“The only difference between where you are today, and where you’ll be a year from today, are the books you read and the people you meet.”
– Charlie ‘Tremendous’ Jones
When reading biographies, interviews, or any other person specific writing, the same question always comes up again and again – what do you attribute your success to? What was the key ingredient in your life – that unlike the others who had the same background as you, same opportunities, same talent – caused you to achieve unbelievable success. I have read a variety of answers, and have taken some time myself to reflect personally, and I really think the quote above summarizes it perfectly. The two biggest factors that affect the direction of our life are the books we read and the people we meet. Let’s try to understand that simple rhetoric a little better.
Nothing is as powerful as reading. Isaac Newton himself admitted that “if I can see so far, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants that came before me.” You can intake, absorb, and digest what it may have taken a person years – or possibly their entire life – to discover. I can share the learning experiences with some of the greatest minds of our day, and days long gone, from the comfort of my chair. I can join Richard Branson as he launches Virgin Records, or share in the insights of one of the greatest Roman Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, through his Meditations. That is the obvious intrinsic benefit of books – they serve as a vast store of knowledge and information, condensed and refined (by a strong author) to get the message across in as little text as possible.
However, that is not the only benefit to pursuing an active reading habit. It says something about the reader – something intrinsic: this person has made a devotion to continual education and growth. Another phrase is ‘great leaders are great readers’ and I think that has never been truer. Great leaders identify problems, admit a lack of expertise, and seek out advice and insight from previous parties who succumbed to the same issue. They use reading as a way to broaden their knowledge base and refine their areas of weaknesses. Reading becomes the multipurpose tool in the leader’s life. It’s no longer about how much you know, but how quickly you can learn about what you don’t know.
Reflecting on the past year in my life, I would have to say that almost all of the advancement and success I have enjoyed has been in some way due to the people I have been exposed to. Admittedly, if I met certain people and did not have the basic skills in place, it wouldn’t have mattered who I met. However, the flip side of that coin is that there are others just as smart as me, who upon meeting the same people would have enjoyed the same success.
However, meeting the right people isn’t always a case of ‘right place, right time’. Usually, getting to that place requires a tangible effort, and those connections would not have been formed without that effort. In his book (which I highly recommend to everyone, building on the last section) Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi lays out some great places to meet people:
- High School and University Alumni networks / receptions
- Charity organizations
- Recreational sports groups
- Dinner parties / social gatherings
- Through current friends and acquaintanceship
As the phrase goes, he says, it’s not what you know, it’s not who you know (as I am sure you were all guessing I was going to say), it’s who knows you. When I meet someone else who knows you, and we come upon the realization that we both know you, what do we say about you? How do we describe you? That is the power of your network.
So, knowing that books and people are perhaps two of the most important areas to achieving success (however one defines that), what action steps can we take to meet these goals?
On the reading front, I have asked this question myself to many people, and I think the goal is keeping yourself accountable. Most books never get read. People love to buy books, but not finish them. Take the time to look into the book before you invest hours of your time reading it. Then, after you have decided what you want to read – map it out. Personally, I find the most effective way for me is to:
- pick a topic I am interested in (let’s say, branding)
- find a list of great books on that topic (ask around, do some research, go on Amazon)
- choose one or two books from that list
- pick months when I will read them in the next year (Jan – Dec)
That way, when January rolls around, I can see what I have set up to read in that month. I know it takes some of the spontaneity out of the whole reading process, but it also holds you accountable. When January comes to an end, if I haven’t finished what I set out to finish, it is very clear to me. I have attached a copy of my book list if anyone would like an example, I don’t think it’s the best way – it’s just what works for me (and maybe you?) Book List 2012
People – I think the only solution here is to get out there. Pick a charity, one which represents something important to you, and get involved. It’s probably easier off the bat to join an existing one rather than starting your own, so you may have to look into a couple areas. I find charitable organizations are a great place to meet smart, driven, well balanced people. You get to do some good for the cause, and you get something out of it too. It’s win-win. The other great idea is going to industry events and networking within your own area of expertise. People are always looking for other bright individuals to bounce ideas off and talk to.
Don’t forget about building an online presence – if I lose your card or contact information, can I find you online? Get on LinkedIn if you aren’t already there, and put some time into your profile. You never know who is looking (and if you haven’t already, add me!)
By focusing in on these two areas, I think we can all be pleasantly surprised by the returns we get. I really do believe it is the essential balance of personal development; internal and external, books and people.