For my new book, Getting There: A Book of Mentors, I spent five years interviewing some of the most successful people alive—people like Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Anderson Cooper, Sara Blakely, Jeff Koons, Kathy Ireland, and Les Moonves. Not a bad gig, right? While I was speaking with them, I noticed some common themes.
1. They know their strengths and play to them
In his Getting There essay, legendary investor Warren Buffett explains that it’s essential to understand your aptitudes and weaknesses. He relays that when deciding what to pursue, knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to focus on and quotes IBM founder Tom Watson, who said, “I’m no genius, but I’m smart in spots and I stay around those spots.”
As Buffett explains, “My brain is not a general-purpose brain that works marvelously in all situations. There are all sorts of things that I’m no good at, and there are all kinds of investment opportunities I’m not able to comprehend. I understand some kinds of simple businesses. I can’t understand complicated ones. Coca-Cola, for example, isn’t very complicated. It’s a durable product and the appeal is universal. I try to find businesses I can grasp, where I like the people running them and think the price makes sense in relation to the future economics.”
John Paul DeJoria, the billionaire cofounder of the Patrón Spirits Company and John Paul Mitchell Systems, has similar advice: “Do what you do best, and try to find others who can fill in by doing the things you are not good at. For instance, I am terrible at details—accounting especially—so I hire accountants to help me. This frees me up to focus on the things I do excel at and I can run a more efficient operation.”
None of my Getting There subjects are good at everything, but they all became incredibly successful by focusing on what they excel at and getting help from others in the areas in which they really needed it.
2. They harness their passions
You’ve probably heard before that the path to success is almost guaranteed to be arduous, but if you love what you do, you’ll thrive on the inevitable challenges and have the stamina to achieve your potential. My Getting There subjects expressed almost universally that, if you pursue something just for the money or because you “think you should,” it probably won’t end well.
“So many people get pushed along in the system, and because they don’t really know what they want to do, they practically let their careers be chosen for them,” says world-famous scientist J. Craig Venter (for the uninitiated, he was the first person to sequence the human genome).“If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s hard to be successful at it. You can show up and do what’s required, and you can even do your job well, but that’s not where real success is going to come from. Success comes from doing something extraordinary with passion and intensity.”
3. They create their own opportunities
None of my Getting There subjects waited around for someone to recognize a talent in them and offer them a break. It would be awesome if the world worked that way, but unfortunately, it rarely does. If you want something, you have to figure out a way to make it happen.
Take Anderson Cooper, for example. He wanted to be a foreign news correspondent but couldn’t even get an entry-level job at any of the major networks. He ended up working as a fact checker for Channel One, an agency that produces news programs for high schools. Cooper quickly felt pigeonholed in his role and realized that he had to do something drastic in order to change people’s perception of him. So he quit his job, borrowed a friend’s video camera, and went overseas to shoot stories by himself. Living on a mere $5 a day, Cooper made his videos as interesting and dangerous as possible, then offered them to Channel One for such a low price that they couldn’t refuse. This bold move is what launched his career and enabled him to live his dream.
“Had I asked the producers at Channel One if they would be supportive of my going out to make war videos, they would probably have said no,” says Cooper. “It’s easier to say no than it is to say yes, and they might not have wanted to feel responsible for me in any way. So I just did it. I rarely ask people for advice or permission when I’m planning on doing something I feel strongly about. That only opens the plan up to be crapped on.”
4. They question everything
In the mid-1970s, Gary Hirshberg noticed that we were changing the way food was made—for the worse. Farmers were injecting animals with hormones and antibiotics, spraying fields with toxic pesticides, and using chemical fertilizers on produce, all with no real knowledge of what would happen to people who grew up on food produced in this way. So Hirshberg started promoting organic food before most people knew what the word meant. He went on to cofound the organic yogurt company, Stonyfield Farms. He recalls, “When I tried to get retailers to carry Stonyfield yogurt, which was a little more expensive than the nonorganic brands, they’d say, ‘Does Organic mean it has dirt in it?’ It was difficult to get stores to carry our products.”
It took Stonyfield nine years to make its first nickel, but it’s now the largest organic yogurt company in the world—and every large manufacturer in the food space has an organic product line.
“Challenging conventional wisdom can be scary, but most major changes happen because someone asked: ‘Why not do it differently?’,” says Hirshberg. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
5. They don’t let fear of failure deter them
All of the people I interviewed said that trying new things is essential for growth and that, if you don’t take risks, you will never get anywhere. As a result, they view falling down as just part of the process. “If you never fail, it means you are not trying hard enough,” says supermodel-turned- entrepreneurial-mogul Kathy Ireland. Ireland failed for years with various startups (a microbrewery, a skin-care line, and several art projects) before finally launching her own brand. It’s now a $2 billion enterprise with more than 15,000 products.
“No one likes to feel vulnerable, but the reality is that you can only know as much depth, happiness and success in your life as you can know vulnerability,” says fitness expert Jillian Michaels. “If you don’t ask out a girl or a guy on a date, you won’t get rejected, but you won’t fall in love, either. If you don’t apply for the job, then you won’t get the position you want. If you don’t try to start your own business, then you’ll never be the entrepreneur you always dreamed of being.”
6. They’re resilient
This one is the real clincher (and so, so key given the last section). Every single one of my Getting There subjects has failed numerous times, but they found success because they were able to stand back up and try again or learn from their mistakes and try something new. The point is, they forced themselves to keep moving forward.
Author Jeff Kinney spent eight years writing his first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, only to have it rejected by multiple publishers. Abrams finally gave him a chance, and there are now over 115 million Wimpy Kid books in print (not to mention the movies).
John Paul DeJoria was fired from three jobs and lived in his car on two dollars and fifty cents a day. He went on to found John Paul Mitchell Systems and the Patrón Spirits Company.
After establishing his own architectural practice, Frank Gehry found himself on the verge of bankruptcy several times before reaching solid ground.
Matthew Weiner shopped his TV show around Hollywood, but it was rejected over and over again. Mad Men finally made it to the screen seven years after it was written.
All of my Getting There subjects’ stories remind me of a giant game of Whack A Mole. They’re where they are today because, even after getting whacked multiple times, they found a way to lick their wounds then pop back up with a smile.