6 min read

I'm Going to Share my Secret to Success

This simple concept explains why the world is divided into an elite one percent, a highly effective 10 percent, and everyone else.
Dark wall with a dark door opening onto a vivid red background
Photo by Dima Pechurin on Unsplash

Greetings friends.

Why should I spill the secret? Aren't I afraid of making my odds worse if I help you compete better?

To be honest, I had already considered myself successful in life for several reasons. But it wasn't until I reread The Prince and saw from Machiavelli's definition that I am, in fact, unusually successful, and here's why.

How does Machiavelli divide up the world?

I consider Machiavelli to be the ultimate pragmatist. He focused on what makes a ruler successful and why it works. He also looked at the flip side: common reasons for rulers' failures. That's pretty much it.

Machiavelli came under criticism for his ruthlessly honest advice. He described successful approaches without regard to whether they were harsh or immoral. He was uninterested in ineffective conventional wisdom. Machiavelli's test was "Does it work?".

In describing rulers and their advisers, Machiavelli said this:

There are actually three kinds of mind: one grasps things unaided, the second sees what another has grasped, and the third grasps nothing and sees nothing.
This simple concept explains why the world is divided into an elite one percent, a highly effective 10 percent, and everyone else.

Only a tiny percentage of people are novel thinkers with great ideas. The next group can distinguish between great ideas and everything else; i.e., they can tell good advice from bad advice. The final group is neither original nor discerning in their thinking – they are forever prone to making mistakes because they don't recognize or follow good advice.

Performance distribution showing very small number of Elites, small number of highly effective persons, and everyone else
Performance distribution - illustration by Author

Why do I think I'm uncommonly successful?

While I hate self-congratulation, it's appropriate for me to describe my credentials. After all, why should you listen to me? Evaluating credibility is an important tool for you to separate good advice from bad.

I list below areas of high performance. Each one is something to be proud of, but taken together they've made me uncommonly successful.

Piece of paper on desk showing a hand-drawn graph of improving performance (from sucking to not sucking)
Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

1. I obtained advanced degrees

I am in the less than 15% of Americans who have an advanced degree, with both a law degree and a business degree. Although these two degrees traditionally take five years to complete, I completed both in three years, graduating in the top 5% and top 1% of my classes.

2. I have great professional experience

I am in the tiny minority of lawyers who have served as General Counsel of S&P 500 public companies. I started in the role at age 30, decades younger than the average age.

I volunteered for most of my career with the Association of Corporate Counsel, the world's largest association of in-house counsel, eventually serving as President of the Association of Corporate Counsel Europe.

I teach at the University of Zurich and I write the weekly Career Path column for the ACC Docket, the magazine for in-house lawyers.

Image of ACC Docket home page showing thumbnails of several articles
Screen capture of ACC Docket

3. I earned well and made solid financial decisions

I was in the top 1% of taxpayers for many years. More importantly, I learned not to squander what was left after paying taxes. We have saved enough to put our wealth in the global top 1%.

4. I've stayed healthy and fit for years

I have never missed a day of work due to illness. In the last 20 years, I've run, walked, biked, and swum some 64,000 kilometers. I am one of the few people who ran the Zurich Marathon every year since it started.

5. I'm happy and satisfied

I've been happily married for 26 years and have two great kids. I have a smile on my face most days. I started Klugne to share ideas on how to "live a good life ... and achieve satisfaction."

Can you change which group you are in?

Yes, I think you can move between groups, at least partly.

Lighted orange neon sign saying Change in front of dark background
Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

I never counted myself in Machiavelli's first group by nature. Truly novel thinkers are rare. It's unlikely anything someone else says will turn us into one. The fantastic news is we do not need super abilities to be super performers.  

We can move out of the great masses of people who make mistakes and don't follow good advice. We do this first by learning to tell good advice from bad advice.

Here's another quote from Machiavelli that illustrates what it is I learned to do:

If you're sensible, you set out to follow a trail blazed by someone who was truly great, someone really worth imitating, so that even if you're not on the same level at least you'll reflect a little of [their] brilliance.
I have been uncommonly successful because I've learned to distinguish good ideas from bad ones and found a system for implementing good advice. 

The reason more people don't change their group is they never learn to consistently follow good advice, even when they come across it. When you can identify good advice and follow it, even in a few areas, you will make your way into the highly effective 10 percent. You're on your way to becoming a super performer.

Why I'm sharing my secret with you

I believe success is non-zero-sum and cumulative. I lose nothing when you achieve your goals – quite the contrary. If my ideas help you, then I succeed in what matters to me, making the world better.

Four hands spelling out the letters L O V E in front of a water background
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Thus, I sincerely hope to help you get what you're looking for. And in the most pragmatic way possible, which is part of the secret to success.

Welcome to the Pragmatic Guides to Life

This marks the birth of the Pragmatic Guides. The key to success in almost everything I listed above is being pragmatic.

Good advice must be pragmatic in two senses: It must work at all and it must work in your circumstances. You'd be surprised how much commonly available advice fails one or both of these tests.

There is an art to identifying excellent advice. It usually takes me months of determined effort. I have to read a ton of material, most of it repetitive or misleading, to pick out the gems. I've been writing the Pragmatic Guides in bits and pieces all this time.

I am now organizing the most helpful guidance into the following Handbooks for Superperformers: 
  • Communicate Well: How to write, speak, and persuade like a pro (1)
  • Decide Well: How to make better decisions
  • Do Money Well: How to achieve material goals and amass wealth
  • Feel Well: How to be healthy in mind and body
  • Live Well: How to live a good life
  • Perform Well: How to stand out in your studies, work, and career
  • Stay Well: How to protect yourself from bad advice and avoid sabotaging your success
  • Think Well: How to think critically when it counts and pragmatically the rest of the time

OK, sounds great! What's next?

You could just sit back and wait for the Practical Guides to come out. Or you could contribute to them.

I have a disproportionate number of 10 percenters among my readers, and I suspect more than a few naturally brilliant people. Are you blazing a trail in one of these areas? Have you figured out how something works?

I know you have.

A lightbulb floating in the air several inches above an open hand
Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash
Please join me in sharing the best pragmatic advice you've found. Tell me what you've learned and why it works. 

I will incorporate the gems into the Practical Guides.

Together we can help make the world better. I can't wait to hear from you.

Be well.

(1) If you thought today's post was well-written, you can thank my friend Randy Surles. He's an uncommonly successful soldier who became an amazing developmental editor. If you are writing yourself, check him out.