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What traits do the world’s most successful people have?

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Camilo Rueda Lopez

Richard St. John made it his life’s work to uncover the attributes of success. Here is what he found, all 8 of them.

There are commonalities amongst the world’s most successful people, and they can be replicated by the most unsuspecting of people.

One man made it his life’s work to find out what they were.

The seed was planted on a plane when educator Richard St. John headed toward a TED conference in 1999.

A high school student sitting next to him, a teenager, wanting to make something of her life asked a simple question.

“What leads to success?”

Irked by his inability to answer, St. John entered the TED event filled with some of the world’s brightest minds, and was struck with a eureka moment.

“I’m in the middle of a room of successful people! Why don’t I ask them what helped them succeed, and pass it on?”

The first person he approached was one of the Ben & Jerry’s founders, Ben to be precise, who met St. John’s question with an unexpected fervour.

Ben Cohen shared his story over a coffee, and from that afternoon St. John’s path was set in motion.

Countless face-to-face interviews with leaders from every field, astronauts, Nobel-prize winners, accountants, actors and many more would take him on a journey to uncover the attributes of success.

St. John pinned down 8 that were shared amongst all of them and here they are.

The attributes of success centre around passion

“If you do it for love, the money comes anyway.”

St. John made it clear that passion comes out on top of the 8 attributes of success because it lays the foundations for achieving the others.

The director of Titanic and Avatar, James Cameron explained that one of the key attributes of success is being “super focused like a laser.”

“If you love what you’re doing” writes St. John “It will be so much easier to develop the other seven successful traits.”

The trait is a little bit whimsical by itself, which is why St. John suggests that individuals can be split into two different types of person.

The “strivers” are those successful people who have everything worked out and spend their time working towards it.

The “seekers” on the other hand, are the one’s who don’t have a clue. They need to seek it out.

James Cameron, Paul McCartney and Martha Stewart were all seekers who didn’t know what their calling was and they turned out just fine.

Whether you know what it is you want to do or not, “The truth is, you don’t have to know where you are going in order to get there.”

The question you need to ask yourself is- would you do it for free? If the answer is yes, then you are onto the right path.

Work hard

“When I was interviewing all of these successful people, they kept telling me how hard they worked.”

Every single person he interviewed worked long hours, it is a well-known attribute of success for which there is no substitute.

There is, however, a difference between clocking long hours because you work inefficiently and working long hours because you enjoy what you are doing.

Take a look at Bill Gates for example; St. John described him as a “workafrolic”- Gates worked hard for the love of it and even “after he was a multi-millionaire, he worked most nights until 10pm, taking 2 weeks off in 7 years.”

St. John suggests that a societal problem lies in our habit of under-estimating hard work and over-estimating talent, when actually, “work tops talent.”

Maintain focus

“Success means narrowing down and focusing on one thing, not being scattered all over the map” explains St. John.

The director of Titanic and Avatar, James Cameron explained that one of the key attributes of success is being “super focused like a laser.”

The secret is not to start out with too wider focus.

Individuals should start wide and learn everything they can whilst slowly honing in on their point of focus.

Try to become an expert in one particular field. Bill Gates proved that you can’t dabble, telling St. John that “if you want to be a great software company, you have to be only a software company.”

How do you ensure you maintain focus?

Best selling author Stephen King believes you have to “Eliminate every possible distraction.”

Push yourself

The fourth of eight attributes of success is being able to push yourself.

“Successful people push themselves through shyness, doubt, and fear. They push boundaries. They push limits. They push beyond what is expected.”

Richard Branson lives his life this way; the millionaire believes you’re more likely to get satisfaction out of life if you push yourself to the limit.

This all starts with leaving your comfort zone. A fear of failure can’t get in the way of you finding out what you are capable of.

The big idea

Creative problem solving and coming up with new ideas are one of the more important attributes of success. And no one espoused the big idea more than the father of advertising himself, David Ogilvy.

In his 1983 book ‘On Advertising’ Ogilvy wrote:

“You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product…Research can’t help you much, because it cannot predict the cumulative value of an idea, and no idea is big unless it will work for thirty years”

It is one thing to come up with ideas regularly, but another to come up with ideas that will stand the test of time.

St. John lists eight ways to help get those creative juices flowing:

  1. Have a problem, because big ideas come from everyday problems.
  1. Be observant: Eye-Q can be more important than IQ.
  1. Listen: Ears are antennas for ideas.
  1. Asking questions leads to ideas.
  1. Borrow an idea, and build it into a new idea.
  1. Make connections: Take one thing and connect it to another.
  1. Make mistakes: Mistakes and failures lead to great ideas.
  1. Write your ideas down.

Keep improving

The unwavering pursuit of improvement is amongst the most common attributes of success.

It seems to be a prevailing trend that even I have uncovered whilst interviewing executives from some of the world’s leading businesses.

Far too many believe learning stops once they graduate from university, but the successful remain students for life.

Lessons can be taken from the world of sport, writes St. John. “Michael Jordan was an improvement machine. Chicago Bulls assistant coach John Back said that Michael had that rare capacity to be a genius who constantly wanted to update his genius.”


More often than not, success isn’t measured by the value of your own work, but by the value you serve to others.

The difficult part, writes St. John, is actually working out whom you are serving.

Working out who your target audience is will enable a more unique approach to be taken to the value you are able to offer.

When focus is shifted from yourself to the people you serve, you set yourself up for financial success.

Do what you love, serve others what they love and get money in return.

By tailoring her expertise to women exclusively, Martha Stewart was able to provide value “for millions of women to make a better home.”

Maintain persistence

Going hand in hand with hard work, persistence is the eighth attribute of success.

St. John came to the conclusion that it takes around 10 years of working towards a particular goal to achieve success at it, unless you get lucky of course.

St. John writes “No matter what we call it, persistence means the ability to keep going through failure, pain, rejection, criticism, negativity and crap- not to mention all the bad things we encounter.”

Let these examples of failure serve as a motivator:

J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 different publishing houses.

Walt Disney, the man who gave us Disney World and Mickey Mouse went bankrupt before he hit gold with Disney. He was fired from a job because he lacked imagination.

Stephen Spielberg was rejected by film school twice.

Michael Jordan was cut from his high-school basketball team only to become the greatest basketball player of all time.

The important takeaway is to recognize that things probably won’t go the way you planned.

By maintaining some of these 8 attributes of success, you’ll stand a better chance of getting there.