How do we define success? There are many different tactics for how to be successful in life, but the strategy that works best for you may depend on your view of success itself. We often think of it as doing well at work or earning a high salary.
While professional accomplishments can be one piece of the puzzle, it leaves out many other important areas of life. Family, romantic relationships, academics, and athletics are just a few areas where people may strive for success. Your individual definition of what success is may vary, but many might define it as being fulfilled, happy, safe, healthy, and loved.
It is the ability to reach your goals in life, whatever those goals may be. So what can you do to boost your chances of achieving these things? What are some of the habits of successful people?
There is no single right way to be successful. What works for you might not work for someone else. There may not be a perfect combination of ingredients that can guarantee success, but there are some basic steps you can follow that can improve your chances of being successful in life, love, work, or whatever happens to be important to you.
Build a Growth Mindset
Research by psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that there are two basic mindsets that influence how people think about themselves and their abilities: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.1
People who possess a fixed mindset believe that things such as intelligence are static and unchangeable. Those with a fixed mindset believe that success isn’t a result of hard work—it’s simply a consequence of innate talents.
Because they believe that such talents are something people are either born with or without, they tend to give up more easily in the face of a challenge. They quit when things do not come easily because they believe that they lack the inborn skill needed to excel.
Those who have a growth mindset, on the other hand, feel that they can change, grow, and learn through effort. People who believe that they are capable of growth are more likely to achieve success. When things get tough, they look for ways to improve their skills and keep working toward success.
People with a growth mindset believe that they have control of their life, while those with a fixed mindset believe that things are out of their control.
What can you do to build a growth mindset?
- Believe that your efforts matter. Rather than thinking their abilities are fixed or stuck, people who have a growth mindset believe that effort and hard work can lead to meaningful growth.
- Learn new skills. When faced with a challenge, they look for ways to develop the knowledge and skills that they need to overcome and triumph.
- View failures as learning experiences. People with growth mindsets don’t believe that failure is a reflection of their abilities. Instead, they view it as a valuable source of experience from which they can learn and improve. “That didn’t work,” they might think, “so this time I’ll try something a little different.”
Improve Your Emotional Intelligence
Overall intelligence has long been believed to be one factor contributing to success in different areas of life, but some experts suggest that emotional intelligence may actually matter even more.2 Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand, utilize, and reason with emotions. Emotionally intelligent people are able to understand not only their own emotions, but those of others as well.
To improve your emotional intelligence:
- Pay attention to your own emotions. Focus on identifying what you are feeling and what is causing those feelings.
- Manage your emotions. Step back and try to view things with an impartial eye. Avoid bottling up or repressing your feelings, but look for healthy and appropriate ways of dealing with what you are feeling.
- Listen to others. This not only involves hearing what they are saying, but also paying attention to nonverbal signals and body language.
Develop Mental Toughness
Mental toughness refers to the resilience to carry on and continue trying even in the face of obstacles.3 People who possess this mental strength see challenges as opportunities. They also feel that they have control over their own destiny, are confident in their abilities to succeed, and are committed to finishing what they start.
What can you do to improve your mental toughness and increase your chances of being successful in life?
- Believe in yourself. Cut out negative self-talk and look for ways to stay positive and self-encouraging.
- Keep trying. Even when things seem impossible or setbacks keep holding you back, focus on ways that you can develop your skills and keep soldiering forward. One of the key habits of successful people is to always look at setbacks or failures as learning opportunities.
- Set goals. Mentally tough people know that in order to achieve, they need to start by having attainable goals. These goals are not necessarily easy to reach, but by having something to aim for, you will be better able to move forward and overcome obstacles.
- Find support. Doing things alone can be difficult, but having a strong support system can make things easier. Mentors, friends, co-workers, and family members can cheer you on when things get tough, and even offer advice and assistance that can help you improve your chances for success.
Strengthen Your Willpower
In a long-running longitudinal study, psychologists followed a group of children who were identified by their teachers as highly intelligent. As they compared how these subjects fared throughout childhood and into adulthood, researchers found that those who ultimately were the most successful in life shared some key characteristics, including perseverance and willpower.4
These characteristics tend to be part of an individual’s overall personality, but they are also something you can improve. Delayed gratification, learning to persist in the face of challenges, and waiting for the rewards of your hard work can often be the key to success in life.
Strategies you can use to improve your willpower include:
- Distraction. For example, if you are trying to lose weight but are having a difficult time staying away from your favorite snacks, distracting yourself during your moments of weakness can be an effective way to avoid giving in to temptation.
- Practice. Willpower is something you can build, but it takes time and effort. Start by making small goals that require will power to achieve, such as avoiding sugary snacks. As you build your ability to use your will power to achieve such small goals, you may find that your willpower is also stronger when working on much larger goals.
Focus on Intrinsic Motivations
What is it that motivates you the most? Do you find that the promise of external rewards keeps you reaching for your goals, or is it the more personal, intrinsic motivators that keep you feeling inspired? While extrinsic rewards such as money, awards, and praise can be helpful, many people find that they are most motivated when they are doing things for personal satisfaction.
If you are doing things because you enjoy them, because you find them meaningful, or because you enjoy seeing the effects of your work, then you are driven by intrinsic motivations. Research has shown that while incentives can be a better predictor of some types of performance, intrinsic motivators tend to be better at predicting performance quality.5
While it is often the external motivators that get people started, it is the internal motivators that kick in and keep people going in order to maintain those new behaviors.
What can you do to boost your sense of intrinsic motivation?
- Challenge yourself. Pursuing a goal that is achievable, but not necessarily easy, is a great way to increase motivation to succeed. Challenges can keep you interested in a task, improve your self-esteem, and offer feedback on areas you can improve on. Choosing a task that is slightly challenging will help motivate you to get started—it feels exciting!
- Stay curious. Look for things that grab your attention and that you would like to learn more about.
- Take control. It can be difficult to stay intrinsically motivated to pursue a goal if you don’t feel that you have any real influence over the outcome. Look for ways that you can take an active role.
- Don’t fear competition. There might be other people out there trying to reach the same goals as you, but this doesn’t mean that you should give up. Don’t compare your progress or journey to anyone else’s. You can look to others for motivation and inspiration, but remember that we all have different paths.
Nurture Traits Linked to High Potential
Psychologists have long attempted to link specific traits or personality characteristics to success in life and work. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one widely used assessment that is often utilized by businesses to screen job candidates. However, research often fails to show that the MBTI actually correlates to performance.6
According to some more recent research, there are certain traits that tend to be consistently tied to success.7 Researchers Ian MacRae and Adrian Furnham have identified six key traits that can play a role in how well people do at work.8 However, they note that there are optimal levels of these traits. Too little of these characteristics can hinder success, but so can having too much.
If you are trying to learn how to be successful in life, consider what you can do to nurture these key traits:
Conscientious people consider the effects of their actions. They also consider how other people will react and feel. You can nurture this trait by:
- Thinking about the consequences of actions
- Considering other people’s perspectives
Accepting of Ambiguity
Life is full of situations that are not always clear. People with a great deal of potential for success are better able to accept this ambiguity. Rather than being rigid and inflexible, they are ready to adapt when the unexpected comes their way. You can learn to embrace ambiguity by:
- Challenging your perspectives and considering opinions and ideas other than your own
- Not fearing the unfamiliar
- Being willing to change
- Valuing diversity
Capable of Adjustment
In addition to being able to accept ambiguity, success often hinges on the ability to quickly adjust to change. You can nurture this ability to adjust by:
- Reframing difficult situations, to see them as opportunities to learn and grow rather than simply obstacles to live through
- Being open to change; when plans or situations change, step back and look at ways to cope
The world’s most successful people often exemplify great courage. They are willing to take risks, even in the face of potential failure. Research suggests that courageous people utilize positive emotions to overcome fear.9 You can improve your tolerance of risk by:
- Quelling negative emotions and focusing on more positive feelings
- Balancing risk with common sense; being cautious and pragmatic can also pay off, depending upon the situation
People who are successful tend to be curious about the world around them. They are always eager to learn more, including new knowledge and skills. You can cultivate your sense of curiosity by:
- Relating tasks to your interests: If you find filing boring, for example, look for a more efficient way to categorize the information to play to your strengths as an organizer.
- Learning new things
Successful people are able to utilize competition to motivate, but avoid falling prey to jealousy. You can nurture a healthy sense of competition by:
- Focusing on your own improvements; rather than worry about being the best at something, pay attention to your progress
- Being happy when others succeed
Some personality traits and types may be better suited for certain jobs than others. However, no specific personality trait can guarantee success, nor can being low in that trait doom someone to failure.