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Success ingredients of top achievers

“Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play,” the German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said. Do you have both theoretical knowledge and practical experience in what you do? And can these two success ingredients alone lead you to outstanding professional success?

Today, let me share with you the key success ingredients of a first-rate professional with the help of a Venn diagram. It illustrates the three bases of professional success, the three intersecting mid-levels of success, and the success peak where all bases intersect).

Base 1. Knowledge (“I know”)

“The natural desire of good men is knowledge,” said Leonardo da Vinci. The first base of professional success, knowledge, can be defined as facts, information, and skills acquired by a person. Typically, if you start as a novice in a professional domain, you first build-up foundational knowledge and skills that allow you to become a practitioner in your chosen field.

Base 2. Experience (“I do”)

“There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home,” noted the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Experience is the second base on which professional success is grounded. You acquire practical experience over time while working in a particular profession.

Mid-Level A (Intersection 1∩2): Competence and expertise (“I know how to do this well”)

“To know and not to do is not yet to know,” goes a Zen saying. Apply your knowledge, in reality, to move to a higher professional level and become competent in what you do. Competence is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.

If you master the discipline to continue learning diligently and applying, you build-up more professional expertise (i.e., expert skill or knowledge in a particular field). But apart from discipline, you need a third success base.

Base 3. Talent (“I am a natural at it”)

The third —and arguably most important— base you need to succeed big is talent, which is a natural aptitude or skill for your chosen pursuit. When something is EEE (easy, effortless, and enjoyable) for you that is DDD (difficult, drudging, and de-energizing) for most others, you have a talent for this pursuit. Developing the latent qualities that constitute your natural gift may lead you to future professional success.

Mid-Level B (Intersection 1∩3): Scholarship (“I am a natural and know all about it”)

When you have a natural aptitude for a domain and study it hard, you become a learned scholar. Scholarship is academic study and achievement on a high level, and it is driven by curiosity: The more curious you are to learn all about “your” natural domain, the more and harder you will study, the more you will learn and understand on a theoretical level.

But scholarship alone won’t put you to the very top of your professional domain either: as long as you don’t practice what you preach, you still lack the practical experience to reach the peak. Accomplished career academics tend to play —and stay— on this level.

Mid-Level C (Intersection 2∩3): Self-Actualization (“I am a natural and can do it”)

Self-actualization means the realization of one’s talents and potential. Some people notice early on that they have a knack for something — and then, driven by passion and enthusiasm for their gift, they start doing it without having been formally educated in the domain. For example, many natural entrepreneurs start a venture without having undergone formal theoretical education in entrepreneurship.

The Peak (Intersection 1∩2∩3): Success, harmony and ingenuity (“I am a natural in it, know all about it, and know how to do it”)

If you combine all of these elements of professional success, you eventually will reach the peak and become one of the acclaimed top leaders in your professional domain.

At this point, who you are, what you know, and what you do are in perfect harmony. You can regularly experience the peak state of flow at work, which drives you forward as a reward in itself but also supports moments of peak creativity.

Two examples of ingenious top achievers moving up to the peak

Albert Einstein provides a good example of how to move to the peak. For years, he had been at the scholarship level (1∩3); he had a talent for physics (base 3) and knew all about it in theory as an accomplished academic (base 2). However, he was only able to resolve the creative puzzle leading to his relativity theory after closing base 3.

Einstein acquired practical experience while working as a clerk in the patent office in Bern, where he gained fresh, practical stimuli from reading technical patent applications and doing imagination experiments on his theories. All these stimuli ultimately connected to his groundbreaking relativity theory in a Eureka moment of peak creativity while hiking with his friend in the Swiss Alps.

Here is a second example: Thomas Edison started as a self-actualized inventor and entrepreneur: Early on, he had noticed his unique talent for inventing things (base 3) and, without having a formal engineering or scientific education, began doing it and monetizing his inventions (base 2).

After succeeding with his first inventions (a voting machine and the telegraph), however, Edison realized that he needed to further his theoretical knowledge (base 1) to become a top innovator. Hence, he set up his personal library with ten thousands of books in his New Jersey innovation factory. Edison regularly spent time there reading to close his educational gap from his early life.

Working on all three bases and all accomplishment levels allowed Edison to file over a thousand patent applications in his life and to come up with and monetize many more groundbreaking inventions (such as the incandescent lightbulb or the gramophone, among many others).

  • Do you want to become a creative leader and top achiever in your chosen domain, too? Configuring your mindset to open your antennas for moments of peak creativity is what our creative leadership method Genius Journey is all about.
  • But what if you’re not sure about your natural talent yet? TIPS, our innovator profiling method can help you to gain more talent awareness of your “natural thing” and to locate domains and ecosystems that resonate with your preferred cognitive style.

Contact us if you want to find out more.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2016. This article is published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 17 March 2016.