You won't achieve the American Dream by dreaming

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg Andrew Feinberg via Flickr

COMMENTARY. We live in volatile times where viewpoints are highly polarized. The way people see business in America is no exception. Lately, it seems as if management commentary is either feel-good fluff or anti-business rhetoric.

Of course, neither extreme relates very well to the realities of the business world, which makes it all the more frustrating for those of you seeking to advance your career through meaningful insight.

Speaking of which, one of the key insights you'll learn sooner or later is not to trust conventional wisdom. If you don't take chances and challenge the status quo, you won't get anywhere. So you should probably avoid or at least challenge extreme thinking. In other words, don't drink the Kool-Aid from either side.

Perhaps the most damaging piece of popular career and leadership fluff is that you should reach for the stars, aspire to the corner office, and don't stop until you achieve your dreams. Now, I know what you're thinking: Isn't that the American Dream, start from nothing and become a big-time success?

Absolutely, but you won't achieve the American Dream by dreaming. You'll achieve it by doing.

You see, successful executives and business leaders aren't typically driven by high aspirations. They didn't get to where they are by walking around with their heads in the clouds. They got there by putting one foot in front of the other and getting stuff done.

And they did it for one or more of these four reasons: because it was their job and they had a strong work ethic, out of necessity to put food on the table, to bring a product to market they thought customers would want, or they had a passion for what they were doing and thought it was cool.

Just to be clear, I'm not arguing against Robert Browning's insightful statement that, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp." I'm not saying you shouldn't work your tail off, seek your passion in life, have a vision of something unique, or want to do great things. What I am saying is that you don't accomplish those things by spending your time thinking about how to get to the top of the corporate ladder.

So how do you achieve the American Dream?

You get there by delivering the goods, getting the job done, and satisfying the needs of your customer, whoever that is. If you get really good at doing those things, that's how you achieve the American Dream. That's how success really works. Here are some notable examples of what I'm talking about:

When Mark Zuckerberg was developing Facebook, he was building something he thought would be cool. He wasn't thinking about running a big company and becoming a billionaire.

Richard Branson didn't aspire to build a global conglomerate of over 200 companies when he opened a record shop and mail order retailer named Virgin.

Bill Gates did not have stars in his eyes when he licensed an operating system to IBM for the first personal computer. He was just trying to satisfy a big new customer.

Fred Smith was not driven by the idea that FedEx would someday become an everyday verb for express mail. He was driven by the idea of a fully integrated air-to-ground shipping business that could operate efficiently using hubs.

When Ed Whitacre started out as a facility engineer with Southwestern Bell in 1963 and slowly worked his way up the corporate ladder over the coming decades, he wasn't thinking about someday running the company and, after a series of mergers, creating the nation's largest telecom company and relaunching AT&T.

In 1927, not only were Dick and Mac McDonald not trying to create the world's first and ultimately its biggest fast food empire, McDonald's, it took 21 years for them to realize they should be focusing on burgers instead of hot dogs.

Kraft Foods started with James L. Kraft selling cheese door-to-door. Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda made looms. Sony started out as a radio repair shop in Tokyo. Nokia was a paper mill in Finland.

More on: Unusual origins of 15 innovative companies

I can go on and on, but the point is this. The secret to success isn't aspiring to great things. It's doing great things. And far more often than not, that starts with doing not-so-great things. Oftentimes, you don't even know what you're doing is great until way after the fact.

You won't get to the top by thinking about how you're going to be a rich executive someday, but by thinking about how people may actually have use for a personal computer, building them in a garage, and selling them, the way Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did. Or by just doing your job better than anyone else and slowly but steadily climbing the corporate ladder from the bottom to the top, the way Whitacre did.

Remember, you won't achieve the American Dream by dreaming. You'll achieve it by doing. Your motives won't be grandiose. They'll be simple and straightforward, like loving what you do, solving a customer problem, or putting food on the table. That's what motivates successful people.

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