I have been lucky enough to know, and work with, a lot of “successful” business people in my career. I was able to meet and work with the founders of Network Appliance (NetApp) when they were just a small startup in San Jose, CA. I worked for a company who had Ray Noorda (the founder of Novell) as the chairman of the board and was able to interface with him many times. I worked with many dot-com startups who made millions “overnight”. I also worked with many other successful business people who never had home runs, but were able to string together a series of singles, doubles and triples and do just as well as the dot-com overnight successes.
I’ve tried to learn something from everyone I worked with. The obvious question is what makes someone successful? The truth is that it is often simply being in the “right place at the right time”. However, I firmly believe that luck is simply preparation and opportunity coming together at the right time. If you aren’t prepared and you don’t create opportunities, then “luck” or “being in the right place at the right time” never happens.
However, the more interesting topic for me, is how best to define a “successful” career. The people I have come to admire the most, are not the “overnight successes”. Certainly, I have known some very successful individuals who have built valuable startups, sold them, and essentially retired before they were 40 (or in some cases before they were 30). While impressive, many of these individuals spent the next decade or so miserable because they couldn’t repeat the same success. I know a few who felt that they could easily repeat the earlier accomplishments. They put their fortunes back into startups – or other investments – and lost millions of dollars very quickly. Others simply bounced from project to project and slowly spent their fortunes.
My point is that a single home run in one’s career, is not nearly as impressive as a sustained record of ongoing singles and doubles. Everyone’s career will have peaks and valleys. The ability to fail, pick one’s self back up and have another success is what makes you successful. It takes intestinal fortitude. A career is not a sprint. It is a marathon. As every endurance-athlete knows, you have tremendous peaks and valleys during your event. There are times you want to quit, and times you believe you may set a record. The key is to keep going.
The business people that I am most impressed with are the ones who remain relevant over the long term. They are the ones who have longevity. I have a business colleague who I am proud to call a friend. We will call him “Al”. I met him in the mid-90’s. He was a consultant to a company I was working for. Everyone in the company respected him and recognized we were lucky to have him working with us. Most people expected him to be retiring at any time, but we hoped that he would continue to work with us. I spoke to him recently and he told me that he was finally retiring – not because he wasn’t in demand, but because he had other personal projects that he wanted to focus on. He is now well into his 80’s. I have tremendous admiration for people who can continue to add value and be relevant late into their career. This most difficult today when business processes are changing so quickly.
In closing, I can’t think of a better example to illustrate my point of longevity and relevance than Johnny Cash. It is well documented that Johnny Cash’s career was filled with tremendous successes and failures. He struggled with self-doubt. He struggled with legal issues. He struggled with relationships. He struggled with drugs and alcohol. However, he continued to pick up the pieces and work. He continued to find a way to be relevant.
At 71 years of age, Johnny Cash did a remake of the Trent Reznor (of the band Nine Inch Nails) song, “Hurt”. Cash found a way of using his musical genius to make the song his own. His video is both gripping and haunting as he looks back on his own career. Both the song and the video were a tremendous success for him, receiving both critical and public praise. Johnny Cash died 7 months later. In his last days, he proved that he was still relevant, not only to his existing fans, but to a whole new generation. He also set an incredible standard for career longevity.
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