If you've been either a kid or a parent in the last -- 40 years? -- you probably know Sandra Boynton.

Working from a converted barn in rural Connecticut, Boynton is the author and illustrator behind children's board books that have sold 70 million copies, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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Her dozens of titles combine cute animal characters, simple rhymes, heartfelt emotion, respect for child readers, and just the right artistic tone--and have inspired an intense fan base.

One result is that after I told other parents in an online group in my town that I was interviewing Boynton over email, people were so devoted that they chimed in with very specific suggested questions, like:

On the seventh page of The Going to Bed Book (1982), why do the animals take a bath BEFORE going upstairs to exercise? 

(I admit that specific example has bothered me since I used to read that book to my daughter a few years ago. In case you've wondered too, I've included the answer and the full transcript of my exchange with Boynton here.)

However, Boynton also offered some brilliant wisdom that I think will help a lot of people in their quests for success. You'll appreciate it whether you're a parent and a fan, or not.

Step 1: Figure out what you don't want

About halfway through our interview, I asked Boynton for her best advice for people who might want to imitate her success as a children's book author (or in any artistic career).

Her answer went beyond that--and flowed into the question of how to achieve success in any life endeavor. Here's what she said, paying attention especially to the seven words in bold below:

"As for an artistic career, or probably life in general, it seems to me that to be peaceful and content, you don't have to know precisely what you want.

"It may even be better if you don't.

"But I think you do need to be very clear what you DON'T want, and steadfast in the not-doing of those things."

Choices and decisions

A wise friend once told me that people love having choices, but they hate making decisions. It's harder still when all the choices seem like good ones.

I mean, even with coronavirus and our most recent economic troubles, these are comparatively abundant times. Many people have a lot of good options.

But, perhaps the key to ultimate success is to look at each decision as a two-step process:

  1. Prune away the things you realize you don't want, and remain steadfast against them. 
  2. Focus on the other things, and slowly identify the best ones for you--things that might not have even been visible when you began.

Moo, Baa, La La La!

I think I can see two examples of how Boynton's own success reflects this advice. The first is her resistance to the idea of licensing her books in a lucrative deal for television.

"They don't actually want my involvement," she told the Wall Street Journal recently, adding. "They're just looking for the show that will have the hit toys and lunchboxes and backpacks."

The second example stems from the fact that Boynton, 66, didn't begin her career writing and illustrating children's books. Instead, she had a lot of success writing and drawing greeting cards, and only later published her debut book, Hippos Go Berserk!,.

After that, many others, including titles like: Moo, Baa, La La La!, But Not the Hippopotamus, Barnyard Dance!, Pajama Time!, and What's Wrong, Little Pookie? (Her latest, Your Nose!, comes out March 31.)

Choose the right ladder

The more I reflect on it, the more profound these seven words become.

They remind me of one of the key lessons that I recently learned about how Steve Jobs motivated employees.

Namely, as an ex-employee put it: "Don't [just] focus, but hyper-focus" on the very few key things that have the deepest effect on your desired outcomes.

It's applies to everything: put your effort into what takes you where you want to go, and don't put effort into things that take you somewhere else--even if other people might think those other destinations are good or even better.

They're them; you're you.

And it's always better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, than halfway up one you don't.