Young and talented? You're only half way there. Hester Lacey on the secret of success
The 19th century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously suggested that if you make a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to your door. This may once have been the case, but today, even a turbo- powered humdinger of a mousetrap will not guarantee fame, fortune or even a decent return on the savings and time you throw into developing it. A similar scenario comes up in most fields: raw talent is not enough to guarantee success. Without a lot of hard work at selling your idea and yourself, you may as well stick with a spring-snap and a cube of cheese.

Inventing is no way to make a fortune, anyway. "If someone is thinking about spending pounds 1,000 on taking out a patent, they would do well to think about spending that pounds 1,000 on lottery tickets," warns Paul Ambridge, chairman of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors. He points out that success stories such as Ron Hickman, father of the Black and Decker Workmate, who has made around pounds 30m in royalties, are few and far between - and Hickman, who at first was turned down by Black and Decker, didn't get his contract until he appeared on Tomorrow's World.

So, apart from the vital television break, what are the secrets of success? A politician, apart from being as tall and craggily handsome as possible, needs a wife to charm the constituents. A pop star should preferably appear to be raunchily unattached. In many fields, scandal and notoriety don't go amiss.

A stunt that divides you from the herd can be invaluable. A chef who marries a supermodel or takes the odd swipe at a customer will go far. Failing that, devising a signature dish will do. An artist who marinades dead cows in formaldehyde will make his fortune; equally effective is if he can induce Brian Sewell to thunderingly denounce his entire oeuvre. Businessmen who buy important football teams, footballers who put the boot into a lout in the crowd and soap stars with a secret love child or two are guaranteed their 15 minutes of fame.

In the workplace, standing out from the crowd may be rather more low- key. But there is still a divide between the Bransons of this world and the middle-management toilers. Some advantages are born; it's still a fact that men earn more than women and do not clunk against the glass ceiling in their mid-30s. It will also do you no harm to join a company where your dad or godfather is on the board.

But if top-dog status is to come from your own efforts, you need to be single-minded about it. According to Ben Williams, an Edinburgh-based occupational psychologist, the successful top-flight manager is perceptive and easily able to take charge in difficult situations, but "this behaviour is on the surface. Underlying it are the needs and desires that make the top person.

"Some people have a great need for control and don't like being controlled - though some among them, like the Bransons of this world, are very good at bringing in specialists in different areas and letting them get on with it. Others, like Margaret Thatcher, are solo leaders - if you disagree you are dropped. They all have an intense need for recognition and are driven to succeed. This appetite for success might compensate for a real or imagined inferiority."

Success means something quite different to a young artist: in fact, commercial success can be a two-edged sword. "Work should never be made to sell - there should be no compromise with commercial bias," says Andy Harper, 24, who graduated from the Royal College of Art last year, and whose work will be shown in the Lightness and Weight exhibition at the Custard Factory arts complex in Birmingham next month. "I once sold a painting that I didn't expect to sell, and other buyers expressed an interest so I made four or five of them - the way I justified it was that I was remaking a painting, and I treated it like a job. It wasn't part of the creative process. People are making work that is selling well, but they aren't pushing themselves because they're making money - they should question what they're doing and why."

Artistic success can be difficult to measure, anyway. "The public and art collectors don't have an agenda as to what they would like to buy," says Michael Heindorff, senior tutor in painting at the RCA. "We can see this in the diversity of collections like those of Charles Saatchi. Most artists would not need to adapt to a required taste, because the required taste is a fictitious assumption. There are no preconceived rules - if artists are any good, they will feed through to success."

Aside from talent, confidence and effort, success is also helped along by gloss and packaging. "Marketing is not high on people's agendas in this country," says Caroline Neville, who has been a doyenne of British marketing and PR for more than 30 years. "People in the UK don't market themselves in the same way that Americans do. I had both my children educated in the States at university level, because I'd worked there and I knew about the presentation skills, enthusiasm, slickness. There's a real spirit for challenge, a can-do attitude.

"My daughter is breaking into the theatre business, and has had some good pictures taken, had her teeth done, got herself a voice coach - in America you have to market yourself; in Britain we do not approach it in a businesslike manner."

And once you have made yourself saleable, how can you get yourself taken on by a top marketing agency? "I'm always impressed by people who have a plan," says Caroline Neville. "They should know where they want to to be in a year or two's time - and their goal must be achievable. It's also impressive if they have their finance in place."

But the professionals can only help out up to a point. "Clients must have determination," says society fixer Liz Brewer. "They can't just sit there and expect you to wave a magic wand and provide a miracle. They have to have enthusiasm, perseverance, and you must have the feeling they are so determined, they will go to any lengths to succeed." The media can be a stumbling block. "Communications skills are lacking in schools and colleges, and people are in awe of the unknown and frightened of journalists. With practice that goes away."

But surely practice can only count for so much - isn't there a big element of luck? "Luck is the result of an awful lot of hard work," says Brewer. "If you stay in bed all day you won't get lucky."

But sometimes in the success stakes, there is just no substitute for a good dose of brass neck. One year at the Cannes Film Festival, silence fell around the pool bar on the hotel roof. A young woman in a brief bikini had just stepped out of the lift. Making a bee-line for the most important group of media folk, she pouted: "I seem to have locked myself out of my room." Eyes on stalks, the assembled company invited the damsel in distress (and undress) to join them at the bar. The unknown was Mariella Frostrup, and she's done all right since then.