A Crucial First Step to Success

The University of Texas at Austin recently invited alumnus Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, to give its commencement address. In his address, Adm. McRaven suggested that if you want to change the world, you should start by making your own bed.

If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

The same could be said for having an organized and clean desk at the end of the day. You’ve told yourself that you’re organized and committed, and you believe in yourself, your colleagues, and your company. Taking pride in small things makes big things possible. If, at the end of the day, we organize our workstations and put everything in its place, we can begin the next day anew with a clean and tidy workplace.

The small things that we do every day make a big difference. Our business careers aren’t determined by one single event. The canvases on which our careers are painted are made with small, purposeful, disciplined, and focused brushstrokes. The culmination of a promising product launch or a successful search for an excellent candidate is made up of thousands of phone calls, presentations, e-mails, and meetings.

It may seem Pollyannaish to think that making your bed or cleaning your desk will have a direct impact on anything other than the bed or the desk. However, to succeed in business, the ability to express and control our own emotions is paramount, and equally important is our ability to comprehend, diagnose, and respond to the emotions of others. Psychologists refer to this ability as emotional intelligence (EQ), and, in his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence, author Daniel Goleman argues that EQ may even be more important than IQ. Some psychologists believe that standard measures of intelligence (i.e., IQ scores) are too limited and don’t take into consideration the full range of human intelligence. It has thus been suggested that the ability to express emotions can be an equal or even more important factor for determining success in business.

Having the discipline to do simple tasks helps you manage dangerous feelings and emotions by preventing these from directing your behaviors. Basic tasks, such as cleaning our desks, build our psychological muscles. Warren Buffett, widely considered the most successful investor of the 20th century, is famous for saying, “Only when you combine sound intellect with emotional discipline do you get rational behavior.” At the end of the day, cleaning your desk is the ideal way to make a crucial first step to success.


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