By Susan Ford Collins
After graduation, my husband and I moved to Washington, D.C. where I interviewed to be a supervisor at the telephone company. They asked me to roleplay a call with a customer who could not pay his bill on time and who wanted to pay it over time. Simple enough now, but in my childhood world people had to follow rules; exceptions were impossible. So I said, "I’m sorry. You have to get your payment in on time. There's nothing I can do.” And I was shocked when, with all my credentials and honors and having said what I was sure was the right thing, they weren't interested in hiring me. That job rejection affected me deeply. For the first time I saw myself from the outside. I had learned about life from my parents, teachers and bosses, from their attitudes about what was possible and impossible, what could be changed and what couldn't.
Weeks later that turndown turned into a blessing. I was hired as a Research Psychologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After studying illness and dysfunction for a year, an idea started waking me at night. What more could we learn if we studied highly successful people (HSPs) too? What could we discover about how success is learned and passed on?
After weeks of sleepless nights, I headed into one of our prestigious weekly conferences and raised my hand. “I think that we’re only doing half the job. Instead of simply studying ill and dysfunctional people, we need to begin studying highly successful people as well. What are they doing that the rest of us are not? Are they using specific skills? If so, how can we teach "their skills" to individuals who are missing, or misusing, one or more?”
I was sure my colleagues would be excited with my idea, but instead they laughed… and laughed loudly. I was forced to make a life-changing decision on the spot. Were they right that I was wrong? That my idea was laughable? Or was I onto something BIG they just couldn’t see yet? Red-faced, I silently vowed to pursue this research on my own, trusting I would be guided.
As a girl, I understood all too well what happens when the baton of a child’s leadership gets dropped along the way. When a parent is ill, drunk, or absent and no one else steps in. I knew I was missing skills as a result. Weeks after my proposal was laughed at, I discovered I was pregnant and I felt an even more profound sense of urgency. My child is watching! I need to discover more about success so he or she can be successful.
Clear about my mission, an unexpected event occurred. My husband was offered a position that was too good to refuse so we packed up and moved our family to suburban Philadelphia. With no research opportunities available and two young daughters to mother, I accepted a teaching position in a middle school. I felt blown off course at first, however those classroom years let me share workdays and holidays with my girls and gave me time to begin shadowing gifted kids as well as highly successful adults. Through an almost incomprehensible maze created by divorce and my new responsibilities as a single mom, I was led by three questions: What is success? What skills make people successful? How can these skills be taught? But my route—filled with detours and roadblocks, starts and restarts, conflicting needs and priorities, inner guidance and divine intervention—would turn out to be similar to those HSPs would describe to me later.
Then an unanticipated opportunity presented itself. My school asked me to attend World Games at the University of Massachusetts where I met Buckminster Fuller, one of the greatest architects and innovators of our time. Seizing the opportunity, I shared my mission and asked Bucky what he thought made him successful. After suggesting a few possibilities, he said he wasn’t sure, but he applauded my “spunk” and agreed to let me spend time with him. Months later when I described the skills I had observed, he realized he had been using those skills unconsciously. Eager to know more, he introduced me to other HSPs, who introduced me to still others. Like a tree, my connections branched and multiplied. Since NIH, I have shadowed people in a wide range of fields—business people, coaches, athletes, writers, entertainers, parents, teachers, musicians, astronauts and inventors. Year after year as I studied their work strategies, leadership styles, decision-making processes, family and personal lives, the same 10 skills kept showing up. I named this skillset The Technology of Success.
Next I began designing and facilitating The Technology of Success public seminars. Group after group, the process flowed naturally from Skill 1 to Skill 10. Some participants knew a few skills. Others knew them all but were using them incorrectly. After the seminar, companies started calling me. They were noticing significant improvements in the attitudes and performances of employees who attended my seminar. Top corporations—American Express, Florida Power & Light, Ryder System, The Upjohn Company, Dow Chemical, Kimberly-Clark and CNN—invited me to teach The Technology of Success in-house.
Most of the participants in my corporate seminars were also parents, and many of the questions they asked me on breaks were about their leadership role as parents. Teaching these skills in the workplace was extremely valuable but not nearly as life-changing as teaching parents how to use these skills at home, then helping teachers reinforce them in school so our next generation can bring them full-blown into our workplaces and communities. Into their own families.
One morning I had a call from a director at The Upjohn Company who invited me to speak at their regional sales conference. We chatted for a few minutes about agenda and details. Then he said he had something special to tell me. "We will be honoring your daughter Margaret as our top sales rep that day. When we told her she'd won, we asked what her secret was. She said it was the 10 Success Skills you taught her as a girl and you're teaching in businesses around the world. We want you to share “Margaret’s skills” with the rest of our sales team. There's just one thing! We don't want them to know you're Margaret’s mother until it's over. We want them to hear you for the professional you are." I chuckled but gladly agreed.
I flew into Washington, D.C. Arriving at the hotel, I mingled with participants, not stopping when I passed my daughter in the lobby, not chatting when she stood beside me in the lunchline. At the end of the day, I was standing in a knot of question-askers and hand-shakers when concluding remarks began. "Our award-winner Margaret Collins has an announcement to make.” She stood up slowly and pointed her finger straight at me, "That's my mom!"
The room fell silent for a moment, then in one voice the group roared, “No fair, Margaret—no wonder you won!” Although Margaret’s colleagues shouted those words with good-natured laughter, their “complaint” troubled me. Shouldn’t every child have parents who can teach them all 10 Success Skills? Shouldn’t every child have parents who live these skills every day, not just enjoying their own dreams but leading the way so their children can enjoy theirs?
Several months later, I was invited to teach The Technology of Success to the entire staff of a middle school—administrators, teachers, counselors, PTA members, police, hall aides and custodians—everyone who had contact with students. I trained parents and caregivers, spoke in classrooms and assemblies, and interviewed hundreds of students as well.
Suddenly my classroom years were making sense. I asked each student two questions: What does success mean to you? And what are you doing to get it? Their answers stunned me. Very few students saw a connection between their future goals and what they were doing day to day. Those who planned to be music stars were rarely studying music, let alone practicing. Those who expected to be professional athletes were hardly ever on teams. Most disturbing of all, many students—including ones from affluent families—said they didn't want to be successful.
Yes, you read that right. More times than I could count, I heard, “I don't want to be successful.” Why? “Because if you’re successful, you never have time for friends, family or fun. You’re always working and your boss never appreciates you.” These students were deciding their futures by what they saw happening in their parents’ lives.
In 2006 I was invited to speak at the National Grant Management Association in Washington. I told them about my red-faced day at NIH. After I finished speaking, a crowd of smiling participants headed straight for me. They were the NIH people who were currently deciding on grants. They said they thought my idea was brilliant and only wished they could have been in the audience that day so that, instead of laughing, they could have all shouted together, “Yes, Susan. Yes!”
And I was reminded that it had been a long and convoluted journey but nevertheless it was clear… whenever I ask for guidance I get it. But sometimes it seems to arrive in disguise. Or years later.
(c) Susan Ford Collins. Contact me for permission to use it.
* For more on the 3rd and 7th Success Skills, read The Joy of Success and Our Children Are Watching.
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www.technologyofsuccess.com or susanfordcollins *at* msn *dot* com
Your Working Life: Caroline Dowd-Higgins interviews Susan Ford Collins