How To Be Successful: Know Who You Want to Be Like

Michael Jordan. *NSYNC. Steve Jobs. Miley Cyrus. Carrie Bradshaw. U2. Almost all of these successful people have one thing in common: how they approached success.

Want to know how they did it?

It’s simple and directly relates to our lives.

In the past, I’ve written tons about happiness and about choosing between success and happiness, but now I want to discuss the other side of the coin: success.

To start that process, it’s important to think about what success means — or, more importantly, what success means to you.

In the spring, I had the chance to hang out with a group of friends from Under30Experiences down in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. During our group dinner, I sat and talked with a new friend, TJ. While we chatted and shared stories, TJ told me of all the dreams he wanted to accomplish. So, I asked him a single question:

“Who do you want to be like?”

He didn’t quite follow me, so I explained.

Knowing who you want to be like gives you an idea of steps you can take to get there.

A few hours and many tequilas later, TJ was still reeling over that question — who did he want to be like?

Haven’t we all dreamed of being like someone else?

I know plenty of little boys that grew up wanting to be like Michael Jordan. I know girls that want to be like Sheryl Sandberg or Jessica Alba. All the golfers I know want to be like Tiger Woods or Adam Scott. The writers in my life want to be some version of Carrie Bradshaw.

But who we dream of being like changes over time. It’s rare if it doesn’t. Regardless of any changes, the fact remains the same: the steps our idols took light the path to our own greatness.

Should we want to replicate it, the formula is there for the taking.

You might be thinking this is ludicrous — that learning how to be successful can’t be achieved by modeling others — but I disagree. Let’s look at why.

What does “modeling” other people mean?

What I call “modeling” other people is basically what we do for most of our lives.

As much as we love to “live and learn”, the fact is that we don’t build off own experiences and mistakes as much as we pick up from others.

Take our schooling, for example. What is school all about? Everything we’re taught in school is the same concept: learning through other people’s experiences. We read about famous explorers and scientists, hard-working writers and mathematicians — all our learning framed through the lens of other people’s experiences. Even MBA programs follow this method, called the “case study” approach.

We learned to read, write, add, subtract, multiply, solve word problems, and more through learning from other people’s experiences.

Rockstars adopt this strategy from the start of their careers.

Take Miley Cyrus, for example. She started out her career by modeling Britney Spears, joining up with the Disney channel to gather an audience around her “sweet and innocent” image. A few years down the line, she’s following Britney’s steps again, changing her image into something much edgier to get attention during a lull in her career.

What others experience serves as our guiding light.

In the words of John F. Kennedy:

“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”

So, imitation is the best form of flattery?

Well, yes and no.

First of all, this definitely isn’t just about imitating, which is straight-up lazy and disrespectful. This is about learning from formulas that are proven to work while adding in one important component: your unique approach.

This is what Nilofer Merchant calls our “onlyness”, or our own unique set of talents, our personality, our history, our learnings, and so on. We are the only one in the entire world that contains this unique set of chemistry. If we want to learn how to be successful, I’d argue that it’s our “onlyness” that matters

Our progress gains value when we remix in your uniqueness.

Is it flattery to learn what worked for someone you admire? Of course. Do I recommend you copy every single thing they do and not experiment with something else? Absolutely not.

The best and most famous rockstars in the world do this every single day.

If a rockstar were to model someone else too closely, we’d probably ignore them from the start. To avoid that, rockstars do their best to bring their own personality and “spin” to the world of music. They bring their “onlyness” to the stage.

We don’t want another Frank Sinatra. He was amazing just the way he was, and we wouldn’t want to replace him. We want something new, a remix great enough to stand on its own.

What about “innovation”?

This is a great question, and it’s one that I think is answered pretty simply:

Innovation does not exclude learning from others — it depends on it.

I’d pay a million dollars if someone could find a book on innovation that doesn’t mention Toyota. Ignoring past cases of greatness — for the sake of newness — is probably not the most responsible choice.

In the words of Edmund Burke:

“People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

Seeking innovation in and of itself isn’t very productive. It’s like downloading a new mobile app just because it’s shiny and new. It doesn’t mean it actually works or serves you better than what you were using before.

If you want to truly innovate, you’re seeking to improve something, whether or not it’s “new.” Most times, the “newness” of what you come up with is a byproduct of the innovation, not the innovation itself. The innovation itself is a result of the desire to make something better.

The desire to improve something is part of our unique remix.

When *NSYNC took the stage, they weren’t trying to be just like the Backstreet Boys — they were trying to be better.

When Google decided to launch Android, they weren’t trying to be just like Apple — they were trying to be better.

When LeBron James decided to take up basketball, he wasn’t trying to be just like Michael — he was trying to be better.

Sure, they all may have followed the paths of their predecessors up to a certain point, but they diverted and took the road less traveled once they reached the point where their own remix, their “onlyness” could shine through.

But not all kids grow up to be Michael Jordan.

This is true, and it happens in all kinds of situations

While young boys dream of being Michael Jordan, very few grow up to professional basketball players

While performers dream of being the next U2, very few musicians end up being famous rockstars.

While college kids dream of being the next Steve Jobs, very few entrepreneurs experience that level of success.

The reason is simple: not everyone is willing to do what it takes to make it happen.

We can’t wish ourselves into success. A big part of how to be successful is putting in the time, practice, and soul to create the momentum we need to make it big.

Like I wrote about recently, learning how to be successful — as you define the word “success” — entails matching up your values and your strategies.  If we follow this process, there are two steps to take:

  1. Deciding who you want to be like — your values
  2. Identifying the path you can take and “remixing” it — your strategies

The question becomes: are you willing you to do what it takes to make it happen, to follow the path and remix it?

It’s up to each of us to decide whether or not we’re willing to do what it takes to become similar to our idols but better, our own unique version.

It’s up to each of us to decide if we’ll take it past admiration and into action.

Enough theory, though.

That all sounds well and good, but what does it look like in practice? What does it look like in our own lives? What does it look like for someone normal — just like you and me — to learn how to be successful by using someone we admire as an example?

To demonstrate I’ll go through the process analyzing — gasp! — myself.

1. Who do I want to be like? I admire and would love to be someone like Oprah.

2. What path did that person take? Oprah started out on local television and then moved onto national big-time media. After achieving amazing ratings and a huge audience, we went into publishing. She has since taken a more self-help-like route with her network’s programming. I love it!

Instead of focusing on herself, Oprah focused on interviewing others and having other people’s stories heard.

3. What steps could I adopt to achieve success? I could potentially take a television approach. While I know people in that industry that could help me out, a quick fix to this would be to adopt online video instead. With video, there are no barriers to entry.

Instead of just focusing on my experiences, I could start focusing on telling other people’s stories, too.

4. How could I remix that by injecting my unique value? I’m not just a writer. I’m not just a designer. I’m not just a public speaker. I’m also an adventurer living in Nicaragua with an amazing family and doing fun work!

I can let my own personality shine through everything I do, telling stories that encompass many aspects of our lives. And I can be funny sometimes.

Pretty simple, right? The hard part isn’t actually this type of analysis — it’s turning this kind of planning into concrete action.

These aren’t the only questions that we should all consider, but these are a good starting point.

Michael Jordan. *NSYNC. Steve Jobs. Miley Cyrus. Carrie Bradshaw. U2.

All of them grew up with a dream to be like one of their idols. All of them loosely followed the winning formula and remixed it into their own version of success. All of them now stand as their own example, an example we too can follow and remix.

As always, I want to help you live your awesome life as best I can. My entire mission is about helping you to live and work awesomely, so I’ve got a little something up my sleeve that might help you fulfill that.

I’ve decided to start interviewing successful people I know and ask them about their experiences so we can learn from them! I’ve got all kinds of people lined up for interviews — from tech to fitness, from successes to failures, from first ventures to many, from blogs to publishing deals, from names you know to names you don’t.

You all are my friends, and so are they. Why not bring everyone together for some learning and good times, right?!

I’ll bring you an interview with one of these entrepreneurs at the beginning of each month, so look out for the first one in a few days.

It’s going to be wonderful to share these stories with all of you. I hope it helps us learn more about the process of taking from other people’s experiences to form our own success.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this:

What rockstars do you dream of being like? What concerns you about modeling other people’s success? How can you use the experiences of others to build your success?

Who would you like to learn from — entrepreneurs that have succeeded or failed?

Can’t wait to hear from you in the comments.

Wishing you awesomeness from Managua! — Marcella

PS. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist. It’s an amazing book that builds on this topic.