The characteristics or traits of top performers (and why you’re screwed)

A lot has been written about the characteristics or traits of top performers. What makes them different? It would seem like they are cut from an entirely different cloth compared to everyone else. It’s like magic what they are capable of doing.

some characteristics:

1. They do not necessarily work harder, but work smarter. They employ special hidden tricks and techniques that make them more productive. The ‘one weird trick’ is really true for success, not ‘more hours’ (sorry Malcolm Gladwell) . It’s like the Feynman integral technique, which enabled the famous physicist to quickly solve integrals that otherwise proved vexing using conventional methods.

2. Consistent to a fault. They are always making money, always on top of things, daily, weekly, monthly, etc. They never slack off or take days off. Instead of a big win and then stagnation, it’s unfailing consistency. If they cannot keep making money it’s only because everyone else already failed and or it’s otherwise not possible. Or like Joe Rogan, who over the past 12 years of his podcasting career has put out over 2,000 episodes, or about one every two days.

3. Irreproducible. You will never be able to recreate what they can do, no matter what. I have observed this a lot. You try to copy it to a “T” and always come up short due to a missing secret ingredient as discussed in #1.

This is also why elite colleges are so competitive and such a big deal, for those invaluable connections and other shortcuts to success. Is it a coincidence so many top tech, consulting, and finance firms recruit from the same cluster of schools? Or why alumni from the same colleges get VC funding? MIT’s Open Courseware may have almost the same curriculum as the ‘real MIT’ experience, but without the credential and connections it’s not as useful.

4. No major setbacks at life. I’m sure we all know of people who have suffered personal misfortune or other major problems and been derailed from successful jobs or other positions at life. Not these people though. They seem to be immune or are always evading life’s slings and arrows, and are always on the ‘up and up’. Their career setbacks are like speedbumps in an ever-upward trajectory. The notion that life ebbs and flows does not apply to these people. Same for always failing forward.

Name any major setbacks for Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, the founders of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. Their bios can be summed up as: early success at life, more success, maybe a small setback (such as an underwhelming product launch), even more success, more riches, etc. Not only that, but they tend to live a long time too even if their lifestyles are unhealthy.

Now compare the bios of people in public service or who do not make much money (even if their families are wealthy). Usually there is much more misfortune. JFK was debilitated by a bad back and chronic illness for much of his life. Eisenhower had heart problems. FDR had polio as an adult and was paralyzed from the waist down. Lincoln’s melancholy, which “never failed to impress any man who ever saw or knew him,” was notable enough to merit inclusion in any biography, and may have even shaped his presidency. Two of these individuals had their lives cut short, and FDR died during his (extended) stay in office.

But Warren Buffett is still going as strong as ever at 93. Same for his business partner Charlie Munger at 100(!). Both of them are famous for their bad diets, notably a penchant for Coca Cola and Peanut Brittle consumed ad libitum. Same for sedentary lifestyles, but that hasn’t stopped them. And of course, John D. Rockefeller lived to 97, which was astonishing for his time.

5. Abrupt transition of skill and pay. This can explain why the top pro athletes earn so much, even compared to other pros. Even within this exclusive group, the top performers are still head and shoulders above the rest, like Messi and Ronaldo. NBA development league players and D1 college players are still very competent basketball players, but do not come close in terms of skill and pay of top pro players, and consequently earn nothing or much less.

6. The total package. This means no weaknesses. An example is Bill Gates. His ‘weird trick’ was acquiring the rights to QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) in 1981 at a bargain basement price of $50k, which was renamed as MS DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System). And second, his mom happened to know the CEO of IBM and in 1980 helped her son’s company land its first big contract, that of course was with IBM. With MS DOS as the default operating system for the hugely popular IBM PC, the rest is history. But that is not enough. Just having connections is not good enough without the other ingredients too.

Bill Gates by avoiding needless risk taking and being fortunate to not have health problems, didn’t die young and had a large capacity for work. This risk-averse lifestyle was contrasted with ruthlessness at business, savviness at predicting trends (such as the importance of the world wide web), and possessing very high intelligence. He had everything going for him, without which Microsoft could have easily joined the graveyard of the multitude of other tech failures or busts of the late 90s or early 2000s.

Elon Musk is often accused by his detractors of relying on subsidies. Yeah, but lots of companies get subsidies, and how many are even as close to as successful as Tesla or Space-X?

Another example is Mark Zuckerberg, whose weird trick was ‘stealing’ Facebook. It has always struck me as a cope when people try to dismiss his success because of this. Did he also steal his super high IQ, work ethic, and business savvy too? I’m sure the Winklevoss twins’ social network, ConnectU, had history run its course would be a footnote by now compared to Facebook/Meta. How did Facebook avoid the fate of so many other social networks, which died out? Facebook could have conceivably become another Friendster or Myspace had anyone else run the company, but Mr. Zuckerberg was perfect in every way.

7. Lots of free time. Gladwell is right that a lot of time is needed to hone one’s craft, and even if it’s not some specific or arbitrary number of hours, it is still a lot. Unlike a normal job in which your work hours are delineated, any competitive entrepreneurial endeavor will be a major time suck. This means having to explain to friends and family why you are ignoring them to work on your stupid, silly hobby or business and hoping they understand.

Finally, to address the second part of the title, if one of these these people encroaches on your turf, especially in business, you’re basically screwed. The odds are high this will happen in any profitable niche. It happened to me. I had a fairly successful online business until such a competitor showed up, and although I held on for a month, it soon became apparent it was hopeless and instead of running at a loss to fend the competitor off, which I knew I couldn’t, I shut it all down.

There is not much you can do but move to another niche. A notable example is Apple, which in the 70s and early 80s was a dominant player in personal computers, with the hugely successful Apple II computer.

After Microsoft got the IBM deal, it was slow decline for Apple thereafter. The Macintosh, in 1984, was a major success, but Apple would continue to lose ground in the late 80s to early 90s, nearly going bankrupt by 1997 until finally by the early 2000s reinventing itself with the iPod, and in 2007 the iPhone. Steve Job’s weird trick, upon his return to Apple in 1997, was abandoning the ‘beige box’ paradigm of personal computers that was dominant at the time, turning Apple into not just another electronics company but a luxury brand that merged form with function, similar to Nike.

Overall, super-successful people are like from another world. They are so much different in almost every way. When you see them in action, it’s humbling, and then you have to step back and reevaluate your own place in the hierarchy.