How to be a Superachiever: The 10 Things They Have in Common

I am in the process of reading the book The Art of Doing right now.  It is a book that tells the story of people at the very top of their field; they are the best at what they do.  The book includes interviews with baseball legend Yogi Berra, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, tennis legend Martina Navratilova, famous weed-grower Ed Rosenthal, world-class teacher Erin Gruwell, entrepreneurs Guy Kawasaki and Bill Gross, best-selling author Stephen Dubner, and many others (see bottom of the page for a full list).  All these people do different things and on the surface seem to have almost nothing in common.  But they are all superachievers.  And through interviewing these superachievers, the authors started to see a common theme—these superachievers share very common traits.  In the book, the authors outlined ten character traits that these superachievers have in common that makes them the very best at what they do.  Below are the ten things that superachievers have in common.

1. Dedication

There was really no roadmap to building their dreams.  All they have is a vision, a dream.  But to achieve that vision, that dream, they had to have total dedication to the goal.  To accomplish their dreams, they had to overcome fear, test their plans against reality, and maintain an unwavering focus in pursuit of their dreams.  Success to these superachievers did not come in a single Eureka! moment, or was it instantaneous.  Rather it came from years of complete dedication.  Once they were set on achieving their dreams, nothing else mattered, not even the extrinsic reward of riches.

There is no blueprint for success nor is it guaranteed.  But success starts with dedication; it starts with picking up that ball, pen, or guitar for the first time.  Then once again.  And again.

2. Intelligent Persistence

When pursuing a goal, it is important to be persistent, to have grit, to have the ability to push through the hard times.  But there is a difference between intelligent persistence and foolhardy doggedness.  Intelligent persistence is the ability push through until it is a lost cause.  Intelligent persistence is knowing when to push through and when to pivot in another direction, while still maintaining the overarching goal.

In the book, they told the story of restaurateur David Chang.  David Chang began his cooking career working at New York City’s best restaurants, training and working insane hours with the hope to one day open his own restaurant.  His first business was a noodle soup joint, prepared with four-star delicacy and technique.  But customers didn’t come.  He came to a crossroads as he was about to close up shop—he could keep grinding through, cooking the same stuff, or he could pivot and go for broke by trying something entirely new.  He opted for the latter option; he and his business partner decided to take everything they’ve ever learned and start creating dishes that they would want to eat themselves.  That pivot worked out as crowds of customers started coming in after the change in menu.  Now, David Chang is one of the worlds’ premier restaurateurs.

3. Community

Superachievers cite community—surrounding themselves with people who share and work towards the same goal—as an important criterion for success.  Their community consists of a large network of people, ranging from customers, investors, bloggers, advertisers, fans evangelists, critics, to even competitors.

Guy Kawasaki calls this community so important to success an ecosystem.

An ecosystem is a community of people—partners, friends, allies, evangelists—who work with you and align themselves with your cause’s success.  You can apply this to a rock ban, a muffin store, or a billion-dollar start-up.  First you have to create something worthy of an ecosystem.  Then you pick your evangelists.  Give people something meaningful to do.  And create a dialogue with blogs, Web sites, or social media.  – Guy Kawasaki

4. Listening

Superachievers practice active listening.  Active listening requires one to listen without judgement, to hear from the speaker’s point of view, and to let the speaker know you understand the content of what is being said as well as the associated feelings behind what is being said.  This is in contrast to passive listening, the type of listening we often associate with the word “listen.”

The book talks about how active listening turned Erin Gruwell into a world-class teacher she is today.  As an idealistic white student-teacher, she was assigned to teach a remedial class of mixed-raced students in Long Beach.  At the beginning of her tenure, she was shocked when most of her students never heard of the Holocaust.  Angry, she asked her students how many of them have ever been shot or stabbed.  To her surprise, almost every single student raised their hand.  At that point, something insider her shifted.  Anger turned into empathy.  She then began to have an open dialogue with her students to try to understand where they are coming from.  In order to do this, she had to listen without having her preconceived notions influencing her opinions.  She had to actively listen.  

From Gruwell’s simple act of actively listening, her students went on to collectively author a bestselling book that was made into a movie.  You may have heard of the book (and movie), it is called Freedom Writers.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, is another proponent of active listening.  To create his company’s core values, he enlisted the help of his whole company.  He solicited for opinions from every single employee.  And through a year of dialogue and back-and-forth, they created the Zappos core values together.  Now, as a result of the core values that the whole company created together, Zappos is now a billion-dollar business and perennially listed on the list of “best companies to work for.”

5. Telling a Story

No matter what these superachievers did or what their goals are, telling a story and having a conversation is one of the focal points of achieving success.  Superachievers understand that in order to create a brand, sell a product, promote a cause, or increase their visibility, they have to be able to tell a compelling story about their vision or dream.  Without a compelling story or narrative to go with a vision, it is going to be a hard to a community (or an ecosystem) that is willing to support your dream or vision.

RIchard Gerrig, professor of psycholinguistics at SUNY Stonybrook studied the effects of good narrative.  He explained that the listener can be transported by a good story.  Gerrig cites studies that demonstrate how, in the course of a story, we encode the narrative in the same we would if we were actually in the story ourselves.  Consequently, our rationality and cognition can be weakened.  And as a result, we become more sympathetic to the narrative of the story.

6. Testing

Stephen Dubner, author of FreakanomicsThink Like a Freakalong with a few other bestsellers, tests his writing out by reading aloud every single line he writes.  Big game hunter Chad Schearer tests his hunting skills by employing different shooting and hunting methods to see what works best.  Bill Gross, founder of over 100 companies, tested the idea of selling cars online in 1998, when people were not as easily swayed to give their credit card information.  Most people said that it wasn’t going to work.  But he went ahead and tested the theory anyway, he ran a test to see if people were willing to buy cars online.  He put up a basic test site to see if people were willing to buy.  Four orders came overnight.  That’s when he knew he was onto something.  He went with the idea and created CarsDirect, which became Internet Brands, one of the biggest online retailers.  The rest is history.   Bill Gross said of testing:

You’re biased towards your company’s ideas and success, so test your idea as soon as you possibly can—before you invest too much time or money to find out if people open their wallets and give you their cash.

Test is not only the act of seeing what works, but it is also the act of seeing what works better.  Often, the difference between good and great is the willingness to test new methods of doing things.

7. Managing Emotions

Gary Noesner, famous FBI hostage negotiator said the following about managing one’s emotions:

The most important trait of a hostage negotiator is self-control…Even when lives are on the line, I have to think clearly…If someone is yelling and screaming at me and I overreact to everything he says, how can I expect to be a positive influence?

But self-control and the ability to manage one’s emotions has far-reaching implications, far beyond hostage negotiations.  The ability to manage emotions is paramount to success at anything, whether it be starting a business or winning an athletic event.  Superachievers need to have the emotional balance and strength to be overcome fear, deal with disillusionment, control anxiety, gain confidence, avoid arrogance, learn acceptance, and also not take themselves too seriously.  When they felt emotions got in the way of their goals, they had the skills to look inward and examine their emotions, and figure out a way to effectively deal with their emotions.

Dr. Richard Restak, a neuropsychiatrist, explained the theory of “emotional valance” in the book.  An emotional valance is a positive or negative reaction based on the event experienced and how the limbic system processes the event in the brain.  Noesner has the ability to both recognize and regulate the emotions he feels.  Dr. Restak states that is the most prominent sign of a highly developed “observing ego.”  This is ultimately the goal of emotion management, to be able to recognize and regulate one’s emotions to effectively cope and not let it get in the way of goals.

8. Evolving

In the 1970s, Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris studied how people (and companies) reacted when they are blocked from achieving their goals.  Argyris found that people do the most obvious thing when they are unable to reach their goal—they try to figure out why.  But there are two distinct manners in which people try to figure out their shortcomings and why they aren’t able to reach their goals.  The first, and extremely common method is called a single-loop response.  With this method, only external or technical causes are called into question and none of the underlying premises and assumptions are called into question.  The second method, the much less frequent method, is called a double-loop response.  This method requires a deeper awareness of the self, and a requirement to question values and deeply held assumptions.  This method calls for brutal honesty with oneself as to what one’s true goals are and accountability to take action or pivot when one has figured out what is wrong.

At 22, she was ranked number one in the world.  But at 24, she lost in embarrassing fashion (0-6, 0-6) to Chris Evert.  In between the two years from 22 to 24, her play had become inconsistent and she was at risk of losing her reign and being bumped off the ranking ladder.

Shortly after her loss to Evert, she tried to fix her shortcomings by first approaching the problem using a single-loop response.  She began working with a different trainer, one who is more aggressive in style.  During a workout session, only after five wind sprints, she collapsed.  For the first time in her life, she realized her physical limitations.  This was when she became aware that her underlying assumption was what was holding her back, not her game.  She assumed that she can become a great player just by solely relying on her instinct, skill, and natural talent.  But after she collapsed, she realized that it wasn’t a technical problem or a mental block that was holding her back, it was her conditioning.

After her breakthrough, her training regimen evolved and she became a pioneer in cross-training.  By cross-training, she improved her stamina and endurance—and this advantage coupled with her talent and skills, proved enough to propel her to greatness.  She is now considered one of the greatest tennis players ever.  According to former No. 1 player, Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova is “the greatest singles, doubles, and mixed-doubles player who’s ever lived.”

Everyone reaches plateaus or roadblocks.  It is the true champions and superachievers that are able to break through those plateaus or roadblocks—and the break through can only come when one has evolved, by challenging deeply held convictions and assumptions.

9. Patience

Instant gratification is the enemy of success.  Success takes dedication, focus, and persistence.  That is why short-term rewards should not get in the way of the more valuable long-term rewards.  The willingness to have patience, stay the course, and have faith in the road you travel is what breeds success.

Jill Tarter, an astronomer, has been searching for extraterrestrial intelligent life her whole adult life.  She has no guarantees that anything will be found in her lifetime.  But she is willing to forego the traditional sense of success in order to lay the groundwork for a cause she believes deeply in.  Tarter is a leader at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) told the authors “Fifty years of silence doesn’t mean SETI is a failure, it means we’re just getting started.”

10. Happiness

Happiness is of extreme importance of when finding success.  Can you imagine being unhappy on the long and arduous road of achieving your goals?  In order to stay on the road to reach goals, one has to enjoy the drive there, as well as the destination.  Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 studies on happiness and well-being.  What she found was that when someone is more successful at their job, the happier they will be—and this happiness will create more success and opportunities.  Success begets success.  She calls this “upward spirals.”  In her definition, happiness is not a fixed-state emotion.  Rather, happiness is an ever-moving emotion that breeds further success.  Thus it is not only important that one enjoys the journey to their goals, but also enjoy the pursuit of excellence.


the art of doing

The Art of Doing is an excellent book that gives amazing access into minds of some of the world’s most accomplished people.  If you get a chance, read it.  Below is a total list of all the people interviewed for the book:

  1. Laura Linney, actress
  2. Anna Netrebko, diva
  3. Cesar Millan, dog whisperer
  4. Ken Jennings, game show champion
  5. Yogi Berra, baseball player
  6. Martina Navratilova, tennis player
  7. Alec Baldwin and Robert Carlock, actors/comedians
  8. Simon Doonan, executive at Barneys
  9. Joseph Spear, architect
  10. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos
  11. Will Shortz, crossword puzzle creator
  12. Mark Frauenfelder, blogger
  13. Randall Grahm, vineyard owner
  14. Constance Rice, civil activist
  15. Jill Tarter, astronomer
  16. OKCupid Founders
  17. George Clinton, record executive
  18. Barry Levine, news director of National Inquirer
  19. Ed Rosenthal, weed grower
  20. Chad Schearer, game hunter
  21. Erin Gruwell, teacher
  22. Philippe Petit, high wire artist
  23. Ray Benson, record producer
  24. Candida Royalle, female erotica producer
  25. Ok Go, band
  26. Gary Noesner, FBI hostage negotiator
  27. David Chang, restaurateur
  28. Richard Restak, neuropsychiatrist
  29. Marc Routh, broadway producer
  30. Michael Sitrick,  CEO of public relations firm
  31. Jessica Watson, sailor
  32. Lynsey Addario, war pphotojournalist
  33. Bill Gross, eentrepreneur
  34. Guy Kawasaki, entrepreneur
  35. Helio Castroneves, auto racing driver
  36. Stephen Dubner, author
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