What Drives Us

Top performers share hard-earned wisdom.

By Susan Avery, published on July 5, 2016 - last reviewed on September 12, 2016

John Abbott/Courtesy of Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center

PHILIP STIEG, 63

Chairman of neurological surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and neurosurgeon-in-chief at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital 

Philip Stieg's religious family expected him to become a Lutheran clergyman. But in medicine, he found his own way to care for others. The lessons of his faith inform his sensitivity toward each patient, he says: "What would I do if this were my sister, my wife, my child?" Stieg performs some 200 surgeries a year and oversees research on such conditions as Parkinson's, glioblastoma, and epilepsy.

What he's learned: Motivation is contagious: "You're most moved by someone who's into what they're doing."

Lisa Macintosh Photography

JAKE CLEMONS, 36

Musician with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and the Jake Clemons Band

At age 8, Jake Clemons first watched his uncle, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, blow his horn to a sold-out stadium. A beloved original member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, the elder Clemons received the most thunderous applause during the band's introductions. Young Jake was so mesmerized by what he saw, he says, that he decided to pursue music himself. Once he had learned to sing and to play guitar, piano, drums, and sax, he founded the Jake Clemons Band in 2010. And following his uncle's death in 2011, Jake took The Big Man's spot on tour.

What he's learned: "Find people who are better than you and hang out with them. If you're the best person on the field, you won't improve."

Courtesy of UNICEF USA

CARYL STERN, 58

President and CEO of U.S. Fund for UNICEF

Like many young adults, Caryl Stern was initially unsure what direction she should take—she eventually majored in art—but her intuitive sense of people and her problem-solving ability helped guide her. For the past decade, she has traveled around the world, from Haiti to Cambodia, to communities where severe illness and poverty are endemic. Stern grew up watching her mother, a Holocaust survivor, face tough moments with humor. She sees children in refugee camps doing the same today and knows that "humor has to be part of my world."

What she's learned: Be unafraid to say "I don't know" and consult people you trust.

Courtesy of Nathan Green

LT. NATHAN "KUNU" GREEN, 30

U.S. Navy Topgun fighter pilot instructor

At the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada, Lt. Nathan Green (right) trains select pilots in elite aviation skills. His laid-back style got him the nickname "Kunu," after the dimwitted surfer in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but the New Orleans–raised pilot has been deployed twice to the North Arabian Sea and says he lives to exceed his own goals. "We understand that we have a unique and incredible job," he says. "Serving the country is at the forefront of our minds."

What he's learned: "Being fit mentally by keeping a positive attitude is more important than being fit physically."

Courtesy of Stephanie Klemons

STEPHANIE KLEMONS, 33

Associate choreographer, original dance captain, and performer for Hamilton

Fresh from earning a degree in genetics and microbiological research (and another in modern dance), Stephanie Klemons deferred going to medical school to take a shot at Broadway. Both of her parents and her grandfather are doctors, but her mother was supportive. That vote of confidence in her unconventional career move has motivated her ever since: "If you're going to buck the system, you have to hit a home run." Klemons set her sights on and joined the 2006 national tour of the Bollywood-themed musical Bombay Dreams. Next was In The Heights, which ultimately led to Hamilton.

What she's learned: "Everyone's path is different. Stop comparing yourself to others; it will only slow you down."

MARK FISHER, 36

Co-founder, Mark Fisher Fitness

If you think unicorns, rainbows, and musical theater have no place in a gym that prides itself on “serious fitness”—a phrase inscribed on Mark Fisher Fitness’s bubblegum-pink rubber bracelets, you’d be very wrong. Turn the bracelet around and it reads, “ridiculous humans,” a celebrated personality trait of Fisher and his staff of 32 zanies, many of them former actors, dancers, and singers. Since opening the gym, which he prefers to call a clubhouse, in 2011, membership has zoomed to some 850 active members. For a guy who prefers a simple lifestyle—“I’m terrifyingly regimented. My bedroom is minimalistic: There’s a bed and a chair"—he’s now frequently on the road at the request of others in the industry who want to learn his brand of customer attraction.

What he’s learned: “If there’s something you want that you don’t have, it means that there’s something you don’t know. Read voraciously. Take a course on it. Review your one-year and five-year goals every three months.”