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Getting There

“Getting There: A Book of Mentors” by Gillian Zoe Segal covers the personal stories of 30 successful people. She describes “the obstacles they overcame, the setbacks they endured and the defining moments (sometimes even in childhood) that infused them with the tenacity and strength they needed to prevail.” Segal also points out, despite what one might have imagined, that none of them had a “meteoric rise to the top” or “a smooth, steady climb along some primrose path.”

Included in the book are such notables as Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Anderson Cooper, Kathy Ireland and Frank Gehry. Each tells his or her own story in frank and honest terms, ending with their individual “pearls” of advice for those of us who haven’t made it yet.

What’s striking is that most of these winners were fired at least once, one served jail time and several faced bankruptcy. Success was achieved after many years of effort, failure and humiliation. Along the way, they experienced hardships, which would have stopped most of us in our tracks. 

There is so much good advice in this book that it’s impossible to cover all of it, but here are a few examples:

Warren Buffett repeats counsel from one of his own mentors: “You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow.” Chef Daniel Boulud advises, “Many businesses are built on connections. Don’t take any relationship for granted (you never know where your coworkers will end up down the road) and always leave each job on a good note.”

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney observes that, “If you have an idea that you think is a winner, nurture it and take your time developing it.” Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, says, “A great idea is worthless; execution is everything.”

Designer Kathy Ireland remarks, “If you never fail, it means you are not trying hard enough.” Scientist Craig Venter comments, “Success in any field is largely about taking risks.” Entrepreneur Ian Schrager adds, “Don’t be afraid of failure. If you play it too safe, you won’t get anywhere.” 

John Paul Dejoria, co-founder of Patron Spirits Co., says, “The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that successful people do all the things unsuccessful people don’t want to do.”

Helene Gayle, CEO of Care USA, offers, “While there are realistic limitations for everybody, if you set your mind to something, you can achieve most of what you want in life.” Buffett adds, “Most people go through life using up a very, very small part of their potential.”

As I read this book, I thought of other successful business people who could have been included in such a list. There have been many in the lubricant business, but one such person was Mercer Rowe (1918-2009), a successful entrepreneur who founded South Atlantic Services, a blending and packaging company.

Mercer was a positive person with a great sense of humor who actually lived most of the above advice. One day, while working as a sweaty young teenager in the dusty tobacco fields of North Carolina, he saw a man drive by in a car wearing a white shirt and tie. “I want to be like that,” he thought. That moment, he said later, was what started him on his road to success.

Jack Goodhue, management coach, may be contacted at

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