How Do Super Achievers Do It And What Can We Learn From Them?

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Have you ever wondered what makes super successful people different from the rest of us? Just how do some celebrities, business leaders and others rise to the very top of their chosen fields? Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield explored this question in their intriguing book, The Art of Doing – How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well.”

The authors, who are married, started wondering about amazing achievers in the context of a multi-media art project. Gosfield, a fine artist, had dreamed up the career of a fictional ‘60s French pop star, Gigi Gaston. As he invented and documented Gigi’s path to success, he and journalist Sweeney began to ask themselves: What is success? And who gets it?

Instead of reading up on theories about success, the authors decided to go to the source and ask successful people how they do what they do. They interviewed dozens of accomplished people, all at the top of their fields. The result is the book’s 36 entertaining mini portraits of “superachievers.”

Last week in Wisconsin, Gosfield and Sweeney shared key lessons from their research at Conversation Among Masters, a conference of senior executive coaches. Their initial goal was to uncover what makes top achievers unique. But after months of interviews with a broad mix of highly successful people, what they found most interesting is that these extraordinary folks share many core principles and practices.

The two were not steeped in the science of success when they began their project. They started without preconceptions and created an anecdotal portrait of what it takes to reach a professional pinnacle. The CAM audience was enthralled by what the authors found, because their conclusions echo basic principles shaping the rapidly growing coaching profession. Here are two of the 10 most important strategies the authors noticed among people who vault above others in their fields:

Super achievers are active listeners. “Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” That’s a classic line from poor listeners, say the authors. But the people they interviewed, although highly focused and hardworking, tend to be terrific listeners. “Every one of them credits listening as an important aspect of their work. Some use it to validate others, but they all listen to learn.” Among the interviewees who understand listening are:

  • Erin Gruwell was an idealistic white student teacher who hoped to make a difference with her mixed-race high school class of remedial students in Long Beach, California. At first she was shocked by the students’ hostile response to her efforts, but her anger shifted to empathy as she listened to their harrowing stories of growing up amidst violence. She found new ways to teach through active listening, and went on to create the Freedom Writers Teacher Institute to teach educators to “become a student of your students.”
  • CEO Tony Hsieh asked employees: what values should be embraced by on-line apparel retailer Zappos? He listened to their responses and the ensuing dialogue eventually shaped the company’s culture. And listening is key to Zappos’ approach to customer service. “We make an emotional connection person to person, one interaction at a time,” Hsieh said.
  • Randall Grahm makes great wine by hearing in ways that don’t involve actual sound. This visionary vintner “listens to the land” when deciding which varieties of grapes to grow at his Bonny Doon vineyard. He says by reaching the right level of relaxation and attention it’s possible to “participate in the intelligence of nature itself.”

Super achievers manage their emotions. Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator who has spent much of his career interacting with right-wing zealots, militants, cult leaders and cold-blooded killers. He knows that to negotiate a crisis situation he must think clearly and help others keep their cool. “If someone is yelling and screaming at me and I overreact to everything he says, how can I expect to be a positive influence?” While the interviewees’ emotional struggles were as varied as their careers, what they shared was an awareness of their powerful emotions, and the commitment and skills to examine those emotions and find ways to cope with them.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.