Four Keys of Enduring Success: How High Achievers Win

What is success to you? HBS professor Howard Stevenson offers insights from research he and HBS senior research fellow Laura Nash are conducting on the meaning of success for high achievers.
by Martha Lagace

Think of Rupert Murdoch, Al "Chainsaw" Dunlop, and Madonna. They're talented. They're shrewd. Now, are they successful?

Or, as HBS professor Howard H. Stevenson framed the question at a recent presentation for alumni, would you really want to be these people? More importantly, he added, would you want your children to be these people?

Defining your own yardstick for success can often be quite difficult, according to Stevenson.

"A ton of books on success all say, 'Choose your target and shoot at it,'" he said. The books never mention other aspects of a contented life such as family, leisure, community, or even time for yourself and your tennis game. The advice is too simple and logical, he complained, and there is a "wonderful stress" on perfection and having it all.

In his talk, titled "Enduring Success," he described research that he and HBS senior research fellow Laura L. Nash are conducting for a forthcoming book on the meaning and choices behind the success of high contributors. Success that endures, they are discovering, stems from four particular sources that are often contradictory but all necessary: achievement, happiness, significance, and a legacy.

Juggling all four at once is a trick that requires constant practice.

People who fit our conventional notions of success display a lot of positive features, said Stevenson. But take a closer look and a positive attribute can spell disaster just as easily. Passion, focus, obsession, positive attitudes; Stevenson ticked them off. Successful people are good at matching goals with their own skillsets; they lead a team of believers; they take risks; they are lucky, hard workers, fierce competitors; they overcome challenges; they had a high dissatisfaction with their environment.

If you really like something you keep doing it, sometimes after it's no longer appropriate to do it.
— Howard Stevenson

"The only problem is, when you look at those characteristics, passion is often addictive," said Stevenson. "If you really like something you keep doing it, sometimes after it's no longer appropriate to do it. Laser focus and tunnel vision often cause you to miss data. ... Obsession is great, but have any of you ever charged into an unwinnable situation because you're obsessed?

We have a problem in a lot of the success literature in that we always talk about people for whom that pattern of behavior made them a success, but there are a lot of people who have that same pattern of behavior who wind up as drunks in the alley."

Success is a tough problem for other reasons, too. Times change; you change. The way you feel and the way the world feels about you may not be the same, he said. Satisfaction can turn into pride and pride into hubris. "This is fundamentally the story of every Greek tragedy that exists."

What Is Success?

Stevenson and Nash believe success is a state of being. It's also a unique combination of satisfactions determined by each individual. It is uneven and unstable; it's never frozen at a moment in time. It is both rational and emotional.

In the interviews they have conducted so far with successful people—those deemed by their peers to be in the top of their profession, from architecture to modeling to business—Stevenson said he and Nash hear three great fears:

"I won't be a success."

"I will be a success, but it won't be enough."

"I will be a success, but I'll have to sell my soul."

People seek success for complex reasons and the drivers behind it are very emotional, Stevenson observed. Individuals want a sense of mastery and pleasure; relationships are important to success. The most common reason people give him and Nash is, "I want to make a difference in the world." Most people admire others who display fairly high moral standards, so success is something that has a moral component, he said. People we look up to are not people who achieve and then stop; they keep on going and growing.

From their interviews thus far, Stevenson and Nash have been able to draw some preliminary conclusions about characteristics of enduring success. The interviewees' work has made a difference in the world for many others, he said. Their success reflects their values and uniqueness; they were not people who tried to copy anyone else.

"None of them wanted to be set up as paragons," Stevenson told the audience. "They didn't want us to write a book saying, 'These are the really neat people.' They were worried that in fact that wasn't who they were. They were people who recognized their own frailties. They wanted to be sure that we understood they had made mistakes in life, there were things they hadn't accomplished, and there was still room for growth."

What they had in common:

  • They seized opportunity as life presented it: "They did what they could with what they had," he said.
  • They seemed to not have a lot of regrets; they have largely avoided decisions they later regretted.
  • They enjoy the here and now. "They were people who get up, look at the sunshine; they look at a sunset and really smile, knowing full well the sunset wouldn't be there in just twenty minutes. They were very happy in terms of what they saw in their life."

In short, said Stevenson; "We discovered a landscape of satisfaction."

What Enduring Success Provides

There are four satisfactions of enduring success, according to Stevenson:

  • Achievement: Do you measure accomplishments against an external goal? Power, wealth, recognition, competition against others.
  • Happiness: Is there contentment or pleasure with and about your life?
  • Significance: Do you have a valued impact on others whom you choose?
  • Legacy: Have you infused your values and your accomplishments into the lives of others to leave something behind?

These four satisfactions are very different from each other, he said. Achievement has a time dimension to it. Achievements can be in the past or the present. Most people don't find much satisfaction in their past achievements, and most of the satisfaction from achievement "is in the achieving, not in the accomplishment," he said. Achievement is propelled by the need for mastery, recognition, and a sense of pride, but achievements are equally driven by envy, greed, and fear, so emotions surrounding achievement can pull you in very different ways. How your values play in is another component to achievement. What are the kinds of things that drive you to achievement, and where do these values come from, he asked.

If you're deeply content all the time, what happens to your achievement?
— Howard Stevenson

Happiness, significance, and a legacy are similarly complicated. "If you're deeply content all the time, what happens to your achievement? It's not there. One of the reasons you're successful is that you're not happy," Stevenson quipped. Significance to others can be guided by a sense of fairness, generosity and caring, but do fairness, generosity and caring help you in your achievements? Should individuals leave a legacy at the end of their lives, or do they create legacies as they go along?

"Significance is a lot about what you do for others, and achievement is much about how you feel about yourself, how you rate yourself. If you think about happiness, it's a now thing. Happiness is about a present experience; it's about the ability to enjoy the moment, whereas legacy is about forever: 'How do I create something that goes on for a long period of time?'"

"Some people think the path to enduring success is to achieve, achieve, achieve, and that the more they achieve the happier they'll be. And if they achieve the right thing they'll be significant, and that's their legacy," said Stevenson. But it is very difficult to find one path that fulfills all those needs. Moreover, the whole process of the collapsing your definition of success into one sequence of behavior is ultimately bound to fail, he cautioned.

Among his and Nash's interviewees, success was most satisfying when the individuals were grappling with all four satisfactions almost constantly.

Stevenson said it wasn't a balancing act, because the four satisfactions provide contradictory emotions and achieving one often hinders you in the pursuit of another.

A thing about juggling is each time you touch something you have to give it energy.
— Howard Stevenson

"If all that matters to you is your success as a businessperson, you're probably not going to be as likely to create a legacy among your followers, because you're not going to allow them to make mistakes; you're going to make all the decisions," he told the audience.

"I think it's about juggling," he added. "The juggling metaphor is a lot more apt. One of the things about juggling is that you've got to keep your eye on all the balls.

"A second thing about juggling is each time you touch something you have to give it energy. You've got to throw it up in the air so that it takes care of itself while you're working on the others. You've also got to throw the balls thoughtfully and carefully. That requires a lot of practice.

"The third thing about juggling, though, is you've got to catch the falling ball. The most important ball is the one that's about to hit the ground."

When Success Proves Elusive

Success can prove elusive, Stevenson said, for reasons that include:

  • A mismatch between your values, goals, and beliefs, and your achievement.
  • Too great a dependency on just one strength. "Keeping your eye on all four balls is tremendously important," he said.
  • Strengths that don't satisfy your emotional needs; failing to act differently when the context changes.
  • Placing activities in the wrong domain. "Are your children your achievement? ...[People who deny this] are the same ones who say, 'I want my children to be happy. All that matters is that my kids are happy. But if they don't get in the right school they won't be happy and I won't be happy.'"

"Ideally, what would be your satisfactions in all four domains?" Stevenson asked in closing. "How would you rate yourself in the four domains? Is there one domain in which you're stuck? How well and how often do you switch your sources of satisfaction? If you say, 'I will switch my satisfactions every twenty-five years,' you are trying to do the sequential. If, on the other hand, you say 'I'm going to do all four all the time,' you never accomplish anything.

"Would your family and friends fill out your profile in the same way you do? ... In organizations, yes, you want people who are achievement-oriented, but, on the other hand, there are occasions in life when even salespeople have to cooperate."

Stevenson delivered his talk to an overflow audience during the HBS Reunion weekend on May 31.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.