“Success leaves clues.” – Tony Robbins

This quote has stuck with me from the moment I heard it, and I’ve been looking for the clues ever since. 

Most of us would say that we want to be successful in life. What that looks like is different for everyone, but we each have areas in our lives where we want to be successful. Some of us want financial success, or to be successful professionally. Others want to be successful in our marriages and raising our kids. Maybe you want to be successful as an athlete or an artist. We’re all trying to make it in some area of our lives. 

Here’s the challenge… Most of us don’t have a clear definition of what our version of success looks like. We like the idea of being successful, but we haven’t invested any time in defining what it is. Without a definition or a clear picture, there’s no target to shoot for. We continue working and moving in our lives, but we can never really be sure we’re heading in the right direction. 

The result? Some of us just go round and round in circles, and others zig and zag off the path, not heading toward our version of success. That was me for a long time. I was coasting and letting life happen to me rather than taking control. It wasn’t until recently, specifically the past couple of years, that I started to invest any time diving into this topic. 

Defining what success looks like in our lives can be a daunting task. It can be really hard to do – complex and confusing. Sometimes we don’t even know where to get started.

The problem with that is this… If you can’t define it, how are you ever going to know if you achieve it? How are you ever going to know if you’re doing the right things in your life to get you from point A to point B? How do you know if you’re going in the right direction? How do you know if at the end of your days you’re going to be able to look back and say,” Yeah, I did that. That was a successful life.” 

How we define success will be different for every one of us, but having a definition and then being able to see whether or not we’re headed in the right direction is essential. My goal in writing this is not to define success for you. I’m not going to tell you what success is. Instead, I’m going to share what I unlocked when I started asking successful people for their definitions. Then, you can take that and have some tools and a launchpad for figuring out what success means to you.

I began exploring what success is by asking people in my circles to share their versions of success. The group was diverse and broad, and cut across all kinds of personal and professional individuals. My goal was to create a good cross-section of responses and hear from as many different types of people as possible. They each filled out an anonymous survey with five open-ended questions that gave them room to share. Here were the questions:

  1. Think about the most successful people you know. What qualities have led to their success?
  2. What three words would you use to describe them?
  3. In one or two sentences, what is your definition of success?
  4. What do you think the biggest obstacle to success is?
  5. How important do you think feeling successful is in life, personally or professionally?

I collected their replies and started looking for patterns. Again, “Success leaves clues.” 

What clues did I find? I’m going to start today by diving into what I discovered in people’s answers to the first question: “Think about the most successful people you know. What qualities have led to their success?” You can read the full, unfiltered responses that I received at the bottom of this piece, and they are well worth reading. That said, I was able to distill down their responses to this list of seven powerful traits:

1. Grit – The trait that people referenced over and over again throughout the survey was grit. They gave this trait many names, from perseverance to work ethic to drive, but it all came down to grit and tenacity at its core. How we show up when we fail and when obstacles and opposition come at us is one of the most important traits that define our ability to achieve success at anything. As one respondent shared, “You have to start before you feel ready.” Two others shared the need to “stay focused even in the midst of failure” and “be willing to fail to get to the next level.” Our ability to embrace challenges, work hard, and not give up when facing adversity is key to achieving any kind of success in life. 

2. Authenticity – Being genuine, and living an authentic life, was another trait that many people shared. Integrity is a word that came up multiple times, so I looked it up. One definition I found put it this way, “Integrity is the quality of having strong ethical or moral principles and following them at all times, no matter who’s watching.” Our ability to live with confidence in who we are as our authentic selves was another key attribute shared by successful individuals. 

3. Generosity – The art of giving in the interest of others was referenced in many ways throughout the responses. Servant-leadership lives in this space as well, and as much as drive and grit were important traits above, it’s essential to notice that those characteristics don’t require a “me-first” attitude. You can be driven in life and put others first simultaneously, and our ability to show up as givers opens many doors to success.

4. Connection – Successful people don’t create their successes alone, and if you’re not surrounded by the right people, success in anything will be almost impossible to achieve. Throughout the responses, people referenced having a circle of other solid and successful individuals around them. They talked about the importance of having people in your corner to encourage you when things get challenging, and to help strengthen your perseverance and grit. They also locked in on the need to include people who disagree with you in your circles, allowing yourself and your ideas to be challenged, and meeting those challenges with the ability to listen. As one respondent shared, “Successful people have high quality relationships with those in their orbit, whether that’s a small orbit or large. They have high quality relationships, based on communication skills, empathy, trustworthiness, etc.”

5. Self-Awareness – Based on the responses, successful people are self-aware and possess a deep understanding of their purpose. They understand their core values and are clear on the reason they are here. They have a strong belief in themselves, but as we shared above, they balance that belief with the knowledge that they don’t know everything. They are open to others’ feedback and expertise. As one respondent shared, “They know who they are and what’s important to them. This makes people easy to be around, and I would argue that people with a strong sense of self have more purpose, resulting in a more consistent direction in which they invest their time. Importantly, this sense of self offers them the ability to NOT be threatened by differences with others – a high degree of tolerance for opinions other than your own is important in life, and a strong sense of self empowers this.”

6. Curiosity – Successful people, based on the survey’s input, are “on their feet” thinkers. They think outside the box and are curious to explore new ways to do things and approach challenges. They also have a willingness to change and pivot when that is required. Again, their connections and the people in their circle give them a resource to tap into for new ideas and perspectives.

7. Faith – Faith showed up throughout the responses as well. For many, faith represents our ability to tap into something greater than themselves as their source of power, strength, hope, and optimism. Faith also helps us define what success looks like in our lives and keeps us from chasing things that aren’t fulfilling. It centers us and grounds us. When our journey to success requires us to be patient, which it often does, leaning into our faith and spirituality can be a direct catalyst for fueling our grit and generosity. 

Success is all in your head… Tying all seven of these traits together is one thing: Mindset. Success in anything requires being in the right headspace to achieve it. From grit to self-awareness to curiosity, how we show up mentally binds all seven of these characteristics together. Mindset is woven tightly through all the responses I received to this question – it is the foundation of success.

The Takeaway

These traits are key to achieving any success you want in life, from starting a business to being a good partner to learning something new. Looking at the list of seven characteristics above, start thinking about which qualities you already possess and which areas represent some room for growth. Then, join me again in a few days when I share the answer to the next question, “What three words would you use to describe these successful people?” 

Subscribe here to follow me, and we’ll keep exploring the topic of success and how we can achieve it in our lives, no matter what area you want to be successful in. – John


The unfiltered responses

“Think about the most successful people you know. What qualities have led to their success?”

  • Never give up attitude and the willingness to change the plan but keep the goal the same.
  • Perseverance. Accepting that failure is often part of any/every process, and or growth.
  • They create time and use it wisely.
  • The most successful people I know are servant leaders. The give what they love in service to others. They are clear on the reason they are in life. They seek to align with that reason in as many moments as they can. They never stop seeking ways to better understand their reason and to better express that reason in service of others.
  • Perseverance, persistence and patience. Staying focused despite of failures
  • Hard work, determination, independent thinking, perseverance
  • Curiosity and a sense that failure is a great teacher.
  • Knowing who they are, what’s important to them, working to achieve what’s important to them, and enjoying that process.
  • Genuine…. reliable…. strategic…joyful…alignment with their gifting….also , a biblical definition of success…. “Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the Lord commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may achieve success wherever you go.”
  • Authenticity. Having a strong purpose and being confident in who they are allows them to admit when they don’t know the answers.
  • Always thinking outside of the box when they have a hurdle in business or personal. See this as a hiccup or challenge and a way to grow and not as a defeat or doomsday.
  • Belief in themself and their ideas.
  • Their ability to connect with people, strong leadership, and good work/life balance.
  • Visionary, curious, always striving to be around people that are smarter than them, willing to try new things, willing to fail to get to the next level,
  • Faith in the midst of opposition and obstacles.
  • They are grateful, they love their families and they make everyone around them better.
  • Sincere interest in life and others
  • Persistence, positivity, and a love for people.
  • I think their ability to have a strong drive and not give up on what they believe in. The individual who has been successful have had the support of strong individuals around them, who encourage them on the days they are not feeling qualified or struggling – those are the people you need in your corner to have strong success.
  • Surrounding themselves with other successful people that challenge their line of thinking to offer a differing point of view. Allowing employees/subordinates to focus on their strengths and enable them to be self-sufficient to excel in their role.
  • Determination/Grit, passion for their field of work, strong work ethic, actively seek people that disagree with them, God’s hand/luck/fate (whatever they want to call it
  • Curiosity, tenacity, continuous learning forward. Having the willingness to embrace the struggle through the learning process knowing that on the other side you will be closer and closer to mastery. Starting before you feel “ready.” Also, this quote comes to mind having “the willingness to embrace the brutal reality of the current situation without losing hope that you will prevail in the end” (the Stockdale paradox)
  • My most admired leaders demonstrate integrity in everything they do. Not by design but by living it.
  • on their feet thinkers – can respond to changes fast. positive, and care about what they are working on. Genuinely like their team, and the people they work with.
  • Drive for results, optimistic, deals with ambiguity, strong work ethic, leader.
  • The first thing that comes to mind is integrity. I know some people might have financial means that don’t operate with integrity, but I don’t define wealth as success. The second thing that comes to mind is work ethic, driven to excellence in everything they do.
  • Authenticity. Self-awareness. Strong work ethic. High quality relationships with the people whom they care about.
  • Honesty/patient/ability to listen/hard worker/caring.
  • Energy, Passionate, Driven, Poise, Respectful
  • Clear vision of driving values. Internally motivated and not tied to other’s assessment of “success.” More about contributing to my community that the $ amount that I made in a year. Able to think outside the box.
  • The top and most important quality that comes to mind immediately is resilience.  All people are faced with challenges (some more than others), but I believe one’s ability to overcome and not let those challenges weigh us down is a key to success in many facets of life.  A close second quality is gratitude. Staying focused on what you are thankful for can be a challenge especially during difficult times, however I believe can be powerful in helping one’s ability to persevere.
  • Given some time to let this question soak in, my pool of people I consider “successful” grew, as that has alot of different definitions (more on that later). So I began looking for commonalities across them, and found some themes that I think ALL successful people have. I think that someone may have just one of these, or two, and they would be someone that wouldn’t qualify as “successful” from my point of view. I think people need ALL three of these: 
    1. To begin with, I think that successful people have a strong work ethic, but that can manifest itself in a variety of ways – whether that work ethic be professional and/or personal. For example, a father may work “his 40 hours” and no more (professional), but put in a TON of time on his family (personal), so he’s still successful (pending the other themes). Conversely, someone might not have a family (which isn’t necessarily bad – that’s a personal choice, more on that in a second), so they put in a TON of time at work (professional) and be successful.
    2. Successful people have high quality relationships with those in their orbit, whether that’s a small orbit or large. But they have high quality relationships, based on communication skills, empathy, trustworthiness, etc. High quality relationships reflect “good” values, even if one person’s “good” value (the environment, for example) differ from another’s “good” value (industriousness, for example). And there are TONS of studies that show that the presence of high quality relationships, whether few or many, is one of the biggest indicators of someone’s happiness in life. So if someone has a family, placing a priority on that family is a big success indicator. But it’s more than family, as it also includes friends, co-workers, and those around them. 
    3. And finally, I would say that successful people have a strong sense of self. They know who they are and what’s important to them. This makes people easy to be around, and I would argue that people with a strong sense of self have more purpose, resulting in a more consistent direction in which they invest their time. Importantly, this sense of self offers them the ability to NOT be threatened by differences with others – a high degree of tolerance for opinions other than your own is important in life, and a strong sense of self empowers this.