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The Success Factor: A Book Review

A new book describes the learnable mindset that drives top success.

Key points

  • High achievers face the same challenges everyone else does, but tackle them with a learnable mindset.
  • High achievers are driven by an internal motivation and love to solve problems others won't touch.
  • High achievers fear not trying more than they do failure.

Have you ever wondered how astronauts really achieve their success? Most people believe that extreme high achievers like Olympians and Nobel Prize winners are simply a different breed. But Dr. Ruth Gotian, who studies them, says high achievers are just like everyone else; they also have challenges, opportunities, fears, and stressors. What makes them different is also the key to their success: their unique mindset and approach.

In her new book, The Success Factor, Gotian reveals the mindset of high achievers so that everyone can learn it. High achievers take something they are really good at and interested in and then apply a strong worth ethic, a solid foundation that is constantly being reinforced, and a commitment to lifelong learning through informal means.

What is a high achiever?

For Gotian, “Being a high achiever means you were able to do things others find daunting or avoid doing. You see a gap in knowledge or achievement and work toward filling that need. Waiting for others to solve the problem you have the ability to handle is inconceivable. You are not afraid to put in the work if that means finding the right solution. Often you will take the knowledge that is already being used and apply it differently.“

If that sounds hard, consider the joy that drives achievers. Few things get the juices of a true high achiever flowing more than “finding a solution that has eluded everyone else.” Gotian adds, “The more complex the problem, the more excited they get.”

The book is packed with stories of amazing people, like Tony Award-winning star Victoria Clark, Olympians like Apollo Ohno, Bonnie Blair, and Devon Harris of the famed 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, award-winning physician-scientists, and astronauts. Not only do the stories make Gotian’s claims relatable, but they also illustrate her belief that the world needs more of such high achievers. She argues that role models like these can help people learn to control their own destiny by being part of the solution instead of waiting for others to solve the problem.

What motivates you?

But all the high achievers that Gotian, the Chief Learning Officer at Weill Cornell Medicine, studies start from the same place: passion. What drives success starts with intrinsic motivation. They do the work they do because they are interested in it and driven to do it. In a word, that interest makes the work fun.

Gotian describes intrinsic motivation as “an unrelenting passion that reminds you of why you do what you do, even when times are tough, and things do not go according to plan. It gives you great joy, purpose and is your driving force.” For Gotian, finding that motivation is the first step in optimizing your success. Daunting as that may sound, the book includes a “passion audit” to assist you in discovering what drives you.

Strong work ethic

When high achievers tackle the work they are motivated to do, they also apply a strong work ethic. “As a high achiever, you likely do not suffer from status quo bias,” writes Gotian, “the idea of being comfortable with the status quo; believing in leaving well enough alone. Quite the opposite: you are charged by challenge and change.”

But it’s not easy, and high achievers fail as often as anyone else. The difference is the way they approach that failure. “High achievers do not hear the words no, can’t, or won’t. Instead, they hear not yet,” writes Gotian.

Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Bob Lefkowitz had a period when none of his research was working. His mentor said, “Bob, do you know the difference between a really top-flight scientist and the run-of-the-mill guy?”


“Well, for the run-of-the-mill guy, maybe 1 percent of what he does works. But for the superstar, it could be as high as 2 percent.”

“Not trying is not an option for high achievers,” Gotian writes, “They fear not trying more than they fear failing.” And this may be the most important distinction between those who succeed beyond all others and everyone else: the fear of not trying.

A solid foundation

One way high achievers ensure their success or overcome failure is by going back to basics. Not only do they make sure to learn everything they need to learn about their field at the beginning, but they also keep repeating the early exercises that built their skill in the first place. This is the book’s strong foundation that is constantly being reinforced. For instance, Broadway Tony Award-winning star Victoria Clark still uses the same warm-up exercises as an actress that she did when she was first learning.

Lifelong learning

Another key strategy for high achievers is the way they never stop learning. Not only this, but they learn from anyone they can. Nobel Prize winners learn from their mentors, their peers, and also their students or even people in other fields.

Gotian writes that high achievers “tend to be more self-directed in their learning, reaching out to appropriate resources such as people or programs to fill in any gaps in their knowledge. They are not afraid to say, ‘I do not know,’ or ‘This is not clear to me.’ Being vulnerable, learning more, and asking for guidance is completely natural to them, as they believe they still have more to learn. They do not focus on what was, instead they focus toward what can be.”

An inspiring read, The Success Factor (January 2022) provides those who want to go for it with solid tools to get started.