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To succeed next year, look away from yourself

Dec 25, 2016 Success, Sunday Nation

The human being is fixated on itself. Since we perceive life only through our own consciousness, we place ourselves at the centre of our existence. And we spend our lives fretting about our own selves: what we have and don’t have; what we need and want; what we feel entitled to; what we should and could and would be doing, if only…

The paradox is this: if you want to succeed, stopping thinking about you. Start somewhere else.

Here’s a simple example. Because it’s Christmas, let’s keep it festive. Suppose you want to succeed by making and selling cakes. Here is a set of questions you will probably ask yourself. Do I have the skill to make cakes? Do I have the equipment and facilities? Do I have the capital to put into this little business? Will I be able to find customers? Do I have the guts to do this?

Legitimate questions, all. If you can answer most of them in the affirmative, you might actually go ahead and launch your cake business in January. And it will probably fail before December.

Why so? Because you started in the wrong place. Don’t start with yourself, start with the world. The first question to ask is this: does the world need more cakes? The answer to that is probably not. Before you move on to something else, though, go deeper. What’s the problem here? There are many, many cakes being produced for the world, but what is not being supplied?

Is it a price problem? Could someone producing really affordable cakes open up a whole new market?

Is it a taste problem? Does one cake taste pretty much like the next one? Could someone who revolutionises the taste of cakes charge a premium for exclusivity?

Is it a problem of homogeneity? Are cakes just the same, wherever and whenever you eat them? Might someone who customises cakes for special occasions, themes them and makes them look and taste different add value that’s missing?

Is it a health problem? Are cakes just bad for you, and do they need to be bad? Could finding a different way to give people festive treats they really enjoy without killing them be the real challenge to be met in the world?

To answer those questions, you have to think hard about the world you’re trying to serve, not about yourself. You come back to yourself once you have thought about what the market needs, or doesn’t yet know it needs. Then the questions you ask yourself in the mirror become: am I really trying to sell cakes, or am I just looking for an easy way to make some money? Do I really care enough about cakes to make the best ones in the world? Could I change the way cakes are designed, made, sold and delivered? What would that take?

Now, you might be onto something.

Replace cakes with pretty much any product or service in the argument above. The reason most businesses fail is they start with the wrong set of questions. They fixate on what they are capable of doing, not what is actually needed. And because most people starting something new think in the exact same way, they end up making similar things that are sold in similar ways and are similarly unsuccessful. And so they make average returns and eventually none at all.

As with business, so with life. When we think about what we are going to do with ourselves, we start with what we think we know about ourselves. We list off our qualifications, our credentials and our experiences. Then we set out to deliver what we think we have to the world. Just like everyone else out there.

Here’s what you should really think about as you think about next year: not what you should get from the world; but what the world should get from you. To do it that way, you have to pay deep attention to what’s out there, not what’s inside you. You need more windows to the world, not more mirrors reflecting yourself.

It is an abiding lesson of life: you succeed by creating value for others first, and then for yourself. Not the other way round. Your success is a byproduct of the success you give to the world.

So then: who succeeds because of you?

Who gets a more enjoyable, more meaningful, more productive, more fulfilling life because of you? Focus on those people. Your true success will lie with them.

And if your honest answer to the question was ‘no one’, stop right there and rethink everything.

(Sunday Nation, 25 December 2016)

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