We live in a strange time. People can call themselves anything they want and get away with it. If you believe what they write about themselves, pretty much everyone’s a CEO, an entrepreneur, a leader, a startup founder, an award-winning keynote speaker, a best-selling author, or a self-made millionaire.
That is how it seems, anyway. In reality, the only people these phonies fool are fools. Granted, there must be a lot of fools out there, but you do not have to be one of them.
Look, the world is full of successful people. As a veteran of the high-tech industry, I live and work in Silicon Valley. You can not walk down University Avenue in Palo Alto without bumping into at least four or five CEOs and VCs (venture capitalists—not the fake kind, but the real deal. Unfortunately, you would never know it. They are not that easy to recognize.
The question is, how can you tell the difference between truly accomplished executives and business leaders who have something to offer you and the “fake it ‘til you make it” shysters who spew all sorts of BS all over the blogosphere, social media, and self-help business books? Simple. By their behavior. This is how real successful people behave.
1. They run real companies.
They have real careers. They run real companies with real products and customers. They have real experience managing businesses and leading organizations that you have probably heard of. If all their bio talks about are books, seminars, and speeches, they are not the real deal.
2. They love their work.
If you ask Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, or Satya Nadella what they do for a living, all you will hear about is Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. They are passionate about their work and proud of their company’s products and achievements. Success may come with the territory, but it is not what drives them.
3. They do things their own way.
The way they lead and the culture they build is never copied and pasted from somewhere else. Sure, they have mentors and sometimes stand on the shoulders of giants, but they still do things their own way, follow their own instincts, and have little patience for the status quo.
4. They know what they don’t know.
The vast majority of accomplished people possess humility. The ones who do not usually pay for their hubris, sooner or later. That is not to say that CEOs do not have strong egos, but when you are smart and experienced, you simply know that you do not have all the answers … and that anyone who acts like he does is full of it.
5. They have common sense.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it sounds utopian, it isn’t real. If it sounds like wishful thinking, it’s nothing but fluff. If it is a quick fix, a magic bullet, a miracle cure, or some personal habit, it is just a foolish fad. Successful people are savvy. They think for themselves. They have common sense. And they can smell BS a mile away.
6. They’re never satisfied with their own accomplishments.
Great CEOs and VCs are usually perfectionists who are never satisfied with their own achievements. They always want to do better—to build the next product customers love or fund the next great startup. They know that business success is about growth; it is a marathon without a finish line.
Related: Real leaders own their mistakes
7. They’re not super-visible.
Of course there are successful people who are highly visible—Mark Cuban and Donald Trump come to mind—but they are rare. Most are not the slightest bit interested in being famous. If fame and fortune is what drives you, I’m afraid you are going to be gravely disappointed with the outcome.
8. They’re not trying to sell you anything.
Real executives and business leaders may write a book or a blog, and after they retire they may give a speech or two, but in general, they made their living running and growing their companies and selling products, not getting you to break out your wallet to hear their pearls of wisdom.
9. They don’t self-promote.
They do not have to. Their careers, their accomplishments, the success of their companies speak for themselves. You will never hear them breath a word about how much money they have or make. They tend to be fairly modest. There are some flashy exceptions but they are few and far between.
10. They don’t preach.
They are generally not inspirational or motivational—unless, of course, you are one of their employees or customers. They do not think they possess the key to success, happiness, productivity, or any of that nonsense. They may offer lessons learned from real world experience, but they do not do shtick. If it sounds gimmicky, then it is.
Look at it this way. How well you do in life is based entirely on the work you do, the decisions you make, and the actions you take. When all is said and done, you want to look back and feel proud of what you have accomplished. You want to feel good about the life you led and the impact you had on others. And you want to know you lived your own life on your own terms.
None of that will ever come to pass if you are a fool who follows phonies.
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