No matter how diverse their goals or fields, the top one percent of successful people boast certain common behavioural characteristics, values, motivators, habits and emotional needs that keep them ahead of the pack.
By understanding these standout traits we can cultivate and nurture them in our own personal and professional lives so that we too can soar to super-achiever heights.
So, what sets peak performers apart (and how can we follow in their footsteps)?
1. They have grit
Woody Allen once said that 80% of success in life is “just showing up”. High achievers do just that – they show up for their commitments, and they keep showing up. “Grit” is what psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, calls the disposition needed to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance, sustained over time. According to Duckworth, grit, as much or in some cases more than talent, can predict success in a variety of difficult situations.
- How to become “grittier”: While Duckworth admits that grit may be partly inheritable, there are certain characteristics common to “gritty” people that we might adopt to similarly achieve super-sonic success. The first of these, she claims, is optimism and a growth mindset: “People who think things are fixed or unchangeable have trouble when bad things happen – and a lot of grit is about overcoming setbacks.” The second prerequisite for true grit, according to Duckworth, is passion – “Finding something that you truly value, that’s meaningful to you and then cultivating that.” Finally, really gritty people don’t feel the costs, or put a high value on the cost, of working really hard, she says: “They’re also not constantly worried about what they could be doing instead. It’s a willingness to focus on where you are, and not constantly second guess the choices you’ve made.”
2. They Have a High Need for Achievement
In 1961, Harvard psychologist David McClelland published The Achieving Society in which he argued that some societies experience economic growth and others experience decline due to one motivational factor: the need for achievement. McClelland’s achievement theory of motivation suggests that cultures that celebrate achievement spur on entrepreneurial ventures and technological progress, which in turn become the engine of rapid economic growth. In the same way, the need-for-achievement psychology of high achievers demands that these people will seek out challenge for its own sake and, when striving to meet these challenges, will focus on the pride of success as a motivator. In contrast, low achievers are challenge-avoiding and, on the few occasions when they do engage in testing pursuits, will focus on the shame and worry that may come from failure.
- How to cultivate the need to achieve: Be brave! Rather than running from challenges or attempting those that are overly easy or excessively difficult, do as high achievers do and seek out challenges that are right at the edge of your abilities. In so doing, you will have a far greater chance of achieving what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed “flow” (and, according to the Hungarian psychologist, the “secret to happiness”): a state of complete absorption in an activity that is perfectly matched to the skills of the performer.
3. They value time
Ten minutes after Ted Turner won the America’s Cup yacht race in 1977, the billionaire media mogul was in a phone booth nailing down a business deal. This is one of the anecdotes journalist and television host, Eugene Griessman, who has interviewed some of the world’s peak performers, recounts in his book, The Achievement Factors, to illustrate the high value such people place on time. According to Griessman, all the super-successful people he has encountered over the course of his career regarded time as their most more important asset, more valuable even than money. Because it is so precious to them, high achievers are also very efficient with their time. However, despite tightly structured schedules, they do not drive out flexibility if it means taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity.
- How to manage time more effectively: In What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, American sports-marketing entrepreneur Mark McCormack, who is dubbed “the most powerful man in sport”, explains how he views each week as 168 hours, into which he then schedules his every event – tennis time, time to read the paper, appointments, phone time and even moments of empty space to allow his mind to drift. While this may seem a tad draconian, rigorous time management is key to getting the most from your hours. However, while you should try to be stickler for keeping your time commitments, you should also be willing to abandon any agenda to pursue a new opportunity should it come knocking.
4. They’re good listeners
In interview after interview with some of the world’s most successful people, from actress Laura Linney to American internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist Tony Hsieh, authors Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield identified an ability to “listen well” as one of the most common traits. “You don’t normally think of hard-charging, action-oriented leaders as being good listeners,” they say in The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. “But these people’s ability to practice the art of listening helped them learn what they needed to know about the world around them.” For example, Hsieh, who, at the age of 24, sold LinkExchange, the company he co-founded, to Microsoft for $265 million, asked all his employees to share their personal values so that he could incorporate them into the company’s values and culture. Likewise, Linney says she never accepts a role unless she has read and reread the script so many times that it has “opened up to her”.
- How to master the art of listening: Research has shown that there’s a direct correlation between strong leadership and strong listening skills – and it really comes as no surprise. As Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group writes, the most effective leaders and entrepreneurs listen more than they speak: “To be a good leader you have to be a great listener. Brilliant ideas can spring from the most unlikely places, so you should always keep your ears open for some shrewd advice. This can mean following online comments as closely as board meeting notes, or asking the frontline staff for their opinions as often as the CEOs. Get out there, listen to people, draw people out and learn from them.”
5. They take action
“Action is the foundational key to all success,” said Pablo Picasso and just imagine who he would have been (or rather wouldn’t have been) had the artistic genius not put paint to canvas. Like Picasso, high achievers are the ultimate go-getters who know that every action taken is a step closer to their goals. They are able to spot opportunity quickly, make decisions swiftly and move into action immediately. They also know that even if the action doesn’t seemingly move them towards their goal, it teaches them something to help them move towards it.
- How To stop procrastinating: High achievers see procrastination as a sign that something needs to change – and they take action accordingly. If you’re struggling to get going, ask yourself: Is my goal something I really want? Have I got too much going on at once? Is this task too big and causing too much stress? Is it time to create new tasks? You have to be focussed and take the right kinds of action necessary to move forward, even if you’re afraid to start something new because you’re not as good as the others already doing it. In the words of American motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
Are you fascinated by understanding people and helping them move forward and achieve their potential in life? Or do you simply want to do something more fulfilling in your own life? If so, why not consider studying with SACAP? The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a number of specialised coaching programmes, from an introductory short coaching course to a full-blown Postgraduate Diploma in Coaching, available at both its Cape Town and Johannesburg campuses. For more information, enquire today.