I study extraordinary people for a living. I look for patterns to understand what separates average leaders, professionals, athletes, teachers, and parents from extraordinary ones. What’s the one thing that’s clear from my research and experience? Exceptional people typically possess a healthy dose of each of the following five character traits: responsibility, persistence, delayed gratification, a thirst for knowledge, and conviction.
Let’s discuss each briefly.
1. Exceptional People Are Responsible.
First, people who sustain success over long periods of time take responsibility for their actions. They are much less likely to blame others. The first question they usually ask is, “What might I have done to cause this outcome?” or “What could I have done differently to produce a more favorable outcome?” As a result, they tend to learn from their mistakes and improve. In my experience, and from my work with senior leaders, I believe that responsibility is a critical driver of long-term effectiveness.
2. Exceptional People Have Grit.
Second, because extraordinary people assume their actions can directly affect outcomes, they tend to persist for much longer than those who doubt their ability to influence or alter situations. This quality of persistence, or grit, has been shown to independently drive effectiveness.
Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor, is the author of the bestselling 2016 book Grit and is widely known for her 2013 TED Talk that went viral. (As of the time of this writing, it has more than 18 million views.) Duckworth’s work describes research showing the connection between grit and success in people as diverse as West Point cadets, spelling bee champions, and highly paid salespeople.
3. Exceptional People Delay Gratification.
Third, exceptional people believe they’ll be rewarded through persistent effort, so they’re willing to delay gratification. Like grit, delayed gratification has received a lot of attention as a major driver of effectiveness.
In a series of famous studies conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Stanford Professor Walter Mischel, children were left alone in a room with a single marshmallow. They were told that if they waited to eat the marshmallow, they would be rewarded 15 minutes later with another one. Of the 600 children studied, about one-third were able to hold off long enough to receive the reward.
Follow-up longitudinal studies of these same children into their adult years have shown a remarkable correlation between their early ability to delay gratification and later measures of success and well-being, such as increased SAT scores, higher rates of college completion, lower rates of divorce, and better measures of health.
4. Exceptional People Seek Out Information.
Fourth, extraordinary people have a thirst for knowledge and seek out information. Believing that their actions can shape their circumstances, they see data as critical, even if the data may not be immediately useful. Average performers, on the other hand, believe that their circumstances are more likely to be affected by luck or fate. This group is less motivated to seek out information, even if it’s potentially helpful. In contrast, successful people are learners. They have a growth mindset. They use failure or setbacks as opportunities for growth rather than reasons to give up.
5. Exceptional People Hold Deeply Held Beliefs.
Finally, people who sustain high levels of performance over time almost always possess a high degree of conviction. Convinced they can shape every situation they face, they are less likely to be persuaded to change unless presented with information that convinces them that their position isn’t accurate. The great leaders who have defined history — think: Galileo, Gandhi, and Churchill — were those who had the conviction to challenge the conventional wisdom of their times.
Darren Gold is a Managing Partner at The Trium Group, where he advises and coaches CEOs and leadership teams at many of the world’s most innovative companies, including Roche, Dropbox, Lululemon, Sephora, Cisco, eBay, Activision, and Warner Bros. He is the author of the new book “Master Your Code: The Art, Wisdom, and Science of Leading an Extraordinary Life“.