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Instructions Not Included

I vividly remember the moment when it dawned on me that every single person—from the most successful business owners and CEOs to the janitor sweeping the floors, the attendant at the gas station and everyone in between—is making things up as they go along. For years, I assumed that, with rank and title, came “the manual.” 

I remember the moment when it dawned on me that, “life: instructions not included” applies equally to everyone. That moment came when I had just gotten the biggest promotion of my life to-date at the time, moving from a project manager to a national sales manager role, responsible for some 25 individuals, many of whom exceeded my years both in terms of age and sales experience. 

I was sitting at my desk, a little stunned by the whole thing, waiting. Waiting for one of the other executive leaders to come over and tell me how to be this brand-new executive leader. Waiting for my boss to show up and tell me what to expect next. Waiting for the HR director to pop into my office with the manual on how to be an executive leader. It never happened. Nobody came. And that’s when I had my epiphany: we are all making things up as we go along. 

Life is not scripted, nor is the path to success. While it certainly has elements that are repeatable, the path to success, and the measure of it, is as individual and as diverse as the number of people on the planet.

Collecting data

Many business owners view the path of trial-and-error as somehow wrong or bad, but it is a necessary (and beautiful) part of becoming successful. With each new effort, each new trial, we get data on what works, what doesn’t and what might be possible with a little adjusting. Then, we make the adjustments and try again. We get more data the second time and can refine our process again and again until we have built something that starts looking a little bit like that elusive manual.

It’s this systematic approach that is so evident in successful people and businesses that gives us all the impression that the manual actually exists in the first place. We all somehow feel that there is some sort of insider information that successful people have that the newcomers or those less than successful don’t have. While there are some tried-and-true paths to success with some key elements along the way, what makes the difference is how we adjust and adapt and make those elements uniquely ours. There really is no one single right way. Stop looking for the one thing and start noticing everything that plays into success.

Businesses aren’t successful because they are doing one secret thing well. They are successful because they are playing to their greatest strengths, following their own refined process for excellence, and delivering on promises with consistency and reliability. Their customers and employees alike know what they can expect. And the leadership of the company is steering the ship as if they had a manual.

Writing the manual

It’s not likely that a business will see the same higher levels of success as top-performing companies without transforming the path of trial-and-error into its own manual for success. 

It’s when those companies haven’t reached the level of excellence they want to achieve that they are tempted to try to do everything all at once, to replicate what each and every successful business is doing. This doesn’t take them where they want to go. 

The solution: pick your path. Decide on the element that is going to create the biggest impact. Then, embark on your own journey of trial-and-error until you, too, can refine your own learnings into the processes that will help you deliver with the same kind of consistency and perfection that top performers can.

While I stick to the notion that there’s no secret sauce, there is one very consistent thing that successful businesses do differently. They learn first, and trial-and-error second. That is, they don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. Certain processes, such as sales, for example, don’t have to be reinvented, but can be learned. Those who are succeeding intentionally learn what they can and then use trial-and-error to adapt existing processes to arrive at exactly what they need.

Successful business owners identify what they are and are not good at and either bring someone on board who is excellent in that weakness and give them the space to play, or find a coach, mentor or trainer to teach and refine those weak skills. Successful business owners also take the time to determine where they can take a shortcut, then leverage trial-and-error to create their own unique and perfect path to success. 


Madeleine MacRae

Madeleine MacRae

Madeleine MacRae is founder and owner of MM MacRae Coaching & Consulting, where she brings her clients real-world experience from working for over a decade with contractors, dealers and manufacturers in the home professionals industry. She can be reached at