11 Rules for Success in CRE & Life

by Greg Barrett

I was recently involved in mentoring a number of high school and college kids. While contemplating what advice I was going to share, I jotted down a number of “rules” or principles that have brought me and people around me success. Although there are many paths to success in real estate and in life, I believe that there are common underlying values, skills, and actions that successful people live and exemplify.  By doing these things, they increase their odds for success. I’m not attempting to be the next Stephen Covey or Tony Robbins, but I want to share a few things I’ve learned over the years. Listed below are 9 rules for success in business, commercial real estate, and life.

Do what you say you will do

This should be more than obvious, but it’s surprising how many people fail to simply do what they say they will do.  If you do what you tell yourself to do, then you will be happy with yourself.  If you do what you promise others, then they will be happy with you. If you want to live your life without regrets and accomplish all that you can–do what you say you will do.  If you want other people to like doing business with you, do what you say you will do.  A mentor of mine once told me to focus on three things: say thank you, be on time, and do what you say you will do.  He said that if you do these three things people will enjoy working with you and you will have success.  I believe that to be true, and so should you.

Say thank you, be on time, do what you say you’ll do.

Under promise and over deliver

This is a concept that should be just as obvious as doing what you say you will do.  But like the former, it is a concept that few are able to master. Always manage the expectations of those with whom you work and interact.  With your clients, your boss, and those on the other side of a transaction.  If you know it will take you two days to do something, tell them it will take three or four.  For example, if you are negotiating a deal and the other party asks when they will get a response, tell them a week, then deliver in two days.  Here’s another example; think about how you feel when you go to a restaurant and the hostess promises to have a table ready for you in 15 minutes; at 16 minutes, you start freaking out.  Conversely, if the hostess had said it would be 25 minutes, and then seats you in 16 minutes, you would be thrilled.  It’s all about expectations.  Make sure you exceed them by under promising and over delivering.

Always be learning

Many of the most successful business leaders including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Oprah Winfrey, follow the 5-hr rule.  The rule states, “spend five hours per week deliberately learning”. Take the time each week to improve your knowledge, particularly in the fields of real estate and business.  Even if you are 20 years into your career, you should be following this rule.  Don’t consider what you are doing at work a contributor to the five hours.  These 5 hours should be completely separate from anything you do for work.  This is not to say that the deliberate learning cannot be done from your office, because that may be the only place you are able to be free of distractions, but make sure that the learning is in addition to the daily learning that comes as a result of the job you have.

Embrace the unpleasant

If something makes you nervous, there is a good chance you should do it.  I’m not suggesting you do something that could cause harm, but something that will stretch you to get over a fear.  The most obvious example is public speaking.  Take advantage of any opportunity to speak in front of others – it will make you better. Other examples might be: making a suggestion to your boss about how to do things better; taking ownership of a mistake you made; trying something that is likely to fail; developing relationships with people outside of your team etc. The more challenging or uncomfortable situations you embrace, the more you will learn and grow.

Be passionate

From years of experience in this business, I have seen how passion enables average people to achieve great success.  Passion will cause you to work hard, to make the most of every opportunity, to constantly learn and grow intellectually, to develop meaningful relationships, to get up after being knocked down, and to do all this with a smile on your face.  You can’t fake passion, you really need to love what you do.  But, I believe it is something that you can control.  For starters, psych yourself up each day before you get into the office.  It’s normal to feel unmotivated or discouraged when you are battling traffic early on a Monday morning.  Before I get started in the morning, I push myself to think about the interesting things I will be doing that day, I think creatively about the deals I’m working on, and how I’m grateful to have the position.  If a project seems tough, I think about the things I’m learning and the skills I’m developing.  I think about how the experience that day is helping me develop the skills and expertise I need to achieve my ambitious goals.  Treat every work experience as part of your education to becoming the real estate entrepreneur you are desire to be.

Focus on the positives

Attitude plays a bigger role in life and in finding success than is often attributed.  A positive attitude communicates confidence, attentiveness, and drive.  Not only that, it will make each day more enjoyable.  When I think about the employees I’ve managed, who I would re-hire if given the opportunity, I think about those individuals who consistently demonstrated a positive attitude about work, life, and the goals they were working toward.  They weren’t always the smartest or the most capable, but by boosting the morale of those around them, they improve the productivity those with whom they interact.  We can’t change our biology and genetic makeup, which is the largest contributor to our happiness, but we can choose which thoughts circulate through our brain.  Choose positive thoughts!

Here are some examples. Think about how an upcoming presentation will give you more exposure to decision makers who will now recognize the value you bring to the organization.  Think about how each and every time you do the same task, you are becoming better and better at what you do, and how you’re adding another skill to your repertoire. Don’t focus on the passive-aggressive comment someone made to you three months ago, don’t think about a new policy that appears to be burdensome.  Recognize that two years from now, or even two months from now, you will look back on what you are stressing about now and wonder why you were so worried about something that a) you had no control over, and b) ended up having no meaningful impact on your wellbeing. 

Don’t ask the same question twice

Nothing bothers managers more than answering the same question multiple times–so put in place systems to avoid this.  This rule also implies learning from your mistakes. Do your best never to make the same mistake twice.

When you learn something particularly useful write it down.  Unless you have a photographic memory, you will not remember everything you think you will remember.  I don’t know how many times I’ve learned something, or been told something, and due to its importance, I figured I would never to forget it.  Sure enough, I would quickly find myself in a situation where I needed to recall that knowledge or information but could not do it.  Use a note taking system like Evernote or OneNote.  I use both.  Additionally, I have a notebook in my office that I do my best to pull out each day before I leave the office.  I write down what I learned that day.  That could be something about real estate, business, negotiation, finance, contract law, decision making strategies, psychology, communication etc.  I write in that notebook anything that could someday help me in my real estate career. 

Be disciplined

The most successful people are disciplined.  The get up at the same time each day, they exercise nearly every day, they eat right, they get adequate sleep, they plan their days, and they complete what they set out to complete, and they focus on achieving goals not simply going through the motions.  Develop and maintain good habits. Develop and maintain good habits.  I can’t stress it enough.


Commercial real estate is a people business.  You need to be establishing relationships with new people each week.  After establishing a new relationship, be sure to nurture that relationship.  A mentor of mine once told me that he has a rolodex (he’s pretty old school) and every 3-4 months he goes through the rolodex and reaches out to everyone he hasn’t recently connected with. He’ll either pick up the phone and call or send them an email. 

I do my best to follow that advice and dedicate time each quarter to reach out to those in my rolodex with whom I haven’t connected in some time. Occasionally, I wonder if I’m bothering people when I really don’t have anything to offer them.  It turns out, however, that every time I call someone and say “Hey, its been awhile, I was thinking about that deal we did a few years ago and wanted to see how you were doing” they end up being very appreciative for the call.

Don’t burn bridges

Everyone in the real estate game will from time to time get screwed or disrespected.  There will be times when people don’t do what they say. There will be times when people lie, cheat and steal from you.  It’s part of the business. Regardless of what other people chose to do, make sure that you don’t burn bridges.  The real estate community is relatively small, and as such, you will come across the same people over and over.  For your own benefit, in situations where you want lash out at someone or seek revenge because they have wronged you in some way, don’t.  Just don’t do it.  I’m sure you will regret it in the future and it may result in lost business opportunities.

Follow Picasso

“Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Picasso

Find inspiration in the work of others; you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  I’ve described the importance of reading and learning from the successes and failures of others.  Use what you have learned and build upon what has already proved successful. I am not suggesting you merely steal the business plan of others, but I do suggest that you take ideas, processes, or strategies that have been successful elsewhere and implement those concepts when appropriate.  Always be learning and applying what you’ve learned to your business, your career, and your life.

There are a number of other “rules for success” that I would love to share with you, and sometime in the future I will. I suggest that you select two or three of these rules and make them a priority. If you really want to improve yourself, you can only do so one step at a time.  Don’t try to completely reinvent who you are in one fell swoop.  It won’t happen, and you will ultimately lose confidence in your ability to make meaningful changes.  Therefore, focus on just two or three of these rules.  Once you have mastered the first two or three, then move on to mastering a few others.  I also suggest that you make your own list of “rules to live by.” Write them down, put them on a wall or on your desktop background because it’s difficult for all of us to stay focused on what is truly important. 

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