So, you want to be successful. In a world of clamoring start-ups, tech disruption, and billion dollar innovations, you want to stand out from the rest.
Everyone wants the secret sauce. Businesses hire consultants to tease out their target market, massage their mission statement, and hone their strategy. Individuals break open monosyllabic books like Grit, Drive, and Flow that promise to reveal fundamental truths about what makes us tick.
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Many people think of success as one lucky break. It is the record deal, the viral video, or the clever commercial that flicked on the limelight. However, one event does not necessarily mean a breakthrough. Sustainable success is achieved through momentum; the building up of little victories.
While writing his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins and his research team interviewed large, successful companies to figure out what catalyzed their shift from good companies to great ones.
“In creating a good-to-great transformation, there’s no single defining action, no grand program, no single killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment; rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough and beyond.”
A flywheel is a huge, heavy wheel used in machinery to generate inertia. It takes a lot of energy to get it going, but once it starts spinning, it can’t be stopped. The flywheel can provide energy in the case of an electrical outage or while other gears get going.
How do businesses and individuals get their own flywheels spinning? How do we see our projects through to the end, to develop habits, build willpower, and generate enough power to sustain us into success?
The 6 Steps
People always start projects buzzing with energy. They face the flywheel with vigor, ready to crank. But it is heavy and the progress is incremental, barely noticeable, and hardly rewarding. Energy peters out, and another project looks like it might spin a little smoother.
Yet there are breakthroughs. Once they get the flywheel going, companies rocket to valuations of billions of dollars. Individuals strut across stages in front of audiences that hang onto every word. Through sweat and hardship, the flywheel seems to spin of its own accord.
There are six steps to consider while building the momentum you need to succeed.
1. Clear Goal
If you have a clear direction, you can look ahead to identify roadblocks in your way and opportunities ahead. You don’t have to know all the details. It is enough to have an idea of where you want to go in order to map out the path ahead.
2. Start Small
The way forward is not by a leap or a bound, but by a series of single steps. In Japanese, it’s called Kaizen, or “good change.” In software development, we call it Agile. Break apart monumental projects into little pieces that you can tackle in a short period of time.
If your goal is to become stronger, you might be tempted to set a goal like: “Do 30 extra pull-ups by the end of April.” Big goals like these are more likely to overwhelm than motivate. Rather than focus far in the future, concentrate on this week. Instead say, “Go to the gym three times by Friday.” Or, even better, “Go to the gym tomorrow.” Whether you are building an app or muscle mass, focus on what you can do short-term to make daily progress towards your goal.
3. Track Your Growth
Returning to the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins explains the progression of success as a chicken and an egg. The egg is unremarkable; people pass by without a second glance. Yet one day, it cracks open:
All of a sudden, the major magazines and newspapers jump on the story: “Stunning Turnaround at Egg!” and “The Chick Who Led the Breakthrough at Egg!” From the outside, the story always reads like an overnight sensation—as if the egg had suddenly and radically altered itself into a chicken.
If you were the chicken, you would recognize that growth was happening all along inside the egg. Hatching was just another step in a long development process. Remember that in a world of chickens, every idea, project, and goal has a necessary incubation stage. Others might find it unremarkable, dull, and not worth the effort, but the chicken knows that it takes continued growth to crack into success.
4. Make an ‘if-then’ Plan
Psychologists have found that people who anticipate complications are more likely to reach their goal. They call it “implementation intention” or preparing if-then statements to plan for future obstacles.
For example, imagine you were trying to reduce your alcohol consumption but also planning to go to a party. You might think to yourself, “If Jose asks me what I want to drink, then I will ask for a Sprite.” If you want to eat fewer sweets, you might think, “if I get a sugar-craving in the afternoon, then I will eat an apple.” With a plan in place, it’s much easier to follow through.
Make a plan for what you will do when something puts a wrench in your flywheel’s path.
5. Define Your Flywheel
Collins writes about how businesses define their own flywheel. Several big-name companies, including Amazon, Intel, and Vanguard, bought into the idea and diagrammed their flywheels. Here’s the end result for Vanguard:
Vanguard identified what they already did well, and figured out how each piece fed into the next.
Starting from the top: by offering low-cost mutual funds, they provide long term results, which builds loyalty, which encourages their clients to invest more, which grows Vanguard’s assets, which means Vanguard can take advantage of economies of scale, which in turn means they can offer lower-cost mutual funds. It comes full circle in a clear model of momentum. I am a huge fan of the Vanguard model, and use them for all of my investments, so I can say that the strong client loyalty piece is certainly true!
What are the components of your own flywheel? Start from the top with something that drives your personal success. My top priority is investing in my growth. Here is my flywheel:
By investing in myself by going to conferences, reading books, and studying in my free time, I put myself in a better position to find fulfilling work. Once I take on something fulfilling, I want to develop mastery in that area. When I’m more capable, I can be more independent. That confidence feeds positively into my relationships, which helps me to continue improving myself.
What are the aspects of your flywheel? What self-reinforcing behavior helps you to succeed in your own life?
6. Anticipate Hardship
Don’t be fooled if your progress seems to stall. Start-ups have a name for this– the valley of death. The funds collected during the initial investment are steadily depleted to develop the product, market, and finally launch. While the product garners interest, funds continue to drop. This creates the infamous valley.
Amazon is a prominent example of a company that fought through the valley. Amazon did not turn a profit for nine years after its founding, and even after that people doubted whether it could keep growing. In an article in NASDAQ from October 2013 titled, “Will Amazon Ever Make Money?” the author writes,
“I love the company and have been an Amazon Prime customer since 2007. But I’ve never bought the stock. And for one simple reason…
Amazon isn’t profitable. With few exceptions, the company has basically operated at break-even or turned a tiny profit.”
Now everyone wants to know the secret to their success, but back in the day, Amazon was pushing on a flywheel that felt like it would never turn on its own.
In our own lives, the goal may be a shiny success story on the horizon– but we have to walk through the valley of death to get there. There will be times where we feel like giving up. We won’t see a return on our self-investments until much later. Every success story faces hardships– different versions of the valley of death– but we can find a way to power through the threat of defeat.
Success starts with small steps. When you are working hard, sweating and straining to push your flywheel forward, it may feel like nothing is working. To the outside, you may look like an unremarkable egg.
In order to build momentum:
- Start by identifying a clear goal
- Break it into small pieces
- Track your progress
- Plan for obstacles
- Identify your flywheel
- Accept that there will be hardships
Keep pushing, and inch by inch, little by little, you will feel something budge. The secret to success is momentum, and now you have the steps to build it. So what are you waiting for? Get cracking!
What has helped you build momentum in the past? What does your flywheel look like? Share your thoughts in the comments below!