Secret to achieving your goals? Don’t be limited by what you've achieved before

Peter Drucker


I first heard the following idea articulated by motivational speaker, Tony Robbins some years ago: "The way they were does not equal the way we are or can be."

You may have seen Robbins on one of his infomercials on TV, read one of his books, or listened to one of his CDs or tapes even if you haven’t attended one of his workshops or seminars. Robbins himself is a good example of his statement that the past does not equal the future.

Although he’s consulted with heads of state as well as world class movers and shakers, Robbins doesn’t have a college degree and never attended college. Moreover, at one point he was so poor that he had a small apartment with no kitchen. According to him, he was washing his dirty dishes in his bathtub. Today he is a millionaire many times over. He’s not alone.


Don't be fooled into thinking that today has to be the same as yesterday...

Yesterday is not today

Many highly successful people have either started out very slowly in their careers, or faced major setbacks after achieving some success, and then come back again to even greater success than they could have ever imagined. For both those who suffered setbacks and those that did not, "the way they were" has nothing to do with the way they are today. How does this happen?

I was recently re-reading a book about Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, the famous Confederate general during the American Civil War who Robert E. Lee referred to as his "right arm." He was second only to Robert E. Lee himself in his fame and adoration in the South during that terrible war in which brother fought against brother. After Jackson was killed as a result of complications from wounds received from "friendly fire" at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, Confederate arms were never quite the same. But even today military academies the world over study his actions in battle.

In College Studies, Jackson Began Badly

Twenty years earlier at West Point, Jackson, who had been exposed to little mathematics in his previous education, ranked right at the bottom of his class at the end of his first year. He barely made it to graduate without being dismissed for failing in the classroom before he ever got to the battlefield.. However, Jackson was determined and he didn’t let "the way he was" affect his attitude.

Every night, Jackson stoked up the coals in his room and studied far into the morning hours. By his graduation in 1846, he stood 17th in his class out of 59 even though his early years in which he did so poorly were included in the average. His classmates said that given one more year as a cadet, Jackson would have stood at the head of his class.

For Jackson, It was the Way He was . . . Twice

During the war between the U.S. and Mexico, Jackson distinguished himself and earned two brevet promotions. Only two years after graduation from West Point in 1848, he held the rank of brevet major and was well ahead of his classmates who had so out-performed him during his early years at the Academy. Soon after Jackson left the Army and got a job teaching at the Virginia Military Institute. He was a poor instructor who memorized his lectures and gave little help to his students who termed him "Tom Fool" Jackson. But when war came, he joined the Confederate Army and again didn’t look back. He is considered one of the greatest tactical strategists in U.S. military history.

Jackson’s Nemesis, Grant, Got Kicked out of the Army

Ulysses S. Grant graduated about in the middle of his West Point class of 1843 five years earlier than Jackson. He had a good record during the Mexican War too. However, he managed to get himself thrown out of the Army for excessive drinking a few years later. He managed to get a job as a dry goods clerk in Galena, Illinois. He might have been fired there too except that he was working for his younger brother. His brother had hired him only because no one else would, and he could get a job nowhere else.

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When the Civil War came, Grant tried to volunteer. Despite having a background which included awards for bravery during the Mexican War and being a West Point graduate, Grant was turned down for relatively junior commands. No one wanted him! Even George McClellan who he had known at West Point and was overall union commander ignored his plea for any position at all.

However, Grant didn’t quit. He was very persistent. Almost by accident, the Governor of Illinois, Grant’s state commissioned him a brigadier general of volunteers from that state. Grant proved to be the outstanding commander of Federal forces during the Civil War and eventually became General-in-Chief. In fact they made him a four-star general, America's first. Congress hurriedly promoted George Washington to four-star rank posthumously, because they felt no one should outrank the general who won American independence. After the war Grant was twice elected President of the U.S.

From Stock Boy to PhD and President

There are hundreds of others like Jackson and Grant, in and out of the military. Some come from very humble beginnings. Jim Carroll, one of my doctoral classmates at Claremont Graduate University was a stock boy with only a high school education when hired by his company. Over a seven-year period, he rose from his initial hourly position to the presidency of his firm. During the same period, he went back to college and earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree at night school. After gaining his doctorate, he went on to become a highly paid consultant and the president of other firms.

The Woes of Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein, the great physicist wanted to be a university teacher, but managed to get a doctorate only with great difficulty. It is said that he got an F in all his subjects in his final year in high school, but this is a myth. It turns out that the numerical system of grades was reversed that year. He actually got the numerical equivalent of straight "A"s. However, Einstein did fail an examination that would have allowed him to earn a diploma as an electrical engineer. Moreover, he couldn’t get into graduate school to earn a doctorate. He couldn’t even get a job! Finally, with the help of a friend he got a low paying, at first temporary, job with the Swiss patent office. He wrote that he gave up hope of ever getting into a university.

However, during seven years at the patent office, he wrote theoretical thesis after thesis on his own time, all based on his own studies outside of the classroom. These were so extraordinary, that the University of Zurich, awarded him a doctorate based on one of his theses, "On a new determination of molecular dimensions." Later Einstein developed his most famous theoretical concept, the Theory of Relativity. For his work in theoretical physics, notably on the photoelectric effect, he received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Over his life, he taught at other universities in Europe. When anti-Semitism forced him to leave his native Germany, he came to the U.S. and became a U.S. citizen and taught at Princeton. During his lifetime, Einstein was acclaimed as the greatest scientific thinker of our time. Clearly, he didn’t care about "the way he was" before. He may not have been able to get into the university for studies, but he found another way: he studied on his own and became a university professor anyway.

You can do whatever you want to do which does not violate the laws of nature, man, or the Deity. Just don’t give up. Persist in your goals. It doesn’t matter what went before. The past does not equal the future. In 210 B.C. Hannibal before encountering the impassable Alps and successfully invading ancient Rome said: "We will either find a way or make one." Using elephants, he did. You can too, even without the elephants.