Don’t you hate those lists that reduce the habits of successful people to habits that can be counted on two hands? Every time you come across one of those posts, you click and read. Still you remain flummoxed by the list’s claims that if you read, sleep, walk, and commit more, if you’d just get up early and meditate, and take a cold shower, you’d already by a billionaire just like Bill,Warren and Oprah.
“Successful people” don’t quit ranks at the top of these lists. Yet, successful people often quit projects, sometimes when they’ve already committed significant resources. Oprah quit her highly successful television show, closed HARPO Studios in Chicago and launched a cable network, OWN, that nearly failed. She admitted that if she “had to do it all over again,” she might not have started the network. Along the way, she learned to let others on her team take charge of daily operations. Oprah quit being in control of every detail and, in doing so, she moved OWN from close to failing in 2013 to a success in 2016. Oprah remains at the top of any list of successful people because she’s mastered the arts of persisting and quitting.
I’m fascinated by how some people have behaviors that appear to be the opposite of behaviors I’ve long understood to be the best practices for success. It’s why I’ve decided to create a list of successful behaviors for myself. This list includes traits you can adopt and techniques you can use to succeed, but they have little to do with drinking water, meditating or getting up early. Instead, this list includes unusual but effective ways of behaving, which trump lists of ‘habits’ anytime.
You Know When to Quit
Let’s take the claim that successful people commit to something and they stick with it until they’ve reached their goal. Successful people learn from the failure, and find another way to pursue their goals, but they never quit until they fail.
Wrong. Successful people persevere and they know when to quit. They don’t quit the first moment they experience a stumbling block or resistance, but they’ll stop a destined to fail project before they expend too much time and effort. How?
My spouse, Marcus F. Boehm, has been a successful biotech entrepreneur whose recent company sold for multi-billions of dollars. But this success might not have occurred if he and the other co-founder hadn’t decided to quit pursuing the company that preceded this success. The technology wasn’t working and Marcus took inventory of their efforts: “Yes, I’m giving my best effort and my resources, but will this situation get better, meaning will I see results that are worth my/our effort?” Second, he asked hard questions, such as “What other opportunities are we giving up while sticking to this situation that isn’t producing results and may never produce results?” He quit the project and immediately found new technology that produced much needed drugs for inflammatory diseases like ulcerative colitis. This company has now become one of the gold standards for creating a biotech start-up.
Yes, some people quit before they’ve even tried, but successful people quit because they’ve asked and answered hard questions about the return on the investment of their time, talent, and resources.
You Don’t Multitask
Busy people with multiple projects going at once always seem impressive, but truly successful people pay attention to how they use their time to complete a project. Unlike the rest of us listening to audiobooks while exercising, successful people walk or run outside to let their brains “breathe.” The Japanese have a name for walking or running in silence, preferably in nature–forest bathing. This deliberate rejection of multitasking allows the brain time to rest or think.
Doing two and three tasks at once might seem efficient, but it more often produces stress. Recent studies have linked increased stress and anxiety with multi-tasking. Dr. Earl Miller, a MIT neuroscientist, has data showing how multitasking diminishes your productivity, makes you prone to making mistakes, and suppresses your creativity. Your brain isn’t wired to do too many tasks at once. When you do try to multitask, you’re more likely to panic, which increases your anxiety and the likelihood of failure at one or more of the tasks.
Successful people create the space and time free of distractions, excluding email and phone calls. They free up their calendars from other distractions. Writer Joan Didion minimizes her social life, for example. By focusing on one task at at time, they use their mental energy to delve deeper into their projects.
You Avoid Responsibilities
Those lists about the habits of “successful” people claim they reportedly don’t watch bad television or read anything that doesn’t advance their career goals. If they do anything outside of work, it’s purposeful. In other words, they don’t goof off and they don’t play hooky from their responsibilities.
Still, according to Harvard researchers, many successful people also burn out and suffer from “success syndrome,” caused by too many demands to help others. How do you prevent burn out? Make sure you avoid taking on too many responsibilities at the expense of “me time.” But before you get to such a state, make sure you build in regular play time.
Those who retain a healthy relationship with their careers know that two hours playing music (the louder, the better) or an hour at the potter’s wheel (even if the clay collapses) boosts optimism and feelings of joy. Better still, they schedule unstructured play whenever possible because playtime that elicits feelings of laughter and joy can, even more than exercise, produce long-lasting physical and well-being. My father-in-law, Felix H. Boehm, was a physicist at CalTech and a good friend of Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist. While Felix was an accomplished musician, Feynman was not, but he regularly played the bongos, drums, sticks and stones. “Anything to create rhythm,” Marcus said.
Stuart Brown, an expert on play, insists that compartmentalizing work and play prevents us from experiencing the symbiotic energy between the two. Instead, we need to work at putting time for play at the core, and not the periphery, of our lives. While video games, board games, and puzzles count as play time, unstructured play and silly play–anything that is spontaneous and creates joy–provides opportunities for the left and right side of our brains to interact. Add reading fiction to this list because this genre boost empathy and creativity faster than any other genre of literature. Keep a book or your Kindle with you at all times and read whenever you have a moment.
Successful People Embrace Boredom
Elizabeth Gilbert, whose memoir Eat, Pray, Love, has sold millions of copies, knows from experience that successful artists experience the doldrums–a period when creative passion and productivity evaporate. During a period when a new project eluded her, Gilbert focused on the “ordinary business of life.” Allowing herself to be curious about another project besides writing, Gilbert created a large flower garden. While she planted lilies and roses, she also researched their origins and learned they came from other parts of the world. Gilbert’s research eventually inspired her next best-selling novel, The Signature of All Things, which is about a family of botanical adventurers. This experience inspired another best-selling book, Big Magic, which examines creativity, including widely held myths about the creative process. Gilbert highly recommends embracing those times when your creativity goes fallow.
Create a Network of People Different from Yourself
Gilbert does more than pursue other non-writing projects when she’s experiencing a lack of direction, she also creates an environment for success by surrounding herself with a diverse group of curious and optimistic people. Many successful people swear by providing themselves with lots of alone time, but they also make sure to create a community of others from a variety of backgrounds who also have high aspirations. Gabriela Pereira, founder of DIYMFA.com and author of diyMFA, preaches that no matter how productive you might be on your own, you still need to “establish your circle of trust” by creating a community with others who will inspire and support you. These people’s purpose, whether they live nearby or on-line, is to nurture and mentor you.
Most important, be sure this network includes people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Having a homogeneous group of people who agree with you may make you feel comfortable, but you won’t be pushed to do your best work.
If your informal network is too homogeneous, take the advice of writer and literary agent Quressa Robinson, whose recent response to a question on Twitter about how to make literary agencies more diverse: “Hire diversely; It’s that simple. But if you are finding you aren’t getting diverse candidates then maybe your network is too monochromatic.” Substitute the word “hire” and “candidates” with the word “friend.” Being open to creating a network of friends different from yourself in ethnicity, religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation should be as important as your other goals for a successful life. It’s not just the right way to open yourself to new experiences and new ways of seeing the world, but a diverse network leads to better decisions, innovations and success.
Call to Action
Successful people admit that luck may account for their good fortune, but they know that being prepared to take advantage of opportunities–a new book project or a new biotech start-up or creating a diverse network of nurturers–depends on having a variety of behaviors in your tool-box. Stay committed and know when to quit; take advantage of those periods when you lack passion for a project to pursue your curiosity. Take time to play and always surround yourself with others whose experiences and background differ from your experiences, but who also want to reach for the stars.
Successful people have learned that it’s not always a repeated behavior that ensures a successful career, but how and when they practice these behaviors. And for every one of these behaviors that’s helped them succeed, there’s another one to consider, too.
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Originally published at phillipswriter.com.
Originally published at medium.com