During a podcast interview last month for my new book, Goliath Strikes Back, I was surprised to be asked for the two best pieces of advice I have ever received. Since I was not prepared for the question, I thought about it for a moment and tried to come up with advice that has helped me the most and could be valuable to many others.
Why would my advice be of any value? In a nutshell, over decades I stumbled my way to success in terms that matter to me. That’s because I feel in control of how I spend my time doing things at the intersection of three sets: I enjoy the activities; clients value my work; and they pay enough for me to achieve my financial goals.
Can you relate to all of the stumbling I did? Between my freshman year in college and the year I started my consulting firm, I learned about my strengths and weaknesses as well as my likes and dislikes. For example, I discovered that I could not excel at being a poet, concert pianist, or architect. What’s more, I learned it was not a fit for me to be a cog in a big company or to take orders from a boss with whom I did not agree.
I learned that I should work on things I enjoyed doing that clients thought I did well enough that they would be willing to pay. These included helping high-tech companies develop growth strategies, investing in fast-growing startups, teaching college and grad students, and writing books and columns. Success for me is the freedom to control how I do these things and the resulting rewards.
Two pieces of advice were particularly helpful in that journey.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
Nature is full of built-in failure — why should your path to success be any different? I recall walking through our neighborhood many years ago with my son. It was late October and the streets were full of acorns. I pointed out that only a tiny percentage of them would become oak trees — the rest would become squirrel food or decompose.
The same can be said for most of my efforts to find a buyer for what I am selling. Logically, the many failures should not be a reason not to try. However, I learned when I started selling advertising for my college newspaper that those rejections were emotionally painful.
Fortunately, I had enough success cold-calling and persuading local store owners to advertise that the pleasure of the few successes outweighed the pain of the many who hung up on me — or turned me down after I delivered my pitch. Simply put, if you want to achieve something, don’t let your fear of failure dissuade you from taking many chances.
How can you boost your odds that those chances will lead to success? You should pick the right potential customers and offer them an irresistible value proposition. If you started your own company, the right potential customers are people who have the same unmet need that prompted you to become an entrepreneur. You can win these potential customers by offering them more benefits for the money than do competing products.
2. Be honest about what you don’t know and can’t do well.
Growing up, I was told that I could do anything that I put my mind to. All the stumbling I mentioned earlier helped me realize that this statement was not true for me. It is probably not true for anyone.
That’s because everyone has weaknesses, and if they are lucky they also have strengths. Sadly, those strengths might not be strong enough compared with rivals who are competing for the same golden ring as you are.
Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to a voice inside that tells me when I am in a situation that requires strengths that I lack. Many entrepreneurs find themselves in that situation. Consider Steve Jobs. He was a visionary and a powerful leader — but he lacked the technical chops needed to turn his visions into a working product. For years, Steve Wozniak filled that role.
Simply put, most startups need a product person and a people person — virtually nobody is both. If you’re a people person, acknowledge that you can’t build the product well and partner with someone who can (and vice versa).
More generally, if you feel like you are in over your head — admit what you’re feeling and ask for help from someone who can fill the skill gap that the situation demands. Above all, if you don’t have the answer to a question, admit you don’t know and offer to find out.
These pieces of advice can help you achieve your version of success.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.