Great success doesn’t happen in a safe zone. None of my heroes—from Jack Welch to Dave Tate—could have ever achieved their outcomes by being risk averse and not pushing themselves far beyond their own comfort levels. They weren’t handicapped by anxiety, nor did they perseverate on the potential consequences of failure. Despite what the critics, haters, naysayers, or even the markets had to say about their decisions, they laid out their vision and followed it, falling back on their sheer determination and rigor to arrive at their destination.

I am in awe of these individuals and the stories of their accomplishments. From Southwest’s change agent, Herb Kelleher, to Vincent Dizenzo’s journey from a catastrophic back injury to becoming one of the best bench pressers in the world, I draw tremendous inspiration from these people and can’t get enough of their stories. However, I do have to remind myself that the story is generally being told after the intense struggles have been overcome. We read about what they went through, already knowing how the story ends. It is hard to fully grasp how our heroes felt in the moments of uncertainty, when their lives and careers were on the line, not knowing how tomorrow was going to look and asking themselves if their goals were truly worth the price they were paying. Would we as observers, watching them in their darkest moments, acknowledge that their experiences would one day lead them to success, or would we label them as reckless, out of balance, or even self-destructive? The road to success is not neat and tidy. There are consequences to the relentless pursuit of excellence and there are always casualties along the way.

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We hear about the success stories, but what makes them special is that they are the exception. According to Forbes magazine, eight out of 10 businesses fail, and that is generally within the first year. Only an estimated 1.6% of NCAA football players ever walk out of an NFL tunnel. 250 recruits out of 40,000 become Navy SEALs. I have a hard time believing that luck is the deciding factor. It can play a small part, but the only people who truly succeed by accident are lottery winners. That said, anyone who claims that bad luck caused their failures probably wasn’t going to succeed, to begin with. So, if luck isn’t the reason, what is?

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There are several things to consider:

Incessant Work

People who win big do not work 40-hour workweeks, regardless of if their goal is professional, academic, or athletic. They measure their productive time in waking hours, not in portions of their day (i.e., 9:00 to 5:00). They also are willing to move across country to live in environments that will challenge and grow them. The worst title a driven person can be given is "the big fish in a small pond.” They will forsake relationships, sleep, social events, video games, and anything else that distracts. If they have to rest or go on a vacation, it is part of a plan to increase their work capacity.

Risk Acceptance

Achievement obsessed people take risks—sometimes insane risks—as they work towards their goals. The innovative software engineer will leave his job to start up his own company in the garage of his house. The world-class powerlifter will disregard his or her own safety and get under barbells that you don’t walk away from if you miss. This edginess can both win you fans and create detractors, as you are labeled reckless and self-destructive. However, no matter the lectures and warning labels, they continue to push their lives into the red, at times either not heeding the long-term consequences of their actions or simply accepting them as necessary sacrifices.


The cognitive bandwidth of these exceptionally successful individuals is immense and they are deeply committed to learning as much as they can to perfect their craft. Books, seminars, camps, consultants, coaches — all things that they consume in order to make their goals possible. They make certain that they meet the right people and ask question after question until their competency turns into mastery. Most importantly, they take themselves seriously enough to know that they will never be able to accomplish their goals on natural talent alone.

Failure as Motivation

Setbacks such as injuries, market changes, and natural disasters do little to slow them down. In fact, these serve as motivation to push even harder and smarter. There are many examples of this, from Michael Jordan’s narrative regarding being cut from the varsity team his sophomore year of high school, to Steve Jobs’ exodus from Apple in 1984 only to rejoin them years later and lead them to unprecedented market dominance. Mistakes, setbacks, and disasters, when experienced by the driven person, can pave the way to even more innovation and achievement.

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I am fully aware of the fact that this list is not, by any means, rocket science. However, it is a reminder for me as much as it is for readers that success doesn’t happen by accident, and that the price that these remarkable people pay to obtain their successes is extremely high. It is foolish to look at the television screen on a Sunday afternoon and exclaim, “If the coach had liked me, I would be playing in the NFL too.” It is ignorant to say that your ideas on how to run the company you work for are better than the CEO’s and if that you only got your chance, you could transform the organization into a winner. Winners create their chances and don’t wait on opportunities. They are relentless, ruthless, and focused.

If this is not you, then understand that this is perfectly fine. Provide for your family, enjoy your vacations, put work into perspective, and enjoy the blessings life gives to you. There is nothing wrong with selecting stability over the high return/high loss lifestyle that these individuals choose to live. However, delete the excuses from your life about why you aren’t up there with them. Make peace with the fact that you aren’t willing to sacrifice like they do, and admire them for who they are and what they have accomplished.