There is a myth out there about how you must think and work in order to become successful. It generally goes like this: you have to focus on the idea of becoming successful with an intense drive and focus that will usually encapsulate every part of your life, including your relationships, hobbies, down-time, and habits. Only once you have cultivated this intense focus, oftentimes at the cost of other aspects of your life, will you run any shot of being successful. Success is a merciless drive from point A to point B.
To imagine this, consider the opening situation of The Wolf of Wall Street. Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio), a Wall Street trader, makes $49 million the year he turns 26 (a failure on his part, because he wanted to make $1 million a week that year for a total of $52 million). He had set his eyes on being a Wall Street trader since before he was a student in business school and understood the path to get there (start at point A and arrive at point B), stepping on whoever he needed to in order to claw his way to the top. While the movie eventually turns on Belfort — who borders on sociopathy and whose work engulfs every aspect of his life — the initial scene is set: he is successful — quite successful.
While Belfort’s story really does exist, it’s not the norm among highly-successful people. Consider another pathway to success.
Richard St. John describes a conversation that he had with an underprivileged girl on a flight to one of his first TED conferences. The girl asks him whether or not he, a motivational speaker, is successful. The idea strikes St. John as ridiculous. But then she starts asking him if he’s a millionaire, and he has to admit that he is. St. John’s life was one of constant mediocrity and failure while growing up. It was one in which he had very little focus on what the idea of success would mean and be to him. Struck by the idea that he may, actually, be quite successful despite his rocky upbringing and complete lack of focus on becoming successful, he’s forced to think about what it actually means to be successful and how people become successful.
Completely unable to answer that question for himself, he set on 10 years of research with over 500 interviews and was able to narrow the traits of successful people, many of whom shared a story like his and unlike Belfort’s. His research revealed 8 traits:
- Passion — love what you do.
- Work — work hard.
- Focus — focus on one thing in your work, not everything. (Key: focus on what you are doing, not on becoming successful.)
- Push — keep pushing yourself.
- Ideas — make sure your ideas are good.
- Improve — constantly view yourself as a project to be improved upon.
- Serve — create value for others and serve them.
- Persist — there is no overnight success, so keep persisting, especially through adversity.
Success, then, is a multifaceted and complex thing to arrive at. Failure to understand the many points that go into it will lead to what is oftentimes a much-needed failure. Many of the world’s most successful people failed at first for a reason.
St. John’s TEDtalk can be found here: