How To See What Successful People See

Yes or no. A or B. Pass or fail.

It’s easy to believe success is determined by a series of binary decisions we make.

But that’s a trap.

Successful people refuse to be limited to binary choices and recognize there are infinite options at our disposal if we have the patience, courage, and creativity to look for them.

In compiling ideas for my For The Interested newsletter each week I see time and again how people’s success is determined by their ability to see things others don’t.

Here are three examples of how people have done so by approaching their job, industry, and negotiations in a broader way.

Jobs Aren’t Binary: How to see what Jonah Peretti saw.

Most people see their job as a set of binary choices: They can work for one company or another. They can be an employee or entrepreneur.

But that oversimplification limits potential opportunities.

You don’t have to quit your job to pursue a career shift and being an employee doesn’t prevent you from also scratching an entrepreneurial itch.

In a recent episode of the How I Built This podcast, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti explains how he started Buzzfeed — while working at the Huffington Post.

Peretti would spend his days walking from office building to office building jumping from a meeting with the thriving HuffPo team to meetings with his fledgling 8-person Buzzfeed Labs staff (that’s what it was initially called — an indication of his approach to it as an experiment as opposed to a full career transition).

He didn’t see his career options as binary — work for HuffPo or launch Buzzfeed. He saw a chance to do both.

He recognized he had an initial opportunity to experiment with Buzzfeed while maintaining his job at HuffPo and continuing to reap the rewards (both financial and experiential) of that job.

He recognized jobs can offer more flexibility than many people realize. Had he approached it as a binary choice, he may have never launched Buzzfeed or might have missed out on crucial value he got from HuffPo that contributed to its ultimate success.

Industries Aren’t Binary: How to see what Howard Stern saw.

Jobs aren’t the only thing we tend to mistakenly see as binary decisions. That mindset can also apply to the structure of entire industries.

Too often we believe the way our industry currently operates is the only way it can operate. That blinds us to potential opportunities for bigger and better things.

(Remember, there are a lot of reasons to break the rules.)

But successful people recognize the binary options their industry presents them are often false choices.

For example, let’s talk about Howard Stern and the radio business.

When Stern came up in the radio business, the industry was built on a series of binary choices. If you did a morning radio show in one city, your only career decisions as you grew was whether or not to go to another city.

Typically, the bigger the city, the better the gig so those binary decisions were relatively simple.

But Stern didn’t see the radio business as limited to those options.

He believed his show could expand beyond a single city and had a vision for a nationally syndicated morning radio show — essentially a new opportunity the industry hadn’t considered.

Needless to say, that turned out well.

But that success only happened because Stern didn’t limit his choices to the binary options that were industry standards.

He saw uncharted opportunities and pursued them.

Negotiations Aren’t Binary: How to see what George Lucas saw.

In the 1970s, here’s how Hollywood negotiations worked with a filmmaker.

Once a new filmmaker put out a successful film, the negotiations for their next film centered around how much more money they’d be paid to make it.

That created a binary decision for the filmmaker because the offer was either a big enough pay raise or it wasn’t.

George Lucas had been paid just $150,000 to make American Graffiti and since it grossed $100 million he was in line for a nice increase when it came time to make his next film, Star Wars.

But Lucas didn’t see his negotiating options as limited to his pay. He wanted something else.

Lucas envisioned Star Wars as a series of films and wanted to ensure his ability to make the sequels — he didn’t want a studio to be able to block him from doing so if they weren’t thrilled with how the first film turned out.

So, he instructed his lawyers to negotiate a deal in which he retained the sequel rights instead of going after as much money as they could get him.

Sure enough, he got that deal and after the success of Star Wars, he did it again.

Since he controlled the sequel rights, the studio had to negotiate a new deal to make the film’s sequels and once again Lucas approached this in an unorthodox way. This time he decided to self-finance the sequel, allow the studio to only pay for the rights to distribute the film, and retained ownership of the sequel and its merchandise rights.

It was a groundbreaking (and mega-successful) deal. But it was also an unprecedented one only made possible by Lucas’ ability to see negotiations not as a series of binary choices — this this pay or leave it — but rather as an infinite set of options to explore.

You don’t have to be Peretti, Stern, or Lucas to see this.

While the examples above demonstrate extreme success, the underlying concepts are applicable to any decision you make.

When asked to complete a task in your job, recognize there may be more than one way to do it.

When faced with a career decisions, acknowledge there may be opportunities you haven’t considered.

And when given a choice between two things in your life, remember there’s always a third option.

You just have to be courageous and curious enough to discover it.

One more thing…

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