What is success? One view is to consider it to be the attainment of things that everyone seems to want: money and the things you can buy with it, or social status and influence. But stories abound of people who have achieved these things, and are unfulfilled and dissatisfied, and sometimes desperate, because they have reached their goals and now don’t know what new goals to set! Not to mention, there are plenty of examples of people who fall short of what they consider to be success, which can lead to frustration, depression, and anger. The fact is that people are subject to inattentional blindness — we soon stop noticing what we aren’t paying attention to. This means that to achieve a goal feels good, but to have achieved a goal is soon forgotten. For example, if we receive a significant pay raise and move into a nice house with a beautiful view, we might feel excited about our luxurious environment for a year or two, but it will soon become normal and unremarkable.
I propose a view of success with two elements. First, success is steady improvement. If we are regularly making forward progress toward our goals, we will feel successful in an ongoing way. Furthermore, just what the goals are becomes not so important — they can be flexible. The second element is related to the first: making ourselves into the kind of person who is successful. If success is to be a constant forward motion, not a big bang that we strive for and finally achieve all in one burst, then it is a marathon and not a sprint. Therefore, we must make ourselves into marathon runners, by training, taking care of our resources, and cultivating the circumstances and relationships that we need to run sustainably and at our best.
The following four principles for achieving success are culled from the advice of successful people*, combined with the results of research into psychology, productivity, and motivation.
1. Cultivate grit.
In the now well-known marshmallow study, Stanford researchers tested the control of delayed gratification in children of ages 4 to 6. A child was offered a marshmallow, but told that if he or she could avoid eating the marshmallow for a certain amount of time, then he or she could have two marshmallows instead of one. Only about a third of children were able to delay gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. What makes this study especially interesting is the outcome of the follow-up research. The children who were able to resist the marshmallow grew up to be more positive, motivated, and persistent in the face of difficulties. They also tended to have higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, and better health.
According to research by Angela Duckworth, grit is a more reliable determinant of success than intelligence or IQ. Her findings show that raw talent can be outstripped by persistence, determination, and chutzpah. You can use Duckworth’s grit scale test to take the temperature on your own grittiness. What is a good way to measure it in others? Check out this article on “psychological capital.”
Josh Sundquist is a man who lost his left leg to bone cancer at age nine. He went on to be a US Paralympic skier, star of a viral video called “The Amputee Rap,” author, and bodybuilder. His motto is “1mt 1mt,” which means “one more thing, one more time.” This means doing one more thing than you planned to do, one more thing than you feel like doing, one more thing than what the competition is doing — because the difference between first and second place could turn out to be that one more thing.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” –Thomas A. Edison
2. Build on your strengths.
According to research commissioned by Gallup, time spent shoring up your weaknesses is much less likely to lead to excellence than time spent capitalizing on your strengths. According to the book Now, Discover Your Strengths, the Gallup researchers concluded that most of the energy, time, and money that organizations put into trying to hire, train, and develop well-rounded employees is wasted. “When we studied them, excellent performers were rarely well-rounded. On the contrary, they were sharp,” observed the authors. The advice? Find ways to compensate for your weaknesses: get a partner who can handle the finances, or if you are all about the details, find a partner who can do the sales pitches and networking while you do the accounting.
Rachael Ray, the TV chef personality of “30 Minute Meals” fame, writes that “you can’t be all things to all people. Whatever it is that you’re successful at, that has to be the No. 1 goal. … Decide what it is that you are and then stay true to that thing.” Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder, writes: “The American Dream ideal that ‘You can be anything you want if you just try hard enough’ is detrimental. You may not be able to be anything you want to be, but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”
But wait, they always say that you should do what you love. Is there a relationship between what you love and what you’re great at? Yes, there is, and the relationship is the first success principle: grit. Being great at something is only partly about talent; it is, in large part, hard work (Tiger Woods remade his swing not once but twice). And what you love is what you will be motivated to work hardest at developing. Furthermore, there is a feedback effect: we tend to become more interested in something the better at it we become, and the more we are able to achieve results and recognition from doing it.
This principle means we don’t have to be flawless to be successful. It also means that not everyone has to like us, or want what we have to offer — we need only find where our unique abilities are needed.
3. Connect with people who support you.
Psychologist George Vaillant created and ran the long-running Harvard Study of Adult Development (aka Grant Study), which followed 268 men from college in 1938 through the subsequent 70 years. Vaillant was asked retrospectively, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” His reply: “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Having meaningful social connections is now recognized as an important factor in not only happiness, but also longevity.
But if our relationships can affect our personal well-being so dramatically, they can also affect other aspects of our life. According to an Assyrian proverb, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” Jim Rohn said: “You are the average of the five people closest to you.” People are chameleons, adapting quickly and unconsciously to the expectations of those in our environment. This has been demonstrated in many jaw-dropping psychological experiments, such as the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures and the Stanford prison experiment. We can’t help but be influenced by those we choose to spend our time with.
Therefore, choose to spend your time with positive, mature, and successful people. The closer you become to people whose character and achievements you wish to emulate, the easier your goals will be to reach. To build relationships with the people you admire, find ways to help them. Approach them with an attitude of friendliness and authenticity, not neediness. Get a mentor. For advice on approaching people in high demand, see Steve Pavlina’s 12-part article How to Network with Busy People and Tim Ferriss’s 5 Tips for Emailing Busy People.
Spend time not only with people you admire, but who admire you. Nothing will tear you down faster than a friend who makes sarcastic gibes and belittles your efforts, but one of the most empowering influences in life is a friend or partner who respects and encourages your goals, abilities, and dreams. Consider seeking out a coach who can see and reflect your strengths and accomplishments, and who can support you in keeping your eyes on the prize.
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive.” –Anais Nin
4. Pursue integrity.
If success could be most easily achieved by one lucky break, then we would be best served spending our energy hunting for that lucky break, and developing ourselves would be a waste of time. But if success requires steady progress, we need to develop ourselves into a stronger person, capable of sustained performance. And if success requires keeping the company of people we admire and respect, we need to make ourselves into someone those people would admire and respect in return.
While one obvious element of integrity is honesty and being true to our word, here are some others:
Live within your means and don’t speculate. There is a mythical perception that successful people, especially entrepreneurs, take huge, bold risks in order to gain huge rewards. But consider Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, two of the richest people alive today: neither has achieved their success by making reckless moves.
Don’t engage in escapist behavior like excessive drinking, rabid gaming, or “misery loves company” self-pity and gossiping. The avoidance of problems is a morass of addictive short-term thinking. Everyone does it from time to time, but in order to understand and move past our problems, we need sufficient grit to look beyond the immediate discomfort, and see ahead to what is possible when the problem has been squarely addressed.
See yourself as whole, autonomous, and capable. The literal meaning of “integrity” is “wholeness, completeness.” To have integrity means in part to be self-sufficient, independent, and willing to take responsibility for your own actions. Rather than seeing your capabilities as contingent on other people or circumstances, trust your own ability to find and get what you need.
Developing integrity and consciously choosing your relationships are interrelated. Allow your friends, colleagues, and mentors to help you to learn and grow; and learn and grow so that you can attract friends, colleagues, and mentors who can better help you.
A process, not a destination
Viewing success as a process instead of a destination means you don’t have to compare your results against the results of others. What is important is the change from where you are today, to where you will be three months from now.
Is there a bottom line, a most important principle? Forge relationships with people who support you! Such people can help you develop your grit, help you raise your integrity, and help you identify and focus on your strengths. What’s more, your friends and mentors can help you track and recognize your progress. After all, our relationships may just be what makes our success meaningful in the first place.
How to Succeed in Life — Through Famous Quotes of the Most Successful People on Earth
“How to Succeed in Life” by Andrew Carnegie
Summary of “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie, 1936