Why Are Superachievers So Successful?

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

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

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Superachievers might look like loners—at the top of the mountain, by themselves. But they all found ways to connect themselves to people who would support their dreams and their goals. Everybody had this skill of active listening, when you’re taking in what another person’s saying and processing it, listening for information that you’re going to put into action. That’s something that’s surprising for very successful people—you would imagine that they don’t want to be told (what to do), because they know everything. You wouldn’t think that Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, or Martina Navratilova, has to listen, but that is what they’re doing.

Another thing that these people had in common was patience—not something that you would normally associate with a hard-charging, successful person. We had a really good chat with Hélio Castroneves, the Indy 500 race car driver. When he was a young boy, his father got him into go-karting. He would get in there and he’d feel like he’d have to lead every lap and go as fast as he could and get to the end. His father kept saying, “Use your head.” By that, he meant, “You’ve got the passion and you’ve got the ambition, but temper that by knowing when to make the right move.” So, in one particular race, he literally held back and let another kart go in front of him so he could use all the energy that he had for that very last lap. Boom, he won the race. It was a wake-up call for him that he didn’t have to win every lap. 

Smithsonian.com recently interviewed a psychologist who argued that successful people often benefit from psychopathic tendencies. Did you detect any psychopaths among your subjects?

Well, I’m not a scientist. But I think what is interesting is [how psychopaths] manage emotions. Being really skillful at managing your emotions means you’re able to separate yourself and examine those emotions, feel them when they’re about to occur, and create a path for them to happen but not derail you. These people that I talked with, they’re really skilled at using their emotions. They’re able to use their frustration and their anger to propel them, to fuel action.

One thing that seemed conspicuously absent from your list was natural talent. How important do you think that is to success?

I think it is important, but I think you could have a really talented artist who never picks up a pen and draws. Certainly, the people that we talked to showed talent early on. But I think it’s what you do with that talent that makes all the difference. One of my favorite interviews was with Jessica Watson, the teenager who circumnavigated the globe alone [in a sailboat] in 2010. It was an idea she had when she was 11. She had no sailing background. There was no talent that she was pursuing. But at 11, Jessica got this idea that she could do it. So, her real talent became holding onto that dream. 

Are there any downsides to being a superachiever? Did these people have to make sacrifices to reach their goals?

I think one of the things with superachievers is that they’re very single-minded, very focused. They shape their life around their dreams or their goals, rather than the other way around. But to me, as long as you’re keeping the goal in mind and recognizing all of the sacrifices that goal is going to take, then I wouldn’t say there’s a downside.

Even if we aren’t superachievers, can regular people use these techniques and strategies in our own lives?

Absolutely. There is a process of doing everything. Superachievement may seem like this impenetrable block of success, this almost intimidating concept. But when you break it down into very small things, or patterns to the way somebody does something, you can grab it and absorb it right into your life. There is this exciting opportunity for people to start seeing the world through this different lens, whether you’re looking at the people we chose or people in your life.

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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