Motivation

11 Lessons About Success That I Learned From Mark Twain

Mark Twain lessons about success

I was born a century too late to meet the great humorist Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens).

Every time I visit his Hartford house—now a museum—just a few miles from where I live, I’m inspired by his many witty quotes.

Yes, they’re hilarious. But they also reveal a glimpse of Twain’s sharp understanding of human behavior. After all, he did write the great American novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Some quotes—“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”—portray his self-deprecating charm and knack for putting everyday life into perspective.

Others are much more profound, giving us useful and timeless motivation to take action, develop self-discipline, and achieve success.

Enjoy these 11 hilarious insights from Mark Twain, and get inspired toward self-improvement and success.

11 Lessons About Success That I Learned From Mark Twain

1. Take action…today

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

So obvious yet so neglected. Things will never be just right. You will never be ready.

Get started. Now. Stop making excuses.

Action separates the boys from the men, the 1% from the 99%.

It’s simple. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

2. Be confident and think like a child

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

Perfection is paralyzing. Many want to be experts, but few are.

If you know just a little bit more than someone else, you’re in a great position to help them. And helping others makes them successful. Which shows how much value you provide.

Don’t wait to be an expert. Start understanding people’s problems, and then find a way to solve them. Most people know more than you about a particular subject. Who cares? Few people are experts at understanding problems.

This child-like mentality will let you help others, which makes you confident, which brings success.

3. Question conventional wisdom

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Always be skeptical. If an “expert” tells you this is how it works, you often want to do the opposite.

Don’t take advice on face value. Question and test everything. You’ll usually find easier or better ways to do something. Refer back to #2, deeply understanding people’s problems.

Conventional wisdom is more often wrong than right, so if you’re feeling part of the minority, it might be exactly what you intend.

I experienced this mysel after trying many fad diets over the years. I finally said, screw the “eat lots of grains and low-fat” mantra. I embraced whole, natural high-fat foods and vegetables common in nature. After losing 50 lb and having endless energy, without ever feeling hungry, my experiment eating this way has worked for me. Yet it’s the opposite of what health “experts” recommend.

4. Be authentic

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Act with integrity. Be genuine and authentic.

Don’t mislead people, don’t scam them, don’t stretch the truth, and don’t play games.

James Altucher in The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth says you should never negotiate from a position that lacks authenticity. Say what you want. State your fair price at the outset.

You might get a quick win by playing games, but always at the expense of the long game. Which will eat at you.

Build trust from beginning to end, and you will ensure deep, meaningful relationships that create abundance for you, the other person, and ultimately everyone you associate with.

5. Cultivate a support alliance

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.”

Although Mark Twain was joking about his own perilous financial position, there’s another message here.

Most people are jealous of others’ success. How often have you shared an idea with someone, only to be shot down immediately? Nay-sayers fear for their own positions, and as a result don’t want you to be successful.

Eliminate these nay-sayers from your life. Embrace the positive, supportive people in your alliance. Create a mastermind group. Get a mentor. Join a like-minded community. Hire a coach. Deepen your friendships.

Whatever it takes to “up the average” of the people in your life.

Money is the by-product of your efforts. Unfortunately, people who hate their jobs or waste their money blame others for their situation. This lack of money leads to blame, guilt, envy, entitlement, and a lack of self-discipline.

When you’ve built wealth by mastering your craft and solving problems, you value money. You also value the people who’ve supported you along the way, and they value you.

6. Fail faster, learn faster

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

Sometimes you need to carry a cat by the tail.

The most successful people also fail the most, and as Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Try new things, iterate relentlessly, and constantly experiment. You will fail much more often than the next guy, and you’ll learn exponentially faster.

What’s the best way to find a great idea—by writing down 10 ideas or 1,000 ideas? If the odds are 1% of thinking up a great idea, the list of 10 will give you zilch, whereas the list of 1,000 will net you 10 great ideas.

It’s simple math. Fail faster, learn faster.

7. Learning is more valuable than credentials

“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

Where to begin with this one?

When did we start to believe a college degree guarantees you a job? Or that it makes sense to accumulate $100,000 in school loans for a social worker degree that pays $35,000 a year? Or that you can’t develop software without a degree or this-or-that technical certification?

The fact is, what you learn—especially if you can solve people’s burning problems—is far more valuable than any credential. And there are thousands of ways to become self-taught.

Jane Goodall had no formal scientific training, yet she made a huge impact on our understanding of human behavior through her work with chimpanzees.

Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane by bucking every known “law” of aerodynamics.

Yes, a college degree can open doors. But don’t depend on it, and don’t wait on one before taking action.

8. Listening is communicating

“Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Sometimes the best way to communicate is to shut up. To listen, actively.

Let the other person talk. Then acknowledge and paraphrase what he or she said. You’ll learn a whole lot more by giving words a chance to marinate. Thich Nhat Hanh in The Art of Communication calls listening the essence of loving (and effective) communication.

Think about how you learn. When you read a book, listen to a podcast, or watch a video, do you interrupt and talk over it? Of course not. You absorb what’s being said so the information gets transferred fully to your brain. Why, then, would you interrupt someone else during a conversation?

Successful people listen fully to what others say, which shows respect and builds trust, allowing them to accelerate their knowledge by understanding other peoples’ pains.

9. Read lots of good books

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

Very few adults read more than one book every year. That’s a shame, because there is so much knowledge, value, and insight contained within the pages of the millions of books available to us at the click of a button.

The top 1% of international experts and income-earners read at least one hour every day. It’s not a coincidence. Reading as a mental exercise is just as important as working out as a physical exercise or connecting with people as an emotional one.

But it’s not enough to read. You want to follow the topics that interest you and will provide the most value. What works for me is a combination of non-fiction, inspirational, well-written fiction, and special interest. I might be reading two or three at a time, so I can switch between them and get the mental juices flowing.

If you don’t currently read, start today. Keep a notebook with you to jot down ideas, which will come in spades with frequent reading. Amazon, bookstores, and the library are your friends.

Successful people read, they read quality books, and they read often.

10. Face fear through familiarity

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

It’s OK to be afraid. It’s how you respond to fear that makes a person.

Fear is often the result of discomfort and lack of knowledge.

I used to be terrified of speaking in front of people. It wasn’t until I became a student of public speaking—reading many books, joining Toastmasters, taking a Dale Carnegie course, and practicing—that I started to become familiar with the skill and gain confidence. Which led to mastery. Which demolished by fear.

The remedy is to walk in the shoes of your fear, address your gap in knowledge by learning, reading, listening, and to become familiar by trying.

11. Go with good enough

“Let us not be too particular; it is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all.”

Voltaire’s aphorism that “perfect is the enemy of the good” is a timeless truth. If you seek perfection, you will never reach it and have nothing to show for your effort.

Successful people keep moving forward by accepting “good enough” and then launching ahead. Some ideas stick, some don’t. They don’t let a dull sheen prevent them from putting secondhand diamonds on the market.

That’s because no one has the perfect diamond. By comparison, secondhand is the standard of success.

Give it a shot. Take action. Only getting started will lead to success.

Which Mark Twain quote inspires you the most, and what specific action will you take as a result to be more successful?

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Esther Mellar

    September 18, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Hi Philip,
    The quote “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” inspires me the most. I think many of us struggle because we want that our craft is perfect. We should aim for good enough, get feedback and improve. I liked your article very much so I tweeted it.

    • Philip Pape

      September 18, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      Hey Esther,

      Thanks so much for the comment (and tweet)! I’m thrilled you were inspired by the article. The quote that you mention reminds me of a speech I heard only yeserday, where the speaker said “whatever you’re doing today, you can always do more.” His point was you can always give of your time, used books, mentorship, whatever resources you have, to help others. Solving people’s problems will bring success, not perfection!

      Cheers,
      Philip

  2. Abby Horton

    July 7, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Mark Twain is a outstanding man. Even in a lot of years, his words are still ful of sense. Thanks!

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