Mistakes Winners DONíT Make!

Why some people with the smarts to succeed never do

By: Benjamin J. Stein

Lifeís been a long exciting trip, and its taken me to a lot of interesting places: law school at Yale with Hillary Rodham Clinton; speech writing at the White House for Richard Nixon; preparing stock prospectuses on Wall Street; and for the past 18 years, writing and acting in Hollywood.

Iíve watched many successful people at work and at play.ópowerhouses such as Ron Perelman, billionaire owner of Revlon, and Norman Lear, one of televisionís greatest producers; actors such as Nicholas Cage, whoís struggled to the top.

But, I also know many who havenít made it-----shining stars from my college years who sell shirts; computer hotshots who now deliver pizzas; former studio executives who peddle 900 phone numbers for modest pay; math geniuses who fix pipes in rotting apartment buildings. Like them, all too many people have the smarts to succeed but never do.

Why do some count their money while others curse their unpaid bills? Of course, luck has a role, sometimes. But, usually people make their own bad luck by regularly getting trapped in self-defeating attitudes and shoot-yourself-in-the-foot behavior.

Here are some of the worst traps. I call them the ď Eight Habits of Really Unsuccessful People.Ē

1. Delusional thinking

Unsuccessful people constantly lie to themselves about their own lives.

I once thought that people who were habitually dishonest couldnít be successful. Sadly, Iíve learned better. Itís possible to succeed, at least financially, while being totally dishonest with others. But, it is absolutely impossible for people to be dishonest with themselves -----about where they are in life, what their prospects are for achieving their goals and where they fall short------and still go forward.

A neighbor of mine teaches art part time. Now thatís not bad as a hobby, but it will never pay her enough to live the middle-class existence that she craves. Although she complains about how broke she is, she canít seem to understand why teaching part time wonít pay a living wage.

2. Not producing

Again and again Iíve talked to people who fail to acquire any useful skill for which someone will pay real money. They donít understand the fundamental truth that human beings get paid for being able to do something.

And they donít understand a corollary truth: people get paid a lot for being able to do something that adds a lot of value. That means medicine or laws or songwriting or finance or something that will help others to get well or make money or enjoy themselves or learn something-------but, on a big scale.

If financial success is your goal, you have to produce or create something that----in the real world, not only in your dreams----others want. My father, who is an economist, taught me that all rewards in life accrue to either financial capital or human capital. Financial capital is often inherited. You have no control over that. But human capital--------i.e., a marketable skill -------can be acquired only through training and effort. Unsuccessful people can spend their whole lives evading the truth.

3. Punishing friends

( Editorís note) Read first sentence slowly.

Unsuccessful people make a habit of being friendly and grateful to those who are unhelpful to them and disdainful and ungrateful to those who are kind to them. I see this with startling regularity. A dear, close friend of mine has had chance after chance in Hollywood, thanks to powerful friends at two different studios who long ago put him on the fast track to success. But, for almost 20 years now, he has disdained their company and put their friendship to the test while pursuing power players who treat him like a doormat. Not surprisingly, he remains directionless and debt-laden at age 47.

Losers take their friends for grantedóat their own peril. Unless, you are a uniquely, unusually talented artist or athlete, there is no such thing as success without a network of friends and supporters. The inability to make and to keep friends is involved in every single failure I have ever witnessed.

4. Bad manners

Unsuccessful people are also, always rude. They fail to show up on time, to thank givers for gifts and to apologize for slights and wrongs.

I have fun, and enjoy it too, while I calculate how late my dinner guests will be using my success/lateness standard. A guest with a great job, really busy individual, with heavy-weight responsibilities will always be on time. While, someone with nothing to do all day will be very, very late or maybe not show at all. A guy with a low-level job thatís going nowhere? Between 15 minutes and an hour late.

I can also predict when someone will complain about the food. If heís a failure, heíll have a condescending attitude and not thank me for the dinner. However, if he is successful in life, heíll be happy with almost anything and thank me most graciously for it.

One of my oldest, dearest, and first friends here in Hollywood had a promising career as a producer. As time went by, his career began to falter; and his slide down the pole was greased by his amazing lack of manners. This guy never thanked me for meals, passes to shows or introductions to potential employers. I finally did, what everyone who knows him did long ago: simply stopped doing anything for him.

When a player alienates everyone around him by rudeness, he stops being able to play. Maybe, billionaires and maharajahs can get away with being rude. For the majority of us, however, itís a guaranteed success killer.

5. Dressing for failure

Unsuccessful people habitually dress inappropriately. They arrive for job interviews without a tie or in running shoes. They come to dinner parties in jeans when everyone else is in suits. They may think that theyíre making a fashion statement. Actually, theyíre making a visual statement that they donít belong with the group where they are, and they have contempt for the people who do.

A really beautiful young woman I know was desperate for a job. I got her an interviewólunch with the head of a companyóthat prides itself on its family image. Incredibly, she showed up at the executive dining rom in shorts, a T-shirt and high heeled sandals. From the moment she walked in, she had blotched the important interview----and made me also look like a fool.

You can dress to show of what an outsider and a rebel you are-----thatís fine for your teen-agers, rock bands, and Hellís Angels. OR, you can dress up to show you really belong, and get the job.

6. Bad attitudes.

The unsuccessful often have a sour, pessimistic outlook. They dislike their work and their world, and assume that everyone around them is dishonest or worse, stupid. They cast a dark pall over everything, and everyone around them, and by their own despair and utter hopelessness infect everything they become involved in.

They definitely also betray a lack of confidence in themselves----a deep-rooted belief that they canít do much or do it well. This is almost always expressed, at every opportunity, to anyone who will listen. They donít seem to realize that they are advertising themselves as losers.

A friend of mine in Northern California is competent enough to complete a dayís work. But, wherever she goes, she complains that the air conditioning is too cold or too hot. She bad-mouths her superiors, and their boss or the job. Nothingís right! She tells her colleagues that the work is a waste of time. Naturally, sheís lost five jobs in two years time.

She canít get a new job now because she canít get a reference from anyone she was worked for. Itís a chronic fate for chronic complainers.

7. Needless arguing

Unsuccessful people like to argue just for the sheer sake of argument------to stir the pot or to put the other guy off balance. People who start arguments may think that friends and colleagues will be impressed with how smart or clever they are. They couldnít be more mistaken.

Sam Rayburn, a famous Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said. ďIf you want to get along, go along.Ē He indeed didnít mean you had too agree with everything anyone else suggested or said. But, he surely did mean that you canít aggravate other people endlessly and still expect them to help you.

People who get things done donít like to spend time arguing needlessly. If you pick fights, they will avoid you, and you will find yourself surrounded by other argumentative losers. And, thatís a sure path to failure, guaranteed.

8. Putting first things last

Unsuccessful people cannot set priorities. In the nationís capital, where I grew up, thereís a man I went to school with. Heís tall. Heís smart. Heís handsome. His father is a big wheel. And heís miserable------stuck in a job as a manager of an apartment building. But, if an when, I suggest he study for the civil-service examination, he insists the just doesnít have time, that heís too busy, with hobbies. Heís been telling me that now since 1966!

The real truth is, thereís never enough time to do everything, even everything of genuine importance. Unsuccessful people , however, never quite learn that setting priorities is an iron-clad necessity. They also never seem to learn that itís not a sacrifice to give up things of lesser importance for those of greater importance. In fact, itís a bargain!

Thatís it!, end of sermon.

Maybe youíve got some of these habits.

Rememberówinners know they can change------and they do!

But then, you already knew that, right?

November, 1994, pgs. 210-205.
Ben Stein is a movie and television actor
He also teaches securities law at
Pepperdine University in Malibu, California

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