The one thing you need to know about success


When I’m asked to recommend good books on business or personal development I usually include Marcus Buckingham’s “The One Thing You Need to Know. . . About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success.” Based on his empirical studies, Buckingham reveals the “secret” to success: “Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.”

In doing so, you make room for doing what you do like doing:

“The most successful people sculpt their jobs so that they spend a disproportionate amount of time doing what they love. . . . The secret to sustained success lies in knowing which [activities] engage your strengths and which do not and in having the self-discipline to reject the latter.”

Another book, based on a groundbreaking study by famous psychologist, Walter Mischel, presents a different perspective and an actual way to predict success. “Don’t Eat The Marshmallow Yet,” describes a study of a group of four year olds who were presented with a marshmallow. They were told if they could wait 20 minutes before eating it, they would get a second marshmallow, but if they eat it now, it would be the only marshmallow they get.

Some kids were able to wait, others couldn’t resist.

The researchers studied the kids for many years after the initial experiment and found that the kids who were able to delay their gratification and wait 20 minutes to get a second marshmallow were much more successful in all areas of their life.

The differences in results as the kids grew older were startling. The ones who could delay gratification had better social lives, were more intellectual, better off financially, and happier.

The co-author, Joachim De Posada, describes the experiment (and shows us some adorable “test subjects”) in this video:

So if success comes from doing what you want (and avoiding what you don’t) and what you want is to eat the marshmallow now (and not wait 20 minutes), don’t these two conclusions contradict each other?

I don’t think so.

I define success in terms of happiness; the happier you are, the more successful you are. When you know you are on the right path, doing what you enjoy, going where you want to go, you are happy, even though you are not yet experiencing all of the fruits of your labor. In fact, I would argue that delaying gratification actually enhances your joy because success isn’t in the destination, it’s in the journey.

When you imagine what your life will be like a few years from now and the picture in your mind is pleasurable, you can be just as happy now imagining your future as you will be when that future arrives.

So they are both right. In doing what you want to do you enjoy the present and you are also excited about the future. You don’t mind waiting for that future to come because you know it’s coming (and you enjoy thinking about that) and, more importantly, you’re having fun right now.



  1. David- As usual, another great article! Success is all about incorporating your passion in to your daily “job”. If you can do that, then you’ll truly enjoy a life of minimal stress and worry. Have a fantastic weekend!

  2. Clint Kelley says

    I think linking the two topics, doing what you want and waiting 20 minutes for a second marshmellow, is not such a stretch.

    Over the years, one of my frequent “internal debates” is whether to bring in business that pays now or, instead, to bring in the kinds of cases I want to do, even though they may pay later. “Threshold Money” (e.g. divorce, criminal law, etc.) cases now? Or personal injury cases (which I enjoy more than any other type of case) that settle or try 6 months to 2 or 3 years down the road?

    Whenever I focus on bringing in new personal injury cases and working the personal injury cases that I already have, I am much happier. I also make more money – which I can use to buy more marshmellows.

    David, this was one of my favorite postings of your to date. I like it when I read something that helps to crystalize my thoughts and point me in the right direction. Thanks for writing it!

    Clint Kelley

    • @Clint, your situation perfectly illustrates the point of the post and makes another good one: the fallacy of working “just for the money”. We’ve heard it said that people who start a business to make money often (usually?) fail; the ones who start a business doing what they love (e.g. Steve Jobs) are the ones who get rich.

      Thanks for your comment, and your kind words.