7 Ways Successful & Fulfilled People Think Differently

We pay to kill cockroaches and spiders. In Thailand, they pay to eat cockroaches and spiders.

As different forms of thinking separates cultures, it’s also the case between those who are happy and successful, and those who aren’t. Great change has always come from thinking outside the box. Familiarity often turns our box into a prison without realization, crippling our potential success and sapping our happiness.

To reflect, assess, and challenge our personal forms of thinking is not only healthy, but necessary for growth.

Here are 7 ways successful & fulfilled people think differently:


1. They Pursue Curiosity, Not Passion.

The most popular life advice—follow your passion. It’s prevalent because it is wise. The only problem, it’s easier said than done. And we spend much of life on a frantic goose-chase. In order to follow your passion, you need to find it. That’s where most of us need help—try make soufflé without a recipe.

Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert gave many an “Aha moment” recently—forget about passion, follow your curiosity: “Passion is rare; passion is a one-night-stand. Passion is hot, it burns. Every day, you can’t access that…but every single day in my life there’s something that I’m curious about—follow it, it’s a clue, and it might lead you to your passion.”

Her advice comes with good company, echoing Einstein who remarked, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” The late Steve Jobs, in his commencement speech reflected on his success: “Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

Curiosity is the vehicle that takes us from finding, to living our passion; it builds the bridge.


2. They Make Friends With Stress.

Stress is seen as a negative. And appropriately so, plenty of research shows that stress causes neurological damage, and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

But what if stress was the enemy only because we perceived it to be?

For 10 years, health psychologist Kelly McGonical taught on the damaging effects of stress. But now, seeks to undo that whole decade after coming across new research.

30,000 people were asked how much stress they experienced in the last year, and whether they believed stress was harmful for their health. Those with high degrees of stress indeed had severely affected health—a 43% increased risk of dying. But, that was only the case among those who also believed stress was harmful for their health. Those who experienced a high level of stress, but didn’t view stress as harmful, had the lowest risk of dying, even beyond those who indicated little stress.

Typically in stressful situations, our blood vessels constrict and heart rate shoots-up. But the science has shown, when you change your mind about stress, you change your body’s response to stress.

Another study comes from Matthew Nock, of Harvard University and Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of California: participants were given three minutes to prepare then deliver a speech before critical and negative judges. They were divided into two groups with half of all participants having a history of social anxiety. One group was primed beforehand to perceive their stress as helpful—their pounding heart was gearing them up for action; increased breathing was bringing more oxygen to the brain. As a result, those who viewed stress as helpful were less anxious and more confident. Physiologically, their blood vessels stayed relaxed and cardiovascular response mirrored that of joy and courage.

What’s crucial about this knowledge is that nobody is immune to stress; it’s not whether we experience stress, it’s how we respond.

Understanding stress as your body bringing in reinforcements to defeat a challenge, rather than being defeated, isn’t just motivational fluff, it’s a biological shift. You’ll literally live longer, and feel better.


3. They See Chain Reactions.

It only takes one domino to knock over the rest. Successful people rarely make isolated decisions but join the dots between actions and the outcomes.

To take the company to the next level, Paul O’Neill, former CEO of aluminum manufacturing giant Alcoa didn’t focus on advertising & marketing or research & development, he focused on safety.

Workplace injury caused an average of 1.86 lost workdays; increasing safety measures reduced it to 0.2. Within a year the company’s profits hit a record high. When O’Neill retired, it was five times higher.

O’neill says, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

On the surface, they’re unrelated: profit margins and workplace safety. But successful people have the ability to see the relationship between the ‘unrelated.’

Our thinking is often compartmentalized, while it keeps things neat, linear, and logical, it builds walls we cannot see through. Successful people always look for connections and relationships. Their thinking is not just linear, but holistic. They don’t just study parts, but see the whole. They’ve learned to put Humpty-Dumpty together again.


4. They Ask More Questions Than Give Answers.

Our egos paralyze us the moment we’re about to ask a question. That fear of judgment is crippling.  Rather than asking and gaining new knowledge, we’re caught in protecting our image and lack of knowledge.

Indeed ignorance is bliss—successful people are ignorant of judgment and protecting their ego; they prefer growth in asking questions. The inability to ask inhibits our personal growth. Jim Collins and Morten Hansen note in Great by Choice, top leaders of “10x companies” (those who beat their industry indexes by ten times or more) were continually asking “What if?” as a means to improve.

The simple act of asking questions revolutionized and characterized the Toyota Motor Corporation. The famous 5-Whys developed by Sakichi Toyoda became the benchmark of their production system. It was a simple but highly effective strategy for getting to the root cause of any problem and has been adopted by organizations all over the world.

Here’s an example from Oakland University:

Problem Statement: Your company was unable to get the customer’s product request to them on time.

1st Why: Why were you unable to produce the product on time?

– Because the equipment failed.

2nd Why: Why did the equipment fail?

– Because the circuit board burned out.

3rd Why:  Why did the circuit board burn out?

– Because it overheated.

4th Why:  Why did it overheat?

Because the air filter wasn’t changed.

5th Why: Why wasn’t the filter changed?

Root Cause: Because there was no afternoon preventative maintenance shift scheduled to change it.

Indeed Tony Robbins noted that, “Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” Better answers will give you better actions, and better actions will give you better results.


5. They Contribute Before Gain.

It goes against the grain of our capitalistic culture—service only with exchange. Doing something for nothing is a shock to the system. But contribution without expectation or strings attached is a trademark of many successful and fulfilled people.

Princess Diana is remembered for that quality, she encouraged to “Carry out a random act of kindness, with no expectation of reward, safe in the knowledge that one day someone might do the same for you.”

Dr. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist studies pro-social behaviors in business and leadership. His New York Times Bestseller, Give and Take presents a compelling case that you don’t need to be ruthless to get ahead—techniques such as doing “five-minute favors” for others and reconnecting with loose acquaintances can reap long-term career rewards.

Grant explains that pro-social behaviors have a profound effect on our depth and the breadth of relationships, “and so you end up with a wider set of relationships and a richer, more meaningful set of connections.” Indeed, we all know the power and importance in networking.

A paradoxical boomerang effect—focusing on the success and wellbeing of others results in our own success and wellbeing. Zig Ziglar said, ”You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.”

It’s motivation to sow in someone else’s field rather than just our own.


6. They Schedule Nothing.

Success is synonymous with hard work. David Bly said it perfectly, “Striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest where you haven’t planted.” But hard work often turns into hectic work; taking-action becomes 24/7.

However, some of the most accomplished people highlight a counterintuitive habit. Their hectic schedule includes allotted times for absolutely nothing. Of course the times of nothing are far from nothing. Although physically unproductive, these times allow information they’ve been exposed to mix, mingle, and marinate—and then produce new ideas and insights.

Creativity experts and psychologists call it the Incubation period. Creativity is often defined as the synthesis of disparate information. Consciously, we only catch a drop of the ocean that our mind is exposed to. Professor Timothy Willson highlights the power of our unconscious mind in his book, Strangers to Ourselves; Our conscious mind processes about 40 bits of information per second whereas the unconscious processes eleven million bits per second. Incubation allows for absorption and interaction between the two..

And so, successful people regularly schedule time for ‘nothing’—for incubation to take place: to go for a stroll, to eat lunch alone, to sit in a park.

It worked for Einstein: “Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”

Someone worth learning from.


7. They Value Experiences Over Objects.

It’s not what you get, but who you become.

There’s very few material possessions we can place a “priceless” tag on. But plenty experiences for which that’s possible: the new car will be outlasted by the work ethic you cultivated to purchase it; the new house will need renovations, but its the talent you’ve acquired that pays for the renovations.

What we gain materially will always come as a byproduct of who we become intellectually, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.

Fulfilled and successful people place more value on the experience than the object. Who we become creates much more value, not only for ourselves, but for those around us. Far beyond what any object is able to.

2 Responses to “7 Ways Successful & Fulfilled People Think Differently”

  1. October 5, 2014

    Isabelle Reply

    I do all of that and have this philosophy and yet, I am not successful. I have no career, I love science and I care about many things such as health, environment, social justice and I do make connections all of the time but I cannot find anywhere to use any of it. I am 51 years old and my patience is starting to wear thin, Why is that? I don’t want to do a job I hate, I had enough of those in the past.

    • October 6, 2014

      [email protected] Reply

      Thanks for your comment Isabelle.

      The issue may be that you care about too many things—I mean that in terms of narrowing down a viable career path. It’s important to narrow down our many interests into a single focus that we can then build a lifestyle and career around. As the quote goes, “The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

      After that, it’s making a consistent devotion to the craft. Malcolm Gladwell highlights an important concept: mastery in many fields requires at least 10,000 hours—which is roughly 20 hours per week for ten years. The good news is that success and making a living takes much less time.

      So if you’re in a job you hate, let it be financial crutch while you narrow down a single passion. Then start doing that on the side until you’re able to bring in some in income to slowly free you from the dreaded job. It won’t be easy, it’ll be like taking on another part time job. But it’ll be worth it.

      Let me know how else I can help.


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