5 Ways To Improvise Your Way To Success

There isn't a single path to take toward success. Here's how to make it up as you go.

Most of us would welcome a blueprint for success: a list of accomplishments to check off that would result in dream jobs and promotions.

But doing all the “right things” doesn’t necessarily give you an edge when it comes to achieving prosperity and happiness.

“People entering the business world today are a commodity; they’ve attended the same schools, read the same books, gone to the same movies, played the same video games, and watched the same TV shows,” says Fred Cook, CEO of GolinHarris, a public relations firm with 50 offices worldwide. “What they don’t have is life experience, ideas of their own or world views. Those are the things that elevate your career.”

Cook, whose company has provided marketing services to companies like Nintendo, McDonald’s, Walmart, BP and Toyota, credits his success to the deviations he took earlier in life. Before he started his corporate career at the age of 36, he had worked as an Italian leather salesman, chauffeur, substitute teacher, cross-country tour guide, a cabin boy, and a doorman, and each job taught him a profound lesson.

“If you want to be successful and you don’t have the right credentials, improvise by creating something special from whatever ordinary ingredients happen to be available,” he says. He shares his knowledge in the book Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO (Agate Publishing, 2014), with the hopes that college graduates will discover there’s more than one path to success. Here are five of his tips for improvising your career:

1. Expose yourself new things.

Whether it’s through small gestures, such as trying new foods, or by taking bigger risks, such as traveling or moving to a foreign country, Cook says trying different things broadens your perspective.

“Eventually, you’ll have more ideas than everyone else because you’ve experienced more,” says Cook. “Most ideas are created by looking at something existing in a new and different way. When you amass life experiences, you draw from a larger database.”

2. Risk failure.

We all dream up ideas for new products and services--and some of us even reserve the URLs--but what most of us don’t do is take the risk and try.

Cook says everyone should have at least one significant “screw up” in their career, preferably while they’re young. His miss was Sober Chauffeur, a business he launched in California in his early 20s, driving intoxicated people home.

“Ultimately it failed because clients were too drunk to call,” he says. “But the idea generated a lot of press and was even featured in the Wall Street Journal. When you start your own business you learn so much more than you would with an internship.”

3. Work for tips.

Some of the best knowledge Cook gleaned happened in unlikely jobs. His favorite was when he worked as a doorman in a five-star hotel in Los Angeles. In fact, he credits this position as teaching him the importance of client service.

“I learned it’s not always the grandiose gestures that impress people; it’s the little things like remembering their name and acknowledging their kids’ birthday,” he says.

Cook used this knowledge in his corporate career when Starbucks was opening its first California location in the early ‘90s. CEO Howard Schultz was interviewing public relations firms and came to GolinHarris’s Beverly Hills office. Cook had his staff order a bag of Starbucks coffee by mail.

“Howard came in looking a little grouchy and tired,” recalls Cook. “We offered him coffee and he declined. We told him it was his coffee and he was surprised--this was long before Starbucks coffee was sold at every corner store. He sipped it and looked delighted. In the end, he hired us and I know it wasn’t because we had better ideas; it was because we had taken care of the details and served him his own coffee.”

4. Don’t rush.

When entering the workforce, it can be tempting to search for your dream job right away and overlook other opportunities. Instead, Cook suggests taking your time without worrying where you are in comparison to your peers.

“When I eventually decided it was time to enter the corporate workplace, I was 36--15 years behind everyone else,” he says. He interviewed for entry-level positions, but once he got in, he excelled and climbed the corporate ladder faster.

“I had life experience to draw on for ideas and I had learned to not be afraid to try new things or ask for opportunities,” he says. “I may have started late, but once in I picked up speed.”

5. Make your own rules.

When it comes to finding your dream job, there are many different ways of getting there, says Cook. He suggests that people think of their career like a vacation. If the whole itinerary is planned, the hotels are booked and the museums are chosen, you end up with a cookie-cutter experience. But if you go off the beaten path, you’ll meet people and find places you never knew existed.

The difference between improvising and drifting? “Knowing where you want to end up,” says Cook. “But life is much more interesting if you don’t have a map for every step of the way.”

[Image: Flickr user alantankenghoe]

Add New Comment

6 Comments

  • Cornelia Hicks

    Great advice. I have worked since I was 13 - McDonalds, Park Bureau, Publisher, Bank, and at a state and private University. Left a dream job at 28 and moved to Bermuda. Later, I left a great job in Bermuda to attend graduate school in Massachusetts, then on to NYC and later Georgia, in between I lived and worked in Holland. What experiences! I now run my own marketing firm and have such an appreciation for the world and culture. At each turn, someone cautioned - don't do that! My only regret - I didn't go to China when suggested by an undergraduate professor. Otherwise, I wouldn't change any of it! I tell people all the time. Live. Get some experience. Travel. Before you have the weight of life holding you down.

  • Cornelia Hicks

    Great advice. I have worked since I was 13 - McDonalds, Park Bureau, Publisher, Bank, and at a state and private University. Left a dream job at 28 and moved to Bermuda. Later, I left a great job in Bermuda to attend graduate school in Massachusetts, then NYC and later Georgia, in between I've lived and worked in Holland. What experiences! I now run my own marketing firm and have such an appreciation for the world and culture. At each turn, someone would caution - don't do that! But I wouldn't change any of it!

  • Great article! The soup can theory that I often think about comes to life in this article. As a college student, I have realized that I am being processed and labeled just as the soup is at Campbell's. We complete the 120 credits needed to graduate and are sent out with a label, Bachelors of Arts. What does this even mean? Quite frankly, it means very little to most, for we have been conditioned to think and believe certain things before we have even been given the time to formulate or draw our own conclusions.

  • Great article! The soup can theory that I often think about comes to life in this article. As a college student, I have realized that I am being processed and labeled just as the soup is at Campbell's. We complete the 120 credits needed to graduate and are sent out with a label, Bachelors of Arts. What does this even mean? Quite frankly, it means very little to most, for we have been conditioned to think and believe certain things before we have even been given the time to formulate or draw our own conclusions.