Never Too Late To Be Great | The Power of Thinking Long | Tom Butler-Bowdon | Book Summary



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Never Too Late To Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long by Tom Butler-Bowdon

Never Too Late to be Great is about the power of thinking long. Exposing the myth of ‘overnight’ success, author and motivational speaker Tom Butler-Bowdon shows us that contrary to popular belief, people, companies, products and ideas invariably need a long time to realise their potential.

Highlighting the importance of the ‘ten-year rule’ as referred to in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which suggests that significant achievements rarely happen without a decade of intense work and practice in any given area, Never Too Late to be Great offers inspiration for the impatient or disheartened to stay the course, and gives reassurance to us all that we have more time than we think to achieve our goals.


Being an achiever was more a matter of decision. The hard part was allowing yourself the belief that you would be successful. Then, all that was needed was a certain amount of application and focus.

How little attention was given to the role of time in the progress of an individual. On the one hand, this was almost too obvious: of course significant achievement takes many years. And yet, none of the books Tom read dared mention it; all were promoting a short route to success.

The vast majority of successful people Tom had profiled had taken years to achieve what they did. None had been overnight successes. What if, Tom wondered, ‘slow-cooked’ success was not only the norm, but the only path to genuine achievement?

‘Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.’

Tom had been led to believe that time was the enemy, a force battled against to achieve our goals. Now, Tom began to wonder if this enemy, if we got to know it better, could become a friend.

Major goals can and are often realized by anyone, as long as they are cast within appropriate timeframes.

Yet inspiration itself had been no substitute for effort. It was not motivational talks that had got me to sit down and write the books, but the bare pressure of deadlines. Tom discovered that large projects, when broken up into smaller pieces, and spread over time, became quite doable.

A revolution is needed in personal development. Instead of blinding people with visions of glory that can supposedly be realized in a year or two, surely it is ultimately more productive to accept the pivotal role of time in accomplishing our goals. This does not have to mean reducing the level of our ambition, but imply adjusting the timescales in which we should expect to achieve things.

Yet by taking a longer view of things, it is possible to shape life to a greater degree than you think. And crucially, with most of us living longer now, it is rarely too late to begin on a remarkable path.



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The good news is that you have much more time than you think to achieve your goals.

Tom believes that your success is more likely to occur the moment you stop looking for ‘great moments’ of motivation and instead give yourself the time to bring real things into being.

This book rests on two simple observations:

All great accomplishment may take longer than first imagined; and yet….

In the age we live in, it’s rarely too late to being something great.

We’ve all heard about the magic of thinking big, but perhaps it is the power of thinking long that can lift us above the pack.

Tom’s experience is that it is rarely the size of a person’s goals that is the issue, but the timeframes they give themselves to achieve them.

This book aims to once and for all destroy the myth of overnight success, and show why the ‘slow-cooked’ way is the norm, not the exception.

The universe is filled with examples which suggest that all good things take time. No person is ever born successful, nor do great companies, products or movements rise overnight. Yet in our fast-moving age, we begrudge the role of time and are embarrassed by the time it takes to do worthwhile things.

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘I don’t develop: I am.’ He meant that everything he created already existed in some form; he just needed the time in which to pour them out. Appreciating life, the Picasso way, we don’t become something; we are it already and simply need a few years to properly allow it to be expressed.


Chapter One: Warming Up – Why what you’ve done so far may just have set the scene

‘No matter how great the talent or effort, somethings just take time: you can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.’ – Warren Buffett

The modern world sees time as a commodity in short supply, or an enemy to be conquered, but Warren Buffett became history’s greatest investor through seeing time as a friend. Having picked a company to invest in, he lets time reveal its true value, often holding on to a stake for decades. In a field where everyone wants good returns quickly, the Sage of Omaha’s success comes from an opposite approach: make one good decision initially, then let time do the rest of the work.

Things of value often come into being too slowly for us to notice, working on timescales beyond normal apprehension. Just as the human eye and brain cannot ‘see’ plants growing in real time, but only notice growth in hindsight, so we often cannot appreciate the progress we have made.

You may be used to thinking of outcomes in terms of days, weeks or months, but real results usually take longer.

An Italian proverb goes: Che va piano, va longano, e va lontano.

Who goes slowly, goes long and far.

The point at which we think we are ‘finished’ can actually mark the beginning of our rise.

Modern life is set up to reward the ego, but in only ever thinking what is always best for us, our lives will be severely limited. In raising our minds to what can benefit many people beyond ourselves, it is much more likely that our potential will be realized.

‘Influence lasts longer in proportion to the lateness of its beginning.’

Richard Koch is rare in the self-development and business field for taking time itself seriously. He notes:….in thinking about time as a separate dimension of our lives, we rapidly slide into the view that time is finite and short, that it is in some sense our enemy, or at least a commodity in extremely short supply. Yet time is none of these things. Time is a dimension of our life and experience. Time is an integral part of what we do and who we are.’

The simple act of thinking in terms of years and decades will mean that quality is invested in whatever it is we are offering the world. For anything that has had years of love poured into it is by nature more valuable than what is churned out with stress and hurry.

You do not have to race against time, because everything is unfolding as it should. The best is still ahead of you, and whatever you have done so far in life, chances are you have just been warming up.


Chapter Two: Life Isn’t Short

How increasing longevity is giving us multiple chances to succeed

Just over a century ago, a boy born in America could have expected to live, on average, to 46. A girl born in the same year, 1900, might have reached the grand old age of 48. Yet by 1950, a dramatic rise in life expectancy, due mainly to better nutrition and improved detection and treatment of disease, meant that an American baby boy would probably make it to 65, and a girl to 71. By 2000, this had gone up to 74 for males, and almost 80 for females.

The new (time) rich

Life may sometimes feel short at a philosophical level, and there is always the chance we may die young. But for most people in well-off countries today, life is not, as the 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously put it, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Compared to our ancestors, we are awash with time.


The formula for success today is to combine the magic of thinking big with the power of thinking long.

Chapter Three: The Long View – A simple way to join the elite

In 1970, Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield published The Unheavenly City. It was ostensibly about urban planning and the failure of many of America’s inner cities during a time of social upheaval

Banfield came up with a different, surprising explanation, which he called long time perspective. ‘Lower class’ people are that way because of an extreme ‘present-orientation,’ he argued. Their unwillingness to look into and provide for the future leads to lack of skill development, lower employment and income, and an inability to provide for the future. In contrast, the further you moved up the social scale, the more future-orientated people were, and the more likely they were to delay gratification in the present in the aid of some future goal. What separated the well-off in society (in every sense) from the poor was their appreciation of time. ‘Class’ was not simply a matter of material wealth, education or social status, but a set of values and attitudes relating to time which were being transmitted from one generation to the next.

Our perception of time is a critical part of success in life.

If you decide that the choices you are making today do not gear you up for a long-term successful future, you may decide to change them. You may decide it is not a waste of time to go back to university, train for a new career or start building up a savings account. You might be more willing to leave the job you hate and take a more risky employment path which, over the long run, will deliver you real satisfaction and/or material gain. In short, your long-term success depends on something quite intangible – how you perceive time.



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The long view of your career

While engaged in an in-depth study of a metal manufacturing company in England, Canadian psychologist Eilliott Jacques was once asked by an employee why lower-level workers were paid by the hour, whereas senior management received a monthly salary. The question, he recalled later, was ‘the greatest gift I ever got.’ It led him to a theory of hierarchy based on the fact that people are paid according to the timeframes in which they are expected to perform. For instance, a salesperson who must meet a weekly or monthly target is awarded much less than a department boss focused on one-to two-year goals, while the head of the company, who has to chart its direction ten to 20 years into the future, will be paid much more again.

Note that a person’s working time horizon could change during their career. By choosing to see further ahead and aligning their work with the organization’s long-term goals, they could leapfrog others and rise to senior levels. For Jacques, this ability to see ahead was the missing link in understanding success at work.

Jeff Bezos was asked to give career advice, his response echoed Banfield and Jacques: have a different sense of time to your peers:

‘Always take a long-term point of view. I think this is something about which there’s a lot of controversy. A lot of people – and I’m just not one of them – believe that you should live for the now. I think what you do is think about the great expanse of time ahead of you and try to make sure that you’re planning for that in a way that’s going to leave you ultimately satisfied.’

‘regret minimization framework,’ which involved casting himself into the future, aged 80, and looking back over his life. As an 80-year-old, would he regret taking the leap and starting the online business, even if it failed? The answer was a clear ‘no’. What he would regret was not having thrown himself into the internet, which he knew was going to be really big. Bezos recalls:

‘You know, I left this Wall Street firm in the middle of the year. When you do that, you walk away from your annual bonus. That’s the kind of thing that in the short term can confuse you, but if you think about the long term then you can really make good life decisions that you won’t regret later.’

If you adopt the Bezos framework, how would it change what you do? Chances are, it would shift your decision making from a base of fear to an outlook of making the best possible use of your interests and talents.

The career coach Brendon Burchard likes to ask three questions of people considering what to do next in life. The questions are not about the practical next step, but in fact philosophical prompts, things you will want to ask yourself at the end of your life: did I live; did I love; did I matter?

It is time and experience that in the end make us who we are.

Churchill’s failure at 40 was the foundation of his success.

At 60, but at the time, of course, it did not seem this way. It was only the older Winston, with greater moral courage, policy knowledge and standing among his peers, who was able to put up the fight to Hitler and save Europe from tyranny.

Henry Ford did not launch the motor company we know today until he was 40, and he’d had a long apprenticeship as a mechanic, inventor and failed businessman prior to his company’s success. Yet he felt his achievements could not have come any earlier. ‘I would like to communicate to others,’ he told his pastor Samuel Marquis, ‘the calmness that the long view of life gives to us.’ Once he had this ‘long view,’ Ford felt he could relax into his lifetime’s work.

Though few of us seem able to take the long view as a conscious strategy, it has many benefits, not least (as Henry Ford noted) a sense of calm that allows us to focus on the work at hand. A longer time horizon allows you to take in your stride the lead times that inevitably pass before you can make a mark, and to put obstacles into context. You are not thrown off track as much as someone with a short-term view, and instead of a wish, your success takes on an air of relaxed inevitability.

Yet the long view takes courage.

We all want to get on quickly, but the ‘get successful quick’ schemes of our minds more often sabotage our chances at real achievement. Instead, try taking a long view of your career. You may find that it saves you heartache and disappointment, because if there is some setback, you will be able to pick yourself up quicker and focus on the opportunities at hand.

The long view in business

Great companies become great by their habit of looking further ahead than others.

They must operate in the present, obviously, but their long-term view makes them a safer bet as an investment over several decades.

As Banfield noted, people with a long-time horizon tend to be more confident because they feel in control of their destiny.

With a clear, long-range view of what you do and what you are about, decisions in the short term become easier because you know whether something does or does not fit into your vision.

One goes nowhere without a keen appreciation of time and timing. People come in and out of fashion too, he knew, so the intelligent had to be willing to hold tight, waiting again for their opportunity.

If things aren’t happening for you now, despite the work you have done….wait – things will usually swing back your way again.

Take the long view of your life, career or business, and much worry and angst is removed from the equation. You may be no better than someone else at what you do at the outset, but if you let time and experience play its part, and have a willingness to build these into the ‘product’ that you offer the world (whether this is a thing, a service, or you yourself), you will set yourself apart from your peers.


Chapter Four:  Lead Time – It’s the ‘time in between’ that matters

As the French philosopher Montesquieu said: ‘Success in most things depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.’

Give me a decade and see what I can do

Samuel Smiles remarked that people: Everyone has a kernel of talent, and with enough discipline and application it could become something very substantial.

‘Facility will come with labour,’ he observed.

Orison Swett Marden, said: ‘The slow penny is surer than the quick dollar. The slow trotter will out-travel the fleet racer. Genius darts, flutters, and tires; but perseverance wears and wins…..The last blow drives home the nail.’

Voltaire remarked that there was a very fine line that separates the person of ‘genius’ from the ordinary man. ‘Work’, he said, ‘banishes those three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty.’

Buffon, the 19th-century naturalist, simply said: ‘Genius is patience.’

In 1990, John Hayes of Carnegie Mellon University made a study into the age at which the great composers produced their masterworks. He found that hardly any of their great works were produced in the first ten years of their career. Out of 500 works analysed, there were only three exceptions: from Satie, Shostakovich and Paganini, produced in years eight, nine and nine respectively. ‘Averaged over the group,’ Hayes reported, ‘the pattern of career productivity involved an initial ten-year period of silence, a rapid increase in productivity from year ten to year 25, a period of stable productivity from year 25 to about year 45 and then a gradual decline.’

Whatever the age a person produced their first great work, or became publicly known, it was preceded by ‘ten years of silence,’ a time of relative obscurity that allow the refinement of skills to an acute point.

Thomas Edison famously said, ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.’ Less often recorded is the rest of Edison’s statement: ‘Accordingly, a “genius” is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.’

Yet Anders Ericsson, a world expert on expertise itself, notes that practice as we normally think of it is not enough to get you to the top of your field – it must be deliberate practice, involving constant work to be slightly better every day in very specific skills, using feedback and measured against pre-set benchmarks.

The laws of lead time and success are never broken.

‘I don’t know of any time when there are not great possibilities’

Jack Dorsey, one of the co-inventors and founders of Twitter. Dorsey was 30 when Twitter actually launched, but this is what he had to say about the journey that got him there:

‘Although it may seem so, simple technologies like this don’t happen overnight. What looks like a story of one to three years actually has a shadow of over 15 years of work, dumb mistakes, false starts, late-night frenetic insight, and patient distillation.’

An overnight success that took 15 years? Again, even in the computer world the laws of time and success hold true.

Watch, wait and learn, and success can come in surprising ways. Finally, you don’t need to have a neat, linear career.

Done other things

Life experience and the slow development of character count for something

The passing of time has a way of revealing truth. It lifts up to recognition those who stick to their guns, even when they face lack of recognition or opposition. It also puts in their proper place people who once seemed invincible and ubiquitous, and whose true merits can now be properly judged.

It is never enough to be excellent or even extraordinary in terms of talents, technical skills or ability to motivate and command people. For a person to reach his or her potential, there must be a certain amount of self-reflection and willingness to correct character flaws or rackets. Self-reflection may not be compatible with the go-getting nature of fast success, but it is compatible with real, slow cooked success.

Early success

It makes a splash, but do we ever know what is really there until the water settles?

A ‘hit’ when young can make it seem one is set up for life, but in the creative field nothing is further from the truth.

‘Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast,’ Shakespeare said. Early success can be dangerous, setting up an expectation that, if not soon fulfilled, can lead creative types to self-destruction.

Being raised to a height when young can be both a blessing and a curse. An early success or award is simply a message that says ‘You are good, given how young you are.’ But that quality then takes many years to be properly realized – and this is as it should be

It is no bad thing to earn recognition over time; when it does come, we are better able to handle it, enjoy it and maintain it.

First, do the old things well

We get creative when we master a domain

People rarely become truly creative in their field until they have first assimilated all its rules and passed all its tests – a process which takes at least a decade.

Truly creative people work for its own sake (every day they get into what Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of ‘flow’ in which time seems to stand still while they are absorbed in their work) and if they make a public discovery or become famous, that is a bonus. What drives them is the desire to find or create order where there was none before.

In short, to do new things, you first have to have done the old things well. And this can’t be done in a few weeks or months.

Louis Pasteur noted: ‘…..chance favours only the prepared mind.’

Final thoughts

‘Overnight success’ is usually just the rest of the world’s perception catching on to something that has, in fact, had long germination and suddenly bursts forth. While gestation time for anything good is nearly always long, the actual expression of a successful idea can happen relatively quickly, usually when a sudden new clarity of purpose is found.

While it can be hard to accept the law of lead time – or the period between having an idea of something, and its actual fulfilment – awareness of it allows us to focus on our goals instead of bemoaning how long it takes to reach them. From first being perceived as an obstacle, we can begin to see lead time in its true light: as the friend of success. And the good news is that, across a longish lifespan, most of us are given not just a second chance, but possibly a third or even a fourth to succeed at what we really want to do.

Success may only look or feel like success with hindsight. At the time, there is rarely much glamour. The mistake most people make is to see a fully formed success and compare themselves to it. Instead, we should be comparing ourselves to how that person was before they were successful.

A rule of life is that we never seem to progress until we have first fully lived out the possibilities in the situation we are in now.

It’s natural to seek shortcuts and dream of overnight success, but these are like basing a strategy for wealth creation on buying lottery tickets.

Soldier Xavier De Maistre said: ‘To know how to wait is the great secret of success.’

As the hotelier J W Marriott put it, ‘success can be boring.’ Slow-cooked success recognizes the 99 per cent of time that you have to be at your desk, in your studio, on the factory floor, dealing with your staff – the ‘drudge work’ that you must do to achieve something marvelous.

Earl Nightingale said: ‘Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.’ The seed of the creativity flower may lie in each of us, but it grows best in the mud of work.

Stephen King once said: ‘Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.’

David Foster Wallace wrote in The Pale King: ‘True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.’

A woman once came up to a particularly virtuoso musician after a performance, and breathlessly announced. ‘I would give half my life to play as you have done tonight.’ The musician replied, ‘Madam, that is exactly what I have given.’

‘Those who look into practical life,’ Orison Swett Marden noted, ‘will find that fortune is usually on the side of the industrious, as the winds and waves are on the side of the best navigators.’

Isaac Newton, everyone knows, was a ‘genius.’ Yet when Newton was asked how he came to solve some of the great problems that had perplexed others, he simply said: ‘I thought about them a lot.’

The modernizing preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote: ‘No steam or gas drives anything until it is confined. No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined.’



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Chapter Five: The 40 Factor

Why many people never do anything remarkable until their fifth decade

In her book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, Gail Sheehy described our thirties as the ‘deadline decade,’ in which we suddenly realize we will not live forever. Having lived through the ‘anything is possible’ twenties, we begin to wonder whether we do, in fact, have all the answers. Not only are we forced to identify priorities and narrow focus, but demand authenticity of ourselves. Until well into their thirties a person can exist on the ‘spin’ of what they present to the world, but close to 40, the truth inevitably emerges. In the process, they become a powerful person. Shedding personal illusions about life may be painful, but it can also unleash tremendous energies.

Second life metamorphoses

The explosion of purpose and resulting success that happens to many around 40 is frequently the product of years of close attention to a problem (artistic, social or scientific), and many thousands of hours’ work trying to solve that problem. Sometimes, however, a person is hardly even aware they have been mulling over something until an answer appears.

Fortune often requires us to try one more time before she opens to us her heart, connections and coffers.

Yet in his book Focus, Al Ries provides a rather counterintuitive tip for becoming a remarkable person:

‘What you need to do is to study what leaders did before they became leaders, not what they did after they became leaders.’

Never get too discouraged by the apparent gap between what you believe you are capable of and what it seems you are now. Don’t ever be afraid to entertain thoughts of yourself doing something or being someone of real impact.

Part of the work of achievement is arriving at strong self-belief. But more importantly, give yourself the time to do the thing or become the person.

Ultimately all great artistic advances must involve courage.

The classic combination, so common to the ‘slow-cooked success’, of hard work combined with experimentation.

Life begins at 40


Chapter Six: Mid-Century Magic – ‘Now for my next half-century’

Many oak trees wait 50 years before, in a burst of creative power, they produce their first crop of hundreds of acorns. It’s the same for many people: nothing major happens for several decades, and then it all happens. We use the phrases ‘late starters’ and ‘late bloomers’ as if there was some problem or delay in a person’s flourishing, but surely this is a tautology. The point of ripening is that it happens when it does, and not before.

With many people now living in reasonable health until their nineties, it is no longer ridiculous for a person to say to themselves, on turning 50, ‘Now for my next half-century.’

We never know when a calling may be revealed

Ten years can bring us to mastery in a particular domain, but in some ways this is just a minimum – many people do not really make strides until they are closer to 20 years into a career.

No greatness without foundations

In their spare time – Hours here and there can add up to something great

Though it might be supposed that you have to do to university and know the right people to make a mark in the world of ideas, perhaps the cliché is true that there is no better teacher than the ‘university of life.’

Dan Brown wrote this piece of advice to students at his old university, a few years before The Da Vinci Code:

‘Follow your dreams and do what you want to do. Be creative. Do something you can be proud of. The key to happiness is doing what you want to do every day.’

If something is worth being created, nature has a way of making sure it is – but according to its timescale, not our own.

Motivational gurus are fond of telling us that ‘Persistence always pays,’ yet in the artistic world there are no certainties as to how, or if, one’s work will be recognized. What is certain is that for those who do ‘break through,’ along the way they find no shortcuts.

The flame that we hold for some particular outcome may be small, but seemingly against reason we keep it alight. And so we should.


Chapter Seven: The 30- Year Goldmine – How many, usually without intention, save their best for last

Average life expectancy in rich countries is in the early eighties. But that is only the average. Once you enter your sixties you may well have another 30 years of productive life before you. You can take out a new ‘lease’ on your life, extracting raw material from the rich mine of your experience to create things that are remarkable and unique.

It was never too late to become the person you truly are, and to have that truth recognized.

You’re building yourself up on your former selves.

Samuel Ullman put it in his famous poem:

‘Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind…..Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.’

Picasso’s statement, ‘I don’t develop; I am.’



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Chapter Eight: The Beauty of People – How background shapes us, but only to a certain point

Hannah Arendt wrote: ‘It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before….The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.’

Being born is a miracle in itself, but the real glory is in the way we confirm our identity through our words and deeds.

‘Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.’

Malcolm Gladwell concludes that,’….. success arises out of a steady accumulation of advantages’, the result of a lucky combination of family, culture, time and community.

Ray Kroc said ‘I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems.

Follow whatever you are mesmerized by, even if to others it seems superficial or a waste of time, because when properly developed, it can bring meaning, purpose and money into your life in degrees never imagined.

The nature of productive obsessions is that they come from nowhere. Despite often being the point on which a whole life can turn, they are a gift, a mystery which we can either dismiss or use.

‘Whenever you see a successful business,’ Peter Drucker once said, ‘someone made a courageous decision.’

Gladwell’s theory of success could never predict the achievements of people like Kroc for a very good reason.

People act unexpectedly. An interest or passion suddenly grabs them; they risk all to uncover a mystery or fulfil a potential. The odds of them taking a particular path might seem high, but they are only odds. Many people are mere products, never examining themselves or their reason for being. What undermines the environment-causing theory of success is that at certain points in a person’s life they can move beyond this. The hole in his theory is people themselves.

The older you get, the less you become a product of your upbringing or simple luck, and the more you become the result of your own previous decisions.

‘If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.’

Motivational speakers tell us to persevere, but success involves perseverance combined with experimentation; if something doesn’t work, try something else. Agility of mind means you will find a way forward, and it is a way likely to be perfectly suited to you. The only way you will become a ‘result’ is if you see yourself that way.

Schultz said ‘Life is a series of near misses. But a lot of what we ascribe to luck is not luck at all. It’s seizing the day and accepting responsibility for your future. It’s seeing what other people don’t see, and pursuing that vision, no matter who tells you not to.’

Doing what seems obvious to you is a vitally important point in the success equation, and the vision each had for these places seemed absolutely clear to them.

‘If it captures your imagination, it will captivate others.’

What is startlingly and obvious to you will, given time, seem obvious to others too. But you need to act on what you see.

The nature of success is that it is self-created.

The human capacity to surprise. History is more accurately a succession of moments in which individuals act in defiance of expectations.

The Gladwell view is that we are driven by our pasts, but as the positive psychologist Martin Seligman rightly put it, human beings are also ‘drawn by the future.’


Chapter Nine: Everything Big Begins Small – And often starts slowly

Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, wrote about the often unlikely journeys and successes of some of America’s best-known companies. After 20 years studying these firms, Collins observed:

‘No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembled relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel in one direction, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.’

‘Brand building is slow, patient, methodical work. It takes several decades, goes the old saying, to become an overnight success. Sure, there are some exceptions, which we call shooting stars….but these exceptions usually take place in industries that are exploding in growth, carrying the leading brands along with them. In the vast majority of cases a brand takes many years (or many decades) to successfully establish itself.’

‘Nothing is revolutionary; it’s evolutionary.’

Go slow to get big

The most important thing with any organizational ‘tree’ is the thickness and depth of the roots.

These may take a while to take hold, but once they do, growth is virtually assured, and in time he or she who planted the tree is amazed at its height, strength and productive output. By taking it slow at first, we can make sure that everything is in order. If it is, things will naturally speed up when the time is right. And let’s be reminded: more than any other time in history, we have the time to take this approach.

Tiny things, if nurtured and given time to grow their own way, can flower into something substantial. This seems obvious, but in our quest to do big things, we too easily forget the basic laws of growth.

An interviewer once asked Warren Buffett whether he expected to be so successful. ‘No,’ he replied. What, then, she asked, was his secret? The man who had created, and was now in the process of giving away his $50 billion fortune, replied in seven words: ‘One foot in front of the other.’

By starting small, you are obeying the immutable laws of growth and time. These laws can raise up a beautiful garden or a towering forest within your lifetime, and after you have gone, enrich the lives of those who come after you. The best use of a life,’ William James said, ‘is to create something that outlasts it.’ It is not too late for your life to have such an effect.


Things often take longer than we expect to achieve.

We are living longer, healthier lives.

Real achievement may be a longer, tougher road than we ever like to admit, and yet we have more time to travel that road than any time in history. You don’t have to ‘change your life in seven days,’ because you have decades to do it.

Most people’s mental images of time are drawn from fear, but in seeing time as a help, not a hindrance, in a speed-obsessed world we give ourselves an unusual advantage. The motivational field does not like to talk about how long real achievement takes because it thinks people will be turned off. Yet by looking unflinchingly at the timescales of success, surely it has a greater chance of actually happening when our decisions and actions are grounded in truth, not mere wishes.


Let’s remind ourselves of what’s been observed in this book:

Factor in enough lead time, and virtually any big project, skill or enterprise is achievable. Take the long view of your life and work, and you will move to a place beyond your peers.

Be open to opportunity, remain curious, have a willingness to take intelligent risks, and follow whatever you are passionate about.

Do what seems obvious to you. If you see a need for something, chances are others do too. If the times are not right for your offering right now, wait; stay true to yourself and things will swing back your way.

Human beings, by nature, are never quite predictable, and every person represents a new beginning through which the world can be changed in some way. Never discount your ability to have an effect. The first 30, 40 or 50 years of your life may simply have created a platform that provides the skills, experience and wisdom on which to build something important.

Motivational speakers talk about persistence, but it is hard work combined with experimentation that leads to the breaks characterizing the lives of remarkable people.

Start modestly, give your idea or enterprise enough time to put down roots, and it will have enough time to build into something that lasts.

Thinking big can get you somewhere, but combine it with thinking long and you have a recipe for greatness.

Edward Banfield was right: by changing how you see time, you change your life, for the longer we are around on the planet, the less our original conditions matter, and the more our success is the result of our own decisions and use of the hours and days that we have.

In the 1930s, in the middle of a Depression, Napolean Hill told audiences that the ‘supreme secret’ of life was whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, he can achieve.

‘You can rest assured that if you devote your time and attention to the highest advantage of others, the Universe will support you, always and in the nick of time.’



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