Aren’t there just about a TON of lists on “successful traits?” Is it me or does Inc publish a new one every day? Well, success is something I’m pretty fascinated by, so I’ve read A LOT of these lists. Rarely do they vary much. But they get me every time! Lists of successful traits are my click-bait kryptonite.
So between my own observations of successful people, the books I’ve read about success (beyond just Covey), and of course all those lists out there, I’ve decided the world needs just one definitive list. What gives me the right to come up with it? Nothing. But no one else seems to be doing it and the world needs it. You’re welcome, world.
1. They possess an insatiable hunger for information.
“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” -Jiddu Krishnamurti
Successful people are restless. That’s often something you’ll see in these lists, but that’s not the root of their success. More precisely, successful people become extremely uneasy if they aren’t engaged in an intellectually stimulating activity. Another common item on these lists is that they are “avid readers.” Not necessarily. I would argue that most successful people read a lot, but again that’s a correlation not a cause of their success. The reason reading is so common among successful people is that reading is one of the most accessible ways to consume a great deal of information and gain new perspectives. However, I do know a few highly successful people who don’t enjoy reading and don’t do it regularly (although, yes, they are the minority). Some of them don’t describe themselves as readers because they don’t sit down every day with a book and just read, but these people are the same ones who will cite the latest finding from the New York Times or have countless blogs they subscribe to. So while they don’t consider themselves readers, they’re constantly reading. Others, simply have that same insatiable hunger for information that all successful people have, but they attempt to satisfy it in other ways – podcasts, documentaries, TED Talks, conferences, et al. But if there is one definitive trait of successful people, it’s that they never stop learning and that they are extremely unfulfilled and underwhelmed when they aren’t being mentally challenged.
2. They’re admittedly revolted by status quo and mediocrity.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the undreasonable man.” -George Bernard Shaw
The key word here is “admittedly,” which is what’s missing from most other lists. People who refuse to accept mediocrity in all its forms and at all times are detrimental and impossible to work with. Successful people know when “good enough” is good enough, but they can also identify the pivotal times when status quo simply will not do. These are the leaders who know how to inspire people to push themselves beyond their potential rather than demanding unreachable goals through creativity-crushing dictatorship. They know how to prioritize the things that need to be mind-blowingly great and chill out on the things that would hinder progress if time and energy were spent outdoing the competition (although they can’t help but recognize the mediocrity). Resilience is often a trait that shows up on these lists, but I think that is really an underlying aspect of successful people’s strong disdain for mediocrity – the real reason they are resilient and don’t give up is because they’re straight up not okay with things being even slightly “off” in any aspect of their life. Finally, they are well aware of their perfectionism and high standards. They recognize that this makes them different from the masses and that to expect others to perform up to their ideals would be futile and senseless, so they see it as their job to motivate, inspire, and lead in such a way that brings out their desired results in others.
3. They initiate ownership of their work.
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” -Steve Jobs
Yes, successful people are leaders. However, they aren’t leaders because someone appointed them “leader” – they initiate that leadership and they take full ownership of their team, projects, and outcomes. They’re intrinsically invested in all that they do. We can all think of someone we’ve worked with who just didn’t “get it.” They seem unambitious. They never seem to really impress. The problem isn’t that they’re lazy or uninspired (though that may be the case for some and it most definitely is for a few of the people I have in mind), the problem is often that they haven’t empowered themselves to take ownership of their work. They don’t see what they do as something that belongs to them – they see it as a duty or a task to check off their to-do list. Successful people on the other hand, whether handed it or not, take ownership. They’re the people who have a notepad on their nightstand so they can jot down ideas about a project in the middle of the night. They’re dictating thoughts on their iPhone while they drive to work. They’re not just disappointed when they fail, they take responsibility for it and analyze what could have been done differently – rather than placing blame or shrugging “better luck next time.” Everything meaningful that they do seems as if it is inherently part of them.
4. They’re intelligently optimistic.
“Pessimism leads to weakness. Optimism to power.” -William James
More than merely maintaining a “glass-half-full” perspective, successful people can identify precisely when there exists a positive in a negative. A crucial difference lies between intelligent optimism and regular optimism. Successful people don’t “look” for the good in the bad; rather, when it is there, they can see it. If it isn’t there, they don’t try to conjure it. I believe it was in Daniel Pink’s, To Sell is Human, where he talks about how people who are too happy all the time are little nutty. They’re unrealistically optimistic – so ridiculously positive that they can’t relate to others and they risk making foolish choices. We often hear about people being “realistically optimistic” or my least favorite “cautiously optimistic.” If you’re going to be optimistic be fully optimistic! But intelligent optimism uses logic and reason to identify positive outcomes, where others might miss them. On one of Tim Ferriss’ podcasts, a guest relayed a story about Thomas Edison. His laboratory was burning to the ground and he ran and got his family, excitedly telling them to hurry and come watch the spectacle because surely they’d never see another sight like it again! This is intelligent optimism. The fire department was there and they were doing everything in their power to preserve all of his research and scientific findings that would never be replicated. However, due to the nature of the chemicals and substances within the building, Edison knew the structure would perish. So he intelligently identified the good that could come of it (a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle) – why waste energy on futile negativity when nothing more could be done? On the other hand, if one of the firefighters reacted that way and ran and got his family to see the spectacle that would be unintelligent optimism, as it would risk injury and further damage.
5. They understand the importance of identifying other successful people.
“No man is an island.” -John Donne
Successful people know how to create successful teams. Generally, when hiring, they’ll gloss over a résumé, identify a few key qualifications, and spend the majority of their focus on the interview. And they’re not going to spend much time, if any at all, on typical interview questions (e.g. “Tell me about your last job”). They’re going to talk about the specific qualities and personality traits required for that particular job. They know that skills can be learned on the job but the necessary grit or perspective to succeed in a role can’t be taught – and they know how to identify it. They also don’t settle in this area, understanding that this is a time when “good enough” is not good enough. They aren’t afraid to hire someone who’s better than them at something in order to achieve success. They understand that having the wrong person in the wrong seat is often worse than an empty seat. They’re also keenly aware of how to keep these people happy, motivated, and performing at their best. However, successful people who don’t have direct reports or hiring responsibilities have this trait as well. They know how to identify whose advice to listen to and whose to disregard. They know who would be a good person to partner up with for a project and who would hinder their performance. When networking, they can identify whose business card to hang on to and whose to “accidentally” drop. But more than that, they understand the importance of having other successful people around them. They know that water seeks its own level and if they are surrounded by or working with too many people who do not possess the same high standards as they do (or higher), they will fail. Unsuccessful people naively claim that they can succeed regardless of other people’s performance. This egotistic, self-reliant attitude is simply unrealistic. A car with even one flat tire will not go far.
One last thought…
I’d like to note some traits that are NOT on this list, but you’ll commonly find on others. In my experience, while these traits are often present in successful people, they aren’t always (and some are just arbitrary or false):
- They exercise often.
- They wake up early (or any reference to how long or when they sleep).
- They’re extroverted (see: Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human again – total extroversion can actually harm success).
- They’re moody.
- They’re creative.
- They’re rebellious.
V. IMPORTANT UPDATE: I’m not even kidding, Fast Company posted this to Facebook the day after I wrote this list. Kryponite I tell ya!