Outswimming the Sharks: Ambition, hard work, dedication . . .

The game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" is a suspenseful half-hour that offers contestants the opportunity to dramatically improve their financial picture. Answer a dozen or so questions correctly, with help on a few if necessary, and watch the bank account mushroom.

If it were that simple, anyone could become wealthy overnight. But it doesn't work that way. Achieving financial success isn't a game -- it's a way of life.

Some will object to the notion that making a lot of money is the same as achieving success. I understand that argument, and I agree that success comes in many ways apart from just a bigger payday.

But I will submit that most of us expect our financial situation to improve as we become ever more successful at what we do. There is no shame in being rewarded appropriately for our hard work. Ambition combined with our best efforts should have positive results.

As Oprah Winfrey so eloquently put it, "Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment." If anyone would know what it takes to be a self-made billionaire, Oprah is a reliable source.

Here are some secrets shared by self-made millionaires:

•Educate yourself about money. Even if you don't have your sights set on becoming the next Warren Buffett, a good understanding of finance will help you set priorities and make decisions about spending, investments and savings. Knowledge is power.

•Set some clear goals. You have to dream big if you want to succeed on a large scale. Don't be afraid of your ambitions. Start with a list of what you want to achieve this year, and then select the one goal that would have the greatest positive impact on your life, something you feel real passion for. Then get busy.

•Serve other people. Structure your goals so they're not just about you. You'll earn support from the people whose help you need by showing them how your achievements will benefit them -- and you'll feel better about yourself than you would if you concentrate only on what's in it for you.

•Learn to sell yourself. Whatever you create, you have to sell to someone else. You'll need to understand sales and marketing no matter what industry you're in. But at the same time, you have to sell others on your abilities. Be honest and reliable so employers, customers, investors or other important stakeholders know they can trust you to take care of them.

•Think of yourself as your own CEO. Whether you work for a boss or for yourself, view your career and success as your own. That means taking full responsibility for what happens to you -- your decisions, failures and triumphs. Put all your energy into your goals. Motivational guru Brian Tracy advises taking the "40-plus" approach: You work 40 hours a week for survival. Every minute you devote past that 40 hours is devoted to your success.

Consider the story of the couple who retired to a cottage with a lovely view of some rugged and rocky terrain. Early one morning, the wife watched from her window as a young man dressed in work clothes walked down the lane nearby. He was carrying a shovel and a small case. He disappeared from view behind a grove of trees.

The scene repeated itself daily for a week. Her curiosity got the best of her, and she persuaded her husband to follow him one morning to see what he was doing.

So the couple took a walk early the next day. Just beyond the trees, they found a long and deep trench, rough and uneven at one end but neat and straight at the other. The young man arrived during their inspection, and the couple peppered him with questions. "Why dig here, in this rocky ground? Why dig at all? And what is in that case?"

The young man smiled and explained, "I'm digging a trench. I'm actually learning how to dig a good trench, because the job I'm being interviewed for later today says that experience in doing that is essential -- so I'm getting the experience. And the case has my lunch in it."

There's no secret to success. It's just ambition plus hard work plus dedication.

Mackay's Moral: We do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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