Renowned American psychologist Abraham Maslow had a keen understanding of what drives people. To explain human motivation, Maslow conceptualized a “hierarchy of needs.” The behavioral model consists of five levels, most often arranged as a pyramid: at its base is bodily needs (food, clothes, shelter, rest); the next level is safety (job security, for instance); then, the need for love and a sense of belonging (intimate relationships); esteem (personal accomplishment and respect of others); and self-actualization (reaching one’s full potential and experiencing self-fulfillment, as through creative pursuits). A person must meet each underlying level of need in the pyramid before being able to move up to the next tier.1
Humans are hardwired to want to ascend Maslow’s pyramid and achieve the vision they have of themselves. But, is the ability to succeed inbred, or is it something we develop?
Research suggests it is a mix of both.
The Road to Self-Actualization
It was once thought that success was born of talent, timing, and good fortune, but we learn that certain behaviors are predictive of better results if practiced.
Here are seven common attributes of successful people that are backed by science.1-3
1 — Goal Setting
Research shows success is about 50 percent intellect and personality; so there is significant room for us to steer our destiny deliberately. Science shows that having goals improves a person’s performance.4 Entrepreneur Marc Effron suggests that individuals and businesses focus on no more than three goals, choosing goals with the greatest impact; promising yourself that you will deliver results; and challenging yourself with goals that force you to “reach;” as research shows this prompts people to go the extra mile.
2 — A Growth Versus Fixed Mindset
The term “growth mindset” was coined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. She explains that people with such a mindset believe they can improve their talents with hard work, strategizing, and feedback from others, whereas people with a fixed mindset believe their talents are inborn and unchangeable. People with a growth mindset “worry less about looking smart” and invest more time improving their skills. A pure growth mindset does not exist and needs to be developed.5
Findings by K. Anders Ericsson, a recently deceased behavioral psychologist who taught at Florida State University, bear this out. In examining factors underlying highly successful people, Ericsson found they are driven by a fervent pursuit of self-improvement and never rest on their laurels. To these individuals, skills need to be constantly strengthened like a muscle.
3 — Flexibility
A key trait of people with a growth mindset is how they perceive failure. Instead of viewing failure as self-judgment, they look at it as feedback on modifying their approach. They are flexible to changing circumstances and their thinking. They recognize fixed thought patterns may be holding them back. Rather than believe they can’t do something, they can think pragmatically about a situation and determine whether they have the needed skills.
4 — A Can-Do Attitude
Research shows that successful people are generally more optimistic, which allows them to see challenges as growth opportunities. When you are happy, experts say, it is easier to be optimistic, leading to better confidence and problem-solving. One simple, science-backed way of boosting mood and feeling happier is to practice gratitude. Though it does not prove causality, one notable study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, showed a significant boost in happiness ratings in 411 participants who wrote a letter of gratitude for someone’s kind actions versus a control group. And these feelings lasted for a month.6
5 — The Ability to Focus
Successful people can get into a zone by focusing on one task at a time—research suggests our brains cannot focus on two things simultaneously. Experts recommend that people block out all distractions and focus on a single task for at least 20 minutes each day.
6 — Perseverance
Another common trait among successful people is bouncing back from repeated failure and staying the course. The link between dogged tenacity and success traces back to 1892 and Sir Francis Galton’s work, a British scientist who observed: “zeal with capacity for hard labor” in successful people. Researchers today not only agree with this observation but give more weight to determination than intellect on the scale of success.
Psychologists note that relentlessness can be acquired over time with practice. Coping with failure’s negative emotions is a learned skill, which can begin with acknowledging that failure is a natural part of any major pursuit in life. One tip is to minimize potential setbacks by outsourcing any difficult task outside of your expertise. Another is to allow yourself to grieve over any failure and then move out of that place, assess what went wrong, and determine how those lessons can be applied to future attempts.
7 — Self-Control
Successful people have the ability to delay gratification. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous 1972 marshmallow experiment, demonstrated its importance from a young age. When young children were presented with the option of having one marshmallow now or waiting to get two, later on, those who acquiesced to temptation became less successful in life than their stronger peers.
Notably, a newer marshmallow study showed just a small association between poor self-control and academic success in children. This link disappeared after controlling the child’s family and environment.7 Still, other research shows a strong correlation between delayed gratification and success, where settling for less in the short term can sabotage more significant gains in the long term.
Like perseverance, self-control is also a trait that can be developed through practice.
Other helpful behaviors include moving beyond one’s comfort zone and testing new avenues; listening to one’s inner voice instead of outside voices; always being honest, even if it means speaking unpopular viewpoints; taking responsibility for life’s outcomes, and recognizing and giving up personal defenses.
Qualities of Self-Actualized People
According to Maslow, we are motivated by an innate desire for self-fulfillment and growth. While many people are held in high regard for their material success, self-actualized people are doing all they are capable of, feel fulfilled and joyous, and view the world with wonder.
Self-actualization is not a terminal state of arrival but a continual state of becoming. It is also not a state of perfection but simply reaching one’s potential—character flaws and all. All people are capable of reaching self-actualization, yet Maslow estimated only 2 percent of us actually achieve it.1
Based on his analysis of 18 prominent, self-actualized individuals, including Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein, Maslow identified a list of common traits: the ability to accept themselves and others as they are; being problem-versus self-centered; spontaneity; a unique sense of humor; high creativity; the ability to view life objectively and tolerate uncertainty; enjoying deep relationships with several people; having peak experiences; a strong desire for privacy; being resistant to cultural norms; having a concern for humanity; being appreciative of life on a basic level, and having Democratic viewpoints with strong moral/ethical values.1
Helping Others to Succeed
Success should involve reciprocity. Since we all share the same desire for personal fulfillment and relationships are central to success, experts say our desire to grow should be as great as our desire to help others grow, including strangers and expecting nothing in return. Giving unconditionally helps to fuel our passion and gives us a greater sense of purpose that can ultimately make us happier and more confident toward our success.
This hypothesis is backed by science. A study in The Journal of Positive Psychology involving more than 400 people, were asked to rate how meaningful their lives were in relation to the frequency of altruistic pursuits, like volunteering Those who helped others the most felt the most meaning and purpose in their lives.8
As the song goes, “You get what you give.”