Do You Need “the Mindset of a Champion”?

Steve Mitchell/US Presswire

Do you have the mindset of a champion?

Are you able to look at your career challenges and feel certain you can overcome them? Do you feel, like Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordan must have felt, that you have greatness in your soul?

If your answer is “no,” don’t worry. I don’t have that mindset either.

I never did. I never felt like a natural-born winner. I never had the confidence that the people I admired seemed to have.

I doubted I could ever fully understand anything about business when I started writing about it in 1976. Just back from a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, teaching literature to students in Chad, I got a job with a newsletter called African Business & Trade. I remember looking at that name on the door my first day and thinking, “What is the difference between business and trade?” I learned fast.

My next job was as editorial director for a fledgling publisher in Florida. I had half a dozen freelance writers reporting to me. My job was to edit and polish their work. But I could barely understand what they were talking about – things like robotics and professional practice management and agribusiness. How could I presume to tell them what to do? Again, I learned fast.

When I set out to create and market my own investment newsletter, I was nearly paralyzed with fear. I was not just worried about failing, I was sure I would. But I was wrong. That publication earned millions of dollars its first year. Today, it has mushroomed into a $70 million investment publishing franchise.

When I first retired at 39 and spent my days writing poetry and fiction, I didn’t imagine for a moment that I’d get any of it published. But in the 12 to 14 months that I did that writing, about a dozen of my stories and six poems were published in literary magazines. Three of them won prizes.

In 1992, Bill Bonner asked me to help him grow his publishing business. I took the job because he made me an irresistible offer. A year later, sales had jumped to $24 million and he asked me if I thought we could eventually be a $100 million business. I remember telling him, “I’d be thrilled if we can keep sales as high as they are. My best guess is that we will get smaller next year, not bigger.” But we did get bigger. And when we hit that $100 million target, I said, “Let’s just be happy with this.” Ten years later, our revenues topped $500 million and our profit margins had doubled too.

When K and I returned from Africa in 1977, we had about $300 in savings. Today, we have tens of millions of dollars and interests in businesses with a combined value of well over $20 million.

So I know that you can be successful in life without thinking like a champion. I know that it’s possible to accomplish amazing things.

I’m telling you this in case you are full of doubt and fear. I want you to know that you don’t have to change your “attitude” to be a winner.

I tried to change mine. I read the books and studied the tapes. I repeated “positive affirmations” while driving and while staring at myself in the mirror. I did it all, but it didn’t change the way I felt. If I’d had to wait till my attitude changed, I’d be waiting still.

Instead, I used a low-key, back-door strategy that I believe will work for anyone. I call it the Secret Path for the Timid.

It’s based on two very simple concepts that are responsible for the success I’ve had:

If you don’t have an abundance of natural talent, you can make up for it by working harder to acquire the skills and knowledge you need.

If you don’t have the natural genius to come up with great ideas, you can find out what rich and successful people are doing and imitate them.

When I took that job with African Business & Trade, for example, I spent hours every evening in the National Library, studying the subjects I was writing about. I never told my boss I was doing that extra work because I didn’t want him to know how ignorant I was. I simply worked twice as many hours as the other writers. And slowly but surely, I began to know what I was talking about. Eventually, I was as good as any writer on the team.

Another example: When I tried to write my first sales letter, I hadn’t the faintest notion of how to do it. So I took the time to read every successful sales letter I could get my hands on. I copied lines that caught my eye. I made notes about how the sales pitches were structured. I studied how the offers were designed – the pricing and premiums and guarantees that made those sales letters so effective.

Gradually, I learned what I needed to know. The mysteries that had befuddled me as a beginner in business and marketing slowly became clear.

With each small success, my confidence grew. But it was not confidence in myself. It was confidence in the process of working hard and emulating success.

Years later, after I had built many businesses, people began treating me like a champion. They assumed I had natural talents they lacked.

Part of this was my fault. To motivate the people who worked for me, I put on the mask of a champion. I pretended to be undeterred by any problems and happy to take on any challenge.

I now believe I was wrong to do that. Instead of motivating my people, I was doing the opposite. I was unwittingly suggesting that to accomplish what I had accomplished they had to have been born (as I apparently was) with limited confidence and courage.

I should have told them the truth: that my accomplishments came slowly and painstakingly. I should have admitted that and explained that my success was the result of mule-like hard work and monkey-like imitation.

I should have told them what I’m telling you today — that I don’t believe you need the mindset of a champion to be successful in business. You need to do only two things: Work harder than all those who are competing with you and imitate the actions of successful people you admire.

If you do that long enough you will have the success you yearn for. And as a bonus you will have acquired courage and confidence too.

The courage and confidence I have today was not achieved by reading books or listening to tapes or repeating positive affirmations. It was achieved by the persistent application of hard work and imitation. If you work hard and smart at anything long enough, you will know success. And with each small success, your mind and heart will grow incrementally braver and more confident. Eventually, you will wear the mask of a champion. But when that happens, remember to take it off in front of those you care about.