10 Characteristics of Successful People

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In 2004, Tom Butler-Bowden, an Australian born author based in England, released the book ’50 Success Classics: Winning Wisdom for Work & Life from 50 Landmark Books’.

As well as summarising classic books such as Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, Napoleon Hill’s ‘Think and Get Rich’ and David J. Schwartz’s ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’, Butler-Bowden also suggests his own list of 10 characteristics that successful people all have in the introduction to his book. Let’s see if there is any research to support his claims:

1. An optimistic outlook

In ‘Learned Optimism,’ Martin Seligman shows that having an optimistic mindset, or favourable expectations towards the future, leads to better mental and physical health. Optimistic individuals have better immune functioning and are less likely to develop depression (Carver et al., 2010). They are also more likely to persevere in tough challenges and are therefore more likely to experience psychological growth following a traumatic experience (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009).Optimism can also reduce mortality rates over a four year (Galatzer-Levy & Bonanno, 2014) and forty year period (Brummett, Helms, Dahlstrom, & Siegler, 2006).

The good news is that an optimistic mindset can be taught and developed. A recent meta-analysis by Malouff and Schutte (2016) showed that across 29 studies, an individual’s optimism level does significantly increase with training. The most effective way to do this is with the ‘Best Possible Self’ intervention: “Imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all the goals of your life …” – Boselie et al., 2014, p. 335

Optimism training works however you must keep it up as the benefits typically wane once the intervention has finished.

2. A definite aim, purpose, or vision

“The primary cause of success in life is the ability to set and achieve goals. That’s why the people who do not have goals are doomed forever to work for the people who do. You either work to achieve your own goals or work to achieve someone else’s.” — Brian Tracy

Although I like this quote, Stephen Covey provides a caveat to this when he says that there is no point exerting all of your energy climbing up a ladder that is leaning against the wrong wall. First, we must determine where it is that we would like to climb.

“The key to prospering and adapting in the coming decades amidst an ever-escalating rate of change is to first be clear about and resolutely dedicated to what you stand for and why that should never change. You must then be just as resolutely willing to change absolutely everything else.” — J.W. Marriott Jr.

Successful people are clear on what their values are and what they stand for before taking purposeful action. Values clarification and committed action are two of the six essential components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, with the other four components focused on teaching clients mindfulness skills. According to the American Psychological Association, ACT has strong research support for chronic pain, and modest research support for depression, anxiety, OCD and psychosis.

An interesting study by Chase et al. (2013) found that goal setting alone had no effect on students grade point averages (GPAs) across a semester. However, it did when training in values clarification was provided alongside the goal setting. The clarifying of values before setting goals also significantly reduced the drop out rate of these students the following semester (Chase et al., 2013).

3. A willingness to work hard and persevere 

“There is absolutely no limit to what plain, ordinary people can accomplish if they’re given the opportunity and the encouragement and the incentive to do their best. It takes risk, hard work, knowing where you want to go and being willing to do what it takes to get there.” — Sam Walton

Professor Angela Duckworth studied the students at West Point Military Academy over a number of years, and tried to determine which ones made it through to graduation. She was aware that each cadet admitted to West Point was intelligent, physically fit and had excellent grades and test scores. She was also aware nearly 6% of the cadets dropped out during the first seven weeks (Beast Barracks training), and one-fifth dropped out before graduation.

Eventually, Duckworth identified two qualities that were more predictive than anything else for determining which students made it to the end: 1. passion and 2. perseverance. Together, they make up a quality known as grit. People who score high in grit are much more likely to put in the effort required, do whatever it takes and persist until they succeed. She has since found that grit is a great predictor for success in other areas too.

“Often we are caught in a mental trap of seeing enormously successful people and thinking they are where they are because they have some special gift. Yet a closer look shows that the greatest gift that extraordinarily successful people have over the average person is their ability to get themselves to take action.” — Anthony Robbins

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4. Discipline to consistently work until goals are achieved

Undoubtedly, we become what we envisage… Genuine success requires both courage and character – patience, discipline and rationality.” — Claude Bristol

Duckworth and colleagues (2010) have also researched self-discipline, and show that this needs to be sustained for long-term goal commitment and implementation. Without this self-discipline, adolescents struggle to set long-term goals and strive towards them.

Fortunately it can be improved using two strategies:

  1. Mental contrasting – elaborate upon a future that you desire with the relevant obstacles that you currently face.
  2. Implementation intentions – identify the action that you will take when an opportunity arises that is relevant to your goal.

In comparison to a control writing exercise, eleventh grade students who spent 30-minutes writing on the above two strategies completed over 60% more practice questions in the preparation for a high-stakes exam. This indicated a greater level of self-discipline in the pursuit of an important goal (Duckworth et al., 2010), which over time could result in greater knowledge, deeper understanding, and better results and grades.

“The first step on the road to success is good character. The second is openness to new perspectives. The third is ensuring that daily action is shaped by higher aims, with the knowledge that you always reap what you sow.” — Stephen Covey

5. An integrated mind utilising both logic and intuition

In his excellent book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman talks about our two systems of interpreting the world.

The first one, appropriately named ‘system one’ is perceived quickly, is instinctual and is generally our emotional reaction, or our intuition. ‘System two’ takes more effort and time to access, but is also more rational and logical.

As Kahneman shows in his research, people typically use heuristics when making decisions or judgments, which are generally adequate but not optimal solutions to difficult problems. This uses our first system, and helps us to conserve brain power, but it is only accurate about 80% of the time.

Successful people are able to utilise both system one and system two. If the decision has minimal long-term consequences, such as what to have for dinner, system one is fine. If the decision has potentially significant consequences however, such as whether or not to buy a house or change jobs, the more energy depleting and more accurate system two going to be better, even if it takes more time to come up with the right answer for you.

“Stroll through the open spaces of time to the center of opportunity. Wise hesitation ripens success and brings secrets to maturity. The crutch of time can do more than the steely club of Hercules.. Fortune gives large rewards to those who wait.” — Baltasar Gracian

6. Prolific reading

Reading fiction has been shown to be great for developing empathy towards others as it really does provide an opportunity to see inside the characters head and experience their internal world in a way that you often don’t get in movies or TV shows. It’s helpful for developing imagination, as the brain works to create the visual images that it reads in words on the page. 30 minutes of reading has also been shown to significantly reduce acute stress as indicated by lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and lowered heart rate (Rizzolo, Zipp, Stiskal & Simpkins, 2009).

I love reading non-fiction because of how much I can learn from the experts in psychology and related fields for such a low cost. If I were to see them give a talk or book a one-on-one consult, I may be paying up to a $1000, and it would only be scratching the surface of all of the amazing knowledge that they have accumulated in their lives. That is if I could even get a chance to see them. A book in comparison is $30 or less, and contains the majority of their pearls of wisdom ain one place. Sure, some books can take a while to get through. However, the value for money and wisdom gained is definitely worth it.

“The movers and the shakers of the world are often professional modelers – people who have mastered the art of learning everything they can by following other people’s experiences rather than their own.” — Anthony Robbins

7. The willingness to take risks

There is a big difference between always engaging in risky behaviour, and being willing to take risks when it is the sound decision to make. Someone like Sir Richard Branson has taken many risks with his Virgin empire, and if it weren’t for these risks then he wouldn’t have been able to expand and grow at the level that he has. For optimal success, some level of risk does need to be taken.

“People that don’t risk anything will inevitably find themselves behind those that do. You can lead a change or it can lead you.” — J.W. Marriott Jr.

However, recent research looking at female and male CEOs supports the notion that too much risk isn’t a good thing either. Faccio, Marchica and Mura (2016) found that firms run by male CEOs tend to make riskier decisions, with generally higher leverage and more volatile earnings than firms run by female CEOs. They are also less likely to remain in operation in comparison to firms run by female CEOs (Faccio et al., 2016). Greater risks may lead to greater growth, but also greater risk of overall collapse.

8. Understanding the power of expectation

Successful people think big instead of small, and believe that they can achieve anything they set their mind to, even if it takes more effort, setbacks and time than they initially envisioned. If thinking big is combined with grit, a growth mindset, and the right timing, look out. There’s no saying how much someone could achieve.

“When our attitude toward ourselves is big, and our attitude towards others is generous and merciful, we attract big and generous portions of success.” –Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone

Research indicates that individuals who believe that they can improve are more likely to actually improve (Bergsma, 2008). Greater expectations have been shown to improve hope, increase determination and goal completion (Geraghty, Wood, & Hyland, 2010). Greater expectations of outcome can also improve distress tolerance (Williams, Thompson, & Andrews, 2013).

9. Developing mastery in what is most important to them

“The world does not dictate what you shall do, but it does require that you be a master in whatever you undertake.” — Orison Swett Marden

Whilst it may be tempting to try to learn as many different things as possible, the saying “jack of all trades; master of none” often becomes the consequence for people that try to take on too many different projects or career paths all at once.

Warren Buffett has been quoted as once saying to his pilot that he should write down the top 25 things that he wanted to do in life, then circle his top 5 priorities, and finally label items 6-25 as “avoid at all costs” until items 1-5 were completed.

The reason for this is that to reach full mastery can take a long time. Up to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in many cases, as proposed by Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson. This equates to nearly 7 hours a day of deliberate practice, every day, for four straight years. If we take these numbers seriously, it makes sense to not spread yourself too thin, unless you don’t want to develop mastery in anything.

“I believe the true road to pre-eminent success in any line is to make yourself master of that line. I have no faith in the policy of scattering one’s resources.” –Andrew Carnegie

10. Well-roundedness and balance

Having said that, developing mastery and accumulating achievements in one area of your life isn’t going to mean much if you are not also a success as a person.

“No kind action is ever lost. You will be indebted to these trifles for some of the happiest attentions and the most pleasing incidents of (your) life.” — Andrew Carnegie

After watching ‘The Founder’ movie based on the life of Ray Kroc, I was appalled by how willing he was to trample on anyone in his way throughout the pursuit of wealth and power without a second thought. This included ignoring his first wife, poaching the wife of another business associate, not keeping his word, and screwing the initial founders of McDonalds for millions of dollars annually.

“Systematic giving is a powerful practice that blesses every phase of our lives, as it keeps us attuned to the wealth of the universe.” — Catherine Ponder

Ray Kroc was a workaholic, with his famous catchphrase “if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean” still repeated throughout McDonalds franchises worldwide.

“Without time for recovery, our lives become a blur of doing unbalanced by much opportunity for being.” — Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz

If no time is dedicated to personal growth, spiritual growth, health, relaxation, leisure, relationships and community, it becomes difficult to have the well-being, vitality, meaning and support required to achieve ongoing success.

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Other pearls of wisdom from the 50 success classics

“Whatever you do, you will be more successful if you do it with honesty, fairness, and to the best of your ability.” — Horatio Alger

“(Successful people) have no interest in proving themselves, but an abiding interest in expressing themselves…only when we know what we’re made of and what we want to make of it can we begin our lives – and we must do it despite an unwitting conspiracy and events against us.” — Warren Bennis

“Every successful person knows how to sell what they offer. Enthusiasm and organisation are the basic elements in selling (and success).” — Frank Bettger

“Work for your own success, but ensure that your achievements lift up the wider community” — Edward Bok

“(Successful people) almost always do what they think is the most productive thing possible at every given moment; losers never do. When you look at what winners and losers actually do moment by moment, the difference between these two divisions of the human race really is that small. But the results of those small differences keep adding to each other at each given moment until they reach a critical size.” — Tom Hopkins

“It takes courage to be a real (success) – not a winner in the sense of beating out someone else by always insisting on coming out on top, but a winner at responding to life. It takes courage to experience the freedom that comes with autonomy, courage to accept intimacy and directly encounter other persons, courage to take a stand in an unpopular cause, courage to choose authenticity over approval and to choose it again and again, courage to accept the responsibility for your own choices, and indeed, courage to be the unique person you really are.” — Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward

“The price of success is much lower than the price of failure, and is much more enjoyable.”— Zig Ziglar

“Success is most likely when it becomes a necessity.” — Nelson Mandela

“Your big opportunity and big success usually slide in, when you least expect it. You have to let go long enough for the great law of attraction to operate. You never saw a worried and anxious magnet. It stands up straight and hasn’t a care in the world, because it knows needles can’t help jumping to it. The things we rightly desire come to pass when we have taken the clutch off.” — Florence Shovel Shinn

“Various scientific studies have proven that if you learn how to deal with other people, you will have gone about 85% of the way down the road to success in any business, occupation, or profession, and about 99% of the way down the road to personal happiness.” -– Les Giblin

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My two cents

Remember, relationship warmth is the number one predictor of long-term health and happiness, not how much money you have in the bank, or how hard you have worked.

Focus on building true connection and a sense of belonging with others who embrace you for who you are. Don’t let old friendships go by if they give you these things.

Try to be kind, compassionate, patient and accepting. To others, but especially to yourself. No one is perfect, and we all fall into the same traps time and time again. If you can learn from these mistakes, you will improve and grow.

Lastly, try to accumulate positive experiences, not things. Materialism and consumerism are empty pursuits, void of meaning and purpose. Experientialism is the way to go.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

10 thoughts on “10 Characteristics of Successful People

  1. Great read Damon,

    I always find the notion of success interesting. Success is different for everyone, being successful doesn’t mean you have the fastest car, or the most money or the biggest house. As you said you said, these traits help people to succeed in whatever they find value in. Perhaps it is relationships, health or contribution but apply grit to what you find value in and you will have your individualised version of success, not what society has conditioned.
    Looking forward to the next post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful summary of success. Totally agree, with the big caveat that success is only possible when one determines/discovers what success is for himself/herself. Number five, an integrated mind, jumped out at me as I’m currently finalizing my own journey to an integrated mind. I look forward to following your writing and appreciate that you decided to follow my 80Insights blog.
    Jerry

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with your last paragraphs Dr. Damon! Having a warm, healthy, & loving relationship with others and with one’s own self (and for me, a more personal relationship with God too) is the key ingredient to a happier and more meaningful life! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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