Success Depends on What You Do, Not Talent

Here are 9 Things Successful People Do Differently


Whether you choose to define success in broad terms (i.e. “success in life”) or in more specific contextual terms (e.g. success in completing a project or achieving a goal) it is helpful to understand what behaviors or course of action can improve your chances of reaching the level of success you desire.

Endless volumes have been written about this ever-pressing question—How can I achieve success? But few manage to be as straightforward, accessible and concise as Heidi Halvorson’s, 9 Things Successful People Do Differently.

In only 112 short pages, Halvorson, a motivational psychologist, manages to lay out 9 actionable ideas gleaned from the scientific literature of success. After having scoured decades of research, she gives us the strategies that successful people use to catapult their performance far above the average. “In the end,” she states, “not only will you have gained some insight into all the things you have been doing right all along, but you’ll be able to identify the mistakes that have derailed you. More importantly, you’ll be able to use that knowledge to your advantage from now on.”

This book is a fantastic little manual, which I encourage you to read.

Personally, I’ve taken Halvorson’s framework and arranged it into 3 essential prescriptions: (1) “Be a Realistic Optmist” (2) Get Super-Specific and (3) Focus on Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief description of each:

1. Be a Realistic Optimist

To achieve success in life or on a specific goal, you have to be optimistic. You have to believe that success is possible for you and that you have the ability to succeed in whatever area you choose. This belief is the catalyst for motivation and effective action. “But whatever you do,” Halvorson warns, “don’t underestimate how difficult it will be to reach your goal.”

Stop thinking that your goal will be easily and quickly achieved. Any goal worth pursuing will “require time, planning, effort, and persistence,” says Halvorson. “Thinking things will come to you easily and effortlessly leaves you ill-prepared for the journey ahead, and significantly increases the odds of failure.”

2. Get Super-Specific

To improve their chances of success, successful people get super-specific about what they want to achieve in life. They avoid comments like, “I just want to be happy” or “I need to exercise more” because they are too vague and imprecise to tackle head on. Successful people envision the exact outcomes or end-states they want to create and even imagine some of the specific steps that may be required to achieve the result they want. Says Halvorson, “‘I’ll be in bed by 10pm on weeknights’ leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you’ve actually done it.”

This is all about defining precisely what you want to accomplish.

Focus on what you will do, not on what you won’t do

Achieving goals often means changing certain behaviors or habits that may be getting in your way. In such instances, Halvorson counsels against focusing on the bad habits themselves and giving more attention to the new and better habits that will replace them. You can even craft an If-Then statement such as “When I feel an urge to have a big bowl of ice cream, I’ll have a fruit salad instead.” Halvorson notes that when we focus on what we don’t want or on supressing certain thoughts, those thoughts seem to expand in our mind. To avoid this, focus on what you’ll do instead.

Seize the moment to act on your goals

Success requires planning ahead of time—“decide when and where you will take the action you want to take, in advance,” says Halvorson.

For example, don’t just say, “I’m going to work out tomorrow.” Get specific. What kind of “work-out” are you referring to? A 30 minute walk? A 3 mile run? A 60 minute upper-body weight training workout? And where will the workout take place? At what time? You may even want to anticipate what other activities may interfere with your plans and in doing so find ways to make sure your task is completed as scheduled. By getting to this level of specificity your chances of success improve by roughly 300%, according to Halvorson.

Know exactly how far you have left to go

Of course, to achieve success we must be able to measure our progress. What metrics can you use to track your performance and how will you take those measurements? You don’t have to get extreme, one or two measurements will do. In fact, you can check out my post on The 4 Disciplines of Execution where I discuss the concept of lag and lead measures.

The point is simply this—achieving a goal is like going on a journey from point A to point B. You must know the total distance, how far you’ve already travelled, and how much farther you have to go to get to your destination.

3. Focus on Continuous Improvement

As you know, the road will not always be easy or smooth. Things will get hard and it is in these moments of challenge and struggle that successful people shine and unsuccessful people falter.

Focus on getting better rather than good

Do you have a growth or fixed mindset? This matters immensely. People with a fixed mindset believe you can’t significantly improve your abilities. You’re either a great athlete or you’re not. You’re either great with numbers or you’re horrible at math. But here’s the problem: if you’re abilities are fixed and you don’t believe that you can significantly improve any skill by focus and practice, then what will you do when your goal requires you to stretch beyond your comfort zone or natural strengths?

That’s why focusing on getting better instead of worrying about being good is so powerful. “People whose goals are about getting better, rather than being good, take difficulty in stride, and appreciate the journey as much as the destination,” says Halvorson.

Have grit

Gritty people are completely committed to their long-term goals and when things get hard, these people tend to lean into the problem while others simply give up. Instead of becoming discouraged, gritty people rise to the challenge and become more interested in how to overcome the obstacle. They do more research, seek mentors, ask for help, experiment with new approaches—whatever it takes to overcome the present obstacle.

And this is key:

“People who lack grit more often than not believe that they just don’t have the innate abilities successful people have. If that describes your own thinking…well, there’s no way to put this nicely: you are wrong,” says Halvorson.  It takes grit and a growth mindset to succeed.

Build your willpower muscle

Yes, willpower is a muscle, which means (1) that it gets weaker with intense use and (2) it can be grown and made stronger through training.

You can practice doing things you’d honestly rather not do. You can also start with the most strenuous tasks early in the morning when your willpower is high. You should also make sure you eat properly in order to give your body the fuel it needs to do the work required. And when things really get tough and you feel like quitting, you can ask “Why?” Why do you want to accomplish this goal in the first place? Why is this goal so important to you? By taking the time to reconnect with your reasons for pursuing this goal, you can unlock strength you didn’t even know you had.

Furthermore, willpower is often intertwined with our habits. Habits are actions that become so automatic that you can perform them without tapping into your reserves of willpower. By understanding the power of habit you can design a powerful craving for a reward that allows you to tackle previously boring or onerous activities.

Don’t tempt fate

Because willpower is finite, trying to do too much is a recipe for disaster. You should avoid tackling too many ambitious goals or tasks at once. “And don’t put yourself in harm’s way,” says Halvorson. “Many people are overly-confident in their ability to resist temptation, and as a result they put themselves in situations where temptations abound. Successful people know how not to make reaching a goal harder than it already is.”

Talent takes a backseat to clarity and hard work

It’s too easy to think that the greats in business, science, sports, music, or any field of human endeavor, rose to greatness solely by virtue of their natural gifts or genius.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Show me any great achiever and (9 out of 10 times) I’ll show you a person who was clear about what she wanted, was completely committed to her goals, worked hard, overcame innumerable obstacles and made it to the top because of her grit and perseverance.

Go ahead, prove me wrong.

It’s about what you do every day to get what you want, that matters.

Successful people simply do things a little differently than most.

And that, makes all the difference.


photo courtesy of Agberto Guimaraes