Here is a blog post by my friend Tom Butler-Bowdon, author of the five volumes that comprise the 50 Classics series, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
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I’m delighted to be blogging for the new UK version of Huffington Post. Have a look at my latest post Before They Were Famous, which reveals the success ingredient I believe is most overlooked.
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What Did Tom Learn After Reading 250 of the Greatest Books Ever Written?
This was the title of James Rick’s interview with me on the FullPotential show recently. I really enjoyed this one!
Click here to watch.
Warm wishes, Tom
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Stephen Fry, the English author and wit, was once having coffee with some young, emerging comedians in Chicago. He said to them:
“From the vantage point of my ‘elderly’ position of a 50 year old… if I could offer any advice it is that it is that it is never too late, that the idea that the door closes and ‘Oh gosh, I’m already 30, nothing’s happened’ – it’s complete nonsense. Actually almost the reverse is true. A lot of the stars…George Clooney… who is that guy from House? He had to wait until his late 40s…”
Fry was being ironic, as “that guy from House” was his university friend Hugh Laurie whom he had done television comedy shows with in their younger years. Laurie became one of America’s highest paid television stars in his role as the genius, quirky doctor in House, but this success was hardly preordained. When invited to audition for the show’s pilot in 2004, Laurie was in Namibia working on a film. But he made a video of himself doing the part in his hotel bathroom, because it had the best light. The show’s director, Bryan Singer, had wanted a quintessential American for the lead role, and instantly felt Laurie was what he was looking for (Laurie’s accent was so good Singer didn’t know he was British). At 43, he had the part. Fry also mentions George Clooney, who didn’t get his famous ER role until his mid-30s, and until that point had had only minor roles.
Hugh Grant fell into acting by accident, but enjoyed it enough to keep plugging away with small television and film roles. As he entered his 30s, however, what enthusiasm he still had began to desert him. After watching a clip from an early stage performance, the BBC’s Adrian Chiles pressed him as to whether he always believed, in the early part of his career, that he would ‘make it’. He replied:
“I didn’t think anything great was going to happen…I did very bad television for a number of years.”
Chiles: “But then it just took off.”
“Just when I was about to give up, it took off, yeah. I remember going to the audition for Four Weddings and saying ‘This is the last one I go to. I’m 32, I’m bored of this, it’s humiliating. And then I got the job.”
Note that Grant’s response is hardly a rousing “Of course I believed!” The prospect facing the later-than-normal succeeder almost always includes some perceived humiliation, but Fortune often requires us to try one more time before she opens to us her heart, connections and coffers. Grant did, and as anyone knows, Four Weddings and a Funeral was a huge hit that made him a star.
When someone becomes famous, we feel as if we have known them all along, and that their rise was inevitable. Yet in his book Focus, the marketing guru Al Ries provides a rather counterintuitive tip for becoming a remarkable person:
“What you need to do is to study what leaders did before they became leaders, not what they did after they became leaders.”
Television programs and popular magazines like to point out amusing or embarrassing things the stars did before they ‘made it’. But these before-they-were-famous vignettes never highlight the serious amounts of work or refinement of skills that would lead to their ‘lucky’ break. What were they doing in the early years that prepared them for later success, and that is worth emulating by someone in a similar position now?
Perhaps the most important quality in becoming a leader, achiever or star is not the skills themselves, or even who you know, but a willingness to bide one’s time. As the French philosopher Montesquieu, who did not produce his masterwork, The Spirit of the Laws, until his late 50s, said:
“Success in most things depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.”
Perhaps it’s obvious, but it’s also so easy to forget: never get too discouraged by the apparent gap between what you believe you are capable of, and what it seems you are right now. It’s one thing to be told we should never to be afraid of entertaining thoughts of doing or being something great, and indeed part of the work of achievement is arriving at strong self-belief. But most of this advice leaves off the crucial bit: give yourself the time to do the thing, or become the person. To us normal people the world can seem full of people with unattainable genius, but as Henry Ford (who did not start his company until he was 40, after many attempts and failures) once said, “Genius is experience.”
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Andrew McAfee for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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There are strident disagreements these days over every aspect of American educational policy, except for one. Everyone thinks it would be great if we could better teach students how to innovate.
So shouldn’t we be paying a great deal of attention to the educational method that produced, among others, Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Jeff Bezos, Jimmy Wales, Peter Drucker, Julia Child, David Blaine, and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs? They were all students in Montessori schools. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Peter Sims, there’s a “Montessori Mafia” among the creative elite. So maybe there’s something to the method Italian physician Maria Montessori came up with around the turn of the 20th century.
The cornerstones of this method, according to Wales’s brainchild Wikipedia, are:
• mixed-age classrooms, with classrooms for children aged 2½-or-3 to 6 by far the most common,
• student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options,
• uninterrupted blocks of work time,
• a Constructivist or “discovery” model, in which students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction, and
• specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators.
That list rings true to me. I was a Montessori student in northwestern Indiana from a very early age through third grade, which was as high as the school went at that time. The teachers were an earnest group of the biggest hippies that could be found in small-town Hoosierland in the 1970s, and they gave us a lot of room to explore stuff that we found interesting.
For me this included the beads that Maria and her colleagues came up with to teach us about numbers. No matter how young you are, after you see five beads on a wire next to 25 arranged in a square and 125 in a cube, you have a grasp of 5^2 and 5^3 that doesn’t leave you. And after you hold the five-cube in one hand and the ten-cube in another, the power of taking something to the third power becomes very real. One is eight times as heavy as the other!
The parents of Larry, Sergei, Jimmy, Jeff, and all the others gave their kids good genes and nurtured them in many other ways beyond sending them to Montessori (I know that’s true in my case). But research indicates that Montessori methods work even for disadvantaged kids who are randomly selected to attend (although this might not be the best idea for dental school). And as far as I can tell from my quick glance at the studies, Montessori kids don’t do worse than their more classically educated peers on standardized tests. So why do we spend so much time on rote learning and teaching to the test?
When I got too old for my Montessori school and went to public school in fourth grade, I felt like I’d been sent to the Gulag. I have to sit in this desk? All day? We’re going to divide the day into hour-long chunks and do only one thing during each chunk? Am I on Candid Camera? Am I Job?
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Andrew McAfee is principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author of Enterprise 2.0. To read more of his work, please click here.