While half-watching the Primetime Emmy Awards last night, I considered what it must take to be the best in an industry. From what I could glean from the broadcast, and from what I’ve seen in my own life, winners share intense focus, hard work including sleepless nights, strong talent, moral support, and no tolerance of mediocrity. None of this applies only to the entertainment industry, of course. The most successful CEOs don’t receive their positions by luck, except perhaps for the few who inherit a business from their relatives, whose good fortune rests slowly in birthright.
Intense focus. I’ve made the case for generalism in today’s economy. Being good at a wide variety of things can lead to better career prospects, being a better leader of people, and living a more fulfilled life. Successful specialists, however, have configured their lives in such a way that they don’t have time for spreading their attention around too many unrelated interests. Their efforts are singularly focused on perfecting their skills and competing amongst the best.
Eric Thomas says it well: “When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, you’ll be successful.” Eric talks about wanting success so much that you don’t have time to eat or even sleep.
Sleepless nights. Like many people, I had a boss who was a workaholic. As executive director of an understaffed, overreaching non-profit organization, he often worked in his office overnight in order to accomplish everything that needed to be done. We’d come into work in the morning to find him asleep as his desk. I’ve disagreed with him about the importance of sleep to a body and mind’s ability to function, but it was difficult to argue with the leader of an organization that is arguably one of the best, if not the best, in the world in its category.
While I reclaimed some sleep this weekend, I usually sleep less than five hours a night. With my day job taking my time an energy — and this coming week is going to be a major test of my stamina — I spend the rest of my waking time writing and otherwise handling business pertaining to my websites. There is very little time right now to fit in other extracurricular activities like photography.
Strong talent. I tend to think a very small portion of talent is inborn. Genetics may play a role to a point, and learning something new is easier for some people than others, but hard work often leads to what other people would identify as talent. And talent is often relative. According to my recollection, which could be wrong, I started off in third grade as a mediocre clarinetist — for a third grader. After a few months with the instrument, the teacher still placed me towards the end of the row, with the best players at the other end.
That summer, I moved from upstate New York to New Jersey, continued playing the clarinet in elementary school, but discovered I was somewhat more advanced than the students who were just starting in fourth grade. This gave me some momentum and by high school I held the “first chair” position among strong classmates for every year starting as a sophomore. If I hadn’t moved to New Jersey, I might have continue to struggle in comparison to my classmates and never given myself the motivation to succeed.
Moral support. An interesting theme in this year’s Emmy Awards, which I mentioned above, was the tendency for winners to credit parents for supporting their desire to succeed in an extremely difficult industry. While some people are motivated by adversity, and one man or woman vs. the rest of the world often makes an interesting story, most people can’t succeed without cheerleaders. You can make the most of a feedback loop by surrounding yourself with people who believe in what you do and share your intensity.
No tolerance of mediocrity. If you define success by being the best in your industry, you can only succeed by seeking excellence all the time. Like the boss in the non-profit, that organization could only remain world-class by having high expectations for everyone involved. In music, this is obvious. Composer Jack Stamp gives a wonderful presentation about why music matters and explains that 95%, considered an “A” in most courses, is a rate of failure for music performance. Nothing other than 100% is acceptable, because if everybody misses only 5% of the notes of a performance, the music will be unlistenable.
While most activities don’t require 100% accuracy all the time, the danger is mediocrity. This is probably the most difficult of all the above keys to success, particularly for those who don’t like hurting other people’s feelings. Nobody will care about your success as much as you, so the strive for excellence is often solitary. Don’t settle.
The above suggestions don’t guarantee success, and you can reach different level of success without adhering to these tips. These attitudes or philosophies are practically necessary, however, if you are striving for world-class success at the level of an Emmy Award winner.
Published or updated August 30, 2010.