Why aiming high matters more than succeeding

Bill McDermott
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ServiceNow
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During high school, I traded three hourly wage jobs to work at a small corner deli. I stocked shelves, mopped the floor every night and bagged groceries as I got to know customers.

The small store was located between a large Finast supermarket and a 7-Eleven convenience store, which meant we had some serious competition. When the deli’s owner, my boss, decided to sell the business, no one wanted to buy it. Except for me.

Where others saw challenges, I sensed opportunity. Unfortunately, I had no money. So I made my boss a deal: If he loaned me $5,500, I would pay him back within a year, including interest. He agreed, and overnight I was balancing school with being a small business owner.

My goal, however, was not just to pay the money back. I dreamed of turning my store into the most popular place in the neighbourhood, increasing our sales and using its profits to pay for my college education. Less than a year later, the deli was bustling, I was making enough money to share with my family and I repaid the loan. Several years later, I graduated college with my tuition paid in full.

Back then, I understood something that would affect the rest of my life: We aim for the bulls’ eyes that we create. If I’d only aspired to pay the money back, I probably would have done so, but then what? Like an athlete that dreams of becoming a gold medalist, versus just hoping to qualify for the Olympics, we cannot achieve what we do not envision.

I applied that philosophy to my own career. After college, I landed my first job as a door-to-door salesman for the Xerox Corporation. My dreams were twofold: I wanted to be Xerox’s #1 new-business salesperson in the country, and eventually I wanted to become the CEO. I admit these were pretty bold goals for a 21-year-old.

The first dream came true. And while I did become the company’s youngest-ever corporate officer at that time, I made the tough choice to leave Xerox before I could attain the top job. Still, I had an incredible 17 years at the company as I aimed for that bull’s eye. In my quest to be chief, I learned how to strategize and execute; I led teams and businesses to exceed expectations; and I made lifelong friends. No doubt, that journey helped prepare me for my current role as CEO of SAP.

My experience at Xerox taught me another valuable lesson: “Winning” is not about how a journey ends, but about the nature of the end that we imagine for ourselves, and then how we pursue it. By my definition, “winners” are those who dare to dream of greatness for themselves and others because that journey is far more rewarding than striving for anything less.

The world is full of dreamers, and I am lucky to work with and know many. But over the years I’ve also met young people who are too nervous to dream of greatness for themselves, and even more adults that have stopped dreaming. Perhaps they fear failure. Maybe someone told them they were not worthy or didn’t have what it took to achieve amazing outcomes. Or, they are letting their past struggles water down their present aspirations.

I, too, have stumbled. I have also suffered cynics and doubters—I still do. But if we allow others to steal our dreams, we never win. Why? Because the very act of dreaming and then pursuing it with passion and dignity is the win.

We win whenever we envision an outcome so audacious that others think it’s impossible.

We win when we pursue a goal with optimism, preparation, discipline and respect. We win when we inspire people to join in that pursuit, and when the quest itself brings out the best in everyone. Real winning is when we push ourselves beyond what we know we can do toward what we truly want to achieve.

Why do winners dream? Because it sparks a journey that transforms our working lives into our life’s work. 

Published in collaboration with LinkedIn

Author: Bill McDermott is Chief Executive Officer and a member of the Executive Board of SAP.

Image: A boy touches a 45-metre (148-feet) long wall lighted by colour rays at an exhibition hall in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei province. REUTERS/China Daily

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