Courage, responsibility, and credit

Before he became a New York Times columnist and bestselling author of 20 successful cookbooks, Mark Bittman was just a guy who wanted to work as a writer. He approached the editor of his local paper in Massachusetts and confidently proposed that he could do a better job than the paper’s current restaurant reviewer. The editor told him to come back the next day with a review and prove it. It worked, and that first cooking piece was published in 1980.

Jason Fried is the founder and president of Basecamp, the company behind the popular project management software of the same name. But he started as a freelance web designer in the late 90s. To win his first clients, he studied various companies’ websites, sent the CEOs emails pointing out what was wrong with their current designs, and included a mock-up of how he could improve them. That strategy won him his first clients—large companies that paid him big bucks.

These, and so many other stories of how successful people got their starts, have a few things in common.

1. They weren’t afraid to try…or to fail.
It took some guts for Bittman and Fried to boldly claim they could do it better. But what were they really risking? The editor could have passed. The CEO could have said, “I like our current design better.” But other than hearing the (temporary) sting of “No,” neither Bittman nor Fried would have suffered any lasting damage. But the fact that they weren’t afraid to try or to fail, no matter how many times it took for them to get what they hoped for, is what improved their odds and ultimately helped them be successful. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to be willing to try, to fail, and then to keep trying if necessary.

2. They shouldered the responsibility.
Bittman didn’t ask the editor to hire him before he wrote the piece. Fried didn’t require a deposit for the work he’d already completed before he shared his ideas with the CEOs. That approach didn’t just mean that Bittman and Fried were shouldering all of the responsibility; it also meant that the people in charge had nothing to lose. The more responsibility you take for your own project, the more willing you are to take the blame if it doesn’t go well, the better the chances that you’ll get to do exactly what you want to do.

3. They deflected credit.
Bittman and Fried actually made those in charge look good. Sure, Bittman got his name on that first article, but the editor must have looked good to his bosses for finding an undiscovered—and better—restaurant critic. The CEOs who gave Fried a shot got to claim the foresight in retaining someone who could improve their company’s website.

If you’re looking for a chance, an opportunity, or just the approval to try an idea within an organization:

• Have the courage to try and potentially fail.
• Accept all responsibility, and the blame if it doesn’t work.
• If it works, deflect the credit to those who gave you a chance.

Do this often enough and the practice, along with the subsequent success, will probably become a good habit.