Garry Shandling, the comedian who died recently, got his first big break in 1981 as a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After this appearance, he told his agent that appearing on The Tonight Show was great, but he had always wanted to guest host it.

His agent told him to forget about it. It wasn’t going to happen. He should focus on something else.

This story could end here, and Garry Shandling may have still been a very famous and successful comedian if he had listened to his agent. But, he didn’t listen, and in 1986 and 1987, he guest hosted for the Tonight Show on numerous occasions and he then went on to have his own talk show and, later, star in a parody of a talk show.

Plenty of people dream about being talk show hosts or, more vaguely, about being famous. Only a small portion of these people take action towards their goals. Of those, only a small portion will reach the level of success represented by being considered a good substitute for Johnny Carson. But, just in taking action and not getting discouraged by people who tell you what you can’t do, you come closer to realizing your goals than every single person who didn’t take action or who did get discouraged.

Luck and chance are often cited as the reasons that some people achieve success and happiness. You’ll hear people say things like “I hope things turn around” or “I wish it were different.” These statements beg listeners to respond with “You just gotta make the best of it.” or “Ya, but what can you do?” These responses are, in some ways, worse than the original statements. They acknowledge the futility of the situation and absolve responsibility. There are, of course, circumstances that are beyond our control. But, luck and chance, and even the “hard work” we hear so much about are not the primary determining factors of success. Success is in how you define it.

Defining success, in concrete terms, is something that surprisingly few people ever do. We tell kids that they can be anything they want to be. But, is that helpful? Or is exposing them to options, and preparing them for the future, and encouraging them to define success in their own unique way what’s most important?

When kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up, the following four professions usually top the list:

  • Astronaut
  • Athlete
  • Actor
  • Musician

Computer programmer doesn’t make the top 10, and probably doesn’t make the top 100 — and it really points to a problem with popular culture. A large percentage of today’s kids will be computer programmers, a much larger percentage will be doing technical work on computers, and nearly all of them will be working with computers on a daily basis. Very few will be astronauts. Will the ones who aren’t feel like they’ve failed?

Should we discourage kids from wanting to be athletes and musicians? Absolutely not. Everyone should be an athlete and a musician. You become a musician by playing music and an athlete by doing athletic things. You become a computer programmer by programming computers. You can be all of these things simply by doing them (well, with the exception of astronaut), and you can feel successful and be successful doing them.

This isn’t an article about how if you work hard you can do and be anything. That’s not true. This article is about clearly defining what success means for you and then doing something about it.

A small number of people do define what success means for them and take action. They take a class, buy a book, or talk to people who have done what they want to do. If they decide to move forward and they fail, they’ve learned something and they should feel proud and successful. This is exactly the attitude we should encourage in our kids, our friends, our students, and our society.

Take action towards your next success!
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