Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of any life — or any business — is adequately preparing for the future. Knowing what lies ahead, even with the most thorough research and best available information, is hardly a science. Tomorrow remains a mystery. We can make plans, make predictions, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Sometimes we get lucky. How do we ensure that those “lucky” days happen more often than not?

At 81, historian Arnold Toynbee reflected upon life as he had known it. He said: “As one grows older, the temptation to dwell on the past and to avert one’s eyes from the future grows. If one were to fall into this backward-looking stance, one would be as good as dead before physical death had overtaken us.

“Our minds, so long as they keep their cutting edge, are not bound by our physical limits; they can range over time and space into infinity. To be human is to be capable of transcending oneself.”

Humans have demonstrated hope for the future since Adam. Planting a tree, building sturdy shelters, populating the planet — all showed optimism for the future. Explorers braved uncharted seas and flat-earth skeptics to reach the New World. American pioneers pushed westward in search of a better future.

Did they have a business plan? Were their actions based on research? Were they brave risk-takers? No, no, and yes. Because the future involves taking risks.

But there are some steps you can take to minimize risks before you jump in with both feet. Whether you hope to start your own business, plan to rise to the top of the organization you currently work for, or just want to support your employer’s success the best you can, understanding how a business grows and survives is central to a successful career.

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These factors will influence your fortunes and your organization’s growth over the long haul:

• Trust. At every level of your organizations, insist that workers understand the importance of keeping their word and living up to your values. Customers and co-workers want to know they can depend on you.

• Decisiveness. Learn to make decisions promptly instead of waiting for every last piece of data. An imperfect decision that you can correct later is almost always better than a right answer that comes too late.

• Competition. Study your market and learn all you can about other players in your industry. You don’t want to be caught off guard by a rival’s new idea, or to always be on the defensive against what the competition is up to.

• Records. Document your activities thoroughly. Good records help preserve ideas, establish your credibility, and prove your point when the facts aren’t clear. This applies to finances, employees, ideas, and everything else you and your organization are responsible for.

• Network. Build relationships and connections with a wide variety of people in and out of your industry. Your network can be a source of ideas, employees and advice, so build it up. Don’t miss any opportunity to meet new people who can help you, and make sure you are available to return the favor.

• Patience. Be sure to concentrate on incremental progress. Overnight sensations and blockbuster victories are usually optical illusions facilitated by months or years of quiet effort. Establishing a habit of slow but steady success will build everyone’s confidence and minimize risk.

• Risk. Sometimes you must take a risk to move forward. With all the other factors solidly established, you should be in position to predict potential success.

• Optimism. Maintain a positive attitude rather than an outlook of impending doom. The future looks brightest for those who look for the bright side.

A long time ago, I discovered the following mantra, a simple formula that links the present to the unknown. The words vary but have been attributed to great planners such as Mahatma Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, among others.

Watch your thoughts for they become your actions. Watch your actions for they become your habits. Watch your habits for they become your character.

Watch your character for it becomes your destiny.

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller, “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” To send him a question or comment, visit