Successful people have a few common characteristics that make them great. Not every successful person can be a master of all these but awareness of them can help in increasing these qualities in ourselves. The best definition of success I have come across is what Earl Nightingale said “Success if the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.” So the key is to define your ideals and goals clearly. Once you do that and you take daily action towards those goals you are in the process of becoming successful. That’s why success is indeed personal and it is not dependent on what others feel about us. If you define what success means to you and your actions move you towards that definition then you are successful irrespective of what anyone thinks or says about you.
Following are the 12 common traits exhibited by successful people that I have observed across various fields including sports, business, and arts.
I put this at the top of the list simply because without self-discipline nothing is possible. Self-discipline is a quality that can be developed by having a clear idea on what we want and then ensuring the desire to succeed is greater than the consequences of not doing it. If we want to exercise 5 times a week then we can imagine the enormous benefits of exercise and visualize that while trying to keep the end goal in mind. If we want to achieve all the things we want then self-discipline is the best place to start and we have 100% control on this. It is resolving to do what we have set out to accomplish in both our personal and official lives. Napoleon Hill said “Self-discipline is the Master Key to Riches.” Nido Qubein said “The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret.”
Nadal won his 19th grand slam with the 2019 US Open title. It is amazing considering the fact that most critics had written him off a couple of years back. He has fought injury and shown extreme tenacity to turn it around to come within a whisker of Federer’s record. A true champion by any stretch of imagination. You know what he said after his victory. He said “One of the most emotional nights of my tennis career.” The key is to master one’s emotions. It is not only physical preparation that is important but emotional and mental preparation is equally if not more important. If you listen to your critics you can’t achieve what you want. Be relentless in the pursuit of your goals and never listen to your critics. “Keep your dreams alive. Understand to achieve anything requires faith and belief in yourself, vision, hard work, determination and dedication. Remember all things are possible for those who believe.” Gail Devers
Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania says that grit is the single quality that guarantees success, based on her ground breaking studies. As Napoleon Hill famously observed “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equivalent benefit.” For example a sickness might seem horrible but maybe that time away may have helped you redefine what is important and given the time needed to make a change. There are going to be setbacks like we may not get the promotion we wanted but having patience and perseverance never goes out of fashion. Talent will not take the place of persistence and resilience. Steve Jobs is a great example of this. He was fired from the company he started but in his wilderness he started another company NeXT and bought Pixar. Then he patiently waited for his second coming to Apple and as they say the rest is history. You can be down but never out. As the Japanese proverb says “Fall down seven times, Get up eight times.” For more on resilience check out this link 10 Tips to Develop Resilience
Passion and Practice
Passion is the fuel behind the success engine. We can look no further than Roger Federer or Tiger Woods to understand the value of passion. To sight one example at the top of his career Tiger Woods who had already reached the apex of sporting achievement actually changed his style of swing because he wanted to get the extra edge. This was after winning the Masters tournament by a record 12 strokes in 1997. He said “You can have a wonderful week…even when your swing isn’t sound. But can you still contend in tournaments with that swing when your timing isn’t good? Will it hold up over a long period of time? The answer to these questions, with the swing I had, was no. And I wanted to change that.”
Passion can ignite reservoirs of resilience that may lay latent. Tiger Woods didn’t play golf for the money though that helped, he played it for the love. Passion can happen when we do something we love but as a beginning we should start loving what we do and giving our very best every single day. Research has confirmed that all prodigies including Mozart, Woods, Bill Gates, The Beatles had practiced for 10000 hours before they were crowned for their achievement. Mozart didn’t produce his first master piece till he was 21 by which time he had put in more than 10000 hours of effort. My simple formula is Passion+Deliberate Practice+Time+Consistency= Success.
As documented in the wonderful book Mastery by Robert Greene Bill Bradley became great in basketball because of his absolute passion to practice more than anyone else. In other words he moved towards resistance. Bill Bradley used to practice three and a half hours after school and on Sundays, eight hours every Saturday, and three hours a day during the summer. He kept practicing well beyond any feeling of boredom or pain.
“The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat.” Richard Marcinko
One of the best kept secrets of the highly successful is the ability to keep learning something new every day in their field or related fields. The hallmark of learning is curiosity. Peter Drucker the father of modern management is an excellent example of someone who kept learning till the end of his life. He was always learning something new. When we learn something every day it keeps our mind sharp and it also gives a sense of accomplishment as we are using our time wisely. There is no end to this journey of continuous learning.
One great example of creativity and curiosity is Jony Ive of Apple. I recently read about how he masterminded Apple’s new headquarters. Norman Foster, whose architecture firm was hired by Apple to build the headquarters at a reported cost of $5 billion, calls him “a poet.” Here is what he said about Jony Ive in this WSJ piece WSJ article on Jony Ive. He said ‘‘Jony works tirelessly at the detail, evolving, improving, refining. For me, that makes him a poet.’’ You can also read my article on growth mindset here. 6 Keys to Develop the Growth Mindset.
Peter Drucker said “The only thing that will not be obsolete is learning new skills.” “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi
All successful people have taken calculated risks to reach where they are. Risks need not be things like bungee jumping or sky diving; in fact it need not even be physical in nature. It goes with your intuition. It may require taking up an assignment which everyone has refused. This then helps you stand apart and has potential to propel your career. There is no guarantee in life so before taking a risk analyze the risk and see if you are already prepared for it to fail, then it is worth taking that risk. While taking risks it is important to remember that we don’t put our families into distress. “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ― T.S. Eliot.
Everyone has a list of tasks to be completed. Sometimes we don’t have enough time to get through everything. The way to overcome that is the key to success. We need to prioritize the relevant from the irrelevant. From a list of items pick the item which has the biggest impact from your stakeholder, business sponsor and your immediate boss. Work on the worst first and get it out of the way. Handle the big rocks first and the pebbles can be taken care later. Make peace with the fact that there will be always things left undone and it is also imperative to learn to say no to time wasters and activities which are not aligned with your goals. We should also learn to say no when needed so that we are not over committed and this gives better control over our time. One example is Jack Welch who decided that GE will only participate in businesses where they can be Number one or Number two in that market. This vision led to closure of many other business units and worked big time for GE. “One of the very worst uses of time is to do something very well that need not be done at all.”
Most of our waking time is spent communicating both written and verbal. We need to be clear on what to communicate and we should learn what the best mode of communication is. One of the ways to improve communication is to become a better listener and understand the other person’s point of view. As Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand then be understood.” Keep reading, writing continuously to improve communication skills. Ronald Reagan was known as the great communicator. Irrespective of which side of the political isle you sit we have to admire his simple communication strategy. His answer to everything was simple “smaller government.” Clarity is the key to communicating effectively. “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Peter Drucker. You can check my article here. 12 Guidelines for Effective Communication
I have noticed that a lot of successful people take care of themselves better. They ensure that there is proper rest and balance in life. If you want to achieve all you want out of your life you need to ensure that you are at your best most of the time. Energy is required to go forward towards your closely cherished dreams. Exercise, yoga, meditation are all helpful in the enhancement of health. One often neglected part of health is adequate sleep. I don’t think lack of sleep is something to wear a badge and brag about. In fact you can be at your best only with 7-8 hours of sleep. Taking some time off from work actually improves your creativity and research has proven that people get their most innovative ideas not at work but during a vacation or when they are in a relaxed state of mind. “Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” Eleanor Brownn
Positive Mental Attitude
It is impossible to imagine a really well rounded successful person who is negative and complaining all the time. All successful people generally have a positive attitude. They don’t complain when things don’t go their way as they know that in the long run most of the things take care of themselves. We should look at the sunny side of life. Being grateful for what we have while striving for more is actually a great way to stay positive. When you are positive about the day you just get on with the accomplishment of your tasks with even more vigor. Finally a positive mental attitude eventually helps performance at work and home. Nothing is more important than your inner peace and overall happiness. “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Sir Winston Churchill. You can read my 10 Commandments of Optimism here. The Optimist’s Manifesto
Self-esteem is the cornerstone of a healthy personality. It is important to be comfortable in your own skin. Self-esteem is defined as your reputation with yourself. You are unique and have talents that can help you succeed. The key to self-esteem is to write down the qualities you admire in yourself. Maybe you have passion or discipline, in which case acknowledging your positive traits enhances your self-esteem. When setbacks occur while you may feel bad it doesn’t reduce your self-esteem. Write down all your successes till now and keep track of your accomplishments. This surely enhances self-esteem. The true hindrance to high self-esteem is comparing ourselves with others. There are not two persons who are alike. So no matter how much we try we cannot be like anyone else. So be totally comfortable with yourself and who you are. When you have high self-esteem you generally feel more positive about life and do better at work. “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.” Norman Vincent Peale. Here is my article on developing self-esteem. 8 Ways to Develop and Enhance Self-Esteem
Silence and Stillness
Stillness is the key by Ryan Holiday is a good book for our times. He drives a lot of examples from history to show the value of stillness which leads to clarity of thought. It has been well established that solitude is an invaluable tool for all extreme achievers. Only if you take the time to be alone with yourself you can get clarity on what you want in your life. For example Bob Iger wakes up daily 4:15 am and exercises for one hour despite a packed schedule. He says this is the only time he gets to be alone and away from the noise of the world. Of course if you can wake up early that’s great. I know not everyone is a morning person in which case you can use the last 30min of the day for yourself. Finding time to be with yourself is the key learning here. Journal-ling is a great activity as well.
There you have it the 12 traits of highly successful people. An awareness of them increases our chances of success as well. Thanks for reading this post.
The views expressed here are my own and do not represent my organization.