How I Learned What it Takes to Succeed

A recipe for making something out of nothing

I started my adult life behind the eight ball.

I had no skills and no real job—not to mention career aspirations—at 18 years old, when I welcomed my son into the world.

So here’s this brand new, perfect little human being with some very real needs, and the person who is supposed to be providing for him has no direction, no money, and no clue how to make it all work.

20 years later I think I finally have some things figured out.

At 19 years old I joined the Air Force. I learned to be a multimedia journalist and public affairs practitioner. I served overseas in Turkey, Iraq, and Italy. While honing my craft, I looked outside the service for other opportunities.I made a few video tutorial products. I wrote a few books. I created a mobile software company with my best friend. I continued to work hard and became one of the most respected people in my field, and I ended my Air Force career serving at the Pentagon as the public affairs advisor for the service’s senior enlisted leader, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I retired from the Air Force with a pension at 39 years old, ready to tackle new challenges as a civilian.

I know what it takes to succeed, even when the odds are stacked against you.

Let me share that with you.

1. Play by your own rules

The first thing you need to understand is that you are not competing with anyone other than yourself. Your competition should be the person you were yesterday. Be better than that today. Every day.

When you decide to do this, you will be liberated from the rat race. Let other people run that one, because (spoiler alert) there is no prize.

Play your own game, and make your own rules. If you don’t achieve a goal, feel free to change the deadline, make concessions, or even change the goal altogether. You absolutely must maintain a strict standard of performance for yourself, but don’t worry about changing the goalposts in the middle of the game. It’s fair because all the competitors (you) will agree to it. Conversely, if something turns out to be simple and achievable without much effort, don’t pretend it wasn’t. Push past that goal, set another, loftier goal and hold yourself accountable for achieving it.

When you compete with yourself and play by your own rules, you don’t have to bother worrying about what anyone else is doing. This seems to magically set you off on a quicker clip toward your goal. My business partner and I could have wasted a lot of time trying to keep up with other mobile software developers and industry trends. Instead, we focused on making the apps we wanted to make. We set our own goals, found our own niche and had a lot of fun. We also made hundreds of thousands of dollars. If we had tried to compete with other developers, we would have made many different decisions and I’m confident our business would have folded within that first year.

Note: Quitting isn’t an option. Again, adjusting the goals and changing the rules of the game are options, but quitting is not. Giving up is the only real failure. Even if you do something poorly or incorrectly, you can learn and grow from it. When you give up, you lose.

2. Never be satisfied

View yourself as a work in progress—someone who is never going to be done learning and growing. Set your sights high. You may never be the person you ultimately want to be, and that’s okay.

That’s not to say you should never be happy with yourself. On the contrary, you should be happy with who you are; just don’t be satisfied. Strive to continue your personal development until the day you die. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve done, but never be satisfied.

Being a good multimedia journalist wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a bigger challenge. I wanted the chance to prove I could be a top-notch public affairs practitioner. It was that drive that led me to compete for the position supporting the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, an opportunity I never would have earned if I had been satisfied with where I was before that.

Don’t allow “good enough” to be part of your lexicon. This alone will set you apart from the crowd.

3. Focus

You can succeed where others might fail simply by being ultra-focused on the goal. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things many other people focus on. Don’t spend days or nights playing video games, for example, or watching hours upon hours of sporting events, movies or television shows. Instead, focus on developing yourself and making progress in your personal and professional projects. Don’t get me wrong; we should all make time to unwind and relax. However, moderation is key. Also, it’s possible to find things to do in your relaxation time that lead to better performance in your work time. Select hobbies that allow you to enjoy yourself, but that also happen to be productive.

Seek out people who have done what you want to do, find out what they did to get where they are, and then do those things. It’s a pretty rudimentary strategy, but it works. This is how I sold my first book. No one came to me offering money to write it. I did a little digging to find out how the process works, asked a few questions of an author I respected, and learned how to pitch the idea. The publisher bought it and I started writing.

Stay focused on the goal. Take calculated risks including getting out of your comfort zone as much as you can stand it, and some of those risks will eventually pay off. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit foolish creating the video tutorial Boris Basics, Tips and Tricks in my home office in 2005. However, that risk certainly paid off because almost ten years later I’m still getting royalty checks for that first program and the two that followed.


It took me 20+ years to figure it out, but playing by your own rules, refusing to be satisfied, and focusing on the goal have been the keys to helping me make something out of almost nothing. My hope is that you will be able to use this information earlier in your life to push yourself to great heights.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, that perfect little human being grew into a happy, healthy man. My wife (his mom) and I are incredibly proud of him.

This article was also published in Medium and is published here with the permission of the author
Title photo credit: flickr