A pair of authors interviews a diverse bunch of super high achievers, uncovering a handful of surprising strategies the rest of us can use to accomplish more.
Walking a high wire strung between the Twin Towers, starring in a megahit sitcom, building one of the world's most chattered about businesses or circumnavigating the globe in a small sailboat—these diverse accomplishments may seem like they have nothing in common except the magnitude of their awesomeness, but according to authors Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield all these achievements share one similarity. What is it?
Interviewing a diverse group of folks at the top of their fields from actor Alec Baldwin and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, to "guru of ganja" Ed Rosenthal and David Chang, the award-winning chef behind Momofuku, the co-authors uncovered a handful of principles that unite this incredibly eclectic bunch.
Perhaps the most fundamental of these, according to a New York Times opinion piece by Sweeney and Gosfield, is brutal self-assessment. Encountering obstacles makes many of us carp, complain and blame circumstance. On good days, perhaps we knuckle down and work harder. Superachievers react to setbacks with rigorous self-examination.
Chris Argyris, a business theorist at Harvard Business School, the co-authors write, examined how people respond to obstacles. The most common response, he found, was "single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles."
"Less common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we… question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions," they continue. In interviews the superachievers were firm devotees of this second approach. They "all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them," concludes the op-ed.
Don't Go It Alone
All of the interviewees may seem like the achetypal lonely achiever isolated by the heights of their accomplishments, but in reality, Sweeney and Gosfield found, all the superachievers relied on a supportive community.
"Superachievers might look like loners—at the top of the mountain, by themselves. But they all found ways to connect themselves to people who would support their dreams and their goals. Everybody had this skill of active listening, when you’re taking in what another person’s saying and processing it, listening for information that you’re going to put into action. That’s something that’s surprising for very successful people—you would imagine that they don’t want to be told (what to do), because they know everything. You wouldn’t think that Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, or Martina Navratilova, has to listen, but that is what they’re doing," Sweeney told Smithsonian Magazine.
Happiness isn't something you pursue on the side in addition to your primary accomplishments if you're a super achievers; it's something that's deeply woven into and integral to your 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," Forbes explains as part of its thoughtful round-up of the book's key takeaways.
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel