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Want success in life? Commit!

May 11, 2008 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

There is a lesson we must all learn: life is nothing if you don’t commit to it.

In love, in business, in your career: you can’t ‘succeed big’ if you don’t ‘commit big’. If you want to be a winner, you have to decide what you want and how you’re going to get it. And then you have to go for it, heart, soul, lock, stock and barrel. If you play small, you will always be a bit player, an incrementalist, a safe pair of hands. The highs and lows of life may pass you by. You will spend your life on the slopes; you will neither peaks nor valleys know.

If you are courting, for example, sooner or later you must take your life in your hands and declare your interest to the object of your love. There is nothing to be had from timidity in love. Nor will you gain anything much by making a series of small investments in a large number of targets. If you want to love big, you have to throw yourself into one person. You may be rejected, you may be thwarted, you may regret your decision. You may face heartbreak, ignominy, emotional disarray. But do it you must. Alfred Lord Tennyson was entirely right: “I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

If you are ambitious and have dreams of a glittering career, the same applies. I am often asked for career advice by young Kenyans, and the advice I give never changes. First, follow your heart, not your head. Try to understand what your passion is in your working life. Once you know you have found something to do where you are willing to every flex every sinew and exercise every brain cell, go for it. Don’t play safe; don’t listen to too much well-meant advice. Follow the voice in your head. The world has room for all occupations and professions. The point is to do whatever you do to your fullest ability.

Of course, the commitment is not confined to just making the choice. Once you have selected your partner or your career, the hard work begins. You have to plunge into the deep end, make many mistakes, learn the ins and outs of making your relationship or your career work. Again, you cannot afford to be distracted by too many alternatives. Otherwise you will never give full attention to the task at hand.

The best relationships and the best careers I have observed have this in common: they involve big commitments. And this perhaps explains why we have so much trouble hitting the heights in this country. Too many Kenyans are serial adulterers; they keep a flock of illicit lovers hidden in many corners; and they are never content to dig deep in one job or career. The successful executive will always be on the lookout for better prospects (a bit more salary is usually all it takes); and will keep a number of small (but inconsequential) businesses running on the side.

The story of Sam Walton is instructive in this regard. Sam, as we all know, was the founder of Wal-Mart, which eventually became the world’s biggest retailer and made him the world’s richest man. But did you know that Sam started off as the proud owner of a single dime store more than half a century ago? And that he sat in that single store, this hugely ambitious man, for seven long years before he opened another store? That it was not until the 1970s that Sam had a chain of 40 stores?

Today, Wal-Mart clocks $375 billion in sales, employs 1.9 million people, has 6,800 locations (many of which are outside the US), and serves 180 million customers every week. Take some time to reflect on those numbers; they are mind-boggling.

Would a Kenyan have achieved this? No, because the Kenyan, having had a successful year or two in his corner shop, would have started thinking of buying a matatu, investing in a small insurance company, and putting a down-payment on a coffee farm. And finally been distracted by the returns available at the NSE.

Great businesses are not built like this. Great businesses demand commitment. Cemex was a small cement producer founded a century ago in Mexico. Today it is a world leader in building materials, present in 50 countries across 5 continents. That is due to a visionary chap called Lorenzo, who is a scion of the company’s ruling family, the Zambranos. But Lorenzo did not just take the reins on coming of age; he worked his butt off for 17 years before becoming CEO. What was he doing? Learning the business, from top to bottom, before he launched his bold global strategy.

In life, love, career, business: big, long-term commitments are what yield reward. Pick your spot, then dig hard, dig deep and keep digging.

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