I often receive emails asking me very vague questions, such as “how do I stand out on my medical school application?” or “I did well in high school, but I’m having so much trouble in university now – what to I do?” The problem with these types of questions is that there is no good answer for them; honestly, there is no step by step formula for success.
Instead, I think a better approach is to figure out what qualities or habits one should adopt in order to be successful. This is especially important for young people in high school and postsecondary who are soon to enter the working world, but are still lost about their interests, skills and need to build their capacity.
Through my personal experiences, I have come across a remarkable number of outstanding individuals in a variety of sectors, including science, medicine, business and community service, among others. In reflecting on these individuals, I have come to realize there are 6 qualities they all tend to share in common.
I am happy to answer questions and try to help people out whenever I can on this blog. Admittedly, however, it’s frustrating when I get bombarded with questions about information that could easily be found with a quick Google search; for example “what GPA do I need to apply to U of T’s med school?” or “what courses do you take in McMaster Health Sciences?”.
Being resourceful is crucial to your success. The amount of information and knowledge in this world is growing at an exponential rate, and even more important than having knowledge, is knowing how to acquire it. Thanks to the Internet, you can learn not only information, but also find opportunities and develop highly attractive skills. There are literally thousands of instructional videos and courses, many for free, on various subjects and skills. Lack of access to information isn’t a good excuse anymore.
For example, when I first set up this blog, I had no idea what WordPress was or how to use it. But I went ahead and installed it, learned by doing, and Googled whenever I came across problems. I apply the same approach in every other single area in my life.
Being resourceful is not just a skill – it’s an attitude and way of approaching problems. It’s about immediately searching for a solution when you don’t know something. When you have a question or need to learn a new skill, don’t just rely on others to teach you – try finding a way to learn on your own first, and the Internet is a great resource for you to do that.
So many people I know are cynics even though they don’t realize it. They have absolutely zero confidence in themselves. The amount of self-sabotage out there is mind blowing. A lack of belief in oneself is one of the biggest barriers to success.
On the other hand, the most successful individuals I’ve met tend to have this optimism about them – it’s not arrogant or delusional, just a willingness to believe success is possible, even if the chance is small.
One of the phrases that annoys me the most is “I have no shot”.
You’re wrong – you always have a shot. But, as Wayne Gretzky says, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.
Take more shots.
I take that back. Don’t just take more shots. Take a million shots. And a million more after that.
The more shots you take, the more likely you are to sink a few, and the better you will get with time.
Being relentless goes hand in hand with optimism. To me, being relentless basically means working your butt off and never giving up. You don’t take no for an answer. You don’t let people knock you down or tell you something isn’t possible. You prove them wrong. You keep putting yourself in a position to succeed.
When we hear about the success of other people, we often aren’t privy to the failures that preceded the success. Successful individuals are constantly trying and failing before they finally achieve success. And even then, they keep challenging themselves, meaning more cycles of failure and success. But the more you get used to failure, the better you deal with it, and the faster you achieve success each time.
I recently met a person a few years younger than myself who didn’t get into a competitive program. He was so distraught. I felt bad for the guy, not because he didn’t get in, but because he was letting himself feel bad for not getting in. But learning how to deal with failure is something you get better at with time. Try more, fail lots, and you will learn to realize failure is just a part of life.
Be relentless in everything you do, from big to small. Looking for a research position? If you really want it that badly, keep emailing professors until one says yes. That’s right, email 100 professors if you have to. How badly do you want it?
4. Insane work ethic
The most successful people work harder than anyone else. You don’t get good at something unless you literally make it your life. I remember reading about how Rafael Nadal continues to practice another 4 hours after tennis matches. That’s an insane work ethic – but that’s what makes him so good.
One of my mentors, an entrepreneur, once said that he used to sleep 2 to 4 hours a night during the week in order for his company to succeed. He said expecting to succeed in such a competitive environment without that kind of commitment is setting yourself up for failure. He’s right.
I’m not saying everyone should go sleep 2 to 4 hours a night. All I’m saying is that your output is directly correlated to your input. If you see your competition working way harder than you, are you willing to work harder than them?
One of the most interesting things I’ve come across is that the most successful people also tend to be the most generous with their time in terms of mentoring and providing advice to others. The people who have given me the most time tend to be the people who theoretically should have the least time to give. There is something magical about helping others and becoming successful. Maybe it’s karma.
I bring this up because one of the things I find about successful people is that they are fearless about reaching out to anyone and everyone; they are not scared of being ignored or rejected. Whereas a lot of other people avoid reaching out to really high level people, and are huge self-doubters, saying “they would never respond to me” or “they will just get mad at me”. In my experience, as long as you are asking something actually relevant to them, people are more than happy to help.
Being fearless is also about willing to make tough decisions when you have incomplete information and there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. It means not being scared to be wrong, to fail, or be humiliated. It means being willing to do things no one else is.
If I had to hire someone, I think self-initiative is one of the most important skills I would look for. The challenge with self-initiative is that everyone seems to think they have it when, in fact, most people don’t. It’s one of those skills you need to see for yourself whether it’s actually there.
Self-initiative means knowing what direction things are going in, what needs to be done to continue going there, and having the internal drive to do whatever it takes to execute and push things forward. Everyone mistakes self-initiative for just having “started” something, like a project – but it runs deeper than that, and is actually a way of living your life.
Are you the kind of person who waits for the next group meeting or for someone else to tell you what needs to be done? Or do you figure out what the logical next steps are going to be and just start executing?
What team do you think will move faster – the one that waits for meetings to figure out tasks, or the one where people have the vision and self-initiative to keep executing, even on their own? It’s the latter, by a factor of 1000.
All of these are skills that can be developed – with time. If you work at them enough, they will become a part of you. For example, to increase your work ethic, you might want to wake up 1 hour earlier to get in 1 extra hour of work in the morning.
In short, think less about what specifically you need to do to succeed (because it’s probably a lot of things anyways), and focus on developing the attitude and habits that will get you there.
What qualities do you think help you to be successful?