Aligning The Tumblers — Why Success Is Like Safe-Cracking

Success never tasted so good
Image by ekai via Flickr

I think “success” — beyond the standard metrics of a particular SAT score or getting into the college or grad school of your choice, or winning the game — is much less linear than we like to think.

My theory? Like opening a safe, it takes a delicate touch and a combination of factors.

It probably won’t happen until the tumblers fall into place.

I think these include:

Physical health

Emotional health


A strong, supportive intimate relationship

Solid and nurturing friendships

Wise mentors

Professional networks you trust

A well-developed reputation

A life that includes regular, non-professional activities you adore

A clear idea of what it is you wish to accomplish, short, medium and long-term

An emergency fund of at least three to six months’ living expenses

Minimal debt




Selling skills

Asking for help

Saying yes before you’re ready

Let’s look at these:

Physical health is an overlooked key to success. Eat carefully, sleep 8+ hours a night, exercise 3+ times every week, drink moderately. I worked myself into a hospital bed with pneumonia after refusing to simply rest when I was ill and run-down in 2007. It took me a full month to regain my strength. Never again!

Emotional health. In the U.S., a nation that disdains weakness and stigmatizes mental illness, it’s easier to admit that you’re fighting arthritis (as I am) or cancer (as several friends are) than depression, or worse. But ignoring your mental health — even “only” anger or frustration — is unwise. You can’t give anyone your best when you’re anxious, distracted, sad, scared or unwilling to deal with these feelings.

Limit access to needy or abusive family.  If your family is filled with strife and conflict,  re-direct your energy and focus to succeed in the areas that matter most to you.

A supportive sweetie. Huge! I’m blessed to have a husband who understands my goals and my drive. It wasn’t always this smooth, but he’s learned that my definition of “success” is not a full-time job or benefits or an office or a title. If your partner is truly supportive, (picking up more of the household costs or taking more care of the kids or letting you go off on a fellowship elsewhere that will build your career), your trip to success has a booster rocket.

Good friends. None of us can make it alone. You need to know you’re loved and valued no matter where you are on the ladder you’re climbing, not just after you’ve reached the top.

Wise mentors. Find a few people you admire and respect who really understand your goal because they’ve achieved it. Check in with them on a regular basis.

Professional networks you trust. None of us will achieve success alone. We need to reality-check our ideas, hear helpful (if critical) feedback and gauge our readiness to go-to-market. Find and join a few networks of people who have already achieved some of your goals. I’ve learned a lot from my membership in the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

A terrific reputation. This takes time to create, which puts fresh grads at a relative disadvantage thanks to a short or non-existent track record. For people to trust you with their budget, reputations and networks, they have to know you’re reliable, ethical, consistent. The more you network, the wider your reputation — and success — will spread. This is where social media are your new best friend. Volunteer work can be hugely helpful in this respect.

Do things, often, that you adore. If all you do is focus on achieving your goal, odds are you’ll burn out before you get there. Spend even 20 to 30 minutes — every day — doing something totally unrelated to your goal for sheer joy. Pat your dog. Hug your kids. Paint a picture. Make banana bread. If you’re truly happy with the rest of your life, your quest for “success” can’t eat you alive along the way.

A clear idea of what it is you wish to accomplish: short, medium and long-term. It’s easy to give up if your goal looks terrifyingly huge. Break it into manageable pieces and get on with each of those. When I decided I wanted to write books, I started by attending a writer’s conference, where I learned what a book proposal is, why it’s necessary and how to write one. The more writers I got to know, the more I understood what it takes. Several introduced me to their agents. And so on…

An emergency fund of at least three to six months’ living expenses. In a recession, this isn’t easy. But if you’re stuck doing work you hate, you’ll never free yourself to achieve real success — which might mean changing industries, fields, careers, even countries or states. Reduce every possible overhead cost and save like a demon until you’ve bought your freedom. Many interesting projects demand some risk: of your time, energy, attention, resources. Until you’re also able to meet your financial commitments, you’ll never take those necessary risks.

Minimal debt. Ditto. You can’t run in any direction while shackled by the chains of debt.

Confidence. I think this is one of the most essential. We all know — or might be! — people who have the whole shebang except the stiffened spine, ready smile and, sometimes, the Kevlar soul success really requires. Pathetic but true, there are days I lack confidence, but I have a tough, smart agent — and she has confidence in me. Every time an editor or client works with me, they’re giving a vote of confidence in my abilities. With the bone-deep confidence you have the requisite goods, you’ll attract people who agree with you. Without it, you’re toast.

Presentation. Do you look and sound terrific? If not, time to up your game. Have a kind-but-stylish friend, male or female, carefully assess how you walk, talk, speak, groom, dress and shake hands. Every detail can cement, or ruin, a potentially fruitful relationship crucial to your success. Unflattering hair color, style or eyewear, unpolished or worn-heeled shoes, shirts with stains or frayed cuffs  — all send a lousy message about your ability to present yourself and your projects persuasively. Is your voice nasal or whispery? Do you say “um” and “uh” constantly?

Timing. How long do you wait to follow up with a potential job lead or mentoring opportunity? An hour? A day? A week? A month? I recently met someone who said they were eager to sell a story…I know two editors hungry for exactly that sort of tale and was willing to make that valuable introduction for him. He never followed up. A recent thank-you email from a “Malled” reader — which I answered within a day (as I always do with such emails), and not with some rote reply — netted me one of the best-paid gigs I’ve ever had when he recommended me as a conference speaker. Strike when the iron is hot!

Selling skills. So under-estimated! I took a part-time retail job, 2007 to 2009, selling for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall, the subject of my new memoir. I had always shriveled from selling myself and my skills. I just found it terribly hard, as many people do. After a few years of highly productive selling ($150 to $500+ of goods per hour), I realized this was madness. I could sell! Now I’m much more relaxed about approaching new clients and it seems to be paying off. No kidding — I think everyone, regardless of age or education, could benefit from a few months on a retail sales floor.

Asking for help. This was perhaps my toughest issue. I come from a family of boot-strappers who made clear that asking for their help, financial or otherwise, wasn’t an option. So it took me a while to realize the world is filled with people who are willing to help you, even in the smallest way, to achieve your goals. Sometimes you have to pay them: I’ve shelled out thousands of dollars to: attorneys, my accountant, my web designer, researchers and interns, a speaking coach and a career coach. Out-sourcing allowed me to stay focused on my goals, while they applied their specialized skills to problems that need solving — that I don’t know how to do. As a self-employed person, these costs are also a business deduction.

Saying yes before you’re ready. Men do this all the time, women not so much. I often accept gigs to which I’ll bring, maybe, 75% of what I already know — I’m a quick study and can (as many of us can) pick up the rest of what I need, or hire someone else to fill in those edges for me. (see above.) If you only aim for a home run each time, only trying for projects or gigs or efforts you’re sure you can do, you’re not aiming high enough. Keep hitting singles and doubles instead of waiting for that home run.

If success keeps eluding you, which tumbler has yet to fall into place?

6 thoughts on “Aligning The Tumblers — Why Success Is Like Safe-Cracking

  1. Lisa Wields Words

    I’m learning so much from you this week. Thank you for that. Please look for a separate e-mail from me.


  2. Thanks!

    I’m not sure how many readers will wade through this one — 1500 words! — but it finally occurred to me this week how many pieces to this puzzle there are. I think we tend to take some of them utterly for granted — health, a helpful spouse, supportive family — when in fact some of us (maybe many of us) are absolutely missing several of these tumblers, and spinning — literally — in terrible, miserable, isolated frustration.

    Until I took attending to my needy mother out of this equation (starting last May), I was losing a lot of necessary steam. My life (sad to say in this respect) now has never been better. It makes me wonder what might have happened differently had I done it years earlier…

    1. Lisa Wields Words

      But that is, perhaps, the hardest thing to let go of, the feeling of responsibility you have toward family regardless of your actual relationship with them. I’m still working on that one.

  3. I like the analogy! I’ve been parsing success on my blog for several months now! I’d like to add: taking steps to alleviate anxiety and focus on the present.

    If you’re interested, check out my blog.

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