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This chapter is from the book

How Successful People Create Their Success

In my current job(s) leading Cisco’s education business and technical services strategy along with being the founder and CEO of the Internet of Things (IoT) Talent Consortium, I work with all types of people from all walks of life in business, government, and technology. I have had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the most interesting, successful business leaders in the world, many of whom inspired me throughout my career and even inspired me to write this book. We will discuss not just their points of view on success, but also what they look for when hiring people and who they give opportunities to when they have great jobs to offer. I am hoping that this unique vantage point can help you think about your journey and how to create your own success.

Successful individuals share some behaviors. They have a purpose. They put people first but also stay true to who they are and to their own goals and dreams. They are constantly developing their self-awareness and an awareness of their environment. In fact, they are very curious—about themselves, other people, and how things work—and understand the power of relationships, shared wisdom, and experience. And they never give up, even after a failure. Being a learner and being resilient are key.

They are very disciplined in managing their lives and managing accomplishments. They embrace simplicity. And they act with empathy, kindness, regard for others, and compassion for themselves and others. They acknowledge that what is human has precedence over objects and material things.

I have found that the most powerful teachers of these skills, attitudes, and behaviors are the challenges that you encounter throughout your life. Unlike the popular belief that life happens to you and you have no control over it, I believe, as do many other successful people, that what you do, how you feel, how you think, and how you react to life are always a matter of choice. You decide who you want to be and how to operate your life. You make decisions on how to deal with others and with the challenges in the world, and only you can create your life experience. More than 1,500 years ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”1 Smart guy.

Contrast Shows You What You Want

Life challenges create contrast, the difference between where you are and where you would like to be. Contrast can produce exactly the opportunities you need in order to learn and develop the skills that will help you achieve success. Don’t be afraid of failure or moments of adversity. You can make these work for you.

Contrast is the key to becoming clear about what you want out of life. It creates a defining moment. It has been my greatest teacher, and you will hear from many great leaders that they learn more from their failure than from their success. Experience what you don’t want, and you become clear about what you do want and what you are willing to do to get it. And when you are clear about what you want, you can develop a vision, goals, and a plan that will take you there. People who are successful have succeeded because they have learned everything they can from the contrast that occurs in their lives. There is no greater motivator for success than seeing what it is like to not be successful! Take it from me, contrast can really light you up and create great ambition and momentum.

Part of using contrast and experiences to your advantage is treating them as a gift. Those years of early challenges and working through them successfully built within me a great sense of self and a good amount of confidence. I have become very comfortable with my strengths and shortcomings; I make no apologies for not trying to be something I am not. I have used what I like and what I don’t like to develop a strong internal compass that guides my career and my life, which has been multi-faceted and incredibly rewarding. My compass has enabled me to take risks and chances with every opportunity and to make decisions with clarity and focus. I was and am determined to have a great life—more than what my parents had—and I have not allowed my early bad experiences to recur in my own family or career. Seeing my father turn to alcohol instead of choosing a better career and working hard for what he wanted was a great contrasting experience for me because I got to see and live through the result, which was not very good. Seeing family members who got educated and had important jobs and great family lives, along with reading about other people who were successful, became great inspirations for me to see the connection between strategies, life decisions, and results.

Contrast Doesn’t Need to Be Big to Work for You

Many people who achieved success or reached their goals in life did so by getting clarity of vision through contrast or adversity. Their experiences when they got less than what they wanted, or perhaps deserved, helped them launch their dreams. And they made an empowered response to contrast.

We have all felt contrast from time to time, even if it was not a big life event. If, for example, you wanted to play soccer as a kid but you got knocked down and others would make fun of your inexperience, you might react in a few different ways. 1. Get the names and numbers of the kids who made fun of you and put a contract out on them the first chance you had (not a wise choice). 2. Study what the good players did that made them better and get inspired about what you could do to improve. Perhaps get advice on improvements and double the practice time on these areas (a much better choice). Or 3. Come to the conclusion that the experienced players were just better than you and there was nothing you could do about it (not a great choice if you want to succeed).

A very powerful example of success on a grand scale is the iconic CEO of Cisco systems, John Chambers. I have had the privilege of working with him for most of my career, and he will go down in the books as one of the best CEOs of all times. Although he had a great start in life, being the son of two educated and well-to-do professionals, John struggled with dyslexia, which challenged him all through school. If he did not power through this challenge and use it to motivate his performance, we would not have seen John’s great success as CEO of Cisco Systems. To achieve these kinds of results, you have to let every experience that comes at you—good and bad—inspire you and teach you. And you must use every learning experience as an opportunity to grow and become your best vision of you.

Many famous people in business, science, entertainment, and sports come from backgrounds of contrast. They did not have the resources or the advantages of others, and yet they live bigger than life. At some point, each of these people felt like they weren’t where they wanted to be, whether that was about wealth, love, power, fame, creativity, intelligence, and so on.

People who become successful respond to contrast by looking at it as a life lesson. When you have a moment of failure or a bad experience, the emotional side of you asks, “What happened? How did I get to this place I don’t want to be?” This response to contrast helps you examine your choices, both past and future, and it is part of how contrast gives you the experience to know what you want. Contrast experiences also propel you to think about solutions to achieve what you want. Rather than feeling victimized by failure or adversity (that internal voice saying someone did this to me or why do bad things happen to me), the person headed for success feels empowered and has a burning desire to improve the situation and move through the element of contrast quickly so that they can be happy, improve their lives, and reach their goals. They spend just enough time as needed to reflect on what happened and as much time as possible moving quickly to solutions and getting where they want to be. Note to self and others: don’t focus on the problem, focus on the solution!

Push toward Change or Shrink from It, It’s Your Choice

When they feel contrast, many people push themselves to change it. You can respond to contrast by shrinking from it or by trying to leverage the lesson and gain clarity on what you need to do now. You can be empowered to resolve contrast, or you can be disempowered and run from it. Do you meet contrast with fear and loathing, or do you greet it with a sense that you can create a good path or new outcome that will make a difference in your life? Shaq O’Neal, one of the best basketball players of all times, once said that his teachers told him that he would never amount to anything. Instead of believing them, he chose to prove them wrong, and he used this negative influence to drive and motivate himself to be the best at his craft.

Although some people use early life challenges to launch themselves on a path to success, others with similarly difficult early experiences make different choices and end up with different outcomes. This is important: their choices—what they decided to think and do—led to different outcomes: a new beginning or something else.

Think about Michael Oher, who grew up in the ghetto of Memphis, Tennessee. Michael Oher’s story is so extraordinary and inspirational that it was made into a feature movie, The Blind Side, based on the bestseller of the same name by Michael Lewis. Oher himself has written an autobiography, I Beat the Odds, to tell his story from his own point of view. You may think Michael Oher got where he is today because he was lucky. He was definitely in the right place at the right time to get into a good private school. But Oher was in the right place at the right time because he understood what he wanted out of life and because of his own hard work. In spite of his disadvantaged background, he accepted help when it was offered, took the opportunities that came his way, and worked hard toward the goals he set for himself. In his autobiography Oher says, “Even though it wasn’t the easier way, I decided that I wanted to be one of the kids who was actually working toward the goal, prepping myself for the kind of life I wanted. ... In the end, I realized any success I might have would come down to two things: 1) finding good people to surround myself with; and 2) taking responsibility for myself.”2

Our choices make a difference. They drive our outcomes in one direction or another. You make different choices in response to contrast—choices about how to use your energy and how to pursue your desires—and these choices will influence your next experiences and outcomes.

In the end, if you wish it to, contrast helps you create clarity about what you want and inspires you to take the action you need to get what you want. How you respond to contrast and your attitude toward the events in your life make all the difference. In his play No Exit, Jean Paul Sartre said, “A man is what he wills himself to be.”3 Although some of what happens to us in life might be random, our responses don’t have to be.

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