How Desperation Drives Highly Successful People

Steve Tobak

Steve Toback for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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I’ve often observed that successful CEOs and executives have a common attribute: the ability to quickly absorb information and use it to synthesize unique solutions to complex problems. I guess that’s why I enjoy “original content” blogging so much. The process is similar to what I used to do; I just get to do it working from home.

Sometimes the same information, triggered by an event of some sort, leads to new insights and conclusions. It’s sort of a gift that keeps on giving.

So it was that, after writing Irreverent Career Advice for Up-and-Comers, I realized that I’d missed something critical, something that figured prominently in the early days of my career. I didn’t realize it at the time and, for one reason or another, I didn’t see it until now. But it had a huge impact on the way my career turned out and I don’t think I’m alone.

You see, when I first started out in the real world, I was desperate. Desperate to prove myself, desperate to make money, desperate to become a success. And to be completely honest, that desperation was probably a more powerful motivator for me than anything else.

Because I was so desperate to become somebody, to make my parents proud, to shine in spite of humble beginnings, I did whatever I had to do to “make it.” I took big risks. I took responsibility for things I had no business being responsible for. I was fearless because my desperation was stronger than my fear of failure, fear of the unknown, or any other fear, for that matter.

I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here. It was desperation, all right.

Of course, in time, having succeeded at some things and failed at others, the accumulated experience eventually grew into confidence and competence. But in the beginning, I had little confidence and, to be blunt, even less competence.

After all, I didn’t learn beans about modern semiconductor design and trouble-shooting techniques in college. And I learned even less about how to lead and manage a team of dozens of professionals in designing and producing a complex high-tech product. Which, incidentally, is what I did for a living way back then.

So, while I did develop into a confident and competent professional, manager, and in time, executive, in the beginning, more than anything, there was desperation. Of course, that’s not the case with everyone. But it’s not an isolated case, either.

"I'm #1."

For example, I know that desperation drove Howard Stern in his early days in radio. Eventually, he found a passion for what he wanted to accomplish and, over time, developed the confidence and competence to pull it off. But in the beginning, he was desperate. Desperate to be somebody. Desperate to prove to his father that he could make it. He’s spoken of that on his show time and again.

And that’s what drove him to take big risks, take on authority, take on the big network guns that told him, over and over, that what his inner voice told him to do couldn’t be done. I could be wrong, but I think Stern still carries that desperation around inside him. I think it continues to drive him in everything he does. Except now, it’s balanced with competence and confidence. A powerful combination, indeed.

I’m also thinking that desperation was instrumental in driving Larry Ellison, the founder and CEO of Oracle and one of the richest men in the world. Possibly even Steve Jobs, although I’m not as confident in drawing that conclusion as I am with respect to Ellison.

Bottom line: Early in our careers, desperation helps us to be fearless in overcoming extreme adversity and taking big risks.

What do you think about that? Do you think it’s true, that desperation is a driving force behind a lot of successful people? Is that a good thing? Is it dysfunctional? Does it drive you?

Also check out:

How to Conquer Your Fear and Self-Doubt … Really

5 Ways Chemistry Leads to Business Success

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Steve Tobak is a consultant, writer, and former senior executive with more than 20 years of experience in the technology industry. He’s the managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based firm that provides strategic consulting, executive coaching, and speaking services to CEOs and management teams of small-to-mid-sized companies. Find out more at Follow Steve on Twitter or Facebook.

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