The Single Secret to Success?

Tom Bay wrote a book about Harvard Business School Grads and their financial success — or lack of it.

About 10 years after graduation from what’s supposed to be the echelon of rockin’ good business brilliance, here’s how the students’ status reports came in:

  • As many as 27% of them needed financial assistance.
  • A whopping 60% of them were living paycheck to paycheck.
  • A mere 10% of them were living comfortably.
  • And only 3% of them were financially independent.

How could that be?

Shouldn’t a guy who paid top-dollar for Harvard wealth-making acumen get an automatic reserved place on the Forbes 400 list of worldwide wealthiest?  You would think. Yet, the reality proves different.

So what was it that made or broke these genius grads?

Per Michael and the book he borrowed this from, it was very simple.

See if you can spot it in this next set of data from the same study…

  • The 27% that needed financial assistance had absolutely no goal-setting processes in their lives.
  • The 60% that were living paycheck to paycheck had only basic survival goals.
  • The 10% that were living comfortably had only general goals.
  • The 3% that were financially independent had written out their goals and the steps required to reach those goals.

Really incredible, don’t you think?

The difference between living on the dole or high-on-the-hog was, very simply, setting goals. And not just any goals, but actually working out the specific steps needed to achieve those goals over time. And hey, works in the copywriting industry too.



  1. Setting goals is what got me from “paycheck to paycheck” to “almost but not quite financially secure.” Not just setting them, but writing them down and reviewing them regularly.

  2. Hi Julie, I’m not surprised… and I’m sure if you keep at it, you’ll get to that security milestone and then excel past it.

    Frankly, I’ve always been someone who makes “to do” lists and writes lots of reminders on post-it notes, but not always in an organized way.

    And you’re right, it’s the active rather than semi-passive approach to goal-setting that gives you the extra edge.

    When I’ve done it right, it certainly makes a big difference. Something else I’ve added: I just started making better use of my laptop’s calendar, entering projects accompanied with pre-set deadline alerts that pop up in the days/hours before the due date.

    Not only does it keep things on my radar screen (the alerts have a way of popping up when I’m thinking of stopping to check my email or procrastinate in some other way), but I can also post client/person specific calendars online and/or send them a “subscribe” link. They appreciate being in the loop and I appreciate knowing that they’re now building their schedules with my deadlines in mind.

  3. If you read Michael Masterson’s article, you may note that he is quoting another person, who is himlef citing a Harvard Business School report. Hard facts from a very reputable source, if somehat indirectly reported.
    The problem is – as I understand it – that Harvard cannot find any record of the original report, nor can anyone who might have been included in the survey recall anything about it. I have tried the indexes of NBR nad HBP without suiccess, but I may have missed it
    Now I do not know if it is true that Harvard cannot find it at all – only that I cannot find it now. Neither do I do if the orginal report did exist. I also don’t know anything about the methodology of the original research, if there was any (research).
    It seems to have the characteristics of a classic myth that evokes a limbic response. It ought to be right, Shucks it must be right! But is there any evidence. I do like a bit of evidence.
    I would love to see the original research.

  4. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for your note… I did, of course, read Michael’s article. That’s how I came up with the idea to swipe from it for this post! ; ) You’ll also note too that I managed above to make a reference to that other person who is citing the Harvard study, a guy named Tom Bay. The book Bay wrote, “Look Within or Do Without” may have a footnote that leads you to the actual study you seek.

    Michael also references, by the way, an older study from Yale that was done in the 1950s and produced similar results. If you happen to track down the original research, by all means share… I’d love to see it, myself.

    On empirical basis, though, I can say that Michael’s core point — that setting clear and targeted goals helps improve your chances of success — is definitely true. Study or no study, I’ve just seen that proven out far too often in my own case and for friends, family, and colleagues.

    Thanks again for the post!

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