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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

8 Questions Successful People Ask Themselves—That You Should, Too

We all know that having a mentor is one of those things you’re “supposed to do” to be successful. But, the reality is that there aren’t nearly as many good mentors out there as there are people who need them.

What’s a guy (or gal) to do?

We suggest looking to the greats. We scoured the web for advice from the mentors we wish we had to figure out what aspects of our lives they would be drilling us about. Read below for eight crucial questions that your mentor would ask you, if you had one. Answering them for yourself will help you identify the areas of your life that will most directly affect your success, productivity, and overall well-being.

1. What Time Do You Wake Up?

There are 24 hours in a day, and you can use all of them.

Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric

Jeff Immelt is one of the most productive people in the world and one of the few CEOs who could have possibly filled the shoes of Jack Welch when he took over GE in 2001. Immelt is an intensely hard worker, claiming to have logged 100 hours per week for the past 24 years. Doing the math, if he works six days a week, that’s about 17 hours a day.

How does he do it?

By waking up at 5:30 every morning to do cardio, read the papers, watch CNBC, and send emails. This lets him get to the office before 7 AM and immediately start working on things that matter.

And Immelt isn’t the only insanely early riser; Business Insider has published a new list of high-profile CEOs who rise before 6 AM about twice a year since 2011. The most recent one includes names like Tim Cook (CEO of Apple) and Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks).

While you don’t necessarily need to get this intense, it’s worth thinking about whether you’re using your time in the most productive way possible—and whether your habit of sleeping in could be holding back your success.

2. What Decisions Can You Stop Making?

I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

In Zuckerberg’s first-ever public Q&A a few months ago, the question that most stood out was, “Why do you wear the same gray t-shirt every day?”

The quote above is his answer. He went on to explain his thought process behind decision minimization. Basically, making decisions takes energy, and energy isn’t unlimited; therefore making fewer decisions equals more energy for things that matter.

So, what decisions can you stop making? What small things in your life can you make more routine to preserve your energy for more important things?

3. What Are You Afraid Of?

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

Steve Jobs, late CEO of Apple

When you think of the biggest innovators of the past century, Steve Jobs is inevitably one of the first names that comes to mind. This is a man who single-handedly transformed the tech industry (twice), the music industry, and the movie industry.

Jobs embraced failure and took risks. Not many people remember that Apple was on the verge of shutting down when he came back to the company in ’96. He took a $1 annual salary in his first year back at the company. Two years later, he released the fastest-selling personal computer of all time. Sounds like something that a lot of people would have been too afraid to do—but that led to great success for him.

Ask yourself: What are you afraid of? What fears are keeping you from doing what you know in your gut you need to do? It’s time to start identifying them and facing them to really reach your full potential.

4. What Is Today’s Single Most Important Goal?

You’re not going to do this forever. There’s a finite amount of time you’re going to be doing this. Do this really, really well. And if you do this really, really well, everybody will see that, and they’ll move you onto the next thing.

Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s

Don’t get me wrong: Long-term goals are important. But, the most successful CEOs got where they are today with a laser-like focus on the specific job directly in front of them.

If you had a mentor, he or she would ask you what you want to achieve today, this week, and this month, not what you’d like to achieve this year or in five years.

Here’s the simple truth: You can’t get to your one-year goals without doing your one-month goals really, really well. Plus, what you want in a year will probably be different than what you want today. So start thinking short-term; focus on doing what’s in front of you as well as you possibly can, and really succeed in it.

5. What Hard Thing Are You Not Doing Enough?

I don’t like to do just the things I like to do. I like to do things that cause the company to succeed. I don’t spend a lot of time doing my favorite activities.

Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computers

This is why I disagree with people who claim that the secret to success is to “find your passion.”

While there’s merit in liking what you do, learning to like things you don’t like doing is far more valuable. That’s what Michael Dell is saying here—you have to do the hard or boring things you don’t like to get ahead. Then, instead of getting caught up on liking what you do day to day, teach yourself to like the results that what you do brings. Just because you don’t always love what you do, doesn’t mean it can’t be fulfilling!

Think about the tasks that you’re always procrastinating or avoiding. Are they ultimately critical to your success? How can you reframe them to focus less on the task at hand and more on the reasons that task is important?

6. What Easy Thing Are You Doing Too Much?

Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People

If you need to spend more time doing the hard things, then what do you need to do less of? The easy things!

Although not a CEO himself, Dale Carnegie spent his life studying his generation’s most affluent and successful people, and this was one of his big takeaways.

Take time to identify all of your easy, low-energy tasks. You know, those things you always find yourself doing in the morning so that you can procrastinate on that really hard project until the afternoon. Yes, checking Facebook counts, even if it’s for business.

Start forcing yourself to get those low-energy tasks done during a pre-determined time in your early pre-work hours (see question one) or to wait until after lunch to even think about doing anything on that list.

7. Do You Really Need to Buy That?

Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Don’t forget Rule No. 1.

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Cutting expenses is a much faster way to wealth than boosting profits. That’s basic Business 101, and it applies to your personal life, too. However, most of us have never considered the simple math behind this rule.

In his best-selling book, The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, Andrew Tobias claims that if Ben Franklin were alive today, he’d amend his original “a penny saved is a penny earned” quote. Instead, he’d say that it takes two pennies earned to get back what you lose from one penny spent.


Because for one penny saved to be worth one penny earned, you’d have to pay zero taxes (which was true for Ben Franklin). Tobias argues that today we pay a lot closer to 50% of our income in taxes than we realize. So, for me to earn back the $50 I just spent on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, I’ll actually have to earn an extra $100!

When you think about it like that, saving money makes a whole lot more sense. The next time you want to buy something, don’t just ask yourself if it’s worth it—ask yourself if it’s worth twice as much as the price tag. Whether you’re starting a business or just thinking about your personal finances, making sure every purchase is moving you toward your ultimate goals will really help you out in the long run.

8. How Are You Going to Implement the Changes That Need to Be Made?

I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.

John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil

You’ve been asked the questions; now how will you implement the answers? Now that you know what you need to do to level up your career, your business, your wealth, or whatever else you want to improve, commit to doing it. The faster the better, but steady improvement over time is much more valuable than fast, huge changes that fall off later.

Photo of man thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.

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