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Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg Think This Is the Worst Strategic Mistake You Can Make

How do you convince your team not only to embrace change, but actually lead the transformation? One of the most successful senior business communication executives of our time, Mark C. Thompson shares his insights from studying the success of world-class companies that have confronted change. He shows audiences the factors that galvanize people to adapt to and lead change, and to generate teams that lead to unstoppable growth. Below, Mark looks at the importance of following your own path to success:

Rugby can be brutal. Rickie heard a ghastly scream and for a split second thought that someone else was hurt until he realized it was him. He could feel his knee tearing apart. A terrible pain spread throughout his leg as he rolled in agonized slow motion on the field. It was now impossible to move. All his future plans about professional sports imploded.

Struggling with dyslexia for years, it had become painfully obvious to Rickie that he would be lucky to graduate from high school. So like many kids who suffer academic humiliation, he had hoped to go to college on an athletic scholarship. But now these were broken dreams, and this hurt more than his knee.

He did manage to get back on his feet, but Rickie would never go to college. As he battled towards a high school diploma his headmaster said, “I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.” (He was, in fact, briefly imprisoned for dodging customs selling records.) Rickie reconsidered what really mattered to him, which helped him change the way he thought about his circumstances. He loved rock music and partying, so with boundless enthusiasm he dedicated most of the next two decades to becoming an expert in both. Although unable to learn to write particularly well, the dyslexic 16-year-old dropped out of school in 1968 to found the British magazine ironically called Student. He went begging for interviews and recruiting for volunteer writers, who were, naturally, looking for any excuse to hang out with rock stars.

Barely able to afford a workplace for this motley crew, “We scoured the neighborhood looking for somewhere to rent. The best deal, no rent at all, was offered by the Reverend Cuthbert Scott. He offered us the use of the crypt at Saint John’s Church, just off Bayswater Road, for no rent. I put an old slab of marble across two tombs to make my desk, and everyone found somewhere to sit. We even charmed the local post office engineer to connect our phone without having to wait the normal three months. After a while none of us noticed that we were working in the dim light of the crypt surrounded by marble effigies and tombs.”

His passion for entertainment, wild parties, and building relationships around music gave him special insights into the bleeding edge of pop culture. What had been a behavior problem in high school had become his genius as a shameless promoter.

He had learned to use his dyslexiaas an asset: forcing any new ideas to be made compellingly simple so he could decode them. Rickie honed his special gift as he cut through the dull clutter of conventional thinking to create mesmerizing marketing memes and politically incorrect hype.

At 20, he founded a mail-order record company, then a record shop and a recording studio-all under the name of Virgin. Richard Branson had become a man whose name was synonymous with the hippest musical acts that alarmed the old guard media sufficiently to generate mega demand from U.K. youth, but were just short of being completely banned by the authorities. Branson would take the world by storm, and there are more than 400 companies under the Virginbrand today.

Nevertheless, Branson continues to fancy himself a sort of populist David versus the entrenched, monopolistic Goliath brands who he believes fail to deliver on their promises to consumers. Whenever the old guard takes its eye off the prize in almost any category, he feels a moral obligation to the public to set the big guy’s platform on fire. His Sex Pistols are long gone, but his sense of outrageous adventure and iconoclastic headlines that challenge conventional wisdom will never die. When British Airways complained about Virgin Atlantic’s arrival as an upstart newcomer, Sir Richard posted billboard advertising in London and New York saying,

“VIRGIN: We have more experience than our name would suggest!”

You have to admire an entrepreneur like that. Of the hundreds of high achievers I interviewed for our sequel to Built to Last, Success Built to Last: Creating a Life That Matters, more than a dozen are billionaires and all are still on the job today because they avoided the worst strategic mistake that most aspiring high achievers make. They followed their own path without copying competitors and pursued that mission because they had something significant to them than money on their minds. Whether it’s Larry Page or Warren Buffett-young or old-their level of engagement hasn’t changed much since well before they had wealth. You have to wonder what it is about these people that keep them so passionately engaged and what gives their work enduring meaning to them. As Buffett once memorably told me, it’s downright dangerous to ignore what matters most to you: “Putting off your passions is like saving up sex for old age. Not a good idea!”

For some high achievers, wealth was a good enough reason to work and seemed another way to keep score, but even then, it was rarely their focus. It never undermined their fierce determination to build something that matters to them. These endeavors are not things from which these remarkable people can ever fully retreat or retire. That’s why they stay successful for so long. To ask them why they’re still “working” is to dismiss their passions as trivial pursuits.

We made that mistake more than once in our interviews. It seemed an innocent question, but only served to demonstrate that we didn’t get it.

Mark Zuckerberg cringed when I asked him why he hadn’t retired. “You’re totally missing the point of starting anything.” He couldn’t care less about the place we thought he was heading; he had a different agenda. “This is where I change the world. I’m not following anybody else’s path; that’s the beauty of it.”

High achievers who stay successful never look for the end of the other guy’srainbow. And you’ll get hopelessly lost if you think getting rich and retiring was their flight plan. Today his dream seems to be working and his billions look more secure. But it’s the former that matters, not the latter; and he still thinks he has a lot of work to do to realize his vision.

To wonder aloud why these billionaires are still working and staying so engaged after all these years is heard as an absurd question that misses the point of their lives-it’s almost insulting, lacking serious consideration for the depth of feelings they have for what they care about. We shouldn’t lose any sleep worrying about billionaires of course; they can take care of themselves.

The problem is that if what they’ve accomplished looks to you like they’ve landed on Fantasy Island, then you’ll find attempts to steal their treasure map a journey to self-destruction. The real message is to take your intrusive and persistent dreams more seriously. They haven’t been working this hard this long to win a prize to go sit on a beach and stop doing what has mattered to them all along. There is no destination for them. Their passions create meaning in their lives that is nothing short of lifelong obsession from which they seek no escape.

People become fascinated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, perhaps longing for the adulation, glamour, and the imagined self-satisfaction in those lives. It may be tempting to believe you can find success by studying their stories and assuming that whatever she or he did is a roadmap you can follow. But that’s a dead end. That’s not what billionaires or the best CEOs do. That’s not what heroes like Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi did. That’s not what the world’s enduringly successful people do. Their path is their path. The path you seek should be uniquely yours.

Mark Thompson/Inc/June, 2015