What’s the secret to success?

When I was a college student, I spent several school vacations temping as an administrative assistant at a savings bank in mid-town Manhattan. The bank offices had a little lunch room, hidden away behind a nondescript door down a long corridor. One day, a few of us were sitting around the lunch table chomping on the latest delicacy from the local Burger Heaven. It was a collegial bunch: a couple of administrative assistants, two real estate appraisers, someone from the mortgage department, our public relations guy and Larry, the bank’s comptroller, a highly accomplished, successful and personable banker. One of the appraisers raised a question: “What does it take to be successful?”

Somebody said, “You have to work really hard!” One of our skeptics retorted, “No, you just have to be politically savvy. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you don’t know the right people!” The fellow from the mortgage department suggested that you need to get several college and graduate degrees. At that point, Larry put his sandwich down and said, “You know what? All you really need to be successful in life is to be able to do some math, write well and be able to talk with people. It doesn’t really matter how many degrees you get or how political you are.” We all stopped talking and gave some thought to his statement. It seemed so simple, yet the more we thought about it, the more profound it became.

I considered his advice in relation to myself: I was 21 years old, studying engineering, so I felt that I had the “math” part covered. I’d always done well in my Literature courses, so I checked off the “writing” part. But I wasn’t quite sure what Larry meant by “being able to talk with people”, how that was different from being “political” and why that would be more important than earning educational degrees. Moreover, I was a quiet, shy person—it was hard for me to find my way to reach out to others and wasn’t quite sure how to do this. Couldn’t I just work hard and do good work?

I asked him to tell us his story. He had been the first person in his family to go to college and worked his way through his accounting program. All along, he had sought advice from mentors. His math skills provided his technical expertise. He established his credibility by being able to express himself in concise and accurate reports and by reaching out to others—talking with people. He said that every successful person he had encountered in his 25-year career possessed these three skills.

The most critical skill, and the most challenging, Larry said, was the “people” part. Finding a mentor whom you could ask for advice and who could honestly critique your style and work was vital. Creating and maintaining relationships with other people would lead not just to opportunities, but to a fulfilling and enjoyable career. “Talking with people” was completely different from being political, which he saw as akin to “using” people. When I mentioned to him that I tend to be a shy person, he advised me to be on the lookout for someone who was impressed with my work—that person could be my mentor. He also suggested that I find my own way to connect with and speak to other people and it would never let me down. Being open to others and practicing different ways of reaching out to them, would help me find my unique way of bonding with the people in my life.

Indeed, following Larry’s advice was how I found my first job as a patent attorney. During my time at the bank, I had the opportunity to chat with both the administrative staff and the officers of the bank. The bank’s Vice Chairman had recently retired as Associate General Counsel at the Law Department of the large chemical company across the street from the bank. He, his secretary and I had had some enjoyable conversations while I worked at the bank. During my job search in my third year in law school, I visited my friends at the bank and stopped by his office to say hello. During the course of our conversation, he recommended that I contact the Chief Patent Counsel of his former employer at his suggestion. This led to my first legal job after law school, for which I have been ever grateful.

I’ve always remembered Larry’s advice: it was really the first time I had considered what it meant to find my own voice and use it to create relationships and connections with others, both professionally and personally. If you’re interested in exploring this skill, please contact me!