There’s an old fable about what it takes to actually realize success–one worthy of knowing, especially in these increasingly uncertain times. It’s known as the fable of the buried treasure, and it’s a brilliant lesson in why taking action is better than wishing for a reward to land in your lap.
The buried treasure fable has a few different versions out there, but the one I’ve heard goes like this: A grandfather is worried about his grandson who, while smart, usually seeks the easy path. The boy spends his days dreaming of success arriving by magic or miracle, until one day his grandfather lets slip that there’s a fortune in gold buried in a hardscrabble field near the grandfather’s house. Where it might be buried is hard to gauge. The field is strewn with debris and long uncared for by anyone. But the promise of gold causes the boy to set about clearing it.
After the grandson clears it, and with no immediate sign of treasure, his grandfather suggests the boy take a further step and plow the field to see what might turn up. When the field is fully plowed, there’s still no treasure. But there is now purpose, commitment, and a different kind of hunger.
“Dig carefully placed holes,” the grandfather suggests. So the boy does, in long straight rows covering the entire field–to be sure not to miss anything. The promised treasure remains elusive. But with the field transformed, the grandfather suggests, and his grandson agrees, to plant seeds in the holes. To ensure that his efforts aren’t for naught, the boy waters the seeds, fences in the field to keep out people and livestock, and in the end the field grows a bountiful crop. Then on the day he harvests, a man comes by and offers to buy the crop, with a bag of gold.
“See,” says his grandfather, “there was gold under that old field after all.”
It’s a simple tale, but an important one. There’s no such thing as a lightning-strike moment when all that we seek–as founders, leaders, and people–just suddenly appears. Hard work is the necessary ingredient of success. So too is constant recalibration along the way, to take in the change around us, and to be sure we stay on course and on purpose. But even those willing to put in the time and effort can be undone by a simpler, more sinister factor guaranteed to keep us from success: Failing to get going.
In good times, many simply wait for success to arrive. In an uncertain environment, our tendency is to slow down and be cautious about any moves forward, sometimes overly so.
It’s an understandable instinct, but we overplay it. Research shows that while recklessness is never a good thing, experimenting and innovating, and simply taking action is the far superior means of seeing a way to advance. A six-year study by Harvard Business Review found that it was the teams that made moves and took calculated chances that performed best, seeing 10 percent greater market share on average and 22 percent better performance than their inactive, fearful (or wishful) competitors.
The moves these adaptive, resilient leaders made were thoughtful, strategic, and considered–not rash. Indeed, these teams were proactive on every level; they were cultures of proactive leadership, not simply individually bold leaders. And it made all the difference. “An organization’s ability to look outward and upward,” the researchers concluded, “as well as downward and inward, is a well-documented success factor and one that takes on even greater importance given the pace with which our world is changing.”
How you move forward is ultimately unique to the person and the company. But standing still isn’t going to reveal the gold. Somewhere, likely right in front of you, there’s a field that needs clearing.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.