Dr. Ruth Gotian On How We Need To Redefine Success

…Perseverance. Working hard, and having perseverance, grit, tenacity and resilience is understood as a necessary marker of success. Knowing how to face and overcome challenges is pivotal. High achievers never question if they will overcome a challenge, as they know that they will. Instead, they focus on how to overcome the challenge. It is a […]

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…Perseverance. Working hard, and having perseverance, grit, tenacity and resilience is understood as a necessary marker of success. Knowing how to face and overcome challenges is pivotal. High achievers never question if they will overcome a challenge, as they know that they will. Instead, they focus on how to overcome the challenge. It is a completely different mindset. They do not get burdened by variables outside the locus of their control.


Have you ever noticed how often we equate success with more? Whether that’s more products, more profits, more activities or more accomplishments, we buy into the belief that we have to do more to have more to be more. And that will sum up to success. And then along comes The Great Resignation. Where employees are signaling that the “more” that’s being offered — even more pay, more perks, and more PTO — isn’t summing up to success for them. We visited with leaders who are redefining what success means now. Their answers might surprise you.

As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ruth Gotian.

Dr. Ruth Gotian is the Chief Learning Officer and Assistant Professor of Education in Anesthesiology and former Assistant Dean of Mentoring and Executive Director of the Mentoring Academy at Weill Cornell Medicine. She has been hailed by the journal Nature and Columbia University as an expert in mentorship and leadership development. In 2021, she was selected as one of 30 people worldwide to be named to the Thinkers50 Radar List, dubbed the Oscars of management thinking, and recently won the Thinkers50 Distinguished Achievement “Radar” Award, ranking her the #1 emerging management thinker in the world to bridge theory and practice. She is also a semi-finalist for the Forbes 50 Over 50 list. In addition to publishing in academic journals, she is a contributor to Forbes and Psychology Today where she writes about ‘optimizing success’. Her research is about the mindset and skill set of peak performers, including Nobel laureates, astronauts, and Olympic champions, which she writes about in her book, The Success Factor.


Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

My father always taught me that “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” But sometimes they need convincing. When I was in the fifth grade, recess activities were broken down by gender. The girls traded stickers and the boys played soccer. I was not interested in the high-commodity sticker exchange and really wanted to kick a ball. “Girls don’t play soccer,” my fifth-grade teacher said.

While I never saw a girl playing soccer on television, I didn’t understand why I could not play. That Friday, I went to the New York Public Library near my home and checked out every book they had with a picture of a girl playing soccer. On Monday, I placed the two-foot-high pile of books on my teacher’s desk and asked to revisit our discussion about my playing soccer. As my argument was iron clad, I got to play soccer, and continued to do so throughout high school.

That experience is when I realized that when someone tells me ‘No’, it really means ‘not yet.’ All I need to do is come up with a strategy to convince them to make it happen.

My second life changing experience was going back to school at the age of 43, while working full time, raising my family and having elder care for my parents. I was fortunate to be accepted into Columbia University Teachers College where I studied adult learning and leadership. Specifically, I was fascinated with success — who has it, how they got it, and how the rest of us can achieve it.

Going back to school and juggling so much, was not easy, but I was intrinsically motivated to do this. I was fascinated by everything I was learning and the conversations I was having with the top thought leaders in my field.

It is also where I learned that it is beneficial to be vulnerable. Saying “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” offers the liminal edge where learning truly begins.

We all have myths and misconceptions about success. What are some myths or misconceptions that you used to believe?

I used to believe that success was for other people, those who were born at the right time with the right pedigree, had the necessary connections, and a natural-born talent. I did not believe that success, however you define it, was for ‘regular’ people. While the aforementioned talent and connections certainly help, I now believe that success is a learned skill. Building a culture of excellence, and teaching people how to raise their own bar of achievement, is possible.

How has your definition of success changed?

Everyone has a different definition of success and that is OK as we all want different things in life, and we all have varying pressures and challenges. My earlier research even showed that the definition of rank varies based on rank and gender.

For my research on success, I looked for people who created a paradigm shift in how we do, think or approach things; they’ve pushed their field forward in some way. They are recognized for their work, and as they rose through the ranks, they lifted other people with them, either by mentoring people one on one, or running groups and programs and mentoring in mass. They realized that shining a light on others, does not dim the spotlight on them.

The pandemic, in many ways, was a time of collective self-reflection. What changes do you believe we need to make as a society to access success post pandemic?

Understanding your passion and purpose, what you were put on this earth to do, and brings you joy, changes multiple times in our lives, especially as we face transitions. What we wanted ten years ago, may not be our source of joy or purpose any longer. Transitions such as a new job, partner, house or pandemic, forces us to reevaluate what we hold most dear, brings us joy and aligns with our values.

Reexamining your passions on a regular basis, such as through a passion audit (which is available with the book The Success Factor), will help you focus and pivot on your new interests, and develop goals and milestones to align with your purpose.

What do you see as the unexpected positives in the pandemic? We would love to hear a few of your stories or examples.

Forced into a new way of work and communications, allowed us to tear down invisible barriers and connect with people all over the globe. As an academic, I was able to give keynotes all over the globe, collaborate with colleagues who were forced into quarantine with newfound time on their hands, and write significantly more, as a greater number of people were hungry for new ideas on professional development which mesh into our new reality. It gave me the push I needed to focus on writing my book, The Success Factor.

Recognizing again how fragile life is, and the urgency of what we do with the time we have, like many others, I became more intrepid in the challenges I chose to pursue and embracing the opportunities which arose. This included writing for high impact journals, writing a book, and winning the Thinkers50 Radar Award.

We’re all looking for answers about how to be successful now. Could you please share “5 Ways To Redefine Success Now?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Turns out, there are four things you need to do in order to achieve success. These are not habits, as we cannot copy other people’s habit, but we can emulate their mindsets.

1 . Intrinsic motivation
High achievers are intrinsically motivated to chase their specific field of interest: they have an unquenchable passion for their pursuit. They are not motivated by external motivators such as promotions, bonuses, diplomas, or awards. If they did, they would have quit after winning the big prize. In fact, only two of the Olympic, NBA and NFL champions I interviewed had their medals on display. Surprised that they didn’t have a trophy room, I asked them why they were not surrounded by their achievement. They repeatedly told me that it was never about the medal — that was one chapter in their lives, not the entire story. If it was about the medal, they would have been pushed by an extrinsic motivation, which is when other people judge you. That is never sustainable and causes people to burnout or fail out. So instead, high achievers remember their why, the reason they pursue this profession or problem in the first place. They then tap into that internal passion to fuel themselves.

The scientists were on the precipice of something important, the potential for scientific advancement which could impact millions of lives. Long before Dr. Anthony Fauci led the United States’ Covid response, he was tapped by President George W. Bush to be the principal architect of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). That initiative saved over eight million lives. As an infectious disease expert, Fauci knew that there was no better feeling than having that type of impact. My mentor’s golden advice was to do something important, not just interesting. Fauci told me that it was exactly that idea which directed him in which projects to pursue.

2. Perseverance
Working hard, and having perseverance, grit, tenacity and resilience is understood as a necessary marker of success. Knowing how to face and overcome challenges is pivotal. High achievers never question if they will overcome a challenge, as they know that they will. Instead, they focus on how to overcome the challenge. It is a completely different mindset. They do not get burdened by variables outside the locus of their control.

Michiel Bartman, a three-time Olympic Dutch rower, and gold medalist, had to halt his training due to his compulsory military service. He could not train with his teammates. While he could not practice in the water, he realized he could stay in shape. After a full day of work in the military, he would go to the gym and put in an Olympic workout. He realized he could not row or compete, but he could stay in shape so that he could pick up where he left off as soon as his schedule permitted. He controlled what he could control.

3. Strong foundation
High achievers never rest on their fame or past achievements. What worked for them early on in their career is what they double down on later, even after their awards and notoriety, as they recognize the basic skills are what led to their success. All Olympic and NBA athletes do the same warm-ups before a game as you would see in any junior high gym. Scientists are still designing experiments and writing grants and papers for their careers. It does not stop just because someone else acknowledged their accomplishment.

Neal Katyal argued 45 cases before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), more than any other minority lawyer in American history. His preparation before a case has not changed in all these years, despite his vast experience. He still holds moot (simulated) courts, prepares a binder with answers to every question he might be asked and distills the case to its essential components and then tells it to his children the night before the opening arguments. He has done this exact practice for every single one of the cases he argued before SCOTUS. He didn’t stop doing this just because he had a vast experience in this environment.

4. Continuous informal learning
All the billionaires, such as Warren Buffet, Marc Cuban, and Bill Gates are known for reading hours every day. It is not the reading that made them billionaires, it is being open to new knowledge and making connections other people do not yet see. Despite all of their terminal degrees or top awards, high achievers do not stop learning, just because they have reached the top echelon of their field. Reading books, articles, listening to podcasts, or watching YouTube videos can offer valuable insights.

In addition, all the high achievers surrounded themselves with a team of mentors who believed in them more than they believed in themselves. Nicole Stott, a NASA astronaut, worked at NASA for years as an engineer, before she became an astronaut. It was her mentor’s encouragement and belief in her that pushed her to put pen to paper and complete the NASA astronaut application.

How would our lives improve if we changed our definition of success?

The important thing about success is to name what you would like to achieve, set it as a goal with a timeline, and develop milestones you need to hit. Not having actionable steps makes your goal nothing more than a dream. It is time to turn ‘one day’ into ‘day one.’

Equally important is to realize that your goals and definition of success might change over time, especially as you face transitions in your life, including a new job, a move, or pandemic.

What’s the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of our redefined success? And what advice would you offer about overcoming those obstacles?

High achievers approach problems with a ‘how’ attitude. They don’t question if they will overcome an obstacle, they look for answers how to overcome it. They push themselves to consider a strategy they haven’t thought of yet. When they are first told ‘no’, all they hear is ‘not yet’. Then they double down and think of a strategy to make it happen.

Where do you go to look for inspiration and information about how to redefine success?

We don’t know what we don’t know. As such, I am always on a quest to learn something new. I am always speaking with people who are different than me, from a variety of industries. Knowing how they approached a problem or challenge is illuminating. Sometimes I could use that information immediately, and other times, I store it in my brain, knowing in the future, I might need to recall that idea. Always aim to be the least interesting person in the room. That way, you will ensure you are always learning something new, and identifying what is even possible.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she or they might just see this if we tag them.

As I study extreme high achievers, I would love to grab a chat with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Steven Spielberg, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Celine Dion, Michael Jordan, Madelaine Albright, and Marc Cuban. Maybe a group lunch! Each of them has pushed boundaries of what we know to be true and have helped others as they rose through the ranks — my definition of a high achiever!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow me on social media @RuthGotian, my website www.ruthgotian.com or check out my book, The Success Factor.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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