how to succeed

How to Succeed at Almost Anything

I took a rhetoric course in college of which I understood approximately 2%. This was probably because 98% of the textbook was written in Greek. That’s probably an exaggeration–I didn’t do so well in math that semester either. While I didn’t learn much about rhetoric, I did learn how to succeed at almost anything.

Each week our professor asked, “What was this week’s reading about?” And each week the class sat blinking. Maybe our responses were profound in Morse Code–either way, our professor wasn’t impressed. “OK, then,” he said one day. “Write an essay on this week’s readings. Compare and contrast the arguments, then pick a side and justify it. You can use your books. You have an hour.”

I skimmed the book and had no idea what I wrote, but it took the whole hour.

A few weeks later he handed our papers back and announced that save for one A and a smattering of Bs and Cs, most of us failed.

“Pss! Whadya get?” whispered my classmate. I turned and whispered back, “An A.” Her jaw dropped. “How did you do that?”

“I honestly don’t know. I just . . . followed the instructions.”

I didn’t consider myself particularly smart–in fact, there were a few students who talked circles around the rest of us about the intricacies of rhetoric (they probably spoke Greek too)–so I was as shocked as my classmate about my grade. That’s when I realized I didn’t need to be the smartest kid to succeed. I just needed to understand my professors’ expectations and follow basic instructions.

I ended up getting an A in the class and graduating school with the gold cord of honor.

It seems too simplistic to even point out, but this principle will serve you well long after your classroom days. Do you want a job? Do you want to win an audition?

You can perfect your resume, write a dazzling cover letter, and hone your interview skills to CEO-level awesome, but I guarantee none of that matters if you don’t follow the instructions on the application.

I know we live in a culture that prizes leadership. And as I type this, I find myself squirming at the idea of stepping in line. But here’s some real-talk:

There are times to deviate from instruction, to break some rules, and buck some systems. But for most of us, before we can rise or out-maneuver, we have to learn how the systems work.

Before we can be a good leader, we have to learn how to be a good follower.

Now, I think there are two kinds of followers:

  1. Those who like to be told (dependent)
  2. Those who like to be instructed (independent)

The first kind can result in blind acceptance and an inability to critically examine systems. The second kind–the kind I’m totally biased for–develops confident, multi-talented people and strong, independent thinkers. And these are the kind of people who inspire, the kind of people who enact change, the kind of people who should be leading.

The ability to self-start, self-teach, and self-direct is invaluable.

There are, of course, a few more traits that play into success: passion, hard work, courage, and persistence, among others. But it all starts with a few fundamentals.

Someone recently asked me about my proudest accomplishment. I couldn’t pinpoint one that screamed “Look at me!” So I told him I’m proud that I know how to follow directions.

I’m proud because it means I can do anything.

Even pass a Greek rhetoric class.