What is the Secret to Success in Life?

Money? Fame? Travel? Relationships? Or the freedom to do whatever, whenever, and with whomever you want? However you characterize success, it’s something that nearly everyone is after. While our definitions of success might differ, the desire to succeed at one thing or another remains constant.

Still, even though we might all want to succeed at something, we don’t always do what it takes to follow through. Sometimes, we just get fed up, and we end up throwing in that proverbial towel. We give up when the going gets tough. But not everyone does. So what separates them from the rest of the world’s population?

How is that one person is willing to do all that it takes to reach their goals, while another person gives in to silent resignation at the first sign of resistance? Why is one person willing to sacrifice nearly everything in order to live the life of their dreams, while others are too afraid to take the next step in fear of suffering through a catastrophic failure or embarrassment?

It’s quite clear that success has nothing to do with our initial set of circumstances. Some of the most poor and disadvantaged people in the world have achieved the greatest successes of all time. Oprah Winfrey was born to a single mother on welfare and was physically and sexually abused as a child. J.K. Rowling was divorced, had a daughter, and was living on government assistance before publishing the first book in the Harry Potter series.

Success in life has nothing to do with where you start. Sure, people who start advantageously in one area or another might have a leg up, but it has almost nothing to do with where they end up in life. Success transcends circumstances.

So what is it then? What’s the magic formula? What’s the secret to success in life, if you will? How can we go from a living a mediocre life, to one of excellence in every manner possible? Can anyone do it? Or is it just some pipe dream that lives in the hearts and minds of the foolish populous?

While there have been countless books, audiobooks, articles, television shows, and of course, blog posts, on the topic of success in life, most people still feel lost. There’s a day-to-day struggle that many simply can’t rise above, suffocating in a sea of despair, hopelessness, and lost dreams. But, there must be a way. Surely, if others can do it, we can do it too, right?

While you’ve likely asked yourself this question before, and more than likely you’ve read or heard about it somewhere, the discussion still beckons us. So what is the secret to success in life? How can we achieve our wildest dreams over time without getting discouraged? How can we match our actions with our words, follow through, and persist until we achieve wild success?


Defining Success

Before talking about the secret to success or even outlining a formula, it’s important to define success and just what it means to you. Everyone has their own individual definition of success. But there’s absolutely no way we can talk about the secret to success without first creating some definition of what success actually means to us.

Many people talk about success. They say they want to be successful at something. But, when prodded, they don’t provide specifics because they haven’t really created those specifics in their minds. Sure, they might want to earn more money, drive a nicer car, get a better job, or travel to some far-off destination, but they haven’t set specific and measurable goals that are written down on paper.

Why is that so important?

Without getting specific about our goals, and really defining a framework of success in our lives, they remain far more abstract and murky. When they’re specific, in that they’re written out in detail, and you can both quantify them and know on what date you need to achieve them, they become more real.

In fact, studies have confirmed that people who create specific and written goals are for more likely to achieve them.

In a book written by Mark McCormack entitled, What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School, the author recounts a powerful study that was conducted on the graduating class of 1979. On graduation day, the researchers asked one specific question: “Have you set clear and written goals for your future and outlined a specific plan to accomplish them?”

On graduation day, it was determined that just 3% of the class had goals and a written plan for their attainment. 13% of the class had goals, but they hadn’t written them out. And 84% had set absolutely no goals whatsoever for the future.

Ten years later, they revisited the same Harvard MBA students to assess their results. The 13% of the class that had set goals but didn’t have them in writing were earning, on average, twice as much as the 84% of the class that had set no goals at all. However, it was the 3% of the class that had both set written goals in writing and had a plan for their attainment that astonished the researchers.

The 3% of the class that had both set written goals and created plans, were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class. Yes. You read that correctly. 10 times as much. This is an extraordinary difference. And other, more recent studies, have confirmed the same notion that you must set written goals with detailed plans if you want to succeed in life. 

So that’s where we need to start. The definition of whatever success means to you must created and written out in a detailed plan. You don’t need to know every step to take in order to get you there; but you need to have a general sense of direction and an overall plan for its attainment. When you fail to do this, you can’t really categorize these as goals, but more so as hopes and wishes.


Step 1 — Set a Goal

It’s quite clear then that in order to succeed in life at any endeavor, we need to set specific goals. But, not only do they have to be specific, they have to be S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals — goals that are specific, meaningful, achievable, relevant, and time-based. Those goals also need to be constantly evaluated and the plans re-adjusted in order to attain them.

But the initial focus here should be on creating written goals that are specific. What do you want to achieve? Make sure that you get into detail about this and ensure that you can quantify your goals. For example, don’t just say you want to make more money; come up with a precise amount you want to make and be sure it’s written down.

The goal also has to be meaningful in that you need a strong-enough reason why you’re willing to do just about anything to see it through. You won’t give up because it’s something that you care so deeply about. Things like family, security, and freedom are some examples of strong-enough reasons. But, like the first part, this must also be written out. Don’t just think about it in your head.

A tremendous transformation occurs in the mind when we write something out. All of a sudden it moves out of the abstract and into reality. When it’s written out in plain English before us, it becomes more far real. It’s like flipping a light switch on in the mind. It’s something tangible now that’s staring us right back in the face.


Step 2 — Create a Plan

The next step in the success recipe is to create a plan. While your definition of success (your goals) gives structure to your life, the plan gives it a direction. Without a plan, we’re simply dead in the water. We need to have a general direction of travel even if we don’t know every single step we’re going to take along the way.

Create a plan to reach your goals. Outline the steps that you need to take to move you one step closer every single day. Whether you want to earn a million dollars, buy your dream home, or start your own company, detail out what you need to do to get there from where you are at this very moment.

Since, in the first step, you quantified the goal, knowing where you are and just how far you need to go to get there should be a little bit easier. For example, if you want to have a million dollar net worth in the next 36 months and you’re presently $25,000 in debt, then you know that you have a fairly long way to go.

It also means that you need to increase your net worth by approximately $28,472.22 per month for the next 36 months. That is most certainly a tall order. However, to the motivated person, anything is possible. But the purpose of the plan is to help you create that roadmap you’re going to need to move you from your present state to the intended target.

You also need to ask yourself the right questions to help formulate your plan. What skills do you need to acquire to reach your goal? What types of people can you meet to help move you a little bit closer? Do you need some extra form of education or certification from a higher-learning institute?

Your supreme focus should be on building out a step-by-step roadmap to help you achieve your goals since this is a big part of the secret to success. You should also put your effort into creating the right team to get you there. Finding a good lawyer, accountant, real estate agent, and financial advisor are just some examples of the team members we might need to ultimately succeed in business and in life.


Step 3 — Take Massive Action

You’ve likely heard the mantra before: take massive action. But no words could be truer. Part of the secret recipe to success is to follow through and take action on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter how small the progress might be in any given day; what matters is that there’s some progress at all.

But this is the one step that many people get caught up on. They can’t seem to overcome their tendencies to procrastinate and waste time with other pursuits that don’t help to advance their progress towards their goals. For one reason or another, they get distracted, veer off course, and almost entirely lose interest in something they thought they once wanted so badly.

Yet, for the person who can effectively manage their time and take action consistently, and do so on a massive scale, any goal is achievable. Thus, part of the secret to success definitely consists of taking action. If you can’t take action, all the goals and planning in the world won’t help you unlock the life of your dreams.

So the question that remains for most folks is, just how do you take action when the goal seems so far off? In order to answer that question, we need to understand why we do what we do in the first place. For the first part, we will always do more to avoid pain than we will to gain pleasure.

For example, students cram the night before a big exam or a paper that’s due because the pain of not doing it supersedes the pleasure of putting it off any longer. The same thing applies to taxes. Why do most people get their taxes in just before the deadline when it’s due? The same reason. They’re doing more to avoid pain than they are to gain pleasure.

Why does a person keep smoking cigarettes when they know smoking might give them cancer? Why does an overweight person keep eating when they know they should be dieting? Once again: they’re doing more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. But there’s also one very important thing to note about the pain versus pleasure paradigm: we will always do more to avoid pain in the short term and not in the long term.

In the short term, the cigarette smoker cannot bear to quit because the pain of withdrawal and detox from cigarettes is just too high to bear. Similarly, the cravings that a person might feel who’s overweight and needs to be dieting, which eventually turn into physical withdrawals from things like fat, sugar, and carbohydrates, bring on an intense amount of pain in the short term.

The human mind is wired to do whatever it takes to avoid pain in the short term, and not necessarily in the long term. It’s part of our survival instinct. It’s built into our DNA, and is also the foundation of the fight or flight response. We are always looking to avoid pain in the short term. If we were trying to avoid pain in the long term, do you think the same person would keep smoking, keep over-eating, keep gambling, or even keep drinking alcohol? Of course they wouldn’t.

So, while part of the secret to success lies in the principle of taking massive action on a daily basis, it also requires a shift in thinking. You have to look at pain in the long term as the driver, and not pain in the short term. When you can associate enough pain to the long term of not doing something than the pleasure of putting it off any longer, then the real magic can start to happen.

Until that shift occurs,  no amount of reasoning or coaxing will get a person to follow through on a goal that might take them months, years, or even a decade or longer to pull off.


Step 4 — Develop Keystone Habits

The fourth and very vital part of the secret to success is to undertake the development of keystone habits. What are keystone habits? They act as the soil from which other good habits will go from. They also help to deter bad habits and require no extra effort to form than any other habit.

When it comes to good habit development, keystone habits act as the gateway to developing a repertoire of habits that will help to push us forward rather than to hold us back from achieving our dreams. They also pave the way to succeeding in life at whatever endeavor we decide to undertake.

While developing any habit isn’t a simple feat, focusing on keystone habits will provide the greatest benefits. However, the important thing is to identify the right keystone habits that are going to help you along the way. That’s a unique undertaking and very much reliant on the types of goals you’ve set for yourself and just what you’re trying to succeed at in life.

When you can identify the right keystone habits and instill them into your life, other good habits will automatically follow. For example, if you have money goals, the keystone habit of expense tracking can revolutionize your life. Expense tracking involves keeping track of every penny you spend no matter what it’s for.

By tracking expenses down the very last red cent, a few things are happening in your mind. First of all, the behavior needs to become habitual. That will take approximately 90 to 180 days of daily repetition. Second, when we become more aware of precisely where our money is going, we’re more careful about our spending, possibly save more money, and even begin contemplating various investments.

Third, when this occurs, the truth is revealed to the mind. You see, the mind has a clever way of hiding our behavior from us in order for us to avoid pain and gain pleasure. When we overspend frivolously in areas we know we shouldn’t be overspending, the mind has a way of covering it up so that we can avoid pain and gain pleasure for as long as possible. That’s why most people have difficulty looking at their overdrawn bank accounts or over-the-limit credit card statements or just about any other bill that will cause pain.

However, we also usually don’t pay attention to the amounts of money that we spend on a daily basis on small expenses until it’s a little too late. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Beware of small expenses, a small leak will sink a great ship.” He was referring to the small payments for things we tend to forget about or overlook. Yet, it’s those same small expenses that can add up to a lot of money over the course of a month, year, or even a lifetime.

Take the time to develop the keystone habits in the right areas of your life so that you can advance towards your goals far more automatically. When behavior isn’t automatic, it’s far harder to concentrate and much easier to get sidetracked.


Step 5 — Stay Motivated

Motivation is most certainly one of the secrets to success in life. While staying motivated can be incredibly difficult, it can also be extremely rewarding over time. The motivated person is far more able to cope with stumbling blocks and overcome potential limitations on the road towards achieving their dreams.

Staying motivated is also a way that you can ensure you take action on a daily basis. But, what are the ways that we can stay motivated even when times are tough and we don’t feel like putting in the work on a given day? How can we still push forward even when nearly every fiber in our beings are screaming that we should either take a break or possibly even give up?

While there are a number of motivational strategies that you can use to ensure that you keep pushing towards your goals, having a strong enough reason to achieve something can help you stay motivated no matter what. When we set SMARTER goals in Step 1, the “M” for meaningful can have an enormous impact on just how likely we are to follow through.

But aside from setting meaningful goals and carrying out all the other steps in the secret-to-success formula, in order to stay motivated, you need to focus on developing the willpower to follow through. Find things that inspire you. Find others who’ve achieved the success that you’re after and look to emulate them. Focus on developing the right amount of willpower to see things through.

Willpower is just like any other muscle, it can easily weaken if it’s not used often enough. And, studies have confirmed that willpower can be drained, so the potential for willpower must be built up. This happens in the mind through a form of brain training.

But if something means enough to you, you’ll do what it takes to achieve it. These secrets to success in life won’t work when there’s no fuel to drive the engine. However, if you follow through with each of the recommendations, you’ll be far more likely to push through than to give up.

Of course, you’re going to hit some resistance along the way. But be persistent. As Confucius once said, “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.”