5 Simple Drivers to be successful in EVERYTHING – A talk on strategic thinking

Over the course of the last two days, I delivered a talk to a couple of groups of individuals at the launch of Singapore’s Lifelong Learning Institute. Although the title of my talk was “5 Simple Drivers to be successful in EVERYTHING that you do”, this is really one about the effective application of strategic thinking. Here is the summary of the talk:

Defining Success

Before we dive into the five drivers, we need to pause and think about what success is. This definition is taken off Merriam-Webster, which says that “success is the accomplishment of a purpose or aim”. Success is therefore shaped by your purpose. I like to look at purpose as a goalpost. The wider the posts, the more likely for you to score a goal. It therefore goes to reason that if you wanted to increase your chances of being successful, you should set your posts as far apart as possible.

Let me give you an example. I am a hugely successful person. I live a lifestyle that most people cannot afford to live. I wake up everyday at about 6am, I publish my first article then, and then I do my exercises, have breakfast, and if I have to come into the office I will leave at about 930am, if not, I shall go back to my writing desk at about 1030am and work on an article or do some research until lunch time. Lunch time is usually from 1pm to 2pm; and in the afternoon, I spend time with my youngest child who comes back from school at about 2pm or 230pm, before I go back to my writing again at about 4pm. I usually stop working at about 530pm and chill with a nice glass of white wine.

Sometimes I have meetings or if I have a talk or a program to deliver, and that might take the full day. Other times, I have to be in Jakarta where I have an office; but that is maybe a few days in two or three months. Otherwise, you will find me relaxed and writing. I don’t have any stress in my life.

Would you like this lifestyle? Some do, many don’t. But the issue is that this definition of success – doing what I want when I want to – is my definition. And it is large enough to allow me to achieve it without it seeming to be a huge task.

So therefore the first point I want to start off saying is that success is in your hands and it depends on how you define it to be.

This is thus our first driver: “Know exactly what you want.” So in this talk, I shall cover purpose as well as:

  • Focus on the right things

  • Understand how you got here

  • Change the way you look at things, and

  • Experiment your ideas

We will unpack these now.

Know exactly what you want

Some of you may know a similar story to this: There was a young MBA graduate who chanced upon a fisherman relaxing in a hammock under the trees. The man asks, “Uncle, you seem to be strong and healthy, why aren’t you working?”

“I already did. I caught my fish for the day.”

“But it’s only 11am!”

“I know. And I am done for the day.”

“But the day is still young.”

“Your point being…?”

“Well you could be catching more.”

“Why do I want to do that?”

“So that you can earn more.”

“And why do I want to do that?”

“So that you can afford to hire more people.”

“And why do I want to do that?”

“So that you can earn even more.”

“And why do I want to do that?” “So that you can relax under a tree in a hammock at 11am in the morning!”

We talked about purpose earlier. What I had wanted to share with you was the way the fisherman pulled the purpose out of the young man by asking the why questions. By asking “Why” successively – something called the Five Whys – we can uncover what we really want for ourselves.

Focus on the right things

On 6th June this year, I had my first gout attack and was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t even walk. And I didn’t know why. When we subsequently found out that it was gout, my family members quickly blamed alcohol. As you know, I like my wine; and they gravitated to that as the cause for my affliction. As it turns out, it was not just wine but so many other factors. The key was really to cut back on purine intake and that would come from red meat, gravies, nuts and fatty fish. Even some types of vegetables are out. The problem was not the wine, but wine was a precipitator. I would eat those foods with my wine! The solution therefore was to cut back those foods, and along with that, my wine.

To be successful, we must address the centres of gravity of our situation. Most “problems” are a result of a system being out of sync. Looking at only the most obvious cause – in my case the wine – might not solve the problem. You need to take a step back, connect all the different drivers together, and find the centres of gravity. Only when you have found the real drivers of success will you be able to accomplish it.

Understand how you got here

I once worked with a 28-year old man who wanted to become a millionaire by the age of 30. He was previously in oil trading and left the industry because he didn’t like the way things were done. He was also not very successful in that line. He decided that he wanted to do things on his own and create his own success. That’s when he got into business. However, two years into it, he hadn’t even closed more than $10,000 in sales. He was sinking fast!

I asked him to look back on his previous job and identified what he did well and what he didn’t do too well. I also asked him what he could do differently now that he was looking at this on hindsight. He realized that he didn’t really like the industry because he wasn’t making as much as the others. He also didn’t like the entertainment. Yet, these seemed to be peripheral reasons. I dug deeper and found out that he didn’t really like learning new things, saying that when he left school, he was happy that he was finally rid of learning. This has led him to be ignorant on the workings of the oil trading industry. Despite being sent for training, and encouragement from his peers and boss at work, he didn’t excel because of his lack of knowledge. And it seems like it’s happening again. But this time, he has no safety net. The key, he found out, was in constantly keeping up to date with information and knowledge in his craft. In other words, he needed to learn how to learn.

If you want to be successful, look to your past – your thoughts, your decisions, your behavior, your assumptions. Identify what you can do differently now to change the outcome. You might just find the solution to your situation and become a blazing success with that!

Change the way you see things

“I hate banks! They never want to help you when you are in trouble!” This was an exclamation by one coaching client. So I asked, “Would your business be any better if they lent you the money?” “Well, I would not have to let people go.” “Yes, but will the business be BETTER? Would you be able to find more revenue to pay back the loan plus pay your people?” Silence. The truth of the matter was, his business was failing and no amount of money will save it. The banks knew it and so they didn’t want to loan him the money. Unless he radically changes his business model, there was no way it would survive.

Fortunately, this client trimmed his staff, changed the way he generated business, and bootstrapped his way to profitability. Along the way, he learnt new skills like marketing, networking, and finance to remodel his business.

The issue was not the bank; the issue was his business. And if he didn’t change his point of view, if he didn’t pinpoint on the source of his business decline, he would now be out in the cold.

Relook your situation by identifying your assumptions and then questioning them. But in order for this to be successful, you need to be truthful to yourself. Ask yourself this question: “If I were the world’s expert on this matter, what would I tell myself?” You will be surprised at the answer you have for yourself!

Experiment your ideas

The last driver for success is experimentation. This really flies in the face of our education system where we were brought up to be sure of our answers. We are not allowed to guess and marks may even be taken away for those attempts at speculation. What is even more distressing is that the need to always be right is further reinforced in our working life, thereby sealing the coffin on experimentation.

Yet, in real life, we never really ever know what we don’t know, and it would be dangerous to assume that we do. We need to guess at what is, or is not, and then run experiments to find that out. These experiments need to test our assumptions and allow us to see what is really happening. Obviously these experiments need to be done cheaply, so that we will not feel that we had invested too much into it, and switch to the next experiment until we find the solution!


So there we are: the 5 drivers for becoming successful at EVERYTHING. For those of you familiar with strategic thinking, you will discern the Liedtka model here. But model or not, this has been applied by many people, in many countries, in many different situations, to be successful. I would now like to end with a quotation by Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister in the UK and a very successful politician. She says, “Success is a mixture of having a flair for doing the thing that you are doing, knowing that it is not enough; that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.”

I suppose she agrees with us as well.

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