How does personality affect success?

Red Virgin logo on white background
Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
5 March 2015

What makes someone successful? Is there a personality type that is more likely to be successful than others? What characteristics do successful people share? We caught up with Dr Hamira Riaz, a psychologist specialising in success, to find out the answers to these questions and more…

Is there such a thing as a successful personality? What does it look like?

None of us have static characteristics. We're not fixed – we evolve, our brains change, our social environments change, and our relationships are dynamic. Everything about us is changing; it doesn't make sense to think about personality as a fixed entity.

What about characteristics... are there characteristics that successful people share?

We can learn a lot from the stories of people who have made it to the very top, and there are some common themes in the lives of cultural icons, and successful entrepreneurs and businessmen.

There tends to be a feeling of being an outsider, not fitting in – being a bit different, but being ok with that. It's not just the sensation of being different, it's being quite comfortable with it. 

There's also something of a social displacement between the ages of six and 12. Something happens to the person at that point in their life that disrupts their life a little bit. It could be divorce, it could be moving to a different country, it could be moving schools.

Then related to that possibly, there's something about an ambivalent relationship with authority, feeling let down or wanting to challenge parents, or dealing with unpredictable emotions from adults – so they decide to have an independent stance. 

Coupled with that is the desire for escape, adventure and success. They are willing to let go of what they've got and where they've come from, in order to be successful – a desire to reinvent themselves without worrying too much about what they're letting go of. 

The final thing is drive and single-mindedness – wanting to prove everybody wrong against the odds. If they're told they're no good or have a silly idea, they just don't believe it.

Why is social displacement at such a young age important?

Because it requires people to think differently. Very early on in their lives, they have to think about ambiguity, about virgin territory, stepping into the unknown, coping with that somehow, and making sense of the unfamiliar. All of that stuff about slightly being out of control and having to find your footing again, if you learn it early on in your life, it feels very natural the rest of your life. The more extreme feelings of displacement and feeling like an outsider when you're younger, the less emotional baggage you carry about being different as you get older.

That’s not to say that if you've been brought up in a very clear social structure – one that feels very comfortable and full of stability and security – that you can’t be successful; it's just that the attitude towards success of people from that background is different. It's about fitting in, following the rules, and how people have done it before. Whereas people who feel different and slightly displaced are comfortable with doing things differently. They say, “If it's never been done before, then let's make the impossible possible.” 

Successful people have discovered their unique selling point, they've identified their strengths early on.

But what is it that super successful people do differently?

I think that there’s three things that successful people have done more than others:

Successful people have discovered their unique selling point, they've identified their strengths early on. If you ask their friends and family, by the time they get to their teenage years, it's already evident. The raw ingredients are there. They've found a way of using those strengths in ways that naturally shine, so that by the time they enter into their career in their mid-twenties those strengths are clear to everybody.

There's a second piece about recognising blind spots – we can't be good at everything. So once you know what you're good at, it’s about also understanding your blind spots, and then mitigating the risk of those blind spots getting in the way of your success by building a team around you that's going to help compliment your strengths and also make sure the right checks and balances are in place.

The third thing would be tapping into an inner resilience, something that allows that person to learn from their mistakes, rather than getting bogged down in the idea of failure. These people seem to be comfortable with things not working out as planned. It goes back to what their childhood taught them that you can feel like you are out of control, you don't know what's going on, you don't have everything that you need in order to make a decision but you feel comfortable making a decision anyway. I think this inner belief and resilience is something that stands out about super successful people. 

Are people who don’t have these characteristics destined to be mediocre for the rest of their lives?

Absolutely not. I think if you hold to the idea that there is a fixed personality for success then the conclusion is that there's a proportion of people who just aren't going to ever succeed. But everything we know about people would suggest that's completely wrong.

Success can come from the most unexpected of people and places. You can't ever write anyone off, because we're learning creatures – we learn, we change, we adapt. That's how we're wired. I think that a lot of people would say that it's your ability to adapt that is the critical factor.

I would argue that it goes back down to what you want out of your career and if you're lucky enough to find an environment that speaks to your successes and your strengths. Most successful people have found a company culture that fits them. They can see other people like them who have succeeded before them and so they tread that path.

The more unusual folk are the ones that have managed somehow to succeed in lots of different disciplines, lots of different fields, lots of different types of companies, and in lots of different types of roles. You could argue that their learning agility is off the chart.

How can you become more successful?

I think the word authenticity is something that we hear a lot of now. You have to be real, you have to be authentic. 

Any kind of change you want in your world and in your work and your life will start from a change inside you. You've got to decide what you want and you will then find that the world will accommodate it if you believe in it strongly enough. A lot of it starts with an inner desire or something that we call intrinsic motivation.

Any kind of change you want in your world and in your work and your life will start from a change inside you.

Once you've done that It's about being clear about your strengths, getting a lot of feedback from the people that know you best – you're not always the best person to determine what your strengths are.

Encourage people to be very honest with you about the things that you're not naturally good at and the implications on you and your career. When you've made an assessment, tap into whether you are truly happy living the life that you're living and in the job that you're doing.

If you can be completely honest, and the answer is no, then I think you have to take a level of personal risk. This means you might lose what you've got right now, but you might end up getting something even better. My experience with super successful people is they've done that time and again. They've taken that risk, they've left it all behind, and they've reinvented themselves.

At the end of the day when they look back at a life that's lived by taking chances, they will say that there's a story behind it. There is coherence to that story, it's not like you're living a schizophrenic life, it all starts to make sense. Don't expect it to make sense at the time, but believe that if you follow your instinct, at the end of day it will all make sense.