What’s the Biggest Indicator of Success?
Updated: Oct 1
When you think about any successful person, it’s easy to assume they possess something special. Talent. Perseverance. Intelligence. Skill. Education. Connections. Emotional intelligence. A growth mindset.
Who they are inside — and what that allows them to do — makes all the difference.
But what if that’s not all there is to it?
Research shows that traits like passion, mental toughness, constant learning and a willingness to take risks do lead to greater success. Hard work is usually rewarded. Perseverance is often the difference between success and failure. After all, if you give up, failure is guaranteed. Intelligent risk does, at times, pay off. (And even if it doesn’t, what you learn from new experiences makes success more likely the next time.)
When you out-work, out-think, out-skill and outlast other people you’re much more likely to be successful.
Think of it as the “80% Rule:”
Do what other people are unable, or unwilling, to do, and in time you should at least make it to, say, the 80th percentile of successful people.
But what does it take to get the rest of the way and be one of the most successful people?
Science says you’ll also have to be lucky. You have to be at the right place at the right time, meet the right person, stumble on an idea or experience something you weren’t necessarily looking for.
Take Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for example:
Young Bill was clearly smart, creative, driven. He had all the qualities that tend to create success (except maybe emotional intelligence).
His family could also afford to send him to a private school. A school that was one of the few in the country with access to a teletype that could connect to a GE time-sharing computer. And because his friend Paul Allen shared an article about Altair, the first microcomputer kit, it led them to convert Basic into an operating system for Altair.
Gates might still have become successful. He had the mental and emotional tools. But luck — or coincidence, if you prefer — also played a huge role.
Millions of other people are talented. And lucky. Who you are, and what you do, matters. But success is also based on factors you can’t control.
Research shows that luck and chance have a role in the success of everyone from CEOs to hockey players. Things like your birth month, and even your name, can alter your life’s trajectory.
“In any group of elite hockey players,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers,” “40% will have been born between January and March.” Being born early in the year tended to make them the biggest, strongest and fastest in their junior age groups.
People born in June and July are significantly less likely to become CEOs. Why? Because they were the youngest in their classes.
People with easy to pronounce names are “judged more positively” than people with difficult to pronounce names. Why? Good question.
Over half of the variation in income across the world depends on the country of birth. Where you’re born — something you obviously can’t control — matters greatly. As researchers from the University of Maryland write, “The role of effort ... cannot play a large role in explaining global distribution of income.”
Bottom line, luck definitely plays a role. But so does what you do with it, and whether you try to create your own luck, because you can. Here’s how.
1. Meet more people
Mick Jagger ran into Keith Richards on a train station platform. They noticed each other because Richards was carrying a guitar, Jagger, an armful of records. A friend introduced Steve Wozniak to Steve Jobs because he knew they both liked electronics and playing pranks.
Meeting the right person at the right time makes a huge difference. But, like many things, it’s a numbers game. You can’t luck into meeting the right person unless you meet a lot of people.
If you assume that good things will happen, and that every person you meet is worth meeting, you’ll likely enjoy the process more.
2. Try more things
While sometimes success is a straight line, most successful people have tried and failed at a number of things. That’s why they’re successful. They were willing to try something new and learn from what did and didn’t work so that next time they were even more prepared, more skilled, more talented and, therefore, more “lucky.”
Try things. Then try more things.
3. Try more“off course” things.
Doing the same things, day after day, typically creates the same results.
The only way to achieve differently is to do differently. Embark on a side project. Learn a new skill. Open up to different experiences.
Do a few things you assume, but don’t actually know for certain, you won’t like. You might be surprised what you learn.
Luck sometimes results from the right person saying yes. But no one can say yes unless you ask.
As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said: “I’ve never found anybody that didn’t want to help me if I asked them for help. ... I called up Bill Hewlett (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard) when I was 12 years old.
‘Hi, I’m Steve Jobs. I’m 12 years old. I’m a student in high school. I want to build a frequency counter and I was wondering if you have any spare parts I could have.’
He laughed, and he gave me the spare parts, and he gave me a job that summer at Hewlett-Packard ... and I was in heaven.
“I’ve never found anyone who said no or hung up the phone when I called. I just asked. And when people ask me, I try to be responsive, to pay that debt of gratitude back.
“Most people never pick up the phone and call. Most people never ask, and that’s what separates, sometimes, the people who do things from the people who just dream about them.”
Unlucky people wait to be discovered.
Lucky people discover themselves and ask for what they want.
Start asking — nicely — for what you want. Because you never know where it might lead.
This article by Jeff Haden originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
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