Leading a Relevant Life

UPDATED: January 6, 2009
PUBLISHED: January 6, 2009

Relevant living leads to success. Taking
ownership of your life, expanding the
good and ditching the bad, looking
inside yourself for direction, focus
and motivation while ignoring society’s
labels and expectations—these are some
of the actions and attitudes to prepare you
for opportunities to build a successful life.

But personal relevancy can be elusive. It takes introspection
to determine what is important to you, where you want
to go and how you’re going to get there. Looking inward and
really listening to our inner selves isn’t always easy.

“We’re not programmed to look inside,” says Stedman
Graham, motivational speaker, educator and best-selling
author. “We’re programmed to focus on the external world
to define us. It defines us by our race, by our house, car, job,
title, family, class, gender, religion, money—all the external
things that give value to who we are.

“We just learn this way,” Graham says. “So we go through
the motions looking for the outside world to direct us and
guide us. They tell us what to buy, what to eat, what to wear,
where to go and what’s new. They dictate to us who we are and
where we should be going.”

In essence, Graham says, we relinquish ownership of our
lives by putting too much stock in what the world thinks. In
the process, we squelch our future success.

Identify Yourself
Only about 5 percent of people are
privy to this “secret information,” Graham
quips, not because of some innate ability, but
instead because of intervention. A combination of
environment, training, good parents and teachers,
as well as exposure to diverse peoples and places,
gradually changes personal perspective and allows
these people to shed unnecessary societal directives
and create individualized success.

“True leadership is about developing an identity
for yourself, knowing who you are, where you’re
going and how you’re going to get there,
then developing a process for continuous
improvement,” Graham says. But 95
percent of people never learn this,
casually falling in line as followers
with a deeply hidden desire to
create relevance and take ownership
of their lives.

"We’re programmed to focus on the external world to define us."

That’s why people gravitate
toward true leaders. A case in
point is the grassroots organization
built by Barack Obama in his
bid for the presidency. Graham says,
“The reason that Barack Obama is
president of the United States is because
he took ownership of his own life. Because
he said, ‘You know what? I want to dedicate myself
to public service.’ He could’ve made more money.
He could’ve had more opportunities, but instead he
became a community organizer.”

The power of community organizers is on-the ground
leadership, Graham says. They organize
community resources, build relationships and
navigate issues affecting people with varied
backgrounds, all while developing a spirit of cooperation.
“That’s leadership, and it’s the toughest
work because many times you don’t come with the
resources; you have to develop them.

“When [leadership] is real, when it’s truthful,
when it’s relevant, when it’s exciting, when there’s
energy, you understand that the leader knows how
to organize and create resources and opportunity,”
he says. “That’s clearly a person who takes charge of
their life and a person who consistently thinks.”

Prep Work
A decade ago, Graham devised a nine-step plan
to enlighten the 95 percent of people out there who
weren’t directing their own lives. You Can Make It
became a New York Times
Best-Seller and Graham stood as a
proponent for relevant living and
lifelong learning. In the years since, he has published
multiple personal-development titles, including
Teens Can Make It Happen, counseled thousands
of individuals with backgrounds in education and
business, and became a community activist.

As the old adage says, “Success is when preparation
meets opportunity.” Graham firmly believes in
being prepared, and his nine-step plan for success
provides prep work for recognizing opportunities
and making the most of them while remaining true
to personal beliefs.

“First, you have to know who you are, and then
you have to organize all the things that you want
to achieve in your life, all the things that you are
passionate about,” Graham says. This is by no
means a stagnant list, but rather an ever-evolving
one. By compartmentalizing your life vision, based
on who you are, you have a road map of sorts to
guide you.

Lose Baggage, Gain Vision
How, then, to know who you are on the inside?
Graham calls this checking your ID. Everyone
comes with baggage, issues buried deep in the
psyche that often work silently to defeat success.
Look inside, understand what motivates your
thoughts and actions, then take ownership and start
resolving the issues.

Don’t settle for a poor self-image or negative
attitude. Be confident in yourself, competent in
your skills, and capable of defi ning, creating and
controlling your own life. Above all, feel worthy of
your personal vision, which requires an inventory
of talents and interests and a dose of imagination, as
well as meaningful, realistic and well-defi ned goals.

Uncertainty makes for a long, arduous life
journey, making the same mistakes and getting
the same results. Graham says, “You have no bigpicture
thinking, no vision of what’s possible. You
can’t create your own life because you’re still in the
same place, in your history, in your background.”

Nine Steps to Success
Step 1: Check Your ID—Who are you?
Step 2: Create Your Vision
What is important to you?
Step 3: Develop Your Travel Plan
How will you get there?
Step 4: Master the Rules of
the Road
—How will you
meet obstacles?
Step 5: Step Into the Outer Limits
When should you take risks?
Step 6: Pilot the Seasons of
—How will you grow?
Step 7: Build Your Dream Team
Who will you take along?
Step 8: Win by a Decision
How will you make choices?
Step 9: Commit to Your Vision
Where will you go?

Practice Means Productivity
Personal vision accelerates one’s pace
toward a new reality and success, but the
proof is in the execution. No one can simply
dream it. There’s work to be done, and only
you can do it. Fortunately, equal time awaits
everyone daily. So the question becomes:
What do you do with your 24 hours?

“It’s all practice, practice, practice,” says
Graham, who played professional basketball
in the European League, where he and
his teammates practiced, he says, “for the
opportunity to play.” When game time rolled
around, “We would win or lose based on how
good we were and how hard we practiced.
It’s the same in life. You practice, practice,
practice, so when the opportunity comes,
you’re ready. You can do a good job and you
can win!”

Understated Expert
Expertise is the prize. Others look to you
for direction. You can choose whether you
want to be a leader among people, or run a
company or be a supervisor. Regardless, you
earn the position because you are qualifi ed.
“That’s how you make money, that’s how you
create opportunities, that’s how you become
revered at what you do,” Graham says.

Talent and skill induce a kind
of humbleness, Graham believes.
“You don’t have to brag about
it because people know you’re
good. You’re going to get accolades.
People are going to respond
to you because you’re better than
most and you understand how it’s
done. To you, it’s no big thing…
but it’s something that you’ve been
practicing for a long time,” he says.
“Once you earn it, it’s a way of life
for you.”

Personal Identity,

Graham’s nine-step plan crosses
socioeconomic, educational, racial
and generational boundaries. “You
see [the need] in major leadership
positions in our country. You see it
in corporate America. You see it in
teachers who teach children. You
see it in parents. It’s the same for
everybody,” he says.

All the trinkets society has to
offer cannot replace personal identity
and authenticity. The external
world’s illusion of success fools
many, ranging from the wave of
entitled millennials hitting the job
market to the flood of powerful,
retiring baby boomers and every
generation between.

“You can be very wealthy and still not know who you are,” Graham
says. “It has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with
your ability to create your own and have ownership of your life.
That allows you to have better relationships, and develop a sense of
strength and confidence.

“The nine-step success process helps you see yourself differently,
based on investing in yourself, so you’re constantly evolving and
changing for the better,” Graham says. “You’re not the same person
you were last year… because you have a process for continuous
improvement that allows you to create more opportunities for yourself
based on thinking and developing and building.”

A powerful sense of freedom and security results from knowing
who you are and where you’re going. For Graham, life must have
relevancy. “That’s what I love, taking complete ownership and
accountability for my own life,” he says. “I leave it up to no one else
to determine my destiny.”