How to be successful (in 500 words or less)

Sunset at Mt. EverestThe Sages of the Talmud wrote:

“It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it.” (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21)

Consider how often people set brave and ambitious goals for themselves. Oftentimes, achieving these goals requires not only extraordinary effort – they require that other people also exert extraordinary effort for you, that the planets align just right, and that seemingly impossible things completely beyond your control actually happen.

Consider that you want to win an Olympic medal in backstroke swimming. That’s your goal. You work hard and train every day. Your coaches say you can do it. I’m sorry to say that, no matter what you do, it still just might not happen. Maybe you wake up with a little cramp on the morning of the race. Maybe your taxi arrives late to the swimming arena. Maybe someone else trained a little harder than you did. Maybe you get unfairly disqualified.

I’ve written previously about the importance of setting oneself up for failure, and nonetheless emphasized the importance of setting lofty goals.  However, consider the nature of your goals. You can set a goal for yourself to win an Olympic medal. Much of this will be beyond your control. Or you can set a goal for yourself to be the greatest swimmer possible.

Set goals that are within your control. That focus on your own actions, not those of other people, not the randomness of life, or what other people might consider to be “success.”

Your realistic goals should focus on your own abilities, rather than on other people, random chance, or some arcane measuring system.

Every semester, I set a goal to teach each of my courses well. While I would like to earn high ratings from my students and my Dean, that’s not the focus of my attention.  Ratings depend on many factors beyond my control. Rather, I am going to teach more courses well, and if I believe that I have done that – then I have met my goal, I am successful and satisfied with my work.

As an entrepreneur, goals to “work hard” and “learn” are much more achievable and satisfying than goals to “make money.”  There’s nothing wrong with making money. However,  you have more control over how hard you work and how much you learn.

So the next time you hear an inspirational guru say to climb Mount Everest, don’t think too hard about trying to make it to the top. That could be impossible, and it’s not the point. The point is to climb Mount Everest. Go, put one foot ahead of the other, and climb.

[Image: Sunset at Mt. Everest by Kappa Wayfarer, on Flickr]


About Mark P. Holtzman

Chair of Accounting Department at Seton Hall University. PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Worked at Deloitte's New York Office. BSBA from Hofstra University.


  1. Reblogged this on Accountinator and commented:

    I wrote this for entrepreneurs who set ambitious goals, but feel like they never quite live up to them. Here’s how to do it.

  2. Reblogged this on Homepreneurs's Blog and commented:
    So simple, so profound

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