One of my all-time favorite books that I’ve been referring back to lately is It’s Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want to Be by Paul Arden. The book opens with, “Nearly all rich and powerful people are not notably talented, educated, charming or good-looking. They become rich and powerful by wanting to be rich and powerful.” That statement sets tone for the rest of the book which uses the principles of good advertising as a metaphor for running a successful business.
The beauty of It’s Not How Good You Are… is that it’s smart and clever in its execution but not brimming with business jargon. This book makes you think of that one boss who guided you through the jungle of corporate America by day and then took you out for a stiff drink and an inspirational pep talk at night. It leaves you feeling empowered, motivated and ready to take on the world.
Early in the book, Arden sets forth his first challenge: “So how good do you want to be?” Most of us usually set a goal of wanting to be good, or, if we’re really confident, perhaps the best in our field. But why not aim higher? A few years back, I was talking to another designer, saying that I wanted to be a really good at what I did. I was naming off the people I really admired. The designer thought for a second and said, “You’re comparing your work to the top 10% of designers in the world. That’s why you feel like you’re never good enough.” They had a point but if you want to improve in an area of your life, aim high. Push yourself harder to get to that level. Otherwise, it’s too easy to settle for just being ‘good.’
On this subject, Arden says that, “Talent helps but it won’t take you as far as ambition. Everybody wants to be good but not many are willing to make the sacrifices it takes to be great. You will become whoever you want to be.” It’s a simple statement yet consider the power of what he’s saying. What you put forth in effort is what you will get back.
One point that really hit home for me personally is, “Don’t look for the next opportunity. The one you have in hand is the opportunity.” We are always waiting for that perfect project. That perfect collaboration. I’ve been on design teams where we loathe the client to the point that we just give in to mediocracy to get the project out the door. It’s easy to lose sight of the potential when you’re full of disdain (and sometimes, rightly so!) But, back up. Arden says, “Whatever is on your desk right now, that’s the one. Make it the best you possibly can. It may not be great, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you did the best you possibly could, and you may learn something from it.” I love this.
I’ve kept this page in mind ever since I first saw it when designing business cards for both myself and clients. Often, less really is more. “The person in the left column is the same as the one in the right column. But we regard them very differently,” Arden says. The person in the left column is saying what he is. The person in the right column is more ambitious. It’s how he wants others to perceive him. How you perceive yourself is how others will perceive you.”
Another powerful sentiment that seems to evaporate as we get older is, “When it can’t be done, do it. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t exist.” Follow through on that crazy idea. Arden says, “A new idea can be either unfamiliar, or silly, or both. It can’t be judged by description. It needs to be done (made) to exist.” The next time you have that brilliant idea that pops into your head at 2 am, write it down, run with it and make it happen.
Finally, the book ends with a list of famous quotes. My personal favorite?
“It’s better to fail in originality, than succeed in imitation.” -Herman Melville
I distinctly remember picking this book up on a lunch break in 2004 when I was working at a shoe store in the mall. I was looking for guidance for my next big move and I remember this book being a breath of fresh air. Arden proclaims that, “Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have. Without having a goal it’s difficult to score.” It’s Not How Good You Are… is there to help you make the most of yourself. Are you ready for the challenge?