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4 Things High Achievers Do Differently – Harvard Biz Review

Hadley’s Intro:  Enrich your life, work and relationships

by embracing 4 success strategies you discover in this

guest post courtesy of Harvard Business Review

written by Ruth Gotian
January 06, 2023

We’ve all heard the saying, “Do what you love,
and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Yet
a recent Gallup study shows that many people are,
in fact, not loving their work and are miserable
in their jobs, with only 21% of employees engaged
at work and 33% thriving in their overall
well-being globally. Individually and as a
society, we seem to have lost our hope for the
future. People want to succeed, but the path to
achievement is murky. No one wakes up aiming to be
average, but all the messages we receive,
consciously and unconsciously, appear to push us
to that undistinguishable level.

At work, our performance is measured against
benchmarks. We’re pushed to reach “acceptable
standards.” Even annual performance appraisals
are based on whether we fall above or below a mean
score. Average has become the target, and that’s
a shame, as high achievers who blow benchmarks out
of the water are 400% more productive than the
average employee.

What if the average became our floor instead of
our ceiling?

For nearly a decade, I’ve interviewed scores of
high achievers, from astronauts to Olympic gold
medalists to Nobel Prize winners, for my book The
Success Factor. What was revealing is that
irrespective of their industry, all high achievers
had four things in common, and any of us can
customize them to our own lifestyle, not by
copying their habits but by emulating their

1) Tap into your intrinsic motivation.
Why did you enter your chosen profession? Getting
to the “why” behind your career choice is
critical, as it will help you get in touch with
your deepest motivations, block out distractions,
and potentially adjust (or reengage) with your
current path.

For instance, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of
the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases, is motivated by helping
others. When I asked how he selects which problems
to focus on, he told me that he picks problems
that he feels are important, not just interesting.
This sentiment was repeated by many of the people
I spoke with — they focused on doing work that
would make an impact beyond themselves. For the
highest achievers, it’s not about the medals,
rewards, bonuses, or promotions.

To the point, very few of the Olympians I spoke to
keep their medals on display. Most keep them in a
safe, the nightstand drawer, thrown on a shelf, or
in the case of the most decorated winter Olympian,
Apolo Ohno, in a brown paper bag in his sock
drawer. They all told me that they loved what they
do, could not imagine another path, and would do
it for free if they could. In fact, I have yet to
meet a Nobel Prize winner who quit their
scientific work after winning their field’s most
prestigious award. “That’s a chapter in my
life, not the entire journey” was a phrase
insinuated repeatedly.

What you can do:
To tap into your intrinsic motivation, ask
yourself: What fuels my curiosity? Is it aligned
with what fuels my work? If you’re focused only
on external factors (like rewards), you’re
likely on the path to burnout.

I recommend creating a passion audit, which will
help you differentiate between what you are good
at versus what you are not, and what you enjoy
doing versus where you procrastinate. Look for
themes and see how you can embed some of your more
passionate tasks into your career. It doesn’t
have to be much. Research from the Mayo Clinic has
shown that when physicians spend just 20% of their
time working on something they’re passionate
about, it significantly reduces their level of

2) Get comfortable with failure.
Dr. Peggy Whitson is a biochemist who worked at
NASA. She always dreamed of becoming an astronaut
but was met with repeated hurdles. For a full
decade, she applied to be an astronaut but was
repeatedly rejected. She didn’t quit after the
first, second, or even third rejection. Every time
she faced a hurdle, she asked herself, “What
strategy have I not thought of yet?” She
leveraged what she learned working at NASA to be
more competitive as an astronaut applicant.

It’s a good thing Dr. Whitson didn’t allow the
rejections to deflate her motivation because she
ultimately went on to become the first female
commander of the international space station (a
role she held twice), spent more days in space
than any American astronaut of any gender, and
ultimately became NASA’s chief astronaut.

Some people fear failing, while others fear
succeeding. High achievers fear “not trying”
more than they fear failing. For them, it’s not
a question of if they can overcome a challenge;
the focus is always on how they can. They consider
alternative strategies and work fiercely to
control what they can control, and ignore

Despite what you might have heard, not all high
achievers wake up at 5 am to do this work either,
especially if they’re not morning people. The
people I spoke to learned to optimize their peak
performance hours.

What you can do:
To achieve a similar focus, consider this two-step
approach. Learn to leverage your cognitive hours,
those when you are most able to concentrate, and
spend that time on your deep focus work, not
passive tasks such as responding to emails or
scheduling Zoom meetings, which you can do when
you are more sluggish.

Second, consider productivity sprints using the
time management Pomodoro method, which has you
working and taking scheduled breaks on a
predictable cycle. If the work you’re engaged in
during this time isn’t bringing you closer to
your goal, or giving you the results you want,
don’t stop trying or lose focus. Instead, us the
time to brainstorm a different approach.

3) Reinforce your foundation.
The week the Nobel Prizes are announced, social
media is in a frenzy showing the newly minted
award winners going about their usual routine of
teaching or writing grants in between press
interviews. Despite all of their accolades, high
achievers never rest on their laurels. Even if
they’ve done a task or routine countless times,
they still work on the basic skills foundational
to their current — and future — success.
It’s why NBA champion Kobe Bryant was famous for
practicing the same warm-up routines you’d see
in any junior high school gym.

Neal Katyal is another example. He argued 48 cases
before the Supreme Court of the United States. He
told me he still prepares a binder with answers to
every possible question he might get asked, holds
multiple moot courts, and wordsmiths his opening
arguments so succinctly that his children can
understand them.

In the military, people are similarly told to
“train hard, fight easy.” It’s also the
strategy marathon runners use when they train in
high altitudes so that running the race in normal
conditions feels easier.

What you can do:
Consider the “must-have” skills of your
profession and imagine how you can brush up on
them or learn to build on them. Instead of letting
them get rusty, think about what it would take for
you to get to the point where they are so
effortless that you can rely on muscle memory to
lead you under stress. Do you need more practice?
Do you need to practice under challenging
conditions? Both strategies will sharpen your

4) Become a lifelong learner.
The high achievers I spoke with are continuously
open to learning, although it is rarely in the
classroom. Discussions with mentors, colleagues,
peers, and mentees, coupled with reading,
observing others, watching videos, and listening
to podcasts, all inform their deep reservoir of

Christopher Wadell, for instance, grew up as an
able-bodied skier until an accident one day left
him without use of his lower body. He wanted to
return to the slopes and first learned this was
possible years earlier when he watched a cancer
survivor with one leg on a monoski. That memory
was embedded in his mind, and it pushed him to
learn to ski in this new way. Today, Christopher
Wadell is a decorated Paralympian. He’s won 13
medals, five of them gold.

Many of the Nobel Prize winners I spoke to were
also inspired as a result of their openness and
curiosity. Several shared that their breakthrough
ideas occurred through casual conversations with
colleagues in cafeterias and laundry rooms.
Conference lectures, coffee breaks and group meals
are not just for building your network. It’s
where new ideas take root and develop.

What you can do:
To increase your knowledge base, which can lead to
making connections others don’t yet see, immerse
yourself with interesting people and open your
mind up to new ideas. Surround yourself with a
team of mentors who can offer you challenges and
scaffolding to try new things. Consume new ideas
in a platform of your choosing — reading books
and articles, watching webinars, taking LinkedIn
Learning courses, or listening to engaging
conversations and interviews.

. . .
People want to succeed, but there is a lack of
understanding and discussion on how to achieve
more, and more importantly, be motivated to do it.
By learning the lessons from some of the most
accomplished people of our generation, we can make
average our beginning, not our end goal.

Read more on Managing yourself or related topics
Continuous learning, Personal growth and
transformation and Personal productivity
Ruth Gotian is the chief learning officer and
assistant professor of education in anesthesiology
at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and the
author of The Success Factor. She was named the
world’s #1 emerging management thinker by
Thinkers50. You can access her free list of
conversation starters.


How will you turn these insights into action plans

that enrich your life, work and relationships?

Hadley Finch

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