You May Be Hiding the Secret to Your Success

I was having lunch with a friend of mine, a man who has been very successful in business. Deeply generous, he gave away the majority of his fortune, hundreds of millions of dollars, to a foundation.

When the waiter came to take our order, this man asked for the Caesar salad with shrimp and then added, “but instead of shrimp, could you put salmon on the salad?”

“That’s no problem, sir. Just so you know, it’ll be an extra dollar.”

The man responded after a moment’s hesitation, “You know, forget it. I’ll just take the shrimp.”

What do you call that? Cheap? Strange? Dysfunctional? I call it the secret to his success. Not yours, by the way. His.

This man has a fixation on value. He can’t stand the idea of spending a single extra dollar if it doesn’t provide at least two dollars of value. Maybe that’s extreme. But so is a fortune (and foundation) of hundreds of millions of dollars. He’s not successful despite his quirk, he’s successful because of it.

And what’s made him successful is that he’s not embarrassed about it. Or ashamed. He doesn’t hide or repress or deny it.

He uses it.

I was talking to a famous guy I know — someone whose name you would instantly recognize — when he started name-dropping. Hold on, I thought, I name-drop you. You don’t have to name-drop to me. I’m already impressed.

Why was my famous friend name-dropping? Because after everything he’s achieved, he’s still insecure. Which is, at least in part, why he’s achieved so much. He never would have worked so hard, spent so much time and effort on his projects, continued to apply himself after he had “made it,” if he wasn’t insecure. His dysfunction has turned out to be tremendously functional.

“The most interesting novels,” Newsweek editor Malcolm Jones wrote in a recent book review, “are the ones where the flaws and virtues can’t be pulled apart.”

That’s even truer for people. The most powerful ones don’t conquer their dysfunctions, quirks, and potentially embarrassing insecurities. They seamlessly integrate them to make an impact in the world.

Another friend, a doctor and the dean of a school of public health, was the driving force behind health reforms that saved the lives of millions of people in the developing world. Literally millions. Certainly he achieved this with great strengths. He was deeply connected with his values. He worked tirelessly and with single-minded focus. He cared deeply about others, friends and strangers alike, and did whatever he could to help them.

But he had a quirk. He lived and worked in the hyper-intellectual world of academia, where nuance is valued far above simplicity. Success as an academic traditionally lies in one’s ability to see and expound the grey.

But he never saw the grey. He saw the world in black and white, right and wrong. This simplistic view of the world is something that people in academia try to hide or overcome all the time. But he never hid his simplicity. He embraced it. And that was the source of his power, the secret ingredient that enabled him to save so many lives. He cut through the morass of a debate and arrived at the simplicity of righteous action.

Another friend, an outstanding investor, spends all his time obsessively looking at, thinking about, and reading financial statements of companies in which he is considering investing. He lives and breathes them. I once invited him to spend the weekend skiing. Instead of skis he brought a stack of annual reports that stood three feet high. That’s just weird. But his obsession has made him one of the best stock pickers in the world.

We all have quirks and obsessions like these. Maybe we don’t admit them, even to ourselves. Or we worry they detract from our success and work hard to train ourselves out of them.

But that’s a mistake. Our quirks very well may be the secret to our power.