Does Adversity Stop Success?

After reading my last blog about Michael Jackson, Katie Jacobs wrote, “While I completely agree that not following the 8 principles greatly contributed to Michael’s professional downfall, I think that there were a few more issues that factored in. Having a crazy father certainly doesn’t help. A dysfunctional childhood, confused sexuality, impaired body image, possibly being addicted to drugs and plastic surgery, and being completely detached from reality might have contributed to his abandonment of the 8 principles.”

Yes, Katie, those issues, or “adversities,” could have contributed to Michael’s downfall. But it’s interesting that many other big stars have suffered through similar adversities and still achieved continued success – because, unlike Michael, they didn’t abandon the success principles. Oprah had terrible adversity. She was born poor and abused as a child. She continually struggles with her body image and weight. Yet she continues to succeed because she hasn’t stopped doing what she loves, working hard, serving her fans, persisting and following the other principles.

When I interviewed Quincy Jones he said, “Oprah and I were talking about our backgrounds, and she had a terrible childhood. I mean, triple-A dysfunctional! And man, I don’t know how I made it. I really don’t. I’ve forgotten a lot about my life. I’ve blanked it out because it was too painful. Every day, a major accomplishment was just getting to school and back home alive. I watched my mother being carried away in a straitjacket when I was five-years old. Back when I was growing up, there were no such words as nurturing, or cholesterol, or non-fat. I mean, what’s non-fat? We used to call it skinny. And that’s because we were starving to death.”

Then Quincy paused, looked into the distance, and put the adversity in a different perspective: “It’s sad, but it does give you a certain ability. Sometimes your biggest disadvantage can be your biggest advantage.” I began to see a similar pattern in my research, where the adversity, as bad as it is, propels people forward in some way. It could be, “I’ll escape this” or, “I’ll prove myself.” So they find something they love to do, they work hard at it, focus on it, have fun, and suddenly there’s joy in their lives instead of pain. The success principles become their refuge from the adversity.

Quincy discovered his refuge when he found a piano and started playing. In his autobiography, he writes, “For the first time in my life, I felt no loneliness, no pain, no fear, but rather joy, relief, and even understanding…When I played music, my nightmares ended. My family problems disappeared.” Music became Quincy’s passion and that, along with the other success principles, carried him through the adversity and on to incredible success. Even after winning 26 Grammy Awards, he still stays true to those principles. He didn’t abandon them or become distracted by the fame, like Michael Jackson.

So, Katie, that’s a long way of saying I don’t know if the adversity suffered by Michael Jackson had anything to do with his downfall. I do know that when he stopped following the success principles, his success also stopped. On the other hand, people like Quincy and Oprah also experienced terrible adversity, but they continued to follow the success principles and they continue to succeed. So the good news is, adversity doesn’t have to stop success. As long as we keep following the eight principles, we can keep moving forward.

Reference: Quincy Jones, Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Doubleday, 2001

Michael Jackson – When the King of Pop Reached the Top

Last week I gave a talk at the GameHorizon conference in Newcastle, England, and at one point talked about the movie stars and rock stars who achieve incredible success – then they stop doing everything that made them successful, and the success also stops. As an example, I mentioned Michael Jackson. Ironically, two days later he died from heart failure.

On hearing the news, I was shocked and saddened, and I had a flashback to the first time I heard Michael sing. It was back in the ‘80s and I had just started my own company. Driving home at about five in the morning, after working all night, suddenly the radio lit up with Michael singing “Billie Jean.” I was blown away, became an instant fan, and even met him once at the music awards.

Over the years, we all watched Michael reach the stars and then come crashing down in his career and personal life. And one of the big reasons is he stopped following the eight success principles. Just a few examples:

IMPROVE: Reaching the top Michael kept trying to improve, and get better and better at singing and dancing. In his autobiography, Quincy Jones writes that Michael  “…would watch tapes of gazelles and cheetahs and panthers to imitate the natural grace of their movements. He wanted to be the best of everything – to take it all in.” Improvement is all about practice and Quincy says Michael was “Completely dedicated. He practiced his dancing for hours.”

PUSH: I’ve found that many successful people are very shy and have to keep pushing themselves through it, and Michael was no exception. Quincy writes, “He was so shy he’d sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat there with my hands over my eyes with the lights off.” Now, that’s shy! But Michael kept pushing himself to perform in front of thousands of people.

WORK & FOCUS: Reaching success, Michael worked hard, was focused, and always super-prepared. Quincy says, “He showed up at 5 a.m. for his makeup call and had every detail of what he needed to do memorized and ready for every shooting. He also knew every dance step, every word of dialogue, and all the lyrics of every song by everyone in the entire production.”

PERSIST: My research shows it often takes ten years to succeed at anything significant, and Michael is another good example. He started singing at the age of four, but it wasn’t until ten years later that he had his first major solo hit, “Got To Be There,” and it was another ten years before he released “Thriller,” one of the most commercially successful albums of all time. So, he persisted through a 20-year climb to the top.

Michael Jackson became the “King of Pop” because he followed those fundamental success principles, but once he reached the top, he stopped. He no longer tried to IMPROVE and WORK hard. After all, when the world is telling you you’re great, why bother? He lost his FOCUS and became distracted by the trappings of success, so instead of spending hours singing, he was spending hours shopping. He would no longer PUSH himself through his shyness. Instead, he sunk back into it and became a recluse. And instead of PERSISTING, he seemed to just pack it in and live on past glories. We all watched as he continued to slide downhill both professionally and personally.

It’s interesting that with his upcoming London shows, Michael started to work harder and go back to the eight principles that might have helped him return to success in his career and his life. But sadly, it was too late. So, if you’re the next “King of Pop,” when you reach the top, don’t stop. Keep doing what got you there. Success is a continuous journey.


Reference: Quincy Jones, Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, Doubleday, 2001

What's the Difference between the Unsuccessful and the Super Successful? (besides better clothes)

Matt Moore in Australia writes, “You’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with successful people. Did you ever look for unsuccessful people who followed your 8 traits and did not become Bill Gates, etc.?”

Good question, Matt. In addition to spending a lot of time hanging out with successful people, I also interviewed some unsuccessful people, in order to get a point of comparison. Some were homeless men and women and others were people I met who had not achieved success, no matter how you measure it. Their responses indicated they didn’t follow any of the 8 success principles. They were doing jobs they didn’t like; they didn’t work hard, had no focus, sat back in their comfort zones instead of pushing themselves, and didn’t try to improve. They were only out to help themselves rather than serve others, and they tended to give up rather than persist. So, there was a high correlation between not doing the 8 Traits and not achieving success.

On the other hand, with the successful people I interviewed there was a high correlation between following the 8 principles and achieving success. Did all the people who followed those principles reach Bill Gates kind of success? No, everything is a matter of degrees, including success. In any endeavor, we can achieve: 1. Small success. 2. Moderate success. 3. Big success. 4. Super success. And be careful not to look down on those who achieve small or moderate success. Big success is built on a foundation of small successes and we need to pass through 1 and 2 before we reach 3 or 4. As Bill Gates says, “We took one step at a time and made the software better and better.”

So, if successful people follow the 8 Traits, what differentiates the ones who achieve super success from those who achieve moderate success? Again, it’s a question of degree. The Gates and Oprahs of the world not only do the 8 Traits, they do them to a greater degree than other people. They love what they do more than most people. They work more hours (even after he was a multimillionaire, Bill Gates worked most nights until 10pm and only took 2 weeks off in 7 years). The super successful focus more, push themselves more, come up with more ideas, improve more, serve others more, and persist more. They do the 8 to a greater degree, and that correlates to a greater degree of success. By the way, this applies to success in any endeavor, from the mother who succeeds big time at creating a family, to the CEO who succeeds big time at creating a company.

You may think, “I’m doing all those 8 things, so how come I’m not super successful?” Well, how long have you been at it? Remember, there’s no overnight success. We need to apply the 8 principles and PERSIST for a long time before achieving any success, let alone BIG success. As EDS founder H. Ross Perot once said, “Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touchdown.” So, if you’re doing everything right, but haven’t succeeded yet, hang in there and persist.

One last point: Forget about achieving “BIG” success, or comparing yourself to the Gates and Oprahs of the world. It just drains energy away from doing the 8 things that really will get you there. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Don’t compare yourself to somebody else, especially materially. If I’m worrying about the other guy and what he’s doing, and what he’s making, about all the attention he’s getting, I’m not going to be able to do what I’m capable of doing.” So keep your head down, focus on doing the 8 Traits, and build a trail of small achievements. That’s the path to big success. 

Timeless Success Principles

8tobegreatOne more point about Barack Obama’s inauguration address, in relation to success. He talked about the “values upon which our success depends,” and HARD WORK was the first value he mentioned. Yes, whether we want to succeed as a country, a company, or an individual, it takes hard work. In my interviews with more than 500 successful people, WORK and passion were at the top of the list. Martha Stewart said to me, “I’m a real hard worker. I work, and work, and work, all the time.” And this is nothing new. About 500 years before Martha, the great artist Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”

Throughout history, all Eight Success Principles: Passion, Work, Focus, Push, Ideas, Improve, Serve, and Persist have been the most important factors for success, from Michelangelo in the 16th century, to Martha in the 21st century. Sure, people will keep looking for the latest trendy “secret” to success, but in the end it all boils down to these timeless principles. As Obama said when he talked about values like hard work, “…these things are old. These things are true.” And America’s success depends on “a return to these truths.”