Getting Into The Mindset Of A Top Achiever

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by

When we’re having a rough go of things, success can feel ephemeral. It’s easy to fall back on the old adages: don’t give up, take one day at a time, and so on. But what can we learn from people who have made achievement seem easy—what is it about their mindset and their behaviors that we might each be able to implement, in order to reach our own goals?

I recently spoke to Ruth Gotian, leadership coach, educator, and social scientist who studies high achievers in order to learn about their mindsets and practices. Gotian is the chief learning officer and assistant professor of Education in Anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and is the 2021 recipient of the Thinkers50 RADAR Award, recognizing her as the world’s #1 emerging management thinker.

She’s also written a new book, The Success Factor: Developing the Mindset and Skillset for Peak Business Performance, in which she speaks with high achievers of all stripes—astronauts, Olympic champions, and Nobel laureates, to name a few—to learn about the keys to their success.

Who better to ask about what makes our society’s ultra-achievers tick?

Build From a Strong Foundation

According to Gotian, high achievers share the same four attributes: an intrinsic motivation, perseverance, a strong foundation, and constantly being open to learning, especially through informal means. Most of those ingredients of achievement are straightforward, but what makes for a “strong foundation”?

She said in practice, this looks like people continuing doing what worked for them early in their career—even after achieving notoriety and success.

“Ask an NBA star. Kobe Bryant was notorious for practicing his lay-ups and his free throws before sunrise. That’s what you have to do. He doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve played for so long, I don’t need to practice anymore.’  Any musician, the first thing they do is they practice their skills, they do their warmup. And it’s the same thing in every single field.”

So, sticking to the fundamentals—or, perfecting the areas you’re already good at—can go a long way.

Defeating Your Self-Doubt

Setbacks invariably happen along all our paths, so how can we remain focused, and not get discouraged? Especially at times when we’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to get thrown off course by a failure or poor result and start asking ourselves if we really have it in us to achieve. Even those that have achieved much, and still continue to achieve, have those nagging doubts at times. But it’s all about how you manage them.

Setting realistic goals is a way to keep yourself in the right mindset. If you tell yourself that anything short of the absolute best possible result is a failure, well, you’re going to be disappointing yourself a lot of the time.

Gotian suggests looking beyond the internal sources of doubt—or their inverse, encouragement—to make sure the people around you are creating a positive and encouraging environment.

“Achievers surround themselves with people who believe in them more than they believe in themselves. Sometimes these people will be senior to them, some will be peers, and some junior to them. But these are the people who constantly supported them. And eventually they started believing in themselves, if they didn’t already. If everyone else believes in you, you have to believe in yourself as well.”

Getting the Right Mix of Humility and Boldness

Gotian told me that the high achievers she interviewed for her book were among the most humble people she’d ever met. One of them was an astronaut who pointed to a Nobel Prize winner as an example of a “real high achiever,” implying that they themselves weren’t high on the achievement list.

“I’m thinking, You’re an astronaut,” she laughed. “But then I realized, he knows so many astronauts, it doesn’t register as being that special.”

That humility is a big part of who they are and why they’ve been able to achieve what they have. But it’s not enough to be humble—you have to be bold, as well, Gotian says. Many of the most famous achievers are known because they were bold enough to try things that haven’t been tried before. One of the defining characteristics of her interviewees is that “they fear not trying more than they fear failing. They understand that failure is part of the learning process.” They aren’t risk averse, but they aren’t taking unnecessary gambles, either, she told me. Strategic risks are big with the achiever crowd.

Finding Purpose and Passion

“You only need to spend 20% of your time doing what you love for the rest of the work not to deplete you,” Gotian said. But that’s easier said than done for many. “A lot of people are doing the same old thing they have for a while and don’t realize that what excited them in the past may not excite them now.”

Something called a “passion audit” can help people figure out where their passion and purpose lie. Gotian has used this technique with individuals to determine what drives them, and if they can infuse that passion into at least 20% of their work, she sees a marked increase in productivity and work enjoyment—and a lot less burnout.

“What are you good at? What do you enjoy?  What are you good at that you don’t enjoy? What are you not good at? What are you doing on weekends when your time is your own—what do you love to do? These sort of directing questions can provide insight into what your passion is, and help you orient your goals and activities toward them as much as possible.”

It’s much easier to achieve our goals when we love the act of getting there, the work that must be done.

A Roadmap to Success

When asked what she wanted her readers to take away from her book, Gotian said: “Success can be learned. It’s not just for other people—anybody who wants to achieve greater success can do so. You just need to follow the blueprint, those four things [intrinsic motivation, perseverance, a strong foundation, and learning and growing]—and you do them all together. You can’t pick and choose.”

But if you follow that blueprint, you’ll be well on your way to building a successful career.



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