What Can You Learn from 50 People?

Over several months, I worked on a project for Auburn University at Montgomery – writing profiles of 50 successful alumni for a 50th anniversary celebration.

The first person I interviewed was an educator in Hawaii, the second an artist in Montgomery. The third managed a renowned stroke center, the fourth was a southern food expert. Next, I spoke with someone who heads an office on the West Coast for the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.

Over the months of assignment, I talked to several high-ranking military officers who’d had responsibilities around the globe. There were also attorneys, investment advisors, accountants, office holders, medical professionals and construction professionals. One of the interviewees helped build the Atlanta airport terminal in the late 1970s, one lady was involved in real estate developments in downtown Chicago, and another gentleman was responsible for prestigious building projects in Philadelphia.

I went to campus to place a call to Argentina (though this was his cell phone number, and he was actually in Brazil when we spoke). On another occasion, I was at my desk when I took a call from the United Arab Emirates. I also talked to a man originally from The Netherlands.

Here’s just some of what I learned from the experience.

Everyone was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear. I like to listen to people’s stories, and they all – every one of them – had good stories to tell. They appreciated being recognized, though they often downplayed the idea that they should have been the one selected.

For many of them, they began their college studies in humble circumstances. They lived at home, worked fulltime and attended classes at night. Several had to deal with “do-overs” when earlier attempts in school didn’t go so well. For most, their attendance was influenced by happenstance – a family’s move to Montgomery, a relocation during their career, a chance encounter with other Auburn Montgomery students. Or they were finishing degrees after completing military service, and they happened to be in this area.

Most remembered certain faculty members and could easily pick out something they learned in school that they continue to apply. Still, I cannot emphasize enough: everyone – regardless of circumstance, career field or global location – was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear.

“What stood out to you?” several people asked me. “What was about these people that made them successful?”

Professionally, they ran the gamut. Career path was not the common thread. But I did notice that most had to juggle school and work and/or family and/or athletics. In hindsight, the inconvenience of their studies and career choices stood out to me. They understood the need to devote scarce time and resources on a future goal instead of on immediate, smaller rewards. In other words, they delayed gratification.

To paraphrase a quote from Coach Tom Landry, they did what they didn’t want to do to achieve what they wanted to achieve.

Therefore, if those conversations are anything of a guide to success in life, this is what I determined: successful people are polite and respectful of the work other people are trying to get done. They are humble in times of recognition. And, perhaps most importantly, they know how to delay gratification.

Minnie Lamberth is a marketing copywriter and creator of Story Shaping, an encouragement platform.