I Interviewed the Most Successful People Alive—Here's What They All Have in Common
For my book, Getting There: A Book of Mentors, I spent five years interviewing some of the most successful people alive (Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Anderson Cooper, Sara Blakely, Jeff Koons, Kathy Ireland, Les Moonves, to name a few).
Here are the six things I found them all to have in common:
1. They Understand Their “Circle of Competence”
In his Getting There essay, legendary investor Warren Buffett explains that it’s essential to understand your strengths and weaknesses. When you’re deciding what to pursue, knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to focus on. Buffett quotes Tom Watson (the founder of IBM) who said, “I’m no genius but I’m smart in spots and I stay around those spots.”
Buffett explains, “My brain is not a general-purpose brain that works marvelously in all situations. There are all sorts of things that I’m no good at and there are all kinds of investment opportunities I’m not able to comprehend. I understand some kinds of simple businesses. I can’t understand complicated ones. Coca-Cola, for example, isn’t very complicated. It’s a durable product and the appeal is universal. I try to find businesses I can grasp, where I like the people running them and think the price makes sense in relation to the future economics.”
John Paul DeJoria, billionaire co-founder of the Patrón Spirits Company and John Paul Mitchell Systems, advises, “Do what you do best and try to find others who can fill in by doing the things you are not good at. For instance, I am terrible at details—accounting especially, so I hire accountants to help me. This frees me up to focus on the things I do excel at and I can run a more efficient operation.”
No one is good at everything, but everyone I spoke with became incredibly successful by honing in on what they excel at. So, look for your natural strengths to see where you can stand out.
2. They Harness Their Passions
You’ve probably heard this before—and for good reason! The path to success is almost guaranteed to be arduous, but if you love what you do you’ll thrive on the inevitable challenges and have the stamina to achieve your potential. If you pursue something just for the money or because you “think you should,” it probably won’t end well.
World famous scientist J. Craig Venter (a.k.a., the first person to sequence the human genome) says, “So many people get pushed along in the ‘system,’ and because they don’t really know what they want to do, they practically let their careers be chosen for them. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s hard to be successful at it. You can show up and do what’s required, and you can even do your job well, but that’s not where real success is going to come from. Success comes from doing something extraordinary with passion and intensity.”
3. Their Career Paths Are Fluid
Good news, career changers, well-known entrepreneurs demonstrate that it’s OK if your initial plan doesn’t work out! What’s essential is to always keep your eyes open for new opportunities and be open to change. For example:
- craigslist founder Craig Newmark stumbled upon his businesses while trying to pursue a social goal.
- Michael Bloomberg only decided to start his own company, Bloomberg LP, after being fired from his job at Salomon Brothers.
- Jillian Michaels, who runs a health and wellness empire, dedicated herself to that field after being fired as a talent agent.
Les Moonves, the President and CEO of CBS, originally pursued acting, but eventually realized he would be happier on the other side of the camera.
Moonves elaborates, “Things sometimes come at you and hit you in the face. If your path is rigid, you’ll likely miss out on opportunities...I shifted from acting to producing theater and realized it felt great. Before long, I shifted again and got my first job in TV as a development executive at Columbia Pictures Television.”
If you keep coming across obstacles, see if there’s another opportunity you can pursue that might be a better fit.
4. They Create Their Own Opportunities
Successful people don’t just wait around for someone to recognize a talent in them and offer them a “big break.” It would be awesome if the world worked that way, but unfortunately it rarely does. If you want something, you have to figure out a way to make it happen.
For example, Anderson Cooper wanted to be a foreign news correspondent but couldn’t even get an entry-level job at any of the major networks. He ended up working as a fact checker for Channel One, an agency that produces news programs for high schools.
Cooper quickly realized that people tend to pigeonhole you in whatever role you’re in, and sometimes you have to do something drastic in order to change people’s perception of you. So he quit his job, borrowed a friend's video camera, and went overseas to shoot stories by himself. Living on a mere five dollars a day, Cooper made his videos as interesting and dangerous as possible, then offered them to Channel One for such a low price that they couldn’t refuse. This bold move is what launched his career and enabled him to live his dream.
Don’t put something off indefinitely because you’ve yet to get a green light. Sometimes, the only way to demonstrate you’re ready for a new project is to go out and start it.
5. They Question Everything
Innovators don’t blindly follow others. They think on their own and understand that just because something has been done one way for years doesn’t mean that it’s the best way, or that another way won’t work.
For example, in the mid 1970’s Gary Hirshberg noticed that we were changing the way food was made, for the worse (injecting animals with hormones and antibiotics, spraying fields and produce with toxic pesticides, and using chemical fertilizers, all with no real knowledge of what would happen to kids who grew up on a diet containing these things).
Hirshberg started promoting organic food before most people knew what the word meant. He soon co-founded the organic yogurt company, Stonyfield Farms. He recalls, “When I tried to get retailers to carry Stonyfield yogurt, which was a little more expensive than the nonorganic brands, they’d say, ‘Does organic mean it has dirt in it?’ It was difficult to get stores to carry our products.”
It took Stonyfield nine years to make its first nickel, but it is now the largest organic yogurt company in the world.
Hirshberg says, “Challenging conventional wisdom can be scary, but most major changes happen because someone asked: ‘Why not do it differently?’ If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
6. They’re Resilient
Most people who are well known for their achievements have failed—numerous times. However, they eventually found success because they were able to stand back up and try again, or learn from their mistakes and try something new. The point is: They forced themselves to keep moving forward.
- Author Jeff Kinney spent eight years writing his first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book only to have it rejected by multiple publishers. Abrams finally gave him a chance and there are now over 115 million Wimpy Kid books in print (not to mention the movies).
- John Paul DeJoria was fired from three jobs and lived in his car on $2.50 a day. He went on to found John Paul Mitchell Systems and the Patrón Spirits Company.
- After establishing his own architectural practice, Frank Gehry found himself on the verge of bankruptcy several times before reaching solid ground.
- Matthew Weiner shopped his TV show around Hollywood, but it was rejected all over town. Mad Men finally made it to the screen seven years after it was written.
I have come to compare life to a game of Whack-A-Mole. (You know that arcade game in which players use a mallet to hit toy moles back into their holes?) Well, life seems to whack us all over the head from time-to-time—in big ways and in small ways. In ways that have to do with our career and ways that have to do with our personal lives. They all intermingle.
The people I interviewed are where they are today because, even after getting whacked multiple times, they found a way to lick their wounds then pop back up with a smile. This is what you must do in this world. So, the next time you get a whack, recall a specific story that inspires you, then figure out a way to pop yourself out of whatever hole you happen to be in.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn. It has been republished here with permission.