Understanding the Recipe for Success

Success is a very elusive thing. It can also be very difficult to define, since success can be entirely different from one person to the next. Even so, there are some common factors that seem to go into achieving success for just about everyone.

In some respects, you could say that the recipe for success is related to knowing how not to suck in life, but it goes well beyond that. In my experience, I’ve found that that there are (at least) five common factors that act as keys to success. You don’t necessarily need to have all five, since a high level of one can help compensate for a lack of another, but it definitely helps. What are these factors?

1. Intelligence

Be careful not to equate intelligence with education. You’ll remember that both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college. It’s not because school is useless; it’s because they effectively transcended the educational system.

Also be careful not to equate intelligence with knowledge. New things can be learned and no one can know everything about everything. However, some people just seem to have a natural ability to learn, adapt, and deduce. If Bill Gates happened to be interested in law rather than software, he likely could have been a very successful attorney.

2. Personality

Just being “smart” usually isn’t enough to be successful. This is vary greatly depending on your preferred profession and industry, but having the right set of personality traits can certainly help you achieve success.

A natural leader has personality traits that lend themselves to earning the respect of the team. A good salesperson is probably outgoing, having no trouble approaching and engaging with absolute strangers. Even scientists need to work together and the right mix of personalities lends itself to greater success.

3. Ambition

What happens if you’re really smart and you have a favorable personality, but you couldn’t be bothered to do anything? Guess what? You’re not going to be particularly successful, because you’re not going to put in the effort.

Remember that there is a fine line between ambition and greed, but you need to have “drive” in order to achieve your goals. As dumb as it sounds, you have to want to be successful.

4. Circumstance

One of the major take-home messages from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is that the circumstances of the situation have a dramatic impact on the success of any given individual. Going back to Bill Gates, he attended one of the first schools to get a computer; very few people had the same kind of access during that time, so he got a head start. If it were not for that, he may not be where he is today.

You don’t want to rely on luck, since you really can’t control it, but recognize that these chance encounters and these unlikely opportunities do make a difference. A true “overnight success” is remarkably rare, but being at the right place at the right time can be very helpful.

5. Support

Believe it or not, no successful person ever really does it on their own. That’s why it’s not productive to strive for independence; it’s better to strive for interdependence. A strong support system — from family, friends, colleagues, and co-workers — can go a very long way.

Support can take on many different forms, from financial to emotional. If someone is very smart, has the right personality traits, has the drive to succeed and is placed in the right situation, but has no help at all from anyone, he or she is unlikely to get very far. Many unsung heroes go into the success of the names we know.

How do you define success? Do you have all five critical ingredients?