Last month, there was a very inspiring career thread on Quora. The topic was “I am in my late 20s and feel I have wasted a lot of time. Is it too late?”

Image: 'runners (cc)' http://www.flickr.com/photos/45409431@N00/10014117363

Image: ‘runners (cc)’
http://www.flickr.com/photos/45409431@N00/10014117363

James Altucher, a popular blogger and all-around fascinating guy, gave some good advice as usual. After going through a long-list of famous people who reached success later in life, he ended with the advice that it really doesn’t matter. You don’t need success to be happy.

You might never have your “great” thing that you do. I’m not even saying “it’s the journey that one should love”. Because some journeys are very painful. And nobody says you get special marks in death if you wrote a great novel at the age of 50. Or came up with a great chicken, or a way to stuff lots of people into factories.I’ve stumbled and fallen and got up and survived enough that I’m sick of goals and purposes and journeys. I want to cut out the middleman. The journey. The desperation and despair that thinking of a “purpose” entails. Fuck purpose. It’s ok to be happy without one. You don’t need to pay with lots of unhappiness to buy happiness.

I think that is true. That said, I’m not ready to abandon my life goals yet.

When I first left grad school, I thought personal development was bullshit and snake oil. After reading a few of the better authors, though, I realized that most personal development offers very sensible advice. They don’t hide the work that goes into achieving great things.

Yet personal development is like personal finance or personal fitness tips. There are only so many things you can say. The basics are the basics.  People desire to be told a secret but the reality is that most success in life comes from action and a disciplined approach to improvement rather than searching the internet for another top 25 tips for ‘starting your novel’ post.

I’ve read dozens of these books now and hundreds of personal development blog posts.

Here are the four principles that I’ve found are common to most personal development. Follow them and you’ll see results in your career search.

Set big & small goals

Successful businesses and successful people relentlessly set and achieve goals. The secret though is have a big goal (such as getting a full time job in an industry you love) and then micro goals that you hit every week.

A few months ago I bought a few professional development courses that would really be good for my long-term career. They require about 10 hours of my weekend time. Yet, I still haven’t completed them. At the same time, I’ve spent way more time than that reading random blog posts in my industry, reading a few books, and working haphazardly on little tasks.

Goals are really magic. Like budgeting in personal finance or diet in personal fitness, they are were you will see 70% of your results.

Take Ron Bakir, founder of HomeCorp, a large urban development company. Bakir’s ambitious goal of being a millionaire by the age of 21 certainly helped propel him forwards but this successful Australian entrepreneur is also a firm believer of having a daily task list. In addition to this, tracking time, rolling over daily tasks and prioritizing work.

Another technique that I’ve learned from personal development books is never end the week without completing something. That is, you have to produce one or two finished objects every week. For example, this week it could be emailing 25 employers or reading one book in your industry, start to finish.

Lately, I’ve been very religious about this. For example, if I only have an hour to work on something I try to choose the task that I can finish completely. I’d rather completely finish one project every week than have five uncompleted things on the go.

The key, though, is to set small daily milestones to hit. If you don’t complete one by the end of the day, that task should be the very first thing you work on the next day.

Live with intent

I once heard an interview with the founder of a multi-million dollar company in the energy drink industry. He told the crowd that the one thing that had helped him out his entire life was a technique he learned from his grandfather, a famous scientist.

Once a month, he would take a few hours during the day, go somewhere quiet, and just think. No work. No laptop. No notebook. He would just think about his life, his goals, and his business. This time, he said, was directly responsible for many of his business ideas.

I recently read a post from the CEO of a large technology company who had a similar belief. He was criticizing an entrepreneurial friend of his for working 14 hour days, 7 days a week. We tend to prize this behaviour as the hallmark of a true successful and disciplined person. But the CEO pointed out that you need the weekend to relax so that your mind can focus on the larger problems in your industry. It’s easy to do a lot of little things but to focus on what really counts and what really matters takes distance from our problem to see the solution.

We are all blind in some way to our lives. The minutiae pulls us away from the bigger picture. As my old Marxist professor used to say, “we never actually look in the mirror.” For example, when is that last time you sat down seriously and thought about the specific activities that make you feel happy and fulfilled as a person? Four years ago I did this, spending a few hours planning my life. It made a huge impact. Yet, I’ve slipped again and haven’t made the time to do so since.

Benjamin Franklin had it right

I don’t want to hate on the night-owls but I’ve found that most successful people start their day early. A few studies have shown that successful businesspeople such as company CEOs all make the most of their day by waking up at least before 6am. Many exercise in the morning to clear their head and get a fresh, positive start to their day. Others use the time for self-improvement, such as reading educational material and ‘plugging’ in to their industry in order to stay relevant. One personal development book I read recommended standing in the mirror “smiling” for 15 minutes. I tried that but it wasn’t for me.

My personal feeling is that if you start your workday late (for example, you start at 10:00 PM and work till 4:00 AM because you feel creative at that time) you aren’t working as much as it might feel. It feels like you just pulled an all-nighter and you are working really hard. Yesterday, though, to get a lot done I started working at 8:00 AM and finished at 10:00 PM. It’s really hard for a night-owl to put those type of hours consistently in unless they completely sleep during the day and work only at night.

The turtle really does win the race. Putting in 8-9 hours of work everyday will consistently beat out late night work sessions or sprints.

Success comes easy to me?

Finally, there is the snake-oil of positive emotion. I’m not into books like the Secret, selling the laws of attraction and all that.

But it would be a mistake to think that you don’t condition your mind to interpret the world in certain ways.

One constant of personal development books is that emotion and positive thinking determines success. You need to begin with your inner strength as that is what attracts external success.

But I think that the existentialists would agree. The world is of our making. You can see poverty as a dead-end. Or you can see it as the middle of an incredible story where you, despite all odds, climb out.

Chet Holmes, a famous sales consultant, advocates that when faced with a difficult task you repeat the phrase, “success comes easy to me.”

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I do try it from time to time. The difference is, of course, that you can’t expect emotional thinking alone to do the work for you.

But emotion frames our decision making. I’ve suffered from panic attacks and know that just because an emotion isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t have a big impact on your life and what you think you can do.

That said, don’t forget to do the work. Positive thinking is context and support for you to succeed. But in the end, it’s the work that really matters.

I think that if you if do these four things–set regular goals, live with intention, work with discipline and consistency, and surround yourself by positive environments–you’ll do alright and find success in your field.