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Superachiever Martina Navratilova competes at the 1989 French Open. (Dimitri Iundt / TempSport / Corbis)

Why Are Superachievers So Successful?

Two authors spoke to dozens of the highest-achieving people in the world. Here’s what they learned

smithsonian.com

What does a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer have in common with a tennis legend? Or how about a celebrated opera diva and a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer? What does Alec Baldwin have in common with Yogi Berra?

A lot, says journalist Camille Sweeney, who, along with co-author Josh Gosfield, interviewed dozens of highly accomplished men and women for a new book, The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. Whether someone is setting out to create one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, as Mark Frauenfelder did with BoingBoing, or to win a record amount of money on "Jeopardy!," people who accomplish amazing things rely on a particular collection of strategies to get to the top—and many of them are not what you’d expect.

Who is a superachiever?

Somebody at the top of their craft. Ken Jennings, for example, he didn’t just win on "Jeopardy!," he was the winningest contestant ever on "Jeopardy!"—he won 74 times. It’s the person who is going beyond success.

Do you think that the people you interviewed for the book are fundamentally different from the rest of us?

No! It’s interesting. I think when we started out I might have thought that. But after talking to them and really thinking about their lives, I don’t think that they’re different. When they arrived at what they thought they were going to be doing, they just kept at it. They kept up the energy. And when all the doubters and the haters were saying, “This isn’t going to work,” they didn’t listen. When they felt like they could learn something, they took what they could. It gave me hope that if you put your mind to something, you can be a superachiever. It takes a lot of work, and the work doesn’t stop. These people are pretty 24/7 about what they’re doing.

Your book includes profiles of a wide array of people—business gurus, scientists, actors, musicians, writers and athletes. How did you decide whom to include?

We always thought of our cast of characters as being the most fabulous dinner party you could go to. Anywhere you could sit, you would be getting information from people as disparate as high-wire artist Philippe Petit, dog whisperer Cesar Millan or the opera diva Anna Netrebko.

This is an eclectic group, but you discovered they all share several key strategies and personality traits. What are some of the common threads?

Probably the biggest is self-awareness—the ability to be self-questioning. I love to talk about Martina Navratilova. She had picked tennis up as a young girl and was playing extremely well, better than 99.9 percent of people worldwide ever played tennis. Yet, she was very inconsistent. She had this realization when [American tennis great] Chris Evert beat her, just a drubbing, that all along she was playing based on the assumption that talent and instinct alone was enough to get her to the top and keep her there. She realized that she was not in nearly the condition that she would need to be to be able to play consistently, so she started playing four hours every day. She transformed herself into a playing machine. Using this process of self-evaluation, she was able to get so much further than she would have had she not. She’s just one example, but we kept seeing this over and over again.

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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