Mackay: Make like a pencil and get the lead out

A young boy asked his mother what he should do in order to be a success when he grew up. The mother thought for a moment, and then told her son to bring her a pencil. Puzzled, the boy found a pencil and gave it to her.

“If you want to do good,” she said, “you have to be just like this pencil.”

“What does that mean?” her son asked.

“First,” she said, “you’ll be able to do a lot of things, but not on your own. You have to allow yourself to be held in someone’s hand.

“Second, you’ll have to go through a painful sharpening from time to time, but you’ll need it to become a better pencil.

“Third, you’ll be able to correct any mistakes you might make.

“Fourth, no matter what you look like on the outside, the most important part will always be what’s inside.

“And fifth,” the mother finished, “you have to press hard in order to make a mark.”

Great advice. His mother touched on five important topics — teamwork, being able to accept criticism, correcting mistakes, self-confidence and working hard. Let’s take them one at a time.

Teamwork. As I like to say, even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. You can’t do it all alone. My definition of teamwork is a collection of diverse individuals who respect each other and are committed to each other’s successes. Teamwork sometimes requires people to play roles that aren’t as glamorous as they’d like.

For example, I once asked a symphony conductor which instrument is the most difficult to play. Without missing a beat, the conductor replied: “Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists. But finding someone who can play second fiddle with enthusiasm is a real problem. When we have no second violin, we have no harmony.” And you just can’t be successful without harmony or teamwork.

Criticism. Giving and taking criticism is no easy task, but it is necessary if you want to become better. If you ignore the problem and hope it goes away, you are not going to improve. Every office I’ve ever worked in or done business with has been made better because of suggestions or criticisms of the people who spend their working hours there. Remember that the goal of honest criticism is to make you better than you were before.

Mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. What’s important is that you learn from them.

The greatest mistake a person can make is to be afraid to make one. In fact, you often need to increase your failures to become more successful. Mistakes don’t make you a failure. How you respond to a mistake determines just how smart you actually are. There are really no mistakes in life, there are only lessons.

Self-confidence. When I’m interviewing potential employees, one of the traits I look for is confidence. Confidence doesn’t come naturally to most people. Even the most successful people have struggled with it in their careers. The good news is that you can develop confidence, just like any muscle or character trait, if you’re willing to work at it. My advice: Track your success, practice being assertive, accept that failure is not the end of the world, step out of your comfort zone, set goals, keep improving your skills and, above all else, don’t compare yourself with others.

Work hard. Success comes before work only in the dictionary. Many people look for a magic formula to turn things around, but there is no magic formula. Sure, natural talent can make a big difference. But show me a natural .300 hitter in the major leagues, and I’ll show you someone who bangs the ball until their hands bleed, trying to keep that hitting stroke honed. It takes iron determination and lots of hard, hard work.

Mackay’s Moral: If you want to make your mark, sharpen your skills.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.

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