I grew up in a family of 10 people in a small house across the street from the railroad tracks. Every night for several years, I had the same dream: coming back to the schoolyard I played in, chauffeured in a stretch limousine, dressed in a white tuxedo, and carrying a gold-tipped cane. As I grew older, my dreams got more complicated.

There were other, conflicting desires that wanted fair play. But I never gave up certain fantasies: the money … the admiration … the critical acclaim. I spent the first 30 years of my life doing virtually nothing to accomplish any of those dreams. I did work hard in college and graduate school, and that certainly gave me some skills I used later — but for the most part, I pissed away 30 years of my life. If I had been born in Istanbul or Marseille,
I’d be willing to bet, my life’s storyline would have been written out for me by then. But I was lucky enough to be born an American — and that, as they say, made all the difference. I’ve done just about everything I ever wanted to do (writing the great American novel being the still-vexing exception), and it has all happened much quicker than I could ever have hoped for. But it was not fast and easy. In fact, my life was pretty much a depressing failure until I recognized that all the dreaming in the world wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
To actualize my fantasies, I had to change my behavior — and that meant I had to get to work. I’ve made this point before — that you need to change your behavior to change your life — but, recently, an ETR reader put it to me more bluntly: “Can I be successful without working hard?” I liked his frankness. Here was someone who wanted success and fortune as much as the next guy — and, like the next guy, was lazy as a stick of butter on a hot day.
But in his case, at least, there was no pretense at industriousness. This guy wanted success, but he wanted it the quick and easy way. So I spent some time rethinking the question. And my answer is “no.” And “yes”! No, you can’t change your life unless you are willing to work hard. But the hard work doesn’t have to be unpleasant … and it doesn’t have to last too long. Changing the momentum of your life from backward to forward takes a lot of brute energy. But as soon as the direction changes and things start coming together for you, each successive day can get easier and easier.
This first period of change will take everything you have. It will take the mindset of a maniac, someone who will not be derailed or distracted. And it will take an enormous amount of work — 12- and 14-hour days, six and sometimes seven days a week. And that’s not counting the time you will spend thinking about your goals. That time will pretty much consume the rest of your waking life. Yes, it’s fanatical — but it’s the only way I know to make the big turnaround. (Remember, we are talking about changing from “pretty much nothing” to “something spectacular.” If you are already pretty spectacular, you may not need a change but only a nudge here and there.)
How long does that first stage take? You may not like this answer — but it usually takes three or four years, sometimes longer. The good news is that you’ll be so stoked up by the progress you are making that you will hardly notice how hard you are working. The time will fly by. Your challenge during this time will not be working hard but setting aside enough non-working time to maintain relations with those you love.
The next stage is easier and a whole lot of fun. You know your business/career/profession but have not yet mastered it. You stay very busy supplementing your skills and increasing your contacts and are rewarded for everything you do with more recognition, more appreciation, and more money (if money is part of the package). This building period usually lasts three to five years.
During this time, you don’t have anybody telling you to work hard but you can’t stop yourself. Your goals have taken on a life of their own and must be tended to. You are the best person to do that. Expect to work five or six days a week, maybe 45 to 55 hours in total. Next comes the “successful” stage. Your dream has become a reality. You are rich, famous, well-respected — whatever you wanted to be. You have mastered the skills you needed to accomplish your dream, and those skills — plus a few new ones you’ve developed — are helping you stay on top of the game.
At this stage, you can work as much or as little as you care to. You tell yourself you’ll work only two or three days a week, but you always work more. It’s not bad, though — after all, it’s your choice. The success stage can last almost as long as you want it to. During this time, you can get away with working 30 to 40 hours a week. The final stage is semi-retirement. Your career is running itself. You’ve got people doing all the hard work for you. You spend most of your time auditing the work that they are doing — challenging them to improve on what you’ve built.
And, of course, counting your money. This is a very pleasant stage. Like the success stage, it can last as long as you want … so long as you keep your key people happy and well-compensated. I am somewhere between the last two stages in my career — the career I stumbled into at age 30. If I’m successful in getting my hours down to 10 or 15 a week, as I want to, guess what I’m going to do with all my spare time? Yes, I’m going to start all over again. I’m going to go after that one dream I haven’t yet achieved — and I have every intention of achieving it.
I do have one question, though: “Can I do it without working hard?” And that’s the thing. Like the ETR reader who wrote me, I’m ambitious and lazy. Right now, those two characteristics are alive within me in equal parts. To get the one to overcome the other, I’m going to have to get a little fanatical. I can’t do that just yet — I don’t have the time to. But as soon as I’m semi-retired from the business of business, I’m going to get myself crazy again. That’s the plan. Nothing can stop me. What is stopping you?