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What Makes Successful People Different?

9 Ways Highly Successful People Think Differently From Everyone Else

Want to know what makes highly successful people, well, successful? Business Insider shares the most amazing insights into how highly successful people think differently from everyone else.

Success isn't always about being more talented, luckier, or working harder than everybody else. It can come from thinking a little differently about the way you do business.
This is a theme we've heard from some of the most successful people across industries — from entrepreneurs and executives to famous artists.

RELATED: 22 Executives Reveal the Biggest Mistakes They Ever Made

With this in mind, we've put together some of the most amazing insights we've found on how successful people think differently than everyone else.

1. Instead of leaving unproductive policies in place, they change them.

When Donna Morris joined Adobe in 2002 as a senior director of global talent management, she noticed that the annual performance-review process wasn't serving anybody in the company.

"We fundamentally believed people were our most important asset," she tells Business Insider, "yet once a year we had a process that pitted person against person."

So she soon abolished it. Goodbye annual performance review, hello regular check-in.

Reflecting on the experience, she says that "people should have the courage to disrupt a process that might no longer be providing the company with value."

2. Instead of just having a job, they have a craft.

If you spot popular talk-show host and comedian Bill Maher on a plane or in the back of a car, he'll be scribbling on a yellow notepad. This is his craft, he says, the incremental work of perfecting a joke.

The craft is in "moving one word around, from the middle of the sentence to the end of the sentence," he says. "It's moving one joke that works pretty good over here, moving it behind this other joke, and now it's a giant laugh."

He compares his approach to comedy as that of making violins — a profession that takes decades to master.

3. Instead of trying to change everything about a company, they focus on one important factor that ripples out.

When Paul O'Neill became the CEO of aluminum manufacturing giant Alcoa, he stepped on stage before a crowd of Wall Streeters and decreed that the company would have a newly committed focus. Not on revenues or R&D but safety.

"If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing," he said, "you need to look at our workplace safety figures."

O'Neill's emphasis didn't just increase safety; it changed the company. Over his tenure, Alcoa dropped from 1.86 lost workdays to injury per 100 workers to 0.2. A year after O'Neill's speech, profits hit a record high, and when he retired 13 years later, the company's annual net income was five times higher than when he started.

"I knew I had to transform Alcoa," he says. "But you can't order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company."

4. Instead of trying to come up with something completely original, they borrow from the best.

Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin has created a world that people love to live in.

His A Song of Ice And Fire series has sold 24 million copies in print, while the premiere of season four of the HBO adaptation brought in 6.6 million viewers.

But the world isn't entirely his own.

"You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots," Martin says. "In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own."

This happens again and again in business. Apple didn't create the first MP3 player. But it made the most beautiful one.

5. Instead of following a schedule, they stick to an agenda.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is relentlessly efficient in the way she approaches her workday. Rather than being beholden to blocks of time, her workflow depends on what needs to get done.

That's why she brings a spiral-bound notebook with her to every meeting. In that notebook is a list of discussion points and action items.

"She crosses them off one by one, and once every item on a page is checked, she rips the page off and moves to the next," Fortune reports. "If every item is done 10 minutes into an hour-long meeting, the meeting is over."

6. Instead of accepting the standard definition of success, they reframe it for themselves.

Arianna Huffington has every worldly metric of success. She launched and sold The Huffington Post, pocketing $21 million. She lives in a swank luxury loft and is a well-known media personality, followed by millions on Facebook and Twitter.

Yet she didn't feel so successful one day in 2007, when she found herself in a pool of blood on the floor of her home office. She had collapsed from exhaustion.

It was a wake-up call: She had to include well-being in her conception of success.

"The difference now is a consistent prioritizing in my life," Huffington tells Business Insider, noting how she incorporates yoga, meditation, and rest into her schedule. "It doesn't mean that I do it perfectly by any means. But it is very much part of my life every day."

7. Instead of letting big-picture thinking happen on its own, they schedule it.

While Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy may have lost a few battles in public relations — his slamming of gay marriage made the sandwich chain look a little deep-fried in the public eye — we do appreciate his "thinking schedule."

The book How Successful People Think reveals that Cathy blocks out lots of time to think: half a day every two weeks and a whole day every month. Lots of execs take the same approach: LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner makes a point to schedule nothing, while President Obama takes a thoughtful walk when he's working from the White House.

8. Instead of adhering to industry tradition, they change the industry.

James Patterson is the best-selling author of the past decade. He's set to publish 15 books this year.

He doesn't do it alone.

Patterson has shifted publishing's standard for writing, where a single author works on a single book. Instead, he treats his books like a TV writer might approach a new season of The West Wing — he's worked with more than 20 coauthors.

The collaborative method is everywhere, he says.

"You start wandering through Florence and Venice and start looking at these churches," he told Business Insider. "You look at these ceilings and you see, like, nine painters. TV scripts — 60 pages, two writers. Movie scripts — four writers. It's a lot more prevalent than people think it is."

9. Instead of looking for the right answer, they try to find the right question.

Freakonomics coauthor Steven Levitt was consulting with a tech company with a difficult problem.

"The question they were asking was: How can we reduce turnover to keep our subscribers for a longer period of time?" Levitt recalls. He suggested they look at the data.

Levitt and his team discovered a quizzical trend: Frequent users of a subscription product were canceling their subscriptions. But why?

Digging into the data, Levitt found that there were customers who used the product frequently, but when they tried to renew, they ran into a credit-card failure.

"No one understood this," he says. "It was in the data, but no one had thought to tunnel down in that exact way."

The company made an intervention and retention spiked.

"It wasn't that they didn't have the data to come to the conclusion," Levitt explains. "It's just that it's rare for people to have the patience to look at the data before trying to solve the problem instead of immediately reacting to a perceived problem."

— Drake Baer

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