What makes someone ordinary become extraordinary? Is it their intellect or good luck? Is it their charisma and leadership qualities? There’s no definite formula, but there’s also no denying that there are common traits that make successful people stand apart from everyone else. There are ways of doing things and thinking about the world that people at top just do differently.
Robert Greene, best-selling author of The 48 Laws of Power spends a lot of time researching and interviewing the most successful people. In his most recent book Mastery, he analyzed the lives of those he called “masters” to pinpoint their secret to greatness. Below Greene shares common things he thinks successful people do differently.
When looking at the most successful people throughout history, Greene found that it’s an emotional quality, not an intellectual one, that separates them from everyone else.
“We live in a culture that tends to really emphasize intellect and going to the greatest schools and all that,” Greene tells Fast Company, but success is really more dependent on “a resiliency and a love of what you’re doing.”
Since intellect isn’t the core driving force for success, Greene says that successful people won’t always show signs of great potential in their early years. In Mastery, Greene points to Charles Darwin who, as a youth, was always in the shadows of his cousin who had a much higher IQ.
“Darwin was a bit of a loser. His father thought he wouldn’t end up amounting to much,” says Greene. “He kind of wandered around and took this job on a boat sailing around the world and it ended up Darwin became perhaps one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. But at an early age, if you looked at him, you would say, ‘I don’t see it there.’”
If you don’t feel emotionally connected to your work, Greene suggests looking within yourself. Keep a journal and think about the experiences that really excited you. What do they have in common?
“If you can’t look at what you like, what you don’t like, then it’s pretty hopeless,” he says. “But I think most people generally have up until the age of 50 and can go back and do this process.”
If you’re going to follow your passion and put all of your energy into your work, you can’t care too much about what others think of you. So successful people don’t.
“Overall, you have to have some level of connection to yourself,” says Greene. “You have to know what makes you different. What you love, what you don’t love.”
“Some people have a hard time with that. They listen so much to other people. They’re on Facebook all the time. They’re so concerned with what other people are thinking that they have no relationship to themselves and what they really love.”
But successful people revere their individuality. If you look at the ones at the top, “they’re one of a kind,” says Greene. “Their business reflects their weirdness, they’re uniqueness.”
The worst thing you can do to your career–and your life–is to allow your brain to get stale, says Greene. This is when you start thinking about and doing your work in a way that doesn’t spark creativity or inspire innovation. There are ways you can loosen up the rigidity that happens, especially when you get older. Greene advises developing an interest in a study of science or literature.
“Spend some free time delving into this new field that interests you but is not directly related to what you do,” he says. “That will kind of give you ideas and give you perspective that you don’t normally get from reading the Wall Street Journal and listening to your colleagues. You need outside sources of information.”
In almost all fields, the greatest innovators are those who came from outside of the industry they transformed because they’re able to think differently and aren’t tied down by “conventions and dogmas,” says Greene.
With everything that’s fighting for our attention every minute of every day, the ones who get things done are the people who can focus. One of the biggest distractions that keep our attention is our phone, says Greene, so successful people separate themselves from their phones.
“I have noticed that a lot of the people I’ve interviewed are able to not get too distracted. In other words, they’re able to focus more than others,” he explains. “They know how to turn off their smartphones.”
“I remember that I was interviewing Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, he didn’t even have a smartphone. I’ve found a couple of other people who are like that. So they’re not people who get lost in all of the information glut.”
Steve Jobs once said that the only thing that separates him from other people is the ability to focus.
“He would close his door and not let other people in,” says Greene. That was his focus routine. How he was able to shut out the rest of the world. Anyone who wants to accomplish something great, needs to be able to do the same.
For Greene, the author focuses by meditating 30 minutes every morning. He’s been doing it for over four years and says it’s “the greatest thing” he could recommend to anyone.
“Basically, it slows everything down. You find that you don’t react to everything that goes on around you,” says Greene. “It’s very calming and in the heat of the moment while other people are getting excited, I don’t know why, but somehow, it changes something in your brain where you’re not so reactive to everything.”
Greene says he’s able to look at situations in front of him with “a bit of a distance” and has an easier time knowing what matters and what doesn’t. His trick is to to empty his mind to get rid of useless distractions, but meditation itself is “not easy and is a struggle every single day when you sit down to do it.”
“You only have so much energy in life, mental energy. If all of these things in your day-to-day affairs are weighing you down, bothering you, creating anxiety, and making you insecure, it’s draining a lot of that valuable time that could be spent for creative focus,” he explains.
Once you start getting used to your successes, you’ll start taking it for granted. You want to stay in a familiar, comfortable place instead of push yourself when you feel that frustration that often comes before the brink of greatness.
“I find a lot of writers, their books tend to resemble one another,” says Greene. “They’re not challenging themselves. I don’t like that attitude. I don’t want to live in my past success. I want my next book to be even more successful.”
To continuously challenge himself, Greene says he starts every new book with “the
assumption that [he] can easily fail and no one will read this book.” That fear allows him to work “like a fiend to make it successful.”
No one was born an expert or a master of something. You may be the smartest person in the world, but if you don’t know what drives you or can’t seem to focus, you won’t get anything done. According to Greene, the most important thing for success is finding something that you feel emotionally committed to. The most successful people are usually not chasing money when they decide on their craft because “money isn’t the greatest motivator in the world,” he says.