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Instructions Not Included

One path to success is trial and error


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. 


Madeleine MacRae

Madeleine MacRae

Madeleine MacRae is founder and owner of MM MacRae Coaching & Consulting. She can be reached at