Success And The Art Of Being A Self-Starter

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Who is going where in the marketing world?

Every week, the marketing industry trade publications highlight the comings and goings of the people in our industry. Some love this information because it provides a level of gossip, others simply like to keep abreast of how people within this industry are moving. The digital marketing industry experiences a high volume of turnover. There are many reasons for this. I believe that some of it has to do with the fact that a lot of traditional marketing dollars are shifting to digital and there’s a need to find professionals to get this work done. Being a fairly nascent industry, this means that salaries are increased due to demand, but it also means that we have many less senior people taking on more senior positions. The output of this is that talent is both scarce and expensive. This challenge is not be relegated to digital marketing alone, but it is prevalent in other industries. Young people (of which the digital marketing industry is primarily made up of) fall within something Fast Company dubbed Generation Flux which adds to the tumult. 

How do you rise above?

I’ve seen individuals transcend this challenge and I’ve seen individuals both stall or falter. In full disclosure, human resources, hiring and nurturing team members has never been my forte (I’m thankful that my other business partners and team members at Twist Image have these skills as their unique abilities, because they’re certainly not mine). That being said, I believe there is one, definitive, skill that I see that leads to workplace success (and it transcends what I see at Twist Image)…

Be a self-starter.

Every new workspace has its own language and tribal knowledge. It’s not uncommon for it to take a few months for individuals to earn their wings, but in work (and, most other things in life), being a self-starter is critical. This happens long before you accept a contract of employment and it applies well beyond retirement. Some facts about me: I was terrible in high school and dropped out of university. I never liked any of the courses and I could hardly bring myself to sit through them. In today’s world, I would probably be diagnosed with ADD. Between us friends, I was bored and uninterested. Through that whole time (from as young as I could remember), I wanted to be have a successful business (or be a part of one). The math was basic: if I sucked in school but wanted to be successful at business, I would have to be a self-starter.

What a self-starter looks like:

  • Constant learning. There’s a reason you’re asked, "what have you read about our industry recently?" in a job interview. If you’re not learning, living and constantly studying the industry that you’re a part of, what does that say about you? The bigger idea here is that successful people know that they have a lot more to learn if they want to grow and get better. If the information about your industry doesn’t interest, you may be in the wrong industry.
  • Willing to make smart mistakes. We all make mistakes. Mistakes are forgivable. What’s not forgivable is the inability to not only learn from a mistake but to grow from them. This is somewhat of a cliché, but it’s true. My old close quarter combatives coach, Tony Blauer, used to say, "practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Mistakes happen. Self-starters don’t see them as a negative but rather part of the laboratory of achieving success.
  • The ascent. I’m the furthest thing from a mountain climber, but I’m constantly gauging my ascent. Which direction am I moving in? It better be onwards and upwards. Stagnation is the enemy of being a self-starter and successful. Make a plan that is a constant ascent.
  • Life isn’t about winning or losing. This is especially true in the marketing industry. Agencies think that the business is about how many pitches they win verses how many they lose. This isn’t true. It’s about resilience. The job is to keep on going. You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, but if you look at the agencies that have truly ascended the industry, they all have one commonality: resilience. They grow and grow and don’t let the losses (which will happen) get in the way of their success. Self starters are resilient. They persevere.
  • Follow start-ups. You don’t have to an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial. It doesn’t have to be a job (it can be the work that you are supposed to do). We are in the middle of an explosion of start-ups. With that has come some of the best thinking on what it means to be start-up. Apply each and every one of these rules to your personal ascent. Every person who is deeply engaged in the start-up community is a self-starter.
  • Homework. Self-starters don’t hate homework. Self-starters know that doing homework (the stuff that falls outside of regular business) is how they are going to lap everyone else. Whenever someone asks, "when do you find time to [insert some kind of activity here]," these people are grappling with how to become a self-starter.

Two questions for you: what would you add to this self-starter list, and/or if you don’t agree with me about how important being a self-starter is, what is a better/more definitive skill-set for success?


  1. I prefer an interview question like “What have you read lately that is not directly related to our industry but you could adapt?” Hat tip to Daniel Pink’s “Why Right Brains Will Rule The World” for reinforcing this process of looking outside of your current sphere for new ideas.

  2. Regarding constant learning, I would simply add that there’s never been a better time to learn by yourself and at your own pace. Not everyone is fit for classrooms.
    With Khan Academy, Coursera, TreeHouse and a bulk of other options, any self-starter can perfect or acquire new by investing the time.
    If one is bored by the industry he’s in or unsure it’s the right place to be, it’s getting easier and easier to try new things.

  3. Builders of Momentum:
    Self starters build momentum off of successes or completions of task and goals. The energy thats created from executing your plans should be used to carry out your next.
    Spheres Of inspiration
    Due to the level of opposition that a self starter faces on all fronts, their constantly reaching and searching to be inspired, enlightened or exposed to fresh creative ways of thinking or doing things. In fact, its how the momentum is created. Self starters are great resources for information if you’re thinking about being one, just want to bounce ideas or just need some encouragement.

  4. I love this post. As a 26 yr-old “new entrant” into this environment, I don’t feel that these traits are essential for just self-starters, but for all successful roles within an organization today. Anyone that wants t get a raise, promotion, or just “ascend” in general should add this thinking and methodology to their mantra.
    I would add that identification, isolation, and improvement of weaknesses should be part of the “self-starter” in my opinion. Not that they must necessarily self-improve, but rather surround themselves with a quiver of thought leaders, references, and in some cases, mentors in order to improve on areas where they know they are weak.
    There are an overwhelming number of directions a self-starter can head early on. It’s sort of the problem I’m facing personally today; There are so many brilliant ideas, so may insightful blogs to follow, so many paradigm-shifting philosophies that WILL change the way my job is done that I find it quite difficult to focus and build depth in one particular area. I guess that’s my homework..

  5. I couldnt agree with you more. I was just having a conversation with a colleague about clearly defining objectives and purposes to increase our focus.

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