The Science of Extreme Achievement

A photo of draughtsmen planning.

If you want to be an extreme achiever, be like these men and plan for it.

No one wants to die a loser.

If you ask any ten people, it’s a safe bet. No one will tell you, “Oh, me? You know, my dream is basically to just live and die. Pass through life, never really do anything, yep.”

No one’s going to tell you that.

In fact, they’ll profess all their dreams. They wanna start their own business, write the next New York Times bestseller, learn a new skill,  maybe even travel the world.

In the face of answers like that, the world seems so results-oriented, as if we were really a nation of strivers and doers. It’d certainly explain all the quote books, and the YouTube videos that promise instant motivation.

But if that’s the case, why do the stats tell a different story?

Why are we spending 23 hours/week on email, text and social?

Why are we spending 5 hours a day on mobile and digital media? And that’s not counting another 4.5 hours in front of the telly, either.

Do the math. That’s nearly 10 hours a day down the drain.

Sad truth, isn’t it?

Sad, because we all like to say we’ll die with a bang. We say we’ll go after our dreams, like cheetahs after gazelles. But then you see those statistics, and you’re confronted with the ugly truth: we’re nowhere near as productive as we like to pretend.

With our iPhones always charged, and the TV always on, achievement is becoming a lost art. Or at least, if not lost, it’s an art that’s getting harder to master.

In a world where the choice is Facebook vs. work, we choose Facebook. In a world where people could write books, they instead choose to get lost in Twitter.

Which is why I wrote this post.

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I have no plans to die mediocre. And if you’re with me on that, then welcome to the science (and art) of extreme achievement.

By the end of this post, my goal is for you to stop dream-chasing.

No more being soft, and no more being lazy. Once you reach the last word of this, you’ll be ready to take massive action. You’ll graduate from talking about your dreams, to actually making them happen.

I’ll give you the education, and you give me your effort.

If you’re willing to strike that deal, a la Faust and Mephisto, we’re off to the races.

Part 1 – Our Model for Extreme Achievement

Let me introduce you to Kevin Ferriss.

He’s a hybrid I invented just now, a cross between Tim Ferriss and Kevin Ryan.

Now, Tim Ferriss you probably know. He’s the NYT-bestselling author of  The Four-Hour Workweek, The Four-Hour Body and The Four-Hour Chef. He also has his own blog, his own podcast, and he’s an investor in companies like Evernote, Uber, et cetera.

The other half of our hybrid is Kevin Ryan. He’s the CEO and Chairman of AlleyCorp LLC, a tech company incubator based in New York. He’s the Chairman of Gilt Groupe and The Business Insider, plus co-founder at other companies in the AlleyCorp network.

If you combine Tim’s work with Kevin’s work, our model for achievement is simple.

When I say extreme achiever, I mean a rockstar both on and off-work. He likely has his own business, and chronicles that in a blog. Sprinkle in some nice vacations, twice-weekly workouts, and a couple speaking gigs, and we’re set.

You can tweak that model if you want, but at least we have a benchmark.

Now you have an idea of what’s possible.

And now that you know the model, let’s get you on the path to living that life. A life that’s both high-productivity, and high-happiness. I promise you, it can be done.


Your journey to extreme achievement begins now.

Part 2 – The Psychology of Extreme Achievement

There are two parts to every achiever.

First is the mental part, or how an achiever thinks about the world. Then you have their behaviors—this is the doing part. But for now, we’ll focus on the thinking.  Before I give you the tactics to dominate, I first want to teach you the strategy you’ll need behind it.

For that, we’ll turn to two psychologists and an economist.

(Not as catchy as Four Weddings and a Funeral, but I’m not from Hollywood.)

Anyway, let’s start with  a psychologist: Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth.

She’s the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called the genius grant. She’s also a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, working primarily on two topics: grit, and self-control. According to her, these two traits are essential to success.

In her interview at the APA’s Monitor, she defines the traits thus:

Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance, sustained over time. The emphasis is on stamina. Self-control is related—we often measure self-control and grit in the same sample and find a strong correlation—but the difference is time scale. Self-control is the ability to resist momentary distractions and temptations in order to reach a goal, but the goal doesn’t have to be something that you’re pursuing for years or decades.

According to her, for challenging environments like West Point, grit is more predictive of success than self-control. She goes on to say that this holds true for other goals, like, for example, completing special forces training.

But as for routine activity, like say, the amount of blog posts you write in a given week, Duckworth says that self-control is a better predictor than grit.

Her examples make one thing clear: whether it’s special forces training, or just banging out your next blog post, both grit and self-control are needed for success. You’ll need grit for the long haul, and self-control to stave off daily temptation.

If you want an example, let’s take Kevin, our hybrid.

Say he has his blog, and yet he’s running his own business. Because he’s busy, some days he might be tempted to let his blog writing slide. And if ever a recession hits, he might be tempted to throw in the towel on his business.

What will stop him? You guessed it: grit, and self-control.

Grit will give him the toughness to see his business through the storm. And for the stresses of daily life, self-control will be there to push him to keep writing. As Dr. Duckworth says, the only difference between the two traits is the time scale involved.

But together, the pairing forms the base of our mental achievement pyramid.

And for the next slab of that monument, we’ll turn to our economist: Tim Harford.

In his book Adapt, Harford talks about three working principles from Peter Palchinsky, a Soviet-era engineer. Palchinsky was executed for progressive ideas, especially concerning labor conditions and engineering.

These ideas earned him the ire of the Soviet authorities.

But executed though he was, Palchinsky’s way of working lived on.

Harford lists these ‘Palchinsky principles’ thus:

  1. Seek out new ideas and try new things.
  2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.
  3. Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

If you simplified them,  you could just say, practice trial and error.

But why is trial and error so important for achievement?

Well it’s important because we live in a complex world.

Just how complex? Well, Eric Beinhocker of McKinsey estimates that major economies like New York offer 10 billion distinct types of product. And that’s just sheer volume. For another form of complexity consider this: we live in a world where companies pop up, and then fail only a few years later.

We live in a world where there’s always something new, something different, and often more complex than its predecessor.

In the face of this complexity, Harford cites insights in Adapt from Stuart Kauffman and John Holland. (Both are complexity theorists, affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute.)

Harford writes:

Stuart Kauffman and John Holland have shown that the evolutionary approach is not just another way of solving complex problems. Given the likely shape of these ever-shifting landscapes, the evolutionary mix of small steps and occasional wild gambles is the best possible way to search for solutions.

The emphasis is mine, but Kauffman and Holland confirm that in a world as complex as ours, you better be ready to go evolution’s route. (AKA, trial and error.)

To succeed in these times, you have to know how to adapt. That means trying a couple of approaches, and seeing what works. And then you discard the duds, improve the winners, and repeat the cycle for ever.

As Tim Harford says in his TED talk: variation, and selection, variation, and selection.

In other words, trial and error, repeated over and over.

Even Mike Masnick confirms this, talking about his paper at the Wisconsin Law Review.

He says, “The nature of innovation…involves a lot of trial and error to get it right. The more trials, the faster what works becomes clear, and the faster improvement you get.”

So, despite how underrated and un-sexy it is, pure trial and error can result in truly astounding levels of achievement. Combined with grit and self-control, this adaptable attitude will let you bounce back after failures. Not only that, but embracing trial and error will also free you to try new things.

And this trying is important, because it underlines the very top of our mental pyramid.

By now, we’ve covered grit and self-control, plus the importance of trial and error. And in doing so, we’ve met one psychologist, and an economist as well. But I promised you two psychologists, so it’s time to complete the troika.

After grit, self-control, and adaptability, the psychology of achievement rests on having a mindset of growth.

And when it comes to a growth mindset, no one knows more than Dr. Carol Dweck.

She writes in her book:

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

In contrast to the fixed mindset, a growth  mindset reminds us that with the right effort, information and execution, we can grow beyond our initial competence, or lack thereof.

Essentially, it’s the mindset of greatness.

A photo of a house with a flagpole.

When you have a fixed mindset, you stay at the bottom of the flag pole. With a growth mindset, your mind says you can climb to the top.

Without  this mindset, you would think that all your traits are fixed, and therefore, you’d believe that you have no room to grow. If ever you fail at a task, you would think you’re just not suited, and that there’s no hope for improvement.

That’s not good head-space for an achiever to occupy.

And if you’re still not convinced, let Dr. Dweck give you more rationale:

Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem, instead of ones who’ll also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

Again, the emphasis is mine. But let that sink in.

It’s the mindset that will let you thrive during challenging times. Why not adopt it?

After all, if you want to achieve a lot, it’s essential to think that growth and achievement is possible in the first place. Paired with grit and self-control, it’s the growth mindset that will push you to learn more and do more.

It will compel you to improve regularly, and over a long period, if need be.

Together with grit, self-control, and adaptability, this mindset forms the perfect psychological pyramid.

It’s a mental recipe for success if there ever was one.

But of course, a mind is just a mind. And all this mental talk will do you nothing, if you don’t act on it. Even the greatest thinker pales in comparison to the person who acts.

So yep, you guessed it.

Now that we’ve formed the mental pyramid of achievement, it’s time to move on.

After thinking comes action.

Part 3 – Doing Like a Boss

Good entrepreneurs have a bias for action. They’ll think up to a point, study the market, and consider smart alternative opinions. But then they’ll act when the time comes.

You need to do the same.

I’ll show you how to do that in this section.

And take note, I’ll still keep things simple. In the psychology section, we stuck with the three parts of the achievement pyramid. Here, we’ll stick to the same fundamentals.

As you’ll soon learn, doing only consists of four activities, repeated in a cycle.

First you set a goal, then you ensure that you can achieve it, then you actually do it, and finally, you stack the odds in your favor by having a supportive social group.

If these fundamentals are in place, the business of actually doing things becomes easier.

Anyway, you already know how to think like an achiever.

It’s just time to start performing like one.

1. Stop setting SMART goals.

Instead of SMART, your acronym should be SCORT instead.

Your goals should be specific and challenging. You should have just one goal—that’s the O—and of course the goals have to be relevant and time-bound.

Research from Edwin Locke and Gary Latham proves this. In their 2006 paper, they write:

So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance. (Emphasis mine.)

That one paragraph alone supports both the C and O in  our new acronym.

First, notice their exhortation to avoid conflicting goals.

This means you need just one goal, or absent that freedom, as close to just one as you can manage. If you can keep it that way, Locke and Latham’s research shows a positive link between goal difficulty and task performance.

Further research from Shah, Friedman and Kruglanski (2002) supports this have-one-goal model. Their findings show that individuals with multiple goals are prone to concentrate on just one. So save yourself the trouble and streamline your aims.

Even better, having a single goal effects the goal difficulty/task performance correlation.

In lay terms, if your chosen goal is challenging, there’s a positive relationship between the hardness of the goal, and the level of performance you’ll exert to achieve it.

But then, what about the S, R, and T in SCORT?

Well, we’ll start with the S first.

I’ll let this research from Harvard Business School do the talking:

Studies find that specific, challenging goals motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortations. Specific goals provide clear, unambiguous, and objective means for evaluating performance. Specific goals focus people’s attention. Lacking a specific goal, attention may be dispersed across too many possible objectives. In turn, because challenging goals, or “stretch” goals, create a discrepancy between one’s current and expected output, they motivate greater effort and persistence.

Would you look at that. HBS confirms the need for S, plus the C as well. (Bonus!)

As for the R and T, it’s a throwback to the old acronym.

R, for relevance, is plain old common sense. We are more likely to work on goals that are actually relevant, goals that actually matter. Whose goal would you prioritize—your own, or that of a stranger? Of course, unless the stranger was your boss, you’d pick your own.

As for why you need a timeframe, my answer is Parkinson’s Law.

The presence of a deadline, if anything, at least hems you in. It stops endless extensions.

If you say you have six months, and the goal actually matters, you’re likely to do it in six months instead of 12. It’s pure Parkinson’s in action.

And that besides, the presence of deadline gives you something concrete. It helps you plan milestones and tasks, something which would be harder to do, if you’d set a time frame like “someday” or “when I have time.” Plus, remember our need for specifics?

That’s why the T in SCORT exists.

(And thus, our goal-setting pentagon is complete.)

2. Focus on the fundamentals: eating and exercise.

If you want to achieve a lot, you better be healthy enough to do it. And what’s the most touted duo when it comes to getting fit? It’s to eat the right food, and then to exercise.

It seems like a trite recommendation. But the country’s illness and death statistics aren’t anything to laugh at. Even if you only consider cancer and heart disease, those top two killers claim more than a million lives a year.

If you don’t want to be part of that number, the best way to lower risk is to watch your weight. That’s according to recommendations from the Mayo Clinic.

But outside of doing a crash diet, exactly how do you control the pounds?

You do it by, you guessed it, eating good food and exercising regularly.

A photo of a fruit and vegetable stand.

Want to achieve a lot? Load up with the right type of fuel.

Now, the exercise part of that is easy enough.

The Department of Health and Human Services counsels at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, plus some strength training at least twice a week. Over 7 days, that’s one 30-minute workout on the weekdays.

Then, you do your strength work on the weekends, and your quota is filled.

As for food, that’s where it gets complicated.

Depending on your preferences or location, certain food regimens can be harder or easier to implement. For example, the Paleo diet is hard to do in Asian countries, where rice is a key grain and part of the region’s food culture.

So, in lieu of prescribing a diet, I’ll just give you a list of diet options to consider.

Don’t worry too, these 3 are ranked by US News’ health panelists as the cream of the crop.

  1. DASH Diet – The acronym means Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It’s a diet low in salt and packed with produce. It also racks up bonus points for being endorsed by the federal government’s Dept. of Health and Human Services.
  2. TLC Diet – TLC in this diet means Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes. This diet comes from the National Institutes of Health, and it focuses on generous fiber and calcium, as well as being a diet low in saturated fats.
  3. Mediterranean Diet – Perfect for those who like the European way, this is hailed by Ladies’ Home Journal as the world’s healthiest diet. A glass or two of red wine is encouraged here, along with healthy staples like olive oil, herbs, and fish.

As you can see, the options are yours for the picking.

But that said, here’s another piece of advice—watch your caffeine.

I know, I know. You need it to survive. It’s what gets you out of bed and through the door in the morning. But as the proverb goes, too much of anything can kill you.

So, if you want to stay safe, keep it to 400 milligrams a day, and no more.

According to the Mayo Clinic, this amount is generally safe for most healthy adults. It’s the equivalent of drinking about four cups of brewed coffee, or ten cans of cola.

(But the cola has loads of sugar, so nix it if you can. And of course, even 400 mg is unsafe for kids. As for adolescents, keep it to 100 mg—tell your teens, if ever.)

And one last thing? Since we’re on the topic of what to put in your body,  add in this nifty piece of advice: you should eat more in the mornings, and less as the day goes on.

That recommendation is from Linda Morgan, a nutritionist at the University of Surrey.

Morgan’s research shows that blood glucose levels after an evening meal were significantly higher than when the same meal was eaten earlier in the day.

According to her, high levels of glucose after a meal can point out future risks, like diabetes.

So in the end, it seems the old proverb is right. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. Common advice, but surprisingly sage.

3. Remember these numbers: 7, 2, and 10.

These numbers pertain to three activities: long sleep, naps, and meditation.

Let’s begin with sleep. That’s where the 7 in our trio comes from.

“But why seven?” you ask.

Daniel Kripke, co-director of research at the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center, has the answer:

Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 and 7.5 hours a night, as they report, live the longest. And people who sleep 8 hours, or more, or less than 6.5 hours, they don’t live quite as long. There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short. The big surprise is that long sleep seems to start at 8 hours. Sleeping 8.5 hours might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hours.

That means the adage of sleeping 8-10 hours might actually harm you.

That’s why I counseled 7.

And as for the 2, it stands for the optimal time you should be taking a nap.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “The circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day, so adults’ strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2 to 4 am, and in the afternoon, between 1 to 3 pm, although there is some variation depending on whether you are a morning person or evening person.”

So there. Nap at 2 pm, in keeping with your circadian rhythm.

If you’re an evening person, invert that to 2-4 am, and you’re still good.

Fit that in with 10 minutes of daily meditation, and our 7-2-10 trio is complete.

Why ten?

Well, starting a new habit requires making it ridiculously easy to the activity. Ten is a good starting point. It’s only 600 seconds, and can be fit in, even if you’re busy. It’s a start point that’s substantial enough to accrue some of the health benefits of meditation.

4. Be extremely careful about who you spend time with.

“Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

That’s how the advice goes, right?

But surprisingly, the research backs it up, no matter how common it may seem.

Aside from helping to form our personalities and attitudes, our social circle also plays a part in how healthy we are, how long we live, and how happy we become.

(And since health, longevity and happiness are essential to achievement, you see why a good set of friends is important.)

For example, a study conducted by the Center for Aging Studies at Flinders University found that those with a large network of friends outlived those with the fewest friends by 22%. That’s a 1-in-5 chance of living longer just from having more companions.

Additionally, the same study suggests that good friends also help ward off depression, boost self-esteem, and discourage behaviors like smoking and heavy drinking.

(Remember what I said? If you want to achieve, better be healthy enough to do it.)

Conversely, statistics from this 2012 working paper show that students who have friends who smoke or drink are more likely to do the same, even when comparing similar students who belonged to different cohorts in the same school, or compared with those with the same friendship choices on key student demographics.

This negative social effect is further corroborated by a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, with regard to the obesity risk presented by one’s social circle.

According to such research, a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval.

Further findings indicated that among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40%. If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37%.

If you look at these findings, it’s clear that your social circle has a massive effect on the kind of life you lead.

The popular advice to tell me who your friends are? It’s not an empty quote.

If you want to be an extreme achiever, surround yourself with like-minded people.

5. Now that the odds are in your favor, just do it.

This is the shortest part of this entire post.

You’ve got no research to read, and no links to click.

And no, it’s not because I went and got lazy.

It’s because at some point, the business of achievement is actually pretty simple.  At the root, if you want to achieve, you actually have to do. At some point, you just have to sit down and crank out that blog post, or write that line of code, or finish that presentation.

If you can’t bring yourself to do it, everything I just taught you will be chaff. All useless.

So now that you have everything you need to know, it’s time to do.

Put your butt in your chair, face your monitor, and get things done.

Remember, for hundreds of years before iPhones and TVs and laptops, people actually got things done. They didn’t have app stores, Pomodoro timers, or virtual assistants.

All they had was themselves. No fuss, and no muss.

Because at the end of it, your self is pretty much all you have. If you don’t do something with your brain, and your hands, and your body, even the best advice is wasted. So yeah, maybe re-read this post one last time. Get a drink of water, or clean up your desk.

But once you’ve read this again, and the desk is clean, pull a Nike and just do it.

In the end, that’s what achievement is. It’s doing the things that matter.

PS. To motivate you even more, here’s a fire-in-your-belly quote from Ryan Holiday:

Victory won’t be pretty, but it will be inexorable. If we’re to overcome our obstacles, this is the message to broadcast, both internally and externally. We will not be stopped by failure, we will not be rushed or distracted by external noise. We will chisel and peg away at the obstacle until it is gone. Resistance is futile.

Part 4 – Resources for Extreme Achievers

A. Books You Should be Reading

  1. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure – Tim Harford
  2. The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday
  3. The Four Hour Workweek – Tim Ferriss
  4. The Motivation Hacker – Nick Winter
  5. Getting Things Done – David Allen
  6. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – Carol Dweck
  7. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work – ed. Mason Currey

B. Must-Sees on the Web

  1. Your Body’s Best Time for Everything – Buffer Blog
  2. How People Spend Their Time Online – Social Times
  3. Trial, Error and the God Complex – Tim Harford
  4. The Key to Success? Grit – Angela Duckworth
  5. Social Usage Involves More Platforms, More Often – eMarketer
  6. Digital Set to Surpass TV in Time Spent with US Media – eMarketer
  7. Mobile Continues to Steal Share of US Adults’ Daily Time Spent with Media – eMarketer

C. More Papers for All You Psych Geeks

  1. Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being – Richard Ryan and Edward Deci
  2. New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory – Edwin Locke and Gary Latham
  3. Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-term Goals – Angela Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael Matthews and Dennis Kelly
  4. A Theory of Goal Systems – Arie Kruglanski, James Shah, Ayelet Fishbach, Ron Friedman, Woo Young Chun and David Sleeth-Keppler
  5. Self-Regulation and School Success – Angela Duckworth and Stephanie Carlson
  6. Unpacking Grit: Motivational Correlates of Perseverance and Passion for Long-term Goals – Angela Duckworth, Katherine Von Culin and Eli Tsukayama
  7. Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance – Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck

(Image credits to New Old Stock by Cole Townsend, for the three photos: Draughtsmen, Fruit and Vegetable Stand in Center Market, and House at the Sea.)

More From This Category

Join 14,000+ Marketers and Founders

Enter your email to get free instant access