Traits for Every Field: What Separates the Talented from the Accomplished

by: J.B. Weisenfels

You’re so talented. You show a lot of promise. You have so much potential.

These phrases might be familiar to you, especially if you are one of our younger readers. They come from the mouths of parents, teachers, professors—even friends. Let us assume for a moment that they are correct—you are talented. You are full of promise and potential. Those things make for an exceptional jumpstart on your career, but there are no guarantees that your “promise” or “potential” will turn into accomplishments.

So, what is the magic pill that locks you onto the path of true success?  First of all, let’s clear that “magic pill” business out of your mind. There is no magic pill. There is no fairy godmother. You are not going to develop a few good habits and instantly transform into an accomplished professional with a thirty page CV living in that house you really wish you could afford.

According to studies cited by Forbes in the field of network science, the greatest predictor of career success is an open network. Most people function in closed networks, operating in close proximity to a bunch of people who already know each other. An open network, they claim, leads to more exposure to new ideas.  An open network also requires skills like communication and the ability to mediate conflicts. It is worth stating, however, that network science is right there in the title, so of course a specific kind of network is what the network researchers were looking for.

Business Insider has a list of things that impact your success and are completely out of your control. According to this list, you’d need to be tall with a nice voice, the right accent, a pleasing scent, and the child of highly-educated working parents who completed their education before you were eight years old.  This list, in particular, feels like it wants to box you in. There really isn’t anything you can do about these traits. All of you short, southern or foreign folks with working class parents need not despair, however. This list only features nine traits out of a host of proven theories on success.

Hubspot has put together an absolutely wondrous, respectably-sourced infographic, which you can and should look at on their website. They list eight traits that seem to help people perform better than even their more intelligent colleagues. Those traits are: self-regulation, growth mindset, resilience, passion, empathy, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and social skills. It’s quite a list. In fact, it’s a little overwhelming.

These are only a few articles dealing with predictors of success. If you were to issue a Google query on the matter, the results would be very overwhelming. You could build an entire career collecting information on what it takes to become an accomplished professional. But you don’t have that kind of time, do you? I’ve collected a few standbys upon which most lists of predictors of success agree into a brief list for you.

1. Know what you don’t know, and find someone who does know.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is an interesting phenomenon. In a nutshell, it means that people with low ability don’t know enough to know that they are not, in fact, superior to their peers. You can’t actually know if you’re suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, because the bias toward your own superiority blocks you from knowing it. What helps here is humility that can lead you to teachability.

If you want to be a doctor, for example, you already know that you weren’t born a doctor.  You know that you need to work hard for many long years of school, you need to find mentors who will teach you, and you need to listen to your instructors and mentors. Why, then, do people who want to be musicians or writers or entrepreneurs think that they were born with all the talent required to attain their goals? Why is it that this notion of “talent” outweighs the message of working hard and investing the 10,000 hours required to become an expert?

I am certainly not recommending that you spend a cool hundred grand on a fancy education, here. I am saying that even without an education, you can devote yourself to becoming an expert. Find someone who is willing to mentor you. Find a group of like-minded people who can help you think about your weaknesses and strengths, who can serve as a sounding board. Most of all, make sure you are learning, leaning, and working toward your goal and the people around you see your goal, understand your goal, and are willing to help you reach it.

2. “Fail, fail again, fail better.”

If you don’t have a lot of experience with the humanities or people who spend their time writing, you may not have heard this Samuel Beckett quote. The vast majority of writers know it well. Rejection is part of the job, part of any job, really, but it’s not the most important part. The most important part is making sure you keep working until you are better at what you’re attempting.

The ability to look at a failure or rejection and to say to yourself, “You know what, I can do better next time,” is an invaluable trait. We call it perseverance. Anything that can be learned can be improved upon. Painting or tech, writing or economics, musicianship or business management, they all come with some kind of learning curve, and perseverance is what separates those who fade into the background from those who lead in their fields.

3. “It takes a village.”

This one is a frequent suggestion of preschool teachers, sure, but that doesn’t mean adults don’t need this advice as well. People, in general, are more likely to help you if you aren’t a jerk.  Interdependence is one of the things that ensured the success of our ancestors. Sure, in the initial millennia of humanity’s existence, interdependence meant tribalism. I’m not suggesting we revert to hunter-gatherer family groups, I’m saying the idea that we all need each other is ancient.

What does that mean in the real world? Should you all hold hands and sing a rousing chorus of Kumbaya before the workday begins? No, that is not what I mean. Put simply: it’s easier to get Linda to cover a shift for you or help you bear your burden if you haven’t already been passive-aggressive about how her lunch smells. That doesn’t mean you have to be passive in the workplace, but it does mean exhibiting a basic level of kindness to your colleagues.

4. Work hard.

Hard work reigns supreme. It’s not just something your grandfather delivers a sermon about over Sunday supper, either. Employers value it, coworkers value it, and it usually pays off. Hard work, however, is not the only advantage along the way to accomplishment. If there’s no balance between hard work and teachability, for example, you might find yourself working hard at things and doing them wrong. Hard work without perseverance means you might throw up your hands and walk away the moment the thing you’ve been working on begins to falter. Hard work without kindness can lead you to isolation.

So work hard, yes. Sit at your desk, go out in the field, do what it takes to become a competent and productive professional, but never forget that accomplishment requires a balance of traits. Learn your trade, persevere, grow relationships, and work hard.


J.B. Weisenfels

J.B. Weisenfels is a lifelong resident of the River Valley who serves as Editorial Curator for BSavvy Magazine. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University and a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, where she received the Academic Excellence Award for the 2013/2014 academic year. When she is not writing or editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and having long conversations with her two children and all her very excellent friends and family members.