7 Big Things You Should Do Now

Excerpts from Rich Karlgaard’s 2014 NCU Commencement Address

Written by Rich Karlgaard

What does it take to be successful? And I mean, hugely successful.

Success, of course, is many things. For some it might be a big raise; for others, a jump in prestige. I think we all want to leverage our personal successes to give us greater influence. We all want to get big things done, to have lasting impact, to make the world a better place.

Let me share Seven Big Things I’ve learned in my position at Forbes. Now I’m a really lucky guy. I work for Forbes. When I want to learn something about success, I simply play the Forbes card. I call a successful person to ask why they are successful. Pretty neat, huh? Here are the Seven Big Things I’ve learned from these conversations.

# 1 - Get Healthy

Successful people brim with energy. Some are born that way. Others need to find it. So let me ask you. How’s your health? This isn’t a hard question. The United Nations uses a simple diagnostic tool called the triangle of health. It’s a simple, very easy-to-understand predictor of health.

The first side of the triangle is physical. We all know what that means. Invest in your physical health. Tolerate no excuses. Let nothing stand in the way. Eat smartly…Exercise…Get enough sleep. That’s really it. So simple you might miss it.

The second side is emotional. This one, let me tell you, is harder. Ask yourself. Do you have any mental baggage holding you back? If so, deal with it now. Don’t wait. Find a priest. Find a shrink. Find a support group. Do what it takes. Point I’m trying to make: There are dozens of ways we can sabotage ourselves. Confront these. Bring them out in the open. Deal with them.

The third side is social. Here’s a fact that might surprise you. Did you know that single men die about a decade earlier than married men? Now it turns out that the real culprit here isn’t the fact of being single. Rather, the culprit is isolation. Single men have a greater tendency to isolate themselves than single women. They drink more. They drive worse. They spend too much time trolling creepy websites.

Social health matters greatly. Cherish and nurture your key relationships … with your spouse, your partner, your family and your friends. And stay away from creepy websites.

#2 - Learn How to Invest, Not Consume

From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates, from Pastor Rick Warren, to rock singer Bono, successful people have an investment mindset. They look at each dollar of money or one minute of time, and think in terms of investing it, not consuming it. It’s remarkable how consistent is this investment mindset is among the very successful.

Bill and Melinda Gates are now the world’s largest philanthropists. They want, and expect, their billions to do something – to save children from malaria, to build cleaner water systems. The Gates’s are not about giving money away to make themselves feel better. That would be for psychic consumption. They’re too smart for that. Bill and Melinda Gates are about investing for return.

So when you buy a car, invest in no more or no less than you need to, in order to feel confident and productive. When you take a vacation, invest in experiences and memories that will refresh your spirit and nourish you years from now.

With every dollar, invest, don’t consume.

#3 - Learn How to Trust

Not everyone I’ve had the fortune of talking to in my Forbes job is famous. Let me tell you about a young man from San Antonio, Texas, named Roberto Espinosa. Roberto wanted to own his own business, too. So he moved to San Antonio and started a restaurant.

Restaurants are brutal businesses. But Roberto did it.

Then one day Roberto stepped on the platform of the service elevator at his restaurant. It was like stepping into air. The platform suddenly gave way. It plunged 30-feet to the basement and slammed onto concrete. Good news is that Roberto survived. Bad news: His road to recovery would be long and painful.

A frequent visitor to the hospital, after Roberto’s family, was a guy named Fernando Suarez. Fernando was an insurance salesman who had sold some disability insurance to Roberto. Thank God for that. The restaurant failed, and disability was the only income that Roberto had.

Fernando noticed that Roberto’s body was beginning to recover but that his spirit was in decline. So Fernando invited Roberto to try out as a rep at his insurance company, Northwestern Mutual. Roberto accepted.

But what does it mean, really, to accept a job selling insurance? These jobs pay only on commission. Is this a real career? Or is it a foolish gamble at a vulnerable point in one’s life?

“The first three years were very difficult,” admits Roberto. “I had trouble making the sales phone calls. My prospects sensed my lack of conviction. I was so discouraged that I cleaned out my desk three times.”

Then came a turning point that would the change Roberto’s career forever. “I was at a funeral for a client,” he says. “The deceased man’s eight-year-old daughter got up and said she missed her daddy. Then she said her family would be okay. I got tears hearing that from an eight-year-old girl. I suddenly knew that what I was doing was very important work.”

That day, Roberto’s conviction switch turned on. In a few short years he became Northwestern Mutual’s top recruiter of new reps in south central Texas. Roberto estimates his productivity increased roughly fivefold when he began to trust the noble mission of his career.

That is not a marginal gain. It is something far bigger. It is transformative. Trust, you see, is the magic ingredient of transformation.

#4 - Get Smart

In the 1970s, the best-known college basketball coach in the country was a guy named Bobby Knight. He coached Indiana University to an NCAA title in 1976. Knight was legendary for working his team hard, for his defensive brilliance, for his intensity, and for a fierce temper, often laced with profanity.

Bobby Knight was a royal pain in the butt to be around.

Nevertheless, while Knight ruled the roost at Indiana University, there was a young lady who used to come to basketball practice, every day, for four years. She would sit in the bleachers and watch how Bobby Knight ran his practices. She would take notes. She would suffer alongside the players whenever Knight lost his temper and threw chairs.

This young lady was persistent. Over the course of four years, she sat through every practice. She took so many notes that they eventually would fill three filing cabinets.

She’s still around. Her name is Tara VanDerveer.

Today Tara VanDerveer is the head women’s basketball coach at Stanford University. Tara’s been coaching Stanford for 30 years. She has a lifetime winning percentage of 84%. She’s won an NCAA title. In 1996, Tara coached the U.S. Women’s basketball team to a gold medal in the Olympics.

Tara will tell you that the reason for her huge and enduring success is that she has always sought out the smartest people and learned as much as she could from them.

When one of her Stanford teams was slow of foot, she asked the men’s track coach for help. The results were miraculous. After a failed season when her players got progressively weaker during the NCAA tournament, Tara sought help from nutritionists and sleep therapists at the Stanford hospital.

Tara, you see, is relentless about getting smarter.

Notice that the first step to getting smarter is to be humble. It’s admitting what you don’t know. The second step is finding someone who does know. The third step is asking for help - simple stuff. But it takes courage to do this. Tara has courage.

#5 - Be A Team Builder

Let me tell you about one of the most destructive myths in American life. It’s the myth of the lone hero. In truth, the only lone heroes you can find are in novels and movies - seriously. There aren’t too many lone heroes in real life.

Steve Jobs is the most celebrated entrepreneur of my generation. Oft portrayed as a lone hero, he was anything but that. He was a rebel - but not a lone hero.

Rather, Steve Jobs had a great underestimated gift and it was this. He knew how to build the teams he needed, exactly when he needed them. Jobs not only picked the right people at the right time throughout his short and productive life. He picked people that others had missed. Jobs inspired these nobodies to exceed themselves, to become superstars.

Steve Jobs’s first great partnership was with his boyhood friend, Steve Wozniak. Here’s the thing about Steve Wozniak. Nobody would have predicted greatness from him!

But Steve Jobs saw the potential in Woz and brought it out. When Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, Jobs saw the potential in Tim Cook, a master of complex global operations. Jobs also saw the potential of Jony Ive, a genius of product design.

Start building your team now. Find those people, like young Steve Wozniak, that others miss. Bring out their best. You will go far.

#6 - Cultivate Taste

What is it about an Apple iPad, a cup of coffee from Starbucks, a flight on Southwest Airlines, that makes us feel good about ourselves?

Steve Jobs used the word taste to describe such products. What he meant was a product that appealed to our emotions and our intellect at the same time. Such products are clean and simple and often are very beautiful. But beauty aside, there is an unmistakable deep intelligence that animates these kind of products. You can practically feel it.

Whatever you do, strive for taste. I mean taste as Richard Branson, or Howard Schultz, or Steve Jobs would define it. Make whatever you produce in your work –

  • It could be a product,
  • It could be a service,
  • It could be support.

Make your product or service appeal both sides of the brain. You see, to appeal to only the intellectual side is to risk boring your customers. To appeal only to the emotional side is to risk being seen as slick, a manipulator, too slippery to trust.

Appeal to both sides – emotion and intellect. Let everything you do bubble with excitement and intelligence.

#7 - Tell Stories

Sharing is how you tell your story. It might be a story of inspiration, of triumph. It might be an admission or confession.

You might share your story, confidentially, with one other person. Or you might share it with a dozen people in a conference room, with hundreds in a classroom, with thousands on stage, with millions if your story goes viral.

In the old days, if your story was fake in any way, you could get away with it. “Brazen your way out of it,” was the advice of many political consultants when their client was caught in a lie or scandal.

You can’t really do that today. The Internet sees all and hears all. Soon will be the day when you can no longer tell if those are eyes looking at you are naturally green or are a Google implant. Once recorded, the Internet does not forget.

I’m not here to make a statement on Internet privacy. I’m here to say all of us need to learn an authentic form of communication that will prove believable and true in all circumstances – whether it’s a private conversation or a public presentation.

Now, authentic does not mean we have to be stuck with our flawed selves, frozen in time. We should always strive for improvement, better communication skills.


Rich Karlgaard is the publisher of Forbes magazine. He holds an undergraduate degree from Stanford University and an honorary doctorate from Northcentral University. Dr. Karlgaard’s commencement speech draws from his latest book, The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success.