. Legally, he wasn’t allowed to sign me up for boot camp. It wasn’t the recruiter’s fault. He was just playing the odds. Why waste time on a kid who has to lose that kind of weight when there are lots of qualified guys ready to sign up?

That was my low point. I had already told my family and friends that I would become a Marine. With my plan starting to crumble, I had to make a big change, and it had to work!

My response was to focus on a new mission. 75 pounds stood between me and the Marines, and I was going to lose it. So I started my own “pre-boot camp”, and in the process stumbled onto the value of a demanding structure. I changed my life completely. It was the cleanest break from the past that I could manage without isolating myself completely from my family.

I rented an apartment with two friends. The night we moved in — September 1st, 2000 — I went for the first jog of my life. Then I went out again the second day. And again the third day, fourth day, and so on. That nightly run became the foundation of a new workout regimen.

Playing pick up basketball, 2011

I added weight lifting once a week, then twice a week, then every other day. I started playing pickup basketball two nights a week. I cut back on food, especially at night. Eventually I stopped eating desserts altogether. I also stopped smoking weed.

My mission of losing 75 pounds propelled me through eight months of intense training. I did not miss a single day of training. And it worked. My weight was down to 205 by the time I shipped off to boot camp in May of 2001. I graduated boot camp in August at about 185, a total of 115 pounds lost!

Level Up

I thought I already had a handle on things by the time I went to boot camp. But man, was I wrong. The Marine Corps took my concept of daily structure to a whole new level. What started as a way for me to lose weight grew into a completely different way of thinking about life.

Losing weight can be tough, but it’s nothing compared to the mission of molding a random bunch of civilians into Marines. That requires training every aspect of a person: physical, mental, and moral. The transformation of hundreds of young men and women in thirteen weeks is mind-blowing. Making Marines is a heck of a mission. It’s a testament to the value of focus, structure, effort, and commitment.

My platoon — 2073, Golf Company, Second Battalion — came from different backgrounds all across the country. We were all colors. We were all faiths. Some were immigrants. English wasn’t everyone’s first language. Yet somehow we were going to be molded into a group of people who could effectively act in unison. In thirteen weeks! I wouldn’t have believed it was possible if I hadn’t lived through it.

The physical challenges are only superficially difficult for most people. Strangely, it’s the other aspects of boot camp that end up being much harder. Boot camp tricks you into focusing on the physical aspects without realizing how much mental and moral growth occurs at the same time. The structures that work for you physically also work for you in other aspects of your life!

Timing is Everything

Every minute of every day in boot camp is planned out. There are no variables and no down time. Nothing to draw your attention away from the classes, the push-ups, the marching, or the hikes. This ruthless focus is a necessary ingredient of boot camp. The drill instructors could not make Marines in thirteen weeks if they had to deal with outside distractions.

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I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was also my first exposure to the concept of iteration. Our drill instructors constantly pushed us to the edge. Then they backed off briefly to let us recover. And then they came back even harder! Again, and again, and again.

The structure is unyielding. You eat, sleep, and breath the values of the Corps: honor, courage, and commitment. Eventually some part of you reawakens to the childhood fantasies of make-believe adventures. You too can be a part of something great! You actually can become a Marine!

That’s the moment when everything turns around. Things start to click. And the world gets a little better every day after that, buoyed up by your newfound confidence.

You are expected to accomplish a lot during boot camp, and things get tougher as you go along. There is a constant sense of growth, both individual and collective. You get better and better at a wide variety of things, all enabled by the demanding structure.

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This is part of the beauty of boot camp. Your identity is reshaped, slowly but surely, through the structure. Every day there is a new set of obstacles to overcome that are slightly harder than the ones from the day before. As we’ll see in future chapters, confidence is the inevitable result of this kind of continuous training.

Confidence is a byproduct — not a requirement — of taking action.

Hidden In Plain Sight

The real surprise behind military training is that there’s a new sense of personal accomplishment buried in all this structure. You are free from millions of details that might otherwise demand your attention.

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Extreme focus and structure is a great way — maybe the only way — to systematically build confidence that sticks with you. The results from most programs go away when you leave the environment where it was developed. Over 90% of The Biggest Loser contestants regained the weight, and some ended up even heavier than before!

Most of us will never go to boot camp, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone! But what we can take away from the military style of training is that a demanding daily routine can dramatically improve our abilities, which leads to an increase in confidence and builds momentum toward ever-greater accomplishments.

It’s okay to start small. In fact, that’s where we all start. The daily structure is the framework for our progression from beginner to expert. And that personal evolution is what eventually lets you enjoy the daily feeling of success.

Jon noticed the exact same phenomenon in cities around the world. All these successful people had rigorous structures that propelled them forward. They were able to repeat what worked for them over and over, getting better each time.

Structure provides freedom from distraction, a mental cushion. We need this space now, more than ever. Space to think. Space to explore. Space to ourselves.

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Every single person who is connected to the digital world will benefit enormously from removing as many unneeded, superficial distractions as possible. Of course, that isn’t exactly easy. The 21st century is the most difficult time time in history if you want to stay focused on anything.

The digital world hates focus. Focus doesn’t drive advertising revenue.

It’s Miguel’s birthday. Don’t forget to say happy birthday! Tap. Check out this article. Click. Want to learn more? Swipe. That’s what those advertising companies want. More tapping, more clicking, and more swiping. Every time you succumb to a distraction, someone else makes money. And you lose focus on your mission.

Onward

Let’s take advantage of structure to defeat the siren call of digital distractions. Let structure work for us, protect us against the endless stream of junk out there. Proper structure keeps us focused on all the incredible opportunities around us.

You are now ready to start building a successful life in the digital world. At this point in the book you know about mental obesity, and how we’re all choking on wave after wave of digital information. You know about the shortcomings of our traditional behaviors and education, and how it’s preventing us from taking advantage of the opportunities around us. And you know about the core elements of a reset: adopting the mission mentality, developing your bias toward action, and structuring your daily life.

Now you are about to embark on the most important part of the journey. In the next six chapters we will learn to apply these principles in our daily lives.

What to remember about “Structuring Success”

  • Success is a daily practice of unusually effective behavior
  • The beginning is always small, but grows quickly
  • The right structure reinforces desirable behaviors, which builds confidence
  • Structure will improve you in physical, mental, and moral ways

Take five minutes to consider these questions

  • Do I have an unrealistic view of success?
  • Am I regularly pushing myself to learn more and do more every day?
  • What is an area where I would love to improve in my life?
  • Which daily patterns are holding me back?
  • What is a simple switch I can make today to get me on track?

If you want to spend seven minutes learning more about the power of starting small with habitual changes, read Get 1% Better Every Day by Brett & Kate McKay.

If you want to spend five hours learning more about the importance of habits and personal transformation, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.


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