Redefining Success: Getting to How and Why

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Throughout the course of his critically-acclaimed TEDTalk, "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," Simon Sinek repeatedly asks a simple question: "Why?" Compared to the way many individuals and organizations think -- e.g. in terms of who? what? when? and where? -- it's a strikingly insightful one, demanding that we reexamine the fundamental motivations and strategies behind the actions we take. Begin to ask yourself this question, followed by the second single most important I'd urge you to consider as well -- how? -- and you may be surprised at the impact on your life and business it can make.

Contrary to popular belief, busy is not good in and of itself. Busy is only good from both professional and personal standpoints if you're working productively to achieve a meaningful goal, and one which justifies the time, effort and energy put towards this task. Too often, we live in the moment, focusing on the most-pressing task at hand - not necessarily the most meaningful or valuable. Questions like who, what, when, and where are tactical decisions rooted in day-to-day urgency (e.g. pressure to make X sales or build number of products by Y deadline or else Z happens). But tactics are temporarily solutions, and constantly change on the fly. (Case in point: Have you seen your schedule, or list of key priorities lately?)

More important to consider are big-picture strategies. For example: Why am I taking action and how can I best utilize my limited time and resources to achieve my long-term goal? Crucially, it's imperative to constantly stop, reassess, and realign these choices on a regular and recurring basis.

What separates lasting successes from those individuals or organizations who struggle, or struggle to replicate past triumphs? Let's talk about two key pieces of the puzzle - fear and failure, and how they affect our ability to successfully change, innovate and achieve greatness, including how you can go from problem to opportunity today.

Redefining Fear and Failure

Fear is everywhere today. You can see it reflected in the corporate landscape, the economy and the growing numbers of overeducated, underemployed graduates.

But it's worth noting that fear is always present in any venture--and a powerful motivator, indicator of new opportunities, and means of fueling continued innovation. True greats are made, not born fully matured. Limits are often self-imposed, and we gain tremendous power when we choose to ignore them. In other words, start asking how and why, instead of accepting the status quo, and you begin building a lot of runway from which personal and professional growth and success can take flight.

As an extension of our research and consulting work with Fortune 500 corporations, industry-leading startups and top-ranked associations, we've come to discover three common predictors of success amongst professionals and organizations:

  1. Acknowledgement of the vital role that failure plays in strategic innovation, and recognition of its importance in providing fundamental learning opportunities. Making mistakes and systematically trying new approaches is how businesses, brands and people learn.

  2. Acceptance of the need for firm decision-making in the all-too-common presence of imperfect information. Successful leaders hold strong, but weakly-held opinions, allowing them to drive forward momentum, yet remain flexible and able to course correct as new information is gained.

  3. A willingness to accept the presence of and live with constant fear, and--through conscious decision-making -- to make a commitment to counter anxieties that induce paralysis, force us to erect self-imposed limits or blind us to new opportunities. Stepping outside one's comfort zone may seem scary, but remaining static in an ever-changing world is suicidal.

The Power of How and Why

Recognizing that certainty is never certain, and failure merely a temporary learning experience on our path to success, individuals and organizations would do well to contemplate the tremendous opportunity costs associated with fear.

Fear causes us to remain paralyzed and static. Meanwhile, everything is changing around us -- that's the equivalent of operating on cruise control while steering straight for a brick wall.

Taking risks gives you an edge. Many are scared to try new things--but if we only exercise and strengthen the same intellectual muscles, others will atrophy. Go, see, try and do--give yourself a whole body workout.

Even if you fail, you'll learn something. Failure is just a stepping stone to success, as win conditions exist in all scenarios. Even if an endeavor didn't ultimately succeed, did you make new contacts, pick up new skills or learn something of value?

Questions such as who, what, when and where are closely-associated with taking action. But before we take action, we must also weigh questions such as why we're taking it, and how we can best put these actions to work. When we think before we dive in headfirst, we set ourselves up to succeed, and avoid falling into a trap of constantly running on treadmills, wondering why others (including, sometimes, the world itself) continue to pass us by.

Award-winning professional speaker Scott Steinberg is a bestselling expert on leadership and innovation, and the author of Becoming Essential. The head of management consulting and corporate training firm TechSavvy Global, and a top-rated provider of keynote speeches, workshops and seminars, he's been featured in 600+ outlets from CNN to NPR. For more, visit

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