The Trajectory Towards Success

||:Leaders Creating:||
11 min readJan 19, 2021


written by Dr. John Franklin, Leadership Coach & Cultural Strategist for ||:Leaders Creating:||


There have been endless tropes, books, articles, podcasts, studies, etc. devoted to the concept of “success”. There have been an equally great variety of polemics and prescriptions on how to both DEFINE and ACHIEVE it. We are fortunate to live in a time when we know more about the difference between those who achieve success and those who do not. One of the most enlightening researchers and authors I have read is Dr. Angela Duckworth and her work in discovering that grit and self-control is a greater predictor of success than talent, IQ, physical attractiveness, or wealth. Dr. Duckworth defines grit as the nexus where passion and perseverance meet. Her work is expertly explained in her New York Times Best Seller book entitled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Her own passion in the study of success was a result of her time as a 7th grade math teacher in the New York City Schools and her observations that IQ was not a predictor of student success in her classroom. Her research in graduate school and beyond led her to defining grit and the genesis of assessment tools such as the 12-Item Grit Scale, which has become a useful tool for assessing grit as a predictor for success.

The answer to the question of how to achieve grit is not yet fully known but perhaps some portion of understanding can be found in the work of Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck who has researched and written about what she describes as “growth mindset” (see mindset: the New Psychology of Success). This idea is born out of the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed but can actually change with effort. Dr. Dweck has determined that when children learn about the brain and how it functions, they are much more likely to persevere through failure because they understand that failure is not a permanent condition.

I have been teaching since 1998 and while I have not performed the level of scientific research into achievement and success that Drs. Duckworth and Dweck have, I can confidently say that I have witnessed their theories to be remarkably accurate. Every new academic year begins with a fresh consort of students coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and with their own unique baggage, hopes, and dreams. My observations combined with my understanding of the science behind success has enabled me to become more adept at understanding the differences between those who “make it” and those who do not. As such, I do all I can to relay this knowledge to my students in hopes that it will empower them to start off on the proverbial “right foot” as they begin their degree programs. The following is a summary of concepts that are as applicable to you, kind reader, as they are to every student that I have had the privilege to teach…

Success is achieved by tenaciously adhering to a process over whatever period of time is necessary.

As with any teacher, I have my own idiosyncrasies that my students find endearing (I hope?). One of those is my penchant for using initials for a lot of commonly referred things within my program (ex: “JDF” for my email signature and “PTC” for Preseason Training Camp just to name a couple). Another is my awesome affinity for applying alliteration as astutely as attainable. And lastly, my use of titles to represent a number of moralistic, pedagogical, and/or systemic concepts or processes. One of these is what I like to call The Trajectory Towards Success which is pictorially represented as follows:

The Trajectory Towards Success

To put it rather simply, the secret to success is to discover a process that will give you the greatest chance of achieving the goals you have set out for yourself and/or your program and, through passion and perseverance (or grit), remaining steadfastly committed until you achieve your goals. Once we understand this concept, we then only have to determine how to navigate the arc towards our goals. It is this journey, friends and colleagues, where I hope to provide some helpful guidance:

STEP ONE: Define what it is you want to achieve

The term “Trajectory” implies that there is both a path and a destination. While it is possible to become “successful” at something by stumbling into it more or less by chance or accident, we are much more likely to achieve greater success, and perhaps more importantly, unwavering commitment to the journey, if we have specific ideas of what we want to accomplish. There are multiple ways to create goals and there are countless resources describing how to do so. In last week’s post entitled Diamonds or Dust, I introduced the concept of starting with establishing your VALUES, BEHAVIORS, and expected OUTCOMES, or in other words, your “WHY” as a first step for any journey towards self or program improvement. Other ways to determine what you want to achieve include:

1. Find a role model successfully doing what it is you hope to accomplish and ask what they did to set themselves up for success.

2. Take some time to find out what you are A) good at, B) if you have the resources to allow you to achieve “it” at a high level, and C) how you can use “it” to improve your own life and the world in which you live.

3. Ask those who know you best for their input regarding where they see you in relationship to the arc leading to “success” and take their feedback to help you decide what needs to be done to get on that arc, move up the arc, or if it is better to find a different arc altogether.

STEP TWO: Determine the best process for you to reach your goal

This is often where many travelers set themselves up for failure before they take their first steps towards their success journey. For some, they are simply unaware of what to do and where to start (also known as “unconscious incompetence”). For others, the focus is almost exclusively on the goal with little to no attention to the process needed to attain the sought-after product. For others still, there is cognitive dissonance regarding the correct and/or an appropriate process needed to achieve the goal. This dissonance is usually a result of arrogance, ignorance, or a deadly combination of the two. Occasionally, however, the missteps here are caused by the paralysis brought on by the fear of choosing the wrong path. My encouragement here, dear reader, is to take some time as you are going through STEP ONE above to listen to the wisdom of those you respect, have achieved what you want to achieve, and who are able and willing to articulate to and perhaps even mentor you in your first steps. Also, pay attention to what people are telling you regarding their perceptions of your chances of success in your endeavor. This does not mean that you should give up your dream if someone speaks discouragingly, but it does likely mean that you might need to do some work to get on the trajectory arc BEFORE you can actually start working up the curve, which leads to…

STEP THREE: Discover how close you are to the arc of trajectory towards success

If STEPS ONE & TWO are about determining your path and preparedness, STEP THREE is about determining your positioning as highlighted in the graph below:

Simply put, you are in one of these three different positions:

Person A — You are not on the trajectory yet. This means that you have not had the experience or education necessary to become successful in your endeavor. Or, in some cases, you have been operating on a different trajectory that has either taken or kept you away from either the right or the best path for you to achieve your goals. Sometimes, however, you are in limbo because you have yet to develop the attitude, passion, grit, or disposition needed to lead and keep you on the path to your goals. Lastly, sometimes this just means that you have wandered off the path for any number of reasons.

Persons B & C — Either one of these positions are the most ideal place to start after having successfully completed STEPS ONE & TWO. At this point, it is not important WHERE you are on this trajectory just that you ARE on it. Those such as Person B with higher “natural talent” or with more experience and training may be higher up on the trajectory. However, Person C, it is important not to be discouraged by this as every person is different in potential, experiences, and prior resources. Person B may have more of any of those but that does not mean they have any greater chance of success than you do. As Dr. Duckworth determined in her research, talent does NOT guarantee success, but it is talent + effort = skill and it is skill + effort = achievement. As such, the only variable between the success of Persons B & C is found in the differences between their tenacity and the amount of effort they put forth.

STEP FOUR: Develop parameters, relationships, and experiences that will keep you on the trajectory towards success

This is by far the most strenuous and continuous step of all because this one is completely based upon your level of grit as well as good fortune along the journey. For young, novice travelers, your success in this step will be especially proportionate to how fervently you adopt the advice that is given to you by your mentors at the start of your journey. For everyone, whether starting the path, trying to find the path, attempting to return to the path, or just simply fighting to stay on the path, your success in doing so is greatly impacted by how well you have prepared for your journey. For example…

Establish the Right ParametersThis is about having the right resources, habits, and plan in place as you start the journey. Much like an adventurer would map out routes, determine day to day actions and activities, and prepare and allocate the resources of time and sustenance, sojourners on the Trajectory Towards Success must also do the same. This means managing your time, materials, and efforts in such a way that you stay the course. In a future post, I will share some observations during my years of teaching that signify smart and wise decisions along these lines.

Embrace the Right Relationships — Few explorers have ever been successful without a trustworthy and more experienced guide either leading or trailblazing the way. Similarly, you will have a greater chance of staying on the line when you have supportive colleagues and people around you, especially if they are also attempting to navigate the same trajectory arc as you are. The mentors you find will use their light to be a beacon to show you which direction to go and where to tread safely. They will also use their light to expose burdens you might be unnecessarily carrying and thus making the journey harder than it need be. The lights carried by your colleagues and traveling companions serve to make the darker parts of the journey less scary by providing a stronger communal sense of light. They also will be the ones that will help illuminate the way back to the path if you find yourself straying.

Engage in the Right Experiences — We learn by doing. As such, it is when we engage with experiences and activities aligned with the Trajectory Towards Success that allows us the opportunity to move up the arc. Sometimes, this means we fail and fall back a little bit but then we use those lessons to help us get back up and press forth. Time is our most precious and limited resource, so I encourage you, bold traveler, to heed the advice of Emeritus Director of the Penn State University Marching Blue Band, Dr. Richard Bundy and “Carpe the heck out of the diem!”

STEP FIVE: Deepen your awareness regarding where you are on your path to success

Around 1970, a new theory of learning was introduced that is now known as The Four Stages of Competence or The Four Stages of Learning. Often misattributed to Abraham Maslow, there is some ambiguity regarding who originally established this concept, but it is now firmly established in the realms of education, psychology, and even business. These four stages are described briefly below:

Unconscious Incompetence — We don’t know that we don’t know

Conscious Incompetence — We know that we don’t know

Conscious Competence — We work at what we don’t know

Unconscious Competence — We do it without having to think about it

It has been my experience that the transition points between levels of competence and consciousness often serve as growth benchmarks along the Trajectory Towards Success which are often entered into unaware by the traveler. Once in those growth portals, the traveler often experiences struggle with some choosing to leave the arc rather than push forth. But those who persevere come out the other side with both an awareness of what they just experienced and often a renewed vigor for the next part of the journey. I often compare it to the part of the video game where you have to battle the “bad boss” at the end of the stage in order to level up to the next one. It is in these portals between levels of competence and consciousness where most of the failures along the journey take place and where the traveler learns the most about themselves and their passion and perseverance.


As you can see in the graph below, these are the by stops along the way on our Trajectory Towards Success. And, as Dr. Dweck found in her research about “growth mindset”, the more knowledge the traveler has, the better equipped they are to understand what they are experiencing at each stage, which will encourage them to persevere so that they may eventually achieve the pinnacle of success.

So, patient reader, thank you for taking time to go on this brief journey learning more about how success is achieved. It is my hope that you come away a bit more knowledgeable, better prepared, and deeply encouraged, wherever you are on the Trajectory Towards Success.

John is an educator in music and leadership who also happens to be a band director, a role that he has served for 22 years in a variety of settings including middle school, high school, small college, large state university, and both private and public institutions. His diverse experiences in developing and growing band programs have provided opportunities for John to learn from his students how to help them become effective peer leaders in order to create positive, intentional, and goal-driven band cultures. John’s work as a leadership clinician ranges from self-development and improvement, effective communication and pedagogical skills, and the application of servant leadership in the music ensemble setting. His materials are adaptable for a variety of settings including large and small groups, one-on-one coaching, virtual and in-person clinics, and for both students and educators of all levels.

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