Appreciating the nature of success

A few weeks ago I grabbed my smartphone and wrote down this thought:

The people who will thrive and inspire in this age are the ones who - despite all the distractions that compete for their attention - manage to connect with and nurture their greatest gifts and passions.  Make the time to think, practice, play, and create. Connect with the people that support and inspire you, and keep your distance from all the other distractions or doubters that may steer you from your true course.

It was a thought that came to me in a (far too rare) moment of quiet reflection, but it was by no means 'out of the blue'.  I have been a keen observer of the nature of success, and the nature of successful people, for several years now.  And more recently I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the higher purpose of Blinder - the startup I’ve recently co-founded with my good friend Caley Wilson.

I’m not just referring to the type of “celebrity success” that you read about in biographies and magazines, but also the type that I observe in friends, family, and other people I meet who appear to be leading lives well spent.

I’ve come to believe that all truly successful people share several key traits:

  • 1. They understand the talents and passions that are likely to bring them great reward or fulfilment
  • 2. They choose to prioritise these interests above many others (and sacrifice other possibilities that may capture their interest from time-to-time)
  • 3. They commit to nurturing these interests over an extended period of time

When you start paying attention to the true nature of success - rather than the facade of success that is often portrayed in the media - you will find evidence of these traits almost everywhere you look.

Most readers will be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliersin which he suggests that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to become world class in any field. Gladwell uses this theory to explain the achievements of the Beatles as well as entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Bill Joy.

Dominic Lawson was referring to Roger Federer when he wrote: "A proper investigation of the careers of the supreme achievers, whether in sport or other fields, reveals that they are based above all on monomaniacal diligence and concentration. Constant struggle, in other words.”

Richie McCaw’s biographer Greg McGee used the same quote to describe the achievements of the great All Black Captain.

I enjoy reading the biographies of well-known musicians, and have been struck by the fact that their success is always a by-product of a lifelong passion and commitment to music.

The same is true of Peter Jackson in film-making, Peter Blake with sailing, and Ed Hillary in outdoor pursuits.

I was fortunate to gain my introduction to macroeconomics at UC Berkeley from Professor Janet Yellen.  This was slightly unusual because Yellen had, by that time, already served as the Chair of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers.  Most professors would abandon their teaching duties after attaining this level of achievement, but Yellen was so passionate about the subject that she committed to teaching every full-time MBA cohort that came through the Haas School of Business.  That passion and commitment has seen Yellen carry on to become the Chair of the US Federal Reserve.

More “humble” evidence of these traits can also be found closer to home.

I have a brother-in-law who is a plumber, and has pursued a lifelong interest in skateboarding and snowboarding.  He's even built his own half-pipe in his backyard in Tairua, New Zealand.  He's achieved a level of mastery that I know he finds deeply satisfying, and he’s assembled a large group of friends who share his passion for the sport.  And he was rewarded last year with an unexpected visit by several of his skateboarding heroes (that’s them riding his ramp from 3:20 in this video from Thrasher Magazine).

My own father has been hugely committed to the sport of lawn bowls for the past 20 years, an effort that almost delivered him a national title at the age of 72 (he was runner-up), and has seen him become the oldest ever member of his regional rep team at the age of 74.  It’s inspiring to see his continued motivation to improve and compete at a reasonably "ripe age".

This combination of understandingchoice, and commitment has delivered success to all of these people, whether it’s in the form of public recognition, financial success, or simply the personal fulfilment that comes from achieving a high level of mastery in their chosen pursuits.

The more I think about success the more I have come to admire these inherent traits, just as much as I admire the achievements they have helped to deliver.

I find these insights helpful in several ways.

Firstly, they are highly relevant to anyone embarking on an entrepreneurial business venture, as I have done in the last year.  I now understand that developing and exploring new, global business opportunities is something that I find highly motivating and rewarding.  I have chosen to prioritise Blinder’s development above a range of other interests and opportunities that may have been available to me.  And I’ve committed to this path for the great challenges and excitement that the entrepreneurial journey provides, and to enjoy that journey regardless of the high levels of risk and uncertainty involved.

Secondly, the world is increasingly full of modern distractions like email, texting, and social media that conspire to take our attention away from the things that are most important to us.  Understanding the nature of success can help us with the hard choices we need to make every day to avoid these distractions and protect the time that we need to think, practice, play, and create.

Our increasing desire for access to the personal lives of our successful “heroes” is another modern distraction that is of particular relevance to Blinder.  We have a paradoxical tendency to expect more and more from these heroes, when one of the keys to their success has been their ability to prioritise their own interests over the expectations of others.

A great example of this was provided in a recent article about the actor David Schwimmer (aka Ross from the sitcom Friends). Schwimmer says that the effect of celebrity was to discourage him from "walking around with (his) head up, really engaged and watching people”, a behaviour that he believed was key to his success as an actor.

Finally, these insights have helped me to understand that true success is a deeply personal thing, and almost impossible to measure through any external criteria.  It's built on a personal understanding of the talents and passions that will bring us reward and fulfilment, and nurtured through commitments and sacrifices that are made well away from the public eye.  And it is usually achieved before anybody really notices, and often spoiled by the public attention and scrutiny that it can bring.

Perhaps if we all had a better understanding of the nature of success, we’d be better able to support our family members, our friends, our selves, and our heroes in its pursuit.

A few questions for you.

These could help you to better navigate your own path towards success, or perhaps support the success of others who you care about.

  • What are the talents and passions that you want to nurture above all others?
  • How much time do you commit to nurturing these interests?
  • What distracts you from committing more time to developing these interests? Which of these distractions are you able to avoid?
  • Are you connected with people who will support and encourage your pursuit of these interests?
  • How (and why) do other peoples expectations affect your ability to pursue these interests?

It would be great to hear your thoughts on this topic.

What are the traits that you admire in the successful people you're connected with?  Please leave your comments.


About the author:

Ross McConnell is a self-described "late blooming startup athlete" and co-founder of Blinder - the virtual team phone for pro sports and entertainment, which allows comms managers to schedule calls directly to the mobile phones of any team member, without sharing their number with the caller.

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