How to be successful: 4 secrets of high achievers
Successful people do things differently.
Otherwise, they’d be average — right?
Unfortunately, most career advice about how to be successful is…well, it’s worse than average.
‘Get a degree. Work hard. Follow your dreams.’
These thoughtless one-liners won’t take you far. Successful people take it to the next level.
Here are four unusual secrets of high achievers.
Networking doesn't have to suck
“I hate networking.”
You hear this all the time in professional life. People love to complain about wet handshakes, unwelcome business cards, and sleazy salespeople at networking events.
But successful people don’t think this way. As the Harvard Business Review says:
Networking is a necessity. A mountain of research shows that professional networks lead to more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority.
Luckily, researchers have shown that you can make networking fun.
How to make networking fun
Harvard professor Francesco Gina says that successful networkers focus on four things:
- Lear about the people you are talking to, about their company, industry, goals, etc.
- Identify common interests, because shared interests will make your connections more authentic and meaningful.
- Think about what you can give people and stop being such a self-centered a**hole. The more you focus on giving — whether that’s advice, connections, anything — the happier you’ll be.
- Find a higher purpose and think about the bigger picture of your career and your mission — not just about yourself.
Most of us don’t love the thought of networking.
But successful people adopt a different mindset to make it more fun — and incidentally, they turn networking from a sleazy attempt to shove your business card into someone's wallet, to a generous act of learning and helping others.
Positivity is strangely rare (and powerful)
The best leaders are unusually positive people.
Despite what you might’ve learned from a curmodgeonly old law firm partner or a retired marine, negativity doesn’t make teams productive.
In fact, science has found the golden ratio of positivity that drives success:
3:1 — the golden ratio
After a decade of researching high performing teams, psychologist Marial Losada discovered that you need three positive comments, experiences or expressinos to fend off the effect of one negative interaction.
And 3:1 isn’t just an abstract ratio. It’s the real-deal, the practical applicaiton of the power of positivity in the work place.
For example, Losada once worked with a global mining company suffering from huge process problems. He found that the company’s leaders had a terrible positivity ratio of poitivity ratio of just 1:15.
That’s a lot of snarky comments, and I think it’s unfortunately common. Most workplaces are more negative than they are positive — to their own detriment.
After the mining company’s team leaders gave more positive feedback and encouraged positive interactions, the ratio increased to 3.56.
This massive increase lead to a huge 40% improvement in production, proving that positive leaders create productive teams.
Positivity → Success
Most leaders dramatically underestimate the power and importance of positivity, opting for less effective tactics like criticism or ‘candid feedback.’
But successful people are more positive in the workplace, so they create happy, productive teams.
Positivity is strangely rare, but incredibly powerful.
Confidence often trumps competence
You probably won’t disagree that confident people are more successful.
But you might be surprised at just how important confidence is.
Research has shown that confident people are percieved as more competent in the workplace. One study interviewed 112 entry-level accountants at the start of their first year of work. It turned out that those who believed they could achieve the tasks in their job at the start, were also those most highly rated by their supervisors 10 months later.
By simply projecting confidence, you can make people think you are better at your job.
But confidence doesn’t just make you seem more competent. It actually makes you more competent.
Confidence also creates competence
In one study by Harvard psychologist Margaret Shih, a group. of Asian women were given maths tests on two similar but seperate occassions.
Before the first test, they were primed to think about the fact that they were women. In doing so, they conjured the stereotype that women are worse at maths than men.
Then, during the second test, the women were told to focus on their identity as Asians. This brought to mind the stereotype of Asians as being great at maths.
The women performed far better in the second test in the first.
Their math IQ didn’t change, and the questions were the same. But this confidence-boosting association was enough to make a huge difference in their performance, proving that confidence can make you more competent.
How to be more confident
To be clear — being confident isn’t about lying to yourself or others about how great you are. True confidence has very little to do with storylines about you.
Successful people draw from the knowledge that they can grow and change. As researcher Carol Dweck says,
“True self-confidence is “the courage to be open — to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” Real self-confidence is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow.”
If you are lazer-focused on getting better, you will develop a quiet confidence in your abilities. And that is a secret that all successful people know.
Say ‘yes’ to anything until you’re ready to say ‘no’ to almost everything
Young professionals are often paralyzed by a paradox:
Should I be a generalist or a specialist?
On the one hand, successful people are often specialists. They have very narrow expertise across a specific field or problem set. Think of top neurosurgeons or litigators, who work almost exclusively on specialist, complex problems.
But before you develop specialist expertise, you need to try on a range of different skills, experiences and roles, to figure out what works best for you.
And that’s where this final principle comes in: First say ‘yes’ to most things. Then, say ‘no’ to almost everything.
The power of the generalist
David Epstein’s book Range argues that many of the worlds best artists, scientists and sportspeople succeed not despite the time it takes them to find their ‘thing’, but because they try other things first.
Take Roger Federer, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, for example.
Federer played several sports as a kid. His parents emphasised good sportsmanship over specialisation, and as Federer gravitated towards tennis, they cautioned him against becoming obsessed.
Years later, Federer would credit the hours he spent dabbling in basketball, handball, skiing, wrestling, swimming, table tennis, and skateboarding with helping him develop his hand-eye coordination and his famously well-rounded athleticism.
The principle of Range provides a valuable guide for your early career. All the experiences that you have at the start of your professional journey can form the basis of specialist expertise down the line.
When you are going through internships and graduate programs, you have the time, the energy and the capacity to say ‘yes’ to almost everything — new projects, networking meetings, travelling opportunities, lateral moves, career changes, etc.
Like Federer, you are honing highly valueble skills that will make you a well-rounded professional in the future.
But I don’t think you can maintain this open-minded approach to your career forever. At some point, Federer decided that Tennis was the sport for him.
And for you, that means you’ll need to start saying ‘no’ to anything that doesn’t help you maximise or exercise your most valuable skills.
That’s there specialisation — or essentialism, comes in.
From Generalism to Essentialism
Most of what exists in the universe…has little value and yields little result; on the other hand, a few things work fantastically well and have tremendous impact. — Richard Koch
In his best-selling book ‘Essentialism’, Greg McKeowen argues that successful people take a disciplined, systematic approach to finding their highest point of contribution — and then execute on that to the exculsion of almost everything else.
Think of Warren Buffet, arguably the most succesful investor of all time, who has famously said, “our investment philosophy borders on lethargy.” Buffet makes relatively few investments — into companies and projects fall within his ‘circle of comptence’ — and he holds those investments for a long time.
Buffet is an esssentialist.
In contrast, you might think of one of the many burned out corprate executives who ‘major in minor activities’, according McKeowen. This executive is so concerned with being a good citizen that he says yes to everything without thinking.
“But as a result, he would spend the whole day rushing from one meeting and conference call to another trying to please everyone” — but getting very little done in the process.
To truly make an impact on the world, you must carefully choose the right things, so you can do great work.
At some point, you must realise the ‘unimportance of practically everything’ and to say no to those things that don’t matter.
That, certainly, is a great secret of success.
I’ve pulled these four secrets of success from disprate sources — from best-selling authors, my own experience, and social science researchers.
Though the principles are different, the various sources seem to have a single unifying thread:
The secret of success is the ability to shift your mindset.
Success is the ability to:
- Find the fun in boring, painful things (like networking);
- Be upbeat when others are critical (positivity);
- Turn self-belief into results (confidence into competence); and
- Transform generalist experience into specialist expertise.
Each of these mindset shifts can help you with the other.
And each is a great secret that will propel you forward.
Happy succeeding, friends.