How to be successful

This edition of the newsletter is inspired by an executive I am coaching who shared this article with me.

I've now watched hundreds of elite athletes prepare and compete at the highest levels. A big part of my work has been figuring out what separates the best from the rest.

Here are the ingredients I think it takes to become the best at what you do.

Talent x Effort x Team x Luck

These four factors belong together. Individually, none of these is likely to help you rise to the top. You need all four of them in some combination to have a shot at reaching your full potential. The good news is, there are steps you can take to put yourself in a position to maximize each factor's value (even luck).


I’ve been fortunate to watch some of the most gifted athletes in the world perform on the biggest stages. At the highest level, everyone is talented.

Pro sports are confirmation of the idea that, if you want to be in the top 450 people in the world at a very specific skill, it requires some level of ability that other people don’t have. There’s a reason that executives across sports are willing to tolerate some pretty outlandish behavior for what they believe is an outlandish return on ability or potential. Talent is hard to find.

It's a prerequisite to being in the top 1% of what it is that you do.

Talent, as it pertains to being successful, is about having enough of the baseline skills or abilities so that you have a legitimate chance of adding the other three factors in to get somewhere meaningful. In the NBA, these are the talents that allow a player to be on the floor, night after night, and deliver at a high level. For achievers in other spaces, it might be skills like strategy, leadership, execution, or communication.

We’ve all got things we’re naturally predisposed to, that we pick up more easily than others, or that we gravitate toward because we’re good at them. These things are often the foundation of talent. The key is to take them, mold them, and double down in your focus on them so that you can turn them into something inimitable.

Without talent, reaching the peak of success is impossible. No matter how hard I work, lucky I get, or the quality of my team - I'll never be an NBA player. I lack the talent. 

Talent is both critically important and not enough at the very, very, very tip of the spear. If you want to be the equivalent of the top 1% of the top 1%, you need a few more ingredients.

Hard work

To reach that level, you have to add hard work.

Even if you’re good at something, the odds of you becoming world-class at it are stacked against you. Injuries, poor teamwork, leadership changes, travel schedules, or some off-court issues that you could never have anticipated are enough individually to derail a career. There are plenty of obstacles to navigate to give yourself a shot.

Having a 1% of the 1% outcome requires real effort to tip the odds in your favor, plus real effort to develop your talent into its highest form.

There’s no substitution for hard work if you want to be really, really good at something. Hard work itself isn’t going to guarantee your rise, but not working hard almost certainly will. There's not a single professional athlete we revere that didn't have a work ethic rivaling their natural gifts. There are no shortcuts and no ways to get around the painstaking process of personal improvement.

That's good news. Effort has compounding benefits. The harder you work, the better you get and the easier it becomes to work hard. The easier it becomes to work hard, the better your odds of becoming great.

We’re all familiar with the talents who didn’t add in the hard work and failed to achieve their full potential. The first-round busts, the one-hit wonders. They left out this second critical ingredient, without which they fizzled and failed out.

If you’ve got the first 2 components going for you - talent and hard work - you're well on your way. If you can get the next two factors in line, you have an ever better chance of reaching the peak.  To reach the highest level, you need a team of people around you.


The best athletes in the world have coaches for a reason.

Top performers need someone who can take a different view and imagine possible alternatives or scenarios that might improve the odds of success. They need someone to provide structure, someone who will share honest feedback, and someone who can help them figure out how to be better.

They also need people around them to support them when things are difficult and to round out or hide their shortcomings. And, top performers need people who encourage them to keep pushing when most of the world will tell them that what they're working toward is extreme or not worth it.

Nobody reaches the very top alone.

The team itself also has to be special. Extreme outcomes require elite teams. Nobody achieves anything meaningful or reaches success - a top 1% outcome - in a vacuum. The right other people make us better.

We're only talking about Steph Curry being one of the best players of all time because he also plays with some talented teammates that allow him to play his game in the best possible way. Tom Brady reached legendary status paired with a hall-of-fame head coach and several hall-of-fame teammates along the way. Even in individual sports, players like Tiger Woods had their family or friends around to hold them accountable and assist in their development.

In the best possible scenario, the members of the team complement your talents and encourage your hard work. They build you up, help you optimize your strengths, mitigate your weaknesses, and help create meaning that allows you to persist over the long run. Teams that form deep relationships like this have the chance to create individual and personal dynasties.


The final factor we can’t ignore is luck. Timing matters. Circumstance matters. We need the ball to bounce our way a few times.

If you want a 1% outcome, you need a little luck.

The good news is that hard work and the right team increase your luck surface area. By working as hard as you can with the right people on the team, you put yourself in the best position to tilt luck in your favor.

These four belong together. Miss any of the ingredients, and you're not making it to the top.

Have ridiculous expectations 

 If you want to achieve anything meaningful, you need to be a bit ridiculous.

Ridiculous doesn't mean unrealistic. It just means believing you can achieve something that, in most circumstances, other people simply can't or won't be able to relate to (if you can find people who do, keep them very close).

Because you’re striving for something rare and unique, most people will default to telling you that you're crazy for going for it. You’d be surprised at the number of NBA and NFL athletes I’ve met who’ve been told they’d never amount to anything and wouldn’t ever make it from people who had next to no idea what it takes. When something is difficult to understand and appreciate, people default to no.

Defaulting to no stifles progress to the top.

The best athletes expect themselves to get there. Despite what other people have said, many of them have anticipated playing in the league since a young age. If they started late, they figured out quickly that they had a gift and that they wanted to maximize it. They've internalized outsized expectations of an outlier outcome.

When you spend enough time around high-level athletes - those who are truly at the top of their game - you can hear their expectations in the way that they talk. I remember early in my NFL career, when I was with the St. Louis Rams, riding the elevator with one of the league's best running backs and a future Hall-of-Famer. In making small talk about his goals and his approach for the year, he looked at me and said "I'm here to be great every day."

At the time, I couldn't imagine what it would look like to try and be great every day at what I did. I was just trying to survive. He was doing a job that was 1000 times harder than mine and his default expectation was that he'd be great, day in and day out. It was another level of excellence.

Success requires not settling for less. It comes from an expectation that we can and will do whatever it takes to be great. It comes from a belief that, if we just keep going, we're going to make it to the top. And for most top performers, this expectation allows them to almost will greatness into existence.

You have to pay the price of admission.

Pursuing excellence has a cost. Working toward being the best at something is hard, on you and the people around you.

Most of these are costs that the average person isn't willing to accept. It’s time away from things that seem more fun, family, and friends. Missing big moments. Leaving the party early. Not going at all.

The road to the top is paved with performers who thought they could do it all.

It can be hard to accept these costs as a natural consequence of having such a lofty goal. The consequences are a product of the choices you've made to do something challenging. Success requires that of us.

Love Yourself as a Person, Doubt Yourself as a Performer

Pursuing the path to the top is a mind game.

Self-doubt and self-criticism are part of the territory. Consistent failure is par for the course. You’re going to miss a lot more than you hit. If you recently listened to Novak Djokovic talk about his mental preparation for the game, you heard his admission that he questions himself regularly.

He trusts and loves himself as a person, but doubts himself as a performer.

Chances are you’ll question yourself more than you’d like to admit, and maybe even more that feels comfortable. Self-doubt makes it hard to leave those unreasonable expectations unchecked.

It’s normal to wonder if you’ve made the right choice or if you've got what it takes.

The challenge is reading the self-doubt right. Self-doubt can be a signal if we listen closely enough. It's a sign that there's more to master and more growth to go after in a specific domain. It's a sign that you haven't reached the depth you need to feel fully grounded. It’s a sign you’re on to something special.

What it’s not is a sign that something is wrong with you.

That’s why the best love themselves as people and doubt themselves as performers.

If you can learn to love yourself as a person - failures, doubts, trials, challenges and all - the self-doubt stops being debilitating. It becomes a source of information. We can learn to delight in being wrong because it's a sign we're getting better and learning something new. The self-doubt becomes a source of self-mastery.

Self-mastery leads to the top.

Fall in love with boredom 

The path to the top is boring. Boring often feels crappy. Uninspiring. Demotivating. Tedious. Tired.

This level of performance requires massive dedication and complete focus to honing your craft. That means you may spend hours trying to get just one part of one skill good enough to do it on the court, and even then, it may not be good enough to use consistently.

Over time, that can wear on people.

It feels like a plateau, and plateaus are usually where people bow out. They give up and change directions because they're not seeing the progress they expect.

It's normal to feel resistance to working at that level of detail and effort. It's monotonous and mundane. At times, it even feels pointless.

The best find a way to embrace that. The feeling that it’s boring or unpleasant becomes a signal that you're on the right track (if it was fun, everyone would do it). If you can fall in love with doing the same thing every day - with boredom - you have a chance to reach the very top.

If you can’t bring yourself to love that level of commitment, sooner or later, the boredom will win. You’ll clock out early. Stop short. Convince yourself that working to that level of excellence isn’t necessary for you - as though you have some superpower that the other successful people don’t (minds tell stories like that).

You don’t have to enjoy that level of commitment (though it’s better if you can find joy in it). But, you do need to fall in love with what it takes to get to the top.

Consistent improvement 

Our society is obsessed with stories of overnight success. In sports (and life), the reality is, there are no shortcuts. There are no hacks. The only way to the top is compounding, consistent improvement. To be truly successful, you're going to have to work hard for a long time.

"Little by little, a little becomes a lot."

One of the oldest sport psychology tropes is to focus on getting 1% better every day. Over time, that focus compounds to 37x better per year. Small changes add up quickly.

The best stay focused on consistently getting better. When you’re pursuing being at the top of what you do, there’s no real way to know when you arrive. It’s measured by the accumulation of your good work over time. It’s marked by repeated successes, failures, growth, development, and change.

Because you're in the slog of boredom, it'll be hard to see it daily. But, when you pick your head up and look around, you might notice you're several steps ahead of where you thought you'd be, simply by focusing on getting the most out of yourself each day.

This type of consistency requires several adjacent psychological skills, without which this kind of improvement becomes nearly impossible:

  • Focus - the ability to concentrate on just one thing, day after day, until you've reached a level you can be happy with.

  • Intrinsic motivation and identified motivation - both a personal drive to improve and an internalized identity that you're the type of person who does what it takes.

  • Clear goals - you know what you're working toward, how you want to get there, and how you'll know if you do (or don't).

Each of these is a prerequisite for consistent improvement. Focus keeps your attention where it needs to be - the task at hand. Intrinsic motivation allows you to find meaning in your development. Identified motivation allows you to do the stuff that feels crappy because it’s who you believe you can become. Clear goals set the stage for you to make improvement a reality.

You then pair these mental factors with taking action and executing the habits, routines, and skills that will lead to meaningful change. 

Improvement is a product of behavior repeated over time.

Don’t Compromise

You’re going to be presented with a lot of off-ramps that look like really good options.

The top 1% is made up of people who keep going.

Know yourself

A big part of achieving excellence is understanding who you are and what you need.

When can you push harder? When do you need to rest? Who do you need on your team? What does a good coach do for you?

What is all this for?

Being able to answer these questions accurately requires knowing who you are.

That means understanding your values, motives, goals, and desires. It requires recognizing what sets you off, trips you up, or distracts you. What your greatest strengths are and what your greatest risks are. Knowing yourself allows you to take full advantage of what you can do and what you have to offer. It also allows you to recognize where you’re at risk of getting in your own way. 

For many good (but not great) performers, this is why they hit their ceiling. They fail to do the work to understand how they cut themselves off at the knees. They can’t see how their habits, beliefs, or other behaviors get in the way of achieving their full potential. They miss out on their long-term growth because they've failed to appreciate and understand who they are.

We need to catch ourselves and our tendencies that undermine what we’re after. That means we have to know what we’re feeling and thinking, and the information those thoughts and feelings are conveying. We need to make full use of our entire experience to get to the very top.

The best performers take the time to understand themselves. They reflect often on their experiences, go out of their way to process what they are learning with a trusted person (either a coach, teammate, sport psychologist, athletic trainer, or someone else), and stay connected to the deeper motivations they have. They use those deeper goals and values to push them forward when things are challenging and understand when they might need to use their elite team to get through a plateau or over a hump.

Elite outcomes require elite self-awareness. If you want to be successful, you have to know who you are, what you stand for, what you're after, and what you need to get there.

Constant Learning 

The best in the world constantly engage in what psychologists call self-regulated learning.

It looks like this:

Learning is exhausting, though, so it’s easy to fall off the wagon. Neuroscientists like Lisa Feldman Barrett suggest it’s the most taxing thing our brains can do to learn something new.

Because it’s so tough, many good performers tap out here, too.

They get to a point of good enough. They satisfice, instead of maximizing, because maximizing wears us out. It’s hard to constantly learn something new, test, iterate, and repeat. 

And yet, this single skill - self-regulated learning - is enough to separate professional athletes at the highest skill levels.

To climb to ever-higher levels of performance, we have to keep mastering new things. New tools and tricks, strategies, and tactics. We need to learn about ourselves, our minds, our teammates, our opponents, and our games.

The best way to do that is in a structured, systematic way.

Self-regulated learning offers a repeatable framework for self-mastery.

Success requires an elite skill

Every all-time great has an elite skill.

Of course, they're great at many of the other facets of the game. But, to truly reach the top, you need something that makes you special. For Steph Curry, that elite skill is shooting. For Peyton Manning, it was game intelligence. For Federer, it's the ability to keep adapting his game to his current physical status. 

This factor may be the most important to get right because it's about what makes you special. Every elite performer has something that they recognize allows them to belong at the top, and they spend a good deal of time and energy maximizing that factor. It's much easier to raise your ceiling by optimizing your strengths than fixing your weaknesses.

The good news is, everyone has an elite skill. The bad news is, finding it is often obscured by our tendency to focus on what we're not so good at and to "fix what's broken" instead of finding what's right. You've got to work hard to find it, and oftentimes, it's not easy to find.

For many of the all-time greats, their elite skill started as the part of their game that they were just slightly better at than anything else. Originally, your elite skill might look a lot like just another one of your strengths or even something average. 

Your task is to experiment widely and search hard to find what you can be elite in, and then relentlessly double down on developing that skill until it's unstoppable.

You're only as good as your system

Have you ever noticed the number of prolific college quarterbacks who never play a down on Sundays? As the spread offense became more prominent in college, the stats started to climb through the roof. Average players in the right system started to look like superstars. 

To give them some credit, it takes skill to execute the right system well and turn in a prolific college career. At the same time, it's important to recognize that, in the end, you're only as good as your system.

The best players at the highest levels both work to master and shape the system they're in.

If you've watched LeBron James over the last 15+ years, for example, you've seen him actively provide feedback to each of his coaches to help them put him in a position to be maximally successful. He knows what's required and asked of him, but doesn't resign himself to a prescribed set of actions by someone who doesn't know what he's thinking or feeling in the moment of performance. He's both mastered what's asked of him and mastered himself so that he can maximize the system.

Your system is your unifying, guiding behaviors of values, goals, habits, cues, triggers, and people that allow you to do what you do. Optimizing each part of your system gives you the best odds of success beyond doing the work (and the system makes doing the work more engaging and impactful). To be successful, you have to get your system and your execution right. 

Play to win

If you want to be successful, you have to play to win. When we talk about all-time greats, we're invariably talking about winners. 

Yes, you need to focus on the process more than the outcome. Yes, you need to work on consistent growth and improvement. Yes, winning shouldn't become the way that you define yourself.

But if you're doing all this work and not trying to win, you're selling yourself short.

In this case, winning is about being better than the you that you were yesterday. It's about chasing excellence, pursuing something bigger than yourself, and seeing what you're capable of. If you don't play to win, you're leaving motivation and untapped potential out there for someone else to pick up and run with. To be successful, you have to play to win because it's often not going to be fun. Winning gives you something to aim for, believe in, and propel yourself toward when you (inevitably) feel like giving up. 

The original meaning of the word compete comes from the Latin competere, which meant to "strive with". If you're playing to win, you're striving with the other people in the arena to become the best that you can be. You're working on something harder and more personal than people realize. You're pushing yourself to the limit, knowing that what you're after may never arrive.

You need something like that for the pursuit of excellence to be worth it.

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