How to Be Successful in Life, Part1 

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 16, 2012

This article provides advice to those who want to develop their skills, knowledge, and abilities so that they can thrive in the highly competitive environment known as real life.  If you want to become more than a cork on the river of life, just drifting along as time passes you by, then here are some ideas that will enable you to make a real difference in the world. Of course, following this advice will most likely help you get ever better jobs as you rise in value in the eyes of employers, but the advice will also help you develop your own sense of self, confidence, and good judgment. And you will feel better about your role in the world and your connection to humanity. Having the skills to help others--and using them to do so--will give you a feeling of satisfaction you would not otherwise have.

Attached to each piece of advice is a set of simple, perhaps even obvious, things you can do to get started. You might know these already, but as Samuel Johnson notes in Rambler number 2, we "more frequently require to be reminded than informed." And besides, what may be obvious to most people could be a staggering revelation to the uninformed. At any rate, I hope you'll find something useful for aiding in the propulsion of your life.  Set-off quotations marked with an asterisk are from 1000 CEOs published by Dorling Kindersley. Other quotations are as sourced.


All your dreams can come true
if you have the courage to pursue them.
--Walt Disney*


1. Read a lot.

Reading to gain knowlege about how the world works and how humans work is of great value. Knowing how a light switch works and how we make decisions (both good and bad) are worthy things. More than that, though, reading helps you to think, to solve problems, and to understand reality. Read and think about what you read. Find reading material that you like and that will move your mind forward. Don't read just anything. I once saw a TV segment about a woman who had read 2,000 romance novels, and it was evident from her interview that she was not a single thought better for it. Find something that can help you grow wiser and avoid some of the mistakes common to humankind.

Reading builds your vocabulary and hence your thinking ability because you can think in more refined and complex terms. It also helps improve your writing ability as you grow familar with how sentences, paragraphs, and essays are put together.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Begin with short pieces. It is difficult in our busy lives to make time for reading, so if you are out of the habit of taking time to read, don't start with War and Peace. Start small and build. Read Aesop's Fables, or my own Stories from the Old Attic or Stories from the Castle Keep. (The ad to the left will let you get the Kindle version of all the Attic and Keep stories, plus many more that have never been published before, all for 99 cents.) Then think about and talk about what you have read. Decide whether you agree or disagree with some idea or aspect of the story and then explain your reasons why. (Having and exploring the reasons why--the because--is important. You will be clarifying your thinking ability.)

B. Keep reading material with you at all times. Keep a book handy, or bookmark some sites on your iPad, iPhone, or other smart phone or tablet PC. When you are waiting for the flight to board, or the doctor to see you, or your friend to meet you for lunch, pull out your reading material and redeem the time, as they say. It's amazing how much down time we have that can be put to profitable use. Samuel Johnson once remarked that we spend most of our lives waiting for time to pass. And as we read in The Book of Sayings, "No hour ever returns."

C. Make an appointment to read every day. Even fifteen minutes is better than no minutes. You can schedule time with yourself, or you can join a reader's circle with some friends at school or where you work and read and discuss with others. Think about the fact that those huge brick buildings we see all over the industrial east in the USA were built by laying one brick at a time. Regular work can accomplish much over time if you keep at it--even if each contribution is small. And, while not quite as good as direct reading with your eyeballs, you can listen to audio books in the car while you travel. That's a lot better than listening to that soon stale pop tune yet one more time. And a good thing is that there are thousands of free audio books on the Web. A great place to start with free audio books is Librivox.

D. Bonus. Fall in love with old books. They say (whoever "They" are) that young people aren't interested in reading long-dead writers with long sentences. But this essay is designed for those who really want to succeed, and my advice to you is read the classics. They are classics because they cover important ideas in serious (and sometimes comic-serious) ways. 



The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life.
He who walks with wise men will be wise.
--Proverbs 13:14, 20 (NASB)



2. Learn how to write really well.

I used to tell my composition students that the world is controlled by the five percent of people who can write really well. The good writers not only think of and present persuasively the best arguments pro and con, but they define the arena of discourse and the ideas in it. Everything of importance is first written down: laws, news scripts, analyses and arguments, movie scripts, novels, non-fiction books, proposals, contracts, all the text on the Web.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Practice imitating well-written sentences. Imitation is a classical method of learning to write. Find a writer whose sytle is clear and interesting, and imitate the syntax. Match phrase for phrase, transition for transition.

B. When  you read, pay close attention to the structure of the sentences. Copy (by hand) sentences you really like. Think about what it is you like: choice of words, elegant phrasing, ironic pose, clarity, simplicity, directness.

C. Write a lot. Tell the stories of your life if you can't think of anything else to write about. People are more impacted by stories than by logical argument, anyway, so if you can learn to write stories, you'll be more influential than before. And story telling is a crucial part of problem solving (see the next bit of advice). Every analyst, whether auditor, crime scene detective, or archeologist, takes raw data--bits of information--and puts them together into a coherent story that explains as much of the evidence as possible. Writing explanatory stories therefore helps you think better. As the proverb says, "Writing is thinking." And as Francis Bacon says in his essay on Friendship, you discover what you think when you turn your thoughts into words.

3. Study and practice problem solving.

Someone has remarked that life is really only a series of decisions, and many of those decisions arise from problem solving activity. Most of what we do in our jobs is problem solving. Plumbers, architects, homicide detectives, medical doctors, teachers, shop owners, auto mechanics--all are basically problem solvers, figuring out how to address an issue that needs to be resolved in the best way. So, if you learn how to define and solve problems, you will be more successful at any career you choose than you would otherwise be.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Learn how to use tools. Learn how to use the various tools available to you, so that you can fix a leaky faucet, install a garbage disposer, repair your sprinklers. Similarly, learn how to use the knowledge tools you use every day. Go deeper into the features and functions of your word processing program, your spreadsheet, your page design or analysis software. Whatever type of tool you use, learn more about all of them.

B. Take things apart. Fix things. Someone remarked a few years ago that one of the things that made both blue collar and white collar workers so good at problem solving is that they were nearly all shade-tree mechanics, who worked on their own cars. They practiced hypothesis development and then hypothesis testing: "Hmm. I think this might  be a clogged fuel filter. Nope. Then it could be a broken fuel pump." These mental  habits transferred to their jobs and to the remainder  of life. Now that cars have become so computerized, problem solving ability seems to be in decline. (For example, medical diagnosis seems to have become the results of a battery of tests rather than the thought processes of a doctor.) Taking things apart and fixing things yourself (saves money!) also gives you a good understanding for the mechanical rationality of our product jammed world.

4. Study critical thinking and logical fallacies.

I am no longer surprised but still dismayed at the poor quality of thinking that goes on in the world. I keep hearing from people who believe in the most preposterous urban legends, conspiracy theories, and misinformation--that a few minutes' searching on the Web would soon show to be false. But of course there aer those Web sites with misinformation on them, too. Crank up your baloney detector, folks. Be careful what you swallow. Critical thinking involves taking care of your own mental ecosystem by crafting your epistemology (belief about what is  true) and ontology (belief about what is real).

Three things you can do to start.

A. Visit a few urban legends Web sites and read about a few of those. A good place to start is Snopes.com. Think about why these legends are believed and passed along to friends. See if you can develop a theory or test (perhaps a set of questions) you can apply to help you discover how credible or not the truth claims are that you encounter every day.

B. Visit the FBI fraud Web site to learn about some common scams. Think about why people fall for these. A book I recommend is The Big Con by David Maurer. It  describes  many of the confidence schemes that have been practiced over the years, including the Big Con, a scheme also depicted in the movie The Sting, which I also recommend to you. Another film about a famous type of confidence scheme is The Spanish Prisoner.  Studying these works is a pleasant way of opening your thinking up and developing some good critical analysis. At the very least, you'll be encouraged to be more cautious before investing in that can't-lose gold mine that will triple your investment in three months. It's just such a great deal that no bank or venture capital firm will touch it--so they are giving just plain folks like you the opportunity to put in a big chunk of your life savings.


C. For a first look at logical fallacies, take a look at my discussion of material fallacies and semantics. I also have some articles on critical thinking that might be profitable to look at.

5. Study decision making.

As the proverb says, "To live is to choose, and to choose is to live." Life really is one decision after another. If you want to improve the quality of your life, then, learn to make better decisions.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Read some decision making books.  I also have an article on decision making and one on decision making techniques that you might look at.

B. Read about failures and the investigation of their causes: airline crashes, nuclear plant accidents, automobile accidents, even good ideas with unintended bad consequences. Large-scale failures are investigated more closely than large-scale successes, and besides, the analysis of failure tells us a lot about how decisions can go wrong. Just as causes are often chained together, where one thing causes another and that causes another, etc., so many disasters are caused by a series of small and at the time seemingly unimportant decisions.

C. Draw a vertical line dividing a piece of paper in two. In the left column, write, "Benefits, Pros, Upside" and in the right column, write, "Drawbacks, Cons, Downside." Use this sheet for  your ordinary deliberations, such as where to vacation. When a decision is more important, there are more sophisticated tools, but for simple decisions, a pro and con list can help make a more rational choice (if a rational choice is what you want).

6. Practice creative thinking and brainstorming.

The world runs on ideas. Notice that I didn't say the world runs on good ideas. It needs ideas to function, and if good ideas are in short supply, the world will use bad ones. So it's up to you to produce the great, new, superior ideas that will help the world and you operate more effectively. Generating new idea is a challenge for some people simply because they are not used to it. But creativity can be improved with practice.

Three things you can do to start.

A. Work crossword puzzles. Working crossword puzzles provides several benefits. First, because the clues are often vague or suggest multiple answers, these puzzles help develop creative thinking. It is necessary to keep asking, "What else could this word suggest?" At the simplest level, puzzle creators exploit the fact that many words have several meanings. For example, if the clue is pitch, does that refer to a musical tone, a baseball being thrown, a tarry goo, a sales presentation, a boat bobbing up and down, or the angle of attack of an airplane?


The heart and soul of a company is creativity and innovation.
--Robert A. Iger*

President and CEO of Walt Disney



Another benefit of working crossword puzzles is that they will help make you comfortable with ambiguity. The clues are suggestive, ambiguous, unclear. This is just how much of life is. We have to live and make decisions in a world of uncertain information. We must analyze data that isn't clear cut. Getting used to this emotionally takes practice. And working crossword puzzles will help.

B. Think of uses for a random object. When you are with friends having a cup of coffee, instead of idle chit chat about football or shoes, grab an object at random and engage in a creative thinking adventure by listing all the uses for that object you can think of. For example, let's say you pick up the salt shaker. What can you use that for? You could shake the salt on snails to kill them. Four salt shakers could be used for short legs on a table. One could be the handle of a walking cane. Tea leaves could be put into one and then into a teapot to brew loose tea leaves. Hold the shaker up to your camera and set the white balance. A fishing weight. And so on.

C. Imagine what people are saying in a random photograph. Find a photo with two people in it and imagine what funny lines they could be saying. I remember we did this many years ago with a still from an old movie where a man had just opened a door and found a human skeleton hanging there. Captions we came up with included, "Fred, I have a bone to pick with you," "Wow, that diet really works," "As you can see, I have nothing to hide," "I hope we can flesh out your idea for the corporate realignment." And so on. For a picture of a model holding a glass of champagne, "I'm glad I don't have to drink this stuff because it tastes like carbonated leather," "Thanks for the drink, Jake, but I'm still not giving you my credit card to pay for dinner," "Sorry, but this champagne clashes with my hair color." Okay, so my examples are not exactly a scream, but you get the idea.

This article is continued in Part 2 and concludes in Part 3.
See also The Two Secrets to Success in College.


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com