Recipe for Success: The Wisdom of the Ages

Donald NorfolkA few years ago an eminent British doctor was invited to give an inspirational talk to a group of graduating medical students. Not having faced this task before, he sought the help of one or two of his senior colleagues, and also studied one or two of the well-known self-help books. Here are the eight tips he chose to feature in his talk:-

1. Don’t seek perfection Learn to suffice. Don’t set yourself the impossible task of being the world’s finest performer at whatever you choose to do. Being obsessed with the urge to outclass your peers will make you unbalanced and unbearable to work with. Be content with being good at your job. Adopt the light-hearted attitude of Woody Allen who said: ‘I may not be the greatest lover in the world, but second place isn’t bad.’

2. Admit your deficiencies Information technology is increasing at such a pace that even the most dedicated specialist can’t be expected to have a complete grasp of their chosen subject. Be humble about your knowledge, always ready to learn, and never afraid to admit your ignorance.  Even if you knew everything about your business when you set out to work in the morning, which is impossible, more information would have arrived before the day is out to make that knowledge incomplete. Be open about your limitations. One doctor gives medical students a series of questions of increasing complexity until they are finally forced to admit: ‘I don’t know’. At that point he presents them with a box of Smarties and tells them that those are the three most important words in medical education.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask Don’t try to maintain an air of omniscience and infallibility.  People will be flattered if you ask them for their advice. When you do so, their opinion of you will rise rather than fall. One doctor confessed that the most useful tip he’d received from his medical training was that there was no question too stupid to ask, and when you pose it, there’ll always be several others in the class who are delighted that you did.

4. Dare to challenge your habitual way of doing things Because a thing has always been done in a certain way offers no guarantee that that it’s the ideal way. If you don’t challenge what you’re doing at least once a week, the chances are you’re getting it wrong and lagging behind the times. Half of what you learn during courses of further education are totally false, and the other half will be out of date in five years – and nobody can tell which half is which.

5. Learn to listen God gave us two ears and only one mouth so that we would listen twice as much as we speak, a truism neatly expressed by Shakespeare who said: ‘Give every man thy ear but not thy voice.’ We gain wisdom by listening and show our ignorance by speaking. For many years teachers of medicine have assured their pupils that if they listen to a patient they will be given the diagnosis.  The same applies in every other walk of life. People will flourish if they listen to their customers, competitors, suppliers and staff who, coming at things from a different direction, will offer provide an answer to their thorniest problems.

6. Never stop learning Knowledge is power, and the open sesame to development and growth. Read all you can from the widest range of sources. Follow the advice which T.H.White gave in The Once and Future King: ‘Learn why the world wags and what wags it. This is the only thing the mind can never exhaust.’

7. Rely on your own judgement. Accept that experts and management consultants are as full of baloney and cockeyed ideas as your parents. Trust to your own opinions and judgement. Follow the advice that Polonius gave to his son Laertes: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it follows, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’

8 Have fun and be grateful for your good fortune When you’ve had a bad day, and feel overworked, tired, stressed and unappreciated, try to look on the bright side and be grateful that you’re not out of work, starving or incapacitated.  Don’t take life too seriously and leave space in your day for pleasure, leisure, friendship and fun. Follow the example of the Texan who kept two reminders in his pockets. On one side he had a piece of paper saying: ‘You are just dust and ashes’, and on the other a slip saying: ‘The world was created just for you.’  The art is to achieve a balance between those two realities.

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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