Success Depends on One Skill


About a year ago, my 19 year old son asked me,”Dad, what makes people successful?”  It was a question I didn’t expect, but as I thought about it for a few minutes and reflected back on my experience and many conversations with successful people, I responded, “It’s how you spend your spare time.  It comes down to the choices and decisions you make on how to spend your 24 hours in a day.  We are all equal when it comes to the time we have in a day and successful people spend their spare time focused on doing more of what’s helping them be successful.  We work or go to school 40-50 hrs/wk, but what do you do the other 120+ hrs/wk?”

If you want to live a good life, you’d better be good at making decisions and living with your choices. I’m about to show a simple way to ensure you always make the very best choices.  The older I get and the more money I make, the more I believe life is little more than a set of decisions and choices – one after the other after the other.

Some are mindless. Drive on the right side of the road?

Some are easier. Remain in small farm town with limited jobs or take the risk and relocate to Silicon Valley? (my mom & dad made this choice…thank you!)

Some are tough. Stick with my job that I hate… or quit now before I have a better job?

Some are foundational.  Go to church today and donate $20 or the pub to have 3 beers?

Many involve our money. Save to buy a house or lease a new car and continue to rent?

No doubt, a good life requires good decisions. Knowing that our everyday choices on how we spend our time is what makes us who we are, I set out to study it more about a year ago. I was astonished by how vital it is to have solid decision-making skills.

They are what set us apart. It’s not our IQ (I’m not a genius)… not our socio-economic status (I grew up on food stamps and worked two jobs to put myself through college)… not our race (we’ve had a 2 term African American President of the U.S.A) or gender… but our ability to choose “A” or “B” and no matter what the outcome…learn and grow from that decision rather than being a victim of society if it doesn’t go our way or viewing it as a permanent setback.

During my discussions and experiences, I uncovered three simple steps that make even the toughest decisions virtually mindless.  I continue to share these findings with everyone that asks me the simple question that my son did, “What makes people successful?”  Whether it’s a career day I’m hosting for high school students, a start-up I’m advising, or everyday coaching of my team, I’m convinced that these three steps matter.

What’s crazy is I’ve found these three steps work equally well with nearly every type of decision we make. Whether it’s a snap judgment on a question asked while you’re in the middle of a task… or when deciding on major life decisions, such as should we buy a home or continue to rent?

These three steps make a difference.

The first, is to trust your initial reaction. In other words, trust your gut.  But let me be clear. It’s not your stomach talking… it’s your unconscious brain signaling you with a language it knows you understand – your core emotions and values.  No one knows you better than you do…trust yourself.  It sounds cliché to “trust your gut,” but recent major medical research proves there’s something to the adage.  The human body is an incredible organism. It’s quite skilled at producing what science is now calling somatic markers. The idea is complex. But in the simplest terms, your brain is remarkably adept at keeping track of each decision you’ve ever made and measuring its outcome.  It’s all unconscious, of course. There’s no way you could consciously keep track of it all.

However, your brain can’t produce a signal if your “experience tank” is empty.  Fortunately, there’s a way to supercharge this key part of the decision-making process.   When I talk to people of all ages and even my team, I believe we need to push ourselves on a daily basis to test and learn new things.  Maximize your experiences.  It’s these daily experiences that will build a continuous flow of knowledge into your decision making system.  You do it by being curious and believing in a lifetime of constant learning.  It’s simple, really. The more you understand and experience, the better your decisions will be.

Think about the first time you ever drove a car. If you merely hopped behind the wheel without studying the rules of the road or without knowing the brake from the gas… your first trip was quite a ride.  But if you studied and had a coach/teacher, it was far easier.

In other words, turn off the damned TV or video game, throw away the beer, and do something to gain real experiences. Open a book. Have a conversation. Get involved and be active in your community. It’s the key reason I volunteer more than 300 hours of my time each year leading a non-profit, Lupus Foundation of California, as Chairman of the Board and coaching my kids baseball and basketball teams.  It forces me to spend time doing something I’m passionate about, but more importantly, gives me an experience that I would otherwise not be privileged to have.  These experiences weren’t handed to me, but I made the choice to spend my spare time here.

Even if what you’re doing today isn’t related to the decisions you’ll make tomorrow, as long as you’re stirring some sort of useful emotion, your brain will store it for later.  The more you experience, the smarter your decisions. It’s proven science.

Finally, you need a system that acts as a sort of checks and balances. You need to know when a question or problem is an outlier… when your experience isn’t enough.  For that, I’ve found a simple question will tell you what to do next. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen if I make the wrong decision?”  The vast majority of decisions, I would say 99%+, are not life ending, career ending, financial disaster….don’t be afraid to make the decision and then learn from it and add that to your “experience tank”.  If you’re still uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to seek out a coach, someone that has the experience you believe you need to make the decision on your own the next time.  If your decision is about health/fitness, seek out a fitness coach.  If it’s about a job or career, seek out a career coach for guidance.  There are coaches out there who you can work with to accelerate your ‘experience tank’ by learning from them as well.

Remember, with the first step, you’re entirely relying on your subconscious mind. In the second step, you’re bringing in your conscious which is based on your experiences. In this third step, you’re going overtly conscious by envisioning the worst-case scenario.

By understanding the worst-case scenario, you’ll automatically ask yourself key follow-up questions.  For example…

In the business world, it may be up to you to decide if your company should charge more for a product. What’s the worst that could happen if you make the wrong move?   Perhaps you could lose a million-dollar client. Will the company suffer more or still be better off by keeping that client with low prices? Will you lose your job if you lose the client?

By asking those simple follow-up questions, you’ll trigger a new set of signals from your “experience tank”. And, chances are, you’ll have adequate past experiences that will stir core emotions.

The best way to see how powerful these three simple steps are is to put them in action. Spend the next week breaking down even your simplest decisions. Listen to what your body is telling you. Pay attention to how your past experience plays into the process – and understand how valuable that experience is.

Finally, envision the worst-case scenario. Remember, a successful life hinges on no more than an unending series of choices. Make sure you’re doing everything you can to hone your decision-making skills. Practice like your future depends on it and spend every waking moment of the 24 hours in the day experiencing the most in life as it will help you make the right decisions in the future.

Your success depends on one skill, your ability to make choices, “A” or “B”, and then growing from there.  Here’s to your success and maximizing the experiences during the journey of life.  Focus your spare time on where you want to be successful!