John's Keys to Success

Learn Idioms Through Reading

Businessman talks to another man

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Here is a story about an accomplished businessman and happily gave advice to young people whom he mentored. You'll find idiom definitions and a short quiz on some of the expressions at the end of the story. Try reading the story one time to understand the gist without using the idiom definitions. On your second reading, use the definitions to help you understand the text while learning new idioms.

John's Keys to Success

John is an incredibly accomplished and successful businessman. As such, he is quite popular as a mentor. He enjoys showing young professionals the ropes. The first thing he says is that his career has certainly not always been smooth sailing. In fact, he learned a number of lessons along the way. "First and foremost," John said, "don't believe that success is ever mana from heaven." He said that everyone he had met had a similar rags to riches story, and that a lot of hard work had gone into the success.

John believes in hard work, but also in recognizing the right opportunities. "It's absolutely essential to never spread yourself too thin" John advised. "If you have too many irons in the fire, you'll certainly miss out on real opportunity" he continued. "I've seen people as busy as a bee who never really seem to do anything" he pointed out. The more I thought about this advice, the more I understood what he was saying. If you put on your thinking cap, you'll realize that it's impossible to really concentrate if you have to worry about fifty different things. Another important lesson was that it's important to know which side your bread is buttered on and make sure to give that activity your full attention. In other words, you need to ride the gravy train. Don't start looking for new challenges if everything is working out for the best!

John stressed that the most important ability of any successful entrepreneur was to have the presence of mind to not only take advantage of an opportunity but also to keep your eye on the ball. Some people are quick on the uptake, but then they get bored. It's important to be consistent, but not spread yourself too thin. Finally, make sure to never show your hand to your opponents. In any case, that's how to be successful according to John.

Idioms Used in the Story

smooth sailing = an easy life with no problems
know which side one's bread is buttered on = to understand what is most important for oneself
ride the gravy train = to make money by doing something that is already proven to be successful
keep one's eye on the ball = to concentrate and continue doing well
mana from heaven = surprise riches
from rags to riches = from poor to rich
show someone the ropes = to explain and show by example how something is done properly
as busy as a bee = very busy (also busy as a beaver)
work out for the best = to end with the best possible result
quick on the uptake = to understand very quickly
have the presence of mind to do something = to be aware and able to grasp an opportunity
show one's hand = to show others what advantages you have in a situation
put on one's thinking cap = to concentrate
spread oneself too thin = to do too many things
have too many irons in the fire = to do too many things

Idioms Quiz

  1. My friend is as ________________ these days. He never gets time to relax.
  2. We've been lucky in life. It's been _____________ since the very beginning. 
  3. I'm sure the situation will improve. It will _________________.
  4. You need to ____________________ for this problem. It requires a lot of concentration.
  5. Alan ___________________ during the negotiations for the business deal.
  6. Franklin went from ________________ in his life. He started with nothing and ended up a very rich person.
  7. Some artists are lucky and have a huge hit early in life. Then they ______________________ for many years afterwards.
  8. My boss _________ me ______________ at work because it was my first week.

Quiz Answers

  1. busy as a bee
  2. smooth sailing
  3. work out for the best
  4. put on your thinking cap
  5. showed his hand
  6. rags to riches
  7. ride the gravy train
  8. showed me the ropes

More Idioms and Expressions in Context Stories

Learn more expressions using stories with one or more of these further idioms in context stories with quizzes.

It's important to learn and use idioms in context. Of course, idioms are not always easy to understand. There are idiom and expression resources that can help with definitions, but reading them in short stories can also provide context that make them come more alive.