Ten Traits of Highly Successful People

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’, and Napoleon Hill’s ‘Think and Get Rich’, 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 more likely to experience psychological growth following a traumatic experience (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009). Optimism can also reduce mortality rates over four years (Galatzer-Levy & Bonanno, 2014) and a 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 in accomplishing all the goals of your life …” — Boselie et al., 2014, p. 335

Optimism training works. However, it would be best to 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 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 elements 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 did not affect students grade point averages (GPAs) across a semester. However, it did when they provided training in values clarification alongside goal setting. Furthermore, clarifying values before setting goals also significantly reduced the dropout 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 some years and determined which ones made it through to graduation. She knew that each cadet admitted to West Point was intelligent, physically fit, with excellent grades and test scores. However, she was also cognizant that 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 of 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

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 you will take when an opportunity arises that is relevant to your goal.

Compared 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 preparation for a high-stakes exam. This indicated a higher level of self-discipline in pursuing a meaningful goal (Duckworth et al., 2010), which over time could result in higher 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 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. Heuristics are generally adequate but not optimal solutions to severe problems. This uses our first system and helps us conserve brainpower, but it is only accurate about 80% of the time.

Successful people can utilise both system one and system two. System one is excellent if the decision has minimal long-term consequences, such as what to have for dinner. If the decision has potentially significant implications, however, such as whether or not to buy a house or change jobs, the more energy depleting and accurate system two will 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 is great for developing empathy towards others. It provides an opportunity to see inside the characters heads and experience their internal world in a way that you often don’t get in movies or TV shows. It helps develop imagination, as the brain creates 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 I can learn from 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 might be paying up to $1000, and it would only be scratching the surface of all of the fantastic 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 in one place. Sure, some books can take a while to get through. However, the value for money and knowledge 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 a sound decision to make. Someone like Sir Richard Branson has taken many chances with his Virgin empire, and if it weren’t for these risks, he wouldn’t have been able to expand and grow at the level that he has. For optimal success, some degree 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 on 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 than firms run by female CEOs (Faccio et al., 2016). More significant risks may lead to higher growth but also a higher 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. Furthermore, look out if thinking big combines grit, a growth mindset, and the right timing. 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 they can improve are more likely to grow (Bergsma, 2008). Higher expectations have been shown to strengthen hope, increase determination and goal completion (Geraghty, Wood, & Hyland, 2010). Higher expectations of the 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

While 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 he completed 1–5.

The reason for this is that reaching full mastery can take a long time. In many cases, up to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 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 not to spread yourself too thin unless you 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

Developing proficiency and accumulating achievements in one area of your life isn’t going to mean much if you are not 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 McDonald’s 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 McDonald’s 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.

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 genuine connections 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.

“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

Try to be kind, compassionate, patient and accepting. To others, but mainly to yourself. No one is perfect, and we all fall into the same traps time and time again. However, 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. Doing fun, new or helpful things alongside the people you love never is.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

12 thoughts on “Ten Traits of Highly Successful People

  1. Just got my tickets to JBP’s Dec 5th talk. I’ll let you know whether my opinion holds, but from what I’ve seen of him I am already quite a fan. One might be tempted to write him off as a pedagogue if such basic formative knowledge were still common in the modern age, but as it stands I think he just might be a visionary.

  2. What a great summary of different points of view about the what contributes to having a successful, fulfilling life. My own rule 1 is something my father said to us all growing up – repeatedly: “To Thine Own Self Be True.” I’m not sure if he even knew it was from Shakespeare, but he sure understood why it was important. I’ve found it applies to almost every situation – be yourself, say what you mean, don’t pretend to be something you’re not, spend time with people who love the real you, etc.

    Thanks for sharing this post!

    Joan Senio
    My Best Friend Adeline

  3. Hey, great article! This is the kind of quality I’m hoping to bring to my own blog, and I’ll be going through some of your older articles in order to learn and model! Thanks for sharing!
    —Nikolas @www.my-apotheosis.com.

  4. I like #10, because being precise with your speech is one of Don Miquel Ruiz’s four agreements. I think it’s important to try your best to be as exact as you can with your communication, even though it is at the mercy of other’s perceptions. At least if your speech is precise, you can call back to what you said if there is a misunderstanding.

    I actually like the use of the word “perfect” in #6. It makes it clear that you should NEVER criticize, because you will never be perfect.

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