The Checklist for Earning Your Life

By Marshall Goldsmith

Over my decades as a coach, I’ve identified six considerations for success. These are motivation, understanding, confidence, support, the marketplace — and ability. One doesn’t suffice for fulfillment, for success — for earning a good life. They are complementary and build on each other for you. 

These are the factors you must check off to gauge your chances of success at any challenging task or goal. 

A checklist is essential. For example, a good home or professional chef will tell you that the first crucial consideration in cooking is the mise en place: having in place all the ingredients for a dish, already measured, cut-up, at hand, and set to go. You chop the vegetables, have the spices at hand, and start. If you’re baking, you’ve measured the flour, sugar, spices, other ingredients — and you can start. Once all of that is done, the cooking or baking begins. 

Like most checklists, the mise en place seems like a quite simple organizing system, but it is also a mindset that anchors the chef or baker’s motivation, ability, understanding, and, most of all, confidence. With everything in place, the chef is liberated to create and do what they do best: turn ordinary ingredients into something extraordinary. 

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Candidly ask yourself: Am I motivated to do this? Am I able? Do I understand how to harness my ability to get the job done? Do my past achievements make me confident that I can do this? Do I have support? Is there a marketplace that will appreciate the effort?

 Each of these factors must be aligned. Each one should enhance the other. They are not à la carte. You can’t be strong on five of them and weak on the other. Each one is sufficiently broad to include the qualities that are specific to you, which makes them the ideal set of fundamental questions when you confront big change. 
Checking each box tells us whether we have alignment or not.
Here, for example, is a recap of my checklist conversation with a friend named Marie who started up a pasta sauce business three years earlier. She had been a retired food professional whose homemade sauce was so good friends kept telling her, “You should sell this!” So she did. You tell me if she has alignment:
Motivation: “I get a kick out of making a special product that customers appreciate. I’m doing this for that validation, not the money. Not yet, at least.”
Ability: “My first job out of college was developing recipes for food companies. I know how to write a recipe and develop something authentically new.”

Understanding: “No one is born knowing how to do a start-up. You learn it as you go. I follow the Rule of Fools: ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’”

Confidence: “I’ve created three distinct products—we call them SKUs—for the brand. It’s not foolish to expect a fourth idea and a fifth to show up. It’ll happen.”

Support: “We entered an accelerator contest last year, and we were one of five small companies chosen to be mentored for six months by experts in the food industry, mostly for the purpose of attracting investors, which doesn’t interest us yet. When I don’t know something, I call my mentors.”

Marketplace: “People will always need ready-made sauce to put on their pasta and pizza, to stuff their peppers, to make chili. Our niche is the high end. We don’t need everyone to buy, just the right sliver of the market, and those people are finding us.”

Then I asked Marie if she felt aligned. “Alignment is something I felt right away,” she said, “because I was enjoying myself. Two years into it, though, when we were showing a little profit, I started wondering what was the purpose of all this work if I wasn’t taking a salary yet. What was the endgame? One of the mentors told me that start-ups aim either for steady profit growth or being bought out. I decided our goal was getting someone to buy us, after which we could keep at it with more resources or move on. That gave me clarity and purpose. I felt aligned again.”


Marie had all the right answers. Can you say the same about the life you’re living right now?

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