Jenna Goudreau, Forbes Staff
What do actor Alec Baldwin, game-show champion Ken Jennings and baseball icon Yogi Berra have in common?
That’s what husband-and-wife duo Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield set out to discover. For their upcoming book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well, they interviewed 36 star performers that climbed to the tops of their various fields.
“We didn’t want to theorize about success,” says Gosfield. “We went straight to the source, finding the most amazing people in all fields and asking them, ‘How do you do what you do?’”
Interview after interview with some of the world’s most successful people—actress Laura Linney, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, crossword mastermind Will Shortz—they began seeing patterns emerge. No matter how diverse their goals or crafts, these super-achievers shared many of the same habits. How can you follow in their footsteps? These are the 10 qualities that will set you apart.
Dedication To A Vision
“Every great success starts with inspiration, but not every inspiration leads to success,” Gosfield says. “The most common thing we found was these people’s devotion to the day-to-day struggle.” Glossy magazine success stories often don’t show the dark moments, the daily grind or flagging energy that super-achievers endure to realize their goals. However, that dedication is essential to their success.
One thing successful people know: Dedication and blind persistence are two very different things. “You can work hard but not smart,” says Sweeney. “When something’s not working, you’ve got to tweak it. Some people just keep banging their heads against the wall.” Instead of doggedly using the same ineffective tactics, super-achievers pivot and try to tackle the problem from a different angle.
Fostering A Community
Star performers know they can’t achieve success on their own. Instead, they must galvanize a group of people around their idea or goal. Teamwork, or having an ecosystem of supporters, turns out to be critically vital for success. It doesn’t just include partners and coworkers. It might also mean employees, customers, investors, mentors, fans and social media followers. They quote business guru Guy Kawasaki: “First you have to create something worthy of an ecosystem. Then pick your evangelists.”
Listening And Remaining Open
“You don’t normally think of hard-charging, action-oriented leaders as being good listeners,” says Sweeney. “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, Zappos’ Hsieh 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.
Stories have the ability to transport people to your world, and then they’re more likely to invest in you and your brand. Philippe Petit, famous for his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in the 1970s, believed other wire-walkers were trying to make it look hard. “But he wanted to be a poet in the sky and seem effortless,” Sweeney says. “His narrative wasn’t in words, but it was a story he was communicating.”
Testing Ideas In The Market
“Everybody has a bias to think their own idea is brilliant,” says Gosfield. “[Achievers] roll it out in an environment that’s as close as possible to the market.” Bill Gross, serial entrepreneur and founder of Idealab, always tests before he invests. When he had an idea for an online car dealer, CarsDirect, no one was sure if people would actually buy a car from a Web site. He decided to put up a test site to see what would happen. Before they had any inventory, they’d sold four cars and had to shut down the site. On the upside, Gross then knew for a fact there was a market for the service.
“We found that managing emotions is a key element to success,” Sweeney says. “It’s so easy to be derailed by them, but these people are able to channel anger and frustration into their work.” This was an important lesson for Jessica Watson, the Australian sailor who circumnavigated the world alone at only 16 years old. While out at sea, when loneliness or negativity set in, she would acknowledge her emotions and remind herself that she could get past them. “You can’t change conditions—just the way you deal with them,” Watson said.
Successful people maintain success by consistently learning and adapting to the environment around them. Tennis champion Martina Navratilova realized this when her game suddenly started sliding. She decided to transform her training routine and diet, and soon was back on track to become an all-star athlete.
Inaction, or stillness, can sometimes be just as useful as action. The importance of patience was a primary theme among the super-achievers–whether it’s strategically waiting for the best time to make a move or continuing to pursue a larger vision without receiving immediate rewards. Jill Tarter, a director of the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), has been searching for life on other planets for the last 50 years without any guarantee of success.
Success fuels happiness, and happiness in turn fuels greater success. Jennings, “the winningest game-show champion in history,” said once he became a contestant on a game show, it filled his entire life with passion. That happiness helped him win, and winning ended up giving him the confidence he needed to pursue a career he loved: writing. Seeking happiness in your life and work turns out to be a win-win.
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