Don’t let success breed complacency

Looking back on his extraordinary career of 35 years, NASCAR driving legend Richard Petty noted that during his first 20 years of racing, he had an excellent record of winning.  For example, he won the Daytona 500 seven times!

However, in the late 1970s, his career went into a decline from which it never recovered.  Other racing teams had gone high-tech, refining their cars with ever-more sophisticated engineering, while the Petty team was complacent and set in its ways.

“We’d be winning steadily for 20 years and decided we wouldn’t change,” Petty said.

harveyBryceRichard Petty, one of the greatest drivers in racing history, ended his career without a win in his last eight years.

Lesson learned:  Resistance to change and complacency can defeat any person or organization, no matter how talented.

Success is sweet, but it can quickly sour if the ingredients aren’t fresh.  I’ve seen plenty of businesses, large and small, rest on their laurels only to be lulled into a coma.  On the one hand, it’s tempting to go along with the tried and true – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But that’s an adage that needs to be tested constantly.  Times change, tastes change, technology changes.  People change.  And aren’t we all dependent on people for our business?

“Success is a lousy teacher.  It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose,” said Bill Gates.  That’s why success can be a breeding ground for complacency.  People and organizations become content, satisfied and comfortable – too comfortable – in the way they do things.  In short, things are going well and they don’t think there is a need to change.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt said something similar:  “More people are ruined by victory, I imagine, than by defeat.”

Complacency is like a silent killer because it can happen to everyone.  It doesn’t matter how large or small the company or individual.  We have all battled complacency at some point.  The real trick is not to let it hang around for long.

“I often think we should have a Director of Corporate Insecurity because complacency is the Achilles heel of most companies,” said Sir John Bond, former chairman of HSBC Holdings.  “As my Chinese friends remind me, today you’re a cockerel (chicken), tomorrow you’re a feather duster.”

Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp., told a story about one of his company’s electronics facilities in Orlando, where “complacency started to infect one of our manufacturing processes.”

He said:  “Occasionally, parts were omitted from component kits prepared for assembly and inspection at another factory.  Each missing part disrupted the assembly process and frustrated the workers assembling the products.  I borrowed an idea from an automobile dealer in Dallas I had heard about.  The dealer received few complaints from customers because he gave them the home telephone numbers of the mechanics who worked on their cars.  I arranged for workers to include their names, work phone numbers, and self-addressed postcards in the kits they prepared.  Complaints dropped precipitously.”

All these examples describe corporate complacency.  But the problem also hits individuals.  In this job climate, sometimes it feels safer to stay put, even when your job or company isn’t meeting your goals or needs.  While security is a good thing, you also have to consider what it’s doing to your future.

Is your career on the right track?  Is it progressing as you planned?  If you’ve been in the same place for a while, think about these items:

  • Contentment.  The most important consideration when making career judgments is whether you’re happy.  Do you find your job satisfying?  Have you created a reasonable work/life balance?  If you feel good about going to work each day, you’ve probably found your niche.
  • Development.  Have you kept up your professional skills and credentials?  Does your position allow you the opportunity to grow and to capitalize on your strengths?  Being content isn’t sufficient reason to let your skills stagnate.  You should continue striving to enhance your marketability.
  • Environment.  Are you in a stable organization that will serve your needs well for the foreseeable future?  If your company is experiencing a dip in sales or market share, you should consider how those losses might affect your position in the coming months.

It’s fine to be comfortable.  It’s great to be content.  But when those translate to being complacent, it’s time to take stock – before your stock is worthless.


Mackay’s Moral:  When on the ladder of success, don’t step back to admire your work.

Failure isn’t fatal

In 1860 a thirty-eight-year old man was working as a handyman for his father, a leather merchant.  He kept books, drove wagons and handled hides for about $66 a month.  Prior to this menial job the man had failed as a soldier, a farmer and a real estate agent.  Most of the people who knew him had written him off as a failure.  Only eight years later he was President of the United States.  The man was Ulysses S. Grant.

Most of us are afraid of failing.  Admit it.  We all face fears and anxieties every day, and the only way to overcome them and succeed is to recognize them up front so we can confront them directly.  Examine your fears during the light of day.  Somehow they always seem worse at night and more difficult to face.

Ask yourself what might happen during the day that you’re afraid of – failure to complete a big project at work, for example, or rejection by someone.  Then think of how you could prevent that failure.  Be on the lookout for behaviors and thoughts that add to your fear.  Train yourself to change your patterns of action and thinking.  Finally, pay attention to what you learn about failure as you confront it.  Use the experience of facing and overcoming your fear to confront and defeat the obstacles you face every day.  Start looking at failure as an opportunity to avoid a future mistake.

HarveySuccessFailure can be one more step on your road to success.  You just have to turn it around in a positive direction.  It can strengthen your determination to overcome obstacles.  Failure can make you braver in the face of opposition.  It can help you learn what you need to do in order to succeed.  Failure can teach you to recognize your limitations and your strengths.  It can encourage you to change your strategy.

Though everyone faces setbacks in life, few of us should really call ourselves “losers.”  Part of success is dealing with, and ultimately overcoming, our failures.

Keep your confidence and follow this advice:

  • Change your perspective.  Don’t think of every unsuccessful attempt as a failure.  Almost no one succeeds at everything the first time.  Most of us attain our goals only through repeated effort.  Take the negativity out of failure by viewing it as a learning experience.  Do your best to learn everything you can about what happened and why.
  • Try new approaches.  Persistence is important, but repeating the same actions over and over again, hoping that this time you’ll succeed, probably won’t get you any closer to your objective.  Look at your previous unsuccessful efforts and decide what to change.  Keep making adjustments, using your experience as a guide.
  • Define the problem better.  Analyze the situation – what you want to achieve, what your strategy is, why it didn’t work and so on.  Ask yourself if you’re really viewing the problem correctly.  If you need money, for example, one option is to increase revenue – but you could also try cutting expenses.  Think about what you’re really trying to do.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist.  You may have an idealized vision of what success will look and feel like.  Though that can be motivational, it may not be realistic.  Succeeding at one goal won’t eliminate all your problems.  Be clear on what will satisfy your objectives, and don’t dwell on superficial details.
  • Don’t label yourself.  You may have failed, but you’re not a failure until you stop trying.  Think of yourself as someone still striving toward a goal, and you’ll be better able to hang in there for the long haul.
  • Pick your battles.  You’ve got to know when sticking to your position is going to be worth the time and energy, and when to back down in order to conserve your resources for the next confrontation.  You don’t have to succeed all the time to win in the end.
  • Don’t play it too safe.   In order to succeed, you’ve got to be willing to fail.  The people around you will catch on to your dislike of risk if you never take on a difficult project or an ambitious challenge.  Don’t shy away from hard work if you want your boss, or your teammates, to believe in you.

Mackay’s Moral:  Some of the best lessons we ever learned, we learned from our mistakes and failures.

Holiday recovery: Get back to work with less stress

A lecturer on stress management raised a glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this glass of water?”  Answers from the audience ranged from 20 grams to 500 grams.

“The absolute weight doesn’t matter.” replied the lecturer.  ”It depends on how long you try to hold it.

“If I hold it for a minute,” he said, “that’s not a problem.  If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm.  If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance.  In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

The lecturer continued, “That’s the way it is with stress management.  If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on.  As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again.  When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden.”

I used this story in my column nine years ago, and I feel it’s just as important today.  So when you leave work today, put the burden of work down.  Don’t carry it home.  You can pick it up tomorrow.  Whatever burdens you’re carrying now, let them down for a moment if you can.  Relax; pick them up later after you’ve rested.  Life is short.  Enjoy it.

stress1Stress is part of life.  A certain amount of stress is normal, even useful.  Deadlines are stressful for many, but they also motivate people to finish projects and even feel some sense of accomplishment.  Sometimes such pressure is effective in fostering teamwork – the notion that we’re all in this together.  Team members share the stress and empathize with each other, and feed off each other’s energy.

That’s the upside of stress.  But when stress results from overwork, unreasonable demands and impossible expectations, it can affect everything from customer relations to personal problems to health issues.  Can anything be worth that?

While your mind may still be on a holiday schedule, you may not feel ready to get back into the groove.  Your job (and your boss) won’t wait, though.  Here’s how to get past the holiday bustle and New Year’s doldrums:

  • Review your goals.  Look back at what you accomplished the previous year.  What remains to be done?  Spend some time setting new objectives for the coming 12 months.  This should help you get charged up for the future.
  • Adjust your energy level.  Log your activities for a few days and identify tasks that waste time and leave you feeling drained.  Eliminate what you can, and look for strategies to manage what you’re stuck with.
  • Set priorities.  Look at what’s most important to get done now.  Achieving a fresh goal will improve your spirits and remind you of what you’re good at.
  • Commit to work/life balance.  Make one of your resolutions to balance the demands of your job and your personal life more equitably.  You’ll be less likely to crash after a holiday if you’re not stressed out before it begins.
  • Get enough sleep.  Lack of sleep diminishes your ability to deal with stress.  Seven or eight hours of sleep every night will help you stay calm and patient throughout the day.
  • Resist the urge to vent.  Expressing your feelings isn’t the same as losing control.  Lashing out at others can intensify your sense of frustration, especially if you can’t do anything about the situation.  Focus on solving problems without exploding.
  • Find your stress triggers.  By observing what’s likely to make you nervous, impatient or angry, you’ll be able to head off an ugly incident with your co-workers.
  • Exercise.  Regular exercise keeps you healthier overall.  Start slowly, if you need to.  Low-impact exercises such as yoga can help you relax your mind as well as your body.
  • Recognize the symptoms.  If you’re suffering from warning signs like lingering headaches, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating or stomach problems, you may be hiding from a very real threat to your health.  Pay attention to what your body is telling you before stress takes its toll.

And if all else fails, just remember:  Stressed spelled backwards is desserts.


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t let excess stress get in the way of extreme success.

Life is what you make it

One of my favorite “Peanuts” cartoons by Charles Schultz has Charlie Brown saying, “I learned something in school today.  I signed up for folk guitar, computer programming, stained glass, art, shoemaking, and a natural foods workshop.”

“Instead,” he said, “I got spelling, history, arithmetic, and two study periods.”

The last panel has Charlie’s companion asking, “So, what did you learn?”

And Charlie replies:  “I learned that what you sign up for in life, and what you get, are two different things.”

Most years around this time, I write a column about New Year’s resolutions and why they can make such a difference in our lives.  But breaking them often makes us feel like failures.

Some days are tougher than others, it’s true.  But if you suffer from a general feeling that your life isn’t quite what you had hoped it would be, you may benefit from spending some time thinking about what you need to do differently, no matter what time of year.

Think about what your perfect day would be like.  Don’t hold back ideas, even if they seem far-fetched.  Then take it a step further:  What would your perfect life be like?

When you’ve finished, ask yourself if there is a big gap between how you would like your life to be and how it is.  After you have established what seems to be missing from your life, see what you can do, realistically, to take your life just one step closer to your ideals.  Don’t just quit your job to travel around the world – unless you have the means – but consider what you need to do to make that possible, if that’s your dream.

Would more education make a difference?  Is a career change in the future?  Do you need to devote more time to family and friends?  Are you doing anything to help others?  These are all big changes, and will require serious planning and willingness to make life changes.  But if you know what you truly want, and can reasonably accomplish, you will find a way to make it work.

HarveysuccessWrite your plan or goals down and put them where you can see them often.  Remind yourself that you are worth the effort.  And if you slide a little, remember that you can start again.  These are your plans, not someone else’s.

In the meantime, work with what you have.  Expand your experience and enjoy things that are within reach now – not someday when you finally have enough money, which might take a while to accomplish.

Now, instead of making some resolutions that you have little chance of keeping, you can start to make some life changes that will be rewarding every single day.

“There are three constants in life:  change, choice and principles,” said my friend, the late management guru Stephen Covey.  The third element he mentions is critical to making the best choices about the changes you want to make.

Our third United States President, Thomas Jefferson, lived by his “Ten Rules for the Good Life,” a set of guidelines that helped him stay on course.  In my mind, Jefferson was one of the smartest men who ever lived.  His rules may seem very general, but that is the beauty of their message:  a simple framework for making broader decisions in everyday life.  Here are his rules.

1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.

2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.

3. Never spend your money before you have it.

4. Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will never be dear to you.

5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.

6. Never repent of having eaten too little.

7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.

8. Don’t let the evils that have never happened cost you pain.

9. Always take things by their smooth handle.

10. When angry, count to 10 before you speak; if very angry, count to 100.

Whether you use these rules written more than two centuries ago as a starting point, or define your own, making changes will be easier some days than others.  You already know, as Charlie Brown says, that what you sign up for in life and what you get are not always the same.  But you have the power to change that.  Use it!


Mackay’s Moral:  Confucius says:  Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. 

Keep your funny side up

Life is funny – or at least, I think it should be.

Finding humor in everyday things is a gift.  Our very serious world can be depressing and overwhelming.  Problems at work can seem insurmountable.  Your car is making a disturbing noise, and the kids’ school just called to let you know your daughter, who was perfectly healthy this morning, is in the nurse’s office with a fever.  None of this is funny.

But . . .

You’ve had issues at work before, and getting angry or throwing a tantrum only makes things worse.  What did help break the tension was the clever observation from the office grouch, “I suppose this is a bad time to ask for a raise?”  You call the mechanic, who asks you to replicate the sound.  That bit of silliness always lightens the mood, my mechanic tells me.  The fever won’t be a laughing matter until she’s recovered.

We’ve all had days that test our patience.  When circumstances are beyond our control, the only thing we can master is our reaction.  A sense of humor re-aligns our perspective so that we can avoid blowing things out of proportion.

In other words, when you are tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department usually uses water.  Throw a little water on those tough situations and douse the anxieties before they spread – like wildfire – into other areas of your life.

Stories and humor were nearly as important as oxygen and water to our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, according to the Lincoln Institute.  Humor helped offset his natural sadness and escape from the internal and external pressures and events of his life.

Writer Norman Cousins observed:  “What seems clear is that the greater the weight of his Presidency, the greater was the need for release.  Laughter to him was not merely a random physical response to humor but a physiological reality that was essential for restoration and rejuvenation.”


A terrific resource on maintaining a sense of humor is Rita Davenport’s inspiring book “Funny Side Up.”  In it she describes her multi-faceted career, as a teacher, social worker, television host, bestselling author, motivational speaker and corporate president.  I might add Rita has been incredibly successful at all of them.  She led the large network marketing company, Arbonne International, to $980 million in sales from 1991-2011.  Rita is a Hall of Fame speaker who delivers life-changing success principles with a sense of humor.  She understands that laughter increases retention by 80 percent.

Her book draws on her life experiences, starting with her dirt-poor youth in Tennessee.  She credits her success to her ability to dream big dreams when faced with the life of struggle and poverty that her parents knew.  Her positive attitude has carried her through plenty of challenges.  My favorite chapter is titled “Laugh Your Way to Success (Or, How to Cope with Stress, Guilt, Change, Failure, and Life’s Other Little Blessings.)”

Among her pearls of wisdom, she advises bringing a sense of humor to the table, whatever table that might be.  She says, “Laughter is internal jogging.  It causes the muscles around the face to vibrate, which causes blood to rush to that area, which in turn improves brain function.  You think better and you feel better, and your health is improved. . . Besides, if you hold those chuckles back, the air tends to go back down and expand the hips!”

Rita’s book, like her speeches, is punctuated with humor.  Her theory is that it is important to develop a sense of humor because it is something that none of us are born with.  As proof, she offers this explanation:  “I have given birth twice and distinctly remember that neither baby was laughing when he came out.  Come to think of it, neither was their mama.”

What saved her, she says, is “the ever-ready capacity of laughter when your impulse is to cry or scream.”

“Failure is also one more opportunity to develop a strong sense of humor,” Rita writes.  “Have you ever had something happen that seemed just awful at the time, yet months or years later you found yourself laughing at it?” she asks.

“Here’s what you do.  First, get in the habit of saying, ‘Someday, we’re going to laugh about this.’  And after you’ve said that, then say, ‘Hey, why wait?’  The secret is to laugh sooner.”

What terrific advice!  Laugh sooner – and share the joy!


Mackay’s Moral:  A sense of humor is almost as important as our other five senses.