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5 Things We Can Learn from the Super Successful
Like many budding entrepreneurs I’ve spent my fair share of time reading self-improvement articles, but there comes a time (usually one paragraph into an article entitled something like “3 Things Warren Buffett Does While Brushing His Teeth”) when you ask yourself ‘Does any of this actually make a difference?’
Do the idiosyncratic habits the super successful keep actually have a bearing on their success, or is it just down to hard work, God-given talent and a whole lot of luck?
To find out if there are any inherent traits that the successful share, I’ve interviewed four people who are all individually at the very top of their chosen fields.
These interviewees are:
Donna Chung, a professional clarinet player who has played with some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic.
Jason Wallien, a polygot and language expert who is fluent in four languages and is currently working on a language learning course that he believes will revolutionise how we learn languages in school.
Mark Pearson, an award winning digital entrepreneur, self-made multi-millionaire and CEO of MyVoucherCodes.
Jordan Canar, a professional bodybuilder, fitness model and elite trainer.
Despite working in such disparate industries, it is very telling that five overarching themes emerged in their stories. No matter how different their takes on the rest of their success were, they each put a huge amount of emphasis on the part five specific traits played in their achievements. These traits are:
They Never Stop Improving
For our participants, there is no such thing as “good enough”. Despite everything they’ve achieved, they all still remain driven to continue building upon their successes. Their focus is never what they can do and have already done, but what they’re going to do next.
Donna – Clarinet Player
“I gave up an opportunity to play with a great orchestra as I wanted to return to school and continue developing as a musician. One of the downsides of playing professionally is that all of your time is taken up playing the same music, which doesn’t leave you much time to explore your art and develop as a player. I feel that it is important to keep learning; as a musician you never reach your full potential but it is essential that you get as close to it as possible.”
Jordan – Bodybuilder
“The first thing I did after winning my last competition was quit my gym membership! In my old gym I was one of the only competing bodybuilders there and I was very much a big fish in a small pond. Everyone looked up to me and everyone knew who I was. It was great for my ego, but I’ve now started up with a much better, dedicated bodybuilding gym, where everyone is in exceptional shape. It’s great because it gives me a chance to train with, and learn from, the very best.”
Mark – Entrepreneur
“MyVoucherCodes (MVC) succeeded because it came about at exactly the right moment, when technology and consumer behaviour just happened to cross over. The challenge is that both technology and consumer behaviour are both in a constant state of change, so to remain relevant we need to stay at that cutting edge. The problem a lot of businesses have is that they spend all their time playing catch-up with innovation which has already happened. Instead, they need to try and pre-empt those changes, so that they are in the best position. It’s not enough to sit back and rake it in – your business always needs to be evolving.”
They Play the Long Game
It is human instinct to take an immediate benefit over the long term gain, which is unfortunate as the ability to plan ahead and reap the benefits of long term work is also a common thread throughout our participants’ lives.
Jordan – Bodybuilder
“Steroids can and will transform someone’s body in a very short amount of time, but the consequences can be pretty severe. The thing about steroids is that once you come off them, your body will pretty much stop producing the hormones it needs to grow, so unless you really know what you’re doing, you’re going to lose most of that muscle.
For guys at my level, steroids increase the chances of snapping a tendon to the point where I just don’t think it’s worth the risk. I’d rather take my time, put the work in and be natural and still be lifting in a decade’s time, rather than pump myself full of juice, get massive in a month but be unable to open a pickle jar when I’m 50!”
Jason – Language Genius
“The thing that annoys me about the way languages are taught currently is that kids are just fed stock phrases, so they end up with a head full of vocab and sentences but struggle to put it together in any meaningful way. They inevitably hit a wall when working out grammar and continuing to improve is very difficult.
The only benefit is that it gets people speaking right away. The way I learn, on the other hand, is to spend weeks or even months building a strong grammatical foundation, and really studying the etymology of words and their connotations. It feels like a lot of work before you can even string a sentence together but, once this foundation is in place, learning is exponential and much faster.”
They Are Always Pushing Their Boundaries
Getting to the level each of our participants is at is a staggering achievement in and of itself but, despite this, none of them are content with what they’ve done. Each one continues to look for new ways to grow and expand upon their existing successes, constantly pushing their boundaries.
Jordan – Bodybuilder
“The human body is an amazing thing in that it can adjust to the stresses you put on it extremely quickly. Therefore, to continue growing and not get caught in plateaus, it is crucial that I constantly change up my routine so that my body never gets the chance to fully adjust.
“Every workout I’ll try something new, whether it is as simple as slightly adjusting the way I lift a weight to work the muscle in a different way, or completely switching out running for a yoga session or something like that. If you stay in your comfort zone, you’re never going to grow.”
Donna – Musician
“Since I started playing, I have always been a classical musician and never really explored much outside of that. A couple of years ago I decided to get into jazz. It was nerve wracking to start with as I had no idea what I was doing.
Everyone was very supportive of me, and my improvisation has really come along. It’s definitely added an element to my playing and it has made me that much more unique and well-rounded as a member of any musical group.”
They’re Willing to Make Sacrifices
If there’s one aspect of success that we don’t often get to see in inspirational Forbes articles and Hollywood biopics, it’s the huge sacrifices most super successful people make to get to where they are now.
Jason – Language Genius
“I think most people would probably think I’m mad for doing what I did. I knew that, unless I fully immersed myself in the language and the culture, my Mandarin would never get to the level I needed it to be, so I simply dropped everything and moved here to China. I quit my well-paying job, left a flat I loved, all my friends – my whole life! It seems like a big risk, but there’s no way I’d be studying Chinese literature and poetry if I was still living in Bristol!”
Mark – Entrepreneur
“After leaving school I became a chef, and was lucky enough to work at Claridge’s in Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant. Within a couple of years I had three of my own restaurants under my belt, but knew I needed to do something more scalable so I gave all of it up. Starting MVC from scratch took everything I had – I didn’t leave my flat for years, just spending my every waking hour building the website and learning how to market it. I’m quoted as saying that MVC only cost £300 to create, but it really cost £300 and countless hours of hard, hard work!”
They Learn from Failure
The ability to bounce back from failure is something of a mantra amongst entrepreneurs, and with good reason too. As Churchill himself put it, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” and our participants’ lives are living proof of that.
Jordan - Bodybuilder
“I had been lifting seriously for about a year when I destroyed my hamstring – completely tore it apart. Lifting had very much become my whole life at that point, I was doing excellently, was getting my life on track with a sense of direction and the injury completely derailed that. It took months before I could even walk again properly, let alone train.
I became really depressed during that time and abandoned my diet. I basically just went back to how I lived before, which was not a good thing. It took a lot of will power to drag myself back to the gym, especially after I had lost a lot of what I had worked so hard for. I’m glad I did, and it was a lesson in self-discipline and integrity.”
Donna – Musician
“I didn’t get a single call back when I first auditioned for music schools and conservatoires. I got such bad performance anxiety – I would just clam up when I had to play in front of strangers. At home, I was fine, but put me in front of an audience and my fingers turned to stone!
We spent a lot of time building up my confidence to the point where I could play in front of people and, although it was years before I could play really well in front of a big audience, I got confident enough to be able to get into a good school and train. To this day I still get bad stage fright before most performances, even after having played hundreds of concerts!”
Each of the participants occupies vastly different worlds, yet despite this their attitudes towards their work and their drive is strikingly similar.
They all make sacrifices for their passions, continue learning and re-inventing themselves and are capable of planning ahead and working towards future goals. These traits have contributed to the successes and achievements of each of these extraordinary people and, if you are looking to achieve similar levels of success in your own life, you could do a lot worse than taking on board these lessons.
About the Author
Jonathan Chee is an entrepreneur, video game designer and writer from Hong Kong. You can follow him on twitter @6waves.
When he's not up to his neck in code or at work, he likes to spend his time rock climbing and cooking.