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

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.

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.

You met so many people for this project—who was the most fun to interview?

Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who walked between the World Trade Center towers. He’s full of anger and bravado. He has ideas about how you have to go straight into chaos in order to create art, risking his life by being up on the high wire. He has a lot of interesting techniques and strategies. One is he goes rock-jumping in riverbeds. If it’s slippery and mossy, he could fall and hit his head, so every time he moves to the next rock, he has a whole process of decision-making that he has to do very, very quickly.

There’s a lot of good advice in this book, but that’s probably one thing we shouldn’t try at home.

Exactly. No!

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