A Wall Street Insider Shares His 5 Secrets of Success

The graduation season has ended and summer has begun. Many young people are using this period to prepare for the next phase of their lives. As they do, I offer a few pieces of advice that I wish I had received when I was in their shoes just starting out. These comments are based on my experience as a business executive and as a professor at Harvard Business School. They are also based on having made my own share of mistakes.

1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. 

Write them down. This is harder than it sounds because many people don’t know how to figure this out. They wait for their bosses, family members or colleagues to give them feedback rather than taking personal ownership of getting the coaching they need.

It is your responsibility to have a realistic assessment of those skills you are good at and where you need developmental help and extra work. Often, people who observe you have a very clear sense of your strengths and where you need to improve but they may not want to give you unwelcome advice or offend you. Take the opportunity to ask them for their assessment and actively keep an updated list.

Be receptive to getting feedback. This approach will help you throughout your chosen career to build on your strengths and focus on the skills you need to develop.

2. Cultivate at least 3 or 4 people who care about you enough to tell you the truth.

This may involve things you may not want to hear, but need to hear to continue your development.

It may involve telling you that you’re more capable than you believe and, encouraging you to have confidence to represent yourself and pursue your dreams.

This feedback may also involve telling you when you’re dead wrong and/or when you need to make changes in what you’re doing. This requires cultivation of individuals who you seek out for advice and a reality check.

Start now in selecting and cultivating these people.

3. Work on finding your passion(s). 

Conventional wisdom and peer pressure often veer people away from their own passions and instead focus them on what’s “hot” or popular at the moment. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom is almost always wrong --for you.

Peer pressure can have an enormous impact but, ultimately, you’re the one that has to look in the mirror and be happy with your daily activities.

In my experience, nothing is as powerful as doing something you love and believe in! Don’t talk yourself out of trying to find it.

4. Write down--today--2 or 3 ethical boundaries you promise yourself you will not cross.

These may be about never lying, cheating, stealing, etc. Why do this? Eventually, you will be confronted with a situation where you’re under pressure and tempted to do something that violates one of these boundaries. Peers or bosses may even encouraging you to do so. It will seem to happen in a split second--and you’ll make a terrible decision that will impact your integrity and possibly your future.

If you have thought about your boundaries up front, will be better equipped to slow down, consult advisers (above) and push back against doing something you’ll regret.

Write down this list so as to be prepared.

5. Act like an owner. 

Be willing to admit when you don’t understand -- it’s liberating. Don’t do something you believe is wrong just because you were ordered to do it. Too many people pretend they understand or agree when they do not-- insecurity, not wanting to appear dumb, peer pressure cause people to go along when they never really understood but were afraid to admit it.

Also, there are many persuasive and manipulative people who will encourage you to do something you don’t fully understand or, do something that gives you a queasy ethical feeling.

Be willing to stop, ask questions and admit when you don’t understand.

In my experience, people who do this are the ones that ultimately get promoted and form the core of great firms.

There is nothing earthshaking about this advice. The five points I've listed really speak to a mindset which involves being willing to ask the right questions rather than striving to have all the answers.

To follow this advice, it may help you to keep a journal where can write on a regular basis. While it may appear that successful leaders usually have all the answers, the reality is that they are more likely to have learned to ask the right questions and strive to understand themselves. When they make mistakes (and they do), they strive to acknowledge them and learn lessons, and then more forward.

The world is crying out for leadership. It needs you. It needs people who strive to understand themselves and what they believe and have the courage to act on their beliefs when appropriate.

Being a leader is not so much about position or stature. It’s more about what you actually do in whatever job/career you choose.

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Not everything that counts, can be counted. And, not everything that can be counted, counts.” If you’re true to your principles and values, avoid taking actions that would compromise your integrity in the hopes of achieving success, I don’t know how much money or stature you’ll attain, but I do know that you’re going to feel like a big success. My best wishes for your future.

Robert Steven Kaplan, is the former Vice Chairman of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. He is currently professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and co-chairman of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy firm. His new book is "What To Ask the Person In the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential"(Harvard Business Publishing).