Around the beginning of 2004, I started thinking about how to seriously improve myself. I wasn’t down-and-out or anything. Our financial situation was…adequate, and the job I was at was stable. But there were several aspects of my life that I didn’t feel were measuring up, and I wasn’t happy about them. I was fortunate at around that time to run across several articles on the internet that pointed me in a helpful direction.

Since then, I’ve read several self-help and success books and listened to many recordings. I’ve read The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, Success for Dummies by Zig Ziglar, and I’ve listened to The Strangest Secret by Earl Nightingale.

They basically all say the same thing.

First, in order to succeed, you must define success for yourself. This smacks of secular humanism, but it’s true: we all define success differently, and our definitions of success are direct reflections of who we are as people. Success is your goal – and your goal must be concrete and measurable. It must be a specific event. Unmeasurable goals are not goals at all and cannot be attained. Most people never specifically set goals for themselves, and then wonder why they feel directionless.

Once you have defined success for yourself, you then create a plan for achieving that success. The plan must consist of several steps or milestones, each of which is a smaller, measurable goal that, when completed, add up to the completion of your overall goal.

Then, having picked a goal and defined a plan, you must make progress along your plan every day.

That’s it.

Well, goshwow, you might be thinking, if it’s that simple, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Two reasons.

One, we’re not taught to do it. While I had very good parents, at no point did they ever sit me down and say, “Anthony, here’s how to ensure you get the most out of your life.” Most parents feel that if they simply ensure their children recieve a good education, they’ve done their job. It’s hard to blame them; they probably weren’t explicitly taught about how to succeed themselves.

Two, because, if you’ll forgive the hokey Matrix reference, it’s far harder to walk the path than it is to know the path. Succeeding takes self-discipline, which most of us don’t have (and again, aren’t taught). I recently watched an episode of Penn & Teller’s excellent show Bullsh*t!, which talked about Alcoholics Anonymous. One thing mentioned during the episode is that just about all professional self-help systems report about a 5% success rate (success being measured by a person staying on the system for a year straight). This matches up with Earl Nightingale’s findings; he found that only 5% of people are financially self-sufficient or better at retirement age. Thus, if you are capable of self-discipline, you have automatically put yourself into the top 5% of people, and it’s difficult for someone with self-discipline to fail.

But what about motivation? How do you keep going when it gets difficult?

This is where things get kind of fuzzy, because just about every major self-help author is a Christian, and he simply says, “Have faith in God! He’ll help you!”

(Yes, I’m violating PSRD a bit here today. You’ll live.)

I’m not big on God. Most people with an engineering mindset find it difficult to believe in something that there’s no physical evidence for. So what do I do? When things are tough, who do I lean on?

Well, the answer has to be me, doesn’t it? And it’s not as silly an answer as you might think; there are many people who aren’t religious and yet have the depths of self-discipline necessary to succeed despite adversity and difficulty.

Now, despite not being particularly religious, I have to express an admiration for Christianity at this point. Christianity is based around two powerful ideas: have faith and treat others as you would like to be treated. (Both of these are commandments from Jesus himself, see Mark 9:23 and Matthew 22:39). This is why Christianity was able to shuck the majority of its tribal, barbaric roots (see the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament for many instructive examples). It moved forward and became something very positive in the lives of its followers.

But if there is a practical difference between a person who succeeded because they believed, “God is helping me” and the person who succeeded because they believed, “I believe in myself”, I don’t know what it is. Hardcore atheists will doubtless say, “Well, the first person believed a lie, and the second believed the truth” but recall that I was asking for a practical difference. In both cases, the person succeeded.

It will be necessary for you to train yourself to stop negative, “I can’t”-style thoughts in their tracks and replace them with positive thoughts. If you’ve thought your plan out and it’s a good one, and you are making daily progress along it, then there really isn’t any reason for you to feel bad about yourself. You have proven that you are in the top 5%, and about the only way for you to fail to eventually reach your goal is for you to abandon your plan. And why would you do that?

Believe and succeed.