In this post, we set out 8 traits championed by Richard St John, based on his research into common factors identified by successful people. Richard has spoken three times at the main TED conference, for roughly three succinct minutes each time (an achievement in itself!): 2005, 2009, and 2015.
In fact, his original research was prompted while on a flight to a TED conference, when a teenager asked him what leads to success… Richard says: “So I get off the plane and go to the TED conference and I’m standing in a room full of extraordinarily successful people in many fields – business, science, arts, health, technology, the environment – when it hit me: why don’t I ask them what helped them succeed, and find out what really leads to success for everyone?”
Richard has a varied background himself including experience as a consumer researcher, marketer, speechwriter, designer, photographer, and entrepreneur (as founder of a marketing communications company). He also has a black belt in judo, cycled halfway around the world, runs many marathons, and climbed Kilimanjaro in Africa and Aconcagua in South America.
Read more to uncover Richard’s research approach, and explore the 8 traits he distilled.
Inspired to begin digging into the question of what contributes to extraordinary success, Richard started by speaking with Ben Cohen (one of the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) at that fortuitous TED conference. He spent ten years doing over 500 face-to-face interviews with many of the most successful people, including Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, Richard Branson, the Google founders, Rupert Murdoch… He’s also reviewed thousands of success stories from other sources.
Richard was a C student: he studied the success of CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CTOs, CMOs, CROs, CIOs...”
To discover what successful people have in common, he compared the patterns emerging from the interviews he did. He analysed and organised their comments, creating a database on success, from which he discovered the factors for achievement in any field. In his words: “That’s all I do, day and night: sort and analyse”.
His website explains, echoing Richard’s humorous approach: “Richard ran up and down org charts, interviewing successful employees at all levels, on the front lines, back lines, bottom lines, and assembly lines, and he discovered the common factors that lead to high performance and success in all areas of an organisation. No wonder his content resonates with everyone from accounting to advertising, software to sales, marketing to manufacturing, HR to PR.”
Interestingly, Richard says he was “very shy” for most of his life. Communicating his research to others “meant doing the thing he feared most – standing up on stage and opening his mouth!” He was terrified of public speaking, but pushed himself to do it, starting by speaking to small groups. “...Then he pushed himself to speak to 20, then 50, then 100. The more he spoke, the more the fear diminished. Now Richard speaks worldwide to audiences of thousands. He has gone from being the ‘Most Scared Speaker at conferences’ to being rated the ‘Most Inspirational Speaker’ at conferences.” Despite being inspirational/motivational, Richard describes himself as an “informational speaker”, communicating his analysis “with facts, not hype, substance, not fluff, evidence, not opinion”.
The 8 Traits
The traits common to successful people that Richard uncovered in his interviews and research are: (1) Passion: “love what you do”, (2) Work: “work really hard”, (3) Focus: “focus on one thing, not everything”, (4) Push: “keep pushing yourself”, (5) Ideas: “come up with good ideas”, (6) Improve: “keep improving yourself and what you do”, (7) Serve: “serve others something of value, because success isn’t just about me, me, me”, and (8) Persist: “persist, because there’s no overnight success”. Each is explored in further detail below.
When I added up all the comments in my interviews, more people said those 8 things helped them than anything else. The 8 traits are really the heart of success, the foundation, and then on top we build the specific skills that we need for our particular field or career.”
Richard notes that successful people in all fields love what they do, and argues that passion is key: “If you love what you do, you’ll automatically do the other seven things that lead to success and wealth. You will work hard, you will push yourself, you will persist.”
What surprised me is how often successful business people actually use the words passion or love when they talk about their work… We can have passion for a profession… We can have a passion for people… We can have passion for a product… We can have passion for a particular field… No matter how much we love what we do, there’s always going to be stuff we don’t love. The trick is to make sure the stuff you don’t love only takes up 20% of your time, and the stuff you do love takes up 80%. If it’s the other way around, you’re in the wrong job.”
There are two ways of “falling into your calling”. Referring to the first type of people as “strivers”, Richard says these people know what they love and can head straight towards it. The second type is more common: “seekers” don’t know what they love and need to discover it. He recommends that seekers get out there, try stuff and explore many paths. Be the person “who travels down uncertain roads, in search of unknown passions, and still arrives at the right destination – maybe a new, undiscovered destination. The truth is, you don’t have to know where you’re going in order to get there.”
Richard says that we tend to underestimate work and overestimate talent but “in the end work tops talent” and explains that all successful people work very hard: “Hard work is a real secret to their success… [but] successful people have fun working.” He says “they’re not really workaholics, they’re workafrolics”!
He explains the trait of focus as both long-term focus and short-term concentration (without distractions), advising us to “focus and become an expert at something”. Success requires a single-minded focus, he says, and successful people “are not great at everything, they’re only great at one thing”. He does however allow room for wider exploration/seeking before deciding exactly what to focus on.
Richard writes that “successful people push themselves through shyness, doubt and fear [without being pushy]. They push boundaries. They push limits. They push beyond what’s expected. It all comes down to pushing themselves in one way or another, and that’s how they discover what they’re really capable of.” Ways to push yourself to success include setting yourself challenges, goals and deadlines, exercising self-discipline and fostering a healthy competitive spirit (against others, or your own personal best).
Richard offers a range of suggestions as to how to come up with good ideas, noting that anyone can have super ideas and the best way to have a great idea is to have a lot of ideas. “Ideas are solutions to everyday problems”, he says. Techniques include being curious and asking questions, making mental connections between diverse things, keeping our ears open and listening to people, looking around / observing, and writing down our thoughts.
Successful people “constantly improve themselves and what they do, whether it’s their career, project, product or service… even though it’s a corporate buzzword, I like the concept of Continuous Improvement, because successful people keep improving themselves, their skills, and their work – and it never stops.” Practice, practice, practice...
Richard focuses on building on our strengths, arguing that we should meet the minimum requirements on our weaknesses and move on.
Another trait is that successful people serve others something of value, asking themselves “who do I serve?” and “what value do I serve them?”. This requires listening to others and offering them things they appreciate.
“Persistence must be important because we have so many words for it: perseverance, tenacity, endurance, stamina, determination, stick to it, and hang in there, to name a few… No matter what we call it, persist means the ability to keep going through failure, pain, rejection, criticism, negativity, and crap – not to mention all the bad things we encounter.”
A Continuous Journey
Richard warns against seeing the 8 traits as a linear checklist: “Why do so many people reach success and then fail? One of the big reasons is: we think that success is a one-way street, so we do everything that leads up to success, but then we get there. We figure we’ve made it, we sit back in our comfort zone, and we actually stop doing everything that made us successful. And it doesn’t take long to go downhill [to failure].” Instead, to sustain success, we need to continue doing the things that made us successful in the first place, including working hard, pushing ourselves and improving.
If you’ve seen Richard speak live, or been impacted by his book, please do share your impressions with Protagion’s readers in the comments.
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