Declare What You Want

Yes, you have to do good work and build a reputation that precedes you.

Yes, you have to build a strong, vibrant network of people who want you to succeed and for whom you pay it forward.

Yes, you have to stay humble, keenly self-aware and dedicated to continuous learning.

All of those things, yes!

And I will never succeed at defining which matters most or which, among the many things I haven’t mentioned, should also be considered just as important but here’s the thing that stands out to me as central to deeply meaningful professional success:

You have to declare what you want.

You have to stop saying YES to everything in hopes that you catch something that satisfies your heart’s desire and you have to start saying NO to everything that most certainly does not.

This is especially hard early in a career. This is especially scary when launching your firm. “Sure, I can do that!” I’ve said more times than I care to admit, so often to discover that I had agreed to work that I simply did not want to do.

What if we say instead, “This is who I am at my best. This is how I can provide you with the most value while also bringing me the most satisfaction (and, as a pretty great bonus, the money that I am worth).”

I believe to the depths of both my heart and soul that when a person declares who they are and what they want, the universe gets in motion to help make that possible. I have no other way to explain what has come to me when I have had that conviction and what has eluded me when I have not.

I believe that other people are deeply attracted to that clarity and want to help it become, not only real, but also wildly successful. I believe that when we have the courage to say, “This is it!” we shouldn’t sheepishly prepare for nothing to happen but instead, strap ourselves in for the trip of a lifetime.

At the beginning of this year, I made two clear declarations. Relying on the power of those declarations to say no to some other commitments, I had space for some new, very specific things to show up. In only a couple of months, that’s exactly what happened.

I will share more detail in the coming weeks but the wheels are in motion for an exciting new professional endeavor largely because I cleared the way for it to find me.

It is frightening to claim what we want. How terrible to do so and risk the possibility of failure. On the other hand, in the face of that fear, how wonderful to do so and discover something greater than we had dared to dream.


photo of night sky

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And we also got lucky

When you listen to a business leader describe their company’s success you will inevitably hear them discuss the clarity of their strategies and the quality of their execution.

What you rarely hear them say is that they were also lucky and, by extension, opportunistic.

The fundamental attribution error of success in business is the belief that it happens through pluck, ingenuity and hard work.

Since good luck is typically the byproduct of hard work, generosity and awareness, I don’t understand why so many leaders of successful organizations have difficulty owning their share of it.

To humbly accept the role of luck in the success of any enterprise is to admit the truth that the forces of randomness and change are far more powerful than our ability to control the status quo.


shallow focus photography of four leaf clover

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Joyful Uncertainty

Insert your definition of success here:                                 .

Now, what is one thing – the next thing – you can do to move in that direction? It doesn’t have to be the best possible thing, just the thing that makes the most sense right now, given your present circumstances.

A good rule of thumb to help you decide is that your “next thing” brings you the unmistakable quality of joyful uncertainty.

Joyful because it’s what you want.

Uncertain because you know there are no guarantees.

If it only brings joy, it’s comfortable for you and not a stretch.

If it only brings uncertainty, it’s probably someone else’s agenda.

This is your path, after all, and your path is still being created.

For now, just the next thing.

What do you wish you had learned in school?

I was a fortunate college student. I had parents who didn’t care what I studied, maybe because I was set on Political Science and seemed to have myself sorted out, or perhaps because I am the youngest of six kids and concern over the choice of a college major was dwarfed by the real challenges of adult living.

Whatever the case, “Poli Sci” didn’t last long and I ended up in something even less marketable, “Humanities.” I can’t imagine a degree program any more broadly defined or open to my interpretation and application. It was a dream come true for someone who has an enormous appetite for both variety and learning.

I took language courses: Latin (to stretch the vocab) and Russian (cause I was going to help Ronald Reagan take down the Soviet Union. I was late to that party though my roommates and I did manage a toast to the fall of the Berlin Wall with some St. Pauli Girl).

I took history, literature, philosophy, theology, cinema, debate, music theory, a few poli sci classes for good measure and my favorite of all, art history. Art history was this magical, even combustible combination of visual beauty, historical/political intrigue, and biographical complexity. I ate it up.

For all of that diversity of subjects, teachers and disciplines, it seems a little crazy that I could have a “What I wish I had learned” list but I do. So here goes…

I wish I had studied psychology and human behavior. And that’s not just because of my current professional life. It’s because of this human being thing I keep running into every day.

I wish I had learned to do less, but better. I thought involvement was the key to a happy college experience but I overdid it, burned myself out and suffered academically. Which leads to…

I wish I had learned to value time with my professors and with the really smart students. I didn’t have to go far. I had a number of friends who were expert at balancing the work and the fun. I was capable but intimidated, so I just didn’t ask.

And I wish I had learned to trust the process, that “success” looks different for different people. I was hard on myself from about 22 years old all the way up to (almost exactly) my 35th birthday. Because I just couldn’t figure it out! And all those smart students I was busily avoiding seemed to be certain of their paths: medical school, law school, Peace Corps, grad school…look at ’em go!

I needed more time…for the yeast to activate, or the top to brown, or some other awkward baking metaphor. But I didn’t know it could…or even that it usually did work that way.

No regrets, truly. But I wouldn’t mind having some of that energy back. The energy I spent on worrying, doubting, kvetching…and the unkind way I “shared” some of those feelings with people who were in my corner and on my side.

Over time, probably right on time, I learned those lessons. And maybe, had I had them earlier, they would have been wasted on my younger self, as so much mature wisdom is (says the father of a college freshman!).

I keep learning and I hope you do too. And maybe the point of the exercise is to simply acknowledge that we’re never quite done; that “What do you wish you had learned in school?” can be better asked as “What do you want to learn today?”


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.